What a clown taught me about work-life balance

Posted: February 28th, 2014 | Arts & Entertainment, Featured, News, Parenting | 1 Comment

By Andy Hinds | Parenting

There aren’t very many things that I’m really, really good at, but I’ve always felt like I’m kind of a master at the “work-life balance” that eludes so many of us — especially, it seems, those of us with kids. Of course, I usually err on the side of “life,” and have bailed on a couple of careers that interfered with it too much. And thankfully, I have been able to spend the past four years (since my twin girls were born) scheduling my work around my kids, which has tilted the scale way over to the “life” side. Next year, my kids will be in kindergarten, which will leave me more time to work. The balance shifts back and forth with time, and I hear that careers can be very fulfilling, but most of us hope to have more memories of quality time with friends and family than of punching the clock.

Jon Weiss of Circus Vargas balancing a 12-foot step ladder on his chin (Photo by Andy Hinds)

Jon Weiss of Circus Vargas balancing a 12-foot step ladder on his chin (Photo by Andy Hinds)

Last weekend, however, I met a dad who made me look like an amateur work-life balancer.

To hear Jon and Laura Weiss tell it, they never planned for the life they have now. They met in high school, married some years later and started a family with whom they now spend almost all of their hours, on the job and off. According to them, it all just kind of fell into place. But it’s hard to imagine that the line of work Jon, Laura and now all three of their kids are in doesn’t require an extraordinary, innate sense of balance. The Weisses are circus folk.

I got the opportunity to meet Jon and Laura and their kids when my family and I went to see Circus Vargas at Mission Bay Park. (They have moved on from that location, but will be in Mira Mesa until March 3rd, after which they set up in Temecula, so you can still catch them pretty close to home.) I think I must have been expecting them to be shifty-eyed vagabonds or something, because I was very pleasantly surprised to find that they were some of the most open, friendly, laid-back people I’ve met. Jon introduced us to his two teenaged boys who were manning concession stands and acting like teenaged boys; i.e., rolling their eyes at Dad’s jokes and exuding the impression that they knew much more about the circus biz than the old man did.

When we were done embarrassing the boys, we went to the “back lot” behind the big-top, to see where the circus families live. According to Jon, Circus Vargas is definitely a family affair. Many, if not most, of the performers and crew travel with their families. There is a trailer that, when not on the road hauling equipment, functions as a school for the dozen or so kids who are enrolled this year. Many of the kids will go into the circus business — some of the performers’ families have been in it for several generations — and some won’t. Laura and Jon’s eldest daughter, whom we met briefly while she was on her way to get into costume and makeup, is continuing the family tradition.

(l to r) Andy Hinds, Jon and Laura Weiss with the two Hinds children in front (Courtesy Andy Hinds)

(l to r) Andy Hinds, Jon and Laura Weiss with the two Hinds children in front (Courtesy Andy Hinds)

Jon and Laura invited us into their home for the brief time before the performance was to begin. While the interior was tasteful and neat, I have to say that the landscaping (dust and woodchips) left something to be desired. Of course, every few weeks, they hook their home up to the back of a dually pickup truck and join the caravan to the next performance location. I sometimes feel hemmed-in by our narrow, 1200-square foot cottage, but all five Weisses (and their tiny dog) live in a 43-foot fifth wheel trailer. My kids were fascinated by this house-on-wheels, especially the big-screen TV tuned to the Disney Channel.

As we lounged around in their kitchen, the Weisses explained how they ended up as a circus family. Jon graduated from clown college in 1981 and planned on performing for a year or so, while he figured out what he was really going to do with his life. Laura joined him at Ringling Brothers a couple years later, and they ended up staying with that organization for 26 years before moving on to Circus Vargas. It turns out we had a lot in common with the Weisses, between moving from the East Coast to California (Circus Vargas mostly stays in the Golden State), traveling, raising kids, being shot from cannons … oh, wait — I never actually did that. The point is, they seemed like the kind of people who had figured out how to live in a way that made them happy, and those are the kind of people I really like hanging out with.

The circus itself is very kid-centric. There’s a pre-show (don’t miss this if you have kids!), hosted by Jon and Laura, where the children come out to the ring and learn tricks like hula-hooping, juggling scarves and balancing peacock feathers. If you don’t find this adorable, you are dead inside.

Once the pros take over, it goes from cute to mind-blowing pretty quickly. I have to admit that my opinion of the performance may have been colored by seeing my four-year-olds literally agape and applauding wildly for most of the show. It was a classic circus performance — thrilling, silly, amazing, cheesy and just a lot of fun. It also has the benefit of not having any animal acts, so we didn’t have to feel terrible about our complicity in the degradation of noble jungle beasts.

There are very few things more engaging than seeing your small children losing their minds with excitement; yet I still found myself reflecting, as I watched Jon Weiss balance progressively bigger things on his nose and chin — a dollar bill, a shoe, a hat, a folding table, a Costco-sized shopping cart, a 12-foot stepladder: They’ve got a pretty good thing going, these circus families.

As usual, I grilled the kids afterwards to see what their impressions of the show were. They loved it all, especially the parts where some fire turned into a lady, and the guys jumped on the trampoline, and the lady changed her clothes a lot, and Mr. Jon balanced a shopping cart, and … and … and. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up,” I asked. “Circus girls,” they both said.

I hope they take me with them.

One Comments

  1. Andy Core says:

    This is so interesting. I love to read about families working together to have the life they want. And I appreciate the author making the distinction that all of us are similar in our quest to find balance and purpose. Whether you go to Cambridge or Clown College, finding what you want to do is a journey into the unknown.

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