Last week I wrote about my experience at my first Friends of the Library sale, which also happened to be the Friends first sale, back in the summer of ’55.
I told about a little kiddies’ amusement section they’d set up behind the library and its two main attractions. One was a penny pitch; the other was a Gypsy fortune teller whose stage name was the Amazing Malabar (and whose street name was Manny Bernstein).
What I didn’t tell was the main long-term effect of that experience, which was my getting hung up on magical thinking.
Think about it. The penny pitch was a gambling game, all of which are based on magical thinking. And even though I lost all my five pennies in probably under a minute, I didn’t examine why I lost them. Instead, I thought it was all my fault, that somehow if I’d just kept pitching pennies, in a few minutes I’d figure it all out and be rich as Croesus.
As for the fortune teller? He told me things about myself that were so flattering, I had to believe him…and his powers. That what he said was pure malarky, and vaguely-stated malarky at that, never entered my mind.
My thinking was all based on being an 8-year-old rube of the first water. It never occurred to me that the penny pitch was rigged, and that Manny — oops, I mean, Malabar — was lying out both sides of his mouth.
For decades, magical thinking was the only kind I did. As I got older, the subjects changed, but the process stayed the same: I believed good luck charms worked — if only I found the right ones. I thought it was possible to read people’s minds, to levitate, and to move objects by thought alone. I read that if you played tapes of lessons while you slept, you’d have learned them perfectly when you woke up. Since I didn’t have a tape recorder, I never got to try this out, but later I got to try out all manners of hangover cures … none of which worked.
The ups and downs of yo-yo mastery
Of course it’s only natural for kids to have magical thinking, since they don’t understand things scientific and don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction. A perfect example — me and The Mother of All Yo-Yos.
I was maybe 11 or 12 and on a lazy summer day I was playing with my Duncan yo-yo. I did the usual – round the world, walk the dog, let it sleep. And even though I didn’t do them very well — or maybe because I didn’t — I found myself bored with the same-ole, same-ole. I needed to ramp up my yo-yo game. I needed to do something no one had ever done with a yo-yo. I needed to blow people’s minds!
I gave it serious thought, minute after minute after minute. Then the minutes turned into hours and then — whammo! — suddenly it hit me!
I’d add a really long string to my yo-yo. And when I say “really long,” I mean it. I must’ve tied on 15 feet of line. Then I wrapped it around the yo-yo till the it looked like a string plate with with a little circle of wood in its center.
And now what was I going to do with that mess, you ask?
Remember I said I was going to do something never done before, something that’d blow peeps’ minds? Well, I was. And here it is: From the second floor of the house I’d fire that sucker down as hard as I could so when it came back up it’d about to break the sound barrier.
Of course I knew I had to refine my technique before the word got out and I was featured on the front page of the Enterprise, if not Sports Illustrated. I opened a window on the second-floor porch, leaned out, and let fly. Or at least I tried to let fly, because rather than fly, the yo-yo wobbled and wiggled for a few feet and then came to a halt.
I decided I hadn’t wrapped it tight enough, so I unwound it all, then cranked the string around the axle till it was as tight as tourniquet. I leaned way out, drew my arm back and snapped it down.
Once again, the yo-yo dribbled its way a foot or two and then stopped dead.
I gave a few more tries, but all had the same results. So while I didn’t understand the physics of yo-yo’s (and truth be told), I still don’t), I did realize a complete failure when I had one. I felt bad about that floperoo for a while, but then consoled myself knowing how much worse it would’ve been if I’d had any witnesses. So I licked my wounds in private and no one was ever the wiser.
A child’s mind in an adult’s body
In retrospect, all that nonsense is funny. It’s also understandable. I was a little kid who had no idea how math, physics, and the sciences work. But what about all the adults who do the same thing?
A guy goes in a casino, puts a buck in a slot and hits a $500 jackpot. If he had any clarity of thought, he’d take the moolah, split, and the next time he came back, her’d be sure to have no more than 25 bucks on him. But that’s rational thought, and if casinos were full of rational people, they’d go broke for lack of customers PDQ. So what’s more likely is our pal with the five C-notes thinks this: “Dang, I just made five-hundred bucks in five minutes. If I stay here and keep playin’, in a few hours I’ll break the house.”
As we all know, if he stays there playing, not only will he not break the house, but he won’t have own house to return to.
Another example? One of the dating sites has a deal that if you don’t find the love of your life in six months, they’ll give you another six months absolutely free gratis. Whatta deal, eh? It probably is … for the company.
Let’s get real: If you haven’t scored in six months, the odds of you scoring in another six are the same — lousy. So probably all you’ll get out of this deal is false hopes, dashed after another half year of constant rejection. But if you maintain your false hopes, at the end of the freebie, you’ll probably cough up your hard-earned shekels for at least another six months of ego destruction. So while you lose, the company wins.
But what if you do find your dreamboat and live happily ever after? Well, that’s great for you … and it’s also great for the company. For then you’ll share your good fortune with every Tom, Dick and Raheen you know, who’ll then sign up in droves, knowing their True Love is but a few keyboard clicks away.
Any belief I had in magical thinking and all its attendant hustles and cons ended as soon as I started studying magic.
As a group, magicians are skeptics of the highest order. And why wouldn’t they be? They not only know that things are often not they way they seem, they know exactly how to make things not seem the way they are — or seem the way they aren’t. What magicians want is proof, not promotion — even very slick promotion. This is especially true if we can recreate the effect as well as the “experts.”
Thus all paranormal phenomena is suspect. Psychics, past life travel agents, faith healers, tarot readers, aura aligners, and on and on — the whole lot have the same creds as the phrenologists and serpent head oil salesmen of yore. We’d be willing to change our minds if any of those hucksters subjected themselves and their “arts” to scientific testing, but there’s as much chance as that happening as Congress voting to take a pay cut.
And now I’ll tell you why taking up magic made me drop magical thinking.
It’s because of The First Rule of Magic, which is: There’s no such thing as magic.
There’s study and practice, and a lot more study and practice. There are great successes … and of course, bad failures. There’s frustration, flair, and fun, and all sorts of other things too numerous to list here.
But take my word for it, when it comes to being a magician, there is no magic. And while magic is all about secrets, that’s the best-kept one of all.