July 17, 2004


While births, weddings and funerals -- the ceremonies surrounding our hatching, matching and dispatching -- are so crucial they merit their own section in daily newspapers, let us not forget their poor, unnoticed cousins whose own changes have much to teach us.


I am talking, of course, about recitals, school trips and graduations.


They ain't what they used to be.


What parent can't recall a winter recital spent perching dutifully on narrow school benches, a faint wet-wool smell wafting past our noses as we crane our necks to see that one chorus with our snowflake standing resplendent in white sparkles?


In the years of my growing up, these events challenged the considerable sewing skills of my mother and grandmother. Many an angel wing was cut and painted and glittered on a base of glue. Halos were fashioned, wands crafted. In later years, pastel organza gowns were stitched, and in one notable year of excess, a tuxedo was rented, as making such an item stymied even my grandmother.


No surprise that since then these rites of youthful passage have changed. They reflect an inherited cosmopolitanism, greater wealth and widening possibilities.


By the time my daughter was 10, her entire Grade 5 class worked for the whole year to raise money to go to Expo 86 in Vancouver. Every aspect of their curriculum was devoted to this task, and its success was a tribute to the single-mindedness of a phalanx of 10-year-olds.


This year, one of my patients told me that her son's Grade 7 class is headed to Europe -- with no parents allowed, even as chaperones. Their teachers will lead the group for two weeks, Euro passes in hand. By using hostel accommodation as well as sleeping upright on trains, they can keep the cost reasonable. Still, mom and dad will probably have to pad the funds raised through the year.


Nearly all parents will go out of their way -- and certainly their comfort zones -- to ensure that their child can take part in such events. One of my patients, a single mother, has scrimped and pinched her family's meagre resources for years, priding herself on never having to ask for help from anybody. But her daughter's dance recital changed all that.


Unhesitatingly, she asked her own mother if she would help to pay for her daughter's costume. She went even further and asked if grandma would consider covering the cost of the advanced summer dance program, which her daughter had qualified for, but was way beyond mom's means.


And so it goes. Whether it's the class trip, the dance recital or the figure-skating class, we pony up the cash because we know it's about something more important than money.


So recently, I was struck by a venture with a circus school in my city that gave this whole familiarity with recitals and passages a new twist. Many of us think of circus performers as exotic and invariably foreign-born. Mastering double-jointed back flips is not something anyone begins in their 40s.


But this has all changed.


A friend of ours, a software executive, decided at the age of 39 that he wanted to join the circus. Not quit his job and run away to the circus, but fulfill a childhood dream as well as balance his very adult work and family responsibilities.


So he began circus school last fall and in February started preparing for his end-of-term "recital." One, two, then three times a week, his two-hour training sessions began to take over more of his life.


When asked about why on earth he wanted to go to circus school, the answer always came around to aerial magic and homage to the trapeze.


Yes, he had been a strong rock climber in his younger days, but years of sitting in front of a computer, setting the template of his career, minding the kids and sharing the work of running a household had rendered his dream inert. Now cresting 40, he felt the old pull and he set his sights very high off the ground indeed.


So last month we joined his family and friends who packed the warehouse space for the show.


As with all recitals, the youngest students led off. But as the evening wore on, the skill and complexity of the performances brought gasps and wild applause. Our friend's age and seniority earned him a star's place toward the end of the show; he emerged, cloaked and wrapped in smoke before revealing a body transformed. With bare, muscled arms, thigh-hugging tights, a head shaved bare and startlingly painted in an urban guerrilla motif, he swung up effortlessly onto the trapeze. The walls reverberated with Led Zeppelin as he flew through his routine, fluid and assured.


We cheered, aghast and delighted all in the same breath. Following him, two other equally mature students climbed, twirled and dipped from a pair of ribbons suspended from the ceiling. A slight man decked out in full Richard Nixon mask and business suit, contorted and twisted high above our upturned heads and the 52-year-old woman in red satin was an easy match for any effort by Cirque du Soleil.


But the truly remarkable thing about this evening was that it was clearly a reverse-recital.


Five or six small boys lay on their stomachs not three metres away from the rings and trapeze, looking up at their parents. They had a closer, better view than any circus show they'll ever see. And they cheered and hooted and were captivated, as we all were, by an altogether new vision of their dads and moms.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.