Night Flight to Happy Valley

March 28, 2009

Her muscles rippled across her back, danced really, as she faced away from us, working through pieces of her routine, swinging her arms, flinging her shoulders. A splashy sequined mini-dress clung to her frame. She was a burst of energy, of perfect fitness, limber, sculpted, youthful beauty — and she had a white-capped metal rod in her hand: the reigning three time world (whirled?) champion three-baton twirler, P.J. Maierhofer.

I had seen her last year, in the same setting, in the grand ballroom of the Penn Stater Conference Center, at a “Presidential Tailgate,” a fancy catered meal and pre-game celebration of all things Penn State — a shout-out “Thank You!”to important supporters, members of boards and legislatures, and the odd scruffy in-law from Vermont and his teenage son.

She was as amazing as before, though President Spanier advised us to pay special attention to her later, on the field at half-time, when she wouldn’t have a 20 foot ceiling to constrain her. It was baffling to see what one could do, what she could do, with a baton, or two, or three. She could spin one around her neck, seemingly endlessly, and then make it climb down one arm, back up, loop her neck a few times then travel down the other arm, never once touching it with her hands or dimming one watt from her incandescent smile. And then she’d stop and hurl it ceiling-ward, throwing herself into a spin as well, dipping, twisting, as acrobatic, more flashy than the baton itself, and then thrust out her hand just as it returns. A person one with her art, unrelenting, precise, smiling — except while juggling, doing her three baton routine, at times her face would slacken, mouth relax open, as every ounce of focus was pouring through her eyes, her nerves and hands as she threw and spun and watched and caught and repeated and then she’d remember and despite all the flashing flying metal her face would come alive again, tightening into that smile. She was stunning. She was worth the trip. A world (whirl?) unto herself. An icon of dedication to one thing, the twirling baton, and what a body can do with it.

All the performers were grand, including the President, who led the marching band into the ballroom, himself waving a baton, a wooden drumstick, beating the giant drum strapped to his shoulders.

At half-time, after we had all moved to the “President’s Box,” and Penn State was beating (yes, beat, baton, batten, bat, etc. all from the French battre, to beat with a stick), actually battering, Michigan State, when the three hundred strong Blue Band stormed the field with the tall striding drum major leading the way, beating out the rhythm, holding and directing the entire corps with his giant baton, thrusting it up and down, out and down, as he marched, wheeled, stopped, started again, always with P.J. fluttering next to him, like a small white bird, catapulting her wings into the sky, flitting and floating, in her own world, on center stage, at midfield, focused on that one spinning thing.

And when the game was finished and the fans temporarily took the field, season over, bowl game assured, I watched the security guards spreading out, taking up positions at every ten yard marker, hands on hips, facing out, and I thought of junior high school days, watching New York City cops on the beat, relaxed, at one with their work, swaying in the heat, spinning their nightsticks, those hard black batons. And I thought of the fasces, that bundle of rods with an axe head protruding that graces the back of the Mercury dime and Roman engravings, and Nazi iconography — each rod symbolizing a city or state, the power of that state, its authority, all bundled tightly and held by the supreme staff holder, baton holder, the emperor, the fuhrer, the State.

And I think of the US men’s 4×100 meter relay team which dropped its baton in Beijing, race lost, and of Obama and Bush and the current transition, with so so many things up in the air, so many of them spinning out of control, so many lives falling and crashing, our workhorse/workhouse planet beaten and in peril. I think of the focus we need, the dedication, the rippling muscles of intellect, of clarity, of compassion, to not drop this baton, to make the changes we need to make, to bring a healthy heartbeat to this world and our humanity.

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