Sunday, September 17, 2017


Image copyright, Penguin Magic
When I was much, much younger, I wanted to be a magician.

As I have noted elsewhere, I came of age in the era of Mark Wilson and Doug Henning, or Reveen The Impossiblist, Kreskin, The Amazing and Bill Bixby as The Magician.

There are revered icons:  heroes in age of chaos.

To be a teenager is inherently chaotic, a time of natural transformation, but it also happened to be a time of national and international change.  In Canada, the Quiet Revolution, came to an explosive end, in America, a presidency came to an end and, internationally, old world orders seemed to be cancelled, or re-written with alarming frequency.  It was a good time to be a map maker as countries seemed to be changing their names on a regular basis and a bad time to buy a big car.

For a kid with no particular social skills, a more than healthy interest in dessert and a love how things worked, magic was an irresistible draw.  Unlike any other aspect of life, magic was full of surprises that were always pleasant and mysteries that were intriguing to unravel.   I could imagine a dove being produced from a handkerchief, because I had actually seen it happen, but I could never imagine any one of a seemingly endless series of Jennifers ever liking me, because that never happened.

One of the few friends I did have, Joe Lawson, lived in magical house at the end of my street and he shared my interest in magic.  What's more, he actually had some serious magic props including a bell that even though it was isolated under a glass, would mysteriously ring in answer to questions from the audience:  one ring for "yes", two rings for "no."

While still in elementary school, I read up on Houdini and how his fate was inextricably linked with my home town of Montreal.  I soaked up information about how all of the greats from the "Golden Age" of magic had played the cavernous theatres along St. Catherine Street.  And I was thrilled to learn that the legend of modern magic, Dai Vernon, had grown up in Ottawa--not that far away.

Magic seemed to be all around me.

I was also fascinated by language and the power of words.

I still remember the practical lesson on misplaced modifiers that was dispensed in elementary school:  "Wanted a piano by a woman with fat legs."

I knew from listening to The Goons on the radio and watching Monty Python on TV that words could make people laugh.  I knew from personal experience that words could also make people cry.  And, thanks to some gifted teachers, I knew that words could also inform and inspire.

Good writing, like good magic, can change the way you look at your world and, as Shakespeare put it, alert you to the possibilities of "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 

Paradoxically, I was never a great reader.  To this day, I love to collect books that I have every intention of reading, but somehow never get around to.  They continue to accumulate in my "office" right next to the magic props and never-ending decks of cards that I keep meaning to study and perfect.

I did actually perform magic, for a time.  I did several birthday parties and an annual appearance at Christmas dinner, but I never progressed outside the friends and family circuit.  My passion for magic was tempered by my zero-tolerance policy for rejection.  There were and are enough things in my life that make me cry without my actively seeking more.

Perhaps it was an early exposure to "Harriet the Spy" that made me think of myself as a secret writer.  "Writer" because I enjoy the meditative practice of moving pen over paper--handwriting samples notwithstanding; "secret" because I would never show my stuff to anyone--see above.

For as long as I've had pen and paper, I have tried to model the styles of those writers that have made an impression on me.  I have notebooks and hard drives with poems inspired by Ferlinghetti, fiction by Chandler, plays by Mamet and comedy by everyone from Spike Milligan to Woody Allen.

But just like with my magic, I lack the discipline to pick a direction and stick with it.  I write, but I have no voice, no authentic vision.

It was maybe a decade ago that I discovered that one of the longest-running magic conventions in the country had been taking place about a half-hour from where I live. 

I discovered the fact quite by accident, and it must have come at just the right time because it re-ignited something within me.  In addition to first visiting their dealers room and purchasing some books on magic history--a gateway drug--I re-started my subscription to "Genii:  The Conjurors Magazine" a publication I hadn't read in perhaps forty years.

And it was in the pages of this magazine that I was introduced to the writing of Jamy Ian Swiss.

I had only known of him as a magician because of his work on a special for PBS and an incredible "Card Under Glass" performance.

His description of himself as an "honest liar" resonated with me, in part, because it echoed a sequence in one of my favorite films, "F for Fake" the last completed film by another magician-writer, Orson Welles.

In the pages of Genii, Swiss reviewed magic books the same way he performed his magic:  with a mastery of subject and a distinctive voice.  The subject of the book under review was almost secondary in that it provided a context for Swiss to frame his comments on the state of the art.  The reviews were always thoughtful considerations of the work at hand, but they were also editorials and advocacy pieces.  

I know this description makes him sound didactic, but that was not his effect on me.  His words fueled my curiosity and made me want to look for the works he was writing about, but also to re-examine books I had already bought but only thumbed through.

Up to this point, magic books had, almost without exception, disappointed me because everyone I had opened had contained what seemed to me like incomplete explanations, or were written in such a way that they kept me an arm's length from their subject.  Like this joke from Steve Martin, you had to know what was being talked about before you could know what was being talked about.  In his reviews, Swiss would routinely provide references to secondary sources that helped to fill in any gaps in the reader's knowledgebase.
Reading Swiss was transformational in that he took me from being a magic tourist to being more of a student.  I have many more magic books in my library.  I have gone from being a visitor at the Magi-Fest to a regular attendee.  

I also attend lectures produced at a Columbus-based venue for Penguin Magic where I have seen some of the best working professionals perform and discuss their work.

And it is thanks to Swiss that I now see all of this in a new way.  I see magic less as an expression of technical mastery and more of an artistic statement, a performance art where craft, character, artist and vision are all represented in the same person.  When I was a kid and torturing my audiences with bad magic, I used to think that if someone was silly enough to explain how to do a magic trick, I could learn that trick and become a magician.  After being exposed to Swiss and his work, I now understand that a book about magic, like any other book about art, is not a cookbook full of recipes but an insight into process.

Five years ago, Genii Magazine held a conference of their own in Orlando to mark their seventy-fifth year of publication.  The line-up of speakers and performers was impressive not the least of which was Jamy Ian Swiss.  At the time, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one that fell squarely into the "oh well" category of this that it would be nice to do, but which could not be justified.  To my surprise, my wife surprised me with a pair of conference registrations and off we went.  

It was incredible to be under the same roof as not only Swiss but Eugene Burger, Jim Steinmeyer, Max Maven, Uri Geller, Juan Tamariz, Guy Hollingworth and a host of others whose work I knew, in part, because of Swiss.

I was grateful to my wife for insisting that we go and I was grateful to Swiss for helping me to see magic and my interest in a new way, an integrated way that brought together my interests in a way that had previously been invisible to me.

Swiss was to lecture on mentalism in one of the late-night sessions and I was looking forward to that because, in part, I wanted to thank him for his contribution to my new perspective.

I was never able to do that, to make that simple personal connection, because I am a shy person with limited social skills, and because at every potential opportunity it seemed as though Swiss was angry.  As I recall, I think it might have had something to do with the presence and/or reception of Uri Geller, although it might also have had to do with the end of his time as resident book reviewer for the magazine:  whatever the reason, he never seemed approachable.

About a year ago, our paths crossed once again when Swiss came to Columbus to present a lecture for Penguin Magic's online service.

I had to go.

All I wanted to do was watch him work and get a booster shot of his perspective sorely lacking since his departure from Genii.

As luck would have it, I was recruited from the sparse studio audience to participate in one of his effects.  He was presenting an effect wherein the spectator's thought-of card disappears from the deck and appears as the only card inside a supposedly empty card box.

There I sat, next to one of my favorite writers, as he did a magic trick for me that left me on common ground with the man in the first who learns that his card is now under the Swiss' cocktail glass.

There were no words.  

It was an object lesson in design, mastery and performance.

It was a master class. 

Again, I wanted to say "thank you," but here again, it seemed inappropriate.  All I could do was shake his hand and retire to my seat.

It's not enough, but I'll take it.


  1. Thank-you for this extremely kind piece. (I had not seen your previous writings about me until today.) I'm sorry you didn't approach me at either of the lectures; those conversations are often the best part of doing such events.

    (I trust you are likely aware of my current literary outlet, the Lyons Den at, but just in case ...

    Thank-you again for this lovely appreciation.

    Jamy Ian Swiss

  2. Great article. I can so related to your story.