A Little Magic

I would estimate that my card tricks are successful roughly 50 or 60 percent of the time. That’s a decent percentage considering my questionable work ethic. The late Ricky Jay used to say that he never took a trick out into public until he had worked on it for at least a year. I lack that depth of commitment. I do try to practice a trick for 10 to 15 minutes before performing.

Then again, I don’t do card tricks in public.

I only do them for my daughters.

Elizabeth and Katie are 18 and 14 now, high schoolers, one about to go off to college, the other already too old for my taste, and as nostalgia attacks me like mosquitoes, I think now of all the card tricks and coin tricks and mind-reading tricks I have performed for them through the years. There have been a lot of them, dozens at least. I had not thought much about how magic has pervaded our lives until I wrote my book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, but I realize now that magic has been everywhere. A home movie plays in my mind, the girls, babies, toddlers, kindergarteners, fourth graders, tweens, teens, picking seven of hearts and ace of spades and queen of diamonds, me shuffling the deck, messing up, cards dropping to the ground (“That’s OK, Dad, that was still amazing”), and now and and again I would get the trick right, name their card, have it pop to the top of the deck, pull it out of my coat pocket, and I would see their eyes widen, and their mouths open wide to reveal their so expensive braces, and I felt the way I imagine Alexander the Great felt when he, you know, pulled off a successful card trick.

And now, in these last months with all of us still together, I have learned my greatest card trick.

“OK,” I say to Katie, our younger one, “this is a magical deck.”

I show her a blue cardboard box filled with a deck of cards. At this point, she stiffens a little bit, and her eyes focus, and she is at alert. She awaits the challenge. Katie, you see, always tries with all of her might to figure out the trick.

My father sparked my lifelong love of magic with one perfectly timed magic trick. It is one of those memories I see through a crackling black-and-white filter, I couldn’t have been older than 4 or 5. My parents had dragged me to a wedding, and I was bored and cranky and desperate for something I couldn’t explain. Dad wandered over and put a penny in a handkerchief. He crumpled up the handkerchief, put it in my hand, tightened my fist around it, and told me to say a magic word. I’m sure I said Abracadbra because it is, as it has long been, on top of Billboard’s Magical Word/Phrase Hot 100.

The current standings are as follows:

  1. Abracadabra.

  2. Hocus Pocus

  3. Open Sesame

  4. Expelliarmus

  5. Alakazam

  6. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo

  7. Shazam

  8. Presto-chango

  9. Ala Peanut Butter Sandwiches

  10. Riddikulus

When I opened the handkerchief, there was a tiny toy skull in the penny’s place. And I felt like the world had instantly doubled in size.

Dad never told me how he did it. I asked him, many times over many years. He never revealed his secret and, after a number of those years, he seemed to have forgotten that he had done the trick at all.

Katie has been nagging me for months to tell her the secret of a mind-reading trick I showed her. Before that, she nagged me for months to show her the secret of a different card trick. Before that … this chain goes back a long way. From her youngest days, Katie had to know stuff. She had to know what we were talking about. She had to know the secret we were keeping. She had to know what every word meant, what every phrase meant, what every ingredient was in every dish, what every character, no matter how minor, was doing when not on screen.

“Is she married?” she would ask.

“She’s just a person delivering Chinese food,” we would say.

“Well, I wonder if she’s married,” Katie would respond.

Magic tricks in particular bring out her fanatical curiosity. She watches closely, tries to inspect the props, asks to see the trick done repeatedly. Houdini himself used to say that if he saw the same trick done three times, he would know its secret — but he was not above asking or demanding to see the trick done five or six or eight or infinity times if he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. Katie is like that.

“OK, so this is a magic deck,” I say, and I hand her the box of Bicycle Rider Back Playing Cards. She holds the box, and I say to her to think of any of the 52 cards in the deck. Any one at all. She strains to think of the right card because she wants to pick the hardest one.

“Do you have it in your mind?” I ask.

“No, not yet” she says, and she goes back to concentrating. I can sense her thinking about each individual card, one by one, each suit, one by one, in an effort to come up with the one that will stay hidden, the one that will not reveal itself.

“OK, do you have one?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Now think hard about that card. Picture it in your mind. Squeeze the deck and think about your card.”

She does this. And then, as she hands me the deck, I ask her card. She says the three of clubs. I shake my head sadly. “Are you sure?” I ask.

“I am sure,” she says.

I open up the card box and pull out the cards and explain that before she began, I made a prediction. I had turned the four cards upside down in the deck. And, I go through the deck, sure enough, the four aces are the only cards that are upside down. I pull them out.

“I was sure you were going to pick an ace,” I say to her, and she looks at me triumphantly.

And then I turn I do the trick.

And Katie looks at the cards and she begins to scream at me, joy, surprise, disbelief and finally, loudly, “HOW DID YOU DO THAT???”

I was called up on stage once during a magic show. We were on vacation in Hawaii, and the magician was funny and good, and then he called me up and asked me to hand over my watch, which I did. He then put the watch in a bag and smashed it with a hammer to the stunned laughter of the crowd. After a little while of explaining that there were no refunds, he brought down a steel box that had dangled over the audience the entire show.

Inside that box was my watch.

On stage, I acted surprised and astonished. But there was something from that night, a disappointment, that has lingered with me for a long time:

I know how he did it.

And I wanted to be fooled.

I wanted to be thunderstruck. That feeling is like nothing else in the world. It isn’t always magic. Sometimes it comes from hearing a gorgeous song or reading an especially lovely section or catching a comedian like Mike Birbiglia who somehow digs inside you and finds that thing that makes you laugh so hard that you can’t breathe. It might happen when you’re in the audience at Hamilton and you can’t keep up with all that you’re feeling or it might happen at a ballgame and everything you expect to see turns upside down.

And then there is nothing like great magic, when the reveal comes, when the car appears, when the mentalist tells you the name of your best friend, when the handkerchief becomes a bird, when the ball comes to life, when wine bottles keep appearing, when one coin becomes two becomes three, and you have that little explosion in your brain.

I feel that explosion less and less often. Yes, sure, this is in part because I have casually explored magic and picked up a few things here and there, but I suspect that it’s more because I grow older and have experienced things, a lot of things, and each bit of experience, each answer I learn, tears away a small strip of wonder. The first time I saw New York, the fuses in my brain popped because there was so much color and life and noise and tension and excitement and laughter and sarcasm. The last time I saw New York, last Tuesday, the prevailing thought in my brain was what a pain in the neck it is to get in and out of LaGuardia.

All of which, maybe, is a way of explaining that I have not told Katie how the trick worked. For one thing, it’s a basic principle of magic, you don’t reveal the secret, my father raised me on that.

And for another, I don’t want her to grow up. Katie will always find answers, and that’s good, of course that’s good. But I want her to keep having little explosions in her brain for the rest of her life.

When I approach Elizabeth with the magic deck she rolls her eyes in that quintessentially high school senior way, and then she sighs and prepares for the inescapable Dad magic trick because she has a good heart, and she understands how much it means to me, and, mostly, because she knows that for a few months longer, Dad still determines her curfew.

You never can quite tell with Elizabeth. Maybe that’s teenagers in general, but Elizabeth has long been particularly inscrutable. Through the two years that I wrote “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” she would periodically come into my office, see all the Houdini posters on the walls and all the Houdini merch scattered about and all those Houdini books spilling out from the bookshelves, and she would roll those eyes and say, “Ugh, I hate Houdini.” And she would walk out.

But that was never the whole story. One day, she texted me from school: “Was Houdini’s mother named Cecilia?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Why do I know that?” she all but screamed through the message app. “I hate that I know that.”

She knows a lot of Houdini stuff, it turns out. She, like Katie, like my wife Margo, like our dog Westley, like so many friends, went on this Houdini journey with me, perhaps unwillingly … but perhaps not. On one stop in Las Vegas, I took Elizabeth along for an interview with the incredible Jen Kramer, the only woman with her own Vegas magic show. At the end of the interview, Jen pulled out a playing card, tore off a corner of the card and swallowed it. She then put the actual card in her mouth and restored it.

Elizabeth still carries around that card in her purse.

“OK, I want you to think of a card,” I say to Elizabeth as I hand her the box of cards, and she does not hesitate, she picks the eight of diamonds before I can even begin the patter. I believed this is because she’s a teenager and, like most of her friends, she just wants this particular thing to be over so she can go do … ?

“Eight of diamonds,” she says, and she hands back the box immediately in a rushed action that says, “OK, show me the eight of diamonds so I can go do … absolutely nothing.”

Magic done well is magic done slowly. You need to build up the tension. You need to build up the drama. My friend Joshua Jay, one of the world’s leading magicians, explains that the most important part of magic isn’t the secret. It is, as the composer Claude Debussy said of music, the silence between the notes.

It’s hard to do slow magic for a daughter ready for whatever it is to end. But I slowly pull out the cards and I flip through them and say, “As you will see, I have turned each of the aces upside down in the deck.”

“I didn’t pick an ace,” Elizabeth says.

“I know,” I say. “I thought you would.”

Then I show her the four aces I had turned over, and I ask her: “What card did you pick again? Are you sure you didn’t pick an ace?”

She groans and says, “Daaa-aaad!” and she tells me her card again, and I look at the four aces sadly. I have messed up. Elizabeth knows, better than anyone, that I only pull off 50% or 60% of my magic tricks. I begin to shake my head and admit that I lack magic and leave her room and let her be a teenager again.

Only then I flip over the first ace. It has a red back instead of the blue back like all the others. And it has a word written in black.

The word is THE.

I flip over the second ace. Another word: EIGHT.

Third ace flipped: OF.

And I wait a a few seconds before flipping the fourth ace: DIAMONDS.


And with this Elizabeth stops. She stares at the cards, and she stares at me, and she stares back at the cards. She picks them up. She says, “OK, that was good.” And then she smiles, and hands me back the cards, and she’s still in the slightest daze, and she’s eight years old again even just for a moment.

“Dad,” she says to me, “I don’t ever want to know how you did that.”

How Did We Get Here (Game 5)

The Athletic

That Nationals-Dodgers game was something. I found myself watching that bizarre Joe Kelly-Anthony Rendon at-bat and thinking, “How in the world did we get here?” And so I wrote about how in the world we got there.

The improbable events that led to Game 5’s finish

Cookies and Hope

I will never forget how I found Gary Gulman. It was seven or eight years ago, maybe more, and I was in the car listening to one of those comedy radio stations on XM Radio — you know, this was before comedy died. I pulled into the garage and was about to turn off the engine and go inside when the the host or DJ (or whatever a comedy radio station narrator is called) said that he had an unusually long bit to play.

“We don’t usually play routines this long,” he said. “But you have to hear the whole thing because it’s so brilliant.”

And then, I heard this:

“We’re in a golden age of cookies,” Gary Gulman said. “A golden age, my friends.”

Cookies. The whole routine was on cookies. Gulman went on for THIRTEEN MINUTES on cookies. It was roughly the Gettysburg Address but six times longer and on cookies. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.

Yes, in a general sense, Gary was doing stuff that everyone now calls Seinfeldian. Jerry Seinfeld had all but trademarked beautifully crafted comedy about every day things like breakfast cereal and halloween masks and how excited dogs get every time they see you.

But Gary Gulman took this to a whole other place. He asked Pepperidge Farm if they needed to use quite that much paper in their cookie packaging. He marveled at how bold it was for Fig Newtons to build an entire business model around the fig. He revealed that the full name of Hydrox cookies is “Hydrox by mistake,” because that is the only way anybody ever buys them over Oreos — “Oh, sorry,” his mother would say, “I got Hydrox by mistake.” He showed genuine admiration for the gimmick of putting fortunes inside flavorless fortune cookies (“Yeah, we’re giving you a lousy cookie, but inside that lousy cookie? Hope.”)

He said that the worst cookie is the sugar cookie.

“All cookies have sugar,” he finished. “A cookie without sugar is a cracker.”

What separated him from Seinfeld or any other comedian I’d ever heard was the relentlessness. He kept going and going and going and going; it was as much an athletic feat as it was a comedy routine. The laughter came from two places — the hilarious observations, yes, but also the audacity it takes to ramble about cookies for that long and to somehow keep finding new ground. Keebler elves! Oreo double stuff (“Same price for double the stuff!). Nutter Butter (“It’s cute how your name rhymes but stay in your place). The farmers who till the Milano fields for Pepperidge Farms.

And he kept going still. it was like watching someone make 500 straight free throws.

Years later, after we became friends, Gary told me that he actually was and remains an incredible free-throw shooter. He can still go out there and shoot 90% from the line like he did in high school.

It isn’t a coincidence.

“Show me someone’s free-throw percentage,” he says, “and I’ll tell you the exact time his single mother came home from work.”

* * *

The Great Depresh debuts tonight (Oct. 5, 10 p.m. Eastern, on HBO) and it will be available for streaming beginning Oct. 6, and it is unlike any comedy special ever made. One of the most celebrated bits of pop-philosophy is that there is a thin line between comedy and tragedy. In The Great Depresh, there is no line at all.

The special features Gary, his mother, his wife, and his therapist. That itself sounds like a joke, but it’s the opposite of one. Gary is there to tell jokes about the worst time of his life, a time when he was so depressed he could not get out of bed, a time when suicidal thoughts were constant, a time when he had to quit the thing he loved most, stand-up comedy, because he lacked the strength and energy and will to stand.

His mother, wife, and therapist — three blatant tropes for in the world of stand-up comedy— are there to tell the same story without jokes. They are the ones who remember it best. They are the people who worried he would never recover.

They helped him survive.

All of it is so raw, so powerful, so agonizing and … so funny. Gary often says on his Twitter account that he is at the height of his powers, and you sense that he’s hoping to make you smile at his flagrant braggadocio. But only an artist at the height of his powers could pull off something like The Great Depresh. He gets laughs about the dozens of drugs he’s taken to ease his depressions. He gets laughs about the pain of being constantly misunderstood as a child. He gets laughs, impossibly, about the electroconvulsive therapy he went through. Nothing is off-limits. Nothing is beyond his comedy reach.

The old line that making someone laugh is harder than makings someone cry is no doubt true.

But there are times during The Great Depresh when you will not be sure which one you are actually doing.

When Gulman was a younger comedian, he came out with a rat-tat-tat of jokes and observations that would leave people in the audience struggling to breathe through the laughter. As he grew older, he would take you on wild rides like his bout over grocery cart legal doctrine with a woman at Trader Joe’s or, most famously, his legendary breakdown of a documentary about the abbreviation of the states.*

*This is not a real documentary. I only say this because people have constantly asked Gary where they can watch it.

All of this brilliance came from Gulman’s relentless work ethic. He became a great free throw shooter by spending countless hours alone shooting free throws. He became a great comedian by spending countless hours alone writing jokes (his now famous Twitter #GulManTip thread offers advice to young comedians, and most of that advice is about writing and writing and writing some more).

Gulman was, in his own way, the purest of comedians.

But The Great Depresh required something else of him — a brutal kind of honesty that required him to go back again and again to the most painful moments of his illness, to try and find hope where he had only felt hopelessness. He absolutely was not sure he could do it. He went repeatedly to his wife, Sade, and asked her to describe for him the lowest points because he had blotted them from his mind. He took the stage in small comedy clubs repeatedly armed only with material he wasn’t sure would make anyone laugh and Samuel Beckett’s challenge to fail better.

“It sounds like ‘feel better,’” he says. “I don't think that’s a coincidence.”

The end result is a special that feels new and haunting and hilarious and painful and, ultimately, triumphant. It’s a hard special to sum up because you will inevitably make it sound sad when it’s not sad or hysterically funny when it’s so much more than that.

Gary has always railed against what he calls “clapter,” which is when an audience responds to a joke with more applause than laughs. He is no fan of clapter; a joke is supposed to make someone laugh. “If your joke only elicits applause,” he wrote in one of his #GulManTips, “it’s not a joke, it’s a slogan.”

No, he doesn’t like clapter … but it seems to me that in The Great Depresh he stops for a moment and embraces it, embraces the mixture of laughs and tears and applause and love that surrounds him. The fight is not over for him, not by a long shot. He had to give up comedy for more than a year, his wife worried that he would never do comedy again, and he worries about backsliding. Every single day he goes through various steps to keep his illness at bay.

The greatest hope is that the love that comes from this special will help sustain him in his darkest moments.

But I will tell you this: I saw Gary a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta. He has a whole new show that he’s about to take on tour, and it’s hilarious, ridiculous, rat-tat-tat, it’s a whole set of wacky observations and deep dives into things like precipitation and great old baseball players. This is the old Gary Gulman, the comedian I first heard in the car all those years ago.

And here’s how I know: At one point, he told a joke, and the crowd applauded ferociously, and he shook his head.

“OK,” he said. “that didn’t work. Back to the drawing board.”

For more with Gary Gulman, please check out this week’s PosCast, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and Stitcher and wherever you get your podcasts.

A Charlotte Book Event!

OK, the heart palpitations begin now. We are a little bit more than two weeks out from the publication of The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. I’m doing a bunch of media, which should start pushing out shortly. The reviews are beginning to come in, and while I try not to worry about reviews, they have been pretty great, and this one from Library Journal is particularly lovely.

I’m beginning to check my Amazon number, which — as the saying goes — is no way to live. But it’s a hard trap to avoid.

I’m trying out different pens to see which kind will be the best for signing this particular book. This may sound silly, but different pens work better for different books, depending on the texture and color of the pages. I believe (so far) that this book is best signed by a Sharpie though experimentation continues.*

*I actually do a cool Sharpie magic trick, I’ll have to see if I can work that one in.

And I’m looking over my schedule and beginning to think: Hey, I’m going to be pretty busy.

In the middle of all of this, Margo and I decided we should throw a special event here in our hometown of Charlotte before the mania fully hits. Well, I say “in the middle of all this,” but realistically, we thought of it way too late. We should have planned this event a month ago.

But we didn’t. We thought of it, like, three days ago. Still, because Margo is relentless and with the help of a few good friends, we are now throwing a World Premiere Houdini Bash on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the theater at Providence Day School in Charlotte. The address and details are available here.

This will be an amazing evening. I’ll talk Houdini with our dear friend, the brilliant author, podcaster and legendary Charlotte newspaper columnist Tommy Tomlinson. And, thanks to the good folks at Avid Reader Press and Park Road Books, we will be selling copies of The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini five days before it is available in bookstores. I mean, this is pretty cool. And I will stay afterward to sign them.

There might be just a little magic performed as well. We shall see.

The event is free, by the way. I mean, obviously I think you will want to buy a book or five books or 20 books, but that’s entirely up to you. Either way, we would love to see you out there.

You can RSVP here. Or, if you prefer using Facebook, you can click here.

Tickets are going fast. I have no idea if this is actually true, but it’s the thing you’re supposed to say. This, as of right now, will be my only North or South Carolina Houdini appearance before Thanksgiving so I definitely hope you can make it.

Question I just totally made up: “Hi! We live in Charleston, S.C. That’s a three-hour drive away! Is it worth it for us to make that sort of drive?”

Answer: Yes!

Oh, and as always, please remember if you cannot make it to Charlotte or any of the book events that are constantly being updated, Rainy Day Books in Kansas City is offering a special deal where if you preorder — that means buying the book before Oct. 22 — I will sign that book AND inscribe it with anything you like. We might have to do a video of me doing the signing because I’m told that orders are pouring in and the inscription requests are, let’s just say, interesting. Please remember that the author reserves the right to reject any inscription request that is inappropriate or offensive, so any requests demanding that I praise Billy Joel will be denied.

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