I've got this friend back in New York City, Suzi Winson, who flies regularly on the trapeze, and she's counseled me for years that I should take it up. "There's nothing like the trapeze," Winson has told me. "You'll feel so free." Winson's also a writer, and she publishes a poetry journal called Fish Drum.
But despite our friendship and common literary affinities, I'd never even half-considered following Suzi Winson into the air.
Call it a one-third life crisis.
It turns out, of the estimated 50 places in the United States where you can learn the trapeze, one of the most acclaimed and successful schools is here in San Diego County. Trapeze High, it's wittily called, and it's just up the highway in the beautiful hidden valley of Escondido. I swung by the website (trapezehigh.com) to garner clues about whether I wanted to go through with a session of aerial acrobatics, and many convincing assurances caught my eye. According to the subsection "First-Time Students," I would be flying in safety lines in the very first class; their net was "not an old fish net," it was a real circus net; I would have instructors on the platform with me at all times; I'd be given individual instruction; and, most importantly, I read that "almost anybody can do this. All you have to do is try. Body type, age, and fear of heights are not acceptable excuses. You will see all ages and sizes flying. No one is more afraid of heights than Dave." I called Dave.
David Ayers, 59, is the cofounder of Trapeze High. On the phone, he sounded as easygoing and reassuring as, well, as a trapeze swaying in a slow breeze. "Anybody can do it," Ayers told me. "We had an 81-year-old up there once. And we get 5- and 6-year-old kids all the time. The largest successful swinger we've ever had was 275 pounds." But he wasn't soft selling. He sounded unconcerned, jovial, carefree. If anything encouraged me to go ahead with this, it was the tone in Ayers's voice.
He told me Trapeze High has had thousands of people come and dangle in its short history. "We average about 40 to 50 students per week, plus birthday parties and corporate events," he said. "We started in Leucadia but moved to Escondido in 2004." (Trapeze High moved again in February, to another field one mile up the road.)
Half-convinced, I made my reluctant appointment to fly, and Ayers said, "Cool!" and told me not to wear jeans or shorts. "Sweatpants?" I asked. "That'll work," he answered. "You want your legs covered, but you don't want your movement restricted in any way." Super, I thought. At least I wasn't going to have to go out and buy tights. He also told me to bring drinking water to fend off the Escondido heat. "The class you're coming to is a good one because there will be people there, like you, who have never flown before, but there will also be some who have flown. A good mix."
Incidentally, trapeze gets its name from the trapezoidal shape formed by the crossbar and the wires that hold the bar up. It's a ripe metaphorical subject -- perhaps among the top 10 or 11 nonnatural vehicles for metaphor -- along with elevators, roller coasters, highways, bridges, clocks, stairs, maps, mirrors, wheels, and keys. In fact, many of the major artists of the last century were taken with the imagery of the trapeze, although I know of only one, the poet Marianne Moore, who ever swung.
"Saltimbanques" (more or less the original word for "traveling acrobats") were painted by Picasso, Matisse, Seurat, and many others. The great 20th-century Soviet composers Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian wrote classical pieces that are supposed to evoke the trapeze. And Franz Kafka, my favorite writer, penned a short parable roughly 100 years ago about a trapeze artist who lived his whole life aloft on his crossbar. In Kafka's story, this stellar performer would never come down from his perch -- except to travel from town to town with the rest of the circus -- and when he did descend, of necessity, still he would be rushed from place to place so that his time on the ground could be reduced to a minimum. In this way, Kafka's trapeze artist seems to live a life away from mere "real life," without concerns or troubles except for the logistical problem of how to stay in the air as much as humanly possible.
Even today, the trapeze remains a symbol for escape, in the sense that aerial spinning is supposed to leave behind all cares. Personally, though, I couldn't help but feel, in the hours leading up to my first flight, that I was plotting not to escape from real life but rather to confront it.
When engaging in potentially fatal behavior, many of us, it appears, prefer to bring along people we know. Call it moral support. Or call it having a sympathetic ear nearby to apprehend one's last words.
My support team for the trapeze was my friend Barbara Yates. Yates just got her medical degree from UCSD, but that's not why I asked her along. She's not that kind of doctor (she's an eye doctor). I invited her because I knew she'd be interested. Yates is one of those game individuals who never says no to anything. She lives a full life because she's got a childlike curiosity and a fearless soul. Less than a year after she first picked up a guitar, I watched her pluck and sing at an open-mike night. She's traveled fearlessly all over Europe all by herself. She was also a cheerleader as an undergraduate at UCLA, so I figured she was used to flips and twists and tricks in thinner air.
Yates and I drove through a treed gate and followed the parking signs into what was either a large lawn or a small field. We were the first ones there. Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m.
In the short distance, it loomed: an aluminum dinosaur. No. A giant Tinkertoy set, assembled by giants.
I turned to Yates and looked to her for a shred of enthusiasm. Mine was nowhere to be found.
"No turning back now," I said.
"This is going to be so much fun," she answered.
Despite my trepidation, an atmosphere of lightness surrounded Trapeze High, no pun intended. As the staff and the day's other fliers gradually showed up -- and there would be nine of us swinging from the bars that morning -- jokes and ironies began flying around even before people began flying around.
Introductions were hardly finished before David Ayers and I realized we had a prior connection, a six-degrees-of-separation type of thing. I wore my Fish Drum T-shirt to fly -- on the back it reads, "Poetry at gunpoint" -- hoping to channel the energy of my poet/acrobat friend, Suzi Winson. When David Ayers caught sight of the shirt, he sounded surprised. "Do you know Fish Drum?"
Turns out Ayers learned to fly with Sam Keen, the same man who taught Winson and the writer of the definitive book (Learning to Fly) about trapeze as a metaphor for life. And Keen, Ayers, Winson, and a few other fliers met once in Paris, years ago, and had dinner together. Yet another vignette from the chronicles of "It's a Small World After All (Especially When You're Swaying Around Above It)."
"First things first!" an instructor was saying. "You have to sign one of these nifty waivers. They say, 'If you mess up it's your fault, and if we mess up it's your fault.' "
I tried to focus on details, to stifle my anxiety.
Trapeze rigs are made of aluminum, cables, ropes, and the net. I would find out later that it takes about four hours for a team of six to dismantle one of these things and six hours to put it back together. The stanchions on the rig at Trapeze High soared to 31 feet in the air. The platform was over 22 feet off the ground. And looking at it, spread along the side of a horse-populated field, I wondered how anyone could have come up with the concept for such a thing. I pictured extraterrestrials planting the idea in somebody's head, like the alien monolith teaching apes about tool use in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In reality, the trapeze was initially demonstrated by its inventor, Jules Léotard, in Paris, on November 12, 1859. His rig was made of three trapezes, and he leapt and swung from one to another in a variety of positions -- a 12-minute act -- before somersaulting and alighting on a safety platform below. According to renowned circus writer Reg Bolton, Léotard's act "might be considered some kind of advanced training drill in the circus schools of today, but in his time, it was, by all accounts, magnificent." Jules Léotard became one of the world's first megastars. He appeared all over Europe and the United States and was the focus of enormous admiration.
In 1868, Léotard was feted in a still-famous ditty:
He flies through the air with the greatest of ease
That daring young man on the flying trapeze.
And if that weren't enough, Léotard also became a timeless maven of functional fashion. His one-piece outfit has been worn by acrobats and gymnasts ever since. Of course, this body-hugging costume bears his name even now.
A leotard or two was in attendance at Trapeze High that day. And I was the only male flier. (Word to all you adventurous male singles out there: it was just the teachers, a small audience of friends, a bunch of athletic girls and women in leotards and tights and sweats, and yours truly.) My fiery nerves were doused at once in a cooling dose of male pride.
As I signed my waiver and looked around, doing my best version of "nonchalant," I met the people in whose hands I would place my life that sunny day.
The instructors at Trapeze High wore simple T-shirts with the school logo and, at least at first, no tights. David Ayers did sport an authentic brown cowboy hat with a long showy feather, which only half-concealed cascading wisps of silver hair. He was able to keep his hat on because he spent the entire class on the ground pulling safety ropes. The safety ropes attach to beginning fliers by way of loops on their harnesses.
"I used to work up on the platform," he told me, "but I like it a lot better down here. From here, you can really see the faces of the students as they transform from abject fear to ecstasy."
Up on the platform was Ayers's 15-year-old son Jacob and his wife of almost two years, Lindsay Van Voorhis, who is 51. They were the "board muffins." Board muffins work the platform for the fliers, holding the fliers as they lean, helping them to chalk their hands, and catching the swinging bars with a long hook called a "noodle."
Van Voorhis and Ayers met because of the trapeze. They opened Trapeze High together in 2002. Jacob (who is Ayers's son from a previous marriage) started flying when he was only 3. Said David Ayers, "It scared him resoundingly." But young Jacob was always around the trapeze, and when he started flying again at 13, he got very good at it very quickly. "Now he can do all sorts of tricks," said David Ayers glowingly. "He's already even a pretty good catcher."
The Ayerses are a true acrobat family, in the great tradition of familial aerialists. The Alvarezes, the Codonas, the Valencias, the Caceres, the Vargases. Even Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, from the Batman and Robin comic books, was from a trapeze family, the Flying Graysons. It's strange, but I would bet the net and both swinging bars that no other activity in the world becomes a family activity the way trapeze becomes a family activity. I don't pretend to know why. Except that if one person in a family has a good acrobatic body type, then other people with the same genes may also be built to fly. And there's the addictive nature of the trapeze. Imagine if your parents swing and catch each other on their days off, as a bonding experience. You think when you get old enough to hold a bar, you won't want to do the same? And how cool would that be? Having a trapeze rig in the back yard, where your family flips around before dinner and on the weekends.
The fourth instructor that day wasn't related to the Ayerses, but he was the comic relief. Kevin Six, aged 40, is as nimble with his wit as he is in the air. Almost nothing was said or done that didn't receive a light, good-hearted comment from him. When one of the youngsters asked him what he thought of her flight, he said, "I didn't see you. I was flirting. I mean, I was teaching those girls how to catch!"
Six was also the designated catcher for the day. Later, he would recount how he decided to become a catcher, which, incidentally, is one of the most unappreciated, difficult, and injury-prone jobs in the circus. Spinning knees and elbows and feet are flying at you in midair, and you are hanging from the bar upside down, swaying and waiting for the single, perfectly timed moment to pluck a flying acrobat from certain failure. To me, it sounded thankless as well as difficult. You're either good at it, which is expected, or you're not, and someone might get hurt.
But Six realized that catching was his calling the day he saw a "good-looking" female flier attempt a trick called the shooting star, and instead of being caught successfully, she flew, widely splay-legged, straight into the catcher, thumping him square in the face with her crotch. "Yep," he deadpanned. "I knew it that day. Catching's for me."
The educational proceedings at Trapeze High began down here on safe soil. In "ground school," they put the harness on me, a tight belt, easily the most constricting thing ever to come in contact with my body.
"Tighten it as much as you can," Six sounded as though he was joking, but he wasn't, "and we'll come around and make it even tighter." Then they showed us how to arch our backs, bellies out, and put our arms in the air and look up. They also taught us how to hold the bar and flip ourselves upside down. Then they taught us how to land.
Landing correctly is a skill in and of itself. The trick is not to let any skin touch the net; that is, not your hands or the back of your neck or your elbows, and certainly not your feet. You want to land on your butt and your back, cradled and swallowed by the elastic mesh. This is yet another trapeze-related action that goes against intuitive thinking. You have to resist the temptation, after you let go of the bar, to put your feet or your hands out beneath you. You have to let go and trust the net.
(As an aside -- an interesting myth regarding the trapeze net: we're told that the trampoline was invented after a Frenchman named du Trampolin conceived of the trapeze safety net as a means of recurring propulsion. Whether or not there's any truth to this tale about the origins of the trampoline, it does illustrate the springiness of a trapeze net.)
So after about two minutes of ground school, they told us that we were ready to climb up, strap in, and sway. Well, at least some of us were ready.
I promptly took up my post in a shaded chair with a notebook and pen and watched the others swing.
Chi Luu, 21, brought an entourage of eight and a video camera, two digital cameras, and a healthy dose of trepidation. It was her birthday, and she wanted to do something "in the air." After her first attempt at swinging, she almost fainted. Her friends and family rushed around her as she swooned, but in a moment, after she started breathing again ("Everyone forgets to breathe their first time," said Six, matter-of-factly), she shook it off and said she was ready to go back up for another try. One of her friends, Jamie Lee, 25, decided she wanted in on the action also. I felt an overwhelming urge to pack up my gear and quietly disappear.
Amanda Markee, 19, home from college, was a self-professed "Club Med professional." She'd flown dozens of times. Her sister, Josie, 14, was a frequent flier as well. "It's a rush," she said. "I love being up in the air." The Markee sisters exhibited excellent form, arched backs, pointed toes, and plenty of flair and style. They even executed a trick called "splits," where they hold on to the bar, swinging upside down with their legs open scissored above them. They even leapt from "splits" into the catching arms of Kevin Six, probably the most acrobatic moves of the day.
It seems most folks discover the trapeze at a Club Med. Among the commonplace summer camplike activities organized at Club Meds throughout the world -- swimming, running, horseback riding, archery, golf -- they also offer trapeze. Several of the people with whom I flew for the first time got their trapeze indoctrinations at a Club Med.
Eventually, Suzi Winson explained to me, in an e-mail, "Bob Christians is the guy who brought trapeze to Club Med and is in charge of all the rigs in Club Med worldwide. He owns them and rents them out. He made trapeze a recreational sport, whereas before then it had really only been done in its classic form in the circus."
Allison Maslan, 42, a homeopathic physician by day, never thought about the trapeze until she was in her late 30s. "I used to be a gymnast," she said to me. "And when a friend first told me about the trapeze, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding.' But now, after five years, I think I've been up about 500 times. I just wish I'd discovered this as a young girl. I definitely would have run away with the circus."
Maslan did a full somersault without safety wires, was caught by Six, and then almost, almost was able to return to her bar. It was the closest thing to a completed trick we would see that day. Ayers later explained, "Completing a trick means you end up where you were, without safety lines. Swing, release, return to the bar, return to the platform, then 'style.' Then you feel like God." To "style" means to put your arms above your head, put your chest out, and smile for all you're worth. Van Voorhis told me that acrobats style so that the audience knows when to applaud. "Otherwise, it's a lot of visual information for the crowd to process," she said. "And in a real performance, there aren't many stopping points when it would be obvious to applaud."
My friend Barbara Yates garnered plenty of applause. She was able to swing, then learn a knee hang (dangling upside down with her knees over the bar), and then, on her third swing, she was caught successfully by Six. "No one ever gets caught on their third swing," Van Voorhis said, audibly impressed.
Caitlin Curl and Clare Viglione, 14-year-old first-timers and friends of Amanda and Josie Markee, had heard Josie singing the praises of trapeze, and so they tagged along, wanting to try it. But at first, they were nervous. "Ready?" someone asked Curl. "No," she said, bluntly. But all it took was one swing. "Whoo!" she called out. And then, after a few more sways, her little voice above the net could be heard to say, "This is so fun!"
That same peculiar, steady mood swing accompanied all the trapeze swings that day. You could feel it emerge with the Escondido sunshine, under the eucalyptus trees, among the weedy fields and chewing horses and the twitters of sparrows, in the shadow of an otherworldly aluminum trapeze rig. Early anxiety shifted to eager excitement, applause from other people's support teams intermittently sounded, and by the end of the proceedings, facial expressions and conversations echoed exuberance. I've never seen such a marked emotional trajectory.
So what's this connection relating fear with fun? I found myself wondering again as I sat there. Why do we humans push ourselves into ever more dangerous activities? Is it because we get bored with every old threshold and eventually need new heights simply to feel alive? I read recently about the concept of "velocitation," which is defined by Stanford professor David Halliburton as "the adjustment that occurs as one moves for a sustained period at an accelerated pace." It's that feeling you have when you are driving 60 that you're going only 50, and it explains our need to drive faster and faster.
It seems that the fulcrum of the pendulum between panic and pleasure may rest on the issue of trust. If you can't release yourself into the fear and trust the elements of the activity (and trust yourself as you engage in the activity), then you won't be able to have any fun. But once you do make that leap, the woozy rush that liberates you is unadulterated delight.
As you may have guessed, for me, both fear and fun are best from a philosophical distance.
But I couldn't put it off any longer. In the end, philosophy always loses out to old-fashioned visceral experience.
Not to mention that everyone started calling down to me that it was my turn to go. I kept calling back that I would rather pay attention and take notes. My male pride had wafted away. "Writers live vicariously," I said. And, "I prefer the truth of words to the mere reality." Of course, they all made fun of me. "Never heard that excuse," Van Voorhis said, "and I thought I'd heard them all." Finally, Ayers came to my aid. "Oh, leave him alone. Some people are acrobats. He's just a poet!"
But I knew that I would have to do it, at least for the sake of journalism, if not for pride or for my own soul's edification. I laid down my notebook and safe pen and put my life in my hands instead.
Among the heroes in the myths of ancient Greece, Antaeus was one of my favorites. If he could touch the earth, he was invincible. As the eminent classicist Edith Hamilton relates, "If thrown to the ground, Antaeus sprang up with renewed strength from the contact."
I read Hamilton's mythology books when I was young, and since the age of eight or nine, I've imagined that I share Antaeus's earth-sympathy. I love this planet: solid rock, soft land, safe soil. I'd rather lie on my stomach and gaze into the intricacies of the summer grass than climb in an elevator and gawk over rooftops. Likewise, I've never needed high speed to experience thrills. Roller coasters? Not for me. It's taken me years to become comfortable airborne in an airplane. When I learned to ride a bicycle, training wheels off, I fell and scraped my knees and elbows until I was scarred for life.
But not necessarily scared. I don't think my leisurely, grounded preferences are motivated by fear or faintness of heart, not exactly; rather, I think I gather thrills in slower ways -- through friendly competition, sensual pleasures, intellectual amusements, and imaginative pursuits -- because, like Antaeus, I am stronger and more balanced when the ground's beneath my steady feet. Maybe it's an inner-ear thing, I don't know. But I think if we were meant to have wings or hang upside down, we'd have evolved that way around.
The ladder was easily the worst part of the experience. Well, either the ladder or the way the harness squeezes your bladder. Or perhaps the worst part is the fact that eventually Kevin Six changes into loud, striped circus tights -- unless, of course, you like to see men in stretched, striped circus tights. Anyway...
The ladder leading up to the platform was 22 rungs of pliable, vibrating aluminum, and by halfway up, all I could think was, "I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this." But then the reassuring voice of a 15-year-old kid, Jacob Ayers, brought my attention to the matter at hand. "Grab here," he said. "Hold on here. Okay, now step this way. Reach your arm around here." And then Jacob's stepmom Lindsay grabbed my harness. "We've got you," she said.
I've always marveled how perspective shortens at altitude. Which is the opposite of what should happen: you should be able to see more, being higher up. But instead, the brain redirects the luxury of stereoscopic peripheral vision into some kind of survival mode of sight. When I'm perched atop a narrow high precipice, all I can see are my own two hands and feet and where I might immediately put them to keep the unperceived abyss from swallowing me whole.
I did try hard to afford myself one look around -- in the name of journalism! -- and I was instantaneously reassured. Something about the net. It wasn't just the intellectual conception that the net would save me if I fell. Nor the fact that I was now linked to safety wires and could probably leap off in any direction without the least fear of injury. It was some instinctual sense that the ground may be way down there, but a partition between the ground and me would hold me up, no matter what. By the time Jacob pulled the bar toward me with the noodle and told me to grab it, I was, like, "Yeah. Bring it on!"
The bar is solid, metallic, rather heavy. You've chalked your hands so they'll slide more easily as you sway. (Every novice earns blisters after just a few swings.) And when you take that leap, and gravity pulls you down in what's known as an "arc of constant radius," you're instantly converted. It isn't the back-and-forth swing between points that you'd think -- no/yes, north/south, on/off -- not some pendulous play of troubling opposites. Instead, on the bar, the world transforms to utter affirmation. Yes, yes, yes, you think. (Or is that your heart beating?) Yes, yes, yes, it beats. Yes, yes, yes, and nothing else.
Nothing else, because something happens to your brain when you're swinging, something with your brain's "continuity manager." It's like a movie when the director switches to 12-frame quick cuts: the book, the window, the man's hand, the cigarette smoke, the door, and so on. The only actions that your brain registers at altitude are implied actions.
Which makes it doubly difficult to follow directions. You get caught up in the snapshot reality and your own interior monologue -- which might sound something like, "Yes, yes, yes" or it might be, "Oh my God. Don't die. Don't die. Don't die" -- and the shouted commands of the instructors expire at your ears. Your brain is processing enough already.
But they're calling out for all they're worth.
Hep! is the power syllable. It means, "Now do what I want you to do." It's used because it doesn't sound like anything else. Hep! is what you hear when you're expected to let go, or flip, or take off, or put your legs up, and so on. "Ready! Hep!" is about the only thing acrobats say when they're busy being acrobats. That, and ready and listo!, which is Spanish for ready. Listo is said because ready is used at a different moment of readiness, as in, "We are listo!" (said on the board as the catcher is working up height on his swing), and then the catcher calls, "Ready." Otherwise, there'd be too many readys. David Ayers also explained to me that most fliers nowadays speak Spanish, because the majority of fliers in the world are Mexican. "The trapeze tradition in Mexico is very strong," he said.
So you've dived out and down, belly first, then swung back, dived again, and returned, swaying at the waist, balancing the air. You're a lever and a cantilever, swiveling, pivoting. Because it's swaying, really, not flying. Soothing swinging like a lullaby: baby in a cradle or grandma in a rocking chair. Hypnotic like a hammock, that primitive movement that quiets crying infants and balances the inner ear.
And then, at last, the net, your friend, will catch you. You can count on the net. And by the time you hit it and you're bouncing in its meshy arms, your wits are back about you, and you think, "Yes! Wow! Okay! I want to go again!"
Injuries in trapeze are more stress related than fall related. Soreness in shoulders, trauma to the hands and backs of the legs, aches in your abs and lats. Ayers put it this way: "You'll learn which muscles you use when you go home." And Six delivered one of the most telling lines of the day: "Circus hurts," he said.
The one thing all saltimbanques have in common, if not their body types and daredevil spirits, is toughened hands. The need for calluses was illustrated poignantly when Lee experienced the worst wound of the day: a bleeding slice on the pad of her palm. "I didn't even notice when it happened," she said. And it wasn't serious enough to hurt her much. After Van Voorhis had taped her up, Lee was eagerly back on the bar to fly again.
Everyone echoed Lee's sentiments of not noticing much when they were flying. "I forget to breathe," said one. "I don't think," said another. "I can't even remember being up there." And "I just keep repeating the commands to myself."
At one point, I asked Ayers how to spell one of the tricks I'd seen. "Oh, just make it up," he scoffed, half-jokingly, playing on an old stereotype. "We wouldn't know the difference. We circus folk can't spell worth a damn. We're all uneducated, don't you know. We live in trailers. We don't read, and we can barely watch TV."
Trapeze tricks go by names like knee hang, splits, bird's nest, plange, whip, and straddle whip, and then there are rotating tricks like layouts, multiple flips, multiple flips with twists, and tricks much like what you'd see in gymnastics, only higher off the ground.
Throughout these and other maneuvers, Ayers was calling commands and offering pointers from the ground. "Back sweep sooner next time!" "More full." "Go!" "Legs up now!" "Hands up!" And when Maslan did her flip, it sounded like this: "Set! Break! Open!" And then a gasp when she couldn't turn fast enough to recatch her own bar. And then a round of grounded applause for what she had managed to accomplish. "We caught you, but we couldn't return you," Six said, still inverted, swaying from his catcher's bar. "You've got to push off from me more."
Trapeze is about balance, of course, but not just balance in space. Timing is of the essence. It's about balance in time. The staff at Trapeze High knew when to make every move, when the catcher would swing flier-wards and the flier would swing catcher-wards, when gravity would be helping us instead of making us heavy. Somehow, the instructors at Trapeze High had the timing down.
Most everyone did a knee hang and then was caught by Six. "It's not real until you get caught," he told me. "You've got to learn a knee hang and then let go and let me catch you." Yeah, right. No thanks.
My friend Barbara Yates said, "It's scary but fun." And Six answered, "That's what women say when they date me."
After the hour-and-a-half class, Six went around and doled out the Flier Handshake, grabbing each person wrist-to-wrist, very much like the execution of an aerial catch.
I'd lived. And I already felt, I don't know, different. Like I'd accomplished something worthwhile. Like I'd gone through some unprecedented level of experience. I wondered how it would affect me in the days to come.
That night, I had trapeze dreams. And they weren't anxiety-ridden or scary. More like those old flying dreams of freedom I used to have as a kid.
I woke up refreshed, if a little sore in the shoulders, and I called up David Ayers.
"You see?" he began. "You enjoyed yourself, didn't you?"
I admitted I had, and Ayers chuckled.
"Trapeze is one of the most complete, full-body, full-mind workouts available to us," he told me. "And it's not aerobics, where it can be boring and repetitious. Trapeze can continually allow us to push the envelope and improve our skills and make our bodies stronger and use our wits to accomplish a goal."
Then, more soberly, Ayers told me that trapeze had changed his life in a big way. "For 35 years I suffered with these back pains that I couldn't do anything about," he said, "and I went to all these doctors, and I did everything short of surgery, but nothing really helped. I used to lie in bed in my 20s and I'd think, 'If this hurts this bad when I'm 25, then how will it be when I'm 50?' But when I started flying on the trapeze, after about six months, that pain disappeared. And now I stand up straight, and I carry on my day without pain."
At Trapeze High there's a club called Trapeze High Club, or THC, which is advertised, tongue in cheek, as "the best way to get high." Trapeze High also offers "Fly Till You Cry" days in the summers, when you can come down and party all day and share a barbecue with older and newer students, and you can fly as much as you like.
Explained Ayers, "It's a rush, not unlike the rush you might get with some other substances, only this one is good for you in every regard. It puts you, as an individual, into a place with other individuals who are not abusing their bodies. They're people who're taking care of their bodies; they're people for whom exercise and nutrition are important. And the better you take care of your body, the more quickly you're going to succeed in this sport."
Ayers told me that one of his students had just joined the circus. She was going off to Reno to fly with Circus Circus for four months.
"No matter how good you get at trapeze," he said, "and no matter how refined your skills become, there's always more that you can accomplish. Even this one guy who could catch the quadruple somersault -- and there are very few people who can catch the quadruple somersault -- but this guy used to catch thousands of them, and now he's older and he doesn't throw those quads anymore, but he's up there swinging and having a blast. That's why trapeze artists, for whatever reason, when they've gotten older and they can't throw big tricks anymore, they'll still get up there and just swing. Just take a swing and drop into the net. That freedom of being able to swing and drop into the net is worth everything you go through."
In the days following my "flying experience," even a week later, something had stayed with me, something tangible beyond the absurd elements, something real beside the weird dream. So I was swinging in the air, and then I was upside down, and a man in striped pants caught me, and then I was bouncing in a net... Yeah, right. But I'd also caught this itch, a strong wish, an almost overwhelming desire to go up and fly again. It occurred to me that there wasn't very much about trapeze that made ordinary sense, but I felt fortunate to have a senseless, exhilarating, nondestructive activity added to my life.
And a week or so later -- believe it or not -- I did go up again.
This time, I took another friend of mine, Andrew Burt. He used to be a gymnast. We wanted to take a couple of cute girls with us, but unfortunately that part fell through. We went anyway, though, and had a grand old time. Burt got caught on his fourth flight, and I learned a new trick or two.
I may not ever become an artist of the flying kind, but I'll be damned if I'm not starting to envision a future for the trapeze and me. Call me a casual swinger. For one thing, trapeze could be a real ace in the hole as a dating device. Instead of approaching a potential paramour with this icebreaker: "Do you want to meet me for coffee or something?" -- I could come out with "So. You want to come swing with me on a trapeze?"
And no, in this case, that wouldn't be a metaphor. (Although it could be.)