The Sideshow Influence (Part One)

mstrip3aAt the intersection of circus culture, rock culture, biker culture, and intellectual culture, a current flows–distinctly American in its independent spirit–just outside the mainstream.  It is rooted in the gypsy-like traditions of social drifters and outcasts, with their penchants for exaggeration, drama, and garishness, often with a dark bent.  It is a mindset cultivated on the fringes of polite society.  A style that harkens back to the days of the traveling freak show, in which a barker peddled to passersby some fantastical grotesquery just inside a tent, has managed to manifest in a variety of creative ways, from amusement park rides to tatted-up rockers to modern-day hipsters.  The accoutrements of the marginalized have surfaced on Main Street.


Attached to this broad-yet-identifiable style are a tough-minded pragmatism and a generous autonomy, and a willingness to embrace differences–even flaunt them–rather than tamp them down.  An assertive stubbornness shows in this countercultural questioning of much-accepted standards, seeing if what those standards are based in is anything more than just widely adopted prejudice.  One may find traces of this influence in places like the French Quarter, or at roller derby bouts and horror festivals, and lest it be thought that dark is synonymous with evil, let it be remembered that evil often wears a guise of moral uprightness–the guise of which is rooted in middle-class Victorian manners, which ironically is the exact time period when we begin to see the emergence of the traveling sideshow.


An early glimpse of this freak show aesthetic came to me in the late 1980’s in the form of a thrill ride at the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida.  The rides at this park could have been culled from any carnival—a tilt-a-whirl, a scrambler, something called a trabant—but they were given nuance by their housing within structures unique to their location.  The particular ride in mind was cheekily named Dante’s Inferno (not the only amusement ride with that name–see Coney Island), and it consisted of a black dome with a giant devil’s head attached whose gaping, fanged mouth served as the entrance.  The ride waiting inside could have been anything; the real fun was assured by the ride’s outer shell and the anticipation arising from waiting in a line that entered a wide, demonic grin and disappeared into a scream-filled darkness.  Yet the demonic visage was unthreatening.  Darkly playful is a fitting description.  No one standing beside those massive molars possibly could have felt they were in any real danger, and therein lies the key to the sideshow sensibility.  This is just the type of cheap thrill offered by the traditional traveling freak show, where much of the excitement is generated before one ever enters the tent.


The freak show remains an actual thing, perhaps most famously at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.  The major difference in the modern version of this historically notorious event is that the culture of it seems to be as much a part of the presentation as the performers themselves.  It is difficult to imagine the freak show without its particular trappings, such as the posters that illustrate the talents of the featured “freaks”.  These posters tend to present flat, almost cartoon-like figures with exaggerated and sometimes monstrous features.  The settings are depicted in lurid colors (lots of rich reds, ghastly greens, and pallid yellows, all with black outlines), and the descriptive text is rendered with elaborate, out-of-date fonts.  The focus has shifted from human deformities (like a third foot) to extreme feats and radical appearances, such as a sword-swallowing woman covered in tattoos.  Without this shift, it is questionable whether a freak show aesthetic could survive in our politically correct era.  Prolific chronicler of off-Broadway productions, Simi Horwitz, offers up an additional explanation for the sideshow’s enduring presence:  “The sideshow is pure Americana, a performing arts offshoot that has not yet been gussied up.”  It belongs to the world of folklore and myth, a realm once-removed from the subconscious.  It is a genre largely forgotten by time, written off by the tastemakers of contemporary society.  Their outsider status has enabled them to fly beneath the conventional radar for so long that a tremendous freedom of expression and identity has been allowed to thrive.


This is where we begin to see parallels between the sideshow and a host of other subcultures.  There are the tattoos so prevalent among bikers and rockers; the daredevil tactics of skateboarders and freestyle bicycle riders; the theatricality of actors and actresses; the racy routines of burlesque dancers; the physicality of roller derby girls; the graphic style of comic book artists; and even the bohemian pose and scruffy dandyism of hipsters.  All of these groups are marked by tight-knit inclusion–either you get it, or you don’t.  The majority of these groups eschew middle-class mores, regardless of upbringing, viewing such concerns as either disingenuous or as part of an establishment that does not have their interest in mind.  Likewise, these groups provide outlets for those who must find their identities outside the mainstream.  If current trends are any indication, this includes a significant part of the population.  The sideshow is alive and well.




Work Cited:


Horwitz, Simi.  “Sideshow Performers Define Themselves in the Modern World.”  24 Aug. 2011.  Web.  24 Aug 2011.





Love Thy Neighbor

800px-Red_state,_blue_state.svgWhile our elected leaders render each other ineffective, and as the cultural divide widens precipitously, a semi-political post feels in order at the outset of a new year.  And this is about as political as a post of mine will get, which is not even that political.  It is not a rally behind one group or the other, as I tend to resist the extremes of either side, but rather a call for pliancy.  Consider it an exhortation to remain open to the differences of our neighbors.  While we may not agree with each other on a prescribed set of social issues, at least we can acknowledge the right of everyone to hold their opinions.  This basic human function, of having a notion about something/anything, should be respected by all.  Likewise, just because someone else may agree with us, it does not give us license to join forces and attack our opposites.  Why do we need so desperately to win others over to our ways of thinking, or to crush anyone who may have contrasting ideas?  Why do we level such caustic scorn at those who view life through different eyes?  What are we afraid of?  Such defensive responses may betray a bit of insecurity–a possible cover-up for the fact that deep down we know that not one of us has all the answers.  So rather than admit our lack of control over an often chaotic existence, we fight.  And we end up more deeply divided than before.


Instead of stubborn adherence to an agenda–no doubt fueled by propaganda (there is no unbiased news, so long as it is issued by people with opinions, which is everybody)–what if we listened to what our hearts say?  What our lives have taught us?  I understand that statements such as these place me in danger of ridicule in certain circles, but I am willing to weather that criticism if it means a harmonious life among my fellow citizens on this shrinking planet, or if it means being seen as a source of acceptance rather than rejection.  What was ever accomplished by animosity?


Many of us wed our identities to the nation in which we were born.  Pride of place is commendable.  Yet nations are made up of people, and one unchanging piece of wisdom is that people change.  Nations adapt or else disappear.  It might be unhealthy to link so directly the trajectory of an individual with the trajectory of a nation.  Are not our lives more complex than even the mechanisms of a government’s policy-making machine?  The two extremes of the far left and the far right will never see eye-to-eye, and I proffer that it is not necessary that they do so.  Besides, most of us would admit to an ever-present suspicion that we can never know what truly is going on in Washington, anyway.  Journalists report on the actions of Congress, but there is no way to know everything.


Out in the world, where we work and live every day, we would do well to remember that a person’s perspective is never coincidental.  It was arrived at through a complex combination of geography, circumstance, and experience.  I suspect that few set out to be always disagreeable (though some may seem to).  Regardless, the thought life of another is not an indictment of our own, and we are not responsible for the ideas of another.  To assert the primacy of our own opinions over those of another is, at best, arrogant and, at worst, unfair.  Truth is not the sole province of either extreme.  Each side must acknowledge that, for the most part, the other’s intentions are good, as each pursues the course deemed most conducive to progress.  Can we not see that the only way to guard personal liberty is to allow others theirs?  One cannot have the benefits of liberty without its drawbacks.  One cannot cling to a concept and then set about trying to alter its very nature.  Therefore, if we are not able to love our dissenters, then at least we can embrace the mantra of “live and let live”, and trust that a power greater than our own is guiding the ship.  We can strive to maintain a baseline of civility, and replace the desire to destroy one another with a desire to see the good in one another.  It may be that the best we can hope for is to meet in the middle, which is better than the other option:  destruction.

Finding Stillness

P1000894Many moments of stillness occur just before dawn.  When our son was born thirteen months ago, my wife and I became morning people.  It was necessary to prepare for the day at a quiet, dark hour, so that we could get the jump on Arthur whenever he saw fit to wake up at an equally early hour.  To be forthright, I had been falling out of bed before sunrise for months to paint or write before going to the lab.  Yet this was different.  Before, the early rising had been elective; now, it was a requirement.  Lest anyone think this a source of contention, though, it was quite the opposite.  In addition to the fulfillment concomitant with Arthur’s care, there often were–and still are–moments of rarefied and unanticipated stillness.


September provided several such occasions.  The seasonable coolness of this year’s fall lured me out onto our deck, which faces a thick row of trees and tree-topped hills beyond.  We live in Nashville, but the landscape as seen behind our townhouse is arranged and adorned so, that was it not for the whoosh of traffic on Edmondson Pike, one could be led to believe they were visiting an area well outside the city limits.  On those mornings, with my coffee perched on the railing, I stood staring into the chill blackness, listening to the night noises.  After a small while, the faintest shade of steely blue light would begin to color the eastern horizon.  We sometimes recognize fine moments while we are in them.


Stillness, as understood here, is about being alone with the self.  It is about shutting off the song that is dominating all passive thought, or the quotidian concerns that lend anxiety to routine, and rediscovering the simple joy of being.  It is not about reading or praying (though I encourage both) but about finding time to do nothing other than wallow in your own quality of awareness, attuning the senses to the present environment and drinking in whatever it has to offer, whether it be a twilight chorus of tree frogs or the apocalyptic rage of a rush hour interstate.


Stillness is not limited to dark, quiet hours while the world sleeps.  Nor is it the sole property of reverential settings like churches or libraries.  It lies in wait at sporting events, at concerts, at wedding receptions–even at December shopping malls.  As with any inward effort, it may be achieved with more or less difficulty amid the clamor of a churning crowd.  Author Silas House, in an article addressed to aspiring writers, states that the object is to “learn how to become still in our heads”, later adding that we “must become multitaskers who can be still in our heads while also driving safely to work, while waiting to be called “next” at the D.M.V., while riding the subway or doing the grocery shopping or walking the dogs or cooking supper or mowing our lawns.”  There appears to be an art to this internal stillness of which House writes and of which I am attempting to write, something to be worked toward with a goal of mastery.  His article inspired me, but I do not believe the wisdom therein is limited to writers.  There is benefit to us all in moments of stillness, whenever and however we may capture them.



Work Cited:


House, Silas.  “The Art of Being Still.”  The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2012.  Web.  1 Dec. 2012.