I was a shy kid, but only in the sense that I would generally rather swallow broken glass than talk to you. Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote, "Hell is other people," (and then wondered why he didn't get invited to more parties).
Still, I could relate to that. It wasn't just discomfort that I felt when I was around strangers, it was outright fear. Not fear that people were going to physically attack me or anything like that, just that they wouldn't like me. Which was much worse. I probably could have handled being attacked--as long as you liked me while you did it.
"Hey, why are you guys beating me with sticks? What did I do?"
"Nothing. We just like you. We viciously beat people with sticks when we like them a whole bunch."
My challenge lay in the fact that while the thought of being close to people petrified me, I also wanted and needed their company. I was after all human, and humans generally speaking are pack animals. That's why back in high school I wistfully observed, from a safe distance, one particular clique of smart and funny kids. I wanted desperately to be one of them--hanging out together, driving around, hanging out some more, driving around again, hanging out somewhere else. All those exciting things that teenage friends do. And I had no idea how to make it happen, but I was determined to figure it out.
Despite the fact these guys were a grade ahead of me I saw a lot of them, because we'd all been assigned to the same independent study program. I should explain that this was part of a bold educational experiment by the Novato Unified School District. Kids previously identified as "gifted" were unshackled from the creativity-killing constraints of letter grades and rigid curricula, and set free to follow their own intellectual and artistic impulses and to accomplish pretty much nothing at all.
Well, not absolutely nothing. One of these kids, Mike, had learned to juggle. He'd gotten the idea to try his hand at street performing. There was a lot of it going on in nearby San Francisco, and the lifestyle appeared beguiling. A street performer could explore the world if he wanted with just his talents, a few props, and the clothes on his back. The sidewalks of Paris, New Delhi, Amsterdam--any place where people might pause to watch an impromptu show was an orchard ripe with falling coins for your upturned hat. No boss to please, no clock to punch, footloose and free as the wind. Mike's parents, upper middle-class white homeowners, were of course thrilled to death.
Mike decided to work up an act passing juggling clubs back and forth while reeling off snappy lines. I rightly imagined he'd need at least one partner, or else a large portion of the show would consist of walking over to where he'd thrown the clubs and picking them up again. This was my chance. Not only would I have the ready-made excuse I believed I needed in order to approach Mike, but if we actually wound up performing together? In front of people, live people, again and again? Maybe I'd get over my social phobia. Desensitization, they called it, and it was a proven therapy. It worked with snakes and spiders, why not humans? They were only a little more terrifying.
So I learned how to juggle, which is surprisingly easy by the way. There's a popular misconception that being a juggler requires exceptional dexterity. This probably comes from noticing that not a lot of people do juggle and then concluding that probably not a lot of people can juggle. But that's wrong. Anyone with functioning arms and hands and eyes can learn to juggle. People just don't bother. They don't because life is short and on a list of skills worth spending your precious time acquiring, juggling ranks just below hypnotizing slugs.
That being said, I still believed that for me juggling would function as an entrée to the world of broader, maybe even deeper human relations. And so I took some lessons at a Renaissance Faire held annually in nearby Black Point Forest. If you're not familiar with the institution, a Renaissance Faire (always with the vestigial "e") is a fun-filled-frolic in which everyone is required by law to eat turkey legs the size of poodles, and speak in fake English accents so awful that actual English people bleed from their ears when they hear it. In a matter of couple of very awkward weekends at Ye Olde Juggling Boothe I was ready to go.
Armed with my newly mastered useless skills, I approached Mike. The moment of truth had arrived. And whatever happened next was such a non-event that I can't even recall it in detail. Perhaps if it had involved a smiling beating with sticks, but no. Unlike me, Mike was both an outgoing and an easygoing guy who said in effect that sure, I could be in the show. Why not? And that was that. My whole future had changed course in a single moment.
Before long we located two other kids approximately our age (sixteen and seventeen by then) with similar aspirations to develop utterly purposeless yet show-offy abilities, and we all put together a four man club-passing act. Was I terrified to perform in front of crowds of people? Oddly, not so much. But to explain why, I need to jump ahead a bit.
The amount of money we divvied up four ways at the end of a long, cold day performing on Fisherman's Wharf turned on three factors mainly: how many fifteen minutes shows we could pull off one after the other before our voices gave out, how many laughs we could score each show, and how much we managed to wow our audiences. Not that we were in it for the money, it was really more a matter of pride. At the end of the day we didn't want to leave the city knowing that the alcoholic clown on the next corner, whose booze-breath balloon animals were probably a fire hazard, just took home more change than we did.
So we tried our best to wow 'em. And in the world of street juggling wowing generally involves stepping it up a notch, graduating from your standard white plastic juggling clubs to something flashier and more exciting. Something like knives, fire torches and--if you were particularly daring--chainsaws. And this is important: you performed these stunts in a rigid and traditional order. That was based, as your audiences could easily see, on relative degrees of difficulty. Which meant beginning with plastic clubs (easiest), building through knives and torches (harder and harder still), and on into your big, buzzing and roaring chainsaw finale.
Except that's all a big con.
I'm going to let you in on a little showbiz secret now, a piece of tradecraft that street jugglers have been working to great effect for a long, long time. Clubs, and knives, and torches--and yes even chainsaws when you modify them for juggling--all have great big handles. Perfectly safe handles. That's all you watch, and that's all you bother yourself about. You throw the thing up by its handle with a flip of the wrist so it spins through exactly 360 degrees, and then you catch it again in the other hand, by the same handle. That's all you do and that's all you can do.
You work the handle, and the other end takes care of itself.
Of course, that doesn't mean that juggling a chainsaw isn't more dangerous than juggling a club, but it does mean that it is the exact same skill. So you start with clubs and you learn the moves, and they are the same moves and motions you use to juggle knives, torches, and whatever. The rest is just courage.
And courage, as it turns out, is just staying focused on that handle even when the stakes are high. Which brings me back to people, and my one time deathly fear of them.
Why had I been so afraid of people in general, but not so much from the stage? It certainly had something to do with the fact that I wasn't alone up there; there were four of us, after all, supporting each other. But I was soon performing solo on occasion as well, and very comfortable with that, so there was something more going on. Of course I knew beforehand what I was going to say and do on stage, and I was well practiced in my routines. That helped too, no doubt. But then I also ad-libbed frequently, making things up in response to hecklers (there were plenty) and even to my own goof ups (plenty of those too). Plus every audience is a little different, and a little unpredictable. So no, that didn't entirely explain it either.
But this does: I had found the handle for people.
Without belaboring the metaphor too much, relationships are a lot like juggling knives. There are only two parts of a relationship to look at. There's what you put in, and what you might or might not get back. That's the handle and that's the blade of every relationship. And I had always been focused on the blade. I wanted what I wanted, and I knew I might not get it, and I believed I could not be happy without it. A very frightening place to be. Never had I looked at a relationship purely from the standpoint of what I had to give, what I could put in--which is where I had always possessed complete control. What I had to give or not to give, I should say, because the choice whether to participate in a relationship or not is also mine.
All this is not to say that I don't care about what might come back to me, that I don't care about being loved, and respected, and encouraged, and appreciated, and understood and all the rest. But I know now that is the blade. And I can't focus on that end. But if I take care of the handle, focus on how and when and where I choose to be of service--that other end tends to take care of itself very well.
And what does this have to do with my performing in a juggling act? It turns out that when I was up on that stage, even if it was often only a sidewalk, I was entirely focused on entertaining the crowd. I gave them my all. And when you're doing that, giving your all up there, there's no time or attention left to think about yourself. You've seen it many times I'll bet, the complete lack of self-consciousness of the great dancer, actor, or comedian, or even writer, that somehow is instantly felt by the whole audience and sets everyone at their ease. You don't have to worry about them because they're not worried about themselves.
I was focused on the handle up there. And that is the most natural, powerful, and fearless place you can be. And in time I learned how to bring that into other areas of my life too.
So I want to say thanks to my old buddy Mike, who inspired me to perform, helped launch me on a show business career, and enabled me to overcome one of my deepest fears. And who did, by the way, end up travelling the world. And starring in a Las Vegas show. And marrying the girl of his dreams. And fathering two beautiful kids and making both their grandparents very, very proud indeed.