Friday, November 30, 2012

November roundup

While Atlanta is definitely the less-exciting city that I'd predicted it would be, there have still been a few points of interest in the month of November.

When my Mom was in town, we did our one big sightseeing trip to the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest aquarium.  It dwarfs every other aquarium on the planet, and it was well worth the visit.  These whale sharks were stunning... I could have watched them for hours.

Santa Claus arrived at Totem again this year!  He emerged from the top of the tent, climbed a mast pole and gave everyone a "Ho-ho-ho!" as part of Totem's Toys for Tots event.

The kids continued to learn some basic circus arts.  Here's Denise Garcia teaching hula-hoop technique to her daughter Gipsy, and Ayla.  A group of Cirque du Monde kids came this past Wednesday, and our Totem school kids did an excellent job as coaches, teaching two full hours of workshops in introductory acrobatics, aerials, unicycling and manipulation.  It was quite a bit of work in preparation, but everyone had a great time and learned a lot.

We've gone to see the show a couple of times in this city.  I've started sending Baz to sit backstage while I take the girls to the front of house.  Baz has truly tired of watching the show, but the girls and I still enjoy it plenty.  And it gives Ayla a chance to jump into the aisle during the Finale and dance.  For a girl who claims stage fright, and whose nose I can barely drag out of her books most days, this little burst of showiness is pretty cute.  Everyone looks at her, this little girl who somehow knows all this choreography?  She makes a solo spectacle of herself and seems to have no qualms about it at all.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I came across this statistic in Harper's Magazine today:

2/5 of Americans don't walk at least 10 continuous minutes at any point in an average week.


Hey, America, we need to talk.  This is absurd.  And yet, not absurd enough to be untrue.  While contemplating this statistic, I found this fascinating article on, examining the question of why we don't walk.   There are endless excellent points in this article, I recommend reading the whole thing.

Atlanta has given me ample opportunity to consider this question.  Here, in the middle of Midtown, there is an astonishing lack of pedestrians.  I think it's safe to say that about 50% of the people on the streets outside are homeless.  Walking around office buildings at lunchtime has a "ghost-town" feel to it... where is everybody?  I can only presume that they drive to their parking garages, work, eat lunch at their desks, and go back to their parking garages at the end of the day.  It's a bit spooky.

Regardless, my kids and I walk everywhere.  The nearest playground is about a mile away.  On lazy days, we might take a bus or metro for part of the distance.  On adventurous days we'll ride our bikes.  But quite often, we walk.  They are used to this.  And though there is plenty of squabbling and complaining en route, it's really not more than the squabbling and complaining they'd do sitting at home.

I feel like the best conversations I have with my kids happen while we're walking.  Away from the distractions of books and computers, we'll end up talking about what things were like when I was a kid, or about how the world works.  They'll ask me (unknowingly) huge questions about illness and violence, and I'll take opportunities to tell them how to have a good work ethic and how to deal with mean kids.  We talk about religion and politics, holidays and cultures, we compare notes on our favorite places and scheme up future plans.

And in the meantime, our feet take us where we need to go.  There is no burning of fossil fuels, no couch-potato syndrome.  This is how we get around, and this is how we experience the world first-hand, instead of through the windows of a car.

The other day, the kids and I raced across a nearby road to make the "walk" signal, which was rapidly counting down 10, 9, 8....  A car took a zooming turn onto our street and had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting us.  The driver rolled out his window and started cursing at me, specifically for crossing the road this way with my children.  At first I felt angry and defensive.  I had a "walk" signal!  The kids were fully within the crosswalk and within arm's reach of me!  ...later, though, I felt simply sad.  A family crossing a street is a foreign, and scary sight to this man, who is used to his car zipping around unimpeded.  He didn't want to hit us.  He was simply unprepared for pedestrians, and turned his panic into anger.  It is a sad city, where parents and children walking are so unusual and unwelcome.  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Some fun things this week

The school Phys Ed, and the Kids Circus Classes, have been getting better and better as parents get more involved.  Here is Zhan coaching Baz on the trampoline, and Ayla trying out the Russian bar with Aliaksei.

And, Atlantic Station (the shopping / dining area near the Totem site) has decided to skip Thanksgiving altogether, and today officially launched the Christmas season.  There was caroling and tree-lighting and hot cocoa and Santa Claus.  I volunteered to help staff Totem's publicity table, where we gave out free popcorn and told people about the show.  Tickets were sold, lots of good conversations were had, and overall it was really enjoyable for me.  I didn't know how I'd feel about doing box-office and food-and-beverage work - but it actually felt purposeful and fun.  To have an official job, however small!  Quite gratifying.  


Friday, November 16, 2012

Yoga and the "real" self

So, I was at my Bikram yoga class this morning.  I should say, my almost-Bikram yoga class.  Here in Atlanta, the local Bikram studio decided to drop out of the Bikram franchise a couple of years ago, modify its practices a bit, and rename itself BeHotYoga Atlanta.  The result is a hot yoga studio which is about 90% Bikram.  The other 10%, though, causes me no end of distraction and irritation.  Bikram yoga works for me because of its uniformity.  Every class is taught the same way, with the same postures, procedures, timing, and rituals.  There is no need to think.  With a good teacher, I really can give them my trust, tune out my brain and experience the yoga.  This is not the case, so far, here in Atlanta.

I found myself thinking, during class, "My practice here is really just place-holding, keeping me at some level of limberness until I get back to a real Bikram studio."  Immediately afterwards, though, I realized that this type of thinking is a common pattern in my life, and problematic.  I am often saying to myself, "when I get back to my real life", or "when I'm back in shape" ... imagining that somehow the ME of today is not the real me.

This makes no sense.  The person I am today is no less "real" than the person I was three or ten or twenty years ago.  And while I may have loved some of the Bikram studios I practiced at in the past, I am closing my mind off to the goodness that this local studio offers.  What am I holding onto, and when will I start living more in the present?

I think the answer to the last question is - only over a long period of time.  I have been the grass-is-always-greener, future-daydreamer for as long as I can remember, and I can't change that completely today.  But yoga is a good start.  It reminds me to be present, and to take what my body has to offer on any given day.  It reminds me that all I really have to do is breathe.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Center for Puppetry Arts

Close to the Totem site here in Atlanta is the Center for Puppetry Arts, America's largest organization dedicated to puppetry performance and education.

The school kids (including the Chinese unicycle girls, and also Isa and Ilya as younger siblings) had a great time here today seeing a puppet show, exploring the museum, and making their own rod puppets.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Totem artist profiles - Aliaksei Buiniakou

Aliaksei Buiniakou, age 33, from Belarus, is part of the Russian Bar act in Totem.  He is a "porter", supporting the bar with a partner, while the flyers perform flips in the air and land back on the bar.  Unsurprisingly, Aliaksei is an incredibly strong and steady person, both on and offstage.  He is the husband of my friend Nastia, and father of two boys (Yahor, age 10, and Ilya, age 6).

Aliaksei grew up in Vitebsk, the 4th-largest city in Belarus, with a population of around 350,000 people.  As an energetic child, he was the first in his family to pursue any kind of athletics.  In their town there was a sports center, where coaches recruited kids to participate in various sports (all city-sponsored) - Aliaksei was invited to learn sport acrobatics, and began regular training while still in elementary school.  By the time he was 14 he was part of a team, which traveled to different cities for competitions.

Around that time (mid-highschool) he met Nastia and began their relationship.  They got married in 2001.

He finished highschool at age 16, and wanted to go to a university, but his grades weren't good enough.  So he spent a year in a technical college, and then went to the university the following year, to study physical education.

Throughout all this, his acrobatic team was growing in success and prestige, and by the time he was 21 he was part of the Belarusian national team, with a very demanding international travel schedule.  He had to give up his university studies, and for several more years, competitive sport acrobatics was his sole pursuit.

Due to some changes in the competition schedule, Aliaksei and his teammates left competitions for alternate work opportunities.  They were recruited by a coach to perform a teeterboard act, which they did on and off for a while.  But at the end of 2003, when Aliaksei was 24, Cirque du Soleil held acrobatic auditions in Vitebsk.  A few months later, he was invited to come to Montreal for training (he wasn't told what exactly he would be training to do, and had only tried Russian Bar a few times before.)

It is common practice for Cirque, when developing group acts, to bring together 7 or 8 people to train for 3 or 4 roles.  They train everyone equally for several months, and then the coach selects the artists most suitable for the act.  This was the case with Aliaksei, and he was fortunately offered, in April 2004, a temporary contract with Alegria's Russian Bar act in North America.  By the end of the year this had evolved into a regular contract, the tour was going to Japan, and Aliaksei could bring Nastia and Yahor (then 2 years old) to join him.

Aliaksei and his family stayed with Alegria for 5 years, in Asia, Europe, and South America.  Ilya was born in Madrid in 2006.  But in 2009, Alegria closed its chapiteau to become an arena show.  In arena shows, families aren't allowed to accompany the artists - they stay in each city for very short amounts of time, and in individual housing. So most of the Russian Bar artists, who by that time had wives and children, chose to train new artists for the Alegria act and to accept Cirque's offer of joining the new show in creation, Totem.  It was a tumultuous year for their family - Yahor, who had started 1st grade with Alegria, went home to Belarus to study there for a year, and then eventually switched to a public school in Montreal for the rest of Totem's creation time.  Everyone was relieved when Totem's tour was finally underway in 2010, and schooling could become consistent for the children.

As many of the artists have said in their interviews, Aliaksei greatly values his work with Totem, and the opportunities it gives him to travel, see the world with his family, and save money.  But he also says that he still appreciates the great feeling of being onstage.  He might have tightness or pain in his body on a given day, but the audience is seeing the show for the first time, and he tries to never forget that.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Here we are.  7 of the Totem wives, gathered at a children's birthday party this afternoon.  While there are some missing faces in this group, this photo certainly does show a lot of the women I spend my time with these days.

Though I am happy with this circle of friends, I have to say a word here about parties.

I came from Philadelphia, in a fairly low-income part of the city, and kids' parties were not lavish affairs.  When my kids were very young, I did a bunch of at-home themed parties (Firetrucks.  Mermaids.  Pirates), and when I burned out on that, we started a tradition of going somewhere special on a birthday, and bringing a friend.  To an aquarium, or a museum, for example.  (Oh, for the days when going to an aquarium or a museum was an unusual event.)  Gifts exchanged between friends were small, thoughtful, and occasionally handmade or hand-me-down.

Children's birthday parties, since we started touring with Totem, have been out of control.
First of all, there are 20 children on tour now.  Which makes for a lot of birthdays.  Second, the scope of these parties, and the scope of gift-giving, has a maniacal quality to it, and in 2 1/2 years I haven't been able to figure out why, or how to reverse the trend.

Today's party was a typical example.  The mother of a 3-year-old rented out a room and decorated it, then brought everyone together for a full 4 hours of organized activities.  There was cookie-decorating and a blindfolded drawing game and dancing.  There were hors d'oeuvres and snacks and pizza and ice cream and cake and candy.  The gifts were all from Toys R Us, large, plastic, expensive things.

The duration of these parties exhausts me.  The need to keep my three children behaving decently and not making themselves ill with sweets for that amount of time exhausts me.  (not exaggerating here... two days ago was another birthday, and Isa got sick from too much candy and threw up in the hallway.)  The expense of buying so many presents exhausts me.  And on the receiving end - feeling the need to organize, myself, three similar events each year, and collecting so many tons of plastic junk, and finding some way to discreetly pass things to Goodwill, because we can't carry it all in our luggage - all of that exhausts me too.  Today's party was our third birthday party in one week.

I tried, last month, to set a new precedent.  For Ayla's birthday, I organized an arts-and-crafts party that I clearly stated would be two hours long, and I requested, in the invitation, for people to only bring small, inexpensive gifts. (less than $10).  I wanted to say no gifts, but other members of my family thought that would be too harsh.

The party went fine, I think, and people respected my request somewhat.  Most of them came up with craft project packages - a considered strategy, since you can spend under $10 and still look like you're giving a somewhat sizeable gift.  Only one parent gave a really tiny gift - a small package of nice hairbands and barrettes - which I appreciated immensely.

However, no one else seems to have taken this suggestion for their own kids' parties.  So a couple of weeks ago we tramped off to Toys R Us to fill a cart full of big plastic toys, for the next round of gift-giving.  And I have long since learned to let go of my expectations for party lengths.  Parties will run until they burn themselves out.

I like to think that I've contributed to a good community on tour and to families who connect with each other.  Occasionally I've even been able to effect change (exhibit A - circus classes!).  But this is one area in which I seem to have no influence whatsoever.