Tag Archives: magic

In God We Trusted (an Act in Two Bits)


I’ve always been something of a coin nerd.

It began when dad got me into collecting wheat pennies, the early coins minted from 1909 to 1955.wheat-penny-large I’m not sure why dad liked them, but I hunted them like Ahab on a bender. We tallied 147 of them. They may still lay congregated  somewhere, in an unused beer stein at the house (dad, unlike Ahab, wasn’t much of a drinker).

As I got older and into magic, I extended my geekreach to larger coins: half-dollars, silver dollars. I still pester friends traveling overseas to collect the coinage of the land. I have several arcade tokens I’ve kept simply because of their heft and shine.

Recently, cleaning out a drawer, I came upon a quarter that saved itself from the change jar. That’s where all coins typically go, to be amassed and then wasted on something like a magic trick or battery-operated toy or some such equivalent of beanstalk seed.

But this quarter caught my eye. It was dingy, beaten up, clearly around the block a few times. Still, its year — 1953  — shone like a new mom. I’m still not sure why I kept it. 1953 isn’t a memorable year for me, nor an important number.

But the more I thought about the coin, the more valuable it became.

It must have sparkled like Waterford when it was minted, either in Philly, Denver or San Francisco.

Who was the first owner? How many has it seen? Where has it been traveling for the past 62 years? Did it once jingle in a president’s pocket? Help Bob Dylan buy a pack of smokes? Sit in a kid’s first piggybank?

I began to research the year. Gas was 22 cents a gallon. Bread was 16 cents a loaf. The average annual income was $4,011 a year.

Then, another surprise: My quarter, probably handed to me in a handful of change at Yummy Donuts, was actually worth $2.55. Apparently, the U.S. Treasury put more silver in coins back then, when we paid our debts. One website said that, if it were struck at a certain mint, it could be worth as much as $6.

But this coin’s not for sale.

I know that when I’m gone, the coin will re-enter America’s economical orbit. Maybe it will wind up in a parking meter (for the hover cars we’ll all be riding, right?). Or Yummy Donuts. Or Bob Dylan’s great-great-granddaughter’s first piggybank.

For now, though, it remains safe here, in the admiring hands of a nerd in Van Nuys who took a shine to its shine. For we all have one, don’t we? We all are one, aren’t we? Looking to catch the light at the right angle, to rest among the treasured, to announce to the world: Kilroy was here.


It’s funny how priceless a thing becomes with just a little attention.




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The Latent Geek Gene


Magic tells you two things, about practitioner and witness.

For the practitioner, the indicator is obvious. A magician is inherently a geek. God knows where that DNA comes from, but that defective gene takes hold like Alzheimer’s and can’t help but make itself apparent to everyone — because magic requires that you publicly make a jackass out of yourself.

It’s more layered with the witness, however. I’ve found there are three types of magic spectators, which often underscore a larger personality trait (like the geek gene, but more subtle):

  1. The skeptic. A skeptic isn’t interested in watching the actual trick. A skeptic wants to catch you doing something that will reveal the secret.
  2. The believer. The believer is less interested in  how you do the trick than in being entertained. Magicians always prefer the believer, perhaps because we know what a silly thing it is to tell somebody you want to show them a mystical lie.
  3. Kids.

That last one is hand’s down the best witness, regardless of kid. Not only do they accept the presence of magic; it’s a perfectly acceptable answer to the inevitable question, ‘How did you that?’ Children typically will not ask  ‘Do that again,’ as adults usually ask.

Instead, they’ll respond ‘Do more magic. Make this disappear. Make that disappear. Make me disappear.”the magician-1

I had the profound privilege of being asked for more magic by two 5-year-olds this weekend, who finagled a sleepover at my mother’s house during my visit. I had recently suffered a severe bout of IGS (Inner Geek Syndrome) and had bought a preposterously expensive brass magic trick and was eager to bring it to the boys.

It’s a clever but simple trick: a cube with three colors. Choose a color, put the selected cube in the brass container, close it, and I guess the color. I add a dash of patter: Hold the container tight and think of the color while I read your mind.

I was surprised that Rafael, my nephew and one of the spectators, learned quickly what he was to do. He told me to close my eyes. With my hands. And turn away. Then he showed his buddy, Angel, the color as Angel stood on the restaurant bench, looking over Rafi’s shoulder. Rafi closed the container, handed it back. Angel sat between us, witness to both.

‘Ok, Rafi, think hard about the color,’ I said. Rafi furrowed his brow in concentration.’

I milked it. ‘I’m getting a feeling, Rafi. I’m entering your mind. You’re thinking about candy. And firetrucks.  And I see the color…yellow!’

‘What?I’ Rafi exclaimed in a tone that suggested he had the learn the tone use in bafflement.

Angel, though, did something equally remarkable. He leaned toward me, put a hand on my shoulder, and looked me in the eyes. ‘It was yellow!!’ He was either congratulating me on the luckiest guess ever, or simply telling me, in all earnestness, ‘Good job, champ.’

And so it went, through the night and into the morning when we woke up. ‘Can we make something else change color?’ ‘Can you make me as tall as you?’ ‘Can you make this flashlight disappear in your booty?’

Finally, as we finished breakfast, Rafi asked me the greatest question question any IGS suffer wants to hear:

‘Can you read my imagination again?’


I so wish, more than you can possibly know know, Rafi. That would be true magic.



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Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers (and Other Oaths but Wind)


On all grounds, legal and ethical, I should have been murdered for the Rubber Baby Joke.

The Rubber Baby Joke was borne of a documentary I saw as a kid on sharks. The show said that shark skeletons are made of cartilage, the sinewy gristle that comprises our noses and ears. Human baby bones, the show said, begin as cartilage until morphing into bone to cover vital organs like the lungs and heart.

Because I’m a genetic asshole, I immediately trotted to my sister, who would have been a Littler Kid, to tell her that babies were born of cartilage. If fact, I pontificated like a drunk Jon Levitz, if you dropped a baby from a three-story window with the right amount of backspin, it would bounce unhurt up to the window ledge of a first-floor apartment. Er, why that’s why they’re called bouncing babies. That’s the ticket. lovitz

Caroline, who would have made a far better reporter than I, did the smart thing. She never forgot the lie. If ever I windbag a story that begins to wax unlikely — I estimate 137% of the time — she will ask “Is this a bouncing baby story?”

I’ve always wondered from where that jackass humor sprang. I’d like to blame it on a parent. But mom presented me with strong evidence recently that there may be a sonofabitch  gene: The Carbonaro Effect. It’s a show featuring a second-rate magician with first-rate props, a Candid Camera in which subjects are lured on stage, which in the show’s case is anything from a fake crafts shop to a lumber yard.

There, Carbonaro will perform hilarious jokes: floating coffee cups, taxidermy turning real; a great hardware store skit where he suggests he’s been magnetized by an electric mishap; that’s why bikes keep sticking to him. Unlike my sister, suspicion is checked at the door. This, even though 90% of studies are 70% fake, statistics say. People need to believe. People need to know there’s a reason, however unreasonable the reason may be.carb

Like all good reality TV shows, the series works not for the jokes, but the subjects. When played correctly, reality show participants underscore a larger zeitgeist (Tosh 2.0 the prime example). In Carbonarao’s case,  just just a little bit of rubber-baby logic does the trick: The coffee floated because, duh, heat rises. Water a dehydrated mouse, and it will no longer be snake food. He’s discovered: add a little logic, however skewed, and an audience will do the rest.

Perhaps that’s why magic is back. Carbonaro has gone syndicated; Penn & Teller’s Fool Us crossed the pond to American prime time; Now You See Me, an awful Morgan Freeman flick, was one of 2014’s biggest box office surprises.

The opposite should be true. Magic works best up close, without camera editing. Does anyone believe David Copperfield vanishes the statue of liberty?

Then again, perhaps it makes sense. About a third of Americans go to regular religious service, the lowest in history. Politics have become an As Seen on TV minstrel show. Perhaps, unlike pastors and politicians, a magician will tell you a lie is coming.

But, trust me on this, Mike, for your own health. Do not turn a baby to rubber.

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