Sunday, April 30, 2006


April 29, Los Osos, California.

We left Ventura and the ocean behind, reluctantly. Even though Los Osos is also a coast town the circus is set up far from the water here. As Little Sister Priscilla said, the circus sets up in a place as if it were going to stay forever and the place becomes ours, if only for a day. Ventura was easy to claim.
But we had to leave, as always. This endless moving teaches you detachment in many ways, detachment from place as well as detachment from people, as friends come and go, to other shows, other places, other continents. No place is ever ours in the circus, just as eventually no place is anybody's to claim anywhere, we are just passing by here on earth - the foolishness of claiming anything, or anybody, as truly your own.
The circus life's constant rhythms of change is also a reminder of the need to begin each day anew and live in the present moment.
Taking care of a baby will do that, too. Dylan changes every day in an obvious manner (last week he grabbed his feet for the first time, tremendous accomplishment for a five-month-old) and it reminds me that each of us do, too, only in much subtler ways. We change physically, as our cells die and others replace them, we change inwardly, as our views are constantly shaped by our life, and as a result we're never looking at the same person in the mirror. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, it is never the same person walking down the same path.
The universality of all human thought across widely differing faiths and cultures, another useful cliché to remember for a saner world: what the Little Sisters see as a reaffirmation of their Catholic faith I see as Buddhist philosophy.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The wanderer.

April 27, Ventura.

Dylan was born on the eastern seaboard, a few miles from the Atlantic ocean. Now he's crossed an entire continent and is taking in the Pacific. El bebe viajador.
He began traveling as a bunch of cells. He was conceived on the road, in Beaumont, Texas, where Fridman was contracted for a few shows, and then traveled - agárrate Fridmanito! - from Oklahoma to Florida and back, to Jersey City and New York City, on to France for a while, to Paris, the French Alps and the French Riviera, back to the States in Paris, Texas (hello, Wim Wenders,) and finally on to Savannah, Georgia, where he was born on November 14, a Monday.
Will he be a wanderer like his father and me? Living abroad you lose your ties to your country in a way that can't be undone and end up being from nowhere, a hundred times more so when you're constantly on the move. That's the price to pay for seeing more places in a month than most people will see in their lifetime. I often wonder if my son will miss that sense of being from a place, of belonging to a place the way people do when they are born and raised in the same town, the same house.
On the Sunday before he was born we had gone to the beach on Tybee island. I like to think he decided to join us the next day because he wanted to see the ocean, the wanderer's realm. Dylan is a Gaelic name that means "son of the sea."
He was not named with the sea in mind but after Bob Dylan, in honor of my brother, Patrick, who died at 29 in a car accident, and who simply revered the folk legend. The irony is that Patou didn't speak a word of English, learnt the words haphazardly studying the songs. I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and learnt the melodies by heart, his songs the background lyrics to my adolescence, their significance revealed years later.

If not for you,
Babe, I couldn't find the door,
Couldn't even see the floor,
I'd be sad and blue,
If not for you.

If not for you,
Babe, I'd lay awake all night,
Wait for the mornin' light
To shine in through,
But it would not be new,
If not for you.

If not for you
My sky would fall,
Rain would gather too.
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all,
I'd be lost if not for you,
And you know it's true.

If not for you
My sky would fall,
Rain would gather too.
Without your love I'd be nowhere at all,
Oh! What would I do
If not for you.

If not for you,
Winter would have no spring,
Couldn't hear the robin sing,
I just wouldn't have a clue,
Anyway it wouldn't ring true,
If not for you.
(Bob Dylan, If not for you, in the New Morning album, 1970.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

California surprises.

April 26, Ventura.

As I walked down the waterfront with Dylan asleep in the stroller I stopped to read information panels on the area's environment and learnt a few surprising things about this area of southern California.
Ventura's beaches line the Santa Barbara channel, "one of the biologically richest areas of the world. The channel is located in a biogeographic transition zone, where Northern and Southern marine plant and animal species mix when cold waters from the north and warm currents fro the south converge, producing a swirling eddy called the Santa Barbara Gyre."
In the distance you could see an island, faintly, and imagine others at its side, smaller. I learnt on another panel that those were part of the Channel Islands. The three islets on the left are the Anacapa Islands, and the big one on the right is called the Santa Cruz Island. These islands are home to more than 100 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.
Trying to learn a little bit every day, pour ne pas mourir idiote. The more you learn, you more there is to discover, the old cliché. The immensity of the task both a condemnation and the ultimate fun.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The first day.

April 25, Ventura.

There is nothing like the first day.
Out to greet the ocean again this morning and the world was altogether different. Nobody was out. Under a threatening sky the ocean like a stone. The sudden thought that you can't hear the ocean for the constant background noise of the freeway, a few hundred yards back (there is hardly a place in southern California you can go to escape that noise; it used to drive me crazy living in Riverside.)
There is nothing like the first day in a new town with the circus, everything fresh, like an early morning. I've always liked to get up at the crack of dawn and feel like the world belongs to me, all the hours of the day still ahead. It is the same feeling on that first day, and it disappears just as quickly as the passing hours erase that morning promise. Life in the circus is an endless renewal, un éternel recommencement, and for the looming unknown of the upcoming trip upon leaving town there is always the promising eternity of the few days ahead upon arriving in a new place.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Ocean view on the go.

April 24, Ventura, California.

This morning after the baby woke me up early I walked to the beach and introduced him to the Pacific ocean.
It was a perfect California morning: blue skies, soft breeze, jogging Moms pushing strollers, a forty-something hippie on a bike, surfers waiting for the wind to pick up, tall and toned and blond, the ocean deep blue.
The circus is set up at the Seaside Park in Ventura, a few yards from a surfers' beach. Think of it as a room with an ocean view for a few days, rent-free. It doesn't get much better than that.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Men at work (circus glossary.)

April 22, Palmdale.

The Who's Who of Circus Chimera (work in progress):

Jim Judkins: owner, big boss - United States
Roy Ordaz: manager, announcer, truck driver, boss - United States
Jay Summers: lights boss, truck driver, homme a tout faire (handyman) - United States
Martin Romero: tent manager, pony ride owner and manager - Mexico
Carlos Nunez (ie, el tio Tito): cook house manager, truck driver - Argentina
Armando Mendez Ventura: accountant, driver, the one everybody loves on Thursdays (pay day) - Mexico
Gustavo Gamero Aguilar: route planner, water supply provider, homme a tout faire (handyman) - Mexico
Jorge Cepeda Martinez: concession - Mexico
Francisco Platas Hernandez: lights - Mexico

Ekaterina Bazarova: contortionist and gymnast, playing Alice - Russia
Marvin Parada Blanco: clown - Mexico
Fridman Torales Ríos: gymnast, playing the Mad Hatter (rolla bola) and the Cheshire Cat (upside down walk) - Perú
"the Russians":
Evgueni Naidenkine (ie, Genia): clown, pater familias
Bérengère Naidenkine: hulla hoop act, playing the Caterpillar, step-Mom, the other Frog
Vilen Naidenkine: gymnast, strap act, eldest son
Alexandre Naidenkine (ie, Sasha): gymnast, strap act, youngest son
the Chinese: four girls and four boys, names pending transcription

Other workers
Rosalino Aburto Gonzalez (ie, Charlie) and Edith Gonzalez Mora: rides and tent worker and office femme a tout faire (multi-task office woman), respectively, married with a baby
Rafael Herrera Mancilla: cook
Maria Luisa Bello Gallindo: cook
Oscar Ventura Galvez: tent, driver
Higinio Alvarez Salazar (ie, Fuji): lights worker, driver
Aldo Roano Hernandez: tent, driver
Efrain Tochihuitl Hueletl: tent, driver
Saul Perez Mora: tent worker, coloring book artist
Isauro Colio Apodaca: tent
Fernando Perez Mora: tent
Agustin Rivera Chavez: tent
Melecio Rivera Chavez: tent
Celerino Rivera Chavez: tent
Arturo Apolinar Barrios: tent
Carlos Apolinar Barrios: tent
Cesar Mena Roman: tent, music
Sergio Mena Roman: tent, office
Corey Duggan: tent, only gringo in that group.
(list not extensive) - all are from Mexico except Corey.

Circus Chimera cast (March.)

Dylan et al.

April 22, Palmdale.

Just felt like posting pictures of Dylan and us.
Taken by my friend Carrie last Thursday in Hemet.
Maybe because I finally found that documentary movie by Martin Scorsese on Bob Dylan I so wanted to see?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Ups and downs.

April 21, Palmdale, California.

For what it cost Circus Chimera to play Big Bear Lake you could buy yourself a nice little car, brand new. The rides up and down the San Bernardino mountains cost a total of more than $13,000 in repairs to pickup trucks, vans and semis.
Big Bear Lake, a scenic ski and hiking resort, sits at 6,754 feet in the San Bernardino mountains above the Inland Empire area. State highway 18 goes up to the village on either side of the mountains, and either way it is a steep road, only a shorter one on the east side from Apple Valley, the way the circus went.
On the way up two big rigs didn't make it, their differentials broken, "the rear end," as Jay said. El tio Tito and others had to drive down to haul them up the rest of the way with other trucks, working until 4 o'clock in the morning. Cost of the adventure: $10,000 in parts and diesel. As with everything else in the circus, the work is done in-house, by Jose Lopez, the circus' mechanic, and others. The two differentials were fixed only a few minutes before the circus left on Wednesday night. And that was only half the trip, the most dangerous one by far still ahead.
The sign at the start of the downhill stretch said: "Caution, Trucks Go Slow,16% grade next 6 miles." All of the circus' private trucks and trailers except ours and the truck hauling Charlie and Edith's trailer lost their brakes during the downhill trip, which seemed a lot longer than six miles.
Both Jim's truck and trailer brakes caught on fire and he had to use his fire extinguisher to put it out. The brakes on the truck hauling Marvin's house also caught on fire, with Goyo at the wheel, as well as the brakes on the trailer. The brakes on Jay's truck, with Charlie driving, the brakes on el tio Tito's truck, with Oscar driving, and the brakes on the little truck hauling the restrooms all gave way. Aldo was driving that one and when his brakes didn't respond he managed to stop by driving off into the side of the road. He was almost there: half a mile more and the road finally leveled off. The brakes on the big common fifth-wheel trailer, driven by Armando, and the ones on both Roy's truck and trailer also gave way.
The truck hauling the shop, with Fuji at the wheel, burnt its brakes halfway down and went on down the hill butting against the truck hauling the plant, with Jay at the wheel. "Between my truck and the shop's, I was holding about 125,000 pounds," said Jay. The plant truck, a double-load big rig, weighs about 80,000 pounds, and the shop truck, a small pickup, about 33,000.
"Three thousand dollars in brakes," said Jay. "So far."
But nobody was hurt, everybody made it down the hill and to the next town. People at Circus Chimera will not forget Big Bear Lake any time soon, but this is not the only challenge it will have to face.
There is still a long road ahead.

Martin Romo Silva (left) and Jose Lopez Sauceda at work replacing the front brakes on Martin's truck.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Carpe diem.

April 19, Big Bear Lake.

My friends Carrie and Silvia came by again for dinner last night from Riverside. They are photojournalists at The Press-Enteprise, they were my colleagues when I was working there.
I miss shooting with them. I miss shooting. I miss being out there every day and making pictures, meeting new people, being cold and being hot, being tired and being bored, learning every day, not ever doing the same thing every day. I miss the camaraderie, my photojournalist friends. I miss the newsroom, the hustle and bustle, the deadlines, the adrenaline. I miss being a daily photojournalist.

There wouldn't be no Dylan if I had stayed there.
How I would miss his very existence.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Petite Soeur Priscilla et le funambule (rough draft.)

April 18, Big Bear Lake.

Little Sister Priscilla was born in the circus. Taking the vows of the Little Sisters of Jesus Catholic congregation did nothing to stop her from spending her life in it, on the contrary.
It is a familiar story for circus people: her mother met her father, a circus performer, and joined the circus. He was from a Swiss circus family, the Bühlmanns, a high wire artist. Un funambule. He died after falling during a performance where he rode a motorcycle on the wire when Priscilla was just four. She was born in 1931 in Morges, in Switzerland, near Lausanne, because that's where the circus was at the time. Priscilla was up on the high wire with her mother before she was born. "Mom walked the high wire with me in her belly up til when she was seven or eight month pregnant," she said.
After her father's death her mother took her and her one-year-old sister to live with her grandmother in Lausanne. She didn't have a profession so she worked as a waitress. When Priscilla was a teenager she wanted to go to boarding school but was refused entrance when it was found out that she was from a circus family. She took to hiding her background after that, and distancing herself from circus life. But destiny had something else in mind, or the Lord did, she would say. She joined the congregation of the the Little Sisters of Jesus in 1953 and took her final vows in 1961. "I wished to work in a factory," she said, but the Little Sisters found out about her family and Little Sister Magdeleine, the founder of the order, encouraged her to go back to the circus. Little Sister Magdeleine, or Magdeleine Hutin, as she was known before taking the vows, founded the Little Sisters of Jesus following the path of Brother Charles de Foucauld, a monk who chose to live an eremitic life among Muslim desert tribes in North Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century and founded a spiritual family from which sprung several orders within the Catholic church in France.
Little Sister Priscilla joined the Little Sisters at Circus Knie in 1961, and she's been on the road ever since. After working with several circuses in Europe she came to the United States following Little Sister Magdeleine's wish to see the sisters increase their presence on other continents. The Little Sisters order has about 1,200 members. It is based in France but is present around the world, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, including Iraq. There was already a group in the U.S. and Little Sister Joelle had expressed the desire to work in a circus; Little Sister Priscilla joined her in Washington D.C. in 1968. They've been on the road together in the U.S. for 28 years.
Little Sister Priscilla turns 75 this year, and she and Little Sister Jo, who's in her sixties, decided not to travel full-time anymore. From now on they will work with a circus for a while then take the rest of the year to go into retreats and stay with different Little Sisters' congregations in the U.S.
Little Sisters Priscilla and Hélene-Renée left yesterday. We didn't say goodbye, they don't like to. We'll see each other down the road, here or there, in the circus.

Little Sister Priscilla in front of Circus Chimera (April 1.)

Glorious moon.

April 17, Big Bear Lake, California.

Two of the circus trucks didn't make it to Big Bear Lake, up in the San Bernardino mountains.
In order to avoid the longer road up the mountains from Hemet down in the valley, Gustavo, the "24-hour man," who maps the route for the circus among many other things, had us go all around them via the I-215 and 15 freeways to California state highway 18 on the other side of the San Bernardino National Forest, instead of driving up that same road from the Riverside area. The stretch of mountain road on the desert side is three times as short but it is just as steep, and two of the big rigs gave up half way to the top.
Our Dodge truck, a 3500 dually diesel engine truck, was struggling all the way, and we were worried about it too, but it did fine. I went all the way up at 15, 20 miles an hour in second gear, watching the gauge for signs of overheating, alternatively behind and in front of Fridman and his big rig.
The road was beautiful. I don't remember driving it when I was working in the area because we would always drove from the west side. Near the top of the ridge we were greeted by a glorious moon, jumping out in front of us, bathing the whole mountain in silver light, disappearing behind a curve and startling us again around the next, playing hide and seek, big enough to touch.
And this morning I woke up to the sight of a mountain slope draped in immaculate snow. Big Bear was one of the few good things about living in Riverside.

Monday, April 17, 2006

An Easter parable.

April 16, Hemet.

I, the non-believer, had hoped for a miracle. I'd hung on to the belief that my cat would come back to me on Easter.
She did.
We found Gramo after the Easter mass last night. She was inside the wooden boxes that close the ring. Sister Priscilla came knocking on the door of our trailer to say that they were hearing a cat crying somewhere in the ring; we rushed back to the tent in time to see her running out like a fury, terrorized. It took three of us to corner her behind the ring's curtain.
She could have manifested herself during the Thursday mass and the Friday congregation, but she chose Easter. This morning I'd written my mother about the symbolism of Easter - rebirth, regeneration, Christ coming back - and how I wished Gramo would come back to me then. This was one of the times when I wished I were a believer, I added. If there had been more people at mass they wouldn't have heard her. She would have come out when they were taking down the tent tomorrow night, and she would have panicked at the noise and chaos and run away again, probably never to be found. She waited for the end of the Easter mass and cried.
Voila, c'est Paques. I hugged the Little Sisters and then hugged them again, my little blue-eyed cat in my arms. This is Easter.

The mass began with a fire outside.
Father Bob said: right now this is only a bunch of twigs and paper; only when I light it will it be a fire. He was referring to the symbolism of Easter of course - there was darkness and then the light of Christ resurrected. To me it brought to mind the teachings of Buddhism on the ever changing quality of all living things: the fire is already present in the match.
After the symbolic lighting of the fire and of each person's candle there was a procession back inside the tent to the ring. Afterwards everyone was treated to a hot chocolate and Easter eggs. Father Bob took off his robe, said goodbye to the sisters and got into his rented PT Cruiser to go spend the night at the local parish before flying back to Cincinnati. I went back to the trailer to write this and ponder my epiphany.

There is something special about mass at the circus, even for a non-believer like me. Maybe it is the fleeting quality of life here, the not knowing if you'll be together tomorrow as friends are constantly separated and reunited again in travel, the detachment it teaches you, as Sister Priscilla said. Maybe it is the humility of life at the circus, the hard work and bare bones and simple things and simple joys. Maybe it's the similarity of this nomadic life with that of Jesus.

Happy Easter.

Friday, April 14, 2006


April 15, Hemet.

Today it rained all day, and in my heart too.

There was a mass in the tent last night, the first of the Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday trilogy. The Thursday mass is called the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper.
As with the mass this month this one was held in the tent, around the ring. Father Robert Poandl flew in on Wednesday from Cincinnati. He belongs to the Glenmary Home Mission, a North American religious group dedicated to the poor, and used to be a priest in Hugo, Oklahoma, a small town home to several circuses and where Circus Chimera has its offices. There were about 25 to 30 people attending. Sometime towards the middle of the mass, Father Bob asked for volunteers for the ritual washing of the feet. "The dirtiest feet first," he said, breaking the ice. Thirteen people came up - or twelve and a half, the priest joked, as one of them was Marvin, the midget clown. They sat down in the ring, and took their shoes and socks off. Luckily this was a warm and balmy night in southern California.
The service ended with a procession for the transfer of the Holy Eucharist to the Little Sisters' chapel. The chapel is in the back of their truck, but many people had never seen it. They went in three at a time, after the eucharist was placed there symbolically.

I missed the mass entirely because I was looking for Gramo, my little blue-eyed cat, after walking the streets all day calling her.
It became evident that I'd lost her for good early this morning when I opened my door to a silent lot. I'd hoped the quiet of the night would let her find her way back to us and I'd open the door and find her there, waiting for me.
I'm heartbroken beyond what I could imagine possible, this being a pet after all. I lost Yogi, my other cat, once, many years ago, when a roommate took him and dumped him off on the side of the road 18 miles away, as I found out later. Yogi came back. I don't know how, but he found his way back, crossing highways and suburbs,and nearly starving to death. It took him three weeks. I wish I had that kind of time to let Gramo find me. My only consolation is that she was born on the streets so I know she'll be OK taking care of herself out there, she's a tough cookie. The other possibility is that someone took her, disregarding the fact that, being well fed and wearing a collar, she's obviously somebody else's pet. Judging from the number of abandoned cats we saw in the Hemet animal shelter today, there is no end to people's selfishness.
Ugliness is all around.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Win some, lose some.

April 13, Hemet.

Good news: my friends Carrie and Silvia came by today to visit and meet Dylan.
They were my colleagues at The Press-Enterprise and are two great photojournalists.

Sad news: Gramo, one of my cats, got lost last night, slipped out of the trailer and never came back, probably got chased off by a stray or just got scared and run off. I only stop crying when Dylan smiles, which luckily is often. It's hard to be sad for long with a baby around.

Three girls and a baby: Silvia, Dylan, Mudshowgal and Carrie.

Saul's dream (rough draft.)

April 13, Hemet.

Saul Perez Maro, 25, is of medium height, strongly built. He's prompt to laugh and his laugh is especially contagious. He is one of the crew of tent workers at Circus Chimera, where he also works with the ponies.
Saul is deaf by birth. He was born and raised in Talapacoyan, a small town in the state of Veracruz, in southern Mexico. Of his three siblings two are hearing; an elder brother who died young of cancer and Fernando, his other brother, who is with him at Circus Chimera. His sister is deaf; she works as a seamstress in Mexico. Saul came to the United States thanks to a chance encounter with Jim Judkins, Circus Chimera's owner. He flourished there mainly as a result of Jim's dedication.
When Jim was visiting at the house of his recruiting liaison in Mexico he was asked if there could be a job for three deaf workers. "I said why not, they're like everybody else, they can work like anybody else," he recalled, adding his own comments while interpreting Saul's signing during an interview. Jim brought only two of the three youth to Circus Chimera with him that year, Arturo and Saul. The mother of the third one was scared, he said, of what would happen to her son. Agustin came a year later.
Saul and his deaf friends didn't know how to read and write, and they had their own sign language. There was no school for the deaf or other accommodations for deaf children in Talapacoyan, so there was no possibility for a school education.
Once they got the circus in the United States Jim looked for ways to help them learn. "We got children's books, pictures, dictionaries, we got on the internet and looked for sign language," Jim said as he told me how they went about to teach the youth to read, write and sign. "We would write down the English and Spanish word and then sign it. It took seven months before they would get it; they're smart but they had to get the idea. Once the light struck it was very rewarding." Saul, Arturo and Agustin learnt English sign language because it was the only one Jim could find on the internet.
Saul still can't read a book but he's got the basic concept of how to read and write. He's also become something of an artist: he's now drawing for the coloring books the circus sells at intermission. Jim was also proud to say that he got him his driver's license.
When asked if he dreamt of something for himself when he was growing up it was evident that the very notion was entirely foreign to him. I realized then how very specific to affluent societies that notion is. Talapacoyan is in the southern part of Mexico, a poor, underdeveloped region. It is an agricultural town. The only two jobs there are picking fruit or being a carpenter.
That's what Saul wanted to do until Jim came around. Saul's Dad left when he was three years old and his mother worked in a tortilla factory baking tortilla to support the family. Now he's sending money home to her so his family can have their own house. Only he sends money; his brother Fernando has his own family to support in Mexico. Saul's already bought the land and they're building a house on it. He's got a girlfriend too and is starting a family: she's now pregnant.
Saul doesn't need to have a dream; he has something better: for the first time in his life, a future on his own terms.

Casual bedfellows.

April 11, Hemet, California.

The Little Sisters traveled with a mouse since Brownsville, Texas, where the circus started the season back in January. It didn't do much damage to their food supplies so they didn't mind it that much. They never even saw the thing. And they found out that it had stacked grains of rice in the rock cradle of a tiny baby Jesus plastic doll they have on the mantel around their kitchen table. It brought the rice there from a bag under the sink, little by little, accumulating a little cache, making the doll a pillow. Then it left. That rock didn't look comfortable to me either.

Physical for Dylan today, finally. $120 for 10 minutes, everything OK, he's strong as a mini horse: 7 kgs 3 (16 pounds) and 63 cm (23 inches.) "Chunky," I think the doc called him. We're trying to figure out where he gets that from, since Fridman is 5 feet 3 and an athlete with no fat to be found anywhere on his body and I'm 5 feet 2 and what people like to call petite (a broad generic adjective meaning small or short in French that is used to describe anything from a planet to a ladybug.)

Interview yesterday with Saul Perez Maro, one of the tent workers, with Jim interpreting since Saul is deaf and mute. If this was a strict journalistic piece there would be a problem here since Jim is Saul's boss, but I'm making the rules as I go, and there are no other possibilities at the circus for sign language interpreting anyway.
He had asked me to take pictures of him when he's at work, and for my project too I wanted to talk to one the three deaf and mute workers Jim brought from Mexico; I always thought they would make a great story. So the interview was for both the project and for a new section on the behind the scenes at the circus I'm working on for the Chimera web site. Turns out I was right, Saul's life makes for a typical immigrant's hard work and overcoming the odds parable, always a great story.

Monday, April 10, 2006


April 10, Hesperia.

It's a little after six o' clock in the morning and the baby just woke me up. Fridman and I went to bed at 2 AM. Dylan didn't take any naps again yesterday and needed constant attention from when he woke up at 7 AM until 9 PM when he finally crashed. I wish the little buggers came with a user's manual. And I'm going to have to start going to bed earlier if I don't want to crash myself.
Good thing is, between the baby, the laundry, cleaning the house, cooking, working on the web and trying to take pictures a person hardly ever gets bored.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Tent tales (unfolding.)

April 9, Hesperia.

More on the circus tent, or how a giant rises every other day.
It never ceases to amaze me how sheer arm power, or this little group of some 30 Mexican guys, sets up a tent that big and everything in it in such a short time. Everyone knows its role, there is not a second lost, it's like a well-oiled factory in the open, and one minute you're in the middle of a normal parking lot, the next there's a huge tent there, flags flowing in the wind and the 1000-and-some seats inside all neatly lined up. It's done in less than five hours. Martin Romero, of Mexico, is in charge.
It goes something like this. First all the stakes that anchor the tent are driven into the ground, or sometimes asphalt, by a truck. The metallic pounding sound has become familiar; its rythms the mornings in which we set up in a new town. Since it only takes a couple of guys to do that job, most workers take the opportunity to have breakfast during that time. Then the truck with the tent on its bed positions itself in the exact middle of the area where the tent is going to be raised. From the bottom of the bed workers in groups of a dozen take out the four steel beams that will be the structure of the tent, in four pieces they assemble on the ground plus two pieces that go across at the top. Each piece is about 15 meters long. They are then raised with a system of cables and hand pully and good old-fashioned arm strength (see photo.up )
Next the tent is pulled off the bed of the truck and up to the top and from there unfolded in four successive panes, each one being carried off the truck to the anchor stakes by a group of two dozen workers. The panes are tied to each stake around the whole circumference of the tent and tightened, and two workers then tie them together from the ground to the top of the tent. Meanwhile the other workers are setting up the stands, benches, chairs and ring as the electricity crew sets up and wires all the lights and the sound crew the music equipment.
Outside all the while others have been setting up the various rides and attractions that line the entrance to the tent. There is also the pony rides; it's Saul's job to take the ponies out of their trailer, clean and feed them and get them ready for the day (more on Saul on a later posting.) Finally the concession people have also been getting their truck ready for the day's business, shopping for supplies and loading them up.
We on the performers' side, meanwhile, have been happily sleeping the morning away after a late night driving to the lot, and gradually emerge to go about hooking our trailers up, the water will usually come much later, stepping out to find the tent shining in the mid-day, the giant arisen once again. For a couple of days, until the next resurrection.

Photo 1
The beams are raised (April 5.)

Photo 2
Securing the tent to the anchor stakes (March 27.)

Photo 3
Securing the tent panes together (March 8.)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Adding Alice.

April 8, Hesperia.

Jim and Roy have started making changes to the show to make it more Alice in Wonderland-like.
That's the theme of this year's show but until now it has not been much, well, showing (somebody give me a thesaurus, for God's sake.) The problem was that Guennadi (artistic director, master clown) had started working on it but he was thrown out on the eve of the opening so it stayed sort of half baked, with an Alice opening and finale and not much related to the story in between. Like Bérengere's hulla hoop act with her fishnet stockings and high black boots and its heavy metal music. In the new and improved version Marvin the midget clown runs around the ring at intervals during the show to Roy's voice-over of "It's late! It's late!" and Bérengere will have to work the hulla hoops in a caterpillar costume, complete with little feet dangling from her legs. Her sons, Sasha and Vilen, will do their strap act in the same costumes they're using, sort of army green leotard, but with huge masks added, which might be a slight problem when they work head to head. A seamstress, a friend of the Little Sisters called Ann, should be here next week to do the new costumes. At this time this is I can report concerning the show's updates at Circus Chimera. Most days now I'm stuck in the trailer because it's become hard to go out with Dylan and sit still for more than about three minutes, and he hardly sleeps at all during the day anymore. Like Fridman kindly said earlier today, you wanted a baby, take it.
In the bad news department, the Little Sisters are not staying until the end of May, as I thought, but only until the 18 of this month, just after Easter, that is, barely more than a week from now. So quickly gone. We'll lose our guardian angels and Dylan his most fervent admirer.

Dylan de cinq a sept.

Glory days.

April 7, Hesperia, California.

I stepped out this morning to see the San Bernardino mountains gloriously capped in white.
Southern California saw heavy rainfall in the past few days and that means snow in the mountains. Memory lane: when I lived in Riverside I remember days like this when you'd be among palm trees and look up to see snow-capped mountains in the distance, glowing fiercely in the Southern California sun. Nice. Reality check: it would happen about twice a year because the rest of the time you couldn't see past your windshield for the smog.

The Russians are back!

April 6, Barstow.

They arrived in the late afternoon today after four days of non-stop driving, all the way from Pennsylvania where they had a show engagement. Genia looked like a character out of a Jim Jarmush movie, I'm thinking Stranger than Paradise, his blond hair all tousled and a three-day beard. They'll be back in the show tomorrow.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tent tales.

April 5, Barstow, California.

The circus is parked on a shopping mall parking lot hardly bigger than the circumference of the tent.
The tent is a little more than 16, 000 feet square feet, extending to some 20, 000 if you count the area covered by the anchor stakes and the area we had to park in is probably about 30, 000 square feet. In it you had to fit seven double-load trucks and eight trailers, keeping in mind safety rules and access.
Under pouring rain and after driving some two and a half hours of a dangerously wet mountain desert road from Twentynine Palms last night, Fridman somehow managed to do that. I waited for him until four, then went to bed. The baby woke me up at seven.

Exact dimensions of the Circus Chimera tent:
147 feet from sidewall to sidewall (or 45 meters)
180 diameter from stakeline to stakeline
210 diameter from anchor stake to anchor stake
Total square feet inside the tent: 16, 365
Maximum seating: approximately 1,600.
The tent is designed and built by Canobbio, an Italian company among the best in the business.

Setting up the tent (February 9.)

Morning prayers, Marines.

April 4, Twentynine Palms.

This morning Sister Priscilla was praying by the little pond behind the circus when she heard some noises and turned to find Marines in full combat gear crawling in the sand.
The little sisters have a gift for finding places and things of beauty everywhere they go to with the circus, no matter how ugly and forlorn the surroundings. When they find this place they go there to pray, or just to find peace. I remember visiting them at the Carson and Barnes Circus and on the table in their trailer there would be a little bunch of wild flowers, or just one flower sometimes, or a rock with a distinct shape one of them had found during a walk. A celebration of beauty, joy and life in the simplest form. The dashboard of their truck is lined with odd-shaped roots and wood, rocks and pebbles. A testimony to the Little Sisters' religious reverence for life and all things there, but also of their humility and integrity. It is a reflection of their faith but goes beyond that to embrace us in love. It reminds me of the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a wonderful Buddhist monk from Vietnam I admire and look to for inspiration and guidance.
Here at the base there was a salt pond right behind the tent. In itself it was not beautiful or even natural but in a grove of trees nestled on its shore (I need to look up what kind of trees they are) one miraculously entered an oasis of nature and peace. That's where Sister Priscilla went to sit down and pray, until the Marine surprise.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Joshua dreams.

April 3, Twentynine Palms Marine Base, California.

Back in California, where I used to live.
I worked as a photojournalist with The Press-Enterprise, a newspaper based in Riverside, an hour east of Los Angeles. Or Homicide Riverside, as my friend and fellow Press-Enteprise photojournalist Carrie calls it. The area is called the Inland Empire, a rather bombastic name as they go. Riverside county and San Bernardino county, its neighbor, share the sad distinction of being the most polluted region of the country. All the smog from the Los Angeles area gets pushed by ocean-born winds plus its own sitting above it like a dirty camisole, blocked there by the San Bernardino mountains to the east. it is also a congested, expensive stretch of parched land, where no matter where you go the buzz of the freeway is always present, a faithful and appropriate companion to the smog.
I was glad to leave, the I-10 East my highway to freedom and an uncertain future that I didn't know then would include a new life. I didn't think I would ever come back. I went as far away as I could, back home on the other side of the Atlantic, and on this side of it as far east as I could, in Savannah. Then I joined the circus.
It is parked at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms today (the exact name is the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.) The base was surprisingly easy to enter, all you needed was the little piece of paper they had given us at the office before leaving that said "Circus Chimera vehicle." Homeland security. I can only hope there is better surveillance of vehicles moving inside the base. Then again I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't.
I knew Twentynine Palms for having covered the drowning of two women and a child in a flash-flood incident there, among other things, when I photographed for the paper. Not exactly a happy memory; taking pictures of people that have just gone through horrendous personal events has always been my least favorite part of being a photojournalist. The town is a sad-looking place at the door of one of the most beautiful natural areas in this country, the Joshua Tree National Park. In my two and a half years in Southern California I managed not to go there even once, and now it looks like I'm going to have to skip the opportunity again. Growing up in France Joshua Tree was an utterly exotic and fabled place you'd want to go see for yourself once. I know it was also one of my brother Patrick's favorite places to dream of, that and the Mojave Desert that we skirted last night on our way here from Arizona. I thought of him as I was driving on the deserted highway in its shroud of obscurity, miles and miles of empty lonely road. He had wanted to come to Joshua Tree, had loved the desert without ever knowing it. He died at 29. It was in 1993 and I miss him every day.
Today he's with me in the California desert, in the sand and the wind and the Joshua trees.

Photo 1
The evening redness in the West (or hommage to Cormac McCarthy.)

Photo 2
Salty pond behind the circus.

Note on the blog.

April 2, Kingman.

I just realized I'd somehow erased the first entry to this blog explaining what it was about so a little bit of background information is called for here.
I launched this blog when I started working at the Circus Chimera, as a tool to help me track progress in a documentary project I'm trying to do on the Circus Chimera. The project has been a long time coming, as I've had it in the back of my mind ever since I met Fridman, my boyfriend and a circus performer, in 2000. He was then with another circus, Carson and Barnes (which would call for another type of project altogether, more like an investigative journalism piece.)
The project is to document this circus, a mosaic of people from around the world who live, work and travel together for ten month out of the year, seven days a week. It is based in Texas and travels through the West. The project was meant to be purely a photography documentary project at first but I have then decided to make it more of a multimedia endeavor, including text, interviews and stories, audio interviews and possibly some video.
All this while taking care of a baby and working part-time for the circus.
Rendez-vous in eight months for the outcome.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

On the road.

April 1, Kingman.

Dylan is now four-and-a-half month old and a chubby happy little guy. I call him my "bibendum Michelin," after the Michelin ad character full of inflated tires.
I feel guilty that I haven't said a word about him in such a long time, when he fills my days. He's my joy, my challenge, my sun and my stars, my most important job, my everything, how could it be otherwise? I'm a new Mom.
Lately he started being difficult at nursing time, crying and refusing the breast when I know he's hungry, and I have to struggle with him for a while before he finally settles down to a normal, calm feeding. I suspect it has something to do with teething, but being a new Mom I have really no idea. The difficulty is compounded when we have to travel at night, because this is also when this strange new behavior is at its peak. It becomes a bit of a stressful wrestle, because when Fridman's truck is ready he has to leave right away, and in turn have to be ready to roll with the baby then no matter what. Furthermore Dylan seems to have settled into a routine of multiple feedings in the evening as well, so from 6 PM on or sometimes earlier it is a non-stop nursing marathon from which I emerge utterly drained. When we have to drive 150 miles afterwards I'd give anything for a life of boring normality. Then we get on the road and I wake up again listening to the BBC news announcer on the satellite radio and you couldn't make me give this up for anything in the world.
The circus is a hard place to be with a baby to care for, undeniably. Every little challenge is exacerbated, there is no comfort zone. And I've been talking a lot about all the hardships that come with this nomadic way of life, Murphy's law and all, baby or no baby. But the circus is also a place of much beauty and meaning, and above all it has enabled me to be with my partner and my baby as a family, something that until now seemed unattainable given our very different obligations. I want to thank Jim Judkins, the owner of Circus Chimera and our boss, for giving me this opportunity. Without him Fridman wouldn't wake up to his son's smile every day.
We'll be just fine, the eighth wonder of the world and I.