Last week I hit rock bottom. Slaughtering children by assault rifle in Uvalde tipped me over. The last two decades prior to the pandemic I’ve been teaching circus arts. I’ve also been performing for young audiences in support of summer reading programs.
My kid is no kid anymore, but because of her, because she reminded me back while she was still a child that dad could still see the world through a child’s eyes if only I would play pretend with her, all I had to do was try. A little girl saved her father’s life.
A juggling show is many things and often it is a comedy show appropriate for young and old alike, in the vernacular of the festival business it is a multigenerational attraction, entertaining for the grandchild and grandmother alike.
To qualify for work at the Los Gatos Jewish Community Center in the summer circus arts program I’d be fingerprinted, and a background check would be run out of Sacramento. This is important work, I’d be an instructor to children ages 6 through 12, and you need to be sure you’ve got the right person for the job. The same background check was performed in Arizona.
My whole life I’ve been involved in the performing arts. Show business is my turf, my habitat, where I do my work, and has been the central organizing activity of my professional life. When there is frustration, heartbreak or tears because one of my students has hit a wall, feels like they are failure, that they’ll never amount to anything those are the moments when I can see myself through their struggles. It is also when I know to step up, because I can lend a trusted hand and help a young person anxious with self-doubt, frustrated, feeling inadequate, somehow thinking that they are not enough, that’s a teachable moment, helping a student to not judge their progress, to let go— to have the courage to just try.
Circus arts instruction is the continuous process of helping children see who they are and to be willing to just try without any expectations, trying is everything and success is not the only part, that learning a new skill isn’t about one minute, one hour, one day or one month— learning is a constant doing— we never stop pressing ahead into the unknown of our practicing and what ten thousand joys and sorrows our efforts may reveal to us. Practicing without expectation, without greed, if you keep looking for evidence of progress you often end up fueling doubt and discouragement, if you let go and leap into the mystery, you’ll be shocked by what you will find waiting.
Treating young readers to a juggling show at the local library is one way to motivate the new citizens. These humble institutions are the backbone to our country. The first humans because language was as so basic were forced to organize in small tribes, no more than seventy people, and it was only when their language skills increased were they able to build a more complex interdependent social order.
Library summer reading shows are presented free. Most of our audience consists of the little new citizens investing part of each day in learning how to read. But there are parents, grandparents, and neighbors in the audience too. The programs are free, borrowing books from the library is free, most of the libraries know it is best not to sell soda, ice cream or popcorn.
I worked in the Berkeley grammar schools too. I taught physical comedy and circus arts in after school programs. From 3-5 PM I tried to engage students that had been in classes all day long. Many children with both parents working had nowhere to go. Compared to summer camp where my students arrived rested after a night at home with their parents this was an entirely different level of challenge. You can’t help but feel for these kids, I mean come on put your feet in their shoes— managing yourself, keeping your hands to yourself, paying attention, not chattering and distracting your classmates, after being in class all day isn’t easy— it’s impossible. I loved all those kids and all those children just wanted to go home and be with their mom and dad.
When a child at a summer reading program is having trouble managing themselves, I will interrupt and ask the audience, especially the father’s in the crowd— how many of you dad’s how many of you are still having trouble managing yourself— I raise my hand and most of the men raise their hand in response— see that, it’s not so easy to sit still, watch the show, pay attention— learning to manage yourself helps us all then we can gather in these larger groups and have fun together— but it means paying attention and being a well behaved member of our audience— all you have to do is just try as hard as you can—
In Glendale, Arizona I performed in the amphitheater adjacent to city hall. Some years back the mayor seeing my sidewalk show at the Glitter and Glow Festival suggested to her event coordinator that my variety show might be perfect for this large venue. The following year I brought in two sensational performers and we filled the seats for three back-to-back shows. Liabilities for shows with fire and performing dogs means having the right insurance. That’s just standard operating procedure. Lengthy discussions are undertaken every year over how many police officers will be needed. Different kinds of programs attract different audiences, but there is always risk, and remember this event was ungated, there were no fences, anyone can come to this free civic event.
In Washington DC and in legislatures across the United States gun laws going against popular opinion were being relaxed. One result is metal detectors are common now. Bags are searched, many are required to be patted down.
Special event producers have always had to come up with a security plan, when the planning is inadequate, and trouble breaks out the violence can be devastating. The Alameda County Fair, Gilroy Garlic Festival and Southplains Fair in Lubbock, Texas all suffered the nightmare scenario when a gun carrying attendee opened fire at their events.
A rural branch library has no money to spend on security. The funds are just not there. An institution open to the public depends on the fabric of our society remaining stable. Our civic life requires that citizens behave responsibly. But we are not that country anymore— our civic life has taken a dark turn and all of us can feel it— anyone, anywhere at any moment may stop talking and start firing bullets from military assault weapons, and hoping you’re not in the wrong place at the wrong time is not a strategy for building a more perfect union.
It is reported that there are now 20 million military style assault weapons in the hands of American gun owners. I know of one or two, and one individual has been having a hard time of life of late. Do I know if or when he might snap— of course not, I’m not a mental health professional, but there it is, and here we all find ourselves.
Decades ago, the National Rifle Association took a turn and used their funds to influence elections in the United States. Only a few million members belong, but it is this group that the Republican Party added to their coalition, a group that vows no compromise, ever, that gun ownership is absolute. Like the Club for Growth, they grade each politician on their vote, and whip members to support their cause— if you don’t give them your vote your career will soon be over.
Republicans have added voting rights, women’s health care, immigration and gun safety to a list of issues that are off-limits. All legislative action is blocked. All of us can feel it now. Everyone in the majority, all these issues have their constituencies and all show that there are large majorities favoring Congress respond. Doing nothing and generating frustration is even part of the strategy, doing nothing is seen as a win, and compromising is a loss.
It is painful to arrive for summer circus camp with the world in this state of tension. One facility where I teach has a skilled and talented staff that each morning monitors the incoming teachers and students coming to class. These are dedicated professionals, good souls to a one, all working for the common good, none out to make a fast buck, trying to strike it rich, they are there because they believe in what they are doing.
Our nation has turned into an intractable combative nation none of us recognize, a nation held hostage by a gun lobby that has fomented political stalemate. Russia and China are delighted, if they could just break our country apart, if they could discredit liberal democracy, prove the rule of law can’t work, then they can come for us, take our freedom, oppress us, autocrats want to subjugate its citizens.
Our children deserve better. We have no choice, we must change course, and if you won’t or can’t, perhaps it is time to reconsider what has happened, where did our best-self vanish to— I’m just a simple ordinary person— California born and raised— the arc of justice is slow— we’ve gone offtrack— taken those two steps backward— it’s time we step up— for the love of our children and for the sake of the world it is time