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Deal 1186: Stage setting

Here’s a surreal scene. On stage, a birthday cake has all its candles lit, and is floating inside of a large birdcage, or possibly a birdcage elevator. It sways back and forth gently, subtly out of time with the music. The elevator is moving too, just not in time to the music. THe music selection is also a touch off, but it is hard to put my finger on why.

Also on stage is a fairy-tale prince, along with a large frog. They are circling a cartoon-like bomb with a long fuse that is lit and sparking.

The fuse burns. The cake hovers. The bomb explodes. The frog croaks.

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Deal 1183: Fire

I walked away from the party concerned about how I understood reality. I had just seen proof that a kind of comic-book voodoo works. A burn mark on a drawing of a hand traced from the visitor’s hand became a blister on his actual hand, and on the very finger where the paper was burned. He explained it away as simplistic voodoo. We crumpled up the paper after marking the finger. After only a few minutes, his finger healed. The paper was now clean when uncrumpled.

Except when it suddenly went up in flames.

And left me with ashes on my palm.

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Deal 1087: Wet but not dead

fear of death adds spice
to a life well lived although
fear must be groundless

Joe watched the water rise, and for a moment was nearly as nervous as the audience. It was ever thus. The essence of the trick was that there was no trick: he really did escape from the shackles, chains, and cuffs. Or he could do it that way if he was a fool. Joe was no fool.

By the time the water reached his knees, his hands were free. Not that the audience could tell, he knew it was important that they believe him trapped and certain to die.

Hence the dramatic music, the curtain shielding him from view in his “final moments”, and all the other trappings for the stage.

His favorite ending to the escape was to hop out of the water as soon as he was hidden from view, then settle down with a newspaper in the cheap seats to wait while a shadow puppet show plays out of his apparent drowning. At the peak of the frenzy, as the audience is screaming for someone to do something, a pin spot focused on the tank from behind would suddenly reveal that the tank was empty.

The curtain would drop to reveal that there was nothing left in the tank but a pile of chains at the bottom and a few fish swimming in circles.

Joe enjoyed listening to the stunned realization sweeping across the audience that he hadn’t died in front of them. Did he vanish? Did he become a fish? Was anything what it seemed?

Joe stepped forwards, dropping the coat and newspaper that had concealed him from casual discovery, and accepted the applause that he was due.

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Deal 1086: Wet tension

The tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife as the last lock was fastened and shackle applied before the tank began to fill around Joe.

When the water first began to flow, a susurration washed across the audience, as they realized that he was serious about this stunt. The water swiftly covered his ankles and the standard issue prison shackles attaching the together, along with the chain that ran from the shackle bar, through a loop in the floor, and off into the flies overhead. One link at a time, the water filled the tank. With each link, the seriousness of his predicament became clearer.

Once the water was a foot or so deep, a cloth screen began to rise. Initially the cloth was fairly opaque, but splashes of water had created translucent patches.

Joe remained still as the cold water continued to fill the phone booth-sized tank. Soon it had reached his knees, bound together by rope. As a small symbol of hope, there was a large knife clenched between his knees. The knife was placed handle down, making it nearly certain that it would fall to the tank bottom before he could get a grip on it.

Steadily the water flowed.

Soon it reached Joe’s wrists, shackled behind him.

Joe was in a pickle.

The water rose. Now it reached his elbows.

The audience could hardly breathe.

The curtain reached its full height moments after the water began to overflow the tank. Joe cast a distorted shadow on the cloth as he struggled. His shadow seemed to be getting the worst of the deal.

Would Joe get free?

Find out someday soon!

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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.