February 16, 2010
One of the great tragedies of childhood was my inability to harness the forces of witchcraft. It wasn’t for lack of trying. You have no idea how many times I stared at my homework and wiggled my nose, hoping to cause math problems to magically solve themselves, how many times I urged the kitchen dishes to become spontaneously clean with a snap of my finger. For years I was convinced the problem had to do with sound effects, or more specifically a lack of them. On “Bewitched,” whenever someone cast a spell, it was invariably accompanied by the sound of a harp or a bell or both. My spells were devastatingly silent.
As a child, believing in magic made perfect sense. Sure, only a select few people were blessed with supernatural powers, and I clearly wasn’t among them, but it seemed like someone should be. And I was in love with Elizabeth Montgomery. She was funny and gorgeous and I could never understand why her idiot husband, Darrin, interfered with her natural inclination toward magic. And the bigger question, really, was why Samantha put up with it. Was he really the best she could do? An irritable mortal with a permanent scowl etched on his face? No wonder both the actors who played Darrin were named “Dick.” And there’s no love lost between me and the latter Dick, Mr. Sargent, who was born as Richard Stanford Cox, who assumed a stage name when he decided his given name would never be taken seriously.
My discontent grew more intense upon the release of Star Wars in 1977, when I realized the practice of witchcraft was not limited to our corner of the universe, but was known even in galaxies far, far away. It went by a different name there, the “Force,” but the primary abilities were the same: telekinesis, telepathy, and mind control. Star Wars also taught me that a person of magic didn’t necessarily need sound effects to perform his tricks. A John Williams score was also sufficient. However, when I tried to make the lawnmower move itself, Mr. Williams was nowhere to be found.
Still, magic was everywhere. Superman could fly. He could see through anything but lead. Drew Barrymore could set people on fire just by looking at them. The long-forgotten Matthew Star could do all sorts of things, many of which I didn’t understand. What I did understand is that I couldn’t do them.
In fact, I suppose I was eventually drawn to science and logic because the world of magic continually failed me. I believed in God because I was told I should, but I never saw any evidence for Him. The one real-life man who ever did anything like magic was Santa Claus, but even he refused to show himself to me. It was understood that department store Santas were impostors; they were hired to pose for pictures while the real Santa managed a toy factory at the North Pole. The only true evidence of Santa’s existence was an empty milk glass and cookie crumbs, and, of course, the gifts he left behind. But that evidence was purely circumstantial.
The peculiar aspect of my obsession with the supernatural is that, from an early age, I was prone to curiosity that should have steered me in the other direction. I was the pesky kid who asked where Cain’s wife came from. I wondered how God could possibly listen to what must have been millions or billions of prayers coming over the heavenly switchboard every night. But the Bible stuff was abstract and seemed to have no connection to my life, whereas Santa Claus did. His annual appearance in my house was a measurable thing. In fact, when I was five, I decided I wanted to meet him.
With great fanfare I announced to the family that on Christmas Eve, rather than go to bed at the normal time, I would wait in the living room for Santa Claus to arrive. My parents obliged. They set me up on the couch with a blanket and a pillow and left me there. All the bedrooms were upstairs, and I was alone downstairs waiting on Santa Claus. The glass of milk and plate of cookies were on the table in front of me. I planned to hand them to him personally.
The house grew quiet. The only light in the room was the red-green twinkle of the Christmas tree. We lived in New Orleans at the time and we had no fireplace, so my dad left the front door unlocked. To provide easy egress for Santa.
To, you know, make it easy for this strange old man wearing a funny costume to walk straight into our house.
I could see the front door from my place on the couch. After a while I couldn’t take my eyes off it. My ears roared with silence. I wondered what he would say. What would I say? Would he smell like an old person? How did I know for sure he was a kind man? He was a complete stranger. Why on earth would we let a complete stranger into our house, bearing gifts or not?
When I woke up the next morning, the cookies were crumbs and the glass of milk was empty. Gifts surrounded the tree. I’d had one chance to look magic in the face, and I missed it. I think part of me was afraid to look at it. Another part of me was afraid it wouldn’t be there.
A few years later, when I learned the concept of long division, I tried to work out how many visits Santa Claus made on Christmas Eve, how many fractions of a second he spent in each household in order to deliver presents to all the children on his route. The number I came up with didn’t make sense. It was an impossible number. But I wanted to believe, so I decided Santa moved outside time. Rather than accept what the world was telling me, I changed the world to fit what I believed.
When my dad finally told me there was no Santa Claus, I wasn’t disappointed. I realized I had known it all along. In fact I felt liberated, because among my brothers and sisters and cousins, I alone knew the truth. I felt privileged to have been given what seemed like secret, even sacred knowledge.
Over the course of my teenage years I gradually divested myself of what I considered irrational beliefs. I lost interest in supernatural novels and films. I stripped the world down to its component parts. I leaned on logic and science, and they rarely let me down. A good example is the terrible case of acne I suffered from in high school. For years my face was so red and angry that I never wanted to leave the house, and my parents told me all the time the problem was my diet—too much chocolate and too many French fries. Then one day I saw the family doctor, he wrote me a prescription, and the acne disappeared. In two weeks it disappeared, like it had never been there. After that, any remaining ties I maintained with magic and superstition came to an abrupt end.
But a paradox remains. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe in magic. We all want to believe in a world beyond our own, whether religious or ethereal or simply unknowable. We want to know we might somehow touch that world, that it might touch us.
And when it doesn’t touch us externally, we go looking for it inside. In our dreams and in our hearts. Science may one day be able to map the processes that define happiness and ecstasy and love, but it will probably never help each of us understand how we interpret those feelings, what to do when we finally feel them or never feel them or only remember what they used to feel like.
Sometimes I’ll look at the sky on Christmas Eve and hope I might see something, a shooting star, the contrails of a fast-moving sleigh. Even as an adult I hope this. And though Santa never appears, magic nevertheless exists. You can see it every day in the smiles of your family and friends, in the blue twinkle of someone’s eye, in the first touch of your lips against the lips of another. Even when you don’t see these things in person you may still live them through art, in novels and essays and poetry and films and music.
Even television. Or the Internet.
The Internet is magic, isn’t it? I think it must be. I just realized there are 106 full episodes on “Bewitched” on YouTube. There goes the animated version of Samantha, riding across the sky on her broom. A shooting star. Twitching her nose.
I believe. Do you?