Stretching with Mind Games impresario

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When the dam finally broke — when I was finally able to establish that elusive epiphany that every journalist seeks — I was in a Marinelli bend, a backbend that can only be reached by resting your chin on the ground and raising your body horizontally upward.

That was the moment when my phone interview with Marc Salem reached an apotheosis, when the rapport we had established reached a crescendo and the “Mind Games” impresario finally revealed the full extent of his insight, observational skills and wit.

Bam!

But before that, it had been touch and go.

I was sitting down when Salem, a “mentalist” and an expert on nonverbal communication whose show “Mind Games” — sort of like a mental magic show — runs Oct. 31 to Nov 19 at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre, told me about his background. He grew up Orthodox in Philadelphia and later attended yeshiva in New York. His father was a rabbi, and Salem’s intellectual curiosity is firmly rooted in the talmudic tradition.

Salem, who raised his three boys Orthodox, was explaining that in talking to people, content is always second to form. He frequently alluded to body postures and communications flow.

I wasn’t following. I mentioned that when I interviewed people, I often leaned forward, and that it seemed to make people more inclined to open up.

There was silence over the phone line.

“Well, Americans pride themselves on their large sphere of privacy,” he began. “If you invade that without permission, they clam up. It’s always best to mirror the position of the people you’re interviewing. If they fold their legs, you fold your leg. Those are very inviting nonverbal gestures.”

There was another awkward silence. It seemed interminable. Finally, I spoke.

“Well, what are you doing right now?”

“I’m pacing around furiously. I’m a great pacer,” he replied. “Constantly on the go.”

“I see,” I said. Obviously, that was the tack I was going to have to take.

“So, you’ve done work with corporations,” I asked while doing a set of crunches.

“Yes. I gave seminars to corporations that wanted to enhance their communication skills,” answered Salem, former director of research for the Children’s Television Workshop (producer of Sesame Street). He has also has been a trainer for the FBI and the New York City Police Department.

“I help corporations understand that how we communicate is far more important than what we communicate.”

I sensed an opening — albeit a slight one. I wanted to ride this communication crest, so I started to do some jumping jacks.

“So, one of your specialties is discerning how people lie,” I said, slightly winded.

“Other than pathological liars, everyone gives off nonverbal clues that are giveaways,” he said.

“Can you give me an example?” I asked, doing a Downward-Facing Dog yoga pose.

“Well, rapid blinking of the eyes is not uncommon when people are lying. For example, George W. Bush is a rapid eye-blinker. That’s not to say he’s always lying under those circumstances, but that’s what you look for.

“There are other nonverbal clues that could imply different things. Hillary Clinton steeples her fingers, which often implies a sense of superiority. John Kerry was lifeless and wooden during key points of the last presidential debate, which is odd for such an athletic man. Perhaps the most famous example was when George Bush Sr. looked at his watch during the 1992 debates. I think he lost the election right there.”

All of the energy I’d exerted seemed to be paying off. Here was a concept I could grasp. So I decided to toss caution to the wind and go for the Marinelli bend — a maneuver attempted by very few in full possession of their faculties.

“Tell me … about … airports,” I managed to gasp.

Salem seemed to be picking up my nonverbal cues, and there was a palpable shift in the tone of his voice.

“Airports … ah, yes, airports. Airports are the best lab in the world to watch people go through every emotion in the world. Love! Hate! Anger! Joy! Everything is just so raw and natural … I love it!”

There was a long pause as we both contemplated the petri dish of emotions that can be found at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. I wasn’t sure how long I could maintain the Marinelli bend, but I was certain we were on the verge of a major breakthrough.

“I remember you saying … that … you’re rarely um … late.”

“Time is one of the most important nonverbal communication behavior that there is,” said Salem. “That’s why it always confuses me when I see people running through the airport frantically.

“I mean, they didn’t know that they had a plane to catch?”

Marc Salem’s “Mind Games” runs Tuesday, Oct. 31 through Nov. 19 at Post Street Theatre, 450 Post St., S.F. Information: (415) 771-6900 or www.poststreettheatre.com.