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Hypnotist Wayson Lee tries to put the Martin Luther King Memorial Library to sleep.

The Martin Luther King Memorial Library isn’t exactly the tensest spot in downtown D.C. On an average weekday, the folks who’ve taken the big step of not falling asleep constitute the building’s most stress-addled population. But compared with the office drones outside grabbing a half-smoke to bring back to their desks, even these library patrons cruising the stacks to snatch up the new Tom Clancy thriller look like the model of the laid-back lifestyle.

So perhaps the library’s higher-ups were aiming at enlarging their customer base when they scheduled the lunchtime seminar for May 3. Here in the land of the reading-room nap, hypnotist Wayson Lee has come to teach people how to relax.

With a bright red-and-yellow University of the District of Columbia Alumni baseball cap atop his head, a matching Class of ’93 T-shirt on his chest, and a microphone in his hand, Lee looks ready to lead a more active kind of consciousness-raising. Even with his limp, Lee moves sprightly between the stage and the rows of chairs in the eastern half of the library lobby.

Despite his gyrations, though, Lee’s accompanying soundtrack features neither snare drum nor horn nor Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Instead, indistinguishable yet eerily familiar New Age synthesized noises bounce off the library’s card catalogs and prick the subconscious of those milling about on this particular Wednesday noontime: the kind of indistinct, soothing sounds that might lull someone into buying Aborigine rainsticks and other tchotchkes at the Discovery Channel Store two blocks east.

“Tranquility: Silence Follows Rain,” Lee answers, when asked about the music drifting through the cavernous lobby. He got it gratis from the Expressions card shop in White Flint Mall after promising to give the store a plug.

By 12:10 p.m., approximately 15 people have settled into the black metal chairs facing the stage for Lee’s presentation on relaxation techniques—a crucial component of hypnotism. Since the library’s truly relaxed regulars have all begun their siestas up in the reading rooms, Lee’s crowd is dominated by office workers and library employees on lunch break. Some have traveled to the library specifically for Lee’s hypnoid knowledge, but most are accidental tourists and, for the most part, skeptics like myself.

Lee tapped his way into my subconscious more than six months ago, when I read an e-mail message advertising one of his hypnosis seminars at the University of the District of Columbia. I pitched the seminar as a calendar item for the Washington City Paper, and when Lee scheduled his next appearance, at the Cleveland Park Library, I wrote a short blurb. But my take on Lee’s goofy event got bumped for a book signing and a Hungarian dance festival. And because I had never interviewed or contacted Lee personally, I figured that I had made one less enemy, and I put the topic to rest.

A few days later, I saw a weird notice in the same e-mail newsletter: “Hypnosis Gets Credible!…Since no one believes me, look in the Washington City Paper soon. Yours truly gets a coveted ‘Best Picks of the Week’ spot.”

Huh? I marched over to our calendar editor. He said that someone at the City Paper had talked to Lee briefly months ago, but not recently.

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Aha! If hypnosis ultimately tests the power of suggestion, then Lee had surely failed in his professional capacity. As a reporter, I don’t like the idea of having my work predicted in advance—by paranormal power or any other means. So I sat on my hands. Lee’s hypnosis hooey would never make it into the City Paper, I vowed.

How, then, should I explain my attendance at Lee’s library seminar last week? A change of attitude? Coincidence? Guilt?

Actually, I had an even better excuse, in case Lee started crowing: my editor. “You better damn go,” he said.

Lee’s presentation begins with an assurance: Satisfaction is not guaranteed. The lobby’s bright lights, constant foot traffic, and uncontrollable noise, he explains, will most likely infringe on our hypnoid progress. But, he adds, we will most likely achieve a medium trance—the third lowest of the six levels of hypnosis. “I’ve held workshops where I’ve gotten people to experience past lives, but the library doesn’t want me to do past lives, so sorry about that,” Lee tells the crowd, which at this point has grown to about 20.

Lee asks for volunteers. Four people hurry up to the stage, two men and two women. “Does anyone have to use the restroom?” Lee asks a moment later. Ricardo, a library employee, raises his hand and quickly heads offstage. A few colleagues in the audience chuckle, but Lee defends Ricardo’s action: “In a previous workshop, someone said, ‘I can hold it, I can wait’ and we had an unfortunate situation up here….We don’t like little presents up here.”

Lee filibusters during Ricardo’s absence. He eagerly shares with us his other talents, including his career as an “atmospheric” actor: “There are some actors in the foreground, and others in the background,” Lee explains. “I’m one of those people in the back drinking coffee.” In other words, an extra.

Lee gradually exhausts all of his other achievements and then shares with us the story behind his physical disability. “I got into a very serious car accident in 1976 where my Trans Am and I decided to hit a tree, and I decided to get killed,” Lee says. “A doctor just happened to be coming along and said, ‘Hmmm. I think I’ll save that dead body.’ And he saved me.”

“I’m an amazing person,” Lee says, smiling. We know that already—that’s why we’re here, of course. The audience applauds, but Lee feigns humility. “Thank you. I didn’t want applause. I just like to state facts,” he says.

Eight minutes later, Ricardo’s still on the loose. The woman across the aisle from me begins heckling, so Lee

decides to start the show without him. Just as Lee asks us to close our eyes, put our hands on our thighs, and begin breathing slowly, Ricardo makes his way back. He climbs onto the stage, along with two new recruits.

Lee commences his hypnosis, interspersing attempts at humor. That’s no surprise, given that Lee’s professional inspiration is hypnotist/comic Flip Orley. “Don’t stop breathing, whatever you do,” Lee warns those on stage. “I can’t perform CPR on six people. If one of you stops breathing, I can handle it—but not six.”

Lee’s wave of relaxation moves through the body from head to toe—for some. “If your legs tingle, that’s OK—it’s perfectly normal,” Lee says to the volunteers, who have an uncomfortable look, as if they were sleeping on the Greyhound bus. “If they don’t tingle, that’s OK, too—that’s normal, too.” Apparently, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to the subconscious.

Finally, after 10 minutes of listening to “blankets,” “waves,” and bad music, we get to test the efficacy of Lee’s formal training, from the Hypnosis Institute of New York. “I want you to imagine your arm as a bar of steel so tight and so strong that you can’t bend it no matter how hard you try,” Lee instructs. “I’m going to ask you to bend your arm, and you will find your arm will not bend because it is a bar of steel.”

The volunteers shake their heads. One, two, three: Lee asks us to flex.

Patty, a woman with gray hair who’s sitting onstage, starts to bend her arm. She quickly opens her eyes to peek, looks at Lee, and then quickly closes her eyes, like a child who has just done wrong. She straightens her arm.

“It’s OK if you can bend your arm,” Lee says as he watches four out of six volunteers easily flexing. “All I’m supposed to do is relaxation, anyway.” CP