Abracadabra!

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Rabbit, hat. It's magic!

hide captionRabbit, hat. It's magic!

Source: Mirela Schenk/iStockphoto.com

As a kid, I was unimpressed by magic tricks, probably because I never saw any good ones.

On Halloween, year after year, my neighbor would pull a quarter from my right ear. One of my dad's colleagues, who must have learned his tricks from the same book, magician, or crazy uncle, had a similar gimmick. He'd grab my nose, then he'd tell me that his thumb, wedged between his index and middle fingers, was it. Hilarious? Maybe. Convincing? Hardly.

After I read Adam Gopnik's most-recent article, "The Real Work: Modern Magic and The Meaning of Life," in The New Yorker, I developed a new appreciation for the craft of magic. As it turns out, a good trick takes practice and dexterity, and an understanding of the supernatural, of course.

Gopnik will join us today, with Jamy Ian Swiss, one of the illusionists he profiled. If you're a magician, we want to know what trick got you hooked. How old were you? Where were you? Who did the trick? And what made it so great? If you have a general question about magic, you can post that here too.

What's my question? (Thanks for asking).

"What does 'Abracadabra' mean?" I'm pretty satisfied with Ambroise Bierce's answer, in The Devil's Dictionary, which you can read after the jump.

By Abracadabra we signify
An infinite number of things.
'Tis the answer to What? and How? and Why?
And Whence? and Whither? — a word whereby
The Truth (with the comfort it brings)
Is open to all who grope in night,
Crying for Wisdom's holy light.

Whether the word is a verb or a noun
Is knowledge beyond my reach.
I only know that 'tis handed down.
From sage to sage,
From age to age —
An immortal part of speech!

Of an ancient man the tale is told
That he lived to be ten centuries old,
In a cave on a mountain side.
(True, he finally died.)
The fame of his wisdom filled the land,
For his head was bald, and you'll understand
His beard was long and white
And his eyes uncommonly bright.

Philosophers gathered from far and near
To sit at his feat and hear and hear,
Though he never was heard
To utter a word
But "Abracadabra, abracadab,
Abracada, abracad,
Abraca, abrac, abra, ab!"
'Twas all he had,
'Twas all they wanted to hear, and each
Made copious notes of the mystical speech,
Which they published next —
A trickle of text
In the meadow of commentary.
Mighty big books were these,
In a number, as leaves of trees;
In learning, remarkably — very!

He's dead,
As I said,
And the books of the sages have perished,
But his wisdom is sacredly cherished.
In Abracadabra it solemnly rings,
Like an ancient bell that forever swings.
O, I love to hear
That word make clear
Humanity's General Sense of Things.

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There seemed to be a uptick in interest in magic in Hollywood last year. Both "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" were fascinating Both were well written and had excellent performances and showed just enough behind the scenes action to be interesting.What did the panelists think of these two films?

Sent by Paul Tanner | 3:32 PM | 3-12-2008

Yes, It is all nature vs. nurture. I had progressive parents who thought that it would be fine for a precocious girl to dabble in magic. My mother's colleague at work in the public tv station in Georgia, the Wizard of Awes, Arthur Zorka, was always trying out new presentations. During a formal show one evening, we saw him perform the straight jacket escape and I was enthralled. It was the combo of illusion and music that really caught me up. I couldn't get enough of either after that and helped, as a charter member of the Junior division, to promote Ring 9 of the International Brotherhood, (yes, I was almost the only sister)of Magicians. The lessons I learned about dramatic presentation and showmanship (as well as about hangin' with the boys) have seen me through many incarnations of performance magic, theater and rock and roll--and I still wear white gloves sometimes.

Sent by audrey willowhouse | 3:37 PM | 3-12-2008

I love magic - everything from big stage shows to sleight of hand. (In fact, I think I might like sleight of hand better)

You said "willing suspension of disbelief" and that's how I like to watch magic. I don't want to figure out how it's done, I just want to see it done. Maybe afterwards, I'll wonder how it was done, but not while watching.

Sent by Dolly | 3:38 PM | 3-12-2008

I watched mindfreak once, and he cut a woman in half. Which is an ordinary trick. But than the top half of the woman leaped off the table and waddled away. That totally blew me away. The person had no bottom half. That was too weird.

Sent by Garnet Coulthard | 3:40 PM | 3-12-2008

The first trick I learned as a child was the paddle that when flipped would look like an arrow had moved. I have delighted children hundreds of times with it and then shown them how to make one out of a popsicle stick. It is always wonderful. The level that the illusionist is taking it these days is both astounding and yet loses the close up feel. The simple stuff from David Blain or Cyril Takayama is so much fun, especially seeing them take an old trick and putting a new spin on it.

Sent by Mike Leary | 4:03 PM | 3-12-2008

A fan of Adam Gopnik's, I take exception to his assertion that modern film special effects "necessarily diminish" the wonder of what can be created by a magician on stage (or do I misunderstand his assertion?). I love movies (I watch a great many of them), and with all due respect to the artists in the special effects industry, I've always felt that once I know I'm being conned by a special effect, it doesn't much matter how realistic the effect is. The infinite possibilities of CGI and other movie effects techniques have always left me more (not less) in awe of what can be achieved in the finite space and time of the live stage.

Sent by Sam Payne | 4:06 PM | 3-12-2008

My magic hobby started in reverse of most magi's. Where youngsters are trained by adults, my situations was backward. I was a high school teacher for many years and I had one student who was alway ready to entertain the class. as it turns out he was a young magi who did birthday parties and such... We became friends and he took me to his favorite magic shop here in cincinnati. There I met a magi named Bill Pryer it be great fun ever since. My best performances are always at wedding receptions; people a little drunk are always a great audience. My speciality is close-ups with easy to learn gimmicks. It great fun.

Sent by David Distler | 7:38 PM | 3-13-2008

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