Saturday, August 20, 2011

Do You Want to Know a Secret?

In 1992, I spent some time in the hospital--couple of them, actually. 

I don't much care for hospitals because they always seem to me to be hospital-focused rather than patient-focused.  I found it paradoxical that they would, on the one hand, encourage me to get some rest and then, just as I would be drifting off, the new shift would come in, turn on the lights and wake me up for some test, or measurement, or whatever.

At one point, I was sharing a room with a man who had worked his whole life in the coal mines in West Virgina.  He was proud of his work and, it seemed, equally proud of the illnesses and injuries he had collected because of it.  I am not certain I remember the whole list, but it seems to me that he was diabetic and had some sort of lung disease and heart trouble.

What I do remember was how happy he was.  He was thrilled to be in the hospital because he could get oxygen which, for some reason I didn't understand, was unavailable to him at home.  Everytime the staff would bring in a piece of monitoring equipment, he would proudly say that he had one of those at home but that he couldn't get the oxygen.  It was almost like he was declaring his afilliation with the doctors by virtue of his familiarity with their technology.  Like if I bought a golf club endorsed by Tiger Woods and went around telling people that my game was as good as his because we used the same stuff.  (Of course, lately the quality of our games is getting closer, and I don't even play.)

By comparison, I found being in the hospital to be very stressful.  Not only was it difficult to sleep, but, as a shy person, I found the constant probing and poking and touching and pricking to be very threatening.  I know they put on my chart that I didn't handle stress well which has always seemed to me to be a tacit admission that they were doing all these things to me on purpose.

The favorite part of my day was when I could watch an hour of Bob Ross on the local PBS afilliate.

Bob Ross, the "Happy Painter," would spend a half-hour showing you how to paint landscapes, or seascapes, using a handful of colors, brushes and a pallet knife.  He was like McGuyver in that he could make something out of virtually nothing.

Whatever talents I might have do not, in any way, include drawing or painting, but it was nonetheless fascinating to watch him manipulate the tools of his trade and produce something that was recognizable as a representation of a place.

In addition to his undeniable craftsmanshhip, his pleasant chatter and relentlessly positive mantra that there were "no mistakes, only happy accidents," the mellow timbre of his voice would send me blissfully off to sleep providing a peaceful island in the middle of an otherwise stressful day.

Whether it is in painting, motorcycle fabrication or cake baking, I am fascinated by craft.    To my wife's increasing frustration, I will watch hours of "American Chopper" with the same fascination that I watch "Cake Boss" or "Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives." 

It is the same fascination that keeps me engaged by magic.  At this point in my life, I am as likely to perform magic as I am to decorate a cake or paint a motorcycle, but I appreciate the singular vision that drives people to master the skills needed in each of these areas.

One of the best books on magic that I have read in a long time was The Magician and the Cardsharp by Karl Johnson.  The book profiles the lives of Allen Kennedy (the "cardsharp") and Dai Vernon (the "magician") and their obsession with mastering their respective crafts.

Vernon, "The Professor," devoted his life to becoming the expert at the card table that he read about as a young boy.  He is said to have read the influential "The Expert at the Card Table" by the mysterious S.W. Erdnase which documented many of the skills used by card cheats to gain an edge and spent the rest of his life perfecting the techniques that were described therein. 

The white whale in card mechanics is to get the cards you need into play at the right time.  Holding out an ace and slipping it in at the right time can be for nought if another player cuts the cards and your ace winds up in the middle of the deck. 

Kennedy too was a nascent card expert and kicked around gambling houses all over the country.  He is reputed to have succeeded where others did not and figured out how to deal cards from the center of the deck in a way that looked perfectly normal.

The throughline of the story is Vernon's search for Kennedy and the opportunity to learn his technique.

At some level, it's inspiring to know that secrets have just as strong a hold over magicians as they do over civilians. Every student's master is just student to somebody else.

When I began to follow magic, I was constantly frustrated by descriptions of magic tricks that contained the phrase, "by the usual method" because it assumed knowledge that was not available to me.  It was as though in pursuit of trying to learn how to pull a rabbit out of a hat, it assumed that you knew how to make a rabbit and, if you did not, the author had no desire to waste their time trying to bring you up to speed.

In the beginning, when I was still thinking I was going to be a performer, it was all about acquiring material.  To do a show, you needed tricks so each trick was a unity unto itself.  Like colors in the crayon box:  there was a color for "flesh" and another for "sky" and there was a trick with cards and a seperate trick with silks and another different one for sponge balls. 

It is only over time that you begin to appreciate that the actual sky is not uniform in color and that the techniques used to vanish a coin, a card, or a sponge ball have more in common than not. 

The center deal story would be far less interesting if it had been just about an arcane technique.  What is compelling is the knowledge that Vernon used his collection of these techniques to inform his work as a magcian and, more importantly, to influence generations of those who have taken up the craft since.

I think finally that this is what Bob Ross meant when he talked of "happy accidents." 

At the time I took this bromide to be an excuse for beginners to hide behind when their paintings turned out nothing like they were seeing on TV.  Now, I am inclined to think that he was referring to the learning that comes when you pick a wrong color, or accidentally spill some thinner across the canvas.  Perhaps this will be what it takes to discover that you have more of an affinity for abstract art.

I continue to collect secrets because, like other art forms, they are an insight into the mindset of their creators.  The choices reflect their education and their experience and the hard-earned wisdom of performance and they also contain the footprints of their influences.  Trick by trick, magician by magician, I am slowly filling in my canvas one happy accident at a time.

No comments:

Post a Comment