Jimbob's Journal
The Fat Lady
by Jim Harris

In 1958, when I was 11, the circus came to Lighthouse Field in Philadelphia. It was the old-fashioned kind with a big top and a midway containing games and sideshows. My three best buds and I were out for a good time, so when Billy yelled "Fat lady", we all answered "Yeah!", and followed him into the tent. We entered noisily, but gradually fell silent as we realized that we were the only customers there. Not only that, but the fat lady was only a few feet away. I think we had all expected her to be in a glass case or something, but she was just sitting there, knitting. She lifted her eyes and looked at each of us in turn without missing a stitch. Now we were frozen with fear. After a few breathless moments, we slowly began to shuffle out sideways like horseshoe crabs, not breaking eye contact with her until it felt safe to turn and run. It was a weird experience, and we never mentioned it again, but that image has stayed with me to this very day.

Although the old-fashioned freak show has thankfully fallen by the wayside, you don't need to look any further than your TV set to find a daily dose of misfits, failures, and dysfunctional families to laugh at and feel superior to. Variously disguised as counseling, therapy, or education, it is a much more insidious and far-reaching form of exploitation and degradation than its tent-show predecessor. Most significantly, it allows the audience to laugh while hiding behind the one-way mirror of television. I see it as a form of pornography - addictive, dangerous, and pandering to our most base instincts. As in all matters, there are gray areas. Public discourse is important in some issues that affect society (bigotry, for example), but a critical eye can usually tell when the line has been crossed into demagoguery and opportunism.

Every human drive can have good and bad manifestations. The need to feel superior can bond us to people who are "like us", but it sets others apart and feeds a mean streak that is detrimental to our spirit. Once we realize that our real adversaries are abstract concepts (like ignorance and cruelty) rather than people, then we can pursue excellence with a clear conscience and take justifiable pride in victory. The ability to put ourselves in another's place is prerequisite to practicing the golden rule, and essential to our growth as a specie.

As for me, I am the side-show avenger. I will continuously challenge all of my mocking acquaintances in glass houses and subject them to the relentless, withering stare of the knitting fat lady. It was not lost on me.

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