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A Goof-Off With a Mission

REMEMBER when you used to make faces? You'd stand in front of the bathroom mirror after brushing your teeth, before Mom came in to send you off to bed. Remember how far you could stretch out your mouth, how wide you could make your eyes bug out? You could flare your nostrils and puff your cheeks, you could curl your lips and fold your tongue. You were good. You were a master of the perfectly useless skill of hideous facemaking.

Once you grew up, so you'd been told, you'd have to be highly responsible. And now here you are, unexpectedly, a grown-up. You have to be at work on time, balance your checkbook, fix the car. You have to say all the right things, join the right clubs, comb your hair, wear socks that match, get all your buttons in the right button holes. Or do you?

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Not long ago, I sat on the floor with a group of school children and watched a man - a so-called grown-up - stand big squares of paper on his nose, juggle colored balls in the air, make his tongue disappear, and demonstrate the sound of one hand clapping. Oh - and there were spoons. This guy had perfected the fine art of hanging spoons from his nose - and from his chin, cheeks, and forehead.

When he did his lizard face, giggles broke out across the room. "It's easy," he shouted, persuading everybody to try. And then he showed us, in five easy steps, how to transform ourselves into reptiles: Frown, thrust that chin forward, flex those neck tendons, roll your eyeballs to the ceiling, and, now, add some flicking tongue action. The likeness was surprisingly accurate.

No question about it. Rick Davis has earned his self-designated degree: MU, "Master of Uselessness." (He even bestows PU degrees on other aspiring Practitioners of Uselessness.) This grown-up, a professional clown who lives in New Hampshire, happens to believe that useless skills deserve public recognition. He is a goof-off with a message, a funny man with a mission.

The idea is simple: A "useless" skill is not necessarily a worthless one. In a room full of kids, all of them - whether or not they're popular or smart - accomplishes something. They learn a neat thing they can show friends. They become experts. And they laugh and laugh.

The Master of Uselessness does exactly the same things when he has a room full of adults. He gets them making lizard faces and animal noises. He teaches them how to pronounce the longest word in the English language. He performs the Amazing Leg-Disappearing Trick - and he makes them laugh and laugh. Maybe best of all, for kids and grown-ups, are the bubbles.

You should see what Rick Davis can do with bubble stuff. It's incredibly cool. We're not talking single bubbles that float off in random profusion. Rick creates giant double bubbles trimmed around the middle with a string of smaller bubbles. He blows and stretches the shimmering liquid, twirling it expertly at the end of a tiny straw and suddenly, before you can say "Ohmygosh," the whole delicate bubble creation is spinning before you, a fragile masterpiece of liquid rainbows.

When Rick finishes his show and the room has emptied of laughter and funny faces and silly sounds, the philosopher-clown packs his show into a big black trunk. As I watch, he stops suddenly and, in a moment of seriousness, tells me why he does what he does: "Look," he says, his voice earnest, "at some point, the nonessential becomes essential. You need to break loose into the realm of the unnecessary - even the totally useless. You need to get up and dance.

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"What could be more useless than dancing? It doesn't accomplish anything. You can make it through life without ever getting on the dance floor, without ever being bowled over by the Grand Canyon, without ever listening to Ray Charles. Those things don't ensure life, but they enhance it. And that's the whole point - to enjoy." For a moment, his words hang suspended in the air like the colored balls he juggles, making perfect sense.

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