Always Be Prepared
One thing I’ve learned in the past ten years is that if we’re all in a bad mood, it’s probably not going to be helped by staying home all day. Which is why on Saturday, with absolutely everyone whining, bickering, teasing, snarking, and generally being dreadful, we got on the Metro and went downtown. A museum or two was the first plan, but a friend tipped us off that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was on and just the word “Festival” began to shift the mood. “Like, with food and stuff? Can we have our own money to spend??” asked Mr. P.
Shmoogie was more wary, “Are we going to have to walk really far?” I said no, but it turned out her definition of “really far” was different than mine. Still, we had the most wonderful adventure, with drums and ice cream and joining the end of a very long but very swiftly moving line that swept us right into some of the last seats left in a real big top circus tent for an hour of astonishing acts from around the world.
The noise and adrenaline was a few notches past our family’s usual comfort level and there were some requests to leave, but whenever I said “OK, let’s go,” they said No, let’s stay.
Gymnasts from China made astonishing arrangements of their bodies atop five, then three, then two, then one moving bicycle. “That’s impossible!” said Mr. P, over and over.
A slow rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow accompanied a woman “from South America” who climbed a rope as if it were a staircase and wrapped herself in it dozens of ways to strike elegant poses with no apparent fear of falling, then make some imperceptible tug so that she did fall, beautifully, her hands and feet inscribing a few heart-stopping circles in the air before the remaining hitch caught her in yet another state of grace. I’d never seen anything like it, but, while the miracle of the open Internet lasts, it’s a thing you can watch on YouTube.
Things get blurry in my mind at this point. There were clowns (Mr. P says he’s afraid of clowns; I didn’t know but, also, he didn’t seem very serious about it) and a slapstick tumbling troupe and rollicking dancers who did the limbo under flaming poles while grinning men on 10’ stilts ran and danced around the ring (the flames frightened me, packed as we were into a *tent*, and I missed the lowest limbo while I was looking behind me for an emergency exit..). There was a group of male contortionists (another chorus of “That’s impossible!”). Acts from Cameroon, Rwanda, and Ghana, if I remember correctly. The ringmasters — from Johannesburg and… somewhere else in Africa but with a lengthy stop in London and then maybe the Caribbean? — distracted us between acts, getting us singing and dancing and bouncing huge beachballs around. That was entertaining enough that I have no idea how long it took them to bring in and set up the final act, the Wheel of Death, from Peru.
This is where I have some serious ethical qualms. I mean, it was extraordinary to see. An openwork steel beam on an axis with two steel hoop cages rimmed with handles mounted, one on each end, so that once they got it spinning, performers could jump inside the hoops and keep it going with the momentum of their running… or stop it to balance horizontal or vertical. But mostly it kept spinning and people kept hopping in and out of the wheels. One grabbed the handle on the outside and sailed up, centripetal force pulling his body away from the contraption until he swung himself inside the hoop at the apex. Then there were four people on the thing, one inside each hoop and one on top of each hoop, running and kind of dancing and then jumping and then jumping rope. Both of the jump ropers tripped at some point, but recovered themselves by grabbling the beam as their hoop descended.
And then came Carlos. “One of only three people in the world to attempt a front summersault on the Wheel of Death!” By this point I was holding the kids hands rather tightly (they’d been saying “That’s really dangerous!” for a while already and I could only tell them, "Yes, it is. But these people have practiced a lot.").
I thought of that guy that walked the tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. People that jump out of airplanes and do other astonishingly dangerous things. I can worry, and I certainly do, that attending a performance like this encourages people taking terrible risks for the sake of entertainment, but I can also marvel at brains and bodies that clearly operate on some other wavelength than mine. I can sit in the bleachers, shaking with fear, and watch this guy strutting around a steel hoop at the end of a rotating beam, looking utterly relaxed, playing to the crowd, and I can hold open the possibility that he might be enjoying himself. Even though Wikipedia says this act was out of favor for decades after a series of fatal accidents.
Carlos survived. I thought about not watching, but realized that was quite pointless, so I saw him retreat from flirting with the crowd to focus on the rhythm of the wheel, getting the feel of the spot on the top where rising turns to falling, the place where, for a few turns, he took a little jump, testing the timing and the distance before finally, terrifyingly, to the gasp of the crowd, he jumped higher and tucked and summersaulted and landed just in time to keep trotting along with the momentum of the thing. And then he did it again. And again, landing just a little back from where he intended, so he had to run faster and lean forward to grab the rail to recover his equilibrium. And then he did it again.
I was still shaky eating ice cream much later, after the Wheel was taken down, after the kids stood to take “The Ringmaster’s Pledge” of unity and respect across difference — You may have different beliefs, your skin may be a different color from mine, but we are all one human race, we are all equal! — after we found seats in the shade next to the outdoor trapeze where performers were practicing, swinging high and letting themselves fall limply into the net.
People. People are amazing.
Finally, we thought, we’ll see the Constitution at the Archives. Mr. P was especially excited about this and it was on the way home and (as it should be) free. We tried two entrances before finding the real one, which had a long line but it was moving well and the kids were committed so there we stood, enjoying the breeze that kept the heat quite bearable, and chatting with the couple behind us. The wind picked up and dark clouds came in while we checked smartphone forecasts and told ourselves it would blow over, but soon I was holding Bayboh, with the folding stroller balanced on my head in some hope of shelter and the other two kids were fighting to get closer to me even though that wasn't going to keep anyone any drier. I almost dragged them off home when we were thoroughly drenched and all of them were crying, but the suggestion put a stop to the crying, at least from the older ones, and we stuck it out.
Which is why we now all own souvenir t-shirts from the National Archives, both to save some of my modesty (a thin white shirt is a great choice for heat, but a poor choice to combine with a chance of thunderstorms and no umbrella) and to avoid hypothermia from taking small wet children on the air-conditioned Metro for up to an hour.
For next time, though, there are now some thin cheap ponchos stashed in the diaper bag.