Friday, July 11, 2008

Pulling Back the Curtain

When I was a child, I used to love going to carnivals. The sounds, sights, and smells of the midway drew me in. Perhaps it is because children love flashing lights, loud noises, and junk food, but I was always drawn to it.
My first carnival was not even really a carnival. It was a street fair that my father took me to in New York. They still had games, they still had vendors, and there were some rides, but there was also dancing, music, and culture. They were very happy times I spent with my father. He eating his chocolate, popcorn, and ice cream (all which he was not supposed to eat), and me running around, riding on the rides, and playing the various games.
And yet, as an adult and a parent, I returned to a carnival for the first time, yesterday, and it was quite a horrifying experience. Not that anything really bad happened, but that I saw what the carnival really was as opposed to what I thought it to be.
As a child, I really enjoyed rides. Roller coasters, spinning wheels, and more. I particularly liked the ride where you sat in a chair/swing, and got spun around really fast. That was awesome. I could not imagine anyone disliking it. This was particularly seen for me when I went to Disney World as a child with my mother. There was a ride where you went up in a tower and climbed into a faux airplane. As the tower spun around, you could lower and raise the airplane as you wished. My mother went with me on the ride as my father was not there, and my aunt, extremely diabetic and disabled, could not do it. My mother, unfortunately, has an extreme fear of heights. However, I did not know this at the time. Thus, whenever made the plane climb and fall, I was not aware that my mother's screaming was because of fear. I thought she was having as much fun as I was.
And yet, after my car accident, I found that rides are not as much fun for me anymore (this could also have to do with the fact that the last few times I have been on a roller coaster, something bad has happened). Most of the time it is because my equilibrium is off, and so instead of enjoying the rush, my head begins to pound and spin. Not pleasant.
So there I was, at the carnival with my son, my neighbor, and his son, and the boys wanted to go on rides.
"I'm not doing it," my neighbor says. This means it's up to me. The first ride was simple: a merry-go-round. Neither of the boys had been on one, so I put my neighbor's son on a horse, and sat on a bench with my son (he's not ready for the horses just yet). They loved it. It was like magic for them. I, however, had water pour down on me from a hole in the top, and I noticed how incredibly rundown the ride was. It used to be beautiful, but so much use and lack of caring had made it inglorious. Paint chipped, a few horses broken, and some seats missing. And yet, this is the kind of thing that a child will ignore. They won't remember the broken and bad. My son saw a horse today in a picture book and said, "Merry-go-round!" He was so excited about it.
We went on other rides as well (mostly spinning), but I was shocked at how badly kept most of the rides were. Several "cars" of the "Indy Racing" ride were broken. The dinosaur ride was smashed, but still set up. "Your son can sit in the Triceratops," I was told, "but it won't go anywhere."
There sat my son, Little Ironic, in a Triceratops, saying, "Go, dinosaur, GO!"
Like I said before, I don't really enjoy the rides anymore, but my neighbor wouldn't go, and the boys needed an adult to ride "The Spinning Bears". You know this ride: you sit in a bear with a wheel. As the ride goes around, you turn around the wheel faster and faster to make the bear spin. I took the boys and did that ride, and I felt like my mother with my at Disney World. Even though my head hurt, I spun the bear so the boys would be happy.
The other part of the carnival is, of course, the games. Now I have been on to this aspect for years. My father used to clue me in on how to beat the Carnies at their own game. For example: If you try to knock the milk jugs down by just throwing at the bottom, it won't go. You have to hit the middle.
You like the rings? You need a good toss as the ring is just barely bigger than the top of the bottle.
Toss a ball on a cup? Ok, you need spin and to aim away from where you want to land.
Most carnivals don't have the machine guns anymore, but the street fairs had the paper target stars and guns that shot metal BBs. Destroy the star completely, win a prize. My father taught me to shot once or twice before opening up. Why? Because the sights are off. You figure out which way it's cocked...then open it up. Carnies hated him. Now they hate me.
When I was kid, I loved the dart booth. You got to pop balloons by throwing darts at them, AND you won a prize. No matter what, they gave you something. That was awesome. However, with age comes wisdom, and now the dart booth has lost it's luster through experience.
In high school, I took a girlfriend and some other friends to a local carnival. There was a big bear that she fancied at the dart booth. I thought, "Ok, I'll win her the bear while she and her friend are getting caricatures." I went to the booth, paid my two bucks, went to the farthest line, popped the balloons... and was handed a tiny frog.
"Wait, I stood behind the farthest line," I protested.
"Yes, you did," Carnie Carl tells me, "but you have to win two mediums to make a large. Two larges to make an extra large, and two extra larges to make Benny the Bear here."
"So I have to play seven more times?" I ask.
"And win, sir," Carl yells. You can do it.
It was at this point that games started to make sense to me. It wasn't about skill or luck as many people think it is. Sure, sometimes you get lucky. I went to fair when I was nine and won a pearl by picking the one clam that had one in it. That was luck. However the "Duck" game is not luck. It's about playing over and over.
I turned to Carl and said, "If I give you 25 bucks, can I pop three balloons, take the big bear, and give it to my girl?"
Carl turned to me and smiled, "Well, well, well. A man who understands the game. Sure, kid."
So I got to impress my girlfriend and give her a big bear. A win-win...for 25 dollars.
Fast-forward to last night. Once again I went against my better judgement and played some of the games. First up was the "Pick the Color" game. Color squares are strewn around the booth. You put a quarter on what you think will win and get a prize (a bear or whatever). I chose Pumpkin...because it was where I was standing. My son, while the wheel is spinning, picks up the quarter and shows it to the carnie. He smiles. "You have a cute kid," he says. "Thanks," I reply. The ball lands on "Pumpkin", and I feel very smart...but I don't win the carnie explains. "Your cute kid picked up the quarter."
"You saw it," I replied. "He's two. He likes shiny. Come on!"
"Nope. You lose."
My son smiles as the frog he is pointing at dances above him, but he can't have it.
Slightly angry, I move on to the games I know how to beat. "Goblet Toss." You put a ball on a colored goblet and get a prize. Different colors mean different sizes. Yellow is best and hardest, but my father taught me how to win, so I spin a ball on to yellow.
"Daaaaaamn," Mountain Dew Carnie says. "Ooook." He hands my son a frog.
"How'd you do that?" my neighbor asks.
"Easy," I reply not thinking first. "It's all about spin."
MDC stops. "You're a fucking ringer! Hey, we got a ringer!" he yells to the other booths.
Suddenly the guy at the Milk Jug Toss stares at me and boos. BOOS!
"Dude!" I yell. "Kids present. Watch the swearing."
I'm told I can't play the game anymore. "No. I won't sell to you," MDC says.
The only booth open to me? The Dart Booth. My son sees a purple raccoon and gets excited.
"What do I need to do to win the raccoon?" I ask the female carnie.
"Stand behind that line," she says indicating the farthest line, "Pop six balloons, and trade in the frog."
"Can I just give you ten bucks?" I ask remembering the last time I played the Dart Booth.
"No, Mr. Ringer. Behind the line. Money first."
I won my son that raccoon. Did it with a few of the other operators starin and STILL booing me.
And yet I don't think my son understands what happened to me. He just saw the balloons pop and cheered. He laughed. He hugged the raccoon all the way home last night. To him, this will be a happy memory of lights, smells, and sounds. He'll remember playing with his buddy on the rides and watching daddy throw darts.
That is the exact idea behind life as a child versus as an adult. When you're a kid, magic and wonder still exist. As an adult, because of experiences and understanding and knowledge, the wonder and magic are gone.
Take a magic trick: (ILLUSIONS, Michael!)
As a kid, you watch the woman get sawed in half, and you think, "WOW! She is in half." Then she's put back together and you marvel at what you've seen.
As an adult, you wonder how hard it was to find a second person who has legs like the assistant's. You know how the trick works, so you compare to the last time you saw it and talk about who did it better.
Another way to look at it is when you do a craft or a job that is like a craft. I can design lighting. Before I learned how to do this, I would marvel at theatre experiences that dealt with color and shadow. Now, with the knowledge and experience I have, I find myself saying, "Why that color? Roscolux 23 would have been more saturated." I have become what Brecht always hoped for: alienated from becoming part of the experience.

The more knowledge, understanding, and experience a person gains, the less a person can be impressed by the world. It's a sad state, but when you realize this, you know you're becoming an adult.
As a child, I hugged Donald Duck. I always liked Donald more than Mickey. Maybe it's because Donald's temper reminded me of my father. Maybe it was the way he sounded. Maybe I identified with him. I don't know, but I liked him alot. So I hugged him, and I believed it was really him.
Now, I know I just hugged a person in a suit. The illusion is gone. I even know how to make a suit like that, which is really sad.
I saw this idea with my son when we took him to "meet" Thomas the Tank Engine for his second birthday. He saw Thomas (this one, unlike other places, was not a functioning engine other than moving eyes and steam peeps), and talked to the engine as if it were real. He told it, "I like Thomas," which is about as close as he gets right now as saying, "I love you." As Thomas pulled out to take the group after us for their ride, a child next to my son started bawling. He believed that Thomas wouldn't come back. He was so into believing that little engine was Thomas that its pulling away left a hole in his heart. When he's an adult and he sees the video his parents made of him crying, he will laugh at it and say, "How could I have been so stupid?"
And the saddest part, for me, are the Carnies. I never really looked at them when I was a child, but they are very unhappy. This is their lot in life, and most hate it. The guy who ran the "Indy Racing" ride was wasted. He even lit up a joint while operating the ride. No one said anything because he was functioning fine. Some of his compadres, however, were not doing so well. The Basketball guy was so drunk, he couldn't stand up. He told the winners which prizes to choose without ever standing up. Again, my son won't think about that. He'll just remember the lights and laughing.
It is quite sad to me that as we grow up, we lose that ability to be shocked and awed. We begin to think more about the consequences of actions and though we can live in the moment, we KNOW we'll pay for it.
So, dear reader, remember and think on this as you go forth in the world. The moment you know someone is behind the curtain, and you pull it back...that is the moment you are no longer a child.
When I was younger, carnivals were these wonderful havens of fun and frolicing. Now, I see them as a sad bastion of people desperate for money. Sure, it's wonderful for my child, and I hope he holds on to that wonder for a long time (I began to understand logic when I was five, and it made life difficult).
It will only get worse as you get older, too. As a child, magic exists. As an adult, you know how the trick works and can do it. As an older person, you can explain it, but your body (and sometimes mind) begins to betray you, and you long for that time when you could do the trick. You even long for the time when you didn't know how it worked.
It is ironic, however, that as kids, we desperately want to be adults, and as adults, we envy (and sometimes wish) we were kids.
And don't tell your children how the trick works...not yet anyway. Let them believe that magic exists, because it's good for our souls.
Of course, what do I know? I'm a Carnie's worst nightmare: a broke ringer. I could be wrong.