Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Babe’s Biographer

A few years before I first read Babe: The Gallant Pig and Charlotte’s Web, my father taped a special called Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. The host was Ricky Jay, who penned a book with the same title. Whenever we had friends and family stay with us, my father would inevitably play the video.

Announcer: Are you ready for a world … where pigs do math? Are you ready–
Ricky Jay: — for learned pigs and fireproof women?

The special features people with amazing and unusual skills, including human computer Shakuntala Devi, juggler Michael Moschen, and Jay himself, who demonstrates his book Cards as Weapons is not a joke.

Thanks to the Internet, I rediscovered Ricky Jay a few years ago, who appears to be a master of many trades. Jay has a reputation as one of the greatest sleight of hand artists in the world. He has appeared in movies, including Tomorrow Never Dies, as well as on the HBO series Deadwood. He is also an expert on the unusual.

One of my favorite discoveries upon researching Jay was that he once hosted a radio program called Jay’s Journal. The online edition of his weekly commentary is essentially an audio blog, and it features spectacular stories. Some discuss animals, including a mynah that could pass the Turing test and, of course, a pig genius. Several of Jay’s installments refer back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, the time of The Elephant Man, in which the public fascination with the unusual was fomented by “freak shows” on street corners.

An era that celebrated the unusual was the perfect setting for con artists to exploit the credulity of the average Joe. In Three Card Monte, The Bottle Conjurer or A Hard Act to Swallow, and the Indian Rope Trick, Jay presents this side, too.

Part of the public’s curiosity was a reflection of the times. Bearded ladies were featured in carnivals and circuses. Our culture has changed with time, and so-called “freaks and geeks” are now relegated to day-time talk shows and novels. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is a fictional account about the extent to which one couple goes to raise a family of carnival side-shows.

Jay reflects on time in a piece aptly titled Time. An excerpt:

Young students of magic often try to develop great speed in completing card moves called sleights. One such complex maneuver– the pass– is used to secretly transpose the lower half of the deck to the top without that action being seen or even suspected by an audience. But as the novice gains more understanding of their [sic] art, becomes more subtle in their [sic] use of time, their [sic] emphasis may change. Here’s the old saw.

Youngster: I can do the pass 42 times in a minute. How many can you do?
Seasoned practitioner: I can do one, but you can’t see it.

(Some of the links featured in this entry require Real Player.)

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