Life and death. Death and life. Like the lyric from that saccharine song “Love and Marriage”: you can’t have one without the other.
I think the clowns would agree.
My wife and I and a few other couples went to the circus recently, which is not something we normally do, but we were offered free tickets by Bill-the-Handholder, who is called that because he holds his wife’s hand way too much, making it really hard for the rest of us non-affectionate husbands.
Our whole row, except for my daughter, was made up of 50-somethings, while sitting all around us were families with children, both big and small. The age difference didn’t matter though as we all gasped, and occasionally shrieked, in unison as the trapeze artists swung on thin ropes four stories above us, as the lion tamer stuck his head in the mouths of tigers and lions, as the dozen motorbikes spun round and round in the steel sphere, and as acrobats jumped through hoops of fire.
I had seen circuses before, granted mostly on TV in the last few decades, but for some reason on this particular night it finally dawned on me what it was about circuses that made them so popular.
I turned to my daughter to my left just as one of the clowns slid a two-foot long saber down his throat and asked her, “Do you know what all these circus acts are doing?”
“No,” I said. “They are cheating death.”
“Think about it. Every single thing done on that circus floor involves someone escaping death. That’s what we are celebrating—them not dying.”
My daughter’s brow furrowed.
I helped her along: “The trapeze artists not falling, the lion tamer not getting eaten, the motorcyclists not colliding in the steel ball …”
“Oh my God,” said my daughter, “you’re right.”
We both, almost on cue, looked at all the little children sitting around us with big smiles on their faces, bouncing up and down in their seats and clapping their hands in glee.
I turned to my right to talk to my friend, Happy-John, who is called that because he is always in a good mood and smiling. He was smiling when I started telling him my observation about how we were watching people cheat death under the guise of family entertainment, but he was frowning by the time I finished.
“You know,” said Happy-John, “you have a really twisted mind. Can’t you just enjoy the show?”
“Not now,” I said.
I’m sure if I had asked some of the parents there that night why they had brought their impressionable little kiddies to the circus, they too would have said they were there so their children could have fun because, “It’s just so entertaining!”
“Watching people almost die is entertaining?”
“Your kids are laughing and clapping because people in colorful costumes are cheating death. Don’t you think that’s a little macabre?”