Category Archives: On My Mind

Sleight of Hand

Magic shows are magic either because we believe them to be or because we let them be. They are magic because we want them to be or because we let our guard down and appreciate what we’re shown. Magic shows captivate children because they have not yet learned to be jaded, because they are willing to imagine, because the laws of physics are not more compelling than handkerchiefs that appear and disappear or cards slyly revealed. Children believe because they have not yet learned not to, and therefore they are not disappointed.

I watched a magic show last week and caught myself looking for the tricks, looking for supports hidden in the darkness, or trapdoors, or poorly hidden props. I don’t remember when magic shows ceased to be magical and instead became an opportunity to call out magicians for precisely their specialty – sleight of hand. If we wanted to be swept away, to be amazed, we would stop looking for the gaps in the tricks, stop looking for the wires or behind the curtain. Do we always have to know better?

Sometimes, the answer is yes. We cannot expect magic to sweep us off our feet if we’re just sitting on the couch waiting for it to come along. We cannot expect something to change just because we want it to change without taking action in this direction. But we can let go of what we cannot control and let the universe unravel itself, which it always does, though often in ways that force us to abandon our plans and change course. We won’t find what we’re looking for if we don’t go out there to look for it. We won’t learn if we’re not curious, won’t see beautiful things if we walk only with heads down. Once we know that magic is there, we need to let it find us and be willing to accept it when it comes.

You could argue, that’s not magic. That’s not special or sparkly, and it doesn’t come with glitter. No, perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a lot of trust involved in letting magic happen, a lot of putting pieces into place only to then step back and just see what happens. To let what is going to happen simply . . . happen. Without looking for the reasons, without searching for complications, without poking holes in something beautiful. Sometimes, it can just be beautiful.

Children love magic shows because they let magic happen. And while watching that magic show last week, I tried to turn off the part of my brain that insisted on figuring out what was hidden and where. This is when I saw magic happen, too. And why not? It’s a far more compelling way to watch a show, and a far more peaceful way to walk in the world.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. – Roald Dahl

Adirondacks, New York – July 2022

The Question is Free

Before moving to Germany, I thought I knew a few things about cultural differences. I’d lived in Malaysia for a year and Singapore for five, travelled widely across Southeast Asia and elsewhere, taught students from dozens and dozens of countries, and considered myself reasonably culturally competent. In many ways this was, and is, the case. However, moving to a small town in Germany, meeting German friends, and teaching mostly German students have taught me more about culture than I expected.

To begin with, I really hadn’t thought there would be as many cultural differences between Germans and people from my part of North America. There are plenty of cultural differences between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, and Germans just seemed so much closer to people I knew. Unsurprisingly, I was mistaken and, as any moment of pause would suggest, I really should have known better. There are cultural differences between people who live in cities mere hours apart; obviously I would find cultural differences between people continents apart.

Additionally, I didn’t know any Germans prior to moving to Germany. I knew a little bit about Germans, or thought I did based on blogs that I read and language courses that I followed, but most of that was just a willingness to peel back stereotypes until something close to truth emerged. But as with anything, there’s only so much one can learn out of a book. And when it comes to people, that amounts to very little.

Something I knew before coming here is that Germans are extremely direct when speaking, but I didn’t know how that actually played out in social situations. I have found relatively little beating around the bush (at which I am an expert), but rather honest questions simply asked that demand honest answers. Social niceties do not play the same role as in my part of North America and as a result, so I gather, social bonds in Germany are quite different than what I have known before. Germans have many Bekannte (acquaintances) and it is special to be accepted as a friend. Friends are not made overnight.

To take a different example, last night I was asked a serious question that required a serious answer. I had thought for weeks about asking the question myself and had decided against it without really coming to a conclusion. I just didn’t want to put anyone in a potentially awkward position, so I hadn’t asked. When I heard the question and gave my answer I added my reasoning for not having asked myself. I was told, “In German we say, ‘the question is free’.” Of course it is. In Germany, the question is just a question and the expectation is it comes from an honest place. No awkward situation required.

For as direct as I am in my professional life with students and colleagues, I tend to be quite the opposite in private. I find forthrightness difficult and this has been a problem in a range of relationships. I have a similar problem with making decisions that involve other people, though I am quite decisive when something only affects me. I’ve been getting better at decision-making, trying to think about choices in terms of simple questions and answers. “Where do you want to go on a bike ride?” merely requires me to state where I want to go; I don’t need to first wonder what the asker would like me to say and then try to say it.

The same logic then ought to apply in other situations, such as asking hard questions and engaging in hard conversations. This requires honesty rather than conforming to whatever expectations I think might be there. Conversations are a different dance under new conventions and I suppose better to learn this late than never. Better to actively learn how to behave in a new culture with new people than to assume that what I have always done is just the way things are to be done.

If the question is free, ask the question. And if the question is not free, as challenging as I find it, I still have to think it is worth asking. As many of us know, if you don’t ask the question, it never really fades away. We might not like the answer, but at least we don’t end up wondering what would have been had we asked. If we ask the question, we know.

The implications are then clear: The way to build a relationship is to approach it with openness, clarity, and the courage it takes to say what needs to be said, ask what needs to be asked, and listen to the response. If I learn nothing else from my time here, I am glad to have learned this.


At the end of the forest, or at the beginning depending on where you start, is a lovely little playground. It was empty when we arrived a few nights ago, a weekday shortly after suppertime. We stopped our bikes and looked at the swings.

“I’m just going to go on the swings for a minute.”
“Me, too. That’s why I stopped here.”

It’s easy to fly in a swing and I laughed when I reached the point where, twenty years ago, I would have jumped off when the school bell rang. Jumped, dusted myself off, and run across the yard.

“Jump off?”
“Not anymore!”
“Yeah, I think I’d break.”

Laughing, kicking heels in the woodchips to slow the swing and then spinning, first one way and then the other as the chains unwound and wound again.

“I know. I didn’t used to feel dizzy.”

Head tipped all the way back.

“To think I used to do flips on the swings.”
“Try it!”
“No way!”

We watched the trees, looking up at canopies of leaves. Watched the sky, slowly darkening.

“Nice to know that all the school games were the same.”
“I was just thinking that.”

We got back on our bikes, left the forest. The air had changed, growing cooler. Summer ending and fall beginning. We’re often in the forest (“Want to go hug some trees?”) and the swings are not far away.

Lovely to know, indeed.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. – George Bernard Shaw