Wednesday, January 10, 2018

[Reflecting on 20 Juggle Jams] Emerging Traditions: The Wise Guys Prequels

Introduction. There is something special about multiples of five in celebrating birthdays, careers, and marriages. This six-part monthly column series celebrates this double-deca-milestone in our annual Juggle Jam tradition. I’ll start by crediting our three “prequels,” the childcare-based Wise Guys Youth Juggling Shows (1995-1997).

Part 1: “Emerging Traditions: The Wise Guys Prequels”
Anyone familiar with the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas knows that the central plotline is that Charlie Brown attempts to direct his Peanuts peers in their Christmas play. He dives in head first but hits many roadblocks, including much criticism for his emphatic choice of a rather pathetic Christmas tree. Even though the show doesn’t depict the end product of the Peanuts’ play, Charlie Brown found the true meaning of Christmas and a supportive community.

Like other pop culture references in my own life, I resonate with Charlie Brown in many ways. When I succeeded in teaching three 4th graders to juggle in July 1994, I had no plans for any future shows let alone successful clubs. Those three initial kids yielded 10 in Fall ‘94, forming a weekly elective club commitment within Wise Guys (the older childcare program of Edina KIDS Club) to learn and develop as jugglers and friends.

When we grew to 24 kids by the winter of ‘95, I decided (somewhat reluctantly) to put on a formal show at the end of the school year. We scheduled the old South View Little Theater for the Wednesday after Memorial Day. Fittingly (perhaps a subconscious nod to my animated directorial predecessor), I chose “Linus and Lucy” (Peanuts’ jazzy theme) as our opening song. The choreography was very minimal (up to one ball each) and our finale was also quite humble: kids entering the stage one at a time to show their best juggling to “Sweet Home Chicago.” We had emcees, a dance specialty act, and special pro guest Craig Carlson performing juggling, magic, and acrobatics.

A year later, 39 Wise Guys Jugglers from two clubs graced the old Edina Community Center Auditorium. In addition to a much more spacious stage, our upgrades included seven specialty acts (with yours truly, prodded on by the kids), our first rendition of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to send off our inaugural group of kids to an IJA festival, and our first version of an Awards Slide Show in which I read all the kids’ names and awards as they walked onstage to Rudy music. We reprised “Sweet Home Chicago” for our finale on a lone Wed. night.

In 1997, we were up to 53 jugglers in three clubs with production values trying to keep pace with the company’s success. This was the first year with no “outside” guests (the Twin Cities Unicycle Club performed in ‘96), but we invited non-jugglers from Wise Guys to perform: the Danceline Club and the Drama Club. World-class juggler Jay Gilligan choreographed a routine for our IJA Club (now Elite), and we ended the show with “Reach” for the first time with the same basic theme and structure that has lasted for 20+ years.

I didn’t direct a show in ‘98 for two main reasons: my Wise Guys Asst. Manager/Asst. Coach, Carrie Proctor, was on maternity leave, and I was burned out from six years of intense management duties (including expanding the juggling program to Saturdays, gigs & festivals). Also that spring, Wendy & I were diagnosed as infertile; that summer, I resigned my manager post to coach youth full-time.
Next month, I’ll highlight our new name, further upgrades, and continued efforts to reach for youth development through a spring variety show which celebrates this supportive community.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Quality Time vs. Quantity Time

Donuts at Ultimate Club. :-)
This concludes a 2017 series on the importance and proper use of words. 

In ‘90’s, the concept of “quality time” was a popular cultural topic. As our society became busier (even before ubiquitous internet, smart phones, and the prevalence of long-distance commuting), some psychologists and pundits advocated for spending quality time with one’s children in lieu of shrinking hours in a day in our modern world. Stats accompanying this social trend cited the emaciated time that parents (especially fathers) spend with their kids—some claiming seven minutes a week—with the implication that as long as we know we have limited time, we might as well make it a quality experience.

Being a somewhat relational person myself, I’ve never been a fan of the above argument—that one can make up for busy-ness by simply justifying next-to-nothing time spent with a loved one, friend or mentee as “quality.” Yes, I firmly believe that life is short; I freely admit that my own goals and responsibilities often shortchange my time devoted to others (often favoring tasks or personal goals); and I agree with author Gary Chapman that Quality Time (“giving someone your undivided attention”) is one of The Five Love Languages. But in my experience, there are no detours to get to quality time. We need to go through the ages-old route of “quantity time.”

Here at JUGHEADS, that’s why we offer snack and game time: not only to juggle together, but to eat and play together (however haphazardly, especially for late-arrivals and early departures). That’s why we offer special events, such as Jingle Jam, juggling festivals, gigs, our summer picnic & parades, and the Showcase. That’s why our SLT has a fall retreat and meets monthly. And that’s why we celebrate our graduating seniors every year at JJ, since it is special to extend one’s quantity time commitment through the end of high school.

I’m a Type A personality in most everything I do. Even my days off are marked by my daily disciplines of Bible reading, exercise, chores, neglected tasks, etc. However, the sweetest thing about those days off is that I often have about 3-6 hours of completely discretionary time to catch up on reading, contact a friend, host a family for a movie night, or enjoy a long conversation with Wendy over Sunday brunch. Similarly, the rhythm of activities at JH is always purposeful—warm-ups, meetings, records, rehearsals—but even those activities are designed to bring a quality experience to the members and leaders. Our staple offerings use quantity time to get to the quality time of a myriad of connections, a place to belong, a home away from home, and young lives made better and equipped with long-term virtues to spread “quality” to many others they meet for a lifetime.

I’ll end with two favorite related cliches: “Love is spelled ‘T-I-M-E,’” and “Everything takes longer than it does.” Quality time comes through quantity time. Be purposeful even on days off with down time to spare, but be careful to not pretend that connections can be made, nurtured and sustained like a microwave, drive-thru, or by osmosis. For such a time as this, JH exists to offer quantity and quality time to children and youth while encouraging families to do the same.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Urgency vs. Importance

This is my 9th of 10 columns on the importance and proper use of words. 

When I was a newlywed and young youth director, a wise associate pastor gave our church this admonishment: “Never let the urgent things in life usurp the important.” Although he only preached occasionally, the words of Tom Steller resound with me to this day. 

So how does one differentiate between what is “urgent” and what is “important”? I propose that urgent things are constant and ubiquitous: daily responsibilities, texts, emails, phone calls, appointments, chores, homework, jobs, etc. Important things are more transcendent: things that last beyond the short-term. Priorities of import may seem like “still, small voices” in our lives but nonetheless ultimately deserve the lion’s share of our hearts’ attention, even amidst the inevitable urgencies that require more quantity of time most days.

Way back in my 30’s, I read two books that changed my life in this regard: Margin by Richard Swenson and A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. In the former, Swenson, a medical doctor by training and former practice, diagnoses our problem (especially in America) by what he calls “the Overload Syndrome.” We’re often simply too busy to focus on important things. His prescription is to create intentional “margin” in every area of life, all toward the goal of balance. He warns, “Our rush toward excellence in one quadrant of life must not be permitted to cause destruction in another.” Swenson teaches that balance is a more noble goal than hyper-focused excellence (which always leads to “negative excellence” elsewhere), and he challenges the reader to consider how to balance the major categories of life even if more ego-feeding or tangible achievements suffer. In other words, Swenson essentially challenges us to choose the important over the urgent.

Sittser’s book is of an even more sober nature, dealing squarely with devastating grief due to loss of all kinds, from the loss of human life to the loss of relationships, health, or dreams. He writes that when we experience a major loss, especially a death, time stops: “We live life as if it were a motion picture. Loss turns it into a spapshot.” Suddenly, often with no warning, what we thought were such urgent and often time-wasting pursuits (e.g., immersing in daily screen time) seem insignificant. We grieve, we contemplate our own mortality, and we’re forced to change priorities. Those of us observing others’ trials would be wise to grieve with those who grieve. Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2, ESV). Laying to heart life’s end is important.

This month especially celebrates giving thanks. My goal is to renew my efforts to create and steward margin, focusing on the important things and living a lifestyle more free from the bondage of urgency. Even an hour a day (a few minutes at a time) may be all we can muster for the important. But a little goes a long way.

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Tragedies vs. Atrocities

This is my 8th in a series of 10 columns in 2017 on the importance and proper use of words, and how language influences how I lead this youth company. 

“Words mean things.” I often heard that phrase by a radio personality during my college years (even as I trained for my own hopeful radio career). Similar to my preference for a neat hairstyle and weighing myself to the tenth of a pound every morning, I prefer to be precise rather than sloppy (as I put it) with word use. Along with several other word-use topics this year, one of my personal soapboxes involves the over-use of the word “tragedy.” 

When I think of a tragedy, I think of something that happens to someone, such as a natural disaster, accidental (or disease-caused) death of a loved one, or a shattered dream, just to name a few. In the strongest terms, however, I do NOT call it a “tragedy” when someone is murdered, assaulted, abused, or otherwise the victim of a fellow human’s act of evil, whether on an individual or mass scale. Human acts of evil done to others are atrocities, not tragedies. (They may be both, but Justice demands word accuracy, and “atrocity” is not too strong a word for an intentional act of evil.)

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that within every human heart lies the capacity for atrocities. Even hating someone is considered like murder in Jesus’ eyes (Matthew 5:22) and lust is as sinful as adultery (Matthew 5:28). However, there are still legal and consequential difference between evil thoughts and evil actions. To think an evil thought is sinful; to act on it is an atrocity.

I’m not sure why so many in the media and even in our everyday conversations don’t differentiate more often between tragedies that “happen to” people and atrocities that are “done to” people. Like so many other words that are either misused or under-used, I don’t let that imprecision stop me from what I try to do in my own life and in the lives of those I mentor: learn to be content in the midst of tragedies, and pray for justice for those who are victims of atrocities (and for the perpetrators too, even if forgiving them in one’s heart). In both cases, trusting God is key to healing. “Give thanks in all circumstances...” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

On a micro-scale, may our Jughead families and staff be agents of healing for others with various tragedies (large and small) that we experience in life, and may we not only avoid being party to atrocities of action, but may we also guard our hearts and take captive every thought lest it lead to an atrocious act of evil. Character counts, inside and out. We try to nurture that here in many ways, every day. It’s about so much more than juggling.

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Facebook vs. Face-to-Face

This 2017 series on the importance and proper use of words attempts to articulate the ways in which language influences how I mentor and lead this youth company. Whatever one’s worldview or quirks, may these topics serve to edify and challenge.

I’ve never had a Facebook page. This isn’t necessarily due to a moral aversion to it (although the gossip-oriented origins of its founding should give one pause); I just know that my personality is too obsessive to dare to have one, at least amidst my intense people-oriented career. I’m the only one of my siblings on both sides of the family who eschew Facebook, and I think all of my Millennial nieces & nephews have one even as other venues of social media are more in vogue with the under-35 generation (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat...I’m sure I’m forgetting some ;-).

I do know of some Millennials who are at least cautious in their use of Facebook, wisely noting that once something is posted online, it may be permanent. Posting photos of oneself in embarrassing situations or engaging in groupthink political rants may appeal to one’s friends, but it is dangerous when it comes to job prospects and losing others’ respect due to digital versions of TMI. My nephew was recently granted a phone interview with an exciting new job prospect. Nice, but the real prize was his follow-up in-person interview. A Facebook minimalist, he has nothing to hide online from his potential employer, and his current customer relations career surely served him very well in that interview.

As for me, I am face-to-face every day. Yes, I email and text, but to be present in a conversation seems sadly rare, and that’s an advantage of having a brick-and-mortar location for our juggling clubs in our age of increasingly doing business and communication online. Even though technology helps our lives in innumerable ways (just ask the Floridians currently out of power for days or possibly weeks), it can also become a barrier to real, flesh-and-blood relationships for which we’re designed.

The Apostle Paul ends his famous “love chapter” this way: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Real life ultimately beats digital life every time.

We as humans need to know and be known. Choose face-to-face over social media whenever possible. That’s one of the benefits of JH. I thank you all for empowering your kids to pause their devices and “like us” by having human interface through the excuse of juggling and growing together, in person. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: "I’m proud of you" vs. "I’m pleased with you"

The blessed man in Psalm 1 “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season” (v. 3a). Spring for us means Juggle Jam season, followed by much motivation to achieve records at every level, yielding a harvest of all kinds of fruit throughout May each year. With the applause of JJ19 still echoing in our ears and hearts, I’ll compare two kinds of accolades (i.e., fruits) and why I avoid one in favor of the other.

As with some of my other linguistic convictions, the following preference isn’t an indictment on others’ choices. But for me, I avoid the phrase “I’m proud of you.” First, it’s not a sentiment I see in Scripture (every form of “pride” in a concordance is almost always negative); second, I’m not sure what it means. 

Regarding my second objection, I realize that for an authority figure (parent, coach, teacher, peer-leader, etc.) to express pride in an individual likely means a satisfaction in knowing from where a student has come in achieving any given feat. A younger person may have overcome a broken bone, a broken heart, or a learning disability to conquer a performance or task. I understand that “pride” could describe my emotion when I get teary any time a group dance move is pulled off, a big laugh is heard, or a dropless routine is performed. But to describe that as my pride may be claiming too much credit.

The word I strongly prefer to “proud” is “pleased.” The related word, “pleasure,” is a much broader description of my emotion toward a person who has accomplished something, and it avoids presumption on my part that I had much if anything directly to do with said milestone. Even God the Father didn’t say He was “proud of” Jesus at His baptism or Transfiguration. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). That’s a good Model to mirror. 

So I say to the Jugheads: Well done this year and in JJ19! I’m pleased with you immeasurably; you bring me joy as someone who (by God’s grace) has had any part in your development. I’m inspired as you overcome, grow (including your names!), and reach beyond what you thought possible. Keep seeking pure, true pleasures this summer and beyond.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Good Luck vs. Godspeed

I don’t believe in luck. Luck is a superstitious notion that somehow “the Universe” or “random chance” (over millions of years, I might add) is determinant of one’s success, failure, and fate in life. First, the word “luck” is not ever mentioned in my set of Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (the Bible); second, I simply have an aversion to trusting something as crucial as my well-being, joy, and eternal destination to random, impersonal chance.

Pop culture backs me up in a couple of ways. Despite the obvious overtones of Eastern Mysticism in “Star Wars,” I do appreciate the line of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Episode IV: A New Hope” when he remarks to Han Solo, “In my experience there is no such thing as luck.” In the novel The Hobbit, Gandalf clarifies his own casual use of the term “luck” when recounting Bilbo’s adventures at the end: “Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” So, whether science fiction or fantasy, even the illusion (or presumption) of “luck” yields to a higher purpose.

How much more, then, should anyone with history-based faiths such as Judaism and Christianity eschew using “luck,” even as a form of well-wishing? Whether for a specific event such as an athletic contest or a Juggle Jam performance, or for a long-term blessing at a graduation or for a big change in life, my term of choice is “Godspeed.” Both and my Merriam-Webster app trace that term’s origin to Middle English (either the 14th or 15th century) based on the phrase “God spede,” or “God prosper you.” Interestingly, our ubiquitous parting phrase, “good-bye,” didn’t originate until the 16th century but has a very similar meaning: “God be with ye.” 

Why does this matter? Well, for me, I’m so very grateful that I’m not sovereign over my own life. True, I admit that I’m somewhat of a control freak when it comes to handling my resources of time, treasure, and talents. However, that’s stewardship, not sovereignty. I believe that God is sovereign over my life, which means I don’t have to “trust to luck;” I trust in the LORD. So, whether it’s the challenge of directing my 22nd annual juggling show (don’t forget we had three spring shows in the 90’s as the Wise Guys!), mourning with those who mourn (due to deaths or cancer diagnoses), or even celebrating small victories that are nothing to the world but could be the world to a child, I’ll use “Godspeed” as a practical prayer for any given person’s endeavor or struggle. And in this groaning lifetime which yearns for redemption, I’ll also say “good-bye,” for we all desperately need Him so very much.