On flights, and flights of fancy

I’m in the aisle seat waiting for the plane to fill so we can leave Phoenix.

While I can’t understand how 700 tons of metal can zoom through the air without suddenly plunging earthward and erupting into a giant fireball, I’m not afraid of flying. That’s probably due to my amazing gifts of denial coupled with my love of travel. And let’s face it, since the days of the Conestoga wagon are long gone, if you want to see the country, the only ways to do it are by plane or the Travel Channel.

Besides, to me, airports provide as much entertainment as a carnival sideshow — often for the same reasons. At the least, I always get an eyeful. And while waiting in that plane, when I looked down the aisle, I got two eyefuls.

Headed up the aisle was a woman about my age and height, but that’s all we had in common.

Her hair was a huge wild squirrel’s nest, and a shade of red that’s never occurred in nature. We’ve all heard the phrase about a hair color that “came out of the bottle,” but not hers. If it came out of anything, it was in Wayne Darrah’s body shop — from a can of paint labeled “Fire Truck Red.”

Then there were her eyes. They were a blazing electric green, clearly the product of contact lenses.

And between her hair and eyes, perhaps as a line of demarcation, was a 3-inch-wide gold lame hairband.

Finally, she was wrapped in a multi-hued embroidered silk caftan.

All these elements combined to make her look like she’d just come back from a failed tryout for the seraglio.

She stopped beside me.

“That,” she announced, pointing a cobalt-blue, 3-inch fingernail at the seat next to me, “is mine.”

“Right-o,” I said as I stood up. “And left toe, too.”

She looked at me, down the length of her perfect nose, clearly the product of a surgeon’s skill rather than generations of superior breeding. She held that look long enough to register her opinion of me, which in a word, was infra dig.

Infra dig is a hifalutin way of saying “loser.” But I’m sure she’d never use the word “loser” because to her it’s a word used only, of course, by losers.

OK, I thought to myself, looks like all conversation is 86ed for this flight.

Which was fine by me since I always have books with me. The one I took from my pack was “Stars of Magic.” It’s a classic collection of sleight-of-hand, chock-full of killer routines by magic’s all-time greats.

Miss Thing took out a book as well, and I figured that was that. If only I’d been so lucky.

Just as I started my third reading of a John Scarne coin trick, that cobalt-blue fingernail tapped the top of the page.

“‘Stars of Magic’?” she said. “Are you a magician?”

I said I was.

“So do you do real magic?” she said. “Or just illusions?”

I bristled.

“Real magic?” I said. “Like vanishing an aircraft carrier bare-handed and then pulling it out of your ear?”

I paused to let that sink in, then went on.

“I can’t do that yet,” I said. “But I’m working on it. I did it with a minesweeper last week, and by next week I’ll do it with a destroyer.”

She said nothing, nor did she have to — her sneer said it all.

Real magic versus just illusion. JUST illusion?

When she turned back to her book, I sneaked a peak at its title. “Thirty Days to Astral Travel.”

Real magic? I thought. As opposed to real bumpf?

What you see is more than what you get

I mulled over her comment a bunch, thinking one bitter thought after another, till I finally got the whole shmeer out of my system. And when I did, as often happens when reason replaces resentment, I understood something I’d never even considered before, namely that all art involves illusion.

Take painting, for example. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” — no night ever looked like that. And no sunflowers ever looked like his sunflowers either — at least not in a literal sense.

Even Vermeer’s paintings, which are as realistic as oil paintings ever are, aren’t realistic in a photographic sense.

So are photographs realistic? Well, in the case of Ansel Adams, not at all. Yeah, he photographs landscapes, but it isn’t like he just whipped out his Brownie Kodak and snapped away. He had a special landscape camera, he waited till just the right moment, and I’m sure he did all kinds of darkroom fiddling to end up with a picture that captured something we could never see with our eyes, no matter how long or hard we looked.

How about music? There’s no illusion there, right? Wrong. I can read the lyrics to “Danny Boy” a hundred times, and while I appreciate them, they don’t move me. On the other hand, let me listen to Eva Cassidy sing it, and I better have a box of Kleenex within reach.

So what, then, is illusion? Good question, and one for which I’m not sure I have a simple answer. I don’t think it is seeing what’s not there, so much as feeling more than what’s there. It’s not a visual thing, so much as an emotional one.

With magic, people think illusions are about fooling people, but it’s not. There’s no art to fooling people — just look at politicians, televangelists, faith healers, celebrity endorsements, and on and on and on. They fool people as a matter of course, but there’s hardly an art to it. It’s just a matter of having a good BS line and no conscience.

But that’s why magic is an art. Everyone realizes the magician deals in deception (which, sadly, they don’t realize about the politicians, et al), yet what the magician gives their audience isn’t mere deception or dexterity and patter. Instead, it’s the delight of traveling to a dreamworld you can’t get to any other way.

Ultimately, though, I think the art with the greatest power of illusion is writing.

Remember that woman who sat next to me on that plane? How could you forget? She was a real piece of work, with her freaky hair and eye color, her spacey reading matter, and her uber-snotty manner. Yet where does she exist? Nowhere — except in your mind. And that’s due only to a bunch of little black marks on a piece of paper.

And if that isn’t magic of the highest order, then you tell me what is.


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