personal project

Balls Up, Balls Down

Animation: Stevie Remsberg; Source Video Getty

Personal Project is a week about hobbies and digging into our hidden talents.

It is a dream of mine to have a collection of small, insignificant talents. The sort of things I can pull out idly in social situations, as if they’re no big deal: a single pull-up, an ollie, the ability to do a fishtail braid, maybe something with a yo-yo. Things that aren’t particularly showy (I don’t need to secretly know the full choreography to “The Dying Swan,” for example) but that are lightly impressive in a way that might make an onlooker think, Huh. I didn’t know Kelly could do that.

At the beginning of social distancing I thought I should try to cultivate something like this, in order to be newly impressive once I emerge. I Googled: “tiny talents to cultivate,” “small talents to cultivate,” “small abilities to cultivate.” To my surprise, none of these searches provided me with an easy list of tiny little talents or small abilities that I might cultivate. Most of them turned up articles about essential business skills. But then I remembered: juggling. Of course — juggling.

A few years ago I decided I wanted to develop juggling as a talent, and went so far as to purchase a set of three juggling beanbag balls. (I was a freelance writer at the time and as such had a fair amount of time on my hands.) I tried a few times, watched some YouTube videos about how to do it, and maybe sort of got a little better. But I did not get better fast enough, and quickly abandoned it. (You’ll notice that I said it was a dream of mine to have a collection of small, insignificant talents; it is not a reality.) Unfortunately, deterred, I gave the balls away in a pre-moving purge last year. If only I’d thought ahead to the inevitability of a pandemic that would change life as we know it and keep us isolated in our homes for an unknown period of time. In that case, I would have also kept my Mickey Mouse sandwich press.

Luckily, though, you don’t need the beanbag balls — you can juggle with anything. The world-class juggler and motivational speaker Kit Summers wouldn’t even start with balls anyway. “I often teach with scarves, because they’re lighter,” he told me. “They fall more slowly.” That way you have more time to position your hands.

Unfortunately I also do not have the correct sort of scarves, but it’s okay. Again: you can juggle with anything.

Summers started juggling when he was 15 in 1975. At that point, he’d already learned how to ride a unicycle. “I always took a different path, and juggling was on that path.” But, encouragingly for me, he didn’t pick the skill up immediately. “I was slow to learn at first,” he said. “I’ve taught many people who can learn in like twenty minutes, but it took me a few days.” Here is a particularly nice video of him performing at the the International Jugglers Association convention in Cleveland, Ohio in 1981:

I asked him how to juggle and, rather than attempting to explain it with words over the phone, he suggested I watch an instructional YouTube video. Fair enough, I asked him if he could instead tell me what he thinks about while he’s juggling, like, does he have a particular mantra? Up, down, up, down? “I think about what’s for dinner,” he said, joking. He continued: “Just going for precision. Aiming correctly and catching correctly. It’s a very focused art.”

He told me that if I could dedicate myself to it, it would help bring me confidence, which he was right to assume I am sorely lacking. “Just put in the time,” he said. “You’ll get better.”

The video I chose to teach me was titled “Learn to JUGGLE 3 BALLS - Beginner Tutorial,” and I chose it because it was the only one in my search results whose still image featured a woman. The woman, named Taylor Glenn, begins by explaining that dropping your juggling balls is not a mistake — it’s an essential part of juggling. You just have to pick your balls up once again after you drop them. “Enjoy the journey of juggling,” she says. “Enjoy the drops.”

In the video, she uses the sort of beanbag balls I gave away (she says they’re the best for a beginner) (fuck), and teaches us the “three ball cascade,” which is what you imagine when you imagine juggling. You throw a ball from your right hand to your left hand, and as that ball comes down, you throw a ball from your left hand to your right hand. Then you repeat.

Taylor suggests starting with tossing and catching just one ball, aiming for high above each of your shoulders. Just stare straight ahead — throw and catch, throw and catch. Sort of an ideal activity for the current situation, in terms of emotional output and how depressing it would be to watch someone doing in another apartment.

I will tell you that lemons and limes are not ideal for juggling, as a beginner, because they are too small and oddly shaped, and because they make a noise that might annoy your neighbors when they fall, plus every time they do you think: oh no, I need these for cocktails. Onions are not ideal because they are different sizes and uniformly very messy with their crusty onion coat. The dog’s fetching balls are pretty good, but I only have two of them.

I’ve been attempting to juggle for about a week now. I do it, I’d say, about half of the time that I remember to do it.

Do I know how to juggle yet? No, not yet. Admittedly I’ve clearly only put a small amount of effort into it. This is in part due to the fact that I foolishly gave away my necessary juggling tools and am left with inadequate ball substitutes, and in part due to the crushing fear of failure that holds me back in many areas of my life and which is now compounded by a crushing fear of many other things, and in yet another part due to a desire to continue to have a small skill to work on.

I do think Kit Summers is right — it would bring me more confidence if I were able to actually accomplish one of these things rather than try in sort of a half-assed way for a little while and then give up. I wish I could tell you that I did, I think that would be a better ending — confidence gained under bad conditions, the triumph of the human spirit. Maybe later I’ll have a skill to idly impress people with at a party. But for now I have something new to attempt. And, at least under our current conditions, isn’t that even better?

(No, I know it isn’t. But please give me a break.)

Balls Up, Balls Down