Getting the circus metaphor right

img_2728Just because something has been around for a long time does not mean it will last forever. The Ringling Brothers circus has been going for something like 130 years. This year is its last. Modern audiences want different kinds of entertainment and shows involving live animals will always have high capital requirements (to say nothing of the ethics).

All that said, I have always liked the circus. So for its last showing in Philly, I sprang for front row tickets* and took the big kids. As expected, it was pretty spectacular. There were ice skaters on stilts, and people juggling fire, lions and tigers growling right in front of us, and a fabulous scene involving 8 motorbikes in a small metal sphere, circling so fast I wondered how they all fit in there. I think I said "oh wow," a few times out loud, and while the kids were sometimes ornery and wiggly there were some big grins too.

The more times I attend the circus, the more I am struck how inaccurate the life-is-a-circus metaphor is. When people say that life is a circus, they mean chaos. Too much going on, things flying everywhere. The circus is nothing like that. The circus has many moving parts, but everything is completely controlled and orderly. It has to be. When you've got acrobats suspended in clear orbs up in the air, ice skaters speeding past, people on unicycles circling through, clowns, motorcycles, and the ringmaster regaling the crowd, you have to have everything planned. Everyone knows where they are supposed to be, and they move as they are supposed to move. They are very good at what they do. The big cat trainer was dealing with one extremely recalcitrant and skittish tiger (he even said "uh oh, it's going to be one of those days") and yet by continually reassuring the tiger, and repeating the routine until she stayed with it (so she wouldn't feel even more off-kilter) he kept in control of the situation. The unexpected is planned for. My kids all got a laugh out of a mishap when one of the horses pooped in the ring. The action stopped for a minute as the stage hands rushed in to clean it up so the horses could keep running around the ring without risk of falling. At one point when two acrobats fell off a horse (all OK) one of the ringmaster assistants distracted the crowd as a handler grabbed the horses and the fallen acrobats quickly got up. They regrouped, attempted the trick again, and made it.

To use the metaphor right, if life is a circus, it has many moving parts, but they all work as they are supposed to work. Things go wrong, but someone has thought of how they might go wrong, and built that into the model. Business trips and deadlines and four kid sporting events on a weekend all fit together seamlessly. Sure, anyone attempting it knows that skating on stilts isn't easy. But the pros can make it look effortless. In fact, they can make it look fun.

*It's all relative. Philly's Wells Fargo center is right next to the football stadium, which reminded me that front row tickets for the circus were cheaper than mediocre seats for an Eagles game.

Photo: When you're in the front row, you hope the fence around those tigers is strong! 

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4 Responses to Getting the circus metaphor right


  1. Jennie says:

    I often refer to my life a “spinning plates.” You know those individuals who put plates on long sticks and spin plates on them. This is often how I feel about the parts of my life. Yes, it can be very stressful and difficult to keep so many parts moving and not drop anything that’s important. Yet, the plate spinners often have big grins on their faces and that’s how I feel too. I enjoy having all of that activity. Plate spinners often have an assistant who is handing them sticks and plates and taking some away. I have lots of people around me assisting me with getting them in the air. (Now the actual spinning is usually left to me.) The plate spinners don’t spin indefinitely. They do it for a while and then put it down. I do the same. Sometimes, I just put them all down as well.

    My life’s metaphor…I guess.

    • @Jennie – the spinning plates metaphor works too! Complicated but controlled.

  2. kathi Stanley says:

    Always enjoy your blog and how you manage your time with your busy family and career. As a lifelong animal lover and activist it is with a joyful heart I can say farewell to the Ringling Brothers circus. While children are being entertained, animals are being abused. Know it is now water under the bridge but your front row $$$s would have been better spent on a charitable donation to a recuse group or animal welfare group. Possibly the next generation will grow up with the understanding that animals are not here for our entertainment but are a part of the universe to be enjoyed and respected. Good riddance Ringling Bros and Sea World!!

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