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Apr. 6, 2003. 01:00 AM
Fun with obsessions
At Trampoline Hall, nervous lecturers describe Higgs boson and the number 32 `You sit back, relax and let the knowledge flow ove

ASMAA MALIK
TORONTO STAR

It was all Sheila Heti's idea.

There I was, in front of a smoky Cameron House full of tipsy, intellectually hungry patrons on a Monday night.

I had doggedly pursued an interview with the Toronto author and founder of the Trampoline Hall lectures — which is very loosely about lectures and not at all about trampolines. And she had asked me to conduct that interview in full view of the audience.

"We've done so many interviews," said the diminutive Heti, 26, author of the critically acclaimed short story collection The Middle Stories. "There's never anything in it for the audience. There would be a sense of transparency in the process."

Speakers at Trampoline Hall, a monthly series that thrives on the amateur quality of its lectures and the eccentric nature of its topics, have waxed not-so-eloquent on everything from female poisoners of 18th century France to why gossip is worse than pork. Trampoline Hall has just completed a mini-U.S. tour, and plans are on to start another Hall in New York City.

Heti wanted me to get on stage with emcee Misha Glouberman and ask questions between the three featured lectures, as well as at the end of the show.

So, after cursing myself for accepting Heti's challenge and spending a week wrestling with performance anxiety, I was still anything but ready when I arrived to play my part in last month's lecture.

Glouberman, 35, is a tall, curly-haired man in a wrinkled gray suit. It is his job to bridge the gap between inquisitive audience and nervous lecturers, who give eight-minute talks on their no-longer-private obsessions and personal preoccupations.

"You sit back, relax and let the knowledge flow over you," says the affable Glouberman, an improvisation teacher. "You absorb it through your pores, or through your ears, more conventionally."

The night's line-up features Christian Bailey, who works for the CBC, speaking about his struggles with conviction and certainty; Alex Pugsley, on his physicist friend's search for an elusive subatomic particle; and playwright Morwyn Brebner's personal history of U.S. missile defence initiatives.

An 11-year-old girl had been scheduled to give a talk on her imaginary world, but she called Glouberman at the last minute to say "something else came up."

"Who knew 11-year-old girls actually have very busy schedules?" he asks.

The lectures begin at 8 p.m. sharp (as the Trampoline web site cautions). It is 7:15 and the line-up for the show to the show, now in its second year, snakes through the bar and out the door. "Each time, you have to get here earlier and earlier," a knowing third-person-in-line remarks to her companion.

As the crowd pours into the Cameron's back room, Glouberman shouts: "All seat-saving is off, except for my mother and my mother's friend." He stands on the stage, which is decorated with several kinds of ladders (wooden, metal, rope, bed-sheet) holding poisonous-looking green plastic snakes.

Everyone settles down and, after a rambling but witty introduction, Glouberman announces that I will interview him, Heti and the audience throughout the show.

"There is bit of an accountability problem in the media," he says. "Now, we have a room full of drunk people here to remember what really happened."

He introduces the first speaker, Christian Bailey, a sandy-haired man wearing a black T-shirt reading "make it stop." He comes on to the stage, fumbling as he tries to lower the mike.

Apparently, a misadventure with a new pair of hiking boots sent Bailey's whole world spinning. He bought a mismatched pair from a camping store on Queen St. W., and ever since he has felt "a loss of equilibrium."

He suffers "a crisis of confidence," he says. His movements getting twitchier and his voice quavering, he elaborates. "It's a lack of conviction. I don't believe in anything anymore."

In a roller coaster eight-minute speech touching on his father, his shortness, the pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and the King of Persia's horse, Bailey gets more and more visibly nervous. "I'm shaking like a leaf," he says.

This is not unusual at Trampoline Hall.

"We live for this," says regular Patrick Roscoe later in the evening. "You may get an inadvertent performance of watching someone dying or being terrified onstage."

"It's not at their expense," he explains. "Everyone in the audience feels and empathizes with that fear. No one wants to alienate the person on stage."

After Bailey wraps up his lecture, an animated question-and-answer session ensues, with a couple of audience members suggesting that he has the privilege of not having any convictions because his survival in North America doesn't depend on it.

Nothing is resolved, and the answers are just as vague as the questions ("Why, in a world where you can eat like a king at a $9.99 buffet, has conviction become not important?" "I don't know.")

At last, it's my turn to interview Heti. Glouberman invites me to the stage, explaining to the audience that Heti never comes up there during Trampoline Hall. "As always, if we need to communicate with Sheila, we will shout across the room awkwardly."

Where did you get the name Trampoline Hall? I ask, my voice quavering as I hear it echo through the speakers. Where did you come up with the idea?

A lecture she heard in Calgary by New York comic strip artist Ben Katchor inspired her, she says. Katchor spoke about the psychological geography of cities, a seemingly unlikely topic for an artist known for his poetic picture-stories.

The audience was "mostly university students," Heti says, her small voice straining to be heard. "They were kind of bored, as they would be in any other lecture. But he was so interesting and so strange. He didn't try to give us an `in' as to what he was talking about."

The name for her series comes from a detail in one of Katchor's slides, which read "Welcome to Trampoline Hall," Heti says.

And what about the anxiety and fear the lectures instil in speakers? Has that diminished over the years as people became familiar with the format?

"There's still fear, I think ..." Heti says hesitantly.

Glouberman steps in. "But I don't think it's as much an element of Trampoline," he says with a sad look. "I miss it.

"It was almost like this freak show, making people lecture."

Next on stage is Alex Pugsley, with his lecture "David Samuels and the Higgs boson." Pugsley, a last-minute fill-in for the 11-year-old, has his notes in front of him and two Heineken bottles in his jeans' front pockets.

He tells of his trip to CERN, the world's largest particle physics lab, in Geneva. He visited his childhood friend David, now searching for the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle, "a rumour, a phantom pulse from another dimension.

"For whoever finds Higgs boson," he says, "It is an instant Nobel Prize."

David and his fellow scientists' pursuit of the Higgs boson, whose existence is believed to be responsible for endowing other subatomic particles with mass, are as lonely as their personal lives. Pugsley finds many of them are divorced and even more are single.

After spending time with David and his physicist colleagues, Pugsley asks his friend what applications the Higgs boson will have once it is discovered.

"No applications," David replies. "None at all."

After Pugsley's questions and answers, I publicly ask Glouberman and Heti about the recent Trampoline tour of the U.S. and the upcoming monthly lectures in New York City.

McSweeney's, the Brooklyn quarterly put out by, among others, author Dave Eggers, publishes Heti's The Middle Stories in the U.S., and several of the pieces in the collection appeared in the journal.

Instead of scheduling a regular book tour last October, Heti embarked on a Trampoline Hall adventure, taking the lecture series through 10 U.S. cities, from Buffalo to Chicago, by way of places like New York City and Louisville, Ky.

To find speakers in these cities, Sheila would "go on the Internet and type in `Louisville Kentucky cool people,'" Glouberman says. "She would find people and call them," he explains. "She'd say `I can't tell you how I've heard, but apparently you're the coolest person in Louisville. Would you like to give a lecture?"(For the record, the Louisville show included meditations on non-sequiturs, cephalopods and zombie flicks.)

After the tour, the travel bug bit Glouberman. And, starting this month, he's hosting regular Trampoline Hall nights in New York City.

"Everyone came back from the tour saying, `That was fun,'" Glouberman says. "And I'm the one going `I must have more. I must have more.'"

Heti insists, "It's all Misha wanting to be on stage more. We have no dissatisfaction with the shows here in Toronto.

"It's not us, it's you, Misha."

Next, playwright Morwyn Brebner takes the stage. She is a pale, brown-haired woman with a nervous laugh.

"Missile defence is the LL Cool J of the American military," she says. "It goes in and out of fashion." It's been here for years — from the Reagan years, through the Bush Sr., Clinton and Bush Jr. years.

Using two fistfuls of pencils, she gives the audience a visual demonstration of the theory behind various U.S. initiatives. "There not pencils, they're nuclear warheads," she says.

Brebner lets go of both handfuls at the same time, one on top of the other. They fall to the ground, most of them never even touching each other.

"They're supposed to be knocking nuclear bombs out of the sky with other missiles," she explains.

During the question-and-answer period, a man in the third row says to Glouberman: "I'd like to make a comment, recite a quote from the Talmud and ask a question."

"Why don't you just get straight to the question, sir?" Glouberman asks.

What follows is a long-winded demonstration of the man's knowledge not only of the Talmud, but also of every minute aspect of missile defence. There is no question.

Someone else asks Brebner how she chose her topic.

"I was thinking about the end of the world," she says, "but I believe that subject was taken."

It's almost the end of the show and two hours of steady beer have taken their toll on the restless audience.

So I decide to direct my next questions toward them. What kind of things have people learned from Trampoline Hall? What have some of their favourite lectures been?

"I've definitely looked things up I've heard here at Trampoline Hall," says a man in the second row. "I've read a lot about the number 32 after listening to the lecture."

Matthew MacFadzean's talk on the number is almost legendary. An early lecturer, MacFadzean spoke about the nature of the number 32 and how, for some unknown reason, it has always felt very calculating, precise, Germanic to him.

His lecture ended with him telling of his breakthrough discovery that 32, the number that anchors the Fahrenheit scale, the number of piano sonatas Beethoven wrote, the number of pieces on a chessboard, is also the atomic number for the element Germanium.

"A lot of people walk around and really do have these private obsessions they've thought about forever," Glouberman says. "They have this one thing they're fascinated with their whole lives. There's really no other outlet for that."

Trampoline Hall regular Patrick Roscoe, a bespectacled man in a red sweater who has asked long, complicated questions of all three of the evening's speakers, tells me there was once a night of lectures all about him.

"We read his obituaries," Glouberman says. "His friend Chris wrote three — one if he died famous, one if he died not famous but in a noteworthy manner and one if he died regularly, leading a regular life."

The night back in August also included an analysis of one of Roscoe's shoes as a key to his personality by a shoe expert; a psychoanalytic profile of Roscoe, a computer programmer who is a close friend of Heti's; and a presentation by a private eye.

I asked Heti why she picked Roscoe, and how she picks the lecturers for Trampoline Hall.

"I chose him because I like him," she says. "I prefer people who don't really want to lecture to lecture."


The next Trampoline Hall lecture night is Monday, April 14 at the Cameron House, 408 Queen St. W., at 8 p.m. sharp. Sean Dixon will speak on the malleable personality; Adam Pasquella on Texas; and Lynne Valeriote on a cereal you can't get here. For more information, visit http://www.trampolinehall.net/


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