by Ray Jason
Tucked away in the backwaters of these essays, there are a few brief references to a prior chapter in my life when I was a … JUGGLER. And as might be expected, due to my fondness for the Unconventional Path, I did not juggle in ordinary venues like circuses or Las Vegas revues. No, I was a street performer – and proud of it. Indeed, I am STILL proud of it - because I was the very first of the San Francisco street jugglers.
This was back in the early 1970s, when street performing was beginning its modern American renaissance. Those were glorious years when the sidewalks were alive with mimes and tap dancers and magicians and roller-skating accordionists. Because we were pioneers, we were all joyously making it up as we went along. As a continuation of the Sixties’ mentality of “let’s really embrace life,” our ragtag band of buskers was predominantly motivated by co-operation rather than competition. We preferred being folk heroes to being stars. As an unrepentant romantic, this was an exquisite community for me. I could live frugally but comfortably, while making my favorite city a slightly better and happier place. And my modest efforts were respected and cherished by my neighbors. The Mayor of San Francisco even declared a day in my honor.
That wistful-golden era lasted about two decades and then it began to tarnish. Being a beloved San Francisco street entertainer was no longer enough for the newer performers. They wanted to use the streets as a stepping stone to comedy clubs and sitcoms and The Big Time. Witnessing this decline was too heartbreaking for me, and so I sailed away from it all - and began my sea gypsy life.
I do not regret that decision, but every once in a while the strange enchantment of juggling seduces me again. It has done so recently; and since my natural inclination is to examine my impulses, I have tried to determine why this eccentric skill remains so alluring to me. After pondering this for a few days, it became apparent that there are some larger life lessons inherent in this unusual talent that might be worth sharing with you, my unknown irregulars.
Since beginning my blog 19 months ago, my life has become exceedingly cerebral – too much emphasis on my mental faculties and not enough on my physical capacities. I do rigorously exercise almost every day, but still the ratio of thinking to moving has gotten way out of balance.
So after a few years of neglect, I decided to see how my juggling skills were holding up. I feared that since I am now in my Middle Years, there would be a severe decline in my ability. What a welcome surprise it has been to discover that I can still do my most difficult moves such as five balls and torches blindfolded and the bowling balls. Even more delightful has been the realization that I can also learn new tricks that I had never attempted previously.
But aside from my enjoyment of reconnecting with an old skill and passion, I have also gained a deeper awareness of the less appreciated aspects of this unusual art form. This fresh evaluation of the merits of juggling has convinced me that it would be an ideal semi-athletic activity for my SEA GYPSY TRIBE. Here are some of the reasons for this conclusion:
· UNIVERSALITY – It is universal in two main ways. First, the basic skill can be mastered by almost anyone. When I used to get hired to teach juggling at grammar schools, the child who could not learn was a genuine rarity. It is accessible to almost everyone blessed with basic human co-ordination. And this goes for elders as well as youngsters. I have successfully taught many people who swore that they were “too old to learn.” In a world that tries to convince older people that their physical capabilities have vanished, the silly little art of juggling is proof that this does not have to be so.
· UNIVERSALITY 2.0 - Its other universality is its appeal. Young or old, rich or poor, vegan or carnivore – almost everyone enjoys the dancing objects that a master juggler can control. I proved this in 1979-80 when I juggled my way around the world, paying for my travels by doing my show and passing my hat in a hundred exotic locales.
· INEXPENSIVE – It is one of the cheapest quasi-sports that exist. Basic rubber balls cost only a few dollars and even professional quality props only involve an expenditure of a few hundred dollars.
· USELESS – In a world where everything must have some commercial value, recreational juggling is an abysmal yet delightful failure. The well-worn parental warning of “Yes, that’s a nice hobby, but what can you DO with it?” rings profoundly true. I would doubt that one of every thousand people who learn how to juggle is able to earn a living from it. That is a big part of its oddball charm – it is not utilitarian – it is joyous!
· BETTER THAN MEDITATION – As someone who is mostly from San Francisco, I dutifully tried meditation a few times in my life. What I discovered was that juggling is far more Zen than sitting on a mat attempting to clear my mind and not think of a bear riding a bicycle. The concept of “no mind” is perfectly activated by juggling. If one concentrates too intensely on the escaping objects then you tense up and they elude you. And if you don’t focus enough on the manipulation, you also fail. So there is an ideal “zone” that you must enter in order to “be here now” simultaneous to your objects also being “present.”
· SIMPLICITY – In an entertainment world dominated by high-tech electro-spectacles, a single individual with three cascading spheres can still mesmerize a crowd – be they Parisian sophisticates or Chinese tea plantation workers. I know this definitively.
· ATTAINABLE JOY – When a new student gets the knack and can actually keep the balls flying for as long as they wish, a flood of delight sweeps over them. And then with each new trick that they master a similar rush of achievement and excitement flows through them. Another great aspect is that there are innumerable juggling patterns that involve groups of people passing objects back and forth. So there is a lot of emphasis on co-operation and the success of the clan.
· IT IS NOT EFFORTLESS - Another great aspect of learning to juggle is that it takes genuine EFFORT. There are no easy shortcuts. You must fail a thousand times, reach down and pick up the object and try again until you learn it. In a world where so many people want everything handed to them, this is a skill that must actually be earned.
· ELECTRICALLY INDEPENDENT – If the grid goes down the fun still continues.
· IT ALLOWS ELEGANT ARTISTRY – Street juggling relies heavily on humorous banter with the audience. However, in recent years a new type has emerged that I call “artistic juggling.” This combines the manipulation of objects with music and movement. The emergence of Cirque de Soleil did much to promote this distinctive and captivating style. So now there are many jugglers whose routines are dance-like and almost hypnotic.
Now that I have described the many wondrous attributes of juggling that are not obvious to most people, you can probably understand why I wish to make it a signature element in my Sea Gypsy Tribe. (Click HERE for the essay that explains this concept thoroughly.) It will be a superb way to deepen the bonds between the tribal members and since it is not age specific, it can be enjoyed by both the pre-teens and the elders.
I believe that if there is an enormous global collapse (and as always, I hope that I am wrong!!!) that various Sea Gypsy Tribes scattered about the planet have an excellent chance of surviving the devastation. My guess is that after a prolonged period at sea the sailboats will return to the shore and find some abandoned spot that will provide a suitable land base for a new community. They will plant the vegetable seeds that they have been carrying, build shelters and secure the perimeter. A group will be left there to raise the children and tend the crops and the chickens.
But for at least the first few years, there will also need to be periods when the ships return to the sea on exploration and salvage voyages. Trying to find out who else made it through; and seeking gear and tools that might be valuable to the colony ashore.
Each time the fleet returns safely from their expedition, I envision a welcome home ceremony with the entire village gathered on the headland juggling balls and clubs and torches to welcome home the weary mariners. It is a joyous vision.