Pappy’s Homework

Pappy is the rarest of bloggers. Not concerned with hit statistics or pithy prattling, she has created a true community, where individuals clasp tentative hands in a unity borne of shared observations and insights. She challenges people to stare into the void fashioned by our fears and meet its gaze with boundless creativity. She is our muse, our mentor, and we listen when she speaks.

Pat recently made a seemingly innocent suggestion. Knowing Pat though, what may seem innocent instead carries great weight; without trying to sound all mystical, she knows what I need, and when I need it.

So, on December 9th, I did indeed go to Best Buy and purchase the documentary Man on Wire about wirewalker Philippe Petit and his aerial dance between the twin towers on August 7, 1974. I did indeed sit and watch it with my family.

I skipped the box of donuts.

And now I have the willies. The kind of willies that make your toes curl. Make your heart race even while comfortably nestled on your couch.

For I am extremely freaked out by heights.

I can vividly remember claiming this fact as my own while standing atop a set of folded bleachers. I’m on the cusp of being a teenager and my Boy Scout troop is going repelling. Only its winter, so the ROTC folks who are teaching us the ropes, so to speak, meet us in the gymnasium on the campus of Bowling Green State University. We have secured our harnesses, tested the carabiner, and I am now standing backwards on top and looking down. “Just lean back,” says the sturdy man at my side. Yeah, right. My brain cannot comprehend the meaning of the words, cannot process the reasons why leaning back would be any sort of fun, thus my body has no engine to propel it into motion. To lean back. Not going to happen.

I’ve tried to conquer this a few times since that day. I climbed almost to the top of a fire tower in a state park in northern Minnesota. Something about the rickety structure kept me from ascending as far as my comrades. I quietly turned around and went back down. Sweet terra firma. I’ve been to the top of the Sears Tower. Stood on a metal railing in the observation deck and leaned forward, like Ferris Bueller, only I got more than a little lightheaded at it all and scurried back through the crowd toward the elevator. “I’m fine,” I lied. And, more recently, I’ve ridden the Sky Safari ride at our local zoo. Nothing between me and the ground but a metal seat with a bar in my lap and a cable above.

I’m getting better. But I’ll always have that feeling that jumping would be a cool thing to do. As though if I were to just for a second shut that thing off in my mind that keeps me from doing stupid shit, I’d really do it.

Is facing this what it means to take a risk?

Author and lecturer Ralph Keyes wondered the same thing. For Keyes, Philippe Petit stood out as “a lasting metaphor for daring,” one who “made my own caution feel stark by comparison.” So he sought him out while researching his 1985 book Chancing It: Why We Take Risks. He expected to meet a daredevil who had life by the tail and clung to it with a reckless abandon and a smug grin on his face. Instead he met a smallish Frenchman who knows his fears – he won’t touch spiders, didn’t face his fear of water until his thirties, and is scared witless by the idea of marriage – and who made it perfectly clear that he is not a risk-taker. “I have no room in my life for risk. You can’t be a risk taker and a wire walker. I take absolutely no risks. I never use the word ‘risk.’ I plan everything the most that I can. I put together with the utmost care that part of my life.”

He’s also afraid of heights. “People think that height does nothing to me,” he explained. “It’s the contrary. Height does a lot of things for me. Height affects me tremendously.”

But in that statement is the essence of his attitude toward fear. Fear is not something Petit denies feeling, even when walking wires. To the contrary, he regularly uses words such as “afraid,” “terrified,” even “petrified,” to describe how he feels before getting on a wire. At that moment Petit often has to beat down the urge to flee in panic so he can get on with his work. But fear doesn’t just inhibit that work; fear is its essence. On one level Petit may refer to being afraid as a mere “technical detail,” to be solved much like a rigging problem. On another level fear is a more worthy opponent than the void itself. Without fear there would be no challenge. Worse yet, there would be no ecstasy – because according to Petit, by the end of a walk this is exactly what fear has become.

As Keyes discovered, facing our own individual fears – creating plans with which to scale their rough surfaces and carrying them out despite our trepidation – is what defines risk-taking. And when we face our fears, we may end up writing poetry worth reading. If you’ll allow me a lengthy yet toe-cramping quote, here is Petit, from his book To Reach the Clouds . . .

Inundated with astonishment, with a sudden and extreme fear, yes, with a great joy and pride, I hold myself in balance on the high wire. With ease.

A not-yet-recognizable taste seizes my tongue – the longing to soar.

I commence my walk, but my body remains motionless.

Is this fear?

The gods is me.

Determination! Tenacity! Now is the moment. The moment is given unto your hands – hold on to this balancing pole. The moment is given unto your feet – hold on to that steel cable. Are they telling you, “Give up?”

As in a dream, with immense effort I manage to displace myself through space.

Is this courage?

The gods in the balancing pole.

Keep blowing life into those artificial arms. Bring them, bring it to life. Keep it heavy, solid. Keep it horizontal. You are no device, no instrument. You are an extension of my arms, of me. Keep breathing. Keep oscillating. You are life, my life. Say I, “Carry it! Carry my life across.”

The wire detaches itself from the tower behind me. Together we undertake our aerial journey, making a hole in the sky watching us.

The gods in my feet.

They are so knowledgeable, so talented.

If they allowed the sole of my feet to land flat on the cable, they would color the walk with inelegance and danger. Instead they ask the sole – and the sole complies – to land delicately on the steel, toes first. And to slide down an alert sole, not a dormant one, so that the sole feels the cable is not a flat surface but a curve. And the sole asks its flesh to find as much of that cylindrical cable as possible, to embrace it, to hang on to it. It is a safe embrace.

The gods in my feet know how not to hit the cable, how not to make it move when each foot lands. How do they know? They are worked that out during their endless days of rehearsals. They know the slightest addition to the vivacious dance of the catenary curve would mean peril for the wirewalker. They ask the feet to land on the steel rope in such a way that the impact of each step absorbs the swaying of the cable, its vertical oscillations, and its twisting along the axis of the walk; the feet answer by being gentle and understanding, by conversing with the wire-rope, by enticing the huffing and puffing and living entity above them to let go of his rage to control.

Wirewalker, trust your feet!

Let them lead you; they know the way.


Get the book and read the rest for yourself. It’s tense and nerve-wrackingly beautiful. In the meantime, however, my fear of heights will have to wait. I have some other gods to awaken – to learn from and to trust – and the steely gaze of a void or two to meet and not blink . . .

19 thoughts on “Pappy’s Homework

  1. I actually found myself leaning into the screen as I read Petit’s words. I don’t know that I could take an entire book of that intensity. I too am afraid of heights.

    The topic of fear is huge and powerful. Your last sentence is perfectly worded. I might have to write that down and place it near my computer screen. Wonderful!

  2. Wow! Beautiful posting! fear as a part of technical problems – slots it neatly into a manageable place.
    I too am afraid of heights – even of standing on a chair as i have pooor balance, i think. Must rethink this fear now. Thanks for this. G

  3. The only thing I’ve ever been sure of about my future is that I will be completely pissed off when I’m 85 if the only thing I did up until that point is run away in fear.

  4. This is amazing. Just truly amazing

  5. My children love the book “Mirette on the High Wire.” I think that’s about as close to the wire walking action as I want to be, personally. The movie looks interesting, though.

  6. Well, aw, shucks! You bought the movie!! You watched it with your family?? Bliss for me to hear that. Cuz I knew it wouldn’t disappoint you and your wife (I wasn’t sure about the kids but felt it was worth a try given what I’ve learned about them) but you just never know if time is available to follow up on all these things.

    But, seriously, these quotes in your blog I have not seen before, nor the books. So I know what I’m going to be doing in the next few weeks!

    I bought this movie for five people on my Christmas list. As I’ve said, I cannot remember a movie where I laughed in equal measure with tears in eyes enthrallment.

    Those amigos helping him? Have you ever in your life met such a collection of humanity? That sequence where they had to hide from the guard for hours underneath a tarp?

    But, your take-away from it is spot on. “Wirewalker, trust your feet.” It is the reason there is hope for all of us.

    Thanks, Brian.

  7. I am literally paralyzed by a fear of heights. I still remember the Great Wallenda falling to his death. I was almost 13 years old at the time. It still sticks with me.

    I might have to watch the movie though.

  8. CSquared – Thank you for your kind words. I do appreciate your visits . . .

    suburbanlife – Good to see you again! Don’t go falling down or anything, please?

    Mongo – You are a daring soul, so I’m sure you won’t find yourself pissed at 85.

    flutter – You are amazing, so your amazement is a treat . . .

    Gwen – I’m gonna check for that book at the library. If you want to share with your wee ones the book for kids about Philippe, find “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers” by Mordicai Gerstein. Speaking of which . . .

    Pat – One of the best special features on the DVD is the Scholastic ten-minute animated version of the book mentioned above. I watched that with my little ones and they enjoyed. My two oldest kids, ages 15 and 11, watched the entire documentary. My son watched the ending again the next morning. And he stole my book, too. He’s fascinated. And, I am more than several pages into Netherland . . .

    Ed – Do watch the movie. The moment where he steps onto the wire, though told in still pictures, is riveting. I still have the willies . . .

  9. Very interesting. I think I will try to pick up the documentary and the book. Very interesting indeed.

  10. I always thought that I was the only one who has issues with heights that boil down to “they make me wonder about jumping”. When we took a family trip to the Grand Canyon as a kid, I stayed far from the edges- when we went there were NO fences anywhere. Its since gotten better, and I do ok with heights when there is a railing involved.

  11. I must admit, I almost clicked off because I thought your tag line said that you were a polygamist.

    So imagining the tall buildings in their underwear probably doesn’t help, huh?

  12. Isn’t that something. That fear that the little voice that says “jump” might win out, if only for a second, and send you plunging to your death. I enjoy skiing, but on those chairlift rides that go really high up? I look down and my stomach gets a little jumbly. Nervous and excited. That little voice speaks only one word. One crazy, sexy, scary word.


  13. Great lesson. Acknowledge fear (or any emotion) and decide what we will do with it. The emotion is temporary, it’s us. And the action that follows, if there is one, keeps us moving forward and connects us with life outside. Brilliant writing, friend.

  14. I’m not sure I could watch that movie. Heights TERRIFY me.

    Maybe I could watch it with my hands covering my eyes and just taking an occasional peek.

    Your words about fear, though, were perfect.

  15. You are right. I just watched the special features section. I actually loved all: the interview, the Sydney caper, as well as the animation. Seriously, I think every artist should get this DVD for Christmas.

  16. I saw this film recently and LOVED it. Was quite sad that he wasn’t still with the girlfriend – those old home movies of them together were delightful. also sad that he appears to have had a falling out with one of the friends.

    such amazing planning, even though I knew the outcome, I still found it riveting.

    5/5 from me!

  17. Tysdaddy, you don’t mind if I adress nursemyra, do you? I didn’t think so.

    Nursemyra, I felt exactly the same way about the girlfriend and his old friend who choked up and had trouble talking about their time together. It is something that I think was asked of him in the interview on the DVD and he tries to dismiss it as the movie makes it sound like the relationships were over right after the World Trade Center Walk but that it took time like all things. The striking thing was the presumption that relationships don’t last. I just read his book that the movie was based on and it is inconceivable to me that these people are not still in his life. I think this is price he has paid for being a “writer in the sky”.

  18. hey thanks for the reply. Like all artists I guess he is a difficult person. He seems to have inspired great love and admiration but perhaps is unable to return it in quite the same way.

    The breakup with the girlfriend was possibly inevitable as they were so very young at the time. but the friend….. couldn’t help but think the making of the documentary should have brought them back into each other’s lives again.

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