Friday, October 07, 2005

The Laws of Gravity And Motion


The magic began with a trip to Hawaii and ended with a trip to Hawaii.


A wacky science teacher named Zoltan Gall offered his junior high students extra credit in the form of learning to juggle. My brother Drew was in Mr. Gall’s class in 1990 and took the offered credit.

Drew learned quickly and found he was good at it. Drawn to his new talent, I asked him to teach me (or maybe he offered to show me or perhaps he dared me to learn, I’m not exactly clear on that). He proved to be a good teacher and, along with teasing me unmercifully when I dropped tennis balls or beanbags all over the place, showed me how the whole juggling thing worked.

Here’s the thing about learning to juggle: you must forget everything you know about everything. You might be quite coordinated or a total spaz, but you can learn to juggle in five minutes. I know this. I can teach you. Five minutes. Seriously.

What comes after that five minutes is hours of practice. Once you learn to juggle you soon find that anything you can pick up is something which can be juggled. Nothing within your grasp is beyond your reach, if you try hard enough and practice long enough. There is a lesson in that. So many things about juggling can be translated to life. Juggling is a zen thing. You can lose yourself in the laws of gravity and motion.

Drew and I complemented each other in that he had the talent and sheer will to practice until he could do a trick flawlessly and I had the money to get us some serious gear.

That January, we took a series of community college classes in the art of juggling. Our Sensei was Jim Kerr, Anchorage’s best juggler.

There were only four people who signed up for the first four-week class: Me, Drew, a professional woman named Nancy, and another woman who dropped out after the first class. Jim offered us our money back but the three of us wanted to learn, so we told him we’d show up if he did.

Jim showed us tricks with balls, rings, clubs, scarves, sharp objects, torches, devil-sticks, the Diablo, cigar boxes, and even some rope tricks.

And this wasn’t a clown college. We learned about the history of juggling and great jugglers past and present: Anthony Gatto, Enrico Rastelli, Michael Moschen, et al. We learned that the best juggling clubs are made by Brian Dubè in New York City. We learned that JuggleBug equipment is to juggling what Dick and Jane is to reading: good to start with but not something you keep around for reference.

Anthony Gatto Posted by Picasa

Michael Moschen Posted by Picasa

Rastelli PosterPosted by Picasa

Nancy and I had talked about this and that while in class, mostly while Drew was juggling his ass off and making us look like slackers. I was twenty-two and she was twenty years my senior (oh and married with a seven year old daughter), so there wasn’t any romantic attraction but Nancy was impossible to ignore. She had a magical way of drawing people to her. We enjoyed each other’s company and while Drew and I pushed her to practice more, she pushed us to open up and talk about our lives and swap stories with her.

Then she went to Hawaii.

She came back with little gifts for each of us and a manic enthusiasm both for juggling and for hanging out with us. She told us Hawaii stories and other stories about her life. Something had happened in Hawaii, something she never fully explained, that gave her a thirst for life.

For the next year and a half we devoted nearly every Saturday to juggling. Her daughter, who I’ll call M, hung out with us and became our mascot and cheerleader. After a full day of juggling we’d usually retire to Nancy’s house where we’d eat dinner with her husband and watch SNL before going home late in the evening.

We formed an actual juggling group, although it didn’t have a ‘team name.’

Drew was the most technically proficient: quiet, precise, and dangerous. Nancy was the girl: she’d attract attention and draw folks in. I could keep up with Drew at club passing but I was usually the talker: Funny, goofy, sometimes a little rude, but always talking talking talking. Once Nancy got folks headed our way, I was determined to keep their attention and talk up Drew’s tricks.

We juggled at a Renaissance Faire.

We juggled at a doomed festival called “Tent City.” We juggled at a kite fair. We juggled at various parks all over town. Anytime a mall or indoor location would allow us to juggle inside, we accepted the crap out of the invitation. We attended juggler’s club meetings. We joined the International Juggler’s Association. We planned on attending an IJA festival in the future so we could play “combat” against serious jugglers.

We did one birthday party. Lesson: kids are not impressed with juggling after the first 15 seconds. Birthday parties are for clowns. Serious jugglers are for adults. Drew and I didn’t learn that lesson right away.

I got a call in mid December from a guy I worked with who was a vice-grand Poobah at the local Elk’s Club asking if my juggling group could come entertain some kids for twenty minutes or so. I told him that we didn’t have a routine for kids but he said, “Anything you could do would be appreciated. And there’s $50 in it for you.” “Ch-yeah,” I said. I called Nancy who immediately declined. “Hello! You know why he called, right?” “Um, because we’re fan-freakin’-tastic?” “McFly! He called us because Santa didn’t show up. Besides, I’ve got the flu. Give me a call after you guys get done. I’m sure you’ll do great.”

We arrived at the Elks to find that, yes, Nancy was completely right. No Santa at the Christmas party. So they had us. Drew juggled balls while I talked. Drew juggled rings while I talked. The wise cracks were not going over very well. Performing for adults is relatively easy: talk up the difficulty, throw in a couple of jokes, and don’t get cocky and do anything really hard for very long, and you’re a hit. Idiot guys who wanted to impress their girlfriends by explaining that juggling wasn’t so hard get a rather fun lesson from us. Hecklers get abuse back. But there are a couple things you can’t do when performing for kids: insult their parentage or scare the crap out of them with knives. It’s a rule or something.

Our dreadful routine went flawlessly, unless you consider an inattentive audience a flaw, until our grand finale. It was supposed to go like this: Drew takes a club, a ring, and an egg out of our gig-bag. I explain that he was going to do this for the first time, blah blah blah and he would start to juggle them but “accidentally’ drop the egg on the floor in front of him where it would break open with a splat. Then I would take out another egg and say “we’re gonna try again.” Drew would juggle them for about 30 seconds beautifully and then “accidentally” toss the egg high and directly into the middle of the group of kids, sending them squealing and leaping away until they would see our second “egg” bounce and discover that it was a fake egg. Then they’d laugh and clap and we’d take a bow and walk off stage to collect our $50. The little 5-10 year-olds might even hold up their cigarette lighters for an encore.

Here’s what really happened: Drew picked up the real egg and the juggling stuff and the “accidental” drop went off the stage but close enough to us that no kids got slimed. Perfectly done but there were no shrieks of fright from the kids. More of a “Okay, monkey boy, you dropped an egg. Big whoop.” We regrouped as planned and he started round two. Then he juggled them well, earning him a round of applause (if you consider only two people clapping, both parents and neither in the actual audience as a ‘round). Then he let the fake egg fly directly into the group of kids.

I have an excuse for what happened next: The kids were not on their butts on the floor but were sitting in rows of cafeteria tables which did not offer them many options in the squealing and leaping department.

Second: Have you seen the Robert De Niro, Robin Williams movie Awakenings? Robert De Niro is a patient in a mostly vegetative state until Dr Robin Williams gives him a drug which makes him come out of it. There’s a great scene where De Niro is in a wheelchair motionless until Williams throws a tennis ball at him. De Niro’s hand snaps up and catches the ball as if it were on a string.

That’s what happened to our fake egg. No squealing, no leaping, no bouncing. This little kid just reaches up and caught the egg and says “hey, it’s not real.” Dead silence.

Oh yeah, and by this time the High Arch Grand Poobah has scurried up with a roll of paper towels to clean up our real egg mess from his expensive hardwood floor.

We slunk off-stage. We immediately had to spend the money on something consumable like food or gas because we wanted no reminders of that experience. Nancy had made a miraculous recovery for our dinner and “I told you so” session afterward. It didn’t matter. It was a bad audience, a bad setting, not well set-up, not a great routine. We could still do ANYTHING but might avoid impromptu Christmas parties in the future.

When throwing clubs around in the park we’d always talk about stuff. Once you get into ‘the zone’ you can carry on quite the conversation while still doing tricks and the like. I can remember several times after work when M and Drew were at their respective homes when Nancy and I would vent our daily troubles to each other while passing clubs in the park, completely oblivious to whether anyone was watching or not. We got pretty close, so much so that her husband gave me a tour of his gun collection (and I cannot make that up, it was surreal.) But it wasn’t like that. We were friends.

And when you are juggling you can really get into yourself or you can totally get out of yourself. Unless you are trying to learn a new trick or move, you juggle much better if you don’t over-think it. It’s all about the throw. If your throw is good enough, then you’ll catch it. If your partner throws you garbage, then you either save it or drop it. No big deal. Pick up (or kick it back up) and start again. We thought there was nothing we couldn’t kick back into the pattern.

Then Nancy went to Hawaii again. When she returned, she was depressed and shaken because something had happened. It was never explained to us what had happened but she was getting loose around the edges. I’m not going to describe the bizarre couple of months that followed other than she had what I believe now was a psychotic break. She wasn’t merely manic / depressive but delusional for a time. It was pretty scary.

Sadly that’s where the band broke up. Nancy would call at all hours of the night and show up both at home (freaking out my roommates) and at work unexpectedly. I finally had to tell her that I was just not equipped to deal with her rapidly deteriorating situation. I told her that she was a good friend but she needed some help and I wasn’t the one who could give it to her.

Pause the story.

I still feel shitty about that. After much reflection I realize that I honestly wasn’t equipped. I was too young and inexperienced and not nearly as knowledgeable about mental health issues (including my own). It was a fight or flight response; I chose flight. Pretty crappy as a friend, huh? I couldn’t have saved her. However, I could have kept in better touch. I could have kept in touch with her husband and daughter, since we had spent so much time together, the five of us. It was hard. I felt I couldn’t keep up with Nancy because I couldn’t protect her from herself and I couldn’t keep up with her husband and daughter because that would be like betraying Nancy. It’s her daughter I felt worst about dumping. God, had I the maturity then as I think I have now what different choices would I have made? I guess we’ll never know.

I heard from mutual acquaintances a couple of years ago that she’s doing much better now. I sure hope so. She is one of the most charismatic and, frankly, cool people I’ve ever met and I’m proud to have called her my juggling partner. I’d love to bump into her again, maybe just to apologize.

There’s another friendship that was put on hold recently, for different reasons and under different circumstances, but it still hurts. No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man…

Back to the story.

Drew went on to discover girls, including his high-school sweetheart wife, and I went on working for the hotel until I got my current job as the ears and mouth of The Man. Neither of us juggle much anymore. I still have my Dubè clubs, knives, and torches plus a bag full of other juggling stuff and I have the fondest memories of our little juggling gang.

Nancy: if you’re still out there, be well.

Drew: if you ever read this, get your ass over here so we can pass clubs. It’d be fun. We could meet at your parent’s house and break something relatively expensive, just to remind them that they still have kids!


Photos not obviously mine are from:

The Northern Light, UAA’s newspaper.


J-bro said...

Great pictures. :)

I guess I never toally understood the juggling thing, but I'm glad you still have all your gear. I remember the bottle of alcohol and canteen cup underneath the apartment kitchen sink for the entire time I lived there.

I honestly don't remember you trying to burn the place down, although I do seem to recall that you would pick up odd items that belonged to me and juggle them randomly.

Mr. Gall.... jeeeeeeeez, forgot about him too.

Between him and the Iz (Izolo) I don't know how I made it through!

Rhoda IV said...

Wow, juggling is fucking awesome, that bad crowd story was hilarious, maybe even now you can laugh about it and not feel completely mortified. You shouldn't feel bad about the Nancy thing, she needed professional help, hopefully she got it. But you are a good friend Eric, so don't sweat the past.

Eric said...

J - Izolo.. hilarious. I didnt have either guy as a teacher but I remember their names.

R - Funny deal, it was semi mortifying at the time but when performing I had a totally different feeling about 'shame.' I'm often uncomfortable being the center of attention in any other setting, but when we were juggling it was totally normal to talk complete smack to strangers and just goof around. And thanks for the Nancy observation. Nearly 15 years later I still feel a twinge of guilt. I'd love to see her again though, just to reminisce.

Thinking about it, we were never all that professional about the juggling. But we were juggling ALL THE TIME. I was probably in better shape than before or since and we could hold are own with / against ANYONE, at least in Alaska.

I've lost all flourishes but I can still pass clubs without a problem.

Lindsey said...

I think that is so cool that you can juggle. Last night on Jay Leno there was a juggler guy, he stood on a sword and juggled other swords, I thought of you lol

John Cowart said...

I never though I'd bother to read anything about juggling but your writing captivated my interest. The revelation about Nancy brought tears to my eyes. Terriffic!

smussyolay said...

eric, eric, eric. great fucking post. so much in there. i love getting to know you. you should chat with a few friends of mine. the paragraph about leaving the friend who was deteroriating with a mental health thing.

well, i can't speak from that perspective, but i know some people who can. it'd be interesting to have you guys exchange some emails. what i CAN give you is this... now that i'm healthy and okay (yeah, i just went through a rough patch, and yeah that particular rough patch DID bring up a flash of 'everyone will leave me forever because of this' roll), i can unequivocally tell you this:

we do the best we can at the time, and everything happens for a reason. you don't know what she went through and you don't know what she needed to go through. i also can say from personal experience (and i can't say for sure that it's the same for everyone), but ... in MY personal experience, you'd be amazed at what time and amends and honesty will do.

you never know unless you give it a shot. if you want to get back in touch with her, i say go for it. don't go into it with expectations, and be honest. that's all any of us can ever ask for.

but what the fuck do i know?

Mom said...

I remember a winter evening with you and Drew in the back yard juggling flaming torches up high among the trees and dark sky. It was quite a sight...and despite the "oh my good you're going to juggle WHAT??" I was really proud and terrifically impressed.

Of course then there's the broken swan and the knives.......yikes!

You and Drew should really get together and practice....the family is getting older...who knows who you could entertain and dazzle.

E..Nancy was Nancy and you couldn't have helped her then without hurting yourself. You have always been a good friend to others...even when you doubt yourself. You can (and should) be proud of yourself. Your family certainly is.

Eric said...

Lindsey and John, thanks and thanks.

Joc, have anyone email me you'd like (although I dont particularly want to buy discount Cialis... call me silly)
Sometimes the stories weave in and around each other. I couldnt tell the juggling story without mentioning Nancy, because she was often the spark that kept everything going. And I couldnt tell the Nancy story without mentioning how it ended. Only in retrospect did I figure out that it began in the same way. Manic / Depressive, Bi Polar, Uni Polar, it's all good (well, it's all pretty easy for me to deal with because I tend toward the opposite general mood as everyone I'm around, although realively upbeat most of the time). The shit that went down during her "break" was frankly pretty scary. There are things I can't write about on the blog because I don't want her to google herself or her new coworkers to google her and everyone get all Sherry Dion on me (sorry Sherry!).

Mom is right. Drew, even at the time and just 16 years old, told me much the same.

There's another story (from the Weird Al hair days) which explains a little about how I reacted to Nancy's time of need, but I'll tell that story at another time. I guess I just need to figure out what I learned from it before I can post it. Writing helps me do that: the figuring out thing. I didn't know the juggling thing was going to be bookended by the Nancy thing when I first started writing it. I thought I might talk about Mill's Mess (an impossible to describe three ball trick that Drew and I can both do pretty well even now). I thought I might talk about "combat," or getting kicked out of the dry reservoir of the library's fountain when we were discovered playing "combat" all around it. Maybe another time. Jugglers part deux.


You guys just don't know how cool it is that strangers sometimes like what I write. Or maybe most of you do. The blog thing is like geek writer heaven. Check that, it's like geek writer heaven ON A STICK, wrapped in a hard candy shell.

Or something.

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