Dave Finnigan vividly remembers the instant, during a camping trip nine years ago, when he realized that he could keep three objects aloft with syncopated throws.
"For me, it was a spiritual experience," said Finnigan, who had been working on a doctorate in population studies after several years of administering family planning programs. "I hadn't had a light bulb go on over my head for a decade. All of a sudden I realized I could apply some of the skills I had acquired in my life up to that point to something completely different."
Finnigan, now 43, emerged from the woods a changed man and devoted himself with evangelical fervor to spreading the good news about juggling. Apparently the ranks of the unenlightened are dwindling fast.
At 2 a.m. one day last week, the gym at Emory University hummed like a factory, crowded with hundreds of people and even more flying objects.
In one corner, balls appeared above the crowd, steadily rising and falling like a fountain. Nearby, a boy sent up a column of white rings that spilled over and seemed to form a tall, thick loop as he caught them and threw them, caught them and threw them. Indian clubs made a soft slap, slap as they passed end-over-end between partners.
The scene, hypnotic and numbing, has gone on for seven days and six nights.
Welcome to the 38th convention of the 22,000-member International Jugglers Association, the world's largest support group for addicts of throwing things in the air. The event brought Finnigan and more than 500 juggling fanatics to Atlanta for a mad marathon of motion that lends new meaning to the oft-heard rallying cry:
"Juggle Till You Drop!"
The convention, which ends today, has featured a spacious gym open 24 hours a day, contests and workshops on everything from torch-tossing to zero-gravity juggling taught by astronaut Don Williams, who elevated the art during a space shuttle flight in April.
As a juggler of modest skills, acquired during long waits for tennis courts, this reporter set out to discover what impels jugglers to spend countless hours picking up new techniques -- and missed catches. An informal convention survey turned up a radiation safety inspector, a retired seaman and a counsel for a U.S. congressional committee. The lawyer requested anonymity.
While many conventioneers are professional performers, a few have only just begun to juggle, such as 49-year-old Diane Maxwell, a student adviser at a community college in Orlando, Fla. "I've lost four fingernails, I have a bruised cheek and broken blood vessels in my hand. But it's fun."
But hard-core jugglers tend to describe their addiction in metaphysical terms like Finnigan's.
"I've taught more than 300,000 people to juggle -- in person that is," he said, adding that he has reached even more through his book, "The Joy of Juggling." He tells his audiences that juggling not only builds confidence, coordination and strength but aids in meditation.
"Time stands still when you are passing clubs. There's no future, there's no past. There's only now."
His educational efforts dovetail nicely with the juggling supply business he developed with his family and a few friends; Jugglebug Inc. is approaching annual sales of half a million dollars.
For Robert Nelson, 35, juggling symbolizes freedom. So do the two big butterflies tattooed atop his bald head about the time he decided to turn his back on his successful career as a chemist. While studying pharmacology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Nelson landed a juggling job and came to a realization: "It was me. I was a juggler. I found my heart as a clown."
Hamilton Floyd of San Antonio swears that juggling sharpens his vision -- so much so that he doesn't wear glasses at age 81. His specialty requires a cowboy hat with an attachment that looks like half of a beanie propeller. He sways back and forth on a board balanced on a smooth log, spins a lariat, then attaches the rope to the half propeller and keeps it spinning around his body by moving his head in circles.
Signaling a bystander to toss him three balls to juggle, he breaks into a song about the Rio Grande. "That exercise is good for circulating blood to the brain," he said. "I do it two or three times a day."
A handful of jugglers, like Susan Kirby, 23, of Baltimore, are "into numbers," juggling more and more objects. Juggling five is considered the "black belt" of the art.
"People make fun of numbers jugglers, especially the Europeans," Kirby said. "They say it's such an American mentality, always trying to do more than somebody else.
"But there's a kind of bonding that goes on with people who are into numbers. No one else knows what that feeling is like, to have seven balls up over your head and keep them going. You hit cruising speed. Time kind of slows down. The same thing happens, I suppose, with runners after 10 miles or so."
Although Kirby does some street performing with a partner in Baltimore, she prefers to seek out a quiet corner or face a wall and create spectacular showers of balls. "I don't really care if people watch. I'm a purist. I'm just doing it mostly for myself."
After a couple of days here, it seems perfectly normal when someone pedals past on a unicycle, juggling rubber chickens, or lectures on the fine art of not setting your hair afire with torches. It still isn't clear why jugglers juggle, but the question doesn't matter anymore.