Magic



We decided, before our children were born, that we would always tell them the truth, and that we would work hard to avoid ever lying to them. Topics like Santa Claus, death, the Tooth Fairy, God, all make this really challenging. We’ve found solutions to this, I guess, though sometimes honesty is difficult.

Our kindergartner asked me if magic is real. Oh no. I have to answer her truthfully, now, no matter how tough it is.

“Yes, magic is real.”

***

I was watching a video of Prince performing Purple Rain live, and found an argument buried in the comment section. The thread was deleted, but the gist of the argument was whether Prince was a natural genius or whether he practiced a million hours to get as good as he was.

First, why the hell was I reading the comment section in a YouTube video? Comment sections are always a tire fire. Always. I should stop reading them.

Second, the natural answer is: genius is some mix of natural talent (or potential for talent) and hard work, and luck, and timing. Why do we think that genius isn’t based out of hard work? Why do we think that being born with talent is a negative? Are those of use who don’t have talent in music so mad that we don’t have the natural ability that we throw our hands in the air and say “that guy is just born with it” as if it provides us comfort in our mediocrity? Why do we minimize the talent someone who has to practice and practice and practice? Do we say “She’s been doing this since she was five years old, of course she’s good,” so that we feel better that we are not on her level? Probably; it’s probably emotional self-preservation.

I have this theory that 80% of what people say out loud is just them talking to themselves. Does your mother have an opinion about what you should do with your life? She’s just processing the choices she’s made about her life, in your general direction. Is your best friend convinced he knows what will make you happy? Nah, he’s trying to convince himself that he knows what will make him happy. The advice, the rage, and the declarations of love that are directed at us? It’s mostly just the speaker justifying their own actions, searching for validation, hoping to find, in us, a flattering mirror of themselves.

A staff meeting is, therefore, just a mutual exercise in group gaslighting.

A song, a book, a poem, a dance, is a unit in and of itself. It has a context, of course, a cultural and human medium in which it operates, but the creation of such art is done in the face of the human failings of the artist. If a guitarist needs to practice a million hours to produce the work that he is called to produce, good on him for doing it. If a painter is able to create a Magnum Opus with little to no formal schooling, good for her.

To those of us that have no experience, an act of creation seems magical, like Athena springing, fully formed, from the head of Zeus. “Purple Rain” is the work of a shaman, an nganga, a wizard who knows an art that I can barely understand, much less reproduce. Dunning-Kruger effect leads me to underestimate the effort it takes to make such a work, and thereby underestimate the amazing effort of Prince and his Revolution to get to that point.

“Purple Rain” was originally a country song. And Prince wrote it for Stevie Nicks. She turned it down, because she felt that the song was too big for her to do justice. Through the effort and alchemy of Prince and his guitarist Wendy Melvoin, it started to emerge as the song we know now. There is no Athena, no gaping hole in Zeus’ head; there is a collection of very talented human beings working very hard to make something great, who ended up making something transcendent. What looks like magic is just the caboose of a train of effort that we cannot see.


***

Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I type this on a computer, more powerful than anything the Apollo mission could have assembled. This is a piece of technological magic, a physical symphony of invention, and I spilled mustard on it; I normally use this breathtaking machine to argue about sports and to make toilet jokes. To an uninformed layman like me, how this computer works is a mystery, but the fact that it *does* work seems trivial, a throwaway part of my day. If it stalls for more than five seconds, I feel irritated, I feel inconvenienced. I lose sight of the wondrous collection of patents under the hood, the almost unimaginably complex supply chain that brought this computer to me. I lose sight of the people harmed in the steps it took to get this computer made, bought, and shipped to me.

We lose, through familiarity, the awe for those parts of our lives that would seem magical to a person from the 1800s, from the 1960s, from 300 BCE. I type on an artificial brain, powered by lightning. I work on a magic tablet, and it is humdrum to me.

This computer may be the single most expensive and complex material item in my house; it probably is. But it is not the most magical thing here.

In the rooms next to me, my wife and my daughters are sleeping. We celebrated Easter today together (itself a complex mix of Christian, Germanic, and American beliefs and traditions). They are all full of chocolate and pizza, and, somehow, through the haze of neurochemical reactions, evolutionary incentives, and (if you believe in such things) Divine Grace, they are the most important things in my life. Their well-being is the star around which my goals orbit, and inverse is also true: my wife feels the same way about the kids and myself, and the children see us, their parents, as the loci for their own elliptical orbits (at least until they are in middle school).

This is, honestly, wild.

Seventeen years ago, I’d never met any of these people. And now I think about them all the time. Not just about their well being, in a co-dependent way: I also think about how to give them the space needed to grow into the people they need themselves to be. Seventeen years ago my greatest concern was finding lunch and avoiding my credit card debt collector. Those are still two major concerns, don’t get me wrong, but now my family is right up there with them.

The people we surround ourselves with, that we draw close to us, are our source of comfort, support, and joy (Or, they should be. Sometimes they’re not, and that’s the topic for a different essay). We have friends, family, teammates, dungeon masters, dance partners, classmates. And we all have the power to make each other’s lives better or worse. We may not want that power (I sure don’t), but we’ve got it. We’re holding magic wands that can divert the courses of those close to us. A well-timed text, a phone call, an argument, a painful silence, these things are all powerful, and we wield this power unintentionally and unknowingly throughout our days. And they have this power over us.

It’s not just the things we do intentionally, with purpose, that alter the world around us. It’s also the offhand, the unintentional, the absentminded things that we do that leave our mark on the people around us. A lot of days, the offhand actions are the main way that we leave our mark. The words I say when my brain is not engaged are heard the same as intentional words. And those words will have weight to those who are affected by us: family, friends, coworkers, waitstaff, ourselves. The actions I take, or do not take, cast a shadow. And sometimes that shadow is long. Did I call my friend back? Did I confront a racist joke? Did I fulfill the small promise I made to myself? Tiny actions can change trajectories, which is an amazing and disturbing fact to realize in the middle of an otherwise normal day. We have the power to make our own day better or worse, we have the power to make the days of those surrounding us better or worse; a day here and day there will add up to a lifetime. We’re like a sleepwalking Moses: with every swing of our arms we part and close the sea around us, oblivious to Egyptian and Israelite alike, each and every day of our lives.

This is not something you didn’t know before; you already know it, and I am telling you nothing new. That power we have has just normalized for most of us, an amazing piece of emotional and socially complex magic that we see everyday to the point that it’s invisible. My laptop is covered in mustard and breadcrumbs out of familiarity with the mind-boggling technology within it. Our social relationships are covered in the thin dust of familiarity, belying the mind-boggling complexity and coincidences that lead us into each others lives.

We’re unintentional sorcerers, we don’t normally see the power we have to heal and to harm those close to us, nor their mutual power over us. We’re whales in each others oceans, whether or not we are aware of the water around us.

***

I will sleep at some point tonight, then I will wake up, and then I will have coffee. I will have a dozen conversations by days end, I will send dozens of emails and messages through air and space at people a thousand miles away. I will do things today that my children will remember, consciously or not, their whole lives, long after my dust has scattered.

I will reach out to people I love, or that love me, after far too long a time without contact. Or, I will not. I will give a $10 bill to a panhandler, and that will help him reach the $25 he needs to sleep in a bed that night, instead of on the sidewalk. Or, I will not. I will wave this wand in my hand, that I never asked for, and I will makes the seas rise or fall, I will make the moon shine or darken, whether I intend to wave the wand or not. And you will do the same for me. Or, you will not. And we will do this, or not, our entire lives.

I don’t know yet how to explain it to my daughter, but, yes, child, magic is real.

Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_storm_clouds.jpg

About Mark

I wear a yellow hat.
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