The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (10): Managed Disequilibrium

Every night, the crew of the Regal Princess find some live entertainment to put on in the grandiosely-named International Show Lounge. Sometimes it’s in-house, like a crew sing-along. Usually, it’s more like a Vegas revue: Sometimes piano, sometimes comedy, sometimes live performance, sometimes old Broadway standards. For the most part, I’ve avoided this like a leper colony. It’s wildly not my usual type of entertainment and is in fact quite explicitly pitched for passengers who have the advantage over me of multiple decades of life experience. Before reaching Hawai’i, I did venture in once to see a so-called comedian, and had my impression utterly confirmed: It was cheap and lazy comedy, based on ancient stereotypes that went well past the border of offensive. It was un-funny.

But tonight I was a little bored after walking around Maui all day and I was having trouble getting the wireless to work smoothly. So I decided to take a chance on tonight’s act, a guy named Greg Kennedy who is, of all things, a juggler. I was not in a receptive mood. I’d more or less written off the hour it was going to occupy. Truth be told, I was ready to be significantly unimpressed. A juggler? In today’s world?

This guy blew me away. I mean, it was one of those scales-from-the-eyes moments. This was not some set of cheap hacks performed by a bored carny at the end of the fairgrounds. Kennedy had artistry, real artistry. It came to me that very little separates his level of juggling from what would be universally recognized as high dance. His fluidity and his choreography were both astounding. From time to time he chided the audience for being slow to applaud, for being unresponsive. I think he really didn’t get it. We weren’t clapping because we were dumbstruck. You don’t clap halfway through the aria, or the soliloquy, or the amazing guitar solo. You soak up the artistry and you let the artist finish. This guy was that good.

Then it got me thinking about juggling, in ways I hadn’t before. First of course, I had to analyze it from a physics teacher’s point of view. Can I use this in my classroom? Clearly there’s a lot going on in terms of Newtonian physics: inertia, torque, even gravitational potential. How could I tap that?

That made me look more closely at what actually goes on. And then I understood something I hadn’t before. Most of physics, most of engineering, is about stability and control. We like to live in equilibrium spaces, and we spend an awful lot of time trying to get there or trying to stay there. But juggling is engineering turned on its head. It’s all about disequilibrium – mastering the innate tendencies of objects, that you think should tend to tear the system apart, and tapping those tendencies to stabilize it instead. It’s not about clamping down and exerting control. Juggling relies on letting go of simplistic ideas of being “in charge”. It demands that the juggler work with the intrinsic behaviors of the objects as they are. It requires getting results without dictating pathways.

And then I realized that, at last, I had the nucleating idea for my second Convocation speech, the dust of sand around which I might construct another piece. Juggling is a great metaphor for life in the 21st century. Getting out alive is going to require us to work with subtle touches that tap the intrinsic potentialities of the world we find – we must surrender obsolete dreams of deterministic control. It’s not about dictating paths; it’s about steering outcomes.

For the first time I think I have something I can hang a speech on. And that feeling is a joy in itself.