Palo Alto, California — John Cassidy lifts a grapefruit into the air. As it arcs about eye level, he lofts a banana into orbit, shortly followed by a green pippin apple. Cassidy is juggling his lunch.
"Edibles are my forte," he says. "When you first learn to juggle you are seized by an irresistible urge to pick up any three smallish objects in sight, particularly when walking through the produce section of a grocery store.
As the pippin comes around again he snatches it from the air, takes a bite, returns it to its orbit, and doesn't miss a beat.
Cassidy is the author of the self-published, best-selling "Juggling for the Complete Klutz." In just over two years, Klutz Enterprises, run from a livingroom in Palo Alto by Cassidy and his housemates, has sold over 105,000 copies of the juggling manual which is now in its 10th printing. An expanded edition hits the market in August.
The book ($6.95, complete with three colorful hand-sewn bean bags) is now distributed in nearly 10,000 bookstores and stationery shops in the US and sells at the remarkable rate of 4,000 a month "with less than zero publicity," says the lanky, mustachioed entrepreneur. To the non-juggler these figures seem all the more remarkable in view of the book itself: a slim paperback containing 31 pages of oversize type.
According to a blurb on the book jacket: "If you can scramble an egg, find reverse in a Volkswagen, or stumble onto the light switch in the bathroom at night. . . you can learn how to juggle." Cassidy dedicated the book "to the closet klutzes of the world, you know, those of us for whom dropping things has always been second nature, those of us who took four years to learn how to tie our shoes, and were always last chosen when the class picked sides for softball."
Cassidy's aim is to detonate the "juggling mystique that it's all flaming swords. Performers give it all that razzmatazz but it's much easier than it looks." The book reiterates: "For centuries juggling has been a performer's art. The trick of getting the three objects to dance around your hands has always managed to keep a small sense of magic about it. Our purpose in writing thism book, however, is to take juggling off the stage and pass it around. It is our belief that juggling really isn't a spectator sport. It's one form of insanity we feel that everyone has the right to experience."
Juggling, that nonhostile sport which predates the Greeks and Romans, takes no more coordination than brushing your teeth left-handed, claims Cassidy. He has a standing wager he can teach any closet klutz (any, he hedges, whoc can touch his right knee with his left hand while blindfolded) to juggle in 15 minutes. Cassidy has never lost the bet.
After referring to Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish" for the current defenition of "klutz" (1. A clod; a clumsy, slowwitted, graceless person; an inept blockhead. 2. A congenital bungler), and after touching my left knee with my right hand (I'm right-handed), I figure I have passed the qualifying trials and I take Cassidy up on his wager.
With a self-assured grin, Cassidy accepts the challenge and escorts me to a table in one corner of his living room. Beside the table is a cardboard box containing some 100 small bean bags, of the tightly-packed cube variety. "You can't learn with anything round," he advises. "I started out with tennis balls and gave up in five minutes. They're fine for juggling but not for dropping, and dropping is a big part of my act. Balls roll under furniture and down storm drains and it takes five minutes to recover each drop. Try learning over a table and remember, the important thing is never to pick up your drops. Of course, most people don't have 50 bean bags in front of them."
As Cassidy spreads four dozen red and yellow bean bags on the table, I gawk at them like the proverbial kid in the candy store. My lesson begins, straight out of "Juggling for the Complete Klutz."
Step I: The Drop. Pick up all three bags and hold them, briefly. You'll note that there is one more bag than you have hands, unless you are that rather rare case, in which event see Appendix C.m I turn to Appendix C: "Send away for our upcoming book 'Juggling for the Exceptionally Gifted.'"m "Apparently a lot of people didn't get the joke," says Cassidy, "because we've had hundreds of letters asking for the new book."
Throw all three bags into the air and making no effort to catch any of them, let them all hit the ground. This is an example of THE DROP. I do it all the time and so will you, but it's good to familiarize yourself with the moves early on."m
The "non-threatening" tone of the juggling manual Cassidy attributes to the coincidence that while he was writing it, he was getting a Master's in education at Stanford and teaching remedial reading. "I discovered the kids' biggest obstacle in reading was not understanding the squiggles on the page but their basic fear of failure. That's why the first step in the juggling book is the drop. It takes all the sting out of making mistakes." Cassidy claims he once had an English professor who used a "blank page exercise" to get students over writer's block. "He made us stare at a blank page of paper until it became our friend and didn't look at us as an accusing finger."
Step II: The Toss. Put two bags away for a time and hold just one. . . . Toss the bag in easy arcs about as high as your eyes . . . . Keep your tosses consistent. . . . Ignore those snickers from your audience; it's only the rawest kind of envy.m
Cassidy doesn't recall exactly when he first learned to juggle."You learn so quickly, it's not something you remember," he says. He does remember, however, that after graduating from Stanford in 1972, a friend gave him three rubber juggling balls to take to Bangladesh where he was to work as an auto mechanics instructor. "I got there, lost the balls, and ended up juggling dirt clods and old oil filters, and teaching all the kids in Dacca."
After returning to the US he used juggling to entertain on river rafting trips. "I couldn't sing around the campfire and needed an alternative. We would juggle rocks on the beach, anything. And at the end of a week's trip, everybody was a fanatic," says Cassidy. In the fall of 1976, Cassidy and B. C. Rimbeaux, a Stanford classmate, were rafting -- and juggling -- down the Skeena River in British Columbia and cooked up a scheme to "go commercial." The two hired on Diane Waller, a Palo Alto dancer, to illustrate Cassidy's text. A year later, they published 2,000 copies of "Juggling for the Complete Klutz" and distributed it by car, by bicycle, and by hand in the Palp Alto area.
The first stationery store Cassidy solicited bought six copies and sold out that same day. He saw dollar signs and decided to "go professional." Cassidy recuited Darrell Hack, A Stanford Business School graduate he met one day rappelling down the side of his dormitory. (She was to handle marketing.) "That's how the Klutz empire was launched," muses Cassidy.
Step III: The Exchange. . . . Using your best STEP II toss, throw one bag up and over toward your other hand. Let it pass through the top of its arc, and then, as it starts to drop down into your other hand -- which is holding the second bag --catching the first. . . .m
Cassidy tried to sew the first bean bags and gave up. Now the Klutz empire employs 15 "little old ladies who are neither little nor old," Says Cassidy. Each week the housewives pick up the raw materials and drop off a total of 5,000 finished juggling bags. "They work real hard. We have some women in line for gold watches," he says with a poker face.
Packing and shipping, once done out of his garage by Barbie Allen, a housemate who was getting a Stanford PhD in music, is now handled by Hope Rehabilitation Services. The organization employs disabled workers and was responsible for packaging "Pet Rocks" -- a faded fad Cassidy does not care to have his magnum opus compared to.
Step IV: The Jug. . . . Take a deep breath and picl up all three bags. . . . All this time you thought juggling was keeping two or three things in the air at once. Now you should be able to see that there's really only one thing flying around. . . ."m
Once again Cassidy had won his wager. After ten minutes, two dozen "drops," four off-the-wall ricochets, I was juggling. Nothing fancy, mind you. I still had a serious case of what Cassidy calls the "sprinting juggler" -- one who throws the bags too far out in front of him and has to make frantic, diving stabs to catch them. Accordingly, I consulted the juggling manual under Appendix A: Special Problems:
Most everyone seems to have a strong tendency to turn to this section too soon. Deep in your hearts we all figure we're exceptional -- one way or another -- and consequently deserving of some special attention. . . . You're probably doing quite well -- just suffering from a mild shortage of practice. . . .m
Nevertheless I read on to the section on the "sprinting juggler": First of all, practice in front of a wall so that youm can't throw them (the bean bags) too far out in front of you. An alternative to this: Try it sitting down. (I've never found this to be so great, but everyone else says it helps, so I'll pass it on.) As a last resort you might try practicing on the edge of a cliff. A close friend of mine (rest of his soul) used to swear by this one.m
Nowadays, Klutz Enterprises more or less runs itself. Considerably more than less. Cassidy, Rimbeaux, and Hack each put in a maximum of 10 hours a week "doing bookkeeping" which these days means counting the profits. "It's a real part-timer and now the big question is whether to reinvest or take the money and run," Says Cassidy.Rimbeaux dreams of starting a commune in Oregon. Cassidy has his eyes on a couple acres in Yellow Pine, Idaho. (He went through Yelllow Pine on one of his raft trips and was intrigued by the idea of living "100 miles from the nearest paved road.")
On the other hand, Cassidy contrifes to juggle a few new book ideas. For the last several weeks he has been sending up test balloons to the other Klutz stockholders/housemates. When I spoke with Cassidy in Palo Alto he had just finished writing a second edition of the juggling book which includes a chapter on "fancy stuff."
I asked to take a look.
"You really think you're ready for it?" Cassidy said, chortling his way upstairs. He returned with the manuscript and left me in the livingroom while he finishes stuffing his backpack for a 10-hiking trip in the Utah desert.
The second editon contains sections on such fancy stuff as team juggling, edibles ("when they're in season"), eggs ("a controversial subject"), circle juggling ("a great deal of fruit and eggs went down in the effort"), razzle-dazzle, juggling pins, and juggling with five objects ("a good trick to learn if you ever get a job on a desert island").
In his new chapter Cassidy warns the hot doggers in the audience: "If you're waiting for me to talk about juggling flying hatchets, knives, and flaming torches, you can forget it. . . . I will pass along my little discovery to you. A plumber's helper. One of those little suction things. Not as flashy as a flaming torch maybe, but still I think it has a little charm of its own."
And anyway, what closet would be complete without a klutz to juggle its plumber's helper?