Year of the Spinning Plates

If you are a certain age (I am not being coy here), you will most likely remember watching the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. There were memorable shows (who can forget the Beatles?) and there were touching acts (Topo Gigio – Ooohhhh, Edddie!), but the act that always got to me was the guy with the spinning plates.

This act has many different versions. If you have seen Chinese acrobats, you have seen the most amazing versions of bodies contorting into shapes and angles that are just not meant to be and, to top it all, while precariously balanced on one another, spinning plates, knives, chairs, and other outrageous objects until, in one fell swoop, gravity is defeated and the objects return to their normal positions for a group bow. Then there is the version I remember from the Ed Sullivan Show.

Erich Brenn

This guy (turns out his name was Erich Brenn) would come on stage, dressed in a suit and bow tie and start to spin a plate on top of a stick. Then he would put the stick in a holder on a table and put another plate and start it spinning. This would go on until he had four, five, seven, plates all spinning at different speeds on the sticks. He would then run between them to make sure they didn’t fall down. The drama was in seeing the plates teetering while he was managing to keep one spinning at the opposite end of the table.

The act couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes, but by the end, with each of the plates deftly juggled and returned to his hands, the camera would pan the audience filled with folks clapping madly, eyes wide open in astonishment and joy. Me?  I was on the edge of the couch, heart beating almost on the verge of a panic attack!  I never tired of the act, even though I knew nary a plate would fall, but always gripped by the possibility of catastrophe.

Spinning Plates Takes Practice & Attention

This past year has felt a lot like watching a spinning plate act. There is the pandemic plate, the economic plate, the quarantine plate, the election plate, the BLM plate, the attack on Congress plate, and the impeachment plates. It seems as if all have had to be kept spinning. Just when one of them felt as if it were ready to fall, something would start it turning again. It was different when it was on the Ed Sullivan Show. This time, a lot of plates have fallen with disastrous and heartbreaking outcomes.

I understand it takes a lot of practice to do plate spinning, but once you get the hang of it, you can do some amazing things. The theory behind it has a complicated name (conservation of angular momentum), but it easily grasped when you think of a gyroscope. The gyroscope works on speed and direction. Its enemy is gravity. Spin the object fast enough and it actually becomes more stable. Keep it spinning, it stays steady. When it loses momentum, however, it becomes wobbly and gravity takes over.

Wobbly, Wobbly, Wobbly

With each of the plates this year steady spinning has been, well, inconsistent. Each has lost momentum at times and at others spun wildly. The pandemic plate started off spinning slowly enough, but then spun out of control. Now it’s just spinning steadily. Unfortunately, that means there are daily reports of infection and death. This is one plate I am ready to let fall.

The economic plate has wobbled for some and spun wonderfully for others. Folks who are out of work and are waiting for some sort of financial support are like the pieces of smashed plates at a Greek wedding. Folks who have benefited from investments are like those acrobats who are doing amazing gymnastic feats as the Dow Jones and S & P go up and down. I suspect there are many different hands keeping the plates spinning. Luck of the draw?

Plates of All Kinds

The quarantine plate has almost fallen several times. As a matter of fact, there are a number of these plates that were never spinning at all, with some folks thinking this whole thing is a hoax. What I’ve noticed, though, is how quickly the entrepreneurs have found ways to sell designer masks, create at-home dining opportunities, and make home delivery of just about everything an accepted way of life (new plates!). We transformed work from office to home, learned to Zoom and Skype, and changed our dress code. These plates are spinning steadily and I suspect will stay that way for a long time.

The election plate seems to have fared poorly. I am clear that it has fallen and broken into many different shards. It may require purchasing a whole new set of dishes if it is to remain part of the act. I think it happened because so many of us weren’t paying attention. I am so very clear just how important it is to let someone know when a plate is slowing down and not abdicate my role in seeing these plates are kept spinning for all of us.

The BLM plate is one of the most resilient of all the plates. It has fallen many times and each time repairs have been made and the plate set to spinning again. It needs to be respected and revered. It needs its own honor guard to watch over it and insure that it never falls again.

The attack on Congress on January 6, 2021, made me realize just how fragile our democracy plates are and how difficult they are to repair and replace once a plate has fallen. Not everyone has the same goal to keep the plates spinning. There are those among us who want the plates to fall. If we take our eyes off what is spinning before us, if we are timid and scared, then the whole thing comes crashing down and the clean-up is going to be messy.

The impeachment plates show just how much practice is needed to keep things balanced. Not everybody is cut out for plate spinning. Deciding who should spin the plates must be an informed and collective act. Deciding which plates to be used should require standards. If a plate isn’t right for spinning, it shouldn’t be spun.

There are a lot of plates wobbling right now. Understanding how momentum and direction work is very useful, especially if you feel stuck. What plates do you have that need attention?

2 comments

  1. What a trip down memory lane! Ed Sullivan–such an unlikely MC–but such wonderful acts (Edddieeee, indeed!). I, too, loved the spinning plates and it is a wonderful metaphor for this year. But we have to be careful not to relax and let the spinning falter by our exhaustion or simple inattention. I pray that faith, courage, and resilience will be my guides.

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