26 03 2013

Wait for the Hup

It has been a hectic few months. For those who have asked where I went, I apologize for disappearing. Let’s just pretend I was in Winter Quarters. But Spring has arrived and I hope to get back to some writing soon. In the meantime, I wanted to share this photo that someone sent to me today.





The Side-Effects of Daring to Fly

17 10 2012

This past Sunday I watched the live coverage of Felix Baumgartner diving from the edge of space and plummeting to the earth in a free fall faster than the speed of sound. It was riveting for me. As the announcers on my computer spoke of the possibility of his blood boiling and other such “side-effects” of his unimaginably high speed decent, memories of my own high velocity daredevil days came rushing back to me.

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I was walking down the curved hall that circled the floor of the arena after the act and I felt unusually dizzy… granted, I should have been a little dizzy considering that I had just been suspended forty feet above the ground from a rope looped around my neck while my partner spun me like a helicopter blade at a speed that caused my body to elevate… but generally, I was not dizzy after this feat. On this particular day though, I was dizzy to the point that I was not entirely confident that I was even walking a straight line. I chalked it up to the change in elevation between the site of the previous day’s performance and this one and proceeded into the locker room that was more often occupied by visiting NBA basketball players than female circus artists.

When I entered, one of the more veteran aerialists looked up to greet me. She started to smile and then her face contorted oddly as she coughed out an ominous suggestion that I stop where I was. I did as I was told. Then she asked, “Um, Leslie? Has anyone ever mentioned to you what the side effects of a well-executed helicopter spin can be?”

“Side-effects? No?” (Huh? What is she talking about? Why is she looking at me with that odd smirk on her face?)

My head (and/or the room) began to swirl a bit. She walked toward me, put her hands on my shoulders, and explained herself (somewhat) as she gently walked me around the corner to a large mirror on the wall. “Now don’t worry,” she said, “this is something that can happen and is not anything to get concerned about, but you have the worst case I’ve ever seen and it might scare you a bit when you see it.”

(What the hell is she talking about? Why am I feeling so dizzy? And why do my feet hurt?)

She was standing between me and the mirror and very sternly said, “Really. Don’t worry.” And then she stepped to the side.

As I peered at my own reflection in the mirror, I slowly came to understand what her odd behavior was all about and why she was looking at me so sympathetically but at the same time giving the impression that she might start laughing (or crying?) at any moment. The reflection of me in the mirror looked like something from a bad horror movie. I had android-like eyes with opaque blue centers and where my usually human eyes should have been white, they were now a deep purple. I also had strange little purplish dots on the skin around my eyes that looked as though they belonged on some half human character from Star Trek.

“Oh… my…” was all I could squeak out. Then after a moment of glancing back and forth between my reflection and my friend’s in the mirror, we both started laughing. The speed at which my partner and I were known to perform the helicopter spin had actually been fast enough on this day to send my blood rushing outward and seeking an escape. The centrifugal force was such that it burst the capillaries in my eyes and also on the surface of my feet.

Frightening as it might sound I really did not have anything to worry about, and it did not take me long at all to embrace the scars of my accomplishment, wear them proudly, and actually have some good fun with my altered appearance. In fact, a few nights later as we made our way from Albuquerque to L.A., we were stopped by a border patrol agent who got quite a start when he lifted his flashlight from my ID to my face. I will never forget the look in his eyes as he jumped back from the open truck window and proclaimed “What-the-hell-happened-to-you?!!” I just started to laugh, pointed at my partner who was seated next to me and said, “He did it.” The long explanation followed and this guy wound up radioing ahead to one of his colleagues who pulled us over a few more miles down the road just so he could “see the girl with freaky eyes.”

It took weeks for my blood-stained eyes to return to their normal appearance… especially since I had to keep performing the same trick numerous times every day (though we slowed down the spin a little)… and by the time I was looking like myself again we had performed our way up the west coast of the US, into and across Canada, and back down. The color had morphed from purple to red to orange to yellow and finally back to white. The reactions that people had to my appearance became a bit of an educational experiment in sociology and culture for me. There was a marked difference between the responses of store clerks and others whom I encountered in the states and those whom I encountered farther north and I learned from observing people’s responses.

Android Eyes

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Sunday afternoon as I stared into my computer screen I felt a real affinity for and kinship with this daredevil stranger who was risking it all before me and the rest of the interested world. He landed his high-velocity flight just miles from where I had once spun fast enough to transform my own appearance to a droidian illusion.

What I risked and accomplished all those years ago is nothing compared to what Felix did, and he walked away without a single visually evident side-effect. But make no mistake—there were side-effects, and his accomplishment most definitely left a few marks on him. Some have scoffed at the whole display in the days since and cannot see it as much more than a foolish and wasteful stunt by an adrenaline-hooked overgrown teenage boy. I understand that critique. But– I also understand him. Perhaps a little better than most are able.

Felix Baumgartner scarred his own soul on Sunday… and the markings are beautiful. I am proud to have a few similar (though smaller) scars. He dared to wander beyond the edge of reason and to fly in the face of fear, not because he had a death wish, but because he wanted to fully live.

Keep shooting for the moon, Felix!

You can hear Felix speak of his own experience a bit here:

http://youtu.be/c7BFkOrlTVM





My Ineffable New York Minute

5 10 2012

If only we had cell phones back then… with their portable photo and video cameras that we now pull from our pockets spontaneously to document those once-in-a-lifetime moments as they happen. Oh the evidence that I could have to accompany some of my favorite circus stories…

  • The video I could have taken of the Tornado bearing down on the circus tent and then lifting it into the air and shredding it to fringe just feet away from me as I laid watching helplessly from underneath the axel of a semi-truck.
  • The video I wish someone else could have captured of me in my bathrobe with clown make-up on my face standing in the middle of a busy highway in Lake Tahoe coaxing a runaway pony back to the show lot with a bag of Doritos.
  • The photo I could have taken of the hundreds of bundles of red and blue cotton candy strewn across the Nevada desert and glowing in the light of the rising sun after the driver of the concession truck rolled the semi and released the contents to the wind.
  • The photo of me sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on the step of my trailer and sharing a cigarette with none other than Vince Furnier (more commonly known as Alice Cooper).
  • The picture of me clinking champagne glasses with Paul Shaffer… me in my fringed pastel pink leather jacket and skirt and he in a violet lamé fitted tuxedo shirt.
  • The video of me and three other aerialists dangling from wires 35 feet above the ground when the rigging we were suspended from snapped and sent the bars and platforms we had been performing on crashing to the ground below.

I could go on and on. There are hundreds of scenes in my mind, experiences I hold only in memory, which I wish were captured on film somewhere.

Yet- there are others which I have grown to be grateful were not. In particular, my own New York minute.

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Even before the twin towers fell, the city of New York held a place of almost mythological import in the minds of many around the world. It certainly did for me when I was young. Aside from the immense amount of historical significance of the place and the storied past and many-storied skyscrapers, in the heart of it all for me was the Island of Manhattan and specifically the intersection of 42nd and BROADWAY. All my wildest childhood dreams led to THERE.

As I aged and fantasy gave way to the real world, those childhood dreams did to a degree as well. The reality of the odds of “making it there” moved me to more achievable goals. In no small part, it was letting go of the idea of being a Tony Award Winner that led me into my circus career. But my circus career quickly carried me into the very heart of Manhattan, as well as through the many winding roads in the boroughs that surround it. In fact, the circus gave me the opportunity to see and get to know New York City as a whole in a way that many people who are born and bred there never do.

While I had been in New York on a couple of occasions already and seen some of the magnificence of Manhattan and many neighborhoods outside of it, when I was 19 years old I had my first opportunity to explore the mighty city from dawn to dusk. The show I was working for had an entire day off sitting in one location. It was a rare day… we were going to wake up and go to sleep in the same place, and there were no shows to perform and there was no other work to be done. And we were in NEW YORK CITY! Apparently, however, this place did not hold the same magnetism for others as it did for me, and if I wanted to take on Manhattan, I was going to have to do it alone. And so I did. I woke hours before the sun, walked blocks through a strange (and likely dangerous) neighborhood, boarded a bus that would carry me to a subway station and then boarded a train that would carry me underground and under water into what was, for me, the center of the universe. I switched trains at Grand Central Station and made it to Battery Park just in time to watch the sun rise on Lady Liberty. I then spent the entire day seeing everything else. EVERY-THING. I was a tourist in fast motion. And in that one day I fearlessly conquered the Island… on my own.

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Late that night (or actually early the next morning) I found my way back to my trailer. I dozed off for a short while but awoke again before the sunrise. Reflecting on the day before, I was not quite ready for it to end. I crept out of my trailer careful not to slam the door so that I would not disturb any other people or animals and I took a walk. I wandered uphill through the neighborhoods, the opposite direction from my trip to the bus stop the morning before. Weaving through the strange mix of housing and industry, I could see a grassy hill rising up from the street ahead of me and I was immediately determined to climb. It was foggy, so it was not until I was directly in front of the hill that I realized it was actually part of a very old cemetery. A huge iron gate like those you see in horror films stood open and despite the discomfort this foggy scene caused me, I went in.

I continued the climb up the cement path that wound through headstones to the peak of the hill next to an ancient looking family mausoleum. The sun was just about to break the horizon when I reached the summit of the hill and turned around, and then it came –

One of those rarest of moments in life – It can be described as no less than a religious experience.

Directly before me was a vast expanse of grass dotted with stones and statues facing in the same direction as I was. Those that were furthest down the slope were hidden from my view by the fog which also hid the neighborhoods and the river beyond them. Just beyond that was the Manhattan skyline. It looked like the city of Atlantis rising from the sea. Also rising, but behind me, was the sun. And it was slowly illuminating the city from the top down. Like a curtain of gold falling ever so slowly, the spires, glass windows, and metal and stone structures were reflecting the sun’s light back to me, sending it dancing over the river of fog between us. I stood silently soaking it in. I was in New York City. The history of this amazing city was literally at my feet. And the island of Manhattan was offering me a curtain call. This was my New York minute.

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In the years since I have, sometimes desperately, wished that I had carried a camera with me that morning. I have even searched the internet and Googled “view of Manhattan from cemetery” in a lame attempt to find an image that captures some similar view which I could place in a scrapbook or here on this page. But that search is in vain. No image, still – or moving, could possibly hold the magic of that moment because it was more than the view which made it so singularly special. The events of the 19 years that preceded it were what gave it weight and meaning. The satisfaction of the previous day and the culminating and conflating sounds and smells that came together in that moment gave the visual before me its power. Had I held a camera between my eyes and the city that day, it could not have captured the fullness of the moment and might well have detracted from it- even for me. With a camera, I would have separated from the moment and become an observer of it, rather than a participant in it.

In the end perhaps some moments are truly beyond capture, and to attempt to capture them, is to lose them entirely.





Elephants Never Forget

21 09 2012

Barbara was just a kid the year that I spent with her, a very large kid, but a kid none-the-less. She was sweet, playful, curious, and even mischievous. And I loved her.  I was never sure how she felt about me. I did, however, have evidence of how she and Gus felt about each other. Gus was a Dalmatian mix who belonged to the show’s owner as a pet. He was not a performing dog. Every time the show pulled into another town, Gus would jump out of the window of the truck he rode in and immediately run to the gate on the back of Barbara’s truck and wait impatiently for it to be open. Once it was, he would run right in with Barbara and stay with her, weaving in and out below her feet until she was unloaded down the ramp. Somehow, Barbara managed to never step on Gus.

As Barbara and Gus did their little dance, it was my job to help run the hoses and fill the bucket for Barbara to have a drink. Yes… I got water for elephants. Often, Gus would run back and forth between me and Barbara barking as if to say “Hurry up woman! My friend is thirsty!” The hose that we used had a tiny spigot on the end of it with an even tinier little control switch. But if left within her reach, Barbara would grab it with her trunk and could use the finger at the end of that enormous nose to manipulate the lever and turn the spigot on. She would then pour the water straight into her mouth and occasionally turn the hose on Gus. At such times, Gus would bark madly and she would gently sway back and forth in response and then have another drink for herself.

The two of them had another favorite game that I had the joy of watching them engage in regularly. Gus would sit about 6 feet away from Barbara with his back to her. Barbara would then slowly reach her trunk out to him (often nonchalantly plucking pieces of grass as she reached) and then grab his tail and give it a quick but gentle tug. She would then very rapidly curl her trunk into the air and sway her head back and forth as though nothing had just happened. You could almost hear her whistling. Gus would bark and jump at her for a minute and then reposition himself with his back to her and wait for the next tug. The pattern would repeat a few times before the two moved on.

Unlike Gus, Barbara was a show performer. I had the joy of entering the tent on her back during every performance. Once in a while, though not nearly as often as with Gus, Barbara would play the little tug game with me– reaching out and giving a quick pull to my hair as we stood outside the circus tent waiting for our time to enter. I always felt honored when she chose to play with me this way as I knew it was really Gus’s thing. Barbara and I had our own little ritual though. When it was about time for us to go through the curtain toward the ring, she would offer me a boost up with her foot and once atop her neck I would always lean forward and give her a “hug.” She would in turn reach her trunk up and touch the side of my face.  I never minded the slime that she would deposit on my cheek. How could I complain about being lucky enough to be kissed daily by an elephant?

Still, Barbara’s heart belonged to Gus. The way the show lot was laid out that year placed the door from the truck that I called home right next to Barbara’s corral. On (rare) occasion, I would wake earlier than the animals did. One morning I opened the door and climbed down the steps to find Barbara lying completely on her side on the ground. It was odd and I ran around her body toward her head a bit concerned and was greeted with a low rumble almost like a growl. It stopped me in my tracks and I saw that she was looking directly at me with the one eye that was not pressed into the grass. Then I realized that the grumble was her way of shushing me. Barbara’s trunk was coiled in a perfect nest shape. And Gus was curled up asleep in the middle of it. She did not want me to disturb him.

Fast forward more than a decade. I had gone on to work for other shows and eventually ran away from the circus to join a home. But finally, one summer day, Barbara and the circus were near enough for me to visit. Though the show was under new ownership by then, there were a couple of old friends still on the road with it after all those years. When I arrived, the show was already unloaded and almost completely set-up. As I walked toward some familiar faces I passed by two large elephants. I had no idea which one was Barbara. She had grown and changed so much by then that I could not recognize her and either of the two gentle giants in the corral could be her. After some embraces I stood talking with a few folks, one of whom was Barbara’s new handler. Suddenly, the conversation was interrupted as I felt a quick but gentle tug on my hair. I whirled around. About six feet away from me stood Barbara, her trunk curled elegantly in the air as she swayed gently back and forth nonchalantly. In awe, I just stared.

My daze was interrupted as a voice behind me said “I think she’s happy to see you. Would you like to ride her?” What a question! Of course! I stepped toward my old friend and without prompting she offered her foot as a step. Moments later I was sitting what seemed like a mile above the ground atop her neck and I leaned forward to give her a hug. She did not skip a beat. Her trunk was up at my cheek planting slimy kisses on me.

Turned out, Barbara might have loved me a little bit too all those years ago, or then again, maybe I just reminded her of her old friend Gus. Regardless, she proved to me that the stories are true. Elephants never forget.





Hup!

17 09 2012

“Hup!” in circus lingo, is a call to action. “Hup!” means Jump or Move or Let Go. “Hup!” also means be alert or be cautious or be intentional. “Hup!” is both a physical AND mental command to action.

As a former trapeze artist, the sound of this command immediately sends adrenaline coursing through my veins. It causes the palms of my hands to sweat and every muscle in my stomach to tighten. It also makes me immediately more aware of my surroundings, of the people and the things around me. It calls my mind to clear focus and my heart to a place of brave respect for all that is at stake in the moment.

Now entering mid-life, my circus career is but a spec in the rear view mirror. The landscape behind me is littered with evidence of a young life full of diverse opportunities taken and tackled– I’ve swung in the heights of the big top, lead discussions of philosophical importance at the front college classrooms, tended the thirsts of drunken philosophers from behind a bar, led census teams through the inner-city, edited the work of well established scholars, and served the administrative needs of seminarians. I’ve been fortunate to find myself navigating before many an audience and my mind is filled with the wisdom and folly of the people I have encountered along the way.

I now find myself longing to take a different kind of leap than that to a tiny swing high in the air. The acrobatics now are mental and emotional ones, and political and religious ones. The challenges and risks, however, are no less dangerous and exciting. I rehearse routines in my mind continually, and I think it is time to put the show on the road.

So I enter this world of the blog. Like a performer about to test her skill in front of an unknown audience, I invite you to witness the three ring circus that runs through my brain. The subjects I write on as I go down this road are sure to be as varied as my past careers. At times my exploration of a topic may be well rehearsed and focused under the spotlight. Other times there may be multiple simultaneous displays that are clumsy and disjointed. Occasionally, I hope there is a blending of thoughts communicated in such a way that makes you volunteer to enter the ring and join me in a routine. What ever happens, I am sure to miss the bar more than I catch it, but I am ready for a new call to action.

So here we go… Ready?

“HUP!”








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