In & of Itself

I have this vivid memory of a moment that may not have happened. I can’t be sure. My father doesn’t remember it at all, and he would be the only other person who would remember. I still see it though, and feel that in a way that it altered my life.

It would be strange if it never actually happened.

My father, I’ve often thought, must have gone to Dad school in the years before I was born. He knew how to do all the Dad things, or anyway the things I always associated with fatherhood. He could juggle. He could fix anything. He could throw a baseball as high as my imagination could climb. He bowled 200 games with regularity, and he won the Cleveland Open Chess Championship, and he burped with gusto, and he could hit every target at an amusement park shooting gallery. He also could do magic tricks. That’s the whole Dad tool kit.

The magic stuff came from his somewhat mysterious past; Dad doesn’t often talk about his childhood (which I suppose is the one Dad trait missing), but he has hinted throughout his life that there was a moment and time when he and his family lived a life of intrigue, and it was during this time that a magician stayed at the family home. This is one of the grand cliches of magic — the mysterious stranger who teaches the child magic — but from everything I can tell this really happened. My father knew a lot of magic tricks with cards and coins and the like.

Then there is the specific time I think of now — he insists that he doesn’t remember it — when we were at some sort of event. It might have been my Uncle Lonka’s wedding (say Uncle Lonka really fast five times — it’s fun!). I couldn’t have been older than 5. Dad came over and showed me an empty handkerchief. He folded it up and asked me to blow on it and say some magic words. He reopened it and inside was a shiny penny.

That wasn’t the trick. I shouted, “Let me try!” He seemed dubious but he handed me the handkerchief with the penny inside. I blew on it and and said the magic words and opened it up in the childish hope that the penny had disappeared.

It had. In its place was a tiny little toy skull, the sort of thing you might get out of one of those vending machines at old supermarkets.

I looked up to him breathlessly as if to ask, “How did you do that?” And then he said the thing that has stuck with me all these years, even though he doesn’t remember any of this. He said: “I didn’t do anything. You did it.”

* * *

This week in New York, I saw Derek Delgaudio’s show “In & of Itself.” I was overdue to see it. The last two years or so, I have traveled the country in search of Harry Houdini. It was never EXACTLY Houdini I was seeking. It was and is, instead, the part of the Houdini that never dies, the extraordinary and immortal sense of possibility that he evoked.

Think for a moment: How can you get out of something impossible?

You are a quarterback surrounded, a pitcher with the bases loaded and a 3-0 count, a politician overwhelmed by scandal, a prisoner locked in chains, a dog surrounded by a chain link fence, a baby in a crib, a business about to go under, a patient given no chance to recover, a lawyer without a witness, a comedian encircled by hecklers, a magician hanging upside down in a tank of water — how can any of them possibly escape?


That’s what I want to grasp, to share, that almost ineffable instant when magic is something more than magic, when reality and unreality merge, when the mind finds itself between worlds. Because, yes, of course, it’s a trick. But, it’s a miracle too.

This joyous break in equilibrium happens in sports too, which is what draws so many of us to sports, It happens when you see something so gorgeous and wonderful and bloody impossible that you can’t quite process it, and you come out of your seat, and you shout — as David Foster Wallace shouted when he saw Roger Federer perform one of these wonders — sounds that bring spouses in from other rooms to make sure you’re OK. But it’s different in sports because these explosions — Bryce Harper’s broken bat homer, Odell Beckham’s one-handed catch, Tiger Woods’ chip in on 16 at Augusta — happen irregularly, when opportunity meets lifelong dedication meets an athletic brilliance that defies expectation. You can't predict them. It might happen once a game or once a month or once a season.

A magician, meanwhile, is expected to induce this otherworldly feeling on command.

So, yes, while I am chasing Houdini, I am mostly chasing those moments, those bursts of bright light that make the mind gasp for air. They are rare. Penn & Teller do a fun show called “Fool Me” where they ask magicians to fool them, but I have never thought that being fooled was quite the thing. It might be for Penn & Teller, who have seen and performed almost everything, but askilled magician can fool any of us. An unskilled magician can fool at least some of us.

Listen: Think hard of the card.

Think really hard. Put real effort into it. Don’t choose some obvious card like the Ace of spades or the King and Queen of hearts or anything like that — make this difficult. Think hard about a card that would be really impossible to guess.

Have you thought of the card?

No, think harder about it. You’re not putting enough cosmic energy into it. Really think about it, really think … think … think … think … think …

Is your card the 3 of diamonds?

OK, one of two things just happened. One is you picked the three of diamonds in which case you are wondering how the heck I just did that. Two, you picked a totally different card like the 7 of diamonds or the 3 of clubs or the 2 of hearts or whatever, in which case you are thinking: Well, that didn’t work at all.

If you picked the three of diamonds, I fooled you. I baited you into picking it. More people, by various studies, will pick it. Card magicians know this fact and a million others like it, and they have trained their hands to do extraordinary things, and they WILL fool you.

But will they move you? Can they move you? Jim Steinmeyer famously said that magicians guard an empty safe, meaning that many magicians believe that it is the trick’s secret that matters but for the magic I’m talking about, the impossible magic, the stuff that blows up your brain and alters your life, the secret is beside the point.

For OK magic, you wonder, “How did she do that?”

For the magic I’ve been chasing you wonder ... you just wonder.

* * *

The one complaint I had heard about Derek Delgaudio’s show is that there isn’t enough magic in it. Delgaudio is more or less unanimously regarded as one of the world’s masters of sleight of hand, and if he did an entire show filled solely with card magic (as he has before) it would be remarkable.

But the complaint has merit only in this way: "In & of Itself” is not that show.

It is, instead, his best effort to take you inside a dream. He begins with a story, an odd and riveting story, and the show goes on from there. I can’t really review the show because I wouldn’t dare give anything away, but I can tell you that it is not intended to fool you. There are no “ta da!” moments where another dove appears or he guesses your card or he borrows a watch from the audience. There are very few moments when it even feels appropriate to applaud. Delgaudio has said himself that this is somewhat discomforting; a magician grows used to the applause. But he is not going for applause. He is going for something much less tangible and much more powerful.

The show is a little bit out of time — I mean that in the best way. Delgaudio never hurries. He never jams in a flourish to dazzle the senses. He is not here to entertain so much as he is here to help take you to another place, to offer a transport, to make you feel slightly dizzy and perfectly sober all at the same time.

My friend Joshua Jay — another one of the great sleight of hand magicians on earth — believes that what makes real magic, the sort of magic that drew me to the Houdini chase, is a story. It's a different story for everyone. Why did we care that Houdini could pick his way out of any pair of handcuffs? Sure it was skillful and amazing but so what? It was a story; not Houdini’s story (though he too did escape from poverty and anonymity and an uninteresting life) but all of our story. Escape. Houdini.

Derek Delgaudio’s show tells a story — well, it tells two stories.

The first story, loosely, is about what we see and what we don’t.

But the second story is what made this show so wonderful. The show leads up to a moment, a personal moment, where Derek Delgaudio and I connect, our eyes meet, and he looks at me for a second, two seconds, and he says a single word. This is where the story ends. And, like the critic in “Ratatouille,” I am five years old again, and my father hands me the handkerchief, and I want to make the penny disappear. Did it happen? Didn’t it? That’s the question, isn’t it? That is the question.