The Sword Swallower

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Dan Meyer at a Renaissance Festival swallowing two swords at once. (Photo: Kirk Hughes)

Swallowing a sword is one of the most uncomfortable sensations the human body can possibly experience. A 24-inch metal blade is wedging its way down your esophagus, between your lungs and nudging aside your heart.

Your body constantly wants to gag as saliva is trying to trickle down your lungs. The sword could impale your heart, killing you instantly. And because no nerve endings exist beyond your upper throat, you can’t actually feel the blade once it gets down to the bottom of your stomach. And you’ll have “sword throat” afterward from the abrasions and scrapes.

So who would actually choose to make this his or her career? For good reason, there’s only about a dozen professional sword swallowers today.

Dan Meyer, once a scrawny, soft-spoken kid who was endlessly tormented at school, is now a seven-time Guinness World Record holder and president of the Sword Swallowers Association. It took him several years and 13,000 unsuccessful attempts, but now, he can swallow swords underwater; he can swallow 21 swords at once; he can swallow a red-hot sword, heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. And he has no plans to quit.

“If you can take everything I love to do and put it into one job, this would be it,” Meyer says. “I’m living the dream.”

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The Cardstacker (Who Doesn’t Watch House of Cards)

Bryan Berg's recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards.

Bryan Berg’s recreation of the Dallas skyline used 1,060 decks of cards. That’s more than 55,000 playing cards.

“There’s this notion that a house of cards is fragile,” says Bryan Berg, who has perfected the art of stacking cards over some 20 years. In fact, he explains, intricate houses can weigh in at hundreds and hundreds of pounds, and often require leaf blowers to take down. “Fragility is relative, right? I can put a brick building up to a tornado, and then you realize that it’s fragile, too.”

Berg, a Guinness World Record Holder at age 38, maneuvers around his freestanding constructions using ladders or scaffolding. His tallest creation, the Dallas skyline, is more than four times his height, towering at 26 feet – the holder of the Guinness World Record for Tallest House of Cards.

Hotels, television networks, and city governments approach Berg with requests for replicas of existing buildings or objects, like creating the largest casino in the world – the Venetian Macao Resort-Hotel in China – during the Chinese New Year in 2010. It took almost two months and 4,000 decks of cards to construct.

Below, Berg describes his 7- or 8-hour workdays, which he mostly spends in silence (except for crunch time, when he cues up electronica on his iPod) and wearing socks.

Age: 38
Graduated from: Bachelor of Architecture from Iowa State University; Master of Design Studies from Harvard
Based in: New Mexico
Years in the business: About 19
Previous jobs: I worked at my dad’s construction company throughout high school, college, and even after. That was part of what allowed me to get my footing with cardstacking.

I captured my [first] Guinness World Record in 1992 when I was a senior in high school. It was 14 feet and 6 inches tall, much higher than anything I had ever built before. But my first paid project didn’t happen until two years later.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong's largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Berg built the Beijing Olympic Village at Langham Place Kowloon, Hong Kong’s largest shopping center, in celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

Did a passion for architecture segue into cardstacking, or vice versa? My interests in the built environment led me to cardstacking, and cardstacking led me into the pursuit of architecture.

When did you realize you could make a living by stacking cards? Well through college – if not, after. I considered every project to be an anomaly. Over time, I realized it was more than a fluke, and I took it more seriously.

Do you use novelty cards? Initially, I used whatever I could get my hands on – the cheap decks from the local grocery store. But that created a problem, since [each card] varied in quality and characteristics. So I partnered with this Belgian company Cartamundi to create cards with the ideal height-to-width ratio. I also worked with them to create a special buildable set, with a patent-pending gadget – it’s essentially a training wheel to learn how to stack cards.

Do you use any gadgets? No. But I’m not placing cards in a random or haphazard way – I design every single arrangement in a geometric and orderly method. But there’s no bending or manipulation of cards.

By nature, your art is impermanent – you can’t exactly transport a house of cards. I’ve only used glue with two projects, and I’m very upfront about them: Once, for the Holiday Inn, I glued together key cards for a life-size hotel recreation. Another time, for the World Series of Poker, I glued together poker chips for a full-scale “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign that hung in the air. Watch the time lapse below:

Your technique: There are two principal ways to stack cards: horizontally and vertically. I use both. I also produce a computer-generated rendering for my clients, but the finer points take a lot of improvisation. The musical analogy is that you’re given the time frame and key signature, but you have to fill in the notes.

The deconstruction process: I don’t get upset about knocking [a project] down, as long as I’ve got some good pictures. It’s part of the process; it doesn’t feel complete until I’ve knocked it down. I usually use a leaf blower.

It really requires that much force? A common question I get is, What if you sneeze while you’re working? People don’t realize that a house of cards is very heavy – hundreds and hundreds of pounds. A sneeze won’t do anything. Any damage while I’m building is isolated; it doesn’t spread because of all the partitions.

Best part of your job: Being able to be artistic and to do what I like.

Most challenging part of your job: When people come to us without a clear vision of what they want, or too hardened of an idea.

What would people be surprised to learn about your job? Actually stacking the cards takes a pretty small amount of time compared to planning and coordinating with everyone involved. My wife, Kristin, holds up the business end of things.

Berg was commissioned to break his own record at The Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world. The project took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record.

Replicating the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, the largest casino in the world, took 44 days, 219,000 cards, and set a new Guinness World Record for Largest House of Cards.

How do you navigate around structures that are taller than you are? With ladders or scaffolding. You don’t want to stack yourself into a corner.

Have you dabbled in real bricks and mortar? I’m actually building a real house for myself right now. I’m the general contractor, so I have a crew.

Any interest in Netflix’s House of Cards? I’ve heard about it, but haven’t seen it.

Some structures must be impossible to recreate using cards. Yes, like the Statue of Liberty’s arm or the Golden Gate Bridge or an airliner’s wings. There’s nothing to support it.

Your required reading: Screw It, Let’s Do It by Richard Branson. It’s about how he made his life fortune by going against the advice of his financial advisors.

Your favorite architectural work: The temples at Angkor in Cambodia and the wooden architecture in Japan.

How do you calculate your rates? It’s a day rate that includes any travel costs. A big part of this is learning to suggest a reasonable price that isn’t a rip-off for [the client] or for me. Over time, you learn what something is worth.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Look at the work of others, but realize that sometimes the best ideas might not come from the human element. They might be outside in nature or in some totally unrelated realm of data or experience.

Follow Bryan Berg on Cardstacker.com, his Facebook page, and at @cardstacker on Twitter.

Next: Meet the SNL cue cards guy, who makes a living with a very different type of cards.