Go for the Juggler

27 Feb 2007

Been way too busy to post lately ... Catching up on my Pynchon, reading another Christopher Moore book (Coyote Blue), editing my own Tales of the Midwest book (prepping it for Lulu), and other normal household stuff. I spent the better part of last evening on the phone with an insurance rep trying to negotiate a policy, which devolved into a rather foul exchange. When I have more time, I may write something up about that experience. All it did was piss me off yesterday. So, I went jogging to clear my head, and was somehow reminded of a few perhaps blogworthy thoughts (though, I've since forgotten what reminded me of this stuff).

In the mid-80s, I worked at a large amusement park in the Midwest (to which I've devoted numerous chapters in my Tales of the Midwest series). During this time, I frequently worked the "toss the softball into the basket" booth. Like most carnival games, there was a trick to it. If you didn't land the ball on the lip of the basket, it would bounce back out and you'd lose. Any kid who worked there and of course knew the trick could stand there all day and win giant stuffed animals if he or she wanted to. (We didn't, of course, as the prizes were crappy.)

On weekdays (or, especially, rainy days), the park could get a little slow, offering long stretches without any interaction with the (annoying, though you weren't supposed to think that) park guests. So, you had to kill time often, and each game seemed to lend itself to a particular way of dealing with such down time.

For example, if you worked the frog-pond catapult game, a cool thing to do was to go grab some balloons from the dart balloon section and hook them up underwater to the small pump that circulated the plastic lily pads around inside a shallow, fetid kiddie pool. Instant water balloon! If it was raining, you could let one of those water balloons fly down toward the kiddie park section. They'd skid 50 yards or so on the smooth blacktop before exploding at the wall of the Donald Duck ride. Great fun.

Whenever I had downtime at the softball booth, I would usually just stand there attempting to juggle the softballs. "Athletic" was never an adjective used about me during those days. But, with the piano playing and all, I was fairly dexterous. Still, juggling three softballs proved challenging -- mostly because I simply didn't know how it worked.

But, things changed one day when a clown stopped by. (I realize that last sentence sounds rather absurd. But, it's true.) A wandering entertainer, he'd seen my feeble attempts and decided to offer some pointers. Thankfully, he was a standard juggling clown, not a mime (so, he could speak ). (Not everyone in the "shows" department was permitted to speak, by the way. The cartoon characters, for example, had to keep mum in those huge get-ups.)

I more or less had private lessons during those days. Every so often, the clown would stop back by and check on my progress. Once I'd mastered the basic three-ball cascade, he showed me the reverse cascade. And so on. By the end of the summer, I could do " Mill's Mess."

The thing is, learning to juggle truly instills the required motions and cadences into your muscle memory. That is to say, you never really forget how to juggle. Sure, you may get a little rusty if it's been a while, but it all comes back in a flash (that final word there being a pun, if you know juggling terminology).

So, off and on, I'd always juggle things -- tennis balls, oranges, etc. Eventually, people started giving me juggling-related gifts for birthdays or Christmas. Mostly bird-seed and/or sawdust filled juggling balls (which are kind of like over-sized hackey sacks). They fill them with these materials so that the balls don't go bouncing 50 feet away from you when you screw up; instead, they simply land with a thud. (In fact, the balls are commonly referred to as "thuds.")

After a while, I was kind of a juggling maniac. I was pretty much a loner, though -- unaffiliated with local juggling clubs and so forth. I was simply a guy who liked to juggle. Kind of like I am with the piano, now. I play pretty much every day, but don't really perform.

When I turned 25 back in '94, my wife decided to take things up a notch. She not only bought me some juggling clubs and other goodies, but also a unicycle! After all, what juggler worth his or her salt can't ride a unicycle, right? She also managed to locate a unicycle class offered through some Fairfax County (we lived in Arlington, VA, outside of DC) continuing education program. Seemed interesting ... Why not check it out, I figured.

The class met on Wednesday evenings for 10 or 12 weeks, I guess, hosted at some public school in Fairfax. For the first class, I showed up a little early, but couldn't seem to find the right place. The only people around were school kids, not a one of them over 12 years old. And then some lady came out and told everyone to gather around for the unicycle class. Turned out I was in the right place. I just happened to be the sole adult in the class. Nothing in the course catalog specified an age group, though. I suppose I just happened to be the only adult in the metropolitan DC area who cared to learn how to ride such a contraption.

Sounds weird, I know, but I really enjoyed that class. It was kind of like going back in time and being 12 again. I came to get a little competitive with a few of the little scrappers -- seeing who could go the furthest, who could make turns better, etc. By the end of the course, we all seemed like pros, looping the gymnasium with speed and grace, negotiating various obstacles, and rarely crashing.

I still have the unicycle. It's hanging in my garage, where it's been for many years. Maybe sometime I'll try it again, although I'm not sure the old saying "it's like riding a bike" applies when there's only one wheel.

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On February 28, 2007, Hanmee wrote:

I grew up and live in Fairfax County. I know they offer various classes, but I never noticed a unicycle class before!

Midwest Tales? Like Winesburg, Ohio?

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