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Deal 1021: Staged

The crowd has been well-behaved as dusk settles over the amphitheatre. The early warm up acts were fun for passing time until the main event, but may not be memorable. Except that one guy that… but I digress. Night arrives swiftly at this place, so it almost seems as if someone has simply thrown a switch and turned off the sky. Then, as our eyes adjust, we realize that he also turned on the stars.

Everyone quickly settles back into their seats as the amphitheatre plunges from navigable to one giant tripping hazard. We all quiet with anticipation.

The stage lights come up to reveal a contraption of some sort on an empty stage.

It fires bundles into the front three rows that turn out to be ponchos. Nervous laughter ensues, but the front three rows also don the ponchos.

The device spins around. As it turns, spotlights reflect off it and scan the crowd. It stops, with a pin spot reflected onto a single seat, near an aisle. The other spotlight operators turn their lights around and join in, The seat is empty. Which seems a little strange in an otherwise sold-out house. The lights go off for a moment, then on, as all the spot operators blink their shutters in unison. Now the seat is occupied.

The occupant is dressed a little more formally than the rest of the audience. After a moment, he stands, and the crowd begins to realize that this was his entrance. He makes his way to the stage.

From that beginning, the show got weird.

At one point, he was juggling kids borrowed from the audience.

He set up a series of gramophones, and attempted to identify which was producing live sound and not a recording with the help of a small dog.

He did a knife catching act with dull knives.

It was strange and wondrous. All the professional performers who saw him were green with envy at his management of the crowd’s attention.

He did things that every critic had panned with their typical poisoned pens. But it probably didn’t help that his final bit was designed to annoy critics. He even said so from the stage, pointing out that by and large most critics would have already filed their reviews of his show by that point, so it was perfectly safe to mock them.

When the house lights came up, the audience response was immense.

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Deal 1018: Strung Imaginings

I have a piece of string and an imagination.

The string could be used to sketch many things. The light color stands out on this black cloth, and easily forms words and figures. Their clarity depends on my artistic skill, of course, as much or more than imagination. Skill or not, string is forgiving. I can lay it down as a rabbit, and then as a carrot, and with a little practice and better vision, a rabbit again that we all agree is probably representative of a rabbit.

But a carrot is easier. And before griping about the color, there are heirloom carrots that are nearly as dark as this black cloth, or nearly as white as this string. And of course there are always parsnips, which I personally like more than carrots.

In fact, I will bravely state that there is little better in the root vegetable space than a pile of buttered roasted parsnips and carrots. Add a little salt and freshly cracked pepper, and you have a thing of beauty that is unsurpassed.

Of course, parsnips are completely out of fashion, and as a result are often only found in the sort of market that you have to save up for before you risk opening their doors.

Out of fashion or not, the parsnip stands the test of time. So this figure is a parsnip, and it is proud.

Imagine if you will the noble root standing proud in the soil, broad leafy greens standing up in the sun, driving sugars into the root as it sinks deeply into the soil, seeking water and other nourishment.

Close your eyes, and paint that picture on the inside of your eyelids. You can feel the coarse soil. You can smell it as you break the root free. You can vividly remember the first time you pulled a root from the soil. So vividly that you wish that root was here in your hands, to wash, peel, roast and eat.

That would be something, of course. But there are always obstacles. Tangles in the memories. Scent is an especially powerful window into your past. You imagined a vivid memory and could almost smell it. Close your eyes again, and do the same with a different memory. Some of you might imagine your first kitten. You can hear it’s plaintive “mew” as chases a string. You can smell its fur. It is that vivid.

Others might have chased frogs into a swamp and can remember the sounds of the birds crying out warnings, the feeling of nearly losing that new boot in unexpectedly calf-deep muck, the smells of the standing water and the swamp plants, the splash that a frog makes as it escapes your grasp, the larger splash that you made when you over-committed to catching the frog. I’ve been in swamps where absent a near perfect sense of direction your best hope for being home for dinner would be to unwind a ball of string behind you.

So from our tangled paths and memories, we come full circle. We have a circle of white string. And with a little imagination it can become anything at all.

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Deal 1011: The Gift of Wonder

I’ve found some old photos of a visit to the fair, when I was younger, so much younger. I’d almost forgotten about being talked into the magician’s tent show that day. From the pictures, it must have been a two act show. As I sit here and remember, with pictures of the posters that promised the worlds of wonder to behold within as reminders, I recall the shows.

The first act blustered out on stage, and left the audience alternately confused and annoyed, the stinker. By which I mean he stunk. Somewhat literally stunk. He drug me on stage, and proceeded to taunt me at every turn. The balloon became a dog on his command, but then was promptly popped with a needle. He showed a magic mirror that could tell the future, but all it predicted for me was humdrum work at the factory. He didn’t even give me a choice! And when he finished with me, he just shooed me away like an unwanted puppy.

Sure, the things he did were astounding, but at every turn, he popped everyone’s sense of wonder and left the crowd sitting on their fingers. By that point I was ready to write it all off, and expected the other act to phone it in as badly as this one did.

But I stuck it out. I’d paid my hard-earned dime for my seat, after all!

I could tell the next performer was different just from the way he walked on stage. He had presence under the lights. The stage wasn’t all that fancy, but he knew he belonged on the best stages in the world, and acted as if this was one of them. His act exuded quiet strength at every turn, especially when dealing with gentler topics.

He produced a flock of birds from nowhere that swarmed around the audience and returned to the stage to line up and mutter amongst themselves. Each bird did a trick as it appeared. You could tell the birds respected him, and that he loved his birds as he tore them in two to double them, found them folded up in silk, and even lined them up, invisible, on his stick so clearly that when the stick vanished and a line of birds was suddenly beating their wings in its place, it took a moment to realize the stick was gone.

He seemed to single out each of the people humiliated earlier for a special moment. To me, he offered a choice among several jewelry boxes. The one I chose had an egg inside, which he broke open to reveal a gemstone on a chain. It was only as he was settling it around my neck that I realized it was my birthstone. Or at least a good simulation of it. He took that moment to carry my imagination outside of the tent on the boardwalk, and to see the opportunities that were hiding in all things mundane.

After his last bow, I could tell the whole audience was profoundly affected. Usually loud conversations about how the tricks were done are overheard in the aisles and lobby. But this time, the conversations I heard seemed less about tricks and more about what each had seen, and people felt. That schmuck from the opening act had left everyone cold. But this guy, well he had us all dreaming.

Years have passed, and I still occasionally rediscover that stone stored safely away in its cheap mount and slowly tarnishing cheap chain. With it, I’ve preserved the program, and some snapshots. And I cherish those memories.

Much of what he had promised had indeed come true. I had married well and happily. I made a difference in the world, and would someday (but not too soon!) leave it a better place than I found it. But in the end, all of that was incidental. As I sit here and reminisce, I can see how those moments of wonder opened my eyes to the wonders around me, and changed me for the better.

Now today, I get to offer a moment of wonder to an audience of my own.

I hope I can find my way to do for them what was done for me those many years ago.

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Deal 998: Illusions

The audience quieted (aside from the inevitable heckler) as the curtains opened on a new setting. One thing they were sure of was that something amazing was going to happen. But they saw before them a fairly ordinary set familiar to just about any modern sitcom. The open plan ranch house was mostly represented in photographic drops, but the standard family sized sofa was front and center, complete with an abandoned letter jacket, some sports shoes dropped messily, and a pizza box tossed haphazardly on the coffee table.

But there were not actors to be seen, so they quieted down in anticipation.

Except for the heckler, again.

As the lights came up on this prosaic scene, they noticed that the pizza box was moving. It had started out tossed aside on the table, but turned towards the audience, then canted up a bit and the front row suddenly got nervous. It was looming at them. Then it opened and began to speak. It was using halves of an apple for eyes, and a stale pizza slice as a tongue.

It raised up further as it set out on a bit of classic oratory.

The scene was so outrageous that when discussing it later, people couldn’t agree on what the box had actually said. Everyone was sure it said something, and said it well.

As it spoke, the front row calmed. Not the heckler, though. He got louder, and revealed himself as definitely not the gentleman in the room as he taunted the box mercilessly. The box just turned and stared at him. Eventually he wound down and went silent, and finally sat back down. It was the most professional treatment of a heckler that most had seen.

Finally, some people joined the box on the stage. As they entered, the box seemed to suddenly realize it was an inanimate object, and dropped back down on the coffee table. It didn’t quite remember to pull its tongue back in though.

The couple had a fairly predictable sitcom argument about the mess in the room and junior’s grades. Then the man settled down on the couch, stretched out, and dozed off. That was the wife’s moment to exact her revenge. She pulled out a sheet, tossed it over the man’s legs. He didn’t stir. So she added the pizza box to his belly, then pulled the sheet all the way over him.

He mumbled something inarticulate, but didn’t stir.

Then the whole sheet shifted a little. Then a little more. Then we realized it was lifting up and off the couch.

It raised up to where it’s tails were just dragging on the furniture when the woman suddenly noticed it. She screamed.

The she grabbed at the sheet and just barely caught a corner as it flew up, yanking the sheet away to reveal nothing at all. No lay-about husband. No pizza box. The couch was empty. The sheet was just a sheet.

Finally she balled up the sheet and threw it at the sofa, where it lay still.

Perfectly still.

Everyone held the breath, sure that there was one more twist to come from somewhere.

She stepped back to the couch, picked up the sheet and wrapped it around herself as a cloak, flipping a corner up to hide her hair.

A sudden bright flash and cloud of smoke cleared to reveal the sheet falling to the stage and the woman gone completely.

Then the lights went out.

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Deal 982: Froggy

It seemed like a good idea at the time. That is my story, and I’m sticking to it.

The frog was handy. The orange was just sitting there. The plot of the trick practically writes itself from there.

How did I do it?

Well, you’ll have to work that part out for yourself. After you give some serious thought to the question: should I do this?

Well, what could possibly go wrong?

The mark seemed eager to participate. He even cooperated in pretending to inspect the frog and sign it to recognize later. Some frogs like being handled, so signing it wasn’t all that hard.

Frogs are easy to vanish. Tree frogs are really easy to palm. So are geckoes. Leeches, of course, are even easier since they will tend to assume you are a buffet table and cling right away and feed. I figure the frog would vanish easily, and we’d advance the plot from there.

Frogs also are ornery little critters that only perform on cue when nobody’s watching. I’ve seen the Chuck Jones short. But I wasn’t expecting it to do anything other than sit still. It couldn’t even do that right.

Hop!

So I catch the frog, and advance the story a bit further. Of course, now it’s vanish isn’t quite as magical as it could be. But still, it’s gone, and the orange is selected.

Now I’m afraid my mark won’t touch oranges or orange juice for a long long time.

Grenouille a l’orange anyone?

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Deal 978: Tiled

I found these odd tiles in my chicken coop. I don’t know what the chickens were up to, but it looks like they were trying to play a game or solve a puzzle. It is more than a little puzzling. I’m not even certain I even have all of the pieces, as there’s evidence that one or more might have been broken, possibly in anger.

The first thing I noticed is that even though they are all the same size, our minds fool us into thinking that they won’t look like they are when set next to each other. But in fact, they do.

It is so strange how plastic our perceptions are sometimes.

There’s clearly more at work here than meets the eye. Perhaps I’d better go have a chat with my chickens.

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Deal 893: The game of axes and seats

I admit I cut an odd figure as I stroll the streets looking for the best spot, dressed in morning coat, topper, and all the usual trimmings of the gentleman off to the opera. But the garb isn’t the most striking part; that would be the very large axe strapped to my back.

Finally, I find the right spot. Room to work, and yet also cozy enough to draw people’s attention. And a steady flow of foot traffic that seems willing to look around and notice the sights rather than just plow ahead as if on a deadline.

I slowly unstrap my axe, while turning in a circle and catching the eyes of a few passerby. I’m doing my best to radiate charisma, to draw attention without speaking a word. What I’m here to do today will work best if I never say a word. I unsling my axe, complete my turn, and plant its head on the ground, keeping a good grip on the end if the handle.

Without saying a word, I draw my feet up, and pose with legs crossed at a comfortable height.

I then nod to the passerby who noticed, sweep my hat off, and set it on the ground in front of me, before freezing in place.

And so the game of wills begins. The longer I can hold people’s attention, the larger the coin they are likely to drop in the hat. Of course, this pose is not held without any effort at all. So the third player in the game is my own endurance. The passerby think they are contributing out of their own free will, but the secret is that when they acknowledge the performance, they’ve already lost that battle. They are obligated to contribute something to my well-being.

After an hour or two, it is time to change my locale, seek different marks. So with some care I reverse the sequence of movements that left me seated in midair. and am free to shoulder my axe and walk away.