That Dress Looks Dirty to Me

When I was 15 I had the amazing good fortune to go to work in a magic shop…a real magic shop. Though I was never really much of a performer, I did become a very serious student of magic and learned quickly that I could not trust my eyes. Not only could I not trust my eyes to be looking in the right place at the right time, I could not trust my eyes even when I saw what I saw and was certain I was looking at what I saw when I saw it. In fact, the degree to which we cannot trust our eyes is difficult to comprehend let alone admit. Magicians depend on our inability to admit or even understand how easily, and in how many different ways, our eyes can be fooled.

So it was fun to watch people scuffle over the color of the dress (BTW, I see white/gold and yes it might be because my eyesight is limited compared to those who see black and blue). But then it got a little depressing because clearly there are people on both sides of the eyeball cone count who will never let go of the idea that what they see is “right” and what the other people see is wrong. Even when they learn the reasons behind what, at first, seems so crazy making and weird, they still have a need to cast their perceptions as the right perceptions. In this case, it is over something silly.

In so many cases it’s not. The whole dress color thing reminded me of many political disagreements in which I feel I have framed an argument using objective rules of logic and reason and yet not only do I fail to persuade, the person I am debating ends up feeling even stronger in their views. And it becomes quite clear that they, too, believe they have framed an objective, logical and well reasoned argument. The conversation becomes something like two opposing magnets that just cannot come together for some invisible reason. This happens a lot in the world. We say we are at an impasse, or we just need to “agree to disagree.” The danger for me is I am so tempted to believe that I and those who share my point of view are actually right, when the truth is we are and we are not. The truth is usually like interlocking fingers that extend into both arguments and can only be seen as a whole thing from a distance that cannot be achieved in the context of trying to win an argument or an election or legislate.

But I’m talking about intellectual honesty here, which is a lovely thing when you encounter it, even in the context of opposing views. The thing that troubles me, the thing that really and truly keeps me awake worrying about the future for my kids, are the people who see a blue and black dress but say they see a white and gold dress because the white and gold dress manufacturers have bought them and paid them to say it.

Today was a good day because the FCC supported net neutrality. It was as if millions of Americans were crying out, “the dress is black and blue” and the FCC stood up and said, “we believe the dress is black and blue.” It’s a good thing. But don’t be surprised if, when all the dust settles and the money has had its say, the Koch brothers and their ilk have purchased their power, the only dresses you can find on the rack are all white and gold.

A Question of Magic

One of my favorite movies is Funny Bones with Oliver Platt, who plays a character that desperately wants to be funny but isn’t. What’s worse, he’s living in the shadow of his famous comedian father, played by Jerry Lewis. In one scene, the father explains to his son, “There are two types of comedians, a funny bones comedian and a non-funny bones comedian. They’re both funny. One is funny, the other tells funny.”

I think there are magic bones magicians and non-magic bones magicians. Both can fool you and both are entertaining. One makes you say “how did you do that?” The other makes you say, “who the f#@k let you out of your bottle.”

This is an important distinction and has something to do with why magic is on my mind lately.

Asking “how did you do that?” is a common response to watching a magic trick. But when you’re watching a magic bones magician your initial response is not “how did you just trick me?” The most common initial response is disbelief, which actually means your very first response is to believe. You question your senses and even your sanity. You don’t wonder what the secret is or what is happening that you can’t see. You wonder when the seams at the corners of reality are going to be sewn back together.

When you watch people watching a magic bones magician, they do things like reaching out to the person next to them to steady themselves, or scream, or simply walk away. They almost always have a physical reaction, bending over, crouching, jumping, spinning, as if they need their body to help them absorb the force of the impact. One of the most innovative things about the street magic David Blaine filmed for TV in the 1990’s, beyond whittling the magician’s presenting premise and need to talk down to almost nothing, was to focus on these types of reaction.

If a magic bones magician is performing for a large audience, the applause comes slowly because people must remember themselves, where they are and the appropriate social response. They gasp; they look at their neighbor to see if their neighbor saw the same things and they wonder if they are dreaming, then they applaud.

The non-magic bones magician may be very skilled, a master technician, even a true sleight of hand artist and a talented entertainer. But almost everyone in his audience believes that if they knew the secrets, owned the proper accoutrements, and practiced; they could do the tricks too.

The magic bones magician makes you ashamed that you ever even owned that Mark Wilson magic set when you were seven and makes you vow never again to pull a quarter from a child’s ear.

When I was in high school I had the good fortune, by pure happenstance I think, to not only work at a magic shop but to meet, hear lectures from, and on occasion receive personal instruction from a group of magic bones magicians. You would not recognize any of their names. If you are a professional magician, you would recognize them all.

You know, I never recovered from that.

Good magicians (whether it is in their bones or not) walk a tight line of dynamic tension between your need and their own, your need for wonderment and their own need to travel secret passages that are near meaningless apart from the presence of those who do not know they exist. The fact that they are willing or actually desire to provide you with wonderment is what sets them apart from con artists. The fact that they have these secrets, some of them surprisingly profound in their wider implications, sets them apart from jugglers or acrobats or flamenco guitarists.

If there are tiers to these secret passages, and I believe there are…at Chilean miner depths, then I suppose I never saw more than a few top levels. But I have never forgotten what I saw there and the things I learned. Most of the time, I keep these things neatly tucked away and don’t think about them much. Maybe I even avoid them.

I generally stay out of magic shops, but if I should happen into one I am overwhelmed with the feeling of loss. It’s not really the feeling of personal loss; it’s a feeling of loss around the emptiness inside most magic shops. The secrets are not there. You can buy every trick in the place and learn them all and you will be a collection of paraphernalia and moves and people will ask you how you do it but no one will reach out for a shoulder to steady them when they watch. If you’re a magic bones magician in waiting, my guess is the first clue will be when you set aside the objects acquired from the magic shop and carry the principles you’ve learned to other things and other frames.

The feeling of loss I experience in magic shops is only personal to the extent that there is nothing in those places for me to recapture. Even if I decided to return to a proper study of magic, the things that I want to understand are not found in magic shops or on YouTube, and they most certainly don’t involve a deck of cards. Some of them are found in books, but only if you know how to read between the lines and past the last page. Still, I am a great fan of all sorts of magic, whether it comes from the bones or not, whether it is corny or stupefying, as long as it honors the places and people from which it came. And I appreciate anyone willing to walk that line of dynamic tension. I don’t care if you’re dressed like Fred Astaire in evening attire and putting together and pulling apart giant metal rings that serve no earthly purpose outside of a magic act, or if you’re dressed like a 1980’s glam rocker, I’ll watch if you’re willing to stand up and declare you’re a magician.

But my favorite magic is magic that happens along the way, magic with very little premise beyond circumstances that appear to be a part of going about our everyday lives. Years ago I was walking down the street with friends. I took the stir stick from one of their coffee cups and made it disappear right in front of their eyes. It vanished. It was as gone as gone can be. They all started cussing and looking around for the stir stick. That must have been eight years ago but those people still talk about it. They had never seen me do a magic trick before then and they have not seen me do one since. The satisfaction of that moment, when everything was right, was worth forgoing a manufactured repeat.

That trick was taught to me 30 years ago by a magic bones magician. That day was not the only time I had done the trick, but I really think it was the moment for which the trick was taught to me and, I have to admit, probably the only time the teaching was earned. I was disappointed to find the method, which to my mind is something like a haiku poem in its beauty and simplicity…even in its meter, described in a recently published book of magic, but that is how it goes. I’m sure it is not its first appearance in a book and I know it won’t be the last. For all their talk about keeping secrets, magicians love to write books and a stunning number have been published over the last 300 years. Despite this, very few secrets have taken up permanent residence in the public consciousness. I think the only real secret of magic that just about everyone believes they understand is the concept of misdirection.

The gap between what most people believe misdirection to be and what it is in all its fullness as used by magicians is part of the pact we (ye ol’ laypeople) make with the performers. We don’t want to know, we really don’t.

The 2006 movie, The Prestige, openly presents a great secret of magic as part of the narrative, indeed, as a completely overt theme within the movie. But it is easy to capture only the implications that float on the surface if you don’t ask the second and third questions and then ask those questions again outside the context of viewing the movie. But most of us won’t ask those questions outside the context of a given scene, let alone the context of the movie or while watching a magician in some other place and time. That is the gift, after all these years, which was given to me by my brief but very intense career in magic and by the magic bones magicians I met. I learned to ask another question. Then, ask another question. Then, ask another question. Long before the poet Rilke taught me to love the questions over the answers, I loved the wondering of how magic happened more than I loved the knowing. I think this is why I would always pick a magician’s biography or a magic history over a how-to book. One is full of questions and the other is all answers.

The one question I never ask is, “How did you do that?”