Nothing to Hide (A Magic Show)

I’m not sure who else leaves a magic show willing to marry a guy who doesn’t know her name and who’s just played mind tricks on her for an hour, but that’s what happened to me yesterday. My affections leaned toward Helder, the smaller guy from Portugal, although Derek was more overtly funny. Maybe it was Helder’s red glasses or his incredible, expressive face or the way, when he was handing out cards for audience participation (though he wasn’t offering to me), and I said, “I want one,” he winked and said two magical words that everyone loves to hear: of course.

Yes, my heart went aflutter over their sleight-of-hand manipulations, illusions and the way they seamlessly wove comedy into the magic show without being too phony, precious or contrived. I liked how Helder and Derek’s rags-to-riches stories—two stories that became one—are incorporated right into the show, and how that’s exactly their point: life is really just series of happenstance. Everything we do and everyone we see, every yes and every no somehow lead us all to this. To right here, right now.

I went to the show with my boarding school friends, Melissa and Vanessa, and it was my idea but I didn’t feel too much pressure because I was backed by a great review from The New York Times. The review’s titled, “Playing With a Full Deck, and Your Head” and although a person can’t believe everything she reads in The Times, I consider it one of the more reliable news sources. (Reliable is sometimes what you want to hear.)

But The Times didn’t lie, and “Nothing to Hide” absolutely plays with your head. I mean….if you let it, but not everyone does, not everyone can, not everyone wants to. Director Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D. for those of you racking your brains) says, “There seem to be two ways to watch live magic performances: Either you try to figure out the method and must know how it’s done, or you simply enjoy it for what it’s worth and give in to the mystery of it all.” (from Playbill.)

I can be gullible, but I don’t consider mysef a total pushover. I challenge rules and protocol and depending on the day I question a lot of what I see, but when an experience makes me feel something all bets are off. Between the  laughs, gasps, and smirks, “Nothing to Hide” made me feel things.

Vanessa and I hooted and laughed our asses off, while Melissa kept a keen eye on the scene. She saw “sleeve magic” and wrists and fingers that seemed to have extra joints and reachability, and while she thought it was cool enough, she wasn’t wowed though I think she appreciated it for what it is: a show.

Any way you slice it: I loved that magic show. I shook hands with and thanked the performers in the post-show receiving line, then walked away but went back to have my card signed, then back a-gain, with Vanessa, for a picture.

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There’s a humility and gentleness to “Nothing to Hide.” Derek and Helder talk about how unusual it is in the days of IMAX, iPad, special effects and constant stimulation to even conceive of getting a group of people to spend both their money and time being tricked by two guys on a stage with a few decks of cards. But is it that we’re tricked or that we’re transported, because who can’t use a little escape from reality? The value of an hour-long, midtown vacation is greater in a time when it’s so easy to Google, “How did he do that?” and more often than not to be rewarded with a YouTube video showing exactly how the deal/trick/deception goes down.

Helder and Derek capitalize on our (human) shortcomings in their performance. They ask us, “Is this enough?” and even as they give us more and more proof we’re questioning not only what we’re seeing (or not seeing), but also why enough is never enough. They rile us up so that we’re shouting “No!” even as they’re doing everything they can to build our trust. The joke’s on us. Enough is never enough, even, as Derek said, “When your mind’s been blown out your ass.”

And then we laugh. Or most of us do…

The New York Times review starts with the author looking at the card he got during the show and kept as a memento—in his case, the five of hearts. As I reread the review this morning I had to run to my purse and pull out my playbill to confirm the name of the card stuck inside: the five of hearts.

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The five of hearts in the review and in my purse is obviously not part of Helder and Derek’s magic schtick, though the show was full of coincidences just like this. The kinds of things that make a person wonder, “What are the chances?” The kind of things that make you wonder, and isn’t that what the modern world lacks: Wonder, that beautiful marriage of admiration and surprise.

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.” –Ray Bradbury

Despite the fact that half the audience is shaking their heads and looking for the deception in every trick, Derek reminds us that we go to magic shows to remember that we “live in a world beyond what we know.” His goal as a magician is that his performances encourage people to “ask themselves deeper questions,” and I’d say he can consider himself a success.

The routine examines issues like how altered context influences meaning, and how preconception changes experiences even as they continue to evolve. Sometimes, as in this show, it’s hard to keep up with the shifts and changes. One minute you know something you didn’t know but if you’d known it then you wouldn’t have thought what you did but now you do….so.

A friend of mine was married to—and subsequently divorced from—a man who grew up in a funhouse. It was the kind of place that promises visitors the opportunity to experience an alternate energy field, distorted perceptions, and the peculiar behavior of gravity. This House of Mystery sounds like a fun place to pass an hour, but live there? Yeah, my friend hadn’t though about what it would be like to be married to a guy who grew up with distorted perceptions, wobbly floors and daily anomalies as his norm.

Distorted perceptions. It feels both judgey and assuming to even say it, because it implies “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I think it’s bad-mannered for one person to tell another that what he sees isn’t what he sees, and even more to presume you know how another person feels. But in a world riddled with airbrushing, lip-synching and Ponzi-scheming we’re just not sure who or what to trust even (or especially) when we see it with out own eyes. Ever have a bad dream that sticks with you all day?

In a lot of cases we’ve forgotten how to trust our guts, and we don’t even know how to really trust ourselves. My world these days has been complicated, but I’m pretty solid on trusting myself. I might even say that’s one of my skills, though it took a good girlfriend to point it out to me a few years ago, “Jaime Stathis knows how to take care of herself,” she said right to Jaime Stathis. It was funny, but it also made me think and feel.

I think that trusting yourself and taking care of yourself are dependent on each other, but if a person only has one half of the equation that’s okay. Stick with it and the other will come. I’m in this spot in life where I’m doing what I need to because I want to but also because I have to. There’s need, want and have all in one sentence, except that makes it seem much tidier than it is.

Walking away is always a choice, but it’s not one that’s on my menu. On the other hand, trust in each present moment is the daily special and what will undoubtedly get us through this. The other things that will get us through are love and support, both of/with each other and from the outside. I could’ve done without the family hate mail of the last week, but I’m here to tell the truth not to win people over. You either see things through a similar lens or you’re looking through the big end of the telescope. I’m not invested in making anyone see my point of view, and it’s not for lack of caring it’s just that my fryer is full of different fish.

The Village Voice write-up of Nothing to Hide says that, “They want to make magic that means something—magic that, like art or poetry, relates to the real world.” So simple, so complicated, and what most creative people want. My writing is real; it’s not magic and it’s not even close. There’s no trickery and nothing fancy. In fact, I try to lay it out as simply as possible. I’m not trying to deceive, I just describe my experiences in detail.

One part of my family doesn’t like my truth-telling, and I received a blunt suggestion to write about happy times with my grandmother, which I’ve done plenty of, but in the process of caring for her I’ve learned some things that indicate she wasn’t as happy as she let on. In a sense: she tricked us. I know it stings, but it’s important to remember that her tricks weren’t nefarious—they were simply about self-preservation. I can only imagine how exhausting it was to expend so much energy making people believe she was happy and carefree, while at night she drew on her bedsheets and tucked garbage into closets.

She’s old and I think it’s time she get some respite from the exhausting job of pretending, and with me does. She cries, tells me she’s mixed up, and then she asks me not to tell anyone. In a way I’m going against her confidence, but I know she’s not suffering further by my telling of the truth. I think if she could wrap her head around it she’d be happy that I’m trying to alleviate suffering for others by writing about the too-common struggle of being afraid to show the world yourself unmasked.

A few years ago I saw a therapist who said that none of us should feel we have to “explain ourselves like crazy.” It took me awhile to get it, and in some cases I’m still a work-in-progress. I’m not here doing magic for the 50% of my audience that thinks I’m selfish or a jerk or a liar. I’m not here to make friends, or win over relatives or convince nonbelievers of anything: I’m just here to tell the truth as I see it. I’m not going to try to explain myself to a cousin who said, “Don’t bother answering me. I don’t care what you think.” {insert door slamming sound}

I don’t know exactly how many people from that section of my family are angry about what I’ve written, but I understand that they’re more comfortable when others see things from their perspective and that they believe there’s safety in numbers.

Names were named, “What does so-and-so think?” at the time of the interrogation, but my mother and I didn’t have those answers. Some of the people who thought I was “wrong” kept it to themselves, and some who believe in me hadn’t gotten around to telling me. I wasn’t keeping score like this is game of tic-tac-toe.

This is so not about a score; it’s about being human. One way to feel completely human is to laugh and connect, and after a day of laughs and tricks with old girlfriends I came home to a package from someone I think of as an uncle although he’s Mimi’s cousin. Jimmy’s son Michael was close like a son to my grandfather, but he died in 9/11 in his civilian clothes after he boarded Engine 33 at his East Village firehouse although he was off-duty.

Jimmy and I’ve become closer in the past few years, and although he has a big family of his own, he always finds the time to send me notes of encouragement and care packages with books, hats, candy and scratch-off tickets. My family is big on scratch-offs. In the early days of my blog he wrote to me almost every time I posted to support me and cheer me on. After I eulogized my grandfather Jimmy’s wife Barbara grabbed me in the church vestibule and told me that I’m “Our family’s version of Anne Lamott.” She she said it as if this was a good thing and not something to be afraid of, and it was absolutely one of the best writing compliments I’ve ever received.

Jimmy’s package contained a beautiful note where he said how much he loves his cousin (Mimi) and how my blog post was “one of the most loving and moving pieces of literature” he’s ever read. {These are generous folks…} He also enclosed a book by Maureen Corrigan “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books.” Jimmy knows this is a book I’d love, but it also happens that the author lived in the same building where Jimmy was raised which is exactly two blocks from where I sit now.

But Jimmy’s P.S. was the best: 

I knew Frank McCourt before he wrote Angela’s Ashes and he got some reaction from his family— don’t let it upset you.

Thanks, Jimmy. Case closed. Tonight I’m going to lose myself in a book. And maybe a little magic.

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