To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Part 1: Post 8: The Magician

Last week I described Allen, the psychologist. Obviously, he's an interesting and reliable person. I feel pretty comfortable with him as a therapist, but until today, I couldn't figure out why he is here. I mean, I know we have to take psychology, but I don't understand that, yet, either.. But today I went to a talk he gave about magic. It turns out, he's the school magic teacher.

The thing is, he's a stage magician. My Wiccan friends from high school were all very definite about stage magic being different from real magic. One of them liked to spell it "magick" to make the difference clear. Allen doesn't seem to recognize the difference.

The talk was basically about what magic is and how stage magic actually counts as real. I won't repeat the entire talk here, but it was thought-provoking, so I want to include some of it.

 He started out by making a playing card disappear and asking whether that was magic. We talked about what magic is and why some of the students claimed that real magic and illusion are different. He asked what illusion meant and what the illusion in the particular trick was. Every time someone answered one of his questions he asked a question about the answer. He was totally getting a kick out of exploring how we were thinking. He wouldn't tell us how he did any of his tricks (he has a couple of classes on stage magic, but he won't reveal professional secrets otherwise), but he did sometimes invite us to ask questions about what he was doing. That was how we found out that however he made a penny levitate, he wasn't using invisible strings, or anything like that.

All of that was interesting, but it didn't really explain why a stage magician was teaching people who believe magic is real.

Then he asked for a volunteer from the audience. When Ollie stood up, I guessed that the "volunteer" was actually an assistant,because I knew Ollie had been Allen's student for a year already, but the skit was still fun to watch.

Alan asked Ollie to pick a card from a deck and show it to the audience. It was the seven of hearts. Ollie put the card back in the deck, shuffled it, and gave the deck back to Allen, who took the top card off the deck and, without looking at the card, showed the audience, obviously proud that he had magically selected the right card.

Except that Allen had selected the ace of spades.

We all laughed, and Allen made a big show of acting puzzled. Instead of looking at the card, he handed it back to Ollie, asking him to please check it. Ollie checked and shrugged, saying it looked ok to him. Instead of showing it to Allen, he showed it to us.

It was the seven of hearts.

They kept passing the card back and fourth, as Allen pretended to get angrier and angrier about the trick not working. Obviously, the whole thing was a prepared skit, but they did it perfectly, both of them kept perfectly straight faces and the rest of us couldn't quit laughing. I guessed that the card wasn't actually being passed back and forth; somehow, each man had his own card and was only making it look like he was handing it off. I couldn't figure out how they were doing it, though.

Finally, they finished and both bowed. We all clapped. It was just great. When we'd all settled down, Allen gave a sort of mini lecture or speech;

“Magic tricks involve making it look like something happens that doesn’t. We made it look like we were passing a card back and forth, when we were really each holding our own card. Now, if we do that without the skit," and here he pretended to hand Ollie the card again, "it doesn’t look like a magic trick, because I’m fooling you into thinking that something  happened that’s basically what you’d expect to happen. Most magic tricks make it look like something happened that’s impossible—and that’s fun, because it’s fun to be surprised, and because there’s a sense of wonder—it makes it seem like the world is bigger than you thought it was—which it is, by the way. Stage magic—fooling people into thinking that the impossible has happened, is real magic, because it makes people’s perceived world bigger. Fooling people into thinking the possible, the expected, has happened when it really hasn’t, is also real magic, and it is used for advertising, political propaganda, and crime."

Wow. I know that "wow" isn't exactly the most articulate thing I could say, but what else is there?

Ollie told me that Allen has a small private practice as a therapist, and he also does magic shows for children's birthdays and so on. But the two aren't entirely separate for him and he sometimes uses magic as a kind of therapy. He does magic shows for hospitalized children and adults in nursing homes, to cheer them up. He also volunteers as a chaplain in area hospitals, and sometimes he uses magic there.

"A chaplain?" I asked, surprised. "The hospitals have Wiccan chaplains?" But Ollie shook his head.

"Yeah, they have Wiccan chaplains--Kit volunteers--but Allen's not Wiccan. I'm not sure what he is. He mostly ministers to agnostics and atheists." 


"Yeah," Ollie explained. "Atheists have spiritual needs, too, but if you come at them with religion they turn off. Allen can reach them."

Ollie told me a story of one of the times he'd gone with Allen to the hospital as a sort of apprentice chaplain.

They visited the beside of an elderly atheist who was dying cancer. The man's daughter had been there earlier, and she was religious. She'd told him she was praying for a miracle. He said he'd thanked her, but secretly he had found what she said painful. He seemed troubled, angry, but not at his daughter. His anger was deeper, Ollie said, a hidden, dull thing the young woman's words had simply reminded him of.

The man said he wanted to be able to hope for a miraculous cure, and he wanted to be able to hope he was going to Heaven, but he just couldn't make himself believe in either miracles or Heaven. He believed only in reason, and reason told him he was about to die, painfully, and that would be the end. Done.

Alan smiled, and said, quite casually, that hope has an odd way of showing up unexpectedly--and he opened his hand to reveal, of all things, a live white chick. An albino baby chicken only a couple of days old.

The dying man almost leaped out of his bed in shock--he hadn't known that Alan could do magic--and then recovered himself and said "it's just a trick," in a voice that Ollie said sounded very sad. Alan readily acknowledged that he'd used slight-of-hand, though he wouldn't explain how he'd managed to do it.

"But," Alan said, "for a second you thought it really had just appeared miraculously, right?"

"Yes," the man told him, "I thought the world had just gotten bigger, or something. But it hadn't. And thank you for the entertainment, but I'm still dying of cancer."

Alan became serious.

"Yes, you are still dying of cancer. But remember how that felt--believing for a moment that the world was bigger than you thought. There's a gap between what you know and the limits of what is real--and in that gap was a white bird you didn't know existed. Can you swear there aren't two birds in this room? Or three? Can you swear you know so much about the world that there can be no miracles, no Heaven?"

And the man began to cry. When Alan finally got ready to go, the man stopped him and asked how he'd known to bring the bird, since he couldn't have known where the conversation would go, and also how he'd gotten the bird in past hospital security. Alan just smiled.

"I'm a magician," he told the man, and left.

(Next post: Friday, February 22: School structure, placement testing)


  1. The story about Allen at the hospital is wonderful!I really liked it and think it should be spread around!

    1. Well, you're welcome to post a link to the blog anywhere you like. I'd actually appreciate that--I think these ideas should be spread around, too.

  2. I used to perform close-up magic and the way Allen puts it is right on! The magic is that it makes people realize the world is bigger than they had imagined. My mentor, Paul Harris, calls this astonishment, and it's just about the sweetest thing in the world!

    I really enjoyed this installment. Thank you!