Friday, August 20, 2010


I try to think about aerialist Philippe Petit as little as possible.

Nothing personal, you understand.

It’s just the very idea of him walking the tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center – which he did in 1974 -  gives me the willies. Many years ago, I was reading a New Yorker article (with picture) of this walk, and I was completely overcome with an anxiety attack. (Even writing about it now brings on a slight physical reaction – the hairs on the back of my neck have sprung out at a 90 degree angle.)

A few years ago, a film was made about this event – Man on Wire – which is supremely high on my list of films never to see. I think I’d rather watch every film in the Steven Seagal pantheon twice – make that dubbed in Estonian – before I could bring myself to watch Man on Wire.

Some folks don’t do windows. I don’t do heights.

Nonetheless, I was drawn to an article on Petit that appeared in The New York Times Cityroom blog a week or so ago.  It focused on a workshop he runs in which he teaches folks how to walk on wire. He’s running three workshops this summer – at $1,200 per person – and, if you want to participate, you’re too late. The 18 students have already been selected.

Students, of course, don’t start out walking 100+ stories in the clouds, or even across the apse of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which I believe Petit did at one point.

In fact, they start out walking on a line on the floor, which is something that I’m guessing I could do.

Not that I would have gotten that far:

The first morning moved quickly: warming up; doing one-armed somersaults and headstands; walking a straight white line taped to the floor; traversing a seven-eighth-inch-thick pipe  fixed  on the floor.

One armed somersaults? I don’t even know what that is.

Headstands? Include me out.

So much for this type of workshop going corporate.

As for that walk on the wild side with that 7/8th inch pipe. That sounds like nothing compared to a one armed somersault.  However:

“That bar just feels cold and mean and hard and unforgiving,” she [class member Amye Walters]  said. “When I step down on it, I just feel like it’s fighting me. It just kind of wants to push me off.”

Gosh. If it kind of wanted to push a young, fit, one armed somersaulter off, what would that pipe want to do to me?  I shudder to think. Slice my feet in half? Leap off the floor and crowbar me on the head? Laugh in my face? Yikes.

Students also have to walk a slack rope, which sounds an order of magnitude harder than walking a tight rope. Actually, it’s quite unimaginable to me. (But it has, for the first time in my life, made me realize what the term tight rope actually means. Up until now it’s apparently been a need-to-know basis.)

The culmination of the workshop is a wire-walk on a 21 foot long, seven feet high, wire (while wearing a harness). On one level (paper), this doesn’t sound all that challenging. (The harness helps.)  Still, it’s easy for me to envision landing straddle-splat on that tightrope after I take my first step.

Mr. Petit [who is an amazing 61 – I know what I’m talking about here] practices three hours a day, but has not been hired to do a major wire crossing in years. “He’s insane that he hasn’t been on a wire in New York City since 2002,” said Kathy O’Donnell, his partner and producer, expressing how much Mr. Petit misses his “stage.”

Yeah, well, I can see the insane – but that’s from the perspective of someone who had a complete anxiety episode at the lip of an Arizona canyon my brother Tom and his wife Betsey wanted to take me down a few years ago. Sure, I would have liked to have seen those adobes, but in order to do so, I would have to have been put under full anesthesia and carried down in someone’s backpack.

Petit, by the way, makes his living lecturing, but may be running more workshops next year.

The students interviewed for The Times piece gave him lots of props as a teacher:

“This guy is a teacher like no other,” [Howard Nelson]said while bracing his head between his knees. “He acknowledges when you do something well and he is encouraging when you don’t do something well. And he empathizes. He seems to empathize with us, which I think is pretty hard considering this guy is probably the best in the world at what he does.”

This alone sets him above and beyond most corporate workshop instructors I’ve worked with. You know the ones I mean – no empathy for those of us who can’t make a helicopter out of Tinker Toys, or are reluctant to reveal our innermost thoughts while sitting back to back with a stranger, or who draw the line at falling back into the arms of a colleague we don’t like (let alone trust).

Still, I won’t be signing up for this one – although I think I’d rather walk a seven-foot high tightrope (while wearing that all-important harness) than watch Man on Wire. (Shudder, shudder.)

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