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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Juggler extends his positive thinking to others

By MIKE McILVAIN

Because he couldn’t he can, and now he teaches others.
“At first, I thought I couldn’t learn it and after I learned it I knew that you can learn things even if you don’t think you can,” juggler Kaj Fjelstad said.
Fjelstad has entertained crowds in Laredo gatherings, the Kerrville Folk Festival and traveled in Europe and Latin America as a juggler, but couldn’t twirl a stick well enough to scare off a fly when he first took up the activity in Northfield, Minnesota 26 years ago. He and friend Jon Wee played all the various sports young boys typically do, but that tricky, difficult, eye-catching, flashy, athletic juggling captured his eye and competitive spirit, largely because all that was beyond his junior high-level abilities at the time.
Fjelstad likes to use the word empowerment when detailing the benefits of picking up juggling, which helped boost him through those awkward teenage years and beyond.
“It was a gift from a friend. It’s about learning by accepting mistakes, drops and working with others and laughing at yourself,” Fjelstad said. “It’s good to have a sense of humor, so you allow yourself to have a playful nature and see what you can do, not just what you want to do.”
Fjelstad’s fascination at first sight for juggling took him to church where he and a couple of friends practiced frequently after school.
“Juggling is like a universal language,” he said. “It’s like a smile or laugh. Juggling can evoke similar feelings with all people.”
Fjelstad hopes to hand his learned gift of self-empowerment over to a group of future jugglers in classes open to all comers near Texas A&M International’s Killam Library on the second and fourth Fridays of each month between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Fjelstad knows the campus well, having received his master’s there this year in special education with an emphasis in reading. He juggled master’s classes, being a dad to an 8-year-old son, and handled classes of his own as a resource teacher in South Laredo where he is beginning a new school year.
The teacher probably wouldn’t be surprised if his new juggling students made friends among themselves as he and friends Wee and Joel Erickson practiced well enough to call themselves the Three of Clubs. Wee, Kaj’s first teacher, and Fjelstad began their juggling connection when Jon sent him a Christmas card promising to teach him how to juggle. They continued their juggling together when time permitted during their college years in the early 1980s before they went their separate ways.
Wee has had a largely visible juggling career as half of The Passing Zone, seen occasionally on television and in various live shows. Wee and The Passing Zone were in “The Addams Family” and “The Aristocrats” and seen more recently on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” They take up a large share of space on the Internet, too.
Wee and Fjelstad’s first major experience was at the 1982 Twin Cities Renaissance Fair.
“It was fun. We did a lot of stuff like the Colorado Renaissance Fair,” Fjelstad said, noting that Wee had been a friend since he was 2 years old as all of their parents were professors.
Fjelstad was born in Switzerland and traveled widely before juggling became his frequent copilot. Fjelstad’s father was a Fulbright Scholar and worked in Liberia for a year. Fjelstad still wears a souvenir Liberian hat when juggling and sometimes uses drums he picked up there, too. Fjelstad was already juggling when he and the family were in Liberia. He found himself fighting boredom at a Liberian political by juggling and stole part of the show, but gained the experience of performing before thousands of onlookers.
Back in the U.S., Wee and Fjelstad worked several conventions and traveled to Santa Barbara, California while finding inspiration from the juggling Carmota brothers.
“We got to know them and they told us where to get the equipment and there was just one place then,” Fjelstad said. “We spent several hundred dollars, and our parents wondered what we were doing, but then I made my own props, and we did fire juggling.”
Fjelstad and Wee stayed together for seven years, but Kaj went to college at Pacific Lutheran in Tacoma, Wash. and semesters abroad in the Far East and Mexico led him into other adventures.
Fjelstad took off for four months in Europe after graduating from Pacific Lutheran, but Mexico had left a deep impression from that first visit and he had to return to that end of the world, eventually entertaining in Jugglers for Peace, which took him to Cuba where the 12-member show performed in each province, allowing him to see “more of Cuba than most Cubans.”
That troupe was a mixture of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Russians, “probably Polish” and none of them knew each other prior to the tour. Brazilians have seen Fjelstad work his wonders and he toured Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico in La Caravana Arcoiris por la Paz before eventually finding himself in Laredo and in the teaching field.
The Nicaragua tour was held to honor Benjamin Lender, a U.S. engineer killed by Contras there in the 1980s and there’s a circus named after him.
“We were there two nights and I did a short show on the second night. The circus was closing because Daniel Ortega lost the election, so I let them in for free and I put on a two hour show,” Fjelstad said. “I used the unicycle, stilts and rola bola. It was like a dream come true.
“It was to give solidarity with them and I hope to go back.”
Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos was in Fjelstad’s audience when touring southern Mexico at La Realidad, Chiapas and he performed at Northfield, Minnesota’s sister city of San Rafael de Heredia in Costa Rica. He enjoyed performing for indigenous crowds in Guatemala for “neat people.”
Fjelstad said the caravan is still on the road, farther along in South America, and has a Web site.
“For me, it was a growing experience,” Fjelstad said. “Juggling is a great way to travel and I put it all together into an ‘I can’ attitude.
“It’s hard when learning, but you can take that empowerment into any activity. Take reading – it’s similar. You have to break it down into steps.
“I like seeing students get empowered, especially when they didn’t think they could learn and they keep learning.”
Notes: Fjelstad can be contacted by e-mail at borderlinejugglers@simplistixs.com. He trains jugglers each Thursday evening between 5 and 7 on the TAMIU campus by the fountain between the CH and PH buildings.
A print version of this story, and others in many editions of LareDOS can be seen online at www.laredosnews.com.

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