An extraordinary memoir about finding wonder in everyday life, from magician Nate Staniforth.
Nate Staniforth has spent most of his life and all of his professional career trying to understand wonder--what it is, where to find it, and how to share it with others. He became a magician because he learned at a young age that magic tricks don't have to be frivolous. Magic doesn't have to be about sequins and smoke machines--rather, it can create a moment of genuine astonishment.
But after years on the road as a professional magician, crisscrossing the country and performing four or five nights a week, every week, Nate was disillusioned, burned out, and ready to quit. Instead, he went to India in search of magic. Here Is Real Magic follows Nate Staniforth's evolution from an obsessed young magician to a broken wanderer and back again. It tells the story of his rediscovery of astonishment--and the importance of wonder in everyday life--during his trip to the slums of India, where he infiltrated a three-thousand-year-old clan of street magicians. Here Is Real Magic is a call to all of us--to welcome awe back into our lives, to marvel in the everyday, and to seek magic all around us.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Somewhere in my parents' house there's a picture of me at age seven. I'm crouched in the grass in the backyard on a summer evening, surrounded by fireflies, lifting my cupped hands as if I'm holding a secret and want to share it. At that age it's easy to be amazed. The world is new and you are new in it and free from the ridiculous certainty that comes so easily with age that the inner workings of the universe are not only knowable
but already known.
My first interest in magic came long before I became a magician, and though I have gone on to perform my show thousands of times for hundreds of thousands of people, to this day when I think about magic I think about two memories from a time long before I knew anything about tricks.
The first was when I lay on the floor under the piano when my dad played before bedtime. During the day he worked as a dentist, but we rarely saw him at the office. We saw him when he came home and painted in the basement or paced the backyard with a yellow legal pad writing terse, fiery letters to the editor of the local paper about public policy and the environment. He'd read them to us at dinner and my mom would invariably protest — "Art! You can't say that in public!" — and my younger brother and I would laugh in delight at her exasperation. But in the evenings he would turn out the lights and sit at the piano and I would lie underneath, listening. The only light in the room came from the lamp for the sheet music — Beethoven, Bach, Rachmaninoff. The music filled the house but from underneath I could hear the mechanics of the piano, too — the faint creak of the pedals, the click of the keys, the felted hammers striking the strings, the deep resonance of the sounding board. You could get lost in those sounds.
From the most expensive concert grand to the cheapest church basement clunker, a piano is essentially a wooden box stretched with wire. It's a cumbersome piece of furniture. And as I listened all those nights before bed, I realized that the majesty and the mystery of the piano is that this heavy, ungainly apparatus can give birth to the Moonlight Sonata. That you can coax from this box of wood and wire a sound so light and pure and beautiful; that anything so firmly rooted in the physical could call into being something that borders so closely on the transcendent: this — lying on the floor underneath my dad's piano — was the first time I really noticed the experience of magic.
The second came maybe a year or so later. One night my mom came upstairs to wake me and my younger brother. It felt like midnight but it was probably only nine or ten. She held my sleeping baby sister and asked us to come downstairs. Dad had already started the car and put blankets on the back bench seat and we set out into the night, on an adventure, they said.
We lived in Ames, Iowa — a small liberal college town surrounded by endless stretches of corn and soybean fields — and fifteen minutes out of town on the two-lane highway we were beyond the reach of the city's light and enveloped in total darkness. The entire world was reduced to the faint illumination of the dashboard and a short smudge of yellow from the headlights on the road ahead. We pulled off the highway onto a gravel road. Dad turned off the engine and we all got out.
On either side of the road the corn rose above my head and the warm summer wind breathed quietly through the stalks. I stood there, expectant, I imagine, and uncertain why we had come. And then I looked up.
This was not the sky. I had seen the sky — I knew how the sky looked at night, and this was some different thing entirely. The comforting veil of faint stars that mildly wrapped every other night had been replaced by a void of terrible space and time and distance, stretching infinitely up and infinitely away, forever. There was Mars. There was the Milky Way. There was the universe in all of its awful, overpowering majesty towering above us, inexplicably high and distant, hostile and beckoning, dangerous and wild, a haunted place where we were the only ghosts for miles.
Then the meteor shower began. My dad led us up a low hill and laid the blankets on the wet grass. I don't remember how long we all lay there, watching the sky, but I became aware for the first time that the entire planet — the oceans, London, Mount Everest, everything — lay directly and totally behind me. Somehow the night sky had unveiled the true nature of this road, mistaken during the day as a gravel route through a cornfield but revealed now as the final patch of earth at the very edge of the world. That night the mystery of our situation felt like one grand miracle, hidden just out of sight unless you really try to see it. That there is something rather than nothing, and that we are here to be part of it — surely this is amazing. How is this so easy to forget? How is this so easy to ignore, silence, or overlook in the pursuit of other things? Even at a young age we learn the universe is filled with loneliness and fear, but lying there, clinging to the blanket as the earth spun and the meteors fell and the whole of existence stood out on display, I recognized that whatever else it was and whatever I became in it, the universe was also filled — to the very cusp — with wonder.
Now, decades later, I worry that the experience of wonder becomes harder and harder for me to find as I get older. This has nothing to do with education — wonder is not the product of ignorance — but it does have something to do with certainty. As an adult, I am tempted to establish and reaffirm at all times the boundaries of my existence — to say "This is my life and I have a good grip on it," like an ostrich in his own personal kingdom under the sand. But my favorite moments are the ones that shoot this certainty full of holes, that barge in unannounced and track mud all over the carpets, grab me by the shirt, drag me out into the street and say, in effect, "Wake up, you fool, and open your eyes. There is more to it than that."
So if I were to tell you about my experience as a human being I wouldn't tell you about my triumphs or my defeats. Everyone has them, and they're more the result of life than the actual stuff of its creation. I wouldn't tell you about my fears or my suffering. Again, everyone has them, and mine are not particularly unique or acute. All things considered, so far I have had it pretty easy.
Instead, I would tell you about the moments I have stood rapt in awe, or quiet with wonder, and in so doing, seen beyond the surface of things. I have spent most of my life and all of my career trying to understand this experience, yet it has never become commonplace or ordinary. On the contrary, it stands out as one of the only experiences in this world that is wholly good. Wonder, astonishment, magic — that sense of waking up and seeing things the way you saw them before they became ordinary. This is the root of it for me, the curious joy and the primal dread of the unknown. There's something there — in the dark sky at night or in the bare branches of the trees against the gray November clouds, or in the summer wind as it comes in from the sea with the smell of another land just over the horizon — reminding us that the universe, the world, and the human heart are larger and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine. This is magic.
So this — all of this — came first. The magic tricks came later, and the less we dwell on them, the better. This is not a book about tricks. This is a book about magic — the experience of magic — and you can find it anywhere. People find it in music and movies, in mountaintops or conversation, in the night sky or in the Moonlight Sonata. Magic tricks are just a way to remember something you already know, or maybe knew and then forgot somewhere along the way. Take them for what they are and they're nothing. You can't look at them. You have to look through them, like a telescope.
I became a magician by accident.
When I was nine years old I learned how to make a coin disappear. I'd read The Lord of the Rings and ventured into the adult section of the library to search for a book of spells — nine being that curious age at which you're old enough to work through thirteen hundred pages of arcane fantasy literature but young enough to still hold out hope that you might find a book of real, actual magic in the library. The book I found instead taught basic sleight of hand technique, and I dedicated the next months to practice.
At first the magic wasn't any good. At first it wasn't even magic, it was just a trick, and at first it was just a bad trick. I spent hours of each day in the bathroom, running through the secret moves in front of the mirror above the sink and getting lost in the possibility that if I became good enough I could make the coin disappear. I dropped the coin over and over, a thousand times in a day, and after two weeks of this my mom got a carpet sample from the hardware store and placed it on the floor under the mirror to muffle the sound of the coin falling again and again to the floor. I had heard my dad work through passages of new music on the piano, so I knew how to practice — slowly, deliberately, going for precision rather than speed — and one day I tried the illusion in the mirror and the coin vanished. It did not look like a magic trick. It looked like a miracle.
One of the lessons you learn very early on as a magician is that the most amazing part of a magic trick has nothing to do with the secret. The secret is simple and often dull: a hidden piece of tape, a small mirror, a duplicate playing card. In this case the secret was a series of covert maneuvers to hide the coin behind my hand in the act of opening it, a dance of the fingers that I learned so completely that I didn't even have to think. I would close my hand, open it, and the coin would vanish not by skill but by real magic.
One day I made the coin vanish on the playground. We had been playing football and were standing by the backstop in the field behind the school. A dozen people were watching. I showed the coin to everyone. Then it disappeared.
Imagine for a moment that you are at school. You see someone holding a quarter. Then, without warning or context, the quarter disappears. Or imagine that you see anything that would qualify as impossible. A man walks through a wall. A garbage can levitates. The pages in your hand turn into a pigeon and fly away. This would not be a small experience. It would, in fact, be one of the defining moments of your life. Your instinct would not be to applaud or laugh or turn jovially to the person next to you on the train and offer an explanation as to how your book could have disappeared. It would not feel like a piece of entertainment — it would feel like a car crash or an explosion, or a violation of the laws of nature and a direct, crippling assault on your fundamental sense of certainty about the ways of the world. The appropriate response to something that feels truly impossible is not applause: the appropriate response is fear; fear and, as you are running away, some hidden, pure, secret joy that maybe the world is bigger than you thought.
In any case, they screamed. They yelled, laughed, scrambled away. Everyone went crazy. This was great. This was Bilbo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings terrifying the guests at his birthday party by putting the One Ring on his finger and just vanishing in front of everyone.
The teacher on duty crossed the playground to investigate. Mrs. Tanner was a wiry, vengeful woman who dominated her classroom with an appetite for humiliation and an oversized plastic golf club she wielded like a weapon, slamming it down on the desks of the unruly and uncommitted. Once she swung it directly at Aaron Grey, stopping the head of the club just a few inches from his face, which dissolved immediately into a crumpled mess of tears and shrieking, sobbing fear. Aaron Grey was a bastard, to be sure, but Mrs. Tanner was worse.
She marched toward me and demanded to know what was going on. The coin vanished for her, too. She stopped. "Do it again," she said, and I did. I'm sure my hands were shaking, but when I looked up everything had changed. This was someone else entirely. It's possible that Mrs. Tanner didn't jump up and down and scream with quite as much volume as the third graders, but I will remember the look on her face — the look of wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder — forever.
Two certainties. First, this was clearly the greatest thing in the world. I had never seen anyone react to anything the way my teacher had responded when the coin disappeared. I kept seeing her face — the stern, authoritarian façade melting into shock, fear, elation, and joy, all at once. The kids, too. The same new kids at the same new school had been transformed for a moment from a vaguely indifferent, vaguely hostile pack of scavengers and carnivores into real people. If you could make people feel like this, why wouldn't you do it all the time? Why didn't everyone do this? For anyone — but especially for a nine-year-old boy at a new school — this transformation is almost indistinguishable from real magic.
The second certainty was harder to reconcile. I had uncovered a mystery. The more I thought about it, the stranger it became, and even now it intrigues me as much as it did that day on the playground.
Here it is: all of it — the chaos, the shouting, the wide-eyed wonder — all of this came from a coin trick. As amazing as it was for my audience, the moment was far more amazing for me. I knew that it was just a trick and I was just a kid. But the reactions of the students and the teacher were so much greater than the sum of these modest parts that I didn't know how to explain them. I was back under the piano again, hearing the creaking and straining of the instrument bringing out a sound that was maybe from that piece of furniture but certainly not of it. The weight of this disparity is hard to overemphasize. Something incredible had happened that day on the playground. I might have caused it, but it had not come from me. I had inadvertently tapped into something visceral and wild. I could still see the teacher's face. I could still hear the shouts of fear, astonishment, and joy. The joy was the hardest to explain. Surprise comes easy, but joy never does. I was an alchemist who had somehow — unknowingly, unintentionally — discovered how to turn lead into gold.
Even a nine-year-old knows this is impossible. You could only do that with real magic.
I became a magician because I loved the experience of awe and wonder. Also because I thought a good magic trick might impress girls, frighten bullies, stupefy adults, and generally lead to a life of mystery and adventure. When the coin vanished on the playground I felt as if I had found a secret path into another world and I wanted to see where it led.
The Ames Public Library was my only real link to the world of magic, and there I uncovered the secret architecture of deception invented by magicians to create marvels. I learned everything I could find: technique, theory, sleight of hand, misdirection. Of the many misconceptions the general public holds about the world of magicians, the belief that we are particularly good at keeping secrets is the most baffling. Even a modestly funded public library contains entire lifetimes of material — how to find a chosen card, how to pick a lock, how to levitate a dollar bill, and on and on — and for a child these discoveries do not feel like magic tricks. They feel like a hidden map to buried treasure or a letter that falls down your chimney on your eleventh birthday that says "Dear Harry, you are a wizard." Here in these books of magic the impossible became possible and the world of fiction was suddenly and unexpectedly made real.
From the beginning I could see that behind the deceptions in each of the magic tricks lurked something very real — larger, but harder to see. Even though the tricks were ostensibly "fake," the experience of the audience was genuine, palpable, and more than a little unsettling. The young magician discovers the disarming ease with which a good piece of magic can open a window to something raw and untamed within the human spirit that is usually kept private and shielded from the public view.
I remember doing magic for a friend of my parents one afternoon — a burly, gregarious man from Chicago who liked to slap you on the back and grinned as though everything was an inside joke. He started watching politely, face frozen in that vanilla frosting smile adults reserve for children when they want to communicate just how completely they are paying attention, but then the magic happened and all of that dropped away. "Holy shit!" he shrieked. "Holy shit! Art, did you see that?" He looked at my dad, and then down at me again, his face a rapture of unbridled joy and incredulity. "Holy shit!"
Excerpted from "Here Is Real Magic"
Copyright © 2018 Nate Staniforth.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
How to Be a Starving Artist 37
How to Light Yourself on Fire 70
The Break 80
How to Disappear 97
The Train to Varanasi 117
The Snake Charmer 129
Go North 173
Now We Put the River to Sleep 187
The Poet 198
The Street Magicians of Shadipur Depot 205
The Train to Jodhpur 222
Here Is Real Magic 234