Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2010/ Juggling


I started juggling in June of 2009. I guess I had been looking for a hobby; my only pasttimes were wasting my life on the Internet, reading, work and a little bit of gardening. Gardening felt actively unpleasant, and none of the other hobbies were that fulfilling either. While wasting my life on the Internet I stumbled across a YouTube video of a young man demonstrating the basics of three-ball juggling. In five minutes and twenty seconds he demonstrated the basic steps and how to troubleshoot common mistakes.

I thought I had seen juggling beanbags at the dollar store, so on June 13 I went out to get some. As it turns out there was only one set left, and despite searching many times I have not seen them since. So I guess I got lucky. My beanbags are made of plastic, of course, and the pretty red and blue and silver and gold coating on the bags has long since worn off. But the beanbags are holding together, and as of this writing I still use them. Although juggling can become an expensive hobby when you buy rings and juggling pins and special balls and who knows what else, you can get a lot of value out of three beanbags. Getting beanbags from the dollar store is unethical, but even if you get the good-karma kind the equipment is probably affordable.

Juggling has made me materialistic; I am quite possessive of my beanbags. I guess this is because I have no replacements; I can't find any in the dollar stores, I have not sewn any myself, and I don't know how much they cost at the juggling store. Once in Victoria Park a dog grabbed one of my balls and started chewing on it. I got quite upset, especially since the owner saw what was happening and continued yakking away on his phone.

It took me a long time to learn how to juggle. Usually I would go to Victoria Park after work to practice for half an hour a day, and during that time I would drop my beanbags again and again. It took me at least two weeks to feel comfortable throwing and catching two beanbags, and then at least another couple of months of regular practice before I could juggle three balls with any comfort. I knew it would be tough; part of the reason I took up juggling was because my hand-eye coordination is terrible. Sometimes I got discouraged; I would read YouTube comments where the viewers claimed "I saw your video and was juggling in 15 minutes! I am awesome!" and feel bad.

On the other hand, I knew that juggling was just a pasttime, and that it was okay to suck. I have learned that this is one of the most valuable things about this hobby; unlike my work life or my personal life or even my gardening life, I can screw up as much as I want and it won't matter. I will just look more foolish in public, and I will have to pick up dropped beanbags more often. That's not much of a price to pay. I still suck as a juggler, and I probably always will, and most of the time I feel okay about that.

My progress has been incredibly slow, but it has usually been steady. Observing my learning has been one of the most fascinating aspects of the pasttime. One day I would be practicing four throws again and again, dropping the ball again and again. Then I would give up, and on my next juggling day I would suddenly be better at throwing the ball four times. It's as if something sets in my brain between sessions.

I have realized that learning is the process of making conscious processes unconscious. When I am first learning a trick I have to count out steps and pay lots of attention to the movement of my hands and arms. After I have learned the trick my hands and arms move "naturally", without a lot of conscious thought. (In contrast, analysis is the process of taking unconscious processes and becoming consciously aware of them.) I must have gone through this process many times before in my life, but it is only now that I am old and slow that I am starting to appreciate how mysterious it is.

It took me a long time to pick up the basics of juggling. Learning three throws probably took the longest, but each additional throw from four to six was also a struggle. Things did not click until I had struggled to thirteen throws, when all of a sudden I was able to (with concentration and good luck) carry on runs of twenty or thirty of fifty throws on a run. Learning tricks has been similarly slow. When I forget to break down tricks into small steps then my progress is much slower and more frustrating; I got stuck trying Columns (where the balls all move vertically) for months because I did not master the principle of keeping two balls in the air with one hand before trying to keep three balls going.

As of July 2010 my repertoire consisted of: basic three-ball cascade, a few overhand throws (maybe five throws of Juggler's Tennis), a few under the arm throws, maybe ten throws of Columns, and the beginnings of the Windmill trick.

YouTube has been phenomenally helpful in teaching me to juggle. This does not compensate for the many other ways YouTube has ruined my life, but there is little question that it is easier to learn juggling from video tutorials than books or diagrams. One aspect I love about juggling is that the culture is so open; people share tricks and tutorials freely, and they encourage each other to videotape their accomplishments. Compare this to the closely-related pasttime of magic tricks, where one goal is to maintain the secrecy of the illusion. In juggling, people delight in spreading knowledge. I am mostly a leech off this culture, but when people stop me in the park and want to learn juggling, I try to show them the basics and offer them my beanbags to practice. There is not much magic in juggling; it's just skill and practice.

My form is pretty bad, but that's okay too. One of my most discouraging moments came one day when I was in Victoria Park. I was still learning the basics of the three-ball cascade, when a man in his late teens or early twenties came by to offer some advice. He said that he did not juggle himself, but that he noticed that my form was bad: my arms were rising with each throw instead of staying at a constant level. He thought he was being helpful (I think he said something to the effect that he wanted people to be at their best), and I thanked him for his observation. But I did not find his advice helpful. I knew my form was bad. I wanted to focus on keeping three balls in the air; I hoped that if I could keep balls in the air my form would eventually improve, and that if I focused on how much my form sucked then I would probably give up trying. In fact we were both right: my form did improve with practice, but it is still sufficiently bad that I fear juggling in groups with experienced jugglers.

As with many poor jugglers one of my hands is much weaker than the other. I try to learn tricks using my weaker hand first to compensate, but it does not always work. My Windmill trick looks terrible when my left hand leads, and I don't know whether I will work around that.

For me juggling is a solitary activity. Despite being a fat tub of lard I have an unfortunate competitive streak (and I am a sore loser to boot). That's fine when it is easy for me to come out ahead, but it's terrible when it comes to athletic endeavors. When I see other cyclists on the road while cycling I have to consciously keep myself from treating the experience as a race, and from feeling too bad when the other cyclists easily outpace me. Similarly, I feel bad when other people borrow my juggling balls and demonstrate great ability with them when I am still trying to master the basics. It seems that juggling is one of those skills that many people pick up in high school, so I get into this situation a lot. I try to be gracious and appreciate the talents of those around me, but it can be hard. I don't think I will be joining the Juggler's Club any time soon.

I guess it is my gigantic ego that compels me to practice in public, and to show off my juggling when I am around coworkers and friends. It's not much of a display, of course, but for the most part people have been kind.

I like practicing outside. I like spending time outside, and I like being in the park. I think parks are best either when they are wild or when people are using them to have fun. I like that kids play pick-up games of soccer in front of the clock tower; I like that people practice Tai-Chi; I like that people play guitar. I do not think I add much to that scene, but usually I feel good about juggling outside.

Winter juggling gets challenging. Once in a while I practice outside, and once in a while I will juggle a little bit indoors, but in the winter months I have not juggled as much as I would like.

Despite my ostentatious displays, I have decided that I juggle primarily for my own sake. I am not out to entertain anybody else. I am not trying to become a busker. I'm just trying to spend some time outside, to challenge myself by practising a useless skill, and find a little bit of distraction from the drudgery of life. Sometimes people at the park watch me juggling. When they see how frequently I drop my beanbags, they soon turn away. That's okay too.

I do not know how much longer I will continue to juggle. Lately my progress has been getting slower and my sessions have been getting slower. Maybe I am losing enthusiasm for my pasttime; when I have decided that juggling is no longer fun, I will stop. But overall I think the experience has been worthwhile so far.