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Photo: Alonso Nichols


The Magic Bear

When I was four, my favorite TV show featured a hand puppet named Sooty, a mischievous bear who performed magic by waving a wand or sprinkling “oofle dust.” I could scarcely believe my eyes on Christmas morning when I looked inside my stocking. There, gripping his apparently real magic wand, was Sooty. After some minor disappointment over his limited powers—not only couldn’t he make my brother disappear, but to make even a coin vanish, he would have to palm it—Sooty began charming my mother and father with his silent antics, and I was happy. If only my friend Stephen could see.

In our vigilant age, it’s hard to envision a parent letting a small child cross the street alone, dressed only in pajamas and a plaid flannel dressing gown, at six-thirty or seven on a chill Christmas morning. But my parents did. Stephen McMurray’s was the gray stone house opposite ours. It was set well back from the road, approached by a long gravel driveway, at the foot of which stood a pair of stone gateposts. Sooty and I hid behind one of the gateposts (the left one, because I am right-handed) and prepared to put on a puppet show for Stephen’s family.

Mr. McMurray would be the first to notice. He would be having his coffee as Steven opened presents. When he glanced out the window and down the hundred-foot driveway, he would glimpse a tiny yellow bear peeking out from behind a pillar, waving a magic wand. “Good heavens!” he would say. “Stephen, see who’s come to visit!” Stephen would put down whatever new toy he was playing with, and the McMurrays would gather at the window, staring open-mouthed as Sooty, come miraculously to life, bobbed and darted and then revealed himself to be me.

With the first tentative flip of his wand, Sooty and I felt shivers of anticipation. I peered around the post. The house was quiet. A minute later Sooty sprang up like a jack-in-the-box, and I reconnoitered again. Still nothing. He grew more insistent, bouncing up and down the post, his wand flapping frantically. Could there ever, I thought, have been a family more oblivious than the McMurrays? The bear and I trudged home. In the movie version, the camera zooms out and the ground recedes until you see the curvature of the earth and then the earth shrinks to a point before disappearing in a whoosh of stars.

It was a hard lesson, but a valuable one. I’ve often felt there is a Sootiness about many human endeavors: our certainty that we will be seen, heard, read, noticed, or discovered, when in fact we have mistimed our efforts, misread our audience, and overestimated our reach. No amount of oofle dust can fix that.


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