Saturday, August 6, 2011


Presto is a flash—the very essence of spontaneity, the profound magic of the “instant” when something shifts. Presto says “magic is in the air. Do not try to figure it out; you cannot. It is the power of the unknown at work, and something special is about to happen.” The word itself begs to be spoken quickly, as if without thinking. Truly spontaneous speech is when the thought and the word are identical, like unselfconscious singing in the bathtub. We capture that energy when we jump outside ourselves with “courage and humor and openness and perspective and carelessness, in the sense of burning your mental bridges behind you, outreaching yourself.” When a magician says presto in such a spontaneous way, the air is electric and his spectators are transfixed, astounded. Presto is the moment that will be etched in their memories, because it is the moment they opened up to the possibility of the impossible. Upon speaking the word presto, even the magician’s mouth is open in amazement.

Presto is the moment when legends are born. Brandon Bays recalls such a moment while seeing ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House. “[T]here was a moment when it seemed as if time stood still. It was as if Nureyev reached into the depths of his soul—into genius itself. He leaped into the air, and his legs spread into a full split; then, for a moment, it was as if he lifted even higher—as if he was practically floating in the air.” Presto moments happen often in the world of sports, as when a bat sends a ball soaring. That “whack” is the presto that brings everything to a standstill, “and in that gap of absolute silence the soul flashes forth—an immensity revealing itself . . . a presence of vastness . . . a greatness that can’t be explained . . . and then whack!—ball hit, hair standing on end. Something great had revealed itself in that tiny instant. One heart, one breath, hair on end. We’d dropped into the ‘Gap’ for an instant and this vast truth had, in a flash, revealed itself.” What is that vast truth? Bay suggests that it’s the same as Nureyev’s inner genius: our own greatness flashes forth, we see ourselves in the mirror, we remember our own magic, and ripples of joy spread through the audience. The magic of those presto moments is what sweeps people up for a standing ovation. No wonder presto is such a popular magic word. It’s the magic wand blooming into a bouquet. It’s the miracle of levitation. It’s every special effect that’s especially affective. It’s smoke and mirrors in a nutshell.

(See our dictionary of magic words for the footnotes to the above passage.)

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