The day I noticed my thumb was missing began like any other day the summer before I started eighth grade. I spent my days riding my bicycle around town, even though sometimes it was so hot the metal on my handlebars felt like a stove top. I could always taste the dust in my mouth—gritty and weedy like the rabbit brush and cacti that battled the desert sun and heat to survive. My family had little money, and I was often hungry. I didn’t like being hungry. I didn’t like being poor.

Lancaster’s greatest claim to fame was Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier at nearby Edwards Air Force Base some twenty years earlier. All day long planes would fly overhead, training pilots and testing aircraft. I wondered what it would be like to be Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1 at Mach 1, accomplishing what no human had ever done before. How small and desolate Lancaster must have looked to him from forty five thousand feet up going faster than anyone ever thought possible. It seemed small and desolate to me, and my feet were only a foot above the ground as I pedaled around on my bike.

I had noticed my thumb missing that morning. I kept a wooden box under my bed that had all my most prized possessions. A small notebook that held my doodles, some secret poetry, and random crazy facts I had learned—like twenty banks are robbed every day in the world, snails can sleep for three years, and it’s illegal to give a monkey a cigarette in Indiana. The box also held a worn copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, dog-eared on the pages that listed the six ways to get people to like you. I could recite the six things from memory.

1. Become genuinely interested in other people.

2. Smile.

3. Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.

6. Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.

I tried to do all of these things when I talked to anyone, but I always smiled with my mouth closed because when I was younger I had fallen and hit my upper lip on our coffee table, knocking out my front baby tooth. Because of that fall my front tooth grew in crooked and was discolored a dark brown. My parents didn’t have the money to get it fixed. I was embarrassed to smile and show my discolored crooked tooth, so I tried to keep my mouth closed at all times.

Besides the book, my wooden box also had all my magic tricks—a pack of marked cards, some gimmicked coins that I could change from nickels into dimes, and my most prized possession: a plastic thumb tip that could hide a silk scarf or a cigarette. That book and my magic tricks were very important to me—gifts from my father. I had spent hours and hours practicing with that thumb tip. Learning how to hold my hands so it wouldn’t be obvious and how to smoothly stuff the scarf or a cigarette inside it so that it would appear to magically disappear. I was able to fool my friends and our neighbors in the apartment complex. But today the thumb was missing.

Gone. Vanished. And I wasn’t too happy about it.

My brother, as usual, wasn’t home, but I figured maybe he had taken it or at least might know where it was. I didn’t know where he went every day, but I decided to get on my bike and go looking for him. That thumb tip was my most prized possession. Without it I was nothing. I needed my thumb back.

Reprinted from INTO THE MAGIC SHOP by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2016, James R. Doty, M.D.

About the Author

James Doty M.D.

James Doty, M.D., a Clinical Professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, is founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  

You are reading

The Magic Shop

Real Magic

When I first encountered the magic shop and mindfulness

Thinking About Thinking

Finding a mantra and learning to love.