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My Journey to the Circus (By Jerry Metzker)


Jerry Metzker, Circus Day Competition, NIPAI

As a kid in suburban Ohio, I was never much of an athlete. I hated gym class (except gymnastics and tennis). But I was active and energetic. I rode my bike. I roller skated. I climbed trees. I played around in our pool. When skateboards started becoming popular, I got one of those. I liked playing with my friends – tag, kickball, Frisbee. However, where I lived everyone who was anyone played at least one sport. My brother and sister were both excellent athletes.


In third grade, I joined a baseball team, but I was stuck in the outfield, and no one seemed to care whether I even showed up to practice. I stopped before playing one game. The next year, my uncle coached a baseball team and somehow worked it out with my parents that I should play. I couldn’t throw. I couldn’t catch. I was afraid of the ball. I didn’t like to get dirty. Not a great combination. I do note that in two seasons I had one hit, and it was a spectacular one. It was the final game of the tournament (after my team with no help from me won the league). Top of the Ninth. We were down by one run. There was a player on first and another on third. One out. The score was tied. And I came up to bat. I was an almost guaranteed out. A walk if I was lucky.


The first pitch goes by. Ball One! I step back, take a few practice swings and then return

to the plate. The second pitch. I didn’t swing. STEEERIKE! “Shake it off, babe,” the

always supportive parents yell from the stands. I step back to the plate and check out the

coach at first base. My uncle. His arms are moving around, and then I think, “Did he just

give me the signal to bunt?” I double-checked. Yep, I think so. Not that it made much

difference. I had a batting average of zero. The ball came. Look at the ball. Look at the

ball, I told myself. I felt it and heard the little clink.


Holy cow! I hit the ball, which dribbled on the ground, drawing the pitcher, the first base

player and the third base player to it. The crowd was screaming, and once I came to my

senses, I ran to first. Honestly, it was all kind of a blur even then. I got to first. There was

a lot of cheering and yelling. Some of it from me. And in the end, somehow or other my

first and only hit in a two-plus-year baseball career gave my team two runs. Yes, the

player on first made it all the way home on my bunt. My team won the game and the

tournament.


I did nothing in junior high/middle school but ride my bike.


In high school, my primary form of exercise was marching band. I was a good marcher. I

received the Marcher of the Week honor both my junior and senior years (the only person

in my class to do so). I spent my time and energy playing two musical instruments

(symphonic band, jazz band, pep band), editing the high school yearbook and acting in

plays. I pursued theater in college in Ohio, which meant taking dance classes. Still, no

one would call me an athlete. After graduating from college, I earned my M.F.A. in theater (dramaturgy) at Columbia University in New York City. I walked a lot and spent

one summer swimming at the YMCA, managing just a few laps a day. At least, I was

naturally skinny.


I really didn’t start exercising in any way until after I moved to Oakland, California in

1991, when I was 27 years old. Maneuvering Oakland is challenging without an

automobile, and I was rather low on funds for even public transportation. (Columbia

graduate school is quite expensive and takes many years to pay.) I bought a bicycle. Over

the next decade-plus, I biked nearly every day. One summer, I even rode my bike for four

weeks around the Republic of Ireland. I also hiked on occasion and hiked to the top of

Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2004 After this, I started doing yoga and some Pilates. I

bought some dumbbells. I was in my 40s and getting some exercise.


In 1990, while I was living and working in New York, a friend invited me to a production

of a new kind of circus, Nouvelle Expérience, presented by a Quebecois company called

Cirque du Soliel. I was so thrilled by the experience that I went without three meals to

attend the show a second time. Of course, as I child, I attended the touring Ringling

Brothers/Barnum & Bailey circus presentations with my family, but not in many years,

and in the 1980s, I felt connected to the movement to prevent animal cruelty.


Subsequently, I rather eschewed attending any circus at the time. Nouvelle Expérience

completely changed my view of circus, and over the next decades, I saw Saltimbanco,

Alegria, Quidam, Dralion, Varekai, Corteo, Koozå, Ovo, Totem, Zarkana, Michael

Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, Amaluna, Kurios, Luzia, Volta, Crystal, Mystére,

O, Zumanity, Kà, The Beatles Love, Chris Angel Believe, Viva Elvis, Iris, R.U.N., and

Mad Apple (some of them more than once, and as a theater critic, I reviewed Quidam and

attended the premier of O).


A couple of months into my 49th year, I started thinking about how I would celebrate my

50th birthday. I wanted to throw my own party. I would rent a space, decorate, invite my

friends, make the food and bake the cake. (I’m kind of a control freak. But I am a good

cook, and I bake really good cakes.) It would be fun. During the course of the party, I would make a little thank you for coming speech, reach up my hand and grab what appeared to be a rope, and then go soaring into the air to perform an aerial straps routine.

Every time I thought about seeing the aerial straps performer in Nouvelle Expérience, I

wanted to do that. He performed in a loincloth, completely shaved body, rippling with

muscles. And had all this long hair whipping around. He flew through the air, and I

wanted to fly.


I knew of a circus training school in Oakland, California, because in my other non-arts

life, as a fundraising officer of community benefits organizations, I co-chaired the

Oakland Chamber of Commerce’s NonProfit Roundtable. In this capacity, I hosted an

arts organization conversation in which Kinetic Arts Center (KAC) participated. The

presenter for KAC invited me to try a class. This lingered in my mind.


However, in August of that year—my 49th year, I started having abdominal pains. On my

first visit to the emergency room (after violent vomiting, uncontrollable shaking and

being unable to pull myself from sitting to standing), the doctor said I had a case of food

poisoning. with my temperature still burning, he sent me home. The abdominal pains

continued, and I returned two days later. The diagnosis was the same, and I was sent

home again. The next night, the pain became so acute I could not sleep. I tossed and

turned through the night, and in the morning, I went to the emergency room for the third

time. The physician on duty walked through my condition for the past several days and

immediately called for a CT scan. Then he put me in a hospital room, where a short time

later he told me I did not having food poisoning. I was experiencing an appendicitis that

had become so severe that the organ started leaking, more generally known as a

perforated appendix. Further, the appendix had shifted itself behind the intestine. He

considered operating, but he could not do so laparoscopically and feared that if he cut me open, the appendix would burst, potentially resulting in having it and part of the colon

removed. Instead, he put me on a heavy dose of antibiotics, intravenously, to heal the

appendix. If this was successful, we would have a later conversation about removing the

appendix. This took place on a Saturday.


On the following Wednesday, my appendix was well on the way to healing. I would need

to continue with an oral antibiotic for several weeks, but I could go home. I ate solid food

for lunch (first time since I was admitted), gathered my things and dressed to leave the

hospital.


Late in the afternoon, my nurse barged into the room. “I need you to put your hospital

gown back on and get right back into bed,” he ordered. “Your discharge has been

rescinded by the Department of Infectious Diseases. I don’t know why. That’s all I

know.” Then he flipped himself around and left the room.


I am a writer. I have an active imagination. I immediately started envisioning visits by

people in hazmat suits and being sealed in a bubble.


About two hours later, I was informed by the Infectious disease specialist that I had a

dangerous bacterial infection. Fortunately, the infection could be addressed by an

intravenously administered antibiotic for an hour every day. However, the terror was not

over. This physician with a lousy bedside manner then asked me about my HIV status,

“because people with this infection usually have HIV,” she said. (I did not have HIV.) In

the same conversation, she asked me what I was doing about the two-centimeter spot on my lung that she saw via my most recent CT scan.


There was a lot to work out.


Over the next ten months, I completed my antibiotic treatment (two months of which

occurred at home, administered by me through a PICC line), had my lung examined (just

a blemish), had additional biopsies on my thyroid (which also showed a growth in the

lung-focused CT scan), had my appendix removed (laparoscopically), had my thyroid

removed and came down with a horrible case of shingles from the stress.


While I did have my 50th birthday party, it was not circus-themed, although I did make all

the food.


Five months later, in May of 2014, I contacted my friend at Kinetic Arts Center about

taking an aerial straps class there. Having so many medical issues compounding my life, I

reasoned that there was no time to waste. At the time, KAC did not offer a straps class, so

instead I took an introductory to aerials class—rope, tissue and static trapeze. My hands

slipped quite a bit with the tissue and my very sensitive nose had me repelled by the

smell of the fabric. The rope did not interest me, but the trapeze did. A week later, I took

a beginning trapeze class. I bought a three-class subscription. I was the only man in the

class of six or seven women. I could hang, inverted, by my knees. I could stand on the

trapeze (and sit back down again). I could swing by my arms and my knees. I could do a

couple of pull-ups. While the apparatus was not comfortable (it is, after all, a metal bar

with tape around it hanging from two rough cotton ropes), I was enjoying myself, even

though I wasn’t limber or flexible.


“You can do this, Jerry,” the coach told me. “You definitely can do this.”

I continued to stretch. I increased the number of pull-ups I could do. I added more tricks

to my repertoire. Within eight months, I developed enough skills and confidence to

utilize Open Gym time to work out on my own.


In the summer of 2015, when I was 51 years old, I performed in my first student

showcase. And over the subsequent nine years, I have performed in a variety of shows

(mostly connected to KAC), creating new characters and acts for each one.

I have also taken lyra, aerial straps and looped chains classes.


This past December (2023), I celebrated my 60th birthday in Ohio. My parents and their

siblings are in their 80s. None of them have been to California to see me perform, nor do

any of us foresee that they will make the journey across the country. I rented Bird’s Eye

View Circus in Toledo, Ohio and threw the party I envisioned for my 50th birthday. I still

made all the food. And I performed a 3:14-minute routine to Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It

Or Not (Theme from “Greatest American Hero).”


And that is my journey to the circus.


(c) Jerry Metzker


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