The magic began with a trip to
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,
There were only four people who signed up for the first four-week class: Me, Drew, a professional woman named
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.
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
Then she went to
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
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
We formed an actual juggling group, although it didn’t have a ‘team name.’
Drew was the most technically proficient: quiet, precise, and dangerous.
We juggled at a Renaissance Faire.
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.