A guest posting by Pseudogordon Budapestensis*

God was it embarrassing!

You have to picture this, all you magical dudes and dudettes: there I was ensconced at a table in the Cafe Angelica, playing my iPad and my Nexus cell phone with VanCliburn virtuosity, planning the next jet-setting, globetrotting, multimedia feat of awesomeness I will unleash upon an unsuspecting and largely undeserving world. I was basking in the glow of my worldliness and the admiration of the blond real-estate dealer at the next table, in her candy-apple red suit with a flashy orange and yellow neck scarf, who was was leading a pheromone-drunk Russian investor by the nose. I could see he was going to buy whatever she was selling. It was awesome.

Red Suit kept smiling approvingly as I was breezing through tables and graphics and typing text and binding them together into a formidable Gesamtkunstwerk of a presentation that would make Chuck Saatchi look like an amateur. I desperately wanted to unbutton the collar of the Yves shirt and loosen the Boss tie I bought yesterday, but knew it would put a dent in my look (you have to suffer to be awesome).

And that’s when it happened.

This fifty-something bloke in wrinkled black chinos and a blue and black herring-bone tweed jacket that had seen better days came shambling into the room with his tastelessly overstuffed black leather briefcase, and then crossed straight over to my table. He stood opposite me and fixed me with his black-ringed but very intense blue eyes and said, in his American-ish mid-Atlantic accent  “PB, we gotta talk.”

“Do I know you?”

Bloke looked oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place him.

“You should. You’re my alter-ego after all.”

Bloke sat down at my table without being invited and banged me in the shin with his briefcase.

“Ouch! What do you carry in there? Bricks?”

“Look! I have some work for you.”

“But I have a presentation to give tomorrow!”

Bloke just waved his hand dismissively and went on.

“Fact is, I’ve gotten tired of the whole energy debate that’s been sucking up all the oxygen in our blogosphere lately, and my weekly deadlines are wearing me out. But I got a brilliant idea the other day, and I thought it was just the sort of thing you’re good at writing.”

I cast a quick glance over to the next table. They were examining floor plans together, and the Russian guy was artlessly using the opportunity to squeeze close to her and to “accidentally” touch her hand while pointing at things on the plan. She looked up at me, and a faintly quizzical expression colored her face, expressing the thought, “Who is that decidedly unfashionable codger at your table,” Oh, God. How unawesome! I prayed that someone would call from Paris right then so I could ostentatiously speak French on the cell phone and recapture some of my suavity.

Bloke was unrelenting.

“You see, my wife gave me a guitar for my birthday, and I’ve been doing internet tutorials, and…”

“And what’s this got to do with me? I don’t have time for this now. I have a presentation tomorrow at…”

“No you don’t. There is no presentation. You’re a projection of myself. Whether you like it or not, you have to do what I want.”

I felt like he had just poured a bucket of cold water over my head. Now I remembered this guy. He’s the one who uses me to fantacize about his lost youth. It’s humiliating to be created and used that way.

“…and while I’ve been learning and practicing” Bloke went on “it’s hit me that learning guitar is a metaphor for, well, just about anything. And I got to thinking about those cheesy, um, er, I mean ‘commercial’ service articles you’re so good at whipping out. You know: the kind of thing general circulation publications love so much, like ‘Three Ways to Recycle Leftover Paella,’ or ‘How to Politely Tell Your Boss He’s a Hopeless Weenie’. I was thinking of a posting called ‘Why Magic is Like Learning to Play Guitar’. What do you think? It’s just your sort of thing.”

I absent-mindedly moved some objects around on the iPad screen, half-heartedly pretending I was still “working”, while trying to think of a way to talk my way out of this lame project. Red Suit and the Russian had, in the meantime, ordered champagne. It seems a deal had been made and they were celebrating.

“Oh! I almost forgot” Bloke said, and began cramming around in his jacket. While searching the pockets he emptied their contents onto the table top: several crumpled tissues, a pen drive, a tube of lip balm, no less than two orthodontically correct pacifiers, a Lego brick, two small notebooks, a butane lighter, two tea lights (one partially burnt), a wood-bead rosary…

Red Suit was laughing raucously and starting to get physical with the Russian. A waiter appeared at our table with a small bottle of champagne and two glasses. “Complements of the gentleman” the waiter said, tilting his head toward their table as he popped the cork, after which he poured us each a glass and discretely disappeared.

“Ah! Here it is!”

Bloke produced a dog-ear piece of folded paper and began flattening it out on the table with the side of his hand. I impatiently gestured that he should remove all this rubbish from our table, which Bloke completely ignored.

“Now these are the notes I made while riding on the Metro this morning…”

“I haven’t actually agreed to…”

“I think you’ll easily be able to flesh them out.”

And then he slid the paper across the table to me, stood up, and began stuffing things back into his jacket pockets.

“You really don’t expect me to…”

He abruptly cut me off by thrusting his fist toward me with his index finger pointing straight up. He fixed me with those grey blue eyes and authoritatively whispered “Yes I do. By tonight at midnight. Oh. And one more thing. No black swans. They’re getting to be a cliché.”

At this he picked up his briefcase, took a quick sip of the champagne, turned toward the door and headed away. I heard the cell phone in his pocket play The Rolling Stones’ “Little T and A”. He stopped at the entrance to the room and pulled it out of his pocket.

“Hi sweetheart… Mmhhmmm… I just had a little business to attend to on the way home…  Mmhhhmmm… a kilo of flour and a carton of sour cream… Anything else?”

He turned and fixed me again with his grey-blue eyes and menacingly mouthed “midnight”. Then he turned away and left. I could hear his voice trailing away in the distance.

So there I sat, alone. The only evidence that he’d been here was a half-empty champagne glass with lip marks on it, and a pacifier he’d missed while gathering up his things. Oh. And the wrinkled piece of paper with his scribbled notes.

Red Suit and the Russian were leaving arm in arm. As they passed my table, the Russian placed his business card on my table and gave my shoulder a friendly pat. So now I was all alone. I picked up the notes and read them. And like a dutiful alter-ego, set to work for my alpha personality. So, without further ado, here is:

Why magic is like learning to play guitar

So, Bloke (Hereinafter Scribbler, since that’s how you lot know him) seems to think this is profound. I’ll humour him and parse this out in the classic list of seven. (Cheesy! Commercial! Why, the nerve of him!)

1. The Danger of Getting Obsessed. The thrill of actually being able to play a chord or two and get the guitar to make pretty sounds that really “sound like something” infected Scribbler with the desire to sit for hours a day plinking away at the ol’ git-fiddle. But he was wise enough to realize that, not only would the fingertips on his left hand turn into minced meat, but he could easily burn out his enthusiasm and lose interest in a few weeks. One must pace oneself for the long haul. Learning guitar is a marathon, not a sprint.

The same goes for magic. It is all too easy to spend all your spare time reading “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore”, and planning your next ritual, potion, incense, talisman, etc. But you have to be careful. Magic is like a strong spice. You add bits of it here and there into your life to make it into an interesting and delicious dish. Add too much at one time, and it can become unpalatable and inedible. And you become a bore. Nobody likes someone who always talks about the same thing all the time.

2. Daily Practice. For skating it’s school figures. For Japanese martial arts it’s katas. For the beginning guitar player it’s finger exercises, or scales, or strumming patterns. For magic it’s visualization, or memorizing god names, or pranayama, or basic rituals (depending on what path you are following). But you won’t get anywhere unless you do whatever you have set out to do with regularity. It can be boring. As a matter of fact, the person who succeeds in their given discipline is the one who works through the boredom by applying one-pointed concentration or finds a calm settling of the being in the regular practice.

3. Theoretical knowledge and practical. You can spend years in institutions of higher education studying musicology, even earning PhDs with dissertations that nobody but a handful of scholars with a similar interest will understand. Music is a bottomless subject. And there are many theoretical and abstract things (e.g. how half steps and whole steps make up the seven-note scale) that have great impact on how easily or how well you learn the guitar. And (in theory) the greater your knowledge of the structure and theory of music, the more subtle and nuanced your skill at playing will be. But the relationship is not one-to-one, and you begin to get diminishing returns for the time and effort you put into theoretical study (at least in the short run). But you also won’t get very far focusing exclusively on hands-on practice of technique. You have to decide on what is the right balance for you and your purposes.

Do you see the parallel to magic (think of a spectrum from high-minded armchair magician to spiritually shallow-but-deadly effective sorcerer)?

4. Expensive pass times. You can spend a bleeding fortune on the supplies for both of them if you aren’t careful. Let me see: capo, carrying case, guitar stand, electronic tuner, music stand, song books… And then there’s: herbs and oils, ready-made incenses, various papers and pens for talismans, metals for talismans, candles of all sizes and colors, dagger, notebooks, crystal ball, gemstones, books, tarot decks, wood burning tool…

5. As Plato said… They both quickly make you aware of how much you don’t know, and how much there is to learn.

6. Incremental rewards. Within a few days Scribbler learned a perfectly dreadful three-chord version of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” that he’s willing to inflict on any family member who isn’t moving through the room fast enough. But the harmony between the vocal and the guitar when he switches from the A chord to the E chord in the verse gives him goose bumps every time, and the satisfaction that he is making music. If, during your early involvement with magic you sincerely engage in some sort of regular practice (not just reading) in your magical training, you will get some sort of result, however subtle, but still perceptible. And it will give you goose bumps.

7. Black Swan. I don’t care what Bloke says. If he wants me to write this for him, there’s going to be a bleeding black swan in it. And, I mean, there’s a black swan here as big as an elephant. The day before his birthday, Scribbler had no idea he was going to get a guitar. But look at him now! He’s rearranging his schedule to have a little time to practice every day. He’s surfing for videos of old songs he knows to see how hard the guitar part is. He’s stopping to watch street musicians and observing how their left hands form chords.

And he has no idea where this will all lead.

OK, Bloke. I’ve done my duty. I’m emailing this to you and then buggering off to another cafe where… I. Hope. You. Won’t. Find. Me.

By the way. The Russian placed his business card on my table face down. When I turned it over, just now, I saw a large long-necked dark-feathered water fowl in the upper right-hand corner. The name of his firm is Black Swan Investments.

I think I’ll give him a call tomorrow. Maybe I’ll show him my presentation.

*a posting à clef