Playing It Like a Magician

CALL him Gician. It’s not a stage name, but a real one. Like a deft magician, he had made the first two letters of magician go poof so long ago, coining a name like no other just because he disliked his given name. That those letters would spell “Ma” resonates with a certain symbolism: it’s as if he were taking flight from his nest, going “So long, Ma!” just as he spread his wings and caught an upwind, going up, up, and away.

His up-and-away story was distilled right before my eyes this holiday of high festivity and merrymaking when he invited me to his home, far from the madding crowd in the northeast of Singapore, once home to pig farms thick with pig smells. The pigs may be gone, but the forests are still there, cuddling you, cooling the air along the long, lone road that leads to his home. Sometimes, a wild boar might step out from his lush abode and say hello; other times, he’d amble along with his family in tow.

There’s a rustic air about the neighborhood, but all that would soon go, my host laments. With a sweep of his powerless magician’s hand across the early night sky on Boxing Day, he tries to show me, from his backyard, exactly where public housing projects would start to creep up the skies and tower over bungalows like his, so that someday soon, even the monitor lizard wouldn’t visit anymore to gobble up the goldfish in his backyard pond.

It must have been nine years since we last met. The first time we said hello was in 2004, when he visited my apartment with his family in tow—his wife, his three daughters, and his parents. They all showed up to check out the new English tutor he had just hired.

Today, his daughters are past their teens, save for the youngest, who’s 18.

I had known he was a magician of sorts, but that was just for kicks, I thought, until I learned at this reunion, that he’s a “part-time professional,” a title he feels captures more honestly his life as a novelties entrepreneur, and his other as a magician.

And so, it was only fitting that he staged a little magic treat, after a very Hokkien dinner for a half-Hokkien guest, featuring, among other goodies, dried-oyster rice and slow-braised sea cucumber, prepared by his mother, who had left her nest years ago to join his in one of those touching and rare extended family arrangements.

Without any prelude, he reappears at the dining table after a brief disappearance, and casually interrupts a conversation I was having with Tall-Like-Phelps Al, boyfriend of his eldest daughter, J.

“Look here,” he commands my eyes to his left hand, which held a folded two-dollar bill, and then with blinking dexterity, his fingers flick and fold it, and the purple bill turns green into a five, almost as quickly as that same sign language swiftness teases my eyes into his next cool move: now, we’ve got a red-hot ten.

He pauses presently to consult me: “What next?”

I was greedy, I wanted a hundred-dollar bill, but he’d rein me in: “I mean, what’s the next denomination?” Fifty, of course. Then, the note gets gobbled into the depths of his palm, and with a rub of his fingers, a fifty-cent coin comes falling out from his grasp into the palm of his other hand.

What a tease! Which seems to me to be the whole point of magic. It grabs incredulity by the horns and turns it into a teacher that melts us into wonder and a crazy kind of belief, such that you might just end up, at the end of each trick, blurting out “That’s so annoying!” with perverse delight.

I soon learned, in the course of the next few card tricks, that up his sleeves—which he had gallantly rolled up at my request—was the double ammunition of gimmicks and sleight of hand. I had essentially made the “up his sleeve” phrase literal, but he’d coolly return it to its figurative place.

Whether it’s tucking a random card into a see-through, herringbone plastic sleeve and shaking it into the card I had first picked out from the deck, or teasing it out with his finger, by some bionic eye, from a stylishly fanned-out deck of cards, I’m guessing his skill lay in his watchful eyes, watching mine closely, reading, studying, catching the nuances.

But I’m just trying to rise above his magic and to act smart, when all I really am is a simpleton, who’d ask him not once, but a few times, conspiratorially: “Now, honestly, tell me how did you do that? Come on, tell me!”

“You promise to keep it a secret?” he’d play along with me, going on like this a few times before he finally lets out his secret: “You practice a thousand times.”

Of course, missy, what do you expect?

The day after, flushed from a satisfying soirée of warm banter, spirited magic, and rekindled friendship, I’d see his words in the things I already know, things I’ve heard my upside down teacher say often whenever she comes out from some breezy, easy demo or other—a hop switch, a press-up, that goddess-sounding koundinyasana I, II, and other twisted arm balance sequels—yes, you’d always hear her say it: “I know I make it look real easy, but that’s from practicing 13 years.”

I haven’t quite come to 13 years for my yoga practice, not even with writing, considering I only took my first creative writing class in 2009, even though there’s that decade-long history of speechwriting and corporate public relations before—which doesn’t quite count, because I hadn’t once treated that as craft, but mere work. But there’s no looking back.

One must go bravely forward, especially on the cusp of a new dawn, when 14 becomes 15, and on and on we go, working at our craft, remembering our blessings, our friends, our talents, as we practice polishing and burnishing the darkness to light.

Keep Polishing

Listen, be watchful if you want a clear heart, 
for something is born to you from every action. 
And if you have an even greater hope than this, 
and if the work goes beyond the rank of one who’s watching, 
even though you’re dark as iron, 
practice polishing, polishing, polishing, 
so that your heart might become a mirror full of images,
with a lovely lighthearted one shining from every direction. 
Though the iron was dark and lacking light, 
polishing cleared the darkness from it. 

Mathnawi IV: 2467-2471
Rumi (1207 – 1273)
Persian poet and Sufi mystic



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