On Being a Clown



With the Canadian Federal Election over and the shenanigans down south reaching a point that is stretching even my credulity, I find it’s time to gather myself together and get back, at least temporarily, to the original intent of this blog.

Namely, to generate a whole cartload, a veritable eighteen-wheeler container-truck-full, of me-directed attention.

Clowns, like me, are attention hogs. Something was missing early on. Maybe my mother left me on the soft, nurturing shoulder of Highway 401, outside Pickering Nuclear Power Station, and I took it personally. Or instead of her nipple—and I get an ugh-y shudder of Oedipal horror as I type the word—or the sexless, 1950’s Frankenstein substitute, pacifier and bottle, she offered me a drag on her Craven “A” King Size.

Already hungry for attention, it’s just possible I accepted. After all, I’d been smoking half a pack a day since conception.

Something was missing, but I was only a kid and hadn’t yet grasped what was supposed to be there in the first place. At any given moment, my father was away, as a traveling salesman needs must be, and, on reflection, my mother spent more time in bed than seemed strictly necessary.

Something was off-kilter. A screw was loose. When my father was due to return from a trip, my mother would hiss, “Hide the knives!” which created an atmosphere of morbid suspense around his arrival that was as thrilling as it was mystifying. I never saw my father wield a knife unless there was a dead turkey on the dining table.

Perhaps my mother was sending a coded signal that she didn’t want any more children, or, for that matter, sex, and thought “hide the knives!” got the Freudian point across more subtly than “Step away from the penis, George.”

Occasionally, when summer thunder drew close and beat its head on the storm windows, I would awaken, startled, to see my mother in my bedroom doorway, her hair incandescent, like the corona of an eclipsed sun. Her nightgown billowed around her and terror’s sheet lightning would crackle across the surface of my body.

Once, when I had a childhood fever, I awoke to the sight of a wolf lying at the foot of my bed. Then I awoke again, in reality, dredged up by the struggle to cry out that produced only macabre silence. The bedclothes were cold and wet, as if someone had thrown a bucket of water onto me.

The fever had broken, and instantly I forgot what fever was, could not conceive of it. My convalescence felt light, every physical indignity, everything clenched and cramped and muddy, was now breathing like a newborn, fragrant, limpid. I felt as though I been forgiven for something vicious and irrevocable I had done in a previous life, then forgotten.

One day when I was twenty-six the malaise descended upon me once again like a hot wool blanket, burning sand sifted through my joints and vesicles weeping yellow serum erupted over the entire surface of my body; I understood for the first time what it meant to want to die if that was the only possible release. I was convinced I had syphilis and my lover, frantic with worry, drove me to his private doctor, who took one look and diagnosed chicken pox

—whenever fever came again I couldn’t imagine what it had felt like not to be hot, foul, aching and full of bodily grief. Sickness became my temporary occupation and demanded full commitment.

Later, when I fell in love again, love was a lot like having a fever and then not having one.


So I’m a clown first of all because I’m hungry for attention and they didn’t know what to make of me, this kid who liked music, sat and listened, transfixed, to the Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah and the Roman Carnival Overture on old 33 rpm records; this kid who preferred sitting with the girls reading books and spending his other time alone, this shy kid who spoke like he’d been to elocution classes, with a vaguely British accent.

Being the clown told them what to make of me. I was someone who was there to entertain, to keep their brains fizzing with fun and sunshine, and I discovered that to entertain, to not be taken seriously and to keep them guessing, was power.

A clown is a distancing persona, very handy for fending off the tentacles of need. I’m never happier than when avoiding intimacy, because what most people call intimacy I call manipulation, co-dependence, guerrilla warfare and vampirism.

I’m a clown, we’re clowns, because we’ve decided to direct laughter at life rather than wallowing in its sorrow. Sorrow takes care of itself, insinuates itself into all available space, settles into the cracks and crevices like the black soot in the Toronto air that settles onto my window ledges. If you’re lazy, which I am, you do your best to normalize it, and after a while stop seeing how infested your life has become with mundane sorrow.

But if you have character, which I do, you’ll eventually experience one of those inconvenient sunny mornings when the shafts of gawd-light illuminate every single speck of black soot, giving each fusty dust mote a three-dimensional, Rembrandt-y heft, and you’ll sigh, roll up your sleeves and borrow someone’s vacuum cleaner.

Sorrow is the black soot of life, laughter the vacuum cleaner. Sorrow will happen anyway, but being a clown requires positive action: The exercise of intelligence, which I have, the near-involuntary urge, rising almost to lust, for making imaginative and unseemly connections, that’s to say, wit; and the desire to flaunt one’s personal style.

Laughter defies authority and will not be the square peg in the square hole. It refuses to follow the rules. You can’t have a dictatorship if the people are laughing.

A clown’s life trajectory requires courage: “Will anyone but me get this? Will they find it funny or just gross, or incomprehensible, or shallow or petty? Do I deserve the attention I’m apparently seeking?”

On the surface this is merely a continual demand for validation and a maddening exercise in narcissistic self-doubt, but the thirst for attention makes us courageous, a synonym for shameless or idiotic, take your pick.

Because to be a clown, to be funny, you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, even thrive on it. It’s a very specific kind of foolishness: The foolishness you’re willing to take on, never the kind that is imposed on you.

But most of all, clowns become clowns because we have decided to laugh at ourselves—reduce ourselves to the butt of an amusing story about our stupidity or credulity or incompetence—before you get a chance to.

We instinctively know that there’s nothing more truly humiliating or bathetic than pomposity when it encounters a blank stare, nothing riskier than taking yourself seriously without a truly world-class problem to justify your brittle superior smile and dead, inward-directed eyes.

Sorrow is the black soot of life,
laughter the vacuum.

We take ourselves seriously because we are young and we think that no one has ever had this experience before, ever. Our love affair, our accident, our illness or our insight into why the moon and stars behave the way they do, we encounter each of these with the gobsmacked gaze of an infant staring at her handful of mushy carrots or squealing with terrified delight as the family dog licks her face.

Once you realize that there are no new experiences, no new ways of being in love, of being loved, of being out of love, of rejecting love because it is love (“you say I’m terrific but your taste was always rotten,” and thank you, Stephen Sondheim); of hurting oneself or hurting to the limits of destruction the person we love the most;

Once we realize that there are no original ideas, not one, not one single example of any idea you have now or have had or will have, that is original; when we realize that cavewomen and men were telling each other knock-knock jokes and why did the pterodactyl cross the road? back in the whatever-cene era, once you realize this, around the age of sixty-four, which I am, and stop taking your ideas, your problems and your life so goddamned seriously—you will be liberated.

And you will laugh.

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