Someone sends me a link to a video. I click on it, and within seconds I’m watching a man who seems to be striding on foot across the surface of the Thames River. Onlookers in the video are leaning over railings and peering from windows, pointing at him, astonished at the sight. I ignore the speed at which I’m able to access these images – or the fact that I’m able to access them at all — and immediately slide into a frame of mind that is both skeptical and critical.
“Do these people think he’s actually walking on water? Why are they so gullible? I’ve seen this trick before, and it never had me fooled.”
Even as these thoughts scuttle through my head, I’m analyzing them too, as well as the negative comments posted by previous viewers. When did we become so impatient, and so difficult to entertain? How did we grow so accustomed to the flashes of magic in our lives that we no longer recognize them?
It was once easy to impress us. In fact, we were pushovers. I can remember spending a small chunk of my Sunday nights watching an overdressed hyperactive man spinning plates and bowls on live television. Professional magicians pulled flapping birds out of the air and sawed women in half. A guy juggled hats while riding a unicycle and playing the harmonica. A lady in tights emerged from a basket that was no bigger than a bowling ball bag. I sat there with my eyebrows going in one direction and my mouth in the other, and wishing it would never end.
In the decades before the Internet and DVDs, when attending a real show was no more affordable than a Cadillac or a self-cleaning oven, we were hungry for the tiniest morsel of amusement. That’s why we could appreciate almost any diversion from daily life.
My mother used to crank out paint-by-number masterpieces that she later framed and displayed all over the house. These were mostly religious scenes, rendered in oil and with great precision: a portrait of Jesus, the Three Wise Men, the Last Supper. Until then, I had been familiar with only the paintings I saw hanging on walls at restaurants, or as postcard-size reproductions in school. My mother, I was convinced, would someday be as famous as any of the well-known artists. Although I didn’t realize it, there was magic in those hidden numbers.She had other tricks, too. Faced with a stubborn jar of applesauce, we’d all take turns struggling to pry it open. Minutes later, facial veins popping and hands bearing the imprints of our failure, we’d back away, mumbling something about not really being in the mood for applesauce. Then my mother would take a spoon from the silverware drawer and tap it around the lid, hard, the way they smacked prisoners of war who refused to talk. We’d witnessed the procedure a hundred times, and each time we were sure it wouldn’t do any good, even though it always did. She’d grasp the jar with one hand and twist with the other, and the lid would turn and come off without a fight, as if that’s what it wanted to do all along. To this day I don’t understand it, but the magic was in the tapping.
Our house wasn’t filled with things. This was partly because most things didn’t yet exist, but also because there would have been no place to put them. We had no basement, attic, or garage. We had no vacuum-sealed pouches or stackable plastic crates with snap-on covers. Christmas ornaments, winter gloves, used baby clothes, and hundreds of black-and-white photographs were stored in cardboard boxes, high up on shelves in the hallway closet. Each box had four flaps that, when folded in the correct order, stayed closed without benefit of tape or cord. My father used this technique often, his hands moving in a blur that I attempted to follow, with scant success. Slow-motion instant replay would have helped, but we didn’t have that either. I close boxes this way myself now, although there’s an area of my brain that still can’t quite believe it works. Tying my shoes, wrapping a gift, and dialing a telephone all produce the same reaction. The magic is in the sequence.
I’ve seen cotton candy being made, up-close, with my face inches from the operation. There are no discernible moving parts. Yet sticky pink threads appear from nowhere, collecting and building to a soft, fluffy bundle around a paper cone. And then, like ghostly particles that emerge and vanish in the quantum world, the cotton candy returns to nothing at the slightest contact with heat or moisture. The magic, I suppose, is in the machine. I don’t know exactly what’s happening in there, and I’m not sure I want to.
Sometimes it’s better to be left wondering, and to always have something within sight and within reach that will get us wondering again. I’m filled with that sense of surprise when I watch someone play the piano, knit a sweater, or fix a leaky pipe. There really is magic everywhere. But we have to know where to look, and how to look. Usually, it requires just slowing down and paying attention to details.
On the larger scale, however, I’m afraid we’re too easily disenchanted. Even the Apollo missions to the Moon couldn’t hold our interest for long, and by the third one we were already bored, treating them like summer reruns. And that was in the early seventies, so we were the same people who put up with The Newlywed Game for eight years.
There’s no doubt we’ll continue to grow more demanding. You can make the Golden Gate Bridge disappear? And you’ll do it while standing on the water in San Francisco Bay? That’s nice. But how many plates can you spin? Have you ever opened a jar of pickles with a butter knife? When was the last time you painted the Mona Lisa?
It was fun to see magic in the little things, and to allow ourselves to feel astonished. I liked being amazed that someone could juggle hats, stay up on one wheel, or play the harmonica.
I want to be a pushover again.