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The Karasel of Progress
Thu, Jul 31 2008
I'm not as good as a 13 year old...thank goodness.
Mood:  accident prone

                   I’m not going to apologize for the length between this post and my last because if you value good writing about juggling and you know me personally, you know that I’m in it for the long haul (barring any unforeseen accident) and the Karasel will always be around for your perusal.  Visit the blog with patience and you never know when something new will have popped up. 


                Speaking of the “long haul” (I’m a sucker for segues), I just recently finished watching a documentary entitled “My Kid Could Paint That”, an expose of young artist Marla Olmstead who took the world by storm when her abstract paintings began selling for thousands of dollars at the age of four.  Apparently she just began painting on her own one day with very little coaching by either parent and before she knew it, was receiving worldwide attention and money for her work.  The documentary is very revealing and is worth watching.  Whether she’s actually the artist behind most of her work still remains very much in doubt, since the only two paintings she’s done from start to finish on camera look extremely different from her other, more ‘mature’ work.  The obvious suspect is the father but, as with all good documentaries, it leaves you with the evidence and lets you decide for yourself.


                Prodigies, the film suggests, are an interesting product of our society.  The film likens them to some sort of ‘magic trick’ – it’s funny and heart-warming to see little miniature versions of ourselves compete or even surpass adults in any field.  Often these prodigies are forced to grow up long before their time; grown-up talent is expected to mix with grown-up maturity, an often deadly assumption.  If there’s anything better than a celebrity, it’s a celebrity scandal.  If there’s anything better than a celebrity scandal, it’s a young celebrity scandal.  Just watch the South Park episode where they realize that for the good of the world, Britney Spears must die.  Once dead, they turn to their next target – Miley Cyrus. 


                The juggling world, which I have inhabited and studied for the past seven years, has prodigies of its own.  I can’t speak for all eras, but certainly the most successful prodigy of the generation before mine is none other than Anthony Gatto.  From the very beginning of his career, you had to be a fool not to realize that he was destined to be one of the best.


                One of the reasons for Anthony’s success is that he had such an amazing coach – his dad.  Juggling history is rife with examples of young jugglers coached into greatness by their fathers.  Even Wes Peden, the most popular juggler of my generation, had a dad with whom he juggled from a very young age.  I doubt Jeff trained Wes with the same fervor as Nick Gatto, but the results of the father-son juggling relationship are clear – it worked then and it’ll work again.


                Say what you will about Bob Nickerson, but the guy has a knack (read: obsession) for IJA history.  So, among other dates and drop counts, he remembers when Anthony was a regular attendee of IJA festivals.  He speaks very highly of the wunderkind, as most people do, and equally marveled over the years at how the young whipper-snapper showed up his older colleagues.   One thing Bob told me though was a bit disheartening.  He told me of a time he overheard the young Anthony speaking to another young juggler.  It could’ve been Vladik but I don’t remember correctly.  It was basically another young prodigious juggler.  Anthony, in a genuine tone, asked, “Do you like juggling?”  The tone implied by Anthony (at least according to Bob) was one of concern over the fact that he didn’t necessarily in that moment.


                This is just one example, but it underlines a philosophy that is very important to me, and that luckily I have had the ability to experience.  I make no assumptions about Anthony or any other young juggler, but I find it easy to believe that somewhere in the world, young men and/or women have been pushed and pressured by their parents to train in juggling.  Maybe even sometimes despite the fact the kid wanted nothing to do with juggling.


                The term ‘Benji-bot’ has often been applied to young male jugglers trained by Benji Hill.  The ‘bot’ refers to the fact that, like robots, they are trained by Benji to construct an act that involves similar costuming and similar stage-filling movement.  Benji’s boys are very predictable, and often (in my experience) seem to have a monopoly on 2nd place.  Do all these boys have the same love of juggling after they’ve been trained to compete, or do some of them begin to question their love of throwing stuff?  I don’t know because Jason Garfield’s prevalent anti-Benji mentality has convinced me to stay as far away from the Benji operation as possible.  I’ve never been approached by the Benji machine, which means that I suck.  And I’m okay with that.


                Yes, it is true to some factor.  I spent the recent 61st IJA lamenting and rejoicing in the fact that I suck.  5 club singles, 5 club 3-ups, and 7 balls are all performed with ease now by most up and coming 13 and 14 year old jugglers.  Cate Emily made the joke at Renegade one night that, having trained extremely hard in Quebec City, she was finally as good as a 12 year old.  Funny as hell because it’s true. 


                I often tell people at these events how I always wish that I had started earlier.  I started at 16 and am now 23.  However, because of the internet generation, young teenagers can now be as technically proficient as I am in a matter of months instead of years.  And my prediction is that it will only get more ridiculous.  If the 13 year olds now feel at 23 what I do now, I can’t even imagine what yet the next generation will be pulling off. 


                However, the thing I am most proud of every day is that I juggle because I want to.  I am essentially a hobbyist turned professional because of personal love and personal dedication.  My parents could care less if I juggled or not.  I don’t have a coach or a sponsor.  Every day I juggle and work on things related to juggling because the act of juggling speaks to and resonates within me.  In many ways, it is a form of expression, because it supplies me with confidence that I lack in any other medium.


                Perhaps that’s why I’m not as good as I could be.  No one ever pushed me.  I pushed myself – hard some days, easy others.  For me, it was never about training for a competition.  It was about achieving that wonderful feeling I got when a new pattern, understood only on an intellectual level, all of a sudden unfolded in my hands, real and vibrant and magical all at the same time.


                Watching “My Kid Could Paint That” made me realize the delicacy of childhood and innocence.  If we were to believe that Marla didn’t in fact paint half of her paintings, what does that say about the parenting she received?  She was manipulated to accomplish what the parents never could.  Very Glass Menagerie.  Most juggling sons of juggling fathers surpass their teachers.  No surprise there.  They take a lifetime of knowledge and cram it into their brains in a fraction of the time it took to accumulate in the father.  Then what?  Greatness?  Sure.  A prodigy?  We love prodigies.  But then what?  It will be interesting to see what happens to the Benji-bots and prodigies of our generation, the young dream team of IJA 2008.  Are they in it for the long haul?  I sincerely hope so, but I have my doubts. 


                It’s like the secret of life.  As a human and an intellectual, I like to think of the secret to life as a grandiose answer, requiring an eternity to digest.  I don’t want life to be a mistake, to be random, although it may be.  With juggling, a lot of what I see in young American jugglers is an endless diversion of siteswaps, spinning, and standing still.  If that is really what juggling is all about, I couldn’t do it anymore.  For me, juggling is not an end in itself.  It can’t be, or I’d stop doing it.  For me, juggling has to be a medium in which I can express other things.  Not necessarily emotion – people think artistic jugglers are concerned with expressing their emotions.  I think people couldn’t care less about my emotions.  Half the time, I’m barely even concerned.  When I say juggling is a vehicle for expression, I’m suggesting that I’m using juggling to create unique artistic experiences that couldn’t exist with any other medium, or through any other juggler.


             I always thought that if I had a child, I’d teach him to juggle at a very young age.  Now I’m not so sure - sometimes the natural course of discovery is a lot healthier.

Posted by Michael at 5:22 PM EDT
Updated: Thu, Jul 31 2008 5:33 PM EDT
Post Comment | View Comments (3) | Permalink

Fri, Aug 1 2008 - 4:19 PM EDT

Name: "Bethany"

Wow! I really really love this post!   A lot of what you said resonated with me.

 Can I post this on my blog?  I think my readers would really enjoy it!  :)

Being a prodigy is always tricky business.  I spoke with Sarah Chang, the violin prodigy, and she basically said she hasn't ended up like Britney because the people she surrounds herself with don't allow it.  Her parents, her brother, her friends, the people she works with.  SHE does not allow it.  She says that it's all about remaining grounded.  (I also think it's about knowing fame is a relatively insignificant thing that, most times, lasts for an even more insignificant amount of time.)

Personally, Michael, I think it's better that you have pushed yourself to achieve all you have - and don't be modest, you're achievements are pretty impressive.  The fact that you did it on your own must give you a different sense of self-esteem than a person who say, was force-fed this technique or that.  You took something you were good at and made it flourish; you dictated how far you'd take it.  And that's a really amazing thing. 

I've always said I'd like my life work to supercede my life time, to bridge the gap between life and death.  And I think a person can only do that when there's purity - to their talent, their passion, and their drive. 

Mon, Aug 4 2008 - 3:54 PM EDT

Name: "Luke"
Home Page:

I hear (or rather, read) a countless number of people who seem to take it as a matter of course that the modern style of technical juggling is somehow less expressive than other styles. 

I'm not sure I agree with that.  I think that technical juggling has a message and expressiveness of its own. I realize that there are some incredible performers who can incorporate juggling in some breathtaking ways (and I include you in this group). I am glad for this. I love juggling, and seeing it in new ways is extremely exciting. 

But I also think that juggling can stand on its own. Granted, not many professionals will have much success if they don't have the showmanship to captivate an audience, but performance and expressiveness are not limited to the stage. 

 I know that, on a personal level, every day I juggle I express a part of myself. Every practice is another chapter in the story of Luke. Its not a story I plan to tell on stage, but that shouldn't immediately sap its value.  

Tue, Aug 5 2008 - 1:53 PM EDT

Name: "GLF"

Very true, very good post Luke.

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