My childhood dream is up in the air

At age 13, I wanted to learn to juggle. I also wanted to fly hot-air balloons, sail on the ocean, jump from airplanes, dance like Darci Allen, and make the cheerleading squad (like Darci Allen). I've since forsaken all but the juggling.

Alas, the flashy, physical demands of my junior-high aspiration list belied my ungainly nature. Or maybe they revealed it: My reach exceeded my grasp.

It has been years now since I first taught myself to toss three oranges in a lurching, angular "circle," ignorantly imitating the pattern used by picture-book clowns, rather than starting with the much easier, rhythmic crossover method.

This ignorance positioned the first rung of my juggling ladder at the height of a chin-up bar.

Decades into my effort, I'm on rung No. 2. My yawning family has declared that my proficiency is growing at the rate of a stalagmite.

I can juggle three balls for almost two minutes, at which point my arms turn to rubber. I can juggle two balls in one hand, briefly. I can partner-juggle (elbows linked, each juggler using one hand) - which looks trickier than it is.

Every so often I feel a renewed urge to expand my repertoire. At a parade last spring, I watched two-dozen jesters of every age and ilk, clad in matching hot-pink T-shirts, toss and catch an impossible torrent of clubs in what is known as "group juggling." My smoldering coal of juggling interest burst into passionate flame.

I mail-ordered $60 worth of clubs, then devoted weeks of spare moments to mastering club-juggling basics: a consistent wrist flick, the two-clubbed leadoff, and - most important - the nimble dodging of wayward, clobbering clubs.

On windless days, I can now make up to a dozen consecutive catches of three spinning clubs, which draws forth clamoring audience cries of "So what?"

With group juggling as my far-flung goal, I have shamelessly bribed my children to join me in this amusement, offering them spare change as incremental incentives.

My 12-year-old son Max, now the richest of my children, juggles better than I, insouciantly, freely, without his mother's desperate flailing and tortured grimaces. We count each other's catches, and challenge each other to best-of-three competitions, which he wins.

To a coordinated boy who can express agility and balance in any number of ball-catching sports, juggling is merely one more sideline in which he good-naturedly partakes to humor (and bilk) his mother.

Neither Max nor I admit to fantasies of juggling fame, though we have juggled at local retirement homes, calling ourselves Newton's Lawbreakers. Our audiences have graciously received us with modest expectations, clapping softly, I suspect, for our audacity in the face of such limited skill. Once, we were paid $10, which Max deftly pocketed.

While on tour, as it were, we've learned that people fall into two categories: a small minority who admire juggling (and therefore want to try it), and a lopsided majority who don't understand and therefore can't appreciate, it.

This realization hit me like a hand-crafted 105 mm Renegade Club when a friend, hearing me say I'd caught 11 clubs, thought I meant I could juggle 11 clubs simultaneously - and even then she was only mildly impressed.

Which is all to say, why juggle? If not for fortune and glory, or even personal mastery, I suspect it is greed that propels me onward. (Clearly it is greed that motivates Max.)

By tossing multiple objects skyward, defying the logical limits of the two-hands-equals-two-objects equation, I manifest that all-too-human yearning to hold more than my share, to overfill my plate, to answer the phone while typing an e-mail while conversing with the child at my elbow.

Juggling breaks not only Newton's law, but mocks the limitations of the body - which is what it would have meant to dance like Darci Allen.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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