The last five days have been spent happily in a field, camping with friends, listening to music, being largely out of range of phone signal, with a stash of games and good books. Funny how we celebrate a lack of connectivity when we spend so much time, money and effort to be be connected.
Lacking the ability to squander my time on Facebook or the News, it seemed like the perfect time to learn to juggle.
With balls, that is, not with my time.
No, not chainsaws or knives.
Juggling has a wonderful clarity of purpose: keep all the balls in the air, achieve some level of elegance, don’t drop them. It’s a skill you either have or you don’t. You can’t really ‘half juggle‘. You can either juggle, or you’re learning. Or you’ve given up. As it turns out, most of my friends can juggle, leaving me with an audience of advisors and unprofessional coaches.
It’s an interesting experience learning a new manual skill: one that i found i hadn’t faced for a while. You know, intellectually, what the desired end result is. You also know that you will need to put in hours of practice, dropping the balls, to get there. Being familiar with the cognitive mechanisms doesn’t shortcut them. It apparently takes thirty hours to learn to ride a unicycle, but you have to do the twenty nine hours of failure before you hit the jackpot.
Standing there, in the sunshine, dropping the balls, one after another, again and again, in the vain and simple hope that eventually i’d exhaust my incompetence and it would click was no less frustrating for knowing that it was largely true.
Learning to juggle is not a particularly conscious effort: the principles are fairly simple, the errors obvious. I rapidly identified that, in common with most learners, i tended to throw the balls forward, resulting in my walking progressively further forward to keep pace with the balls. Correcting this by trying to throw more directly up in the air resulted in a crick in my neck and most of the balls landing behind me.
The best advice i received from onlookers: stand facing a wall whilst you learn. It prevents you walking forwards and also means you can’t see the sniggerers, even if you can still hear them.
As you stand there, throwing and dropping the balls, you’re acutely aware that you can’t really influence events.
I assume at some cognitive level i’m rewiring connections, but at the purely conscious one, i’m just repeating my mistakes.
Although somehow, slowly, small patterns emerge. Suddenly i’m dropping the balls less: even though i can’t maintain more than three throws at one (one complete circle of the balls), the circle ends with me holding all three, not having dropped them all. I appear to have got better at catching.
By day three, as i’m starting to despair, out of nowhere i manage to get them round twice, before dropping them in surprise. As i stood watching the balls, i had a somewhat distanced sensation of watching them. I could sense the unconscious movement of my hands, reminding me of the sensation when i learnt to touch type. As rapidly as i sensed this, it kicked back into a conscious activity, and i promptly dropped everything.
As i tried to repeat the experience, my performance deteriorated rapidly (as i became ragged in my technique, hoping luck would take over). I can type very fast, but the minute i consciously think about how i make mistakes. I’m unconsciously competent, but when I reduce it to consciousness, incompetent.
Spurred on by my ability to complete full circles, but in the knowledge I was probably going to reside at this plateau for a while, I continued.
On day four, almost as soon as I started, I suddenly found myself juggling. Without having done anything apparently different, suddenly the balls were going round in front of me and I felt distanced from any conscious association with my hands. Maybe five times around, fifteen or more sequential throws and catches, before my flow was fractured by my increasingly g excitement and engagement with the subconscious processes.
I never repeated that feat on day four but i did manage three full revolutions a few more times. In those brief moments of success, I was consciously aware of my unconscious activity. No part of it was within my immediate control. I’m not clear what precisely changed: is it the skill with which I’m throwing the balls, my ability to precisely position them, or my improved ability to catch? Certainly some of the former: by inference, tidy juggling (by which I mean that which doesn’t involve me running around chasing the balls) must involve correct placement of each ball, so I guess I managed that. Maybe it’s also the consistency with which I am able to do it, or perhaps the ability to iron out wrinkles in the system: when a ball goes slightly out of place I can bring it back into line better.
Maybe subconsciously it’s a combination of perfecting a core movement whilst also having a range of better rehearsed emergency techniques when things deviate?
So can I juggle? Well, I guess I can say that I have: but I’m certainly unable to repeat it on demand, which means I’m still learning. And it means that whilst today I’m flying to America for work, tucked away in my bag, blades of sun parched grass stuck to them, are three juggling balls waiting for the next practice.