(last updated on April 29, 2014)
I’ve been to Salem many times, largely because one of my best friends from high school lives there. It’s also because there is an excellent gourmet pie store, Gourmet Fare, on Pickering Wharf off Derby Street, a very good Thai restaurant (Bangkok Paradise), a pretty-decent comic book store (the name escape me), and a crowded little joke shop near the Peabody Essex Museum. And of course Salem is infamous for being the epicenter of the Witch Trials of 1692, in which hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft. Nineteen people were hanged before people woke up, sealing Salem’s fate as Witch Central for the next several hundred years. Today, Salem is host to several museums and attractions about the witch trials. It’s easy to find practicing witches, fortune tellers, spooky houses, magic shops, trinket hawkers and ghost tour operators that make Salem an interesting hodge podge of kitsch and history. I purposefully get my hair cut in nearby Danvers because it ensures I am in the area at least once a month to have dinner with friends. It’s a relaxing place to hang out.
It was a beautiful late autumn day, and I was hanging out with several friends and acquaintances from out of town. We were there to get tarot readings from a medium who was, according to a friend of a friend, one of the best she had come across. I’d never been to a fortune teller before, so I tagged along for the experience. I’m generally a rational person, but there’s a superstitious side to me that I rather enjoy exercising. I am the first person to toss pinches of salt over my shoulder, admittedly after a slight hesitation as my left brain flinches at the sheer irrationality of it all. If I inadvertently say something that sounds unlucky, I automatically look for the nearest piece of wood to knock. When I board an airplane, I do a private little ritual upon boarding that I am not going to share JUST IN CASE such rituals need to remain private to be effective. I don’t know why I do these things, but part of me probably figures that it can’t hurt. And who am I to believe that either I or Science really knows the Alpha and Omega of how the universe works? So I toss my salt and am nice to cats. A more practical application of my latent superstition can be seen in how I process patterns. When I notice something happen twice, I will often postulate that there is some cause or theory that can be divined. Should I notice something THREE times, then my brain is compelled to drop everything and investigate the matter more thoroughly. I see the repetition of three as a sign or omen that I should be paying attention. It’s not so much that I believe in the Rule of Three, but I figure if I notice something that many times, my brain must be attuned to it in some way for some reason. Finding out why is often quite illuminating.
Anyway, given my particular superstitious-rationale proclivities, I was looking forward to having my fortune read by an actual medium. I am also a fan of Penn and Teller’s show Bullshit, a show where the two libertarian magician-carnies investigate and debunk common wisdom and beliefs. It’s fairly well known that mediums often employ a technique called Cold Reading, where you can convince someone that you know a lot more than you actually do through careful questioning. For example, I could ask you a number leading, open-ended questions design to illicit a reaction that is given away by your body language, and use that information to draw several conclusions which I can then use to postulate certain statements. Poker players will also be familiar with the tell, the noticeable change in behavior that gives other players some idea of the state of their hand. Has there been an increase player A’s heart rate? Did their brow furrow for just a fraction of a second? The untrained body reacts involuntarily to stimuli, and the resulting microexpressions give away quite a bit about a person’s emotional state before they are masked. You can even pick up emotional cues from instant messaging by observing changes in grammar and typing speed. The general gist is this: our bodies leak emotional data like a sieve, and there are people who are skilled at collating this data into educated guesses about a person’s emotional state and belief system. And we’re not even taking clues like speech patterns, social habits, style of dress, and ethnicity into account, which provide MOUNTAINS of contextual data to further polish the cold read. With all this state readily available to the cold reader, all it takes is an innocuous statement or two to start a cascading chain reaction of micro expressions, bodily movements, and often additional volunteered information. A well-worded and delivered inquiry swathed in the cloth of a statement is all it takes. It’s not unlike mindful graphic design, marketing, or branding. On a personal level, however, a good-hearted cold reader will use this knowledge to help. Con men will use it to disenfranchise the gullible, who are those people who desperately need to believe in something for a particular reason at a particular time. And of course, that means we are ALL gullible.
We entered the small bookstore fronting the medium’s studio, located on Derby Street just across Pickering Wharf by the ship. I had decided to keep an open mind and not give anyone a hard time: I would assess the experience itself based on showmanship, professionalism, and authenticity; if any accurate fortune telling actually were to transpire, I would consider it a bonus. My more scientifically-minded friends might scoff at the medium’s claims of being a “guide for spirits” or an “interpreter of cards”, but my perspective is that Good Ideas Come From Everywhere. Who is to say that a medium, who may be integrating a number of sensory inputs from their client’s body language with a powerful intuition about people, is not doing what they claim? They might call them spirits, I might call it intuition, and still others might call it divine guidance. To discount the power of the Tarot just because one can’t believe that a deck of cards could possibly know the future is, I’m afraid, drinking the Rationalist kool-aid without savoring its underlying flavor. Consider this: the Tarot deck is comprised of some 78 cards, each ascribed with a meaning that tell a kind of story. The meaning of the cards and related interpretation of the story are based on thousands of years of human desire, fear, and yearning, distilled and interpreted and documented and practiced by thousands and thousands of people. It doesn’t matter whether or not you belief in any mystical properties of the deck itself; you should at least recognize that the interpretation itself maps quite well to our emotional terrain, and a judicious study of said terrain can lead to surprising insights about our future, so far as the future can be determined by our thoughts, context, and actions in the past and present. So pick your weapons: the 22 major arcana and a woman wearing a glittery turban, or the Id, Ego, and Superego as promoted by Siggy Freud. Predicting earthquakes and stock market trends would be, in my pseudo-rationalist opinion, less of a sure thing whether you pick Turban Lady or Cigar Boy.
The bookstore itself was rather nondescript, with the usual complement of crystals, New Age accessories and regional postcards that every shop in Salem seems to carry. All seven of us, 6 beautiful women and one me, declared to the clerk that we were interested in a reading. Each reading cost $20 for 15 minutes. Also available were extended readings ($40 for half an hour) which presumably would give you more in depth. One of the gals signed up for the extended reading, and my appointment (a regular 15 minute session) was right afterwards. We set up camp at the nearby Salem Beer Works, and settled in for a 3 hour marathon group reading session.
I didn’t have much time to order food, so I headed over to the book store. My acquaintance came out looking thoughtful, apparently processing quite a bit of information, and I got a good look at the medium for the first time. He was a tall, lanky guy, who vaguely reminded me of a farmer in his dress, gray-hair and glasses that reminded me of the 70s. I would not have given him a second look on the street, or on a tractor for that matter. His head was slightly stooped, probably because he was so much taller than everyone else, his neck permanently crooked from a lifetime interacting with shorter clients. I gave him my ticket, which was nothing more than a printed sales receipt with my appointment time and duration scrawled on with a Bic, and I was ushered into the fortune telling chamber. It appeared to be a converted dressing stall, separated from the main part of the store with a worn red curtain. Not a candle or crystal ball in sight, though there was a small desk in front of me with a tattered cloth over it. The Medium somehow squeezed himself behind the table by semi-slouching into his chair, reminding me a bit of Stephen Hawking if Stephen Hawking were a lanky 50-something farmer from the Midwest who’d taken up fortune telling in the evenings after the wheat had been taken in for the season, after which he discovered his true calling and followed his heart to Salem, Massachusetts. But that is just me being silly. I had put my new sunglasses down on the table, and he asked me to move them to the other side, presumably to keep the table clear. He affixed me with a slightly oblique yet appraising eye, and immediately launched into his thing, a low-pitched but surprisingly conversational stream of words, observations, and disclaiming statements.
He first issued a disclaimer, of sorts, in his fast-paced even-toned way, saying that he doesn’t tell the future: he interprets what the cards show him. In other words, he was saying that it wasn’t him that was telling the future, but that he was just a mechanism by which the future revealed aspects of itself. That seemed reasonable to me, and responsible. I maintained a calm disposition, or so I thought, and just absorbed what he said. He asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to look into, and I said nope. I was there as a first timer, and just wanted to see what happened. A general reading, I think, is what he said he’d do.
He then spread out the deck of cards after we both shuffled them, swishing them out in a snakelike S pattern. He asked me to pick seven (I think) cards from anywhere in the deck. I eyed the pattern like I might a platter of delectable sushi, and picked one card from each end, a few in the middle, and two that were right next to each other, wondering all the while how he would interpret my selection algorithm. Had I already given myself away, somehow, as a pattern-oriented person? I handed each card to him, my expression neutral but open, and he laid them down in some kind of pattern. I actually didn’t look too closely at the cards, instead observing how he handled and interacted with them. He placed each card deliberately and thoughtfully; he had done this many times before, and was already in the Zone. While I didn’t record or transcribe the session, I’ll do my best to recreate the gist of it as truthfully as memory serves me:
Medium: “First I want to make some general observations about you. You deal with authority well, as you look me straight in the eye. You have what I would call a “deceptive personality”, in that your face shows outward calm, but on the inside there is a lot going on. What do you do for a living?” Me, after a slight pause of deliberation to figure out what the heck to say I did, “I’m a graphic designer”. Medium, not impressed and maintaining the pacing of the session: “Oh, that does not have much authority.” Me, trying a little harder: “I’m a freelance graphic designer.” Medium, already moving on: “I am going to tell you about your personality, taking into account your masculine and feminine aspects; this is not about gender identity, but everyone has aspects of both the male and female. I read you as a ‘gentle masculine’ personality; male, but not particularly aggressive.” Medium: “The cards are telling me that you have several things going on in your business; keep doing them, they will pay off. I am not going to spend too much time on this, as I am not seeing any warnings here. Have you thought of traveling to a tropical area?” Me, slightly surprised: “Yes, I have.”
Here I was thinking of my as-far-as-I-knew secret plans to travel to Panama and Costa Rica to see if it was really a nice place to set up camp as a ‘travel anywhere’ design consultant.
Medium: “You should certainly do it. It will be good.”
At this point, the Medium paused, looking at the cards. He asked me how long I’ve been living in my current location.
“Seven years,” I said, “I moved there in 2000 or 2001.” “Have you ever noticed anything unusual, like noises or things moving?” “Nope, can’t say that I have.”
I also know that I tend to be rather dense when it comes to things like that, but I decided he didn’t need to know that. That would be fodder for a cold reader. As I was thinking this, the medium looked up, meeting my gaze.
“I’m reading that there are two very large presences in your house. One of them is a ghost. Now, I should explain that a ghost is not dangerous or evil; it is just someone who has not passed on to heaven or hell. There is also a spirit as well. Again, nothing to be concerned or afraid of. There are ghosts and spirits everywhere.” “What is the difference between a ghost and a…spirit?” “A ghost is a person who has, for some reason or another, not passed on; they’re lingering around,” said the Medium. “A spirit is one who has passed on, and is capable of making the journey back to see what is going on.”
The analogy that popped into my mind was that a spirit was like your grandparents who have retired in Florida, but come back to see you every so often to sit for a while, but I decided against saying this out loud, in case it was disrespectful. I also chose not to mention that there were, to my knowledge, two people who lived next door to me who had passed on: one of my best friends, a couple doors down, and another acquaintance who I had just started to get to know but had passed away, unbeknown to me for some time, of stomach cancer. I did wonder, however, which one hypothetically might have chosen to linger amongst us, and which one had moved to Palm Beach or (possibly) Miami.
The session was wrapping up, and the cards apparently had nothing dire to say about my health. There was quite an interesting interaction regarding the world of personal relationships, the cards saying that I was in store for a particularly good one if I were to actually get off my ass and do something, but the specifics I’ll keep to myself.
The session ended, and I shook the Medium’s hand warmly, because I had gotten a pretty good performance from someone who looked like he knew what he was doing, and took the time to put his entire attention on my fortune. And, he’d given me quite a bit to think about with regards to my future; this kind of reflection in general, no matter what may trigger it.
Back at the Salem Beer Works, I rejoined our group to help annoy our waiter, who seemed both entranced and put off-balance by our gaggle of giggling, smack-talking women. One by one, people went to go have their reading, and one by one they came back thoughtful. Some digging interlaced with sisterly arm twisting ensued as the various women revealed what had been told to them by the Medium. A couple of them were in quite introspective moods, reflecting over things they were not pleased about. I myself was busy writing down my memories of the session into a Moleskine, to scattered accusations of dorkiness, so I ordered the Mako Shark Kabobs to reclaim what “gentle masculinity” remained to me. As it so happened, I didn’t like the shark, it being a touch too oily for my taste, so I donated it to the table. The plate was stripped down to the lettuce in seconds.
After getting back home, I took a trip to the bookstore to find our more about Tarot and Fortune Telling. Particularly interesting was The Little Giant Encyclopedia of Fortune Telling, which is a detailed compendium of dozens and dozens of types of prognostication using (to name just a few) playing cards, cats, tea leaves, dominoes, apples, bird droppings, clouds, twigs, dropped silverware, vegetables—basically, anything that can exhibit any kind of discernible pattern probably has been used for some form of fortune telling. Dad, who has a Ph.D. in Comparative Religion from Princeton Seminary, grabbed my copy of the book because he thought it was very interesting. What’s nice about the book is that it goes into the specifics of how each form of divination is practiced and interpreted, complete with tables.
It occurs to me that one could establish a rational fortune telling service which employs cold reading and the various forms of fortune as props to explore what we believe the future may hold for us. I am also pretty sure that this would irritate actual Mediums and Psychiatrists…but it is certainly fun to think about. Screenplay, anyone? :-D