I once was very proud of my strength. Being the strongest, fastest and hardest-working was very important to me. But as you may have guessed, my story doesn’t end with a gold medal. I’ve achieved much more. My athletic career was terminated by an injury that may have been related to my muscular dystrophy, although I didn’t know at the time that I had MD. All I knew was the strength in my muscles leaked like a faucet.
So instead of pursuing athletics, I went to Ohio University in Athens and majored in math. I tried to put the same discipline into my studies that I had for sports, but something was missing.
It was passion.
Then one day I met some students from Germany who were juggling on the campus green. Overnight, I found my new passion — juggling. After graduation, I immediately took off for Europe to become a street performer. I trained hard, but finally had to face the fact that my right arm was becoming a twig.
Finally, I went to the doctor and learned what was happening to me: facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). The strength in my arms, shoulders and back was running out like sand in an hourglass, and nothing could stop it.
A new strength
I was shattered. I knew I had to be strong, stronger than ever before. But strength was something I’d always measured in pounds, repetitions or seconds. On this scale I was a failure.
But then a strength that had nothing to do with muscle came out of me, as I learned how to make people laugh. I’m sure you’ve heard that laughter is the best medicine, but making others laugh is even better.
I became a clown by accident. After having succeeded with my street act in Germany, I moved on to southern France, where the winters are milder. But the French weren’t impressed with my ability to juggle seven balls at once.
The only time I got a reaction was when I dropped a ball. My frustration was a hit with the French, so I changed my act and my failure became my success. When the balls collided in midair I’d run for cover. If I dropped one, I’d blame it on someone passing by.
That’s how I learned that it’s much more important how a clown does something than what the clown does.
No disabled clowns
My clown‘s name is Clou, which means something like “the secret ingredient.”
Clou doesn’t look much like a clown, because he doesn’t wear a red nose. Clowns only wear red noses so that everybody knows they‘re allowed to laugh at them.
Clou wears a vest, tie and a black bowler hat in the style of the 1920s. Some recognize him immediately as a clown, while others just think he‘s a very strange person who constantly seems to be having problems because his props tend to have minds of their own.
I love sharing clowning with children, particularly those with illness or disability. Some say laughter can heal. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But when a child learns to laugh and then to make others laugh, his sickness may continue to disrupt his health but not his happiness.
Clowns don’t have disabilities. If there’s something a clown can’t do, it’s not a disability, just something they don't do.
Once I did a clown workshop in Germany for seven kids with muscular dystrophy, all in wheelchairs. The first thing I did was get them out of their wheelchairs and onto the carpet. We pretended we were under water and swam around, letting our fantasies run away with us.
After we’d started, some other kids walked by and asked to join the crazy fun.
It wasn’t until the workshop was over, when some kids stood up and others waited to be set back in their wheelchairs, that it became obvious who could walk and who couldn’t. I’ll never forget the kids’ faces as they suddenly realized that they were back in their own worlds, but with the knowledge that a world exists in which we’re all the same.
No matter what disabilities you may have, as long as there’s something you can do, then you can do something with it. And if you’re a clown you can do a lot more with it!
The court jester
I don’t just work as a clown, I am a clown. I live in what I call the Absolute Moment, which is this very millisecond — oops, it’s gone. If this sounds like a dangerous way to live, you’re right. Clou has done stuff that’s made Eric jump and run after him to gag him, but remarkably it’s always turned out well.
I feel like a court jester in a world full of kings. I know my head could roll for some of the things I do, but I do them anyway, because sometimes these jokes just have to be made.
For example, I live in the northern part of Germany, which is rather well known for its humorlessness. One time I lost some important documents, so I went to the appropriate government office to get them replaced.
As I began to explain my problem to the woman behind the desk, her phone rang. She answered it without hesitation, as if I weren’t even there, and then worked the case like a diligent little squirrel for the lucky person on the other end of the line.
Eventually she hung up and asked my name again. Again I began explaining my situation and again the phone rang, and again she turned into a diligent little squirrel. I began doubting my own existence.
When she answered the phone for the third time, Clou took over. As soon as she hung up, her phone rang again. She excused herself nonchalantly, but this time it was me on the other end of the line.
Go for it
Now I’ll admit being funny and making others laugh isn’t easy, but at times it’s easier than smiling. In fact it works best when you don’t smile. That means you take your nonsense seriously. For example, you might:
Park your wheelchair in a handicap-designated space and ask someone for change for the parking meter. After they explain that the parking space is for a car, don’t laugh when you ask, “Then why is there a picture of a wheelchair painted here?”
Whenever you see someone who remotely looks like a famous person, ask for an autograph. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t believe them when they say they’re someone else.
Tear off about 2 feet of toilet paper and stick one end of it in your sock and let the rest hang out. Sooner or later someone will say, “Excuse me but you’ve got something there.” Now the fun begins. “Where?” you say, and whatever you do, don’t find it.
Clowning isn’t for everyone. Some will say, “Oh, I could never do that!” That’s too bad.
To all others, I encourage you to take any opportunity to just be stupid. Take a stupid matter seriously and you may find it’s easier to take a serious matter lightly. Getting a chuckle out of someone you don’t know makes you smile inside. And if you happen to come across someone who can’t laugh, you’ll see that there are worse things in life than having MD.
With FSHD, I know that the clock is ticking and someday I may not be able to clown around as I have. But come what may, I’ll always be able to smile, at least on the inside, and that’s all that matters in life.
Eric J. Kolb, 36, lives in Porta Westfalica, Germany, where he clowns in three hospitals as well as doing shows and workshops. He has performed in France, England, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria and the United States, where he hopes to do clown workshops for kids with MD this summer.