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Brooklyn, New York
Monday morning wakes up with yearning in the air.
Sung lovingly by the man who wrote it: E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, a dedicated socialist his whole life, and also author of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”
Thanks to YouTuber Louis Robinson
A group of friends and I have been recently reading Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, Love’s Labours Lost. My antenna immediately pricked up at the following lines:
Villain, thou shalt fast for thy offenses ere thou be pardoned.
Well, sir, I hope when I do it I shall do it on a full stomach.
Thou shalt be heavily punished.
I am more bound to you than your fellows, for they are but lightly rewarded.
Take away this villain, shut him up.
Come, you transgressing slave, away.
Let me not be pent up, sir; I will fast, being loose.
No, sir, that were fast and loose; thou shalt to prison.
Shakespeare cleverly packs in multiple puns here. First Armando declares that the clown Costard shall have to fast in prison. But Costard replies that, “I will fast, being loose”—that is, he’ll be able to run more quickly, if only he were free. And Moth tops both of them, saying that Costard’s scheme is “fast and loose”: that is, a scam, akin to a contemporaneous con game, commonly called “Fast and Loose.” He’s saying Costard’s proposal is a scam. But with even more complexity, simultaneously, there’s an additional pun on the phrase “fast and loose,” because it also means “in an irresponsible manner,” as in the phrase, “playing fast and loose with the truth.” And indeed, Costard plays fast and loose with the truth.
But what is of interest right now to this blog is the con game. Fast and Loose is a scam that’s been around for a very long time in one form or another. I had the strange pleasure a few weeks ago of seeing one of my immigrant high school students trying to extract money from his classmates using this ruse. I had to intervene and warn the student that I knew exactly what he was up to.
It’s always best to learn from an expert cheat, so you can click on the video above and watch the expert magician and historian of confidence games, Ricky Jay, demonstrate just what the scam looks like to its pigeons.
Thanks to YouTuber trancehi
The Comedian is the new Robert De Niro movie in which he plays a washed-up comedian trying to make a come-back years after his initial fame. It has a great cast including Danny DeVito and Patti LuPone, and a raft of cameos. Is it worth seeing? You can hear my review of the film, which was broadcast yesterday on radio station WBAI, by clicking on the grey triangle above.
Cliff Edwards, the voice of the Disney character Jiminy Cricket, had a familiar voice to those of us who grew up with The Micky Mouse Club television show. Jiminy would show up every once in a while singing about the “Ennnncyclopedia…” or explain, “I’m No Fool, No Siree, I’m Gonna Live To Be a Hundred and Three.” But my favorite was this song which was originally sung by Edwards in the Disney version of Pinocchio, a story which had a profound effect on me, but that’s for another time.
Click on the video above to hear Cliff Edwards’s lilting falsetto hit those awesome high notes in the last phrase.
Not every Python sketch stands the test of time—they were too seat of the pants and careless for that—but even with its non-ending, this sketch featuring John Cleese is still one of my very favorites.
Many magicians do balloon twisting as well, but I never considered it an art. However, after speaking with my balloon twister/magician friend David, I learned I was very much mistaken. In fact, balloon twisters hold conventions every year, and there are some amazingly creative works of art on display at those conventions.
Unlike magic conventions, the gender ratio for both performers and attendees is about 50/50 (for magic conventions, it’s more like 99% male). Click on the video above to view some incredibly stunning balloon costumes displayed at the balloon Costume Competition at the 2015 Twist and Shout Balloon Convention in Dallas, Texas.
When would-be magicians first start out learning sleight of hand as applied to cards, they often worry that their hands are too small to do the dirty work. Magician Mahdi Gilbert puts that concern to rest, as you’ll see in the above video.
He became a sensation on YouTube and then went on to fool Penn &Teller on their show.
Thanks to YouTuber Riffle Shuffle
One morning in the first week of June, in that awful year 1968, my sister walked into my bedroom and told me that Bobby had just been shot. We looked at each other and then, as sometimes inexplicably happens in the face of overwhelming news, we involuntarily laughed in confused terror; for only two months before—almost to the day—Martin Luther King had also been assassinated. We knew then, my sister and I, even as the teenagers we were, that something was horribly, horribly wrong about the country we were growing up in.
Songwriter Dick Holler wrote a song about it, and it was sung, improbably, by the same doo-wop singer who a decade earlier had sung “Why Must I Be A Teen-ager in Love?” Looking back now, the song was perhaps overly sentimental, but when we heard it on the radio and the Smothers Brothers program a few months after the killings, it was a comfort, and it seemed that Dion was talking straight to our hearts.
Monday morning, we looked around and they were still gone.
Thanks to YouTuber Thomas Evans
David Stone is a French magician with an irrepressible sense of mischievous humor and a wonderful command of misdirection. Here he is performing in English for a group of English-speaking magicians. Everything he does seems so carefree and improvisational, but it is all choreographed for maximum comic and magical effect.
The same, only different. That’s what the people want, so they say. But how same and how different? That no one can tell you.
I’m working on the manuscript of Novel #2. Presently, there is much good in it, and much that is not so good in it. The way the book is presently constructed, it has a frame story that takes place in the present, and a mystery of sorts leads one of the characters back in time to previous events. So a substantial amount of the book takes place in the past. And as I was going through the manuscript this time through, it became very clear to me: the parts that were not so good were mostly in the frame-story portion, the portion of the novel set in the present.
I tried to understand why this was so. It seemed to me that the characters in the frame story had less dimension, spoke more stiltedly, and seemed overall less real to me. When I first had the impetus to write this book, the incidents in the past are what propelled me to start writing. I grafted on the frame story, because I thought I could make a clever plot connection between the events in the present and the events in the past. And that is where I made my mistake. Because clever is very different from true. And what I’m learning now, for my taste at least, is that truth beats clever every time.
Not that there is no place for cleverness in a novel. But it can’t be the sole reason for its existence, unless it’s a genre-specific item, like a sci-fi story or a mystery. As an extreme example of this, I recently read a mystery called The Tokyo Murder Mysteries, recommended on one of the magic forums. It’s an extraordinarily clever locked-room style multiple murder mystery whose answer is literally the same as the method to a very clever close-up magic trick involving dollar bills. Now I enjoy this kind of book, it has a great power to amuse and entertain me, but on the other hand it has little power to move me. And if a piece of literary fiction doesn’t move the reader in one way or another, then for me, it hasn’t done its job.
So what then should literary fiction do, at a minimum? The formulation I came up for myself was that the kind of book I’m interested in reading and writing must speak a recognizable unspoken truth about the human condition. However, that stipulation is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t keep saying the same thing in the same way as other books. So I amend it to, “To speak a recognizable unspoken truth—in a novel way.”
In a novel way. Oh my goodness, I never—stupid me—never made the connection between the two meanings of the word. A novel is something that talks about life in a novel way. There must be surprise and unpredictability. The same, only different. How much same and how much different? In a genre novel, very likely much of it is the same as others in its genre; if any of the rigid conventions of the genre are broken, it’s quite possible that the reader will feel badly disappointed. On the other hand, the need for surprise somewhere in the book is even greater, because of the necessity of distinguishing itself from the rest of its similar genre-soaked companions. So a genre book depends heavily on one twist, usually at the end, that does all the heavy lifting. If that twist doesn’t work, then the book has little value. To take the murder mystery example above, if the reader doesn’t appreciate the ingenuity of the solution to the multiple murder mystery, then as far as the reader is concerned, the time spent reading has been wasted.
But in literary fiction, the balance is different, there’s much more unpredictability. As a writer I am most happy when I surprise myself as I go along, because I know that if I am happily surprised as I am writing, then perhaps the reader will be pleasantly surprised as well. A tale full of sound and fury that’s been told before in the same way? Well, that signifies nothing.
The balance of those two imperatives—truth and novelty—is something that I must continually weigh as I continue to revise my manuscript. I can’t allow myself to be seduced by one side to the exclusion of the other. There must be both throughout the manuscript.
A novel should speak the recognizable unspoken truth in a novel way.
When I was seven years old, whenever my parents or relatives held a party, inevitably someone would put on the LP album Port Said on the record player. At the time, the Lebanese Muslim musician Mohammed El-Bakkar’s record was a big hit with both Arab-Jewish and Arab-Christian communities in Brooklyn. The insistent pounding of the dumbek and El-Bakkar’s oud and soaring wail got everyone dancing.
On non-party days, my young cousins and I would go down to my cousins’ finished basement and play Port Said. We would twirl and twirl and twirl to the music to see how dizzy we could make ourselves, as we stumbled involuntarily and crazily to the ground. It was my first experiment in altered consciousness.
But equally popular for us young fellows was the record cover (see above) which featured a mostly unclad belly dancer (in complete contrast to the actual Arabic belly dancing tradition). It turns out that the woman on the album cover whose—uh—face—stayed in my memory all these years, was a well-known Romanian-born dancer named Nejla Ates who had her own interesting career, featured with El-Bakkar in the Broadway show Fanny!
So, Monday morning get yourself up from the floor, and try if you can, to sway here.
Click on the grey triangle above to hear one of the songs from the album, “Haun Meelee.”
Thanks to YouTuber NIGHT BEAT RECORDS
In 2013 I attended my first magic convention. I was very enthusiastic, and I got to all the events a little bit early. I was also kind of lonely, not knowing anyone, so I was happy to strike up a conversation with the young man seated next to me in the auditorium. We exchanged pleasantries and then got into an interesting conversation. He told me that he used to be a concert pianist, and that he had also tried his hand at film making. What he did not tell me at that time, though, was that in a few minutes he would be up on stage performing!
It was only then that I learned that his name was Shin Lim, and that he was one of the most amazingly creative card magicians to come along in this decade. He soon became very well known among magicians, and went on to fool Penn & Teller on their television show, Fool Us.
The act that he used to fool Penn & Teller was the same one I had seen back in 2013. Stick with the routine until the end—you may think you know how parts of it are done, but I assure you that by the end you too will be amazed.