The Unexpected: Dogs, Flying Wieners, and the Performance of Magic

Magician and mentalist Jose Ahonen has an interesting hobby: performing magic for dogs. In one series of videos he is seen offering dog biscuits to a variety of dogs, only to have the treats magically disappear from his hands. In the video above, the magic is even more blatant. A wiener, evidently quite appealing to the dogs, is made to levitate.

It’s an amusing video, but it brings up some fascinating issues about magic, intelligence, animals, perception, and finally, the implications for performance.

The dogs are aware that something out of the usual is happening. The dogs react with what I would describe as distress at that moment of realization. Though there are several different responses, the responses are different from those they would give if they were simply chasing a bird or insect. The dogs know something is awry–wieners are not supposed to be flying! The dogs jump, bark, look around, stand still. They have an expectation of how the world is supposed to work, and this doesn’t fit into it.

Magicians can learn from this video. It helps to explain the reactions that some spectators have to magic. When expectation about the basic rules of the workings of the world are violated, it can be very disturbing. The magician has shown some strong magic. Would the dogs react that way to a card trick like Sam the Bellhop? This is an experiment I don’t think we need to do. We have a neat little way of determining the strongest magic: just ask ourselves, how would a dog react?

But let’s get back to that distress. If the dogs are distressed, then on some level, the human spectators to magic must also feel distressed. They will try to assuage that distress with rationality, joking, hostility, laughter, submission. If the magician does not somehow attend to these feelings, then the whole enterprise can have a feel of sadistic fun for the magician and the rest of the audience, at the expense of the spectator. While watching the video, I felt very uncomfortable with the laughter of the human audience at the bewilderment of the dog. It’s socially acceptable to laugh at animals; but there must be some of the same happening, unexpressed, among human audiences as well.

How do we get around this feeling? Some suggestions. First, the magician must always be very, very kind to the spectator. Second, the context must read, “game” and “play.” It’s socially permissible to play a game where we get the advantage of another person. It’s not socially permissible in real life to take advantage of a stranger. Third, the rest of the audience must feel as bewildered as the spectator. This way they cannot feel one up on the spectator. Some will disagree with me, but that is why I don’t like effects such as Paper Balls Over the Head, where everyone in the audience except the chosen spectator can see how the effect is done. They put the spectator in a much inferior position to the rest of the audience. Fifth, the agency for the magic can, from time to time, be put into the spectator’s hands. That is, the magic happened because the spectator performed the magic actions by saying the magic word, or waving the magic wand. Last, and most important, the magician’s reaction to the magic helps to cue the audience and spectator how to feel. If the magician shows delighted surprise or charmed astonishment at the outcome of the effect, s/he is training the audience to feel and model those positive emotions, rather than distress, when confronted with the unexpected.

Well, that’s funny. I didn’t know that I would end up here in this discussion, but I’m glad I did. How unexpected: Magic as a way of helping us cope with the fear of the unexpected. Maybe that’s magic’s unique contribution as an art.

She Was Only Sixteen Years Old…

Bob Brydon and Steve Coogan, play two competitive actors who take a trip together, ostensibly as restaurant reviewers, in an improbably entertaining and wonderfully aimless movie, The Trip.

Breathing Room


I hate what I’m writing. But I’m writing. My job is not to like it or not like it. My job is to write it.

This is novel number two. While number one is out for feedback, I’ve been working on number two. That was my New Years resolution. Eight hundred words, four times a week. In six months that’s about 80,000 words. That’s an average-sized novel.

But I hate it so far. It doesn’t breathe at all. I’m not excited. Why? Because early on, while working on the first novel, I was outlining this new one. I had a very specific idea in mind. This, unlike the first one, is going to be a mystery/ thriller, and I did some extensive outlining. I basically had written a synopsis of every scene in the book, and because the setting bounces back between the present and the past, I did a lot of historical research. I thought I was prepared to write.

But I write and everything seems terribly cliched and lifeless. I’m not enjoying doing this. It feels like plodding, plodding. It’s a mountain of gruel on my plate, staring me in the face.

When I started writing the first novel, I had no idea what it was going to be. i just wrote. Each day, I barely looked back at what I had written. I never knew what was going to come out. My first draft was basically a series of character sketches. I didn’t even know how the characters related to each other. Eventually, a few drafts later, I found out who they were to each other, but it was surprise after surprise for me.

But now. No surprises. The language is wooden, the characters are wooden, even as they fulfill the demands of the plot. Ughh.

I interviewed the excellent actor Roger Guenveur Smith a few months ago. I asked him to say what the most important thing was that he knew about acting. He barely hesitated, and said: The Breath. Breathing. That’s the source. And more and more, when I watch actors, that’s now my number one criterion. Whatever else it is, for god’s sake, be alive. I don’ t care how technically good it is, so much as that the thing breathes. In a world where everything is roboticized, it seems like our imperative is to breathe.

When I first learned to edit audio for radio production, I was enamored of the way that the editing software could cut out the imperfections, the umms and errs, the wanderings of thought. An interview could be edited together from raw audio and appear seamless. But the more I do this, the more I understand that the danger is that the edits can be too perfect. You can edit so tightly, that no breath is taken before the next thought. It will sound seductively perfect, but there’s no play in the voice, and eventually it registers as mechanical and lifeless. The listener might not even be aware on a conscious level what the problem is, but the voice will sound canned, like an answering machine message. I learned that even if you are cutting from one paragraph to another in a person’s speech, you have to leave in the breath to connect them.

So my problem now is, how do I allow breath back into my writing process? On the one hand, I don’t want to be judging myself as I write. Not in this phase of the writing. I’m just trying to get out the words, any words. But I need to let in some air or it’s going to drive me crazy. I’m making some progress. I wrote about digressions once before. So now, while writing in this phase, I’m allowing myself to digress for the slightest reason and not let it bother me. I know that, eventually, I will get back to my outline template.

It’s like doing improv acting. There’s a classic improv exercise where the audience gives the actors the first and last lines of the scenes,  and the actors must improv everything else in between. It sound difficult–how do you know that you will end up where you need to be for the last line? But the secret to doing it well is to not worry about where you are going to end up. Your unconscious will get you there if you keep going. You just need to trust that you will arrive there in its own good time.

As a writer, I have even more of an out than the improv actor. The actor feels the pressure to be interesting for the audience’s sake. But the writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience yet. I can let the breath go, and I can go where it takes me. If, in the end, it doesn’t go to an interesting place, and it doesn’t fulfill its other obligations, then I can revise –when the time for revision comes.

But for now, my obligation is only to write eight hundred words. In the breathing room, I can play as I wish.

Gotta Ha-Ha-Ha Every Day

King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks face Mondays head-on.

King Pleasure was one of the forefathers of vocalese in the early 1950s, and this song was originally an instrumental by Stan Getz. For a while, in my twenties, I played this over and over every morning. Especially Mondays.

The Prosecution of An American President

Yesterday, WBAI radio broadcast my interview with Charles Manson prosecutor and Helter Skelter author, Vincent Bugliosi. We talked about his most recent film, The Prosecution of An American President.  The interview turned contentious, and he all but called me an idiot. Good times! You can listen by clicking on the orange button above.

“I Ain’t Wearin’ No Pants Today”

Your intrepid investigative reporter Jack Shalom covered the 2015 No Pants Subway Ride. Here is the report and interview I filed that was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program WBAI 99.5 FM NY. Click the big orange button above to listen.

Pinin’ for the Fjords: Monty Python

One rainy night in the 1970s, I ducked into a local bar. There was the usual crowd of cops, firemen, and unemployed ex-graduate students. Their eyes were glued to the television over the bar.  But they were not watching football or baseball, but the strangest–and maybe funniest– comedy show ever to hit the American shores. I was an instant fan. We were not in Kansas anymore.

Outs, Precautions, and Challenges


Every magician has been faced with the situation where the plans go wrong; say, the spectator is supposed to put the card back in a special spot, for the trick to work, but the spec doesn’t. Or maybe someone particularly ornery grabs the deck and shuffles it up before the magician gets to do his magic juju. What’s a magician to do and still save face?

There’s a little booklet for card magicians called Outs, Precautions, and Challenges. It’s not that well known, and it’s very incomplete, but the thing I love most about it, is its title. Charles Hopkins, the author, saw a need and rushed in to fill it. Mr. Hopkins’s book is a little first aid kit for magicians.  Let’s take a little tour of its taxonomy.

First is the section on Outs. “Out,” as in find a way “out” of the mess I’m in. The prepared magician knows that there will always be times when things can go awry, and so s/he prepares by having alternate endings in case something goes wrong. Let’s say the magician is about to produce the spectator’s card from his or her shoe, and then realizes at the last moment that the card stuffed in the shoe is not the spectator’s card. Here’s where the magician uses an “out.” Rather than aborting the trick, the magician, surreptitiously or not so surreptitiously, obtains the name of the chosen card from the spectator. Then the magician finishes the effect by, say, producing the card from a pocket instead of the shoe. The spectator has no idea that the effect has gone wrong. Though the effect was not the one originally planned, the magician has not been embarrassed, and the spec is sufficiently entertained.

Hopkins likes to frame this kind of denouement by saying that the magician has won the battle of wits. Magicians nowadays, however, consider that kind of phraseology a little bit too aggressive; it’s like snapping your fingers on the beat, as Duke Ellington once said.

Next are the Precautions. The well-tempered magician, knowing that Murphy’s Law is proved anew everyday  (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” and O’Toole’s corollary: “Murphy was an optimist”), seeks advance preparation. The thoughtful magician has not just a series of outs prepared for when things go wrong, but also has taken precaution to make sure that outs aren’t needed in the first place. So, for example, even before a spectator returns the chosen card to the deck, the magician makes sure to surreptitiously learn its identity. This way, the magician doesn’t have to worry if the card accidentally gets lost in the deck. Or even better, unknown to the spectator, the magician arranges that the card that the spectator “chooses” is a predetermined one. These magical prophylactics insure that there are no unpleasant surprises in the near future.

Finally, there are the Challenges. Because for some spectators, magic is not just the appreciation of the impossible, but is a battle of wits, the magician must always be prepared for challenges. There will always be that participant whose attitude is, “Okay, Magic Maestro, you found my card in your pocket, but can you make it fly to my pocket?” Now, despite whatever previous miracles and wonders the magician has wrought in the past five minutes, the magician will look like a Mook if s/he doesn’t have a way to answer the challenge. What’s a magician to do? The magician can’t possibly anticipate every challenge presented by a clever spectator. This is where the magical artists are at their most devious. The accomplished magician actually steers the spectator into choosing the challenge most advantageous for the magician.

Hopkins is a little sketchy on this, but there is another wonderful book called Card Fictions by Pit Hartling that goes into brilliant detail about Challenges. One of Hartling’s suggestions, for example, is the following: Suppose the magician does the Card to Pocket effect, where the spectator’s chosen card lands in the magician’s pocket. The magician must now lead the spectator into challenging the magician towards a specific direction. But it must be done subtly and indirectly. For the magician to declare the intention explicitly would be gauche. No, the magician must make it seem as if it were totally the spectator’s idea. Ideally, the magician would proceed as follows.

The magician offers to repeat the effect of card to pocket. Only this time, the magician steps away from the deck on the table and says, “Now I will do something even more difficult. I will make the card fly to any pocket!” As the magician says this, s/he gestures towards the spectator’s pocket and then quickly says “I mean, this one or that one,” but now pointing towards the magician’s own pockets. Thus, the magician with the first part of the sentence communicated that the card could fly to the spectator’s pocket, but then with the second part of the sentence clarified that it was only the magician’s own pocket that was meant. The trap is set. The ornery spectator cannot help but jump at the misunderstanding–okay, Houdini, let’s see you make the card jump into my pocket! The magician protests that there was a misunderstanding. The spectator insists. The magician, like Br’er Rabbit jumps into the briar patch. There’s no fear, because long beforehand, maybe even during a previous trick, a duplicate card had been loaded into the spec’s jacket pocket.

Game, set, and match.

Outs Precautions, and Challenges. A dandy set of concepts. It helps one understand  the sage advice of the gambler in Guys and Dolls:

“One day, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider. ”

So said Sky Masterson who had an out for everything, but falling in love.

Poem: Paths


Not the trains,

But the broken ties

Of the abandoned railway.


Not the highway,

But the trails, overgrown, buried

under rotted trees.


The derailments of an unplanned life.

The wanderings of an uncompassed hike.


Too late now for Romeo,

I hunt the tracks beneath the rust

The path beneath the brush.


Walking up the pebbled driveway

To your white new door

Empty hands,

This beating heart,

A cup of breath.

The Cheekiest Magician in the World: Derren Brown

Magicians: catch what Derren says at 3:55-4:00. It’s total cheek. Magicians will hear Derren say, if they listen very carefully, exactly how the trick is done. Derren says the name of a trick that’s known to all magicians. He’s winking at magicians and saying, “See–I can take that old trick and dress it up so that you can barely recognize it.”

And the rest of us can just enjoy watching a magician who can take a standard effect and make a performance piece out of it. It’s what makes Derren Brown so watchable.

Michael Potato

Because: waste not, want not;

Because: the Indians used every part of the buffalo;

Because: children are starving in China;

I took a scene that I had to cut out from the last draft of my novel in progress, The Longest Winter of Holly Walker, and recorded it as its own little set piece. It was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express program on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. You can listen to the audio as it was broadcast by clicking on the orange button above.


With the Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason created one of the first television comedies of working class life. It may also be the best. The glorious talents of Art Carney and Audrey Meadows created an irreplaceable ensemble. Audrey Meadows’s characterization of Alice, a loving woman with a steel core, was Gleason’s perfect foil.

Here’s a classic scene that fans rank as one of their all-time favorites.

Surreal Apocalypse: Part 2

Cartoonist Brian Douglas continues with part 2 of his animated interpretation of the stage combat scene from Marisol in which I performed. Not only is he a talented artist, but he makes his acting debut in a Hitchcockian cameo appearance . . . Part 1 can be found here.

The No Pants Subway Ride

If there’s anything more wonderful than a well thought-out prank, it’s a well thought-out prank that involves thousands and thousands of people. Your intrepid reporter is here to give you the skinny on the recent New York No Pants Subway Ride. The basic idea is this. New Yorkers of all ages, genders, and colors enter a subway car on a cold winter day, and one by one take off their pants. Now the beauty of this is, that they act as if they are doing nothing unusual, and they continue their normal subway activities, that is, reading, texting, looking at the subway map, but all the while they are without their pants.

This prank was organized by a group called Improv Everywhere and it has been an annual thing, and has grown to be an international prank having been done in 60 cities in 25 countries around the world. In New York, people were organized according to what borough they were coming from. I interviewed, on assignment for WBAI radio, a group of eager No-Panters, including a young couple named Hannah and Mark, standing in a park in 32 degree weather. They were preparing to receive instructions from the Improv coordinator and then to head towards the subway to de-pant. They discussed their fears and excitement, and I’ll post the radio segment next week.

But, in the interest of hard-hitting investigative reporting, I also de-panted. I had bought myself a brand new pair of lime green boxers for the occasion. If it’s not too much information, I’m usually a brief, not a boxer guy, but I was too shy to wear briefs, being a No- Pants Subway Ride virgin.

The brilliance of Improv everywhere’s plan was in the details. Here’s how it worked. We all headed to the R train and about 25 of us were assigned per subway car. At the first stop, 1 person would take off their pants and get off and stand on the platform in the same place. Then another person would do the same at the next stop. At the third stop, 2 people would de-pant, at the fourth stop 4 people would undress, at the fifth stop 8 people, and at the next stop, everyone else who was left took off their pants and stood on the platform.

Then everyone would get on the next train to arrive. Now see if you can picture in your minds the genius of this strategy. First of all, riders on the first train, would get an increasing dose of craziness as more and more people, perhaps the people who had been sitting next to them, took off their pants. But the truly great part was what would happen on the next train. Because if you picture it from the point of view of the riders on the oncoming train, at the first stop they see one person get on pantless, then another pantless person at the next stop, but then 2 people get on without pants, then 4, then 8, and it’s like an hallucination coming to life.

So I was assigned to take off my pants at the fifth stop. I was wearing a suit and tie. Since people were getting off at the first four stops, the woman sitting next to me and I exchanged glances over these strange misbehaving pants shuckers. When I started to take off my pants, she gave out a loud, Oh, No. I stuck my pants in my back pack and got off the next stop to wait on the platform.


Now this was the hardest part. Because it was really really cold on that platform. And it seemed like forever before that train would come. I tried to appear like I was just acting normally, playing Sudoku on my cell phone,. Usually I can do a 7×7 puzzle on the train, but, man, I couldn’t even solve a 4×4 one, I was so nervous.

Finally the train comes and I walk on, and there’s a little kid holding his mother’s hand, pointing at me. By this time, there are a bunch of my pantless compatriots in the car with me, so I don’t feel so lonely. I sit down next to two women who appear to be tourists. They were speaking with each other so I don’t think they realized I had no pants on. I got a little courage and stood up and leaned over them, as if I needed to study the subway map behind me. They started giggling aloud. I think we made their trip to NYC very memorable.

Well, we finally reached our destination, Union Square, where all the No-Panters from all over the city had a rendezvous. Joyous celebration. Pantless kicklines. Cops and scantily clad young ladies posing together. Somehow I managed to find Hannah and Mark again, whom I had interviewed earlier in the day, and they were very happy, too.

And what, you may ask, have I learned, grasshopper? This: Next year, I’m going to graduate to briefs.

Poem: Doctor of Letters


Doctor of Letters

“All art is artifice,” she says, but

Between bears, Connie

Conjures poems from the distant

Doorways of Dickenson’s Emily

Eyes. Fluidly

Free-writing, she gracefully

Glides down her pen, her

Hands hinting how imagination

Insinuates and invades judgment.

Just as a jealous kiss

Kicks a lover’s

Lips and makes

Meaning move, nights

New, her oracles

Overcome the patterns

Pressed into the quiet

Quilt of reason.

Ready for resistance, yet swooning

Secretly, time tips,

Tripping over and under

Unsettling the very

Veins and arteries with

Words—wild words!—the exact

Xylem and Phloem of our yearning,

Yielding, finally, to the Zenmountain

Zephyrs of her all-loving art.

But I Digress: The Straight Line and Storytelling


I want the straight line. Relentlessly I pursue it. The efficient. Why do I value this? Why am I editing this right now? What ever happened to the Iliad, and the Odyssey, and the endless verses to Barb’ry Allen? All curves and loops and backtracking and interruptions and digressions. I wonder if that taste for the straight clean line is a result of the push to capitalism. We want all the forces to be working in the same direction, churning out the standardized commodity for sale. But some writers had other ideas. Shakespeare, even as he marched towards the New World Order, was also breaking with it. No Frenchman he, no unities of time, place, and circumstance for him; the world contains multitudes he protested with his plays, and it all can be put on stage at once, time be damned. “O, for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest invention of heaven.”

A story is told. If I, as an author, know how it is going to end before it begins, then what is the point? I go for a walk, and I decide today to take another way. Yes, it’s true I have, in my hand, a note to myself to pick up three avocados, and the little spritzer thing for the faucet, the broken part of which is rattling around in my pocket, because I can’t remember a damn thing. My father used to do a lot of bonding with me walking together to the pharmacy in order to buy a new tube of toothpaste. And I claim virtue for myself, as I also once had a lovely walk in Prospect Park with a group of people led by Grace Paley. I don’t remember what the occasion was. She was a lovely woman, though, passionate, a mensch. Reading Grace Paley I always felt more human. Because her stories were not the straight line. The straight line is the way of physics, but not the way of biology and humans. The straight line is the way of the billiard ball, the way of the train leaving from City A at a speed of 90 miles an hour, while one hour later another train leaves in the opposite direction from City B at a speed of 49 miles an hour. In how many hours will they meet?

Is it an assignment or an assignation?

In Joseph Heller’s Something Happened the protagonist keeps giving his son quarters, and the boy in his goodheartedness, keeps giving them away. The father gets frustrated because he can’t make the boy understand that the quarters are not for giving away. But the boy keeps doing it. It’s not logical, but he keeps doing it. It just seems like something he feels.

Kick a billiard ball with a force of 2 newtons and we can predict what will happen. Kick a boy, and we have no idea.

Grace, in her story–may I call you Grace?–Conversation With My Father, tells her father that she doesn’t know how to tell stories in the direct way. One sentence kicks the cat, and who knows where the story will go? If we write as if we were alive, then we can’t know where we will end up.  Remember Salinger’s Holden? Holden tells about a boy in his public speaking class who couldn’t stay on topic. Anytime that the boy digressed from his topic, the rest of the class was supposed to yell out “Digression!” And the poor boy became unhinged by it. Holden couldn’t name it, but he knew that this was inhumanity. He thought the boy’s digressions were the best thing about his talking.

My life is a digression in the story of the Earth. My life is a digression in other people’s stories. We want to aim at the stars, and then someone kicks us in the kishkas. Pow, Zoom, to the moon, Alice; we didn’t know that was going  to be our trajectory.

Beckett, Heller, Roth, Ms. Paley; they are so filled with the digression of life, that each page has to be turned to find out how life develops. Tonight, at twelve twenty-three–which it is now–I digress.

Miracle Worker

Dani DaOrtiz is a miracle worker first class. Even if you don’t speak any Spanish you’ll be able to follow most of the video above. His emphasis on the psychology of the spectator makes you feel, oh, right, that stuff isn’t just for the magic textbooks, it’s real and practical. It’s one of the real secrets, and when someone like Dani tells you that, you better believe him, because there are miracles happening in front of your eyes. Dani uses methods that most magicians never even consider. Dani’s technique, perhaps more than any other major close-up magician today, relies not only on sleight of hand, but the personality of the spectator and the magician, and the quality of the communication between them.

Dani’s magic looks like improvisation and jazzing, but his shows are planned. He does, however, constantly adjust to the spectator and fortuitous circumstances. This makes it extremely difficult to backtrack the method for his tricks.  He is part of the Spanish school of magic as exemplified by Juan Tamariz; these magicians’ love and passion for magic is so infectious that the audience’s hearts are totally engaged by the performers’ warmth and sincerity. The magicians study human nature and communication as much as they do sleight of hand technique. The result is a brand of magic that is very emotionally involving–emotion generated by something as silly as a card trick.

If a magician does an Elmsley Count in the forest is it still magic?