Kage Baker said often that life was both more beautiful and more horrible than we are told as children. Also, more interesting, if you pay attention to its oddities. She usually told this to children who were going boneless with ennui, complaining loudly that they had nothing to do and were booooored …
“You can’t be bored! The world is full of fascinating things!” she would tell them sternly. “Look at me, I haven’t been bored in 40 years!”
“But that’s because you’re interesting,” our nieces and nephews would whine.
“Sit up and I’ll teach you to play gin,” Kage would say, and would proceed to do so while spinning tales of outrageous things we had done in our teens and twenties.
It was true, though: Kage was interesting in and of herself. She was so interesting, and her stories were so grand, it usually took a dozen games of gin before the niece or nephew noticed that she never lost. Then they usually chalked it up to getting distracted by her tales (driving through the Hills on the wrong side of the street, pretending we were in England; the time Grandma saw a UFO; the time a UFO saw Kage): especially when they were little, and she would throw occasional games to prevent juvenile tears and despair.
But actually, Kage just never lost at gin. She rarely lost at poker, of any variety. Or whist, War or Fish. Or bridge, although she detested it; she couldn’t keep score and was a lousy dummy, but still she won. I myself gave up playing cards with her 20-odd years agone, when she started drawing pat hands of 11-card gin while I was the dealer. How can this be? you may well ask. I do not know, Dear Readers: I only know it happened.
But the kids loved playing cards with her, watching her long clever hands shuffle and deal. Kage was double-jointed in most her fingers, and shuffled like a pro. She always had a burning desire to be able to make a gambler’s rose, which is a way of fanning out a whole deck of cards in your hands. She practiced and practiced as a kid, and sprayed a lot of cards around – but in her adulthood she mastered it, to the delight of many small children.
She loved card tricks, magic tricks, sleight of hand. She never learned many, though, because of the vision problem that left her intermittently blind in one eye: a slightly botched surgery for strabismus when she was two left her with one eye permanently off-center. By adolescence, her brain had compensated for non-stereoscopic vision by blocking the input from her left eye most of the time. If she closed either eye, the other one worked well enough. But if she kept them both open, the vision on the left sort of – blinked in and out, was how she described it.
Most of the time, she also appeared slightly wall-eyed, which was why she rarely looked strangers in the face. She was tremendously sensitive about it; you knew she trusted you if she would look at you. If both her eyes were looking straight at you, though, it meant she had a migraine – and what she was seeing then was anyone’s guess anyway, as the sensory scrambling was intense for her.
But she adored sleight of hand, and liked to acquire small pre-packaged “tricks” – she was a devotee of the Hollywood Toy Store, and that magic shop on Main Street at Disneyland. She had to keep buying new ones all her life, since she lost them when she was a kid and then gave them away to other kids when she was an adult. So she kept an endless string of things like The Disappearing Coin and The Egg In The Cup tricks on her desk, and dazzled every little child she knew. I found the last Egg In The Cup when I cleaned out her desk …
Ah, that hurts to remember. But it’s good to recall that Kage had magic in her hands and eyes, and that she was absolutely right about the nature of the world. It’s more horrible, and yet so much more beautiful, than we suspect. We have to rely on people who know – people like Kage – to tell us.