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Rachael Maddux


Stop thinking of sweet tea as a Southern monolith

Sweet tea
Photograph by iStockphoto.com

Photograph courtesy of istockphotos.com

It’s not like I’m a health nut, or worse, a Yankee. I was born and raised in Tennessee by people born and raised in Tennessee by people born and raised in Tennessee. I’ve lived in Georgia for a third of my life. But I don’t remember the last time I drank sweet tea.

Blasphemy, I know. I just prefer acts of violence against my blood sugar levels to be committed in pie form.

But while sweet tea rarely thrills me as a beverage, it fascinates me as an archetype.

Inside the Frigidaire of the American consciousness, we have a full pitcher of sweet tea forever at the ready. It’s the ultimate symbol of Southern hospitality and authenticity, the official beverage of How We Do Things Down Here.

But I believe this way of thinking does sweet tea, and the South, a disservice.

To cast sweet tea as a monolith is to cast the South as a monolith. A common mistake—but we Atlantans, in our infinite patchworkiness, should know better.

The idea of sweet tea seems simple enough. But ask a dozen different Southerners how they make it, and you’ll get a dozen different replies. Sweet tea cuts across lines of race, class, and politics like nothing else in the South. It’s like barbecue, with microvariations not by state or city but individual kitchen.

Sweet tea boasts no official origin story, just rhizomatic development of a notion over time, from Britain to the American colonies and then southward, evolving to accommodate supplies, technology, and taste.

The earliest known recipe, from the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, calls for loose-leaf green tea poured over sugar and ice. Black tea sweetened with sugar stirred in while hot—which many purists insist is How It’s Done—wasn’t standard until the 1940s, and only then thanks to World War II rations. And that image of the forever-full pitcher in the fridge is only as old as the home refrigerator itself.

My grandmother makes her sweet tea with orange juice. At restaurants my dad orders it unsweet and dumps in “Sweet’N Skinny.” When I was a kid, my mom made it by the glass: instant Lipton powder stirred with a long silver spoon. These days, when I do drink it, I like it with lemon and whiskey—preferably on a hot night, so the ice melts faster.

The real story of sweet tea is one of perpetual reinvention. So if it must symbolize anything, I want it to stand for a South that embraces its own multitudes, even the lost souls like me.

Let’s unyoke poor old sweet tea from the burden of How We Do Things Down Here and allow the tradition to take its rightful place: in the eye of the tea-holder.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

Looks Like We Made It

This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue.

Forty years ago, Barry Manilow had a dream. Not of selling 80 million records or writing some of the most ubiquitous pop melodies of the late twentieth century, though he did that in due time. No, he wanted to write for Broadway. So did Bruce Sussman, his songwriting partner since 1972. But “Copacabana” wasn’t going to pen itself, so their stage aspirations took a backseat.

In the early nineties, though, they got the urge to scratch that old itch. And soon after, Sussman chanced upon a stunning true story: the Comedian Harmonists, a six-man performance ensemble that went from being the toast of Europe in the 1930s to raising the ire of the ascendant Nazi Party, which banned the Harmonists from public performance because of the group’s mix of Jewish and Gentile members.

Sussman and Manilow were captivated by the almost-forgotten group, and the result is their musical Harmony, premiering at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre this month. The songs are all 1930s-style originals (music by Manilow, book and lyrics by Sussman), and the historical narrative is paired with themes contemplating memory.

On paper, Harmony seemed like a sure success (moving story! supernova-sized pop talent!), but the road from inception to production was rocky. After a 1997 early staging in La Jolla, California, a subsequent 2003 Philadelphia production was weeks from opening when its producer fell short on cash, axing the run. While the rights were in limbo, Manilow, now seventy, sued the producer and landed in the hospital with stress-related heart problems. “Barry and I said, ‘Well, this hurts too much,’” Sussman remembers. “We just decided we were going to let [the show] sit there, and when it was right, it would be right.”

Last year, it finally seemed right. “I decided that, before I croak, I just want to see it up one more time,” Manilow says. “I called up Bruce and said, ‘Why don’t we go back to where we were the happiest?’ Which was a regional theater.”

The Alliance—which premiered Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida in 1998; launched John Mellencamp, Stephen King, and T Bone Burnett’s Ghost Brothers of Darkland County last summer; and boasts a regional Tony award, among many other accolades—seemed to be a natural fit. “I’m very proud of the Alliance Theatre’s role as a safe, supportive home for new work, in particular new American musicals, because it requires a kind of flexibility, a kind of protective and supportive environment that we’ve worked really hard to build,” says Susan V. Booth, the Alliance’s artistic director. “What’s interesting about this production is—I mean, it’s not like Bruce Sussman and Barry Manilow don’t have pretty demanding day jobs. It would be so easy for them to put their hands up and say, ‘Okay, we’ve got a great director, we’ve got a great theater, go do our show.’ They’ve done the absolute opposite. They’ve leaned into this particular moment and said, ‘We love this director. We think he’s crazy smart and gets our show, so let’s lean into it like it’s brand new and make sure it’s exactly right.’ They didn’t have to do that.”

That director is Tony Speciale, a relative newcomer who worked with the writers to refine the show, holding production meetings in New York all spring before decamping to Atlanta in late July. “This piece is remarkable, and it reminds me of how many stories there are out there like this that none of us have heard of,” Speciale says. “The Nazi Party was very effective at eradicating stories like this. And so it’s always miraculous when something like this survives, and no one knows about these people, and you get to be part of the process to shepherd their story to the stage.”

Because the show lay dormant for so long and will so differ from its one previous production, Harmony’s run at the Alliance—from September 6 to October 6, 2013—is being hailed as its debut. In March, it moves out in Los Angeles. And after that? Sussman and Manilow are just trying to take it one curtain call at a time, but they may make it to Broadway yet.

How did you find this story?
Sussman: I was having my coffee over the New York Times, and there was a review of a documentary playing downtown, Eberhard Fechner’s epic documentary Comedian Harmonists at the Public. I went and watched four hours of German documentary-making with subtitles—not my usual cup of tea—and was totally overwhelmed. I went out into the street and there was a pay phone, and I called Barry in Los Angeles and I was blathering. He said, as he is wont to do, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but go get it.” A few months later I was in Germany doing the research.

Manilow: The Comedian Harmonists were the biggest group in Germany and around the world, doing what they did. They were a combination of the Marx Brothers and Manhattan Transfer—very sophisticated harmonies and very complicated singing. Bruce and I had never heard of them. And in the world of music, we know everybody. How could they be so hugely popular and we had never heard of them? Why we didn’t know who they were turned out to be the story.

Sussman: Five of the six men were gone when we started working. The lead of our play—Roman Cycowski, nicknamed “Rabbi” because he was in rabbinical school when he joined the group—was alive, but we didn’t know where he was. And then, lo and behold, we found out that he was living in Palm Springs. Barry also lives in Palm Springs. As it turned out, he was living literally within spitting distance of Barry’s home. You would not be out of breath, taking this walk from where Barry was composing the score about this man’s life. Barry met him and presented him with an award from the Grammy academy. He died in 1998 at 97 years old. His wife, Mary, the female lead in our play, was six years his junior and lived seven years longer.

The show is all original songs, but how much did you pull from the 1930s, sound-wise?
Manilow: When the Comedian Harmonists were banned from performing, everything was destroyed—but somehow about twenty songs did survive. I studied those before I put any notes down. It took me about a year before I did anything. I was soaking in this style of music before I felt confident enough to write the score that sounded like it was real and appropriate for the show. But I think both Bruce and I actually nailed it. When people hear the score, they don’t think that it would have come from Barry Manilow’s pen—in a complimentary way. It’s so far away from any record I’ve ever made, anything I’ve ever performed or written. I’m real proud of it. It was a real, deep learning experience for me.

What made Tony Speciale the right director?
Sussman: When we put word out that we were doing the show again, we got all these directors who were interested in meeting with us, including deeply resumed Tony Award–winning directors. Every single one of them could have done it, but there was something missing. And we wanted to kick it in the butt. We wanted to push it one level higher, something more blazingly theatrical than we had ever done before.

Tony’s name came up. Friends sent over photos of a highly acclaimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream that he did last summer in New York. Barry and I had never seen anything like it. We met with him, and he blew our socks off. He came in with such a fresh imagination, and he brought up what he thought this piece could be by way of memory and how it could unfold visually. He left the room and Barry and I looked at each other and said, “That’s the one.”

Manilow: His resume doesn’t compete with any of the other great directors that we met. But we believe that Tony is going to give us a version of Harmony that even Bruce and I couldn’t have imagined. There are some things he’s doing that are just crazy and brilliant. I think we chose right.

What about the cast?
Manilow: The Comedian Harmonists were the Backstreet Boys of Germany. They were young, in their twenties. In the earlier productions, we hired wonderful actors and singers, but they were in their thirties. This time we’re going for young. The male leads sang sixteen bars of the finale during one of the callbacks, and the sound of young boys singing the score, as opposed to more matured voices, just knocked us out.

And it makes it that much more poignant, knowing what happens to them.
Sussman: That, too. A challenge of this show is that, as an audience, we know what happened—not specifically to the members of the group, but we know what happened in the world they were living in. It’s very hard to crawl back into a state of innocence where you don’t know what’s waiting ahead of you.

After twenty years, with the show finally coming together, how are you feeling?
Manilow: We’re ignoring it right now. We’ve been down a pretty rough road, and we’re just doing our job. Once I see that curtain go up is when I’ll get excited.

Communal Commuting

When a subway train first begins to whine and shimmy as it pulls away from a station, for an instant everything inside is suspended. The g-forces have just begun to exert their will on the bodies inside the train cars, but the bodies haven’t yet had a chance to respond. Sometimes they don’t respond, or they do but not quite in time, and the untethered riders are suddenly struggling to catch themselves as they fall, grasping at seat backs or whatever or whoever else happens to be within flailing radius. More than once on MARTA I’ve seen a half dozen passengers, caught unprepared, topple like stunned dominoes.

The most frequent victims of this taffy-like gravity are the casual riders: the tourists, the school groups, the rowdy packs of Braves fans slouching toward Turner Field to be beered. They’re unsure of which stop is theirs, let alone the precise angle and pressure at which they need to plant their feet in advance of sudden forward motion. From personal experience I can attest that it takes awhile to grow accustomed to MARTA’s rhythms, to internalize the microscopic choreography required to stay upright on a moving train. So I shouldn’t judge, I know. But this is part of MARTA’s rhythm, too. Riding the train, over a period of time, exacts a kind of garbled empathy: part annoyance, part awe at the willingness and the occasional inability of thousands of strangers to cram themselves alongside other strangers in grimy, stuffy metal cartons that rumble under and over and all through the city at alternately great and glacial speeds.

I became a dailyish MARTA rider two Februarys ago when I took a job at an office a stone’s throw from Peachtree Center. The cost of a parking garage pass was exorbitant, and I didn’t fancy the prospect of battling traffic to and from my place in Decatur every day; plus, I figured taking the train would at least somewhat tamp down my chronic yet aimless carbon-emissions guilt. It was a logical choice—but, as with a lot of logical choices, I wasn’t exactly pumped about following through. I’d taken MARTA enough on weekends to develop the standard gripes about Atlanta’s transit system: that it was little more than a passel of dumpy, grimy trains carrying unpredictable passengers to inconvenient stations on erratic schedules. And the complaints of every weekday rider I knew made me wonder if the phrase “MARTA horror story” was somewhat redundant.

As expected, I’ve had some not-totally-pleasant encounters on the train: puking kids, leering men, belligerent evangelist panhandlers, discarded chicken wings briefly mistaken for other sorts of animal carcasses, screaming fights between strangers erupting like gasoline fires. In these moments, the transit system’s pseudo-
slogan seems like the refrain of a corny sitcom: “Iiit’s MARTA!” I drawl in my head, shrugging hammily as the laugh track roars. On really bad days, I deploy my centering mantra: “At least I’m not driving, at least I’m not driving, at least I’m not driving . . .”

So it surprised me, as I contemplated my two-year MARTAversary a few months back, to realize that what I now value most about my commute—what I maybe even love—is the humanity of it all. And I don’t just mean people-watching, although that’s generally primo (especially around Dragon­Con, when it gets meta: watching all the people people-watching). I’ve come to understand some of the strange intimacy involved in taking the train, and it’s a weird, kind of beautiful thing. It’s the opposite of driving a car, where everyone on the road sees each other not as humans, but as a mass of steel-and-chrome cocoons, machines vulnerable to other machines. On MARTA you’re vulnerable to machines, too—though admittedly distant, there’s always the chance that brakes could fail, that trains could crash—but there’s an undeniable sticky, squishy human element. MARTA riders are immersed in one another. Sometimes this too literally involves close contact with strangers’ body fluids (I once watched a little girl barf into her mother’s outstretched hands, and more than once I’ve seen a gentleman relieve himself against a station wall), but mostly it’s emotional, maybe even existential.

MARTA is a transitional state for us. We riders are caught between where we came from and where we’re going; we are not each other’s target audience, we are not trying to impress each other, we are mostly trying to ignore one another. But despite this we are witnesses to each other’s lives—lives often at their most unguarded, tired, limpid—whether for five minutes between stations one afternoon or for days and weeks and years at a time. Among my fellow daily transit-takers, I’ve beheld a perpetual evolution in hairstyles, personal technology, reading habits (last summer’s shift from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Fifty Shades of Grey was breathtaking). I’ve watched squalling babies, toted along by their briefcase-balancing mothers, grow into talking, giggling, pointing toddlers; I’ve noted the sudden absence of once-regular elderly riders whom I’ve never seen again.

As it happens, MARTA is in a transitional state of its own right now. In 2012 most rail systems in similarly sized U.S. cities saw a spike in ridership; meanwhile, in Atlanta, MARTA ridership was down by 8 percent (and that’s a trend—since 2001 it’s down 15 percent). Last summer’s defeat of T-SPLOST, which had promised MARTA a $600 million influx of much-needed cash, compounded long-existent budget woes. Early 2013 brought a new MARTA CEO, reorganized leadership, and continued dalliances in privatization, so something seems likely to happen soon. Whatever it is, I hope it helps position MARTA as a vital element of this city, rather than reduce it to a niche concern (its best bad reputation) or sideline it as an inefficient cesspool (its worst).

The longer MARTA is part of my day-to-day life, the more I’m convinced that taking the train is the best way to understand this strange, sprawling Atlanta of ours. Even though we rarely exchange even the most basic pleasantries, I feel more connected to the people I share this city and these train cars with—both those who choose to ride, like me, and those for whom MARTA is the only means of getting from point A to point B. I’m more in tune with Atlanta’s seasonal rhythms, its festivals, its tournaments, its conferences that clog the platforms with rolling suitcases and wide-eyed out-of-towners. And there are views of Atlanta that only MARTA affords; my favorite is the DOSE-graffiti-tagged backside of the Coca-Cola sign looking out over I-75, eye-level with the blue and green line between Georgia State and King Memorial. “There’s my city,” I think every time we trundle past.

Some days, smug as it sounds, I feel like taking MARTA has made me a better person—not that it makes me better than anyone else, but that it has made me better than myself. Other days remind me that I’m about as good at riding the train as I am at being a human being, and in both cases I still have many lessons to learn.

One afternoon in April, the train packed with NCAA tournament revelers, I couldn’t quite get my footing before the train lurched away from the North Avenue platform and suddenly found myself suspended in one of those slo-mo free falls at which I usually shake my head. I grasped the metal handrail like a desperate monkey, but my body pivoted out of my control, teetering precariously over the passengers sitting behind me. Just before I fell, I felt the warm pressure of a hand on my lower back—usually the last thing I want to feel on a crowded train—and was gently steadied, then slowly pushed back into a standing position, by a middle-aged man in a Braves cap. Whether he acted out of kindness or self-preservation, I wasn’t sure. And I wasn’t sure whether I was more embarrassed by the fact that I’d almost plopped myself into his lap or by the possibility that he or anyone might mistake me for an amateur rider. I spluttered some variety of ineffectual, self-deprecating thank-you, but the man just shook his head. The woman sitting next to him, whom I also would have squashed, thanked him; he smiled at her, and they shared a low chuckle. I looked away, blushing and still unsteady. And the train barreled on, oblivious to us all.

This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.

Haunted South


The South is supposed to be haunted—crumbling houses and graveyards crowded with specters, spirits dripping like Spanish moss from ancient gnarled trees. “Garrulous outraged baffled ghosts,” William Faulkner called them, though I’ve never seen one myself. Some days I don’t believe there even is such a thing, but I’m a lousy skeptic, always wincing at shadowy corners and unexplained house creaks. What would it be like, I wonder, to see a ghost? Other times I don’t wonder at all. Just by being among the living down here, I feel as if I already know.

When I was six, maybe seven, I asked my mother if the Civil War was still going on. Her reply was laughter—which is never what a kid wants to hear in response to a serious question concerning a potential life-or-death situation she suspects adults have refrained from informing her about. It would be years before I understood her reaction, recognizing the South as a place where a little girl asking her mother this particular question could be met with so many answers. Mirth was just one option. She laughed because she knew her answer was “no,” but someone else might have said, “Well, it depends on who you ask.” Or maybe even “yes.”

I had my reasons for wondering. It was the early 1990s; there was war on TV and war in the paintings hanging in the halls of my conspicuously patriotic elementary school. And sometimes our family would picnic at a place we called the Battlefield, and I wanted to make sure we weren’t going to get gunned down while digging into our potato salad. I had heard about this Civil War—and maybe that’s the point, that I was a kid, a child, and I knew just enough about a war to be afraid of it, or at least morbidly curious about it, 125 years after it had ended.

It’s not just the war. I have always felt a heavy something hanging over my life in the South, which has indeed been my whole life. My people have been here awhile—my grandmother’s family rooted in Tennessee since before it was Tennessee; my grandfather’s father’s father, uncountable generations back, a Welsh prince named Madoc who may have left a trail through North Georgia three centuries before Columbus learned to read a map.

I am among the first of my Southern family to be born since the civil rights movement; the ways of being, the rights, and the permissions I take for granted have not always been granted—are still, in so many ways, not even granted now. Sometimes it feels like every terrible thing that has ever happened in the South has the handprints upon it of someone who directly or indirectly gave me life. Backs were broken and stepped upon to hoist me up here today.

The Battlefield—Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, sprawling green and wide twenty-five miles from where I grew up—was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, second only to Gettysburg; there I flew kites and crawled on cannons welded in media memoriam like immobile bronze seesaws. I played tag on land once purged of all Cherokee, learned Algebra down the block from an accidentally exhumed burial ground. At a Charleston marketplace where human beings were once bought and sold, I paid for T-shirts and tchotchkes.

What I feel is not guilt, at least not primarily. The heavy truths of this place were not ground into me; I think they were always there. I know war and systemic hate happened elsewhere too—indeed, still happen—but in the South, they linger like the curdled stench of a burned-out fire. (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—Faulkner said that too.) Living here is not so much like seeing a ghost but rather perpetually apprehending an endless cavalcade of them, always slinking, silvery, just beyond the next dark doorway. By now I feel no alarm, just a certain haunted sense of knowing. I’m not sure what they want from me, but they are here, have always and will always be—me following them and them following me.

Rachael Maddux grew up in Chattanooga and now lives in Decatur. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the Oxford American, the Paris Review’s daily blog, and elsewhere.

Big Brothers Shortage

A year ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta launched its fiftieth year while facing a major dilemma. The organization, which serves about 3,100 children, had a list of 1,100 boys waiting for Big Brothers. There was no such backlog for Sisters; in fact, an excess of women were volunteering for girls. By year’s end, thanks to a major awareness campaign, the deficit had shrunk to 525. But finding male mentors is still an uphill battle.

“Most men don’t realize how easy it is to help a child by just being in their life,” says chapter CEO Janice McKenzie-Crayton, whose own daughter has special needs and has been paired with a Big Sister for the past several years. “Being a Big Brother doesn’t require any special skill or qualifications.”

Men seem more intimidated by the commitment. But the minimum time requirement is only four hours per month, and any adult who can pass a background check is eligible to become a “Big.” BBBSMA actually discourages Bigs from spending much money on their Littles. Most kids just want someone who will shoot hoops or drive them to the library.

Winston Warrior, a senior manager of marketing at Cox Media Group, has served on BBBSMA’s board since 2009 but last summer became a Big himself, teaming up with twelve-year-old Janard. The duo have visited Six Flags, seen the Falcons play—even hit up a barber shop for joint haircuts. “He has so much to tell me when he gets in the car, and it’s just great,” says Warrior. “There are so many Janards out there that deserve someone to be a Big Brother to them.”

Though BBBSMA asks Bigs to give two years, relationships often last much longer. The founders of Flip Burger Boutique, Ron Stewart and Barry Mills, met as “siblings” and have now paired up in a successful business venture with chef Richard Blais. After graduating from Georgia Tech, Mills paid it forward by taking on his own Little Brother.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

Over the Big Top

It was summer. I was five years old, and my mother had taken me to a park in Chattanooga, the town where I grew up, to paint banners for a kids’ parade taking place later in the week. I was on my hands and knees in the grass, smearing tempera paint over rolled-out expanses of white kraft paper, but my heart was elsewhere. It lay across the field and under a pavilion where a swarm of other kids—older kids—were tumbling on floor mats, juggling and clowning, teetering across low-slung tightropes. They were all a blur of giggles and flailing limbs and bright colors. They were having so much fun.
They were at circus camp.
I saw them perform a few days later in the kids’ village at the festival. It’s a hazy memory now, but I know they were all in costume, I know the crowd laughed and cheered for them, and I know all I wanted in the world at that moment was to one day be up on that stage, too.
The circus camp was held every summer, and my obsession was such that I—an infamously impatient child—was willing to wait two whole years until I met the minimum age requirement. But when the summer of my much-awaited seven-year-old eligibility finally dawned, so did tragedy: The man in charge of the camp had moved the operation to Europe somewhere—Brussels, maybe? It didn’t matter. I had waited more than one-fourth of my life for circus camp, and now it was gone.
I shunted the disappointment deep into my soul, where it lay dormant for the remainder of my childhood. I grew up, kind of. I went to college. I moved to Decatur. And it was here that a mural on the side of a building on East College Avenue called to me. “CIRCUS CAMP,” it read in bold, childish scrawl, buttressed by clown faces and an arrow pointing down a side street to the wonders beyond.
>> More art: SCAD illustration students interpret this essay

It was unrelated to the circus camp of my youth, I knew. But I felt like it was daring me—to nab some glimpse of what might’ve been, to seek revenge on my thwarted dream, or to at least finally disabuse myself of the nagging notion that, if given the early exposure I’d so craved, I might now be making my profession not as a stumbly writer but as a glittery, spandex-swathed acrobat swinging from the ceiling at every Cirque du Soleil show from here to kingdom come. I needed to know what I’d missed, needed to gauge the depth and width of this particular gaping hole in my existence.

Last fall, I finally caved in and called up Circus Camp director Tim Dwyer.
Not sure if this would be weird, but. Not sure if you have open spots, but. Not sure if I’d even fit on the equipment, but.
And so this is how I came to spend four and a half days over two weeks in late December under the makeshift big top of the Friends School gymnasium on Columbia Drive. Along with three dozen kids ages five to thirteen, I did morning warm-ups led by professional magicians, twisted my own balloon animals, turned cartwheels for the first time in nearly a decade, practiced ribbon-twirling routines to Justin Bieber songs, and generally brutalized muscles that I’d forgotten I had.
I was paired off into Group E with the oldest kids, ten and up, most of whom I still stood head and shoulders above. At twenty-six, I was technically old enough to be their (very young) mother, but mostly they just skeptically regarded me as they would any other weirdly tall thirteen-year-old clearly lying about her age.
Soon enough, we were taking turns attempting air splits on a low-hanging trapeze. I felt the piercing stare of a dozen tiny eyes set in tiny faces as I grunted and groaned my way onto the bar. I felt only marginally less like an ogre when it was time for the tightwire, a ten-foot length of metal cording strung two feet off the ground, which I gingerly trespassed while clutching the toothpick arm of a fifteen-year-old, ninety-seven-pound counselor-in-training, spluttering apologies under my breath the whole way.
Juggling, unicycling, magic tricks—I felt pretty inept at every task I attempted. And I was completely okay with that.
My much younger self wouldn’t have been so cool, though. At five—and even at the ripe, eligible age of seven—I was clumsy, inclined toward spastic stage fright, and possessed of a general inability to perform tasks that I was not immediately good at without melting down and wishing death upon my instructors. It has occurred to me that my mother, who knew all that better than anyone, might have considered those facts in light of my circus camp obsession and simply fabricated the “sorry, honey, dude moved to Europe” story in an act of preventative subterfuge.
She denies this, and I guess I believe her, but it’s for all those reasons that I’m now actually glad my circus camp dream was delayed for so long. If I’d gone when I most desperately wanted to, it would have likely joined all the other semi-debacles of childhood extracurricular activities gone awry: the jazz dance lessons I flubbed my way through, the three seasons of softball that involved balls hitting me nearly as often as I hit them.
And failure would’ve been the best-case scenario, really. Had I gone to camp and realized I was anything more than competent at any single skill taught there, I would have spent years laboring under the delusion that I had a future in the circus—kind of like the weekend my parents bought a badminton set and, after I knocked the birdie over the net a few times, my thoughts immediately turned toward the details of Olympic eligibility.
There was a big talent showcase the final afternoon of camp. Kids showed off on the aerial equipment, spun plastic plates on pointed wooden dowels, executed dizzying flips on the crash pads. Everyone took long, dramatic bows and hooted and hollered and clapped for one another, and I watched it all from the back of the tiny crowd. “Don’t you want to get up there?” some of the kids and counselors asked me. I shook my head. Finally, just watching was enough.

Rachael Maddux lives, writes, and occasionally indulges childhood fantasies in Decatur.

Illustration by Alison Seiffer

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