The Wall Street Journal
When You Perform in a Firecracker Suit, Every Show Ends With a
By CARRIE PORTER
FOWLERVILLE, Mich. -- At the Fowlerville Family Fair here, John
Fletcher wrapped himself in more than 12,000 firecrackers and got ready to set
them all off.
He tucked his ponytail under his protective suit, grasped a
cigarette lighter with his left hand and planted his feet in a hydraulic bucket
crane. As about a hundred people looked on, he gave the order to raise the
bucket. "I started to cry a little bit when I put my goggles on and saw
the crowd," Mr. Fletcher recalls. He admits he was scared.
Mr. Fletcher, who is 47 years old, has performed his act as
"Ghengis [sic] John the Human Firecracker" dozens of times over more
than 10 years. He estimates that he has ignited more than 300,000 firecrackers
attached to the get-ups he creates to protect himself. Each year, he tries to
make the act a bit more exciting for the crowd -- using more firecrackers or,
as he did this year, more powerful ones.
Some people come back to see Mr. Fletcher's performance year
after year. "I've never seen anything like it. It makes me very tense and
nervous," says Stacey Lundgren, 60, who was in the crowd. "He gets
hurt every time, and he just keeps on doing it."
Mr. Fletcher's motivation is complex. His performances raise
money for charities like Cell Phones for Soldiers and local food banks. A
former drug abuser and alcoholic who has been clean for 17 years, Mr. Fletcher
says his affinity for pyrotechnics could be a new form of addiction. "I
guess my firecracker suit is my drug, and it's a drug I can do that's going to
help people," he says.
John Fletcher has performed his act as "Ghengis John the
Human Firecracker" dozens of times over more than 10 years.
Mr. Fletcher is a short, skinny man of 47 with wavy hair that
hangs nearly to his waist and a tuft of beard that juts from beneath his lower
lip. When he isn't playing bass guitar with his rock band or preparing to turn
himself into a stick of dynamite, he works at the Hell Survivors paintball
field and at a gas station in Pinckney, Mich., about 50 miles west of Detroit.
A photo of Béla Lugosi dressed as Dracula sits on a shelf in the
house trailer where Mr. Fletcher lives. Mr. Fletcher says the actor and the
rock star Alice Cooper are his lifelong heroes. Mr. Fletcher grew up in Garden
City, a Detroit suburb, the adopted son of an electrician who worked at General
Motors and an Internal Revenue Service employee. One day, out of curiosity, he
let a firecracker explode in his hand. "I was 10 or 11 years old, and it
stung and left a red mark," he recalls, tracing a circle in the palm of
his left hand.
About 25 years later, Mr. Fletcher was living in Pinckney and
playing in a rock band. He had recently kicked drinking and cocaine and was
throwing himself into his music. He was experimenting with guillotines and
electric chairs as stage props when he thought firecrackers might be a worthy
Practicing his act at a band mate's house one day, Mr. Fletcher
attached about 100 firecrackers to a strip of light brown leather, wrapped it
around his chest and lighted a fuse with a flick of his cigarette lighter.
"That was pretty much a walk in the park," he says.
"So I just kept adding more firecrackers."
For his first major public performance at the 1999 Howellstock
Music Festival in Fowlerville, Mr. Fletcher donned a black leather jacket he
bought at the Salvation Army for $2 and matching leather chaps decorated with
John Fletcher readies for his star turn.
The chaps failed to provide enough protection, and his pants
caught fire. "Safety personnel were right by me, and they took care of it
quickly," he says, but his legs were bruised and burned. He has had other
problems over the years, including a bruised kidney and five fractured ribs. He
tries to hold his breath as the firecrackers go off, but it is hard amid the
pummeling. "Everything tastes like firecrackers for a week."
Although people don't pay to see him perform, Mr. Fletcher sets
up donation boxes around the community before his performances. This year, he
collected the equivalent of 1,000 meals in a combination of food and cash for
Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan.
Last month in Fowlerville, about 20 miles northwest of Pinckney,
the smell of fresh manure and hay was mixed with the aromas of fried dough and
sausage links at the Family Fair. As Mr. Fletcher waited for his band,
Southpaw, to perform, he struggled to stay calm. "The butterflies are
really kicking me in the stomach," he said, rapping a pack of cigarettes
against his leg.
After the band's last song, he told the audience it was time for
Before putting on his exploding suit, Mr. Fletcher strapped on
his body armor, made of five layers of compressed leather, and took a swig from
a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Four friends draped the $200 suit on Mr.
Fletcher's scarecrow frame. He had forgotten to put in his earplugs. "I've
done it so many times, it's not going to make a difference," he said.
Last year, Mr. Fowler set off 13,000 firecrackers and broke his
own record. This year, he went with fewer, slightly more powerful firecrackers.
He spent weeks duct-taping 12,000 firecrackers onto a new black leather vest
with matching chaps.
The crowd formed a semicircle along a line of yellow police tape
around the crane. The amusement rides cast a garish light on the scene, as the
crane began to lift Mr. Fletcher.
"I love you all," he yelled to the cheering crowd.
Once the crane had reached its full height of 36 feet, Mr.
Fletcher held the blue Bic lighter to the fuse, and watched the flame run up
A series of explosions rippled up his torso, and sparks
ricocheted off his armor. Smoke obscured his face. After about 30 seconds, Mr.
Fletcher had to relight one of the fuses to keep the explosions coming.
Onlookers whistled and yelled as the pops shot down one leg, then the other and
finally on his back. With the final pop, the crowd grew quiet. Mr. Fletcher
leaned over the bucket's railing, pulling off the shredded remains of his suit
as he descended and tossed them to the ground.
Mr. Fletcher walked into the crowd with a whoop
of relief, and then limped to the bleachers. "This takes a lot out of
me," he said, surveying the powder burns and bruises on his arms. "I
can't do this much longer."
Recreational rioting: a youth fad in Northern
By CARRIE PORTER
BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- A different strain
of sectarianism plagues North Belfast today, more than a decade after Northern
Ireland's peace agreement.
Stemming not from political ambition but still
falling along the Protestant-Catholic fault line, daily skirmishes now have a
catchy name: recreational rioting.
Considered a low-level nuisance, it has become
the extracurricular activity of choice for youths in the poorest parts of
Belfast, where unemployment is fierce, paramilitaries seethe underground and
the Kentucky Fried Chicken is a popular hang-out. Fueled on alcohol, drugs and
boredom, teenagers gather to throw rocks, homemade bombs and vitriolic slurs at
For hundreds of years, the two tribes –
Catholics and Protestants – have tried to share the same land, despite
different understandings of history and culture. The brutality of the Troubles
catapulted the small region onto the international stage as a conflict zone in
the late 20th century. It was the 1998 co-sharing agreement that made Northern
Ireland remarkable, as a seemingly impossible peace was found.
In contrast to the rioting that made international headlines in
Northern Ireland last week — rioting that had a clearer political agenda and
momentum from dissident republican groups — recreational rioting is
"purely sectarian," said Sam Uttley, a community worker from the
Lower Shankill Community Association. In other words, people form opposing
opinions of each other based on their cultural upbringing.
Uttley spends most of his days and nights
fielding text messages and scouring Facebook and Bebo, a United Kingdom social
networking site, for hints about skirmishes around his ward.
“During the year Protestant and Catholic kids
meet at cross-community events and exchange telephone numbers,” he said. “Later,
when they get bored, they text each other for a fight.”
Anti-social behavior is a problem across the
U.K., formally recognized by Parliament’s Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to
curb youths’ destructive habits like noise complaints, graffiti and
trespassing. The difference here is the way it hinges on sectarian history.
The summer marching season, the peak of which is
July 12, observes the communities as they celebrate their heritage with
parades, showcasing the proud loyalty to each side’s version of history. A
heady display of flags, flutes and family combines with warmer weather for a
recipe of literal and figurative Molotov cocktails.
Last week, more than 80 police officers were
injured in Northern Ireland, as they tried to keep the peace between the two
communities during annual parades.
But for Joe Keenan, who lives on the peace
lines, the recreational rioting does not stop when the summer parades end.
In 1984 Keenan moved into his new home in North
Belfast and was greeted by a black steel fence. Only eight inches high, it
marked the pencil-high boundary between his Protestant lawn and the Catholic
youth, armed with glass bottles and golf clubs, who lived up the street.
Today the fence has become a wall eight feet
tall. From his stoop Keenan has a front-row seat to the sectarian fighting that
refuses to burn out. Keeping a detailed log of events, he has recorded 44
attacks on his home since January.
“It is bad enough getting it from the Catholic
side but also when you get it from your own Protestant side, you just think
they need a good kick in the head,” said Keenan, who at age 52 is out of work
since a construction injury a few years ago.
Punitive measures for rioting are historically
weaker in the Northern Ireland than in England, where rioting offenses can lead
to years in jail rather than months, according to Neil Jarman, the director at
the Institute for Conflict Research (ICR), based in Belfast.
“It all feeds into the notion that rioting is
not that serious,” he said. “The kids will come out because they enjoy it, but
engaging with them will be the solution, not in a punitive sense but in
stopping them from wanting to partake in the activity.”
“The challenge is to give support for a
community that doesn’t support us,” said Inspector Norman Haslett of the Police
Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), who is in charge of policing in the
toughest pockets of Belfast, during an interview in late May. “We must build up
trust and understanding … they throw rocks at us … it’s a learned behavior.”
Some analysts say the chronic recreational
rioting is a product of the area’s poverty. In spring 2010, Northern Ireland
Statistics & Research Agency released a deprivation report that ranked
wards by factors such as income, employment, health and education. Wards in and
near North and West Belfast took seven spots in the top 10 of nearly 600 wards
around Northern Ireland for overall deprivation.
The lack of economic opportunity mixed with a
long history of fighting creates a bubble of contained tension and constrained
peace at interface points between the two sides. “The level of segregation is
so striking here,” said Chris O’Halloran of the Belfast Interface Project
(BIP). “Only five percent of kids go to integrated schools for Catholics and
Protestants, and ten percent inter-marry.”
As practice coordinator for BIP, O’Halloran
works on regeneration projects for interfaces in Belfast. “There are 88 instances
of defensive use of public space in Greater Belfast,” he said. “A lot of those
aren’t walls or fences, but instead derelict space.”
This number has nearly tripled since the
cease-fires in 1994 and 1995, when the official number was 27. While O’Halloran
said the stark contrast could be attributed to poor counting in the early
1990s, he acknowledged the lack of progress in these areas.
“Rioting was widely tolerated as a normal
spectator sport,” said Jarman of ICR. “The sectarian geography of Belfast
enables it to happen easily because there’s an easy target, so it is predicated
on sectarian differences without being overtly sectarian.”
The rash of street fighting comes at a critical
time for Northern Ireland’s peace process. In April Westminster transferred
policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, symbolizing the final “jigsaw
piece” of the peace process.
Meanwhile, dissident activity has spiked. The
Independent Monitoring Committee dubbed dissident groups “highly active and
dangerous” in a report this May, while the PSNI raised the security alert to
its highest level since the 1998 Omagh bombing.
In an ICR study earlier this year, 70 percent of
the youths reported having contact with the police. Of those youths, 38 percent
described their experience with police as “disrespectful.”
A bloated sense of violence, with media coverage
of burnt-out cars and riots, trumps signs of progress, which most people in
Belfast say is obvious. “Five or 10 years ago we wouldn’t have had both
politicians coming out to condemn the rioting like we did this year,” said
Jarman of ICR. His study also found 32 percent of the youths described their
meeting with police as “polite.”
“We have to remember that trouble hasn’t
escalated into other parts of the city, and there is cross-community support
for peace,” he said.
But for Keenan on Oldpark Road, a night of sleep
would be peace enough. He keeps a fire extinguisher by the front door, which
has been replaced by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive five times and now
is made of the sturdiest wood available.
“It’s an ordinary way of life for
me, living behind these bars,” he said. “It’s like a prison.”
The Wall Street Journal
Dementia Studies Find Diet, Exercise Matter
By CARRIE PORTER
studies published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association
add to evidence that long-term lifestyle habits may reduce the risk of mental
decline in old age.
first study, a long-term look at 1,880 elderly people in New York City, found
that a Mediterranean-type diet and physical activity each were linked to less
risk for Alzheimer's disease. The Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's
Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University Medical Center released the
data as part of a larger research project on aging.
second study, a shorter-term observation of 1,410 patients in France, found
some correlation between a Mediterranean-type diet and slower cognitive damage.
Scarmeas, the author of the first study, grew up eating fish and vegetables in
Athens, Greece. Now the neurologist suggests more people take up his mother's
cooking. Marked by high consumption of foods such as vegetables, legumes and
cereals, served with olive oil, in addition to moderate fish and alcohol
intake, the traditional diet has long conferred better cardiovascular health.
in 1992, researchers at Columbia University monitored elderly patients every 18
months for diet, exercise and mental health, in addition to a number of
controls including age, sex and education. "This is one of the first
studies to tease apart the independent contributions of diet and exercise for
dementia prevention," says Ronald Petersen, director of the Alzheimer's
Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who was not
involved in the research. "It suggests that aging need not be a passive
studies are observational and not definitive, but they hint at what might
reduce the chances of Alzheimer's or dementia. In the Columbia research, those
who adhered most closely to the diet reduced their risk for Alzheimer's by 40%,
while those with the highest physical activity decreased their risk 33%,
compared with people who didn't adhere closely to the diet or were not
French study found that subjects who adhered to the Mediterranean-type diet
experienced a slower rate of mental decline than those who did not eat the
diet, but did not prove a link for dementia, which requires a clinical
assessment of a variety of mental and social functions.
in the field are careful to note that none of these findings demonstrate a
causal relationship, but instead reflect the advantages of a continual healthy
lifestyle. "The benefits don't just occur at age 70 when you suddenly stop
eating McDonald's and start eating Brussels sprouts," says David Knopman,
a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who wrote the editorial
accompanying the studies in JAMA and wasn't involved in either study. His
editorial highlights confounding variables in the studies. "Healthy diet
and exercise is part of a package of lifelong healthy living."
Khachaturian, a senior science adviser to the Alzheimer's Association, agrees.
"This offers interesting insight but we need to turn it now into clinical
trials," says the former director of the Office of Alzheimer's Disease
Research at the National Institutes of Health.
findings arrive a few weeks after new research identified a gene that could
help predict who will develop Alzheimer's—the leading cause of dementia—and at
what age. The report, given in mid-July at the International Conference on
Alzheimer's Disease, concentrated on DNA surrounding the ApoE gene. Researchers
say more studies are needed before the findings can be confirmed.
now, Dr. Scarmeas says his studies strongly suggest that a Mediterranean diet
and exercise both confer independent and positive health benefits. But
together, they are even better.
"The relative risk reduction for
Alzheimer's is about 60% when you combine the diet and exercise," he says.
Degree in Circus Arts Can Teach You
By CARRIE PORTER
LONDON -- Running away to join the
circus, once an avenue for youngsters looking to avoid responsibility, has gone
legit. Now, in addition juggling
bowling pins, fireballs and hula hoops, aspiring students can throw in business
class or two and actually earn a circus degree.
The Circus Space, an abandoned
London power station turned circus school, is the first in the United Kingdom
to offer a bachelor's degree in Circus Arts. With accreditation from the
University of Kent, the school says circus graduates
boast employment numbers of 90 percent.
"In the past eight years, we've
seen an enormous growth in the number of artists who want to take part in the
degree program," said Philip Nichols, the head of marketing and
communication for The Circus Space. "It is an intense and dedicated
program, with everything from physical training and specialist skills to
Once relegated to the tent of tigers and
tricks, rise of Cirque
du Soleil has spurred increased mainstream popularity, and now
circus has spread to classrooms, leadership workshops, and youth programs in
the U.S. and abroad.
"Circus is reflecting wider
shifts in society," said Leila Jones, the producer and programmer for the
Roundhouse CircusFest in London. "There's a move away from traditional
circus to become more challenging and sophisticated."
Housed in the same venue that has
seen the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney, Jones' seven-week festival
aims to encourage thousands of people to enjoy the circus' delights.
"At Sadler's Wells we've had a
number of outstanding circus shows at our main house and West End venue the
Peacock Theatre... In 2009 Traces attracted over 30,000 people to the Peacock
Theatre in a five and a half week run, with some sold out performances,"
said Kingsley Jayasekera, the organization's marketing and communications
"I think it's the combination
of thrilling storylines, accomplished acrobatics, great music and captivating
stage sets which has resulted in such a positive increase in audience numbers.
Psy, which opened this week at the Peacock Theatre has had standing ovations
every night, evidence that modern audiences still enjoy the agility and skills
of traditional circus performers but with an up-to-date edge."
More Young Americans Drawn to the
With a new appetite for contemporary
movement, the art form's circus stereotypes of animal acts
and children's entertainment are losing ground. Instead, artists are using
circus for everything from team-building workshops to youth diversity programs
to social commentary.
In Chicago, there is CircEsteem, a
circus school intended to unite young people with diverse racial and economic
make-ups. Their first youth-directed circus show, Brave New Circus, is an
adaptation of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," and "addresses
ideas of individuality and subverting the dominant paradigm...taught by a clown
who stumbles through a perfectly ordered world and creates chaos, "
according to the organization's website.
A few others include Circus Harmony
in St. Louis, Xelias Aerial Arts in Minneapolis, New England Center for Circus
Arts as well as Circus Smirkus, both in Vermont.
"There is actually a strong
youth circus culture in the United States," said Amy Cohen, a 2009 U.K.
Fulbright Scholar who is researching contemporary circus arts at The Circus
Cohen co-directed last year's
American Youth Circus Organization festival, which organizes a network for
youth circus groups to promote youth participation in circus arts.
"More young people in the U.S.
are exploring international options because there are not any formal circus
performance degree options in the U.S."
One British circus performer and
educator is pursuing her Ph.D. at London's Central School of Speech and Drama,
while a few others are working toward master's and doctorate degrees in child
development and circus at American institutions.
"Circus gives access to a broad
range of old and young people with skills that naturally go along with
life," said Nichols of The Circus Space.
"From a philosophical view, it is not elitist and something
everyone can do, plus it is a metaphor for many things people do in their life.
It literally teaches you balance."