Sunday, October 9, 2011

Day 521: Running Away with the Circus

Today I did a very un-Katy-like thing. I skipped a Sunday afternoon of football to take the kids to the circus in the park. Apparently, several years ago a circus troupe (they still have those?) decided it was ridiculous how much money you had to pay to go to see the fancy-Vegas style circuses today (I did see Cirque du Soleil in Vegas, actually, and it was pretty awesome), so they decided they would bring the circus back to the people. We went to a park here on the south side and walked over to the big top through the playground. The whole thing cost under $50 for the four of us.

This isn't like me because I don't really like the circus. I went once as a kid to Ringling Brothers, and I was scared of the elephants, from what I remember. When I was in college, there was a boy who liked to juggle on our campus, and I decided with a friend of mine that jugglers were third on the list of most annoying people on the planet, after mimes and contortionists (it's her birthday today, so I think I will send her a picture of the contortionist juggler I was clapping for just a few hours ago). I've never understood this desire to run away and join the circus; it always seemed like it would be hot, and difficult, and dangerous, and, well, weird.

This is one of those reasons that people have children. They can show you why people do crazy things, they can remind you that joy can come first, before reason. The circus today was during Augie's naptime, and normally he would be crazy, losing it, because he was tired. Yesterday I had to take him out of a restaurant and sit with him in the car while Gabe and Lenny finished dinner because he was such a madman. Today, he just sat there (hands over ears since the music was loud) with his mouth open, saying woah. Like this was the single greatest thing he'd ever seen. Lenny barely moved. Gabe was cracking up in different parts. And, I confess, I loved it. There were no animals, but lots of juggling, and mostly just crazy acrobatics.

The entire time I kept thinking, when would you learn to do that? While other people are going to soccer practice, are you rigging up some tightrope in the alley and trying not to break your neck? Where would you hang the trapeze? Did you just break into school after hours and try some crazy moves on the rope in the gym? And how is it that people are so fundamentally different from me, the person who was born to be that mother who warns you you're going to put your eye out doing that, you're going to break your legs, be careful?

These folks in the circus had to have some things going for them in the beginning. The contortionist guy was born that way--you can't make that up or learn it, I don't think. But you have to decide what you want to do with it, you have to actually practice putting your body into ungodly positions, with no X-rated purpose in mind, but just to show yourself that you can. And these men and women have amazing balance and flexibility, both of which can be learned to some extent, though some people come by it naturally. They are gymnasts and dancers, which takes talent but also a lot of practice. So, one might think that you would take those skills, hone them, join a team in college, party on the weekends at the club. Or.

You might put on some funky tights and just lose your mind in some random park in front of little kids for not very much money and less fame. You might practice dangerous, useless tricks, that are all the more awesome because they are so useless, and you could have been doing something else that would have been more productive with your time.

Going to the circus today brought me back to the time (can I have a new nickname? I used to have a lot of them. I'm going to christen myself Higgins, because of the way I start to tell long, convoluted stories, just like the Magnum PI character) when I took the Amtrak to visit my best friend from college, who still lived in Minnesota even though she swore she would immediately move back to California upon graduation. This was in early 2000, when I was 24. The train originated somewhere on the east coast and was going to Seattle. This was before 9/11, before any kind of security, when there were still smoking cars on trains. I took Amtrak a lot those days, before I owned a car, when I wanted to visit friends who lived in nearby states. I was newly single, and those were important trips for me. I always had this idea that interesting things could happen on a train, good stories could be made. On that fateful day, I decided that if anything interesting would happen, it would happen in the smoking car, because that's where all the eccentrics would be hanging out.

Boy, was I right. And maybe I'll go to hell for saying this, being a cancer survivor and all, but what a shame that there is nothing to take the place of smoking cars, there's no other way to bring such a random assortment of people together. I sat there watching people chain-smoke, and I assessed the situation. There were some kids younger than me who were already completely drunk. There was one girl who kept yelling about Milwaukee, saying you need to represent your hometown, unless you're from a place like Chicago, which is cool enough that you don't need to represent. There was a young Latino kid, maybe 17, with two teardrop tattoos on his face. There was a middle aged guy with long green hair wearing a leather vest. There was a young fisherman, from somewhere in Massachusetts, with an accent so think that if he had learned to speak English yesterday it would have been easier to understand him.

I was so entertained just watching. Then, all of a sudden, Mr. green hair started telling his story. He was taking the train to the west coast to join the circus out there. He knew he had the job but didn't know what it would be like. He had a bag of tricks with him, and he started showing off, juggling, doing magic tricks, slights of hand. Then, he took out a bunch of swords, and as the train was still moving on the track at 80 miles an hour, he started to swallow them. The entire train car went silent, and we sat there with our mouths hanging open. I actually caught a picture of this guy swallowing a sword, and I have it somewhere. When he was done, he offered to show us how he could eat fire, and we all said, no, man, that's ok, probably not on the train, you know? Teardrop boy shook his head, said man, this is too good, I'm never flying again.

Two guys got in a fight at one point and were kicked off the train in the middle of Wisconsin. A young girl who was sadly drunk left at a rural stop with a man twice her age, someone she didn't know before the trip. I learned how to play some Polish card games with the workers in the dining car. And, I met a boy. A man, I guess, since he was 25. He was hanging out with the fisherman, and he tried to catch my eye in the smoking car but I was intrigued by his friend with the accent. He sat next to me, started telling me about himself, how he was in the marines and now he was a merchant shipman in Seattle but he hated to fly, it scared the shit out of him, so he was taking the train all the way from Cleveland. His brother owned the ship he worked on, and he was a slave driver, he worked 14 hours a day, and on and on. While he was telling me his life story I realized that he was actually a really good looking guy, so why not talk to him?

He's the reason I was playing the card games. He took me over to the dining car; we went with the fisherman and another young girl, who couldn't have been over 20. The guys were trying so hard to drunkenly flirt with us. The shipman leaned in to kiss me, and I thought, oh what the hell. So I made out with him for a while. He seemed so proud of himself, that afterwards he said "Hey! She kissed me!" And I will always remember how the young girl with us looked at me wisely, nodded her head, and said, "Good for you. Now he'll never forget you." She wouldn't let the poor fisherman near her. Good for you, I thought to myself. We all have our ways of being remembered.

So we fooled around on the train, this shipman and I, though I refused to go into the Amtrak bathroom with him (have you been in those bathrooms? yikes). I got the best souvenir I think I've ever had from that guy: he took one of the laminated safety cards with people in various positions of distress and instructions in case of disaster and wrote his name and numbers on it. And I do mean numbers: cell, home, work, fax number. This was 2000, so maybe in some strange world I would have been faxing him, but I still thought it was hilarious. He said he would call me; I gave him my number, even though I never did that. I knew I'd never see him again.

Sure, you're going to call me, you who has moved on to the next girl by the time the train gets from St. Paul to Minneapolis. I had a great weekend, laughed about my Amtrak adventures with my girlfriend, had a completely uneventful train ride back to Chicago, walked home from the el in a blizzard. I got in the door and the phone rang within the hour. It was the shipman, asking when he could come visit me. He could probably touch my shock through the phone. I knew that I didn't really like this guy, but this went on for a few months, him asking when he could come stay with me, calling me from the ship, looking into flights even though he was terrified of planes. I could've had a fun, long-distance, crazy little love story there, but I didn't really want one, not at that time. I just couldn't let him stay with me, not out of some higher vision of morality but because I thought he would get on my nerves if he stayed at my place. I told him he could come out if he at least made hotel reservations, because I didn't like the idea that I was essentially agreeing to sleep with him if he stayed with me. And, thus, I never actually saw him again, which was fine.

I have never had such a great travel experience, by any mode of transit, anywhere in the world. It was like we were on the Twin Peaks train. And that experience will always be wrapped up in the idea of the circus for me, in the picture of that middle-aged man performing tricks in the refurbished luggage car of an economy train for kids half his age who sat there speechless, forgetting all the rest of what brought them there, losing their Midwesterness, their Easternness, their bravado, their shyness, to watch him in wonder. He was going to take a job with the circus, but now we all knew the truth: he would have done it for nothing.

I thought about him today at the circus, thought about the first time he must have put the sword down his throat, what he must have thought, because let me tell you...those bodies! They were amazing. You could take your skills and try to get a college scholarship, could do something that doesn't really mean anything, something that's just fun. You could take your body and make something of it, turn it into a spectacle. You could use your body to make people laugh, or clap, or gasp. And you might get paid for it, but the truth is you would do it for nothing, because you had always been doing it, ever since you were a little kid.

And let me tell you, I'm no circus performer. I'm a terrible gymnast. I'm not very flexible. I can't even do a cartwheel. But on my better days, sometimes I think that I have done something similar, I have turned my body into something that I want it to be, in defiance of itself. In a few days, it will be 27 years since I almost died in a car accident, since I could have been paralyzed, since I lost the ability to walk. In another week after that, it will be a year since I stopped poisoning myself with chemo. I've had epilepsy, I've had cancer, I've had a lot of things. My body has tried to shut down, tried to stop working, it's failed me--I said it, because it's true. So I've done what I could with it, turned it into something else.

A few months ago, I went into the gym at work to get my measurements taken, find out my BMI and body fat percentage. I was surprised that it wasn't the female gym manager, but the young male intern, doing the assessment. No matter, I took off my shirt, held the tape for him, was curious about the whole thing. He gave me serious explanations about everything and then told me my body fat percentage was 17.8%, which was very good for someone my age. Very good? I slapped him on the back. Are you kidding me? I've had two kids! I'm 35 years old! That's awesome! I didn't bother to add that I was only a few months away from taking some muscle-wasting poison that at one point made it hard for me to lift five pounds. I also didn't add that, against my own advice, I am often still harsh about my body, that I often don't like what I see, because at that moment I had forgotten all about what I didn't like, and I was reveling in the health of this strange little figure, this self.

Some days I would like to run away from myself, even though I love my life, my family, my house, even, sometimes, my work. Sometimes I would like to be a different me, play at starting over, see what else is out there. But I don't feel that way very often. Why not, you ask? Doesn't everyone feel that way? Well, I suppose so, I think it's a natural way to feel. But in some ways, I've already done that. I'm not tooting my own horn, because my life is just about as boring as they come. But I came by that boring the hard way, I claimed it, it's what I always wanted, because boring never came to me straight. Just like I came by this relatively athletic, healthy body the hard way.

While I looked at my kids, enraptured by the circus today, I started to hope the same thing for them. Not that they would suffer, and come out on the other side, because I don't ever want them to suffer. I started to hope for them that they would never be nurtured in their individuality. I want them to fight for it. There is nothing that you take so much pride in as the thing that would take everyone else by surprise if they knew it about you. That is the core of who you are--the things you are that are least expected. The only thing better is if you have the opportunity to take even yourself by surprise, to put one over on yourself. For some people, that opportunity arises when they hang by nothing but their necks from a trapeze. For me, it's enough to turn atrophy into muscle, to walk briskly, to comb my hair, to eat, sleep, be at peace with my cells. No need for me to run away with the circus--I've run away into this rebellious body, I've taken control of it, at least for now. It's not impressive, but I'll go out on the proverbial tightrope and say that it's enough.

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