The other day I was glancing through the personals column of my local newspaper, which covers the community just north of San Francisco. I was surprised to see a notice for "Marin County Jugglers." Ha! - maybe an IJA affiliate? Why hadn't I heard of them before? When I looked closely at the notice, though, I saw that the Marin County Jugglers is an organization for single parents. It has nothing to do with cascades or club passing. Juggling is simply a metaphor, an evocative word for...
Why would a group of single parents associate themselves - unwittingly, I'm pretty sure - with Pierre Grignoire, Enrico Rastelli or Ray Jason? What does raising junior have to do with juggling?
I've seen the term "juggling" in a number of contexts just like this in recent months. Newspaper articles are headed "Juggling Family and Career," and friends speak of "juggling too many commitments." The public at large seems to be adopting juggling as a figure of speech for trying to keep parts of life in sync with each other. Juggling, as a 1990s metaphor, comes to stand for the attempt to attain a state of dynamic equilibrium in which several ongoing commitments are kept in balance through constant effort.
At first glance, it would seem that this new usage should give us jugglers a real morale boost. At last, it seems, the world is taking juggling at its true metaphysical value! We're not just tossing things around for the heck of it. We're balanced. When we do a Mill's Mess, we show that kids, career and physical fitness (or any other big life commitments) can not only be kept moving, but can be manipulated in style, with breathtaking complexity, and maybe even with a joke or a song to accompany the under-and-over moves.
But not so fast. This "oh wow, watch this!" mood doesn't come out in the voices that talk about "juggling commitments." In every instance I hear "juggling" used as a metaphor for life, it's not as a joyous enterprise. "Juggling the kids and career" invariably carries the connotation of frantic activity, a strained effort to keep the whole shebang from crashing to the ground. It's Mill's Mess, all right, but in the hands of a duffer who never quite mastered the moves. Those single parents don't call themselves jugglers because they take pride and joy in the enterprise. Juggling the kids without a partner is a strained and serious business, one that requires a support group and earnest discussion in an effort to keep the psychic health of parents and children from crashing to earth.
"Juggling" in 1991 has become the metaphor for life's major hassles - not just the little annoyances of waiting in line at the checkout stand, or even getting audited by the IRS. "Life Juggling" is a defensive activity. It's not a skill for keeping the objects flying, but a strategy for fending off disaster. There's no sense of style here, no joy in the mastery of moves or in improving your ability to juggle more objects or learn new moves.
It's all "Look out! Interview with the boss tomorrow afternoon at 3:00 and she's out for blood, don't drop the ball on that one! But the kids are out of school at 2:50 and they'll be prowling around the house with their friends while I'm with the boss. Maybe I can call the parents of the kids' friends to watch them for a while after school... Oh no, I forgot! The car's in the shop for a valve job! And right after that..."
Thunk, thunk, thunk! There they go. Got any good one-liners to joke your way out of this one, juggler?
The words "juggling" and "juggler" have often in the course of history carried negative connotations. In the past, a juggler might be a sorcerer, a trickster, or just an idle waster of time. "Juggling" might mean conjuring up the devil (witchcraft), deceiving the locals with sleight of hand (shell gaming), or doing dishonest tricks with the books (embezzlement). Never, so far as I know, have the terms "juggling" or "juggler" in our culture enjoyed connotations of honesty, wholesomeness or even reputable fun, except in the minds of jugglers themselves. The "Life Juggling" metaphor continues that negative tradition.
What a shame! Another bum rap for juggling, and a lost opportunity for the community of non-jugglers to take a lesson from the tossers and spinners and balancers. We could do the world a service by changing their attitudes about the whole process.
Arthur Chandler is Professor of Humanities at San Francisco State University.