Sunday, June 19, 2011

Side Show


Last week I was sitting around with some folks from my writing group and the topic of carnivals came up. I sometimes think that thoroughbred horse racing, and the entire alternate universe that it supports, could just possibly be the last American carnival. If you go to any county fair with racing, the argument only gets stronger. But as we sat around, postponing our work momentarily, we got off on topics like the circus. The circus has definitely morphed in recent years, but it does retain much of original charm, if not it's strong aura of the underbelly of this culture. Of course it's politically incorrect in every dimension. (Read or see the film "Water for Elephants" for a glimpse)
Eventually I told my fellow writers that I have a strong early memory of being taken to a real circus side show when I was very young. It was some time in the 1950s. I must have been 5 or 6 years old. My sister and I were invited by an older couple that lived across the street form us. Being a poor kid with no chance to see Barnum and Baily's Greatest Show on Earth, our parents let us go with them. In a tent to the side (really off to the side) I saw a man with alligator skin on his back, a giant (he drank a 6 pack of 7-UP all at once) a sword swallower, and a woman with no arms or legs. Thee was a real bearded lady; I think she was the fat lady too. Those terms were thrown around back then.
When this conversation ended, it occurred to me that we really haven't lost the side show at all. Just this morning, while making the daily trek to my favorite coffee shop I saw plenty of folks that would survive in a side show. So many mentally ill people on the streets these days. So many people that could have been drown by "The Far Side" cartoonist, Gary Larson. And that's just going from here to there. When I look at just last week's news, the attractions get stronger. We get the sexting congressman, the homicidal mother who is both a pathological liar and a sociopath. A team loses a hockey game and cars are overturned, buildings burned, and another generation loses the sense of civility.
Seems to me the antidote to all these things might be ethics and empathy. If we felt what others felt, or even stopped to think about what another might feel like, if we stopped and thought about what might be the right thing to do when our emotions are raw, we might end the side show once and for all.

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