Defying Gravity and Discovering Balance

The most confident man I know spends his time jumping off platforms into space.

His is a quiet confidence, not assertive or overbearing, but steady and reassuring. At a party you might not notice him-- the trim guy watching from the sidelines. On the flying trapeze, you can't take your eyes off him. Even standing still, holding the safety lines below the net, his compact and muscled form is latent with strength and agility; he is power paused, like a lounging jaguar.

The flyer occupies the rig at trapeze school in New York. I was lured to the net after seeing a Cirque de Soleil show, which led me to a chain of Internet links and the possibility that I too could fly through the air. Since I was a kid I've dreamt of flying and here was the chance.

I was also enticed by the opportunity to try a new sport, one that requires not just the endurance of my beloved bicycling but also timing and precision. I wasn't sure I could pull it off. But the challenge is part of the attraction, and I can't resist the (self-imposed) dare.

Walking over through Times Square, I am barraged by its sensory assault. The smell of exhaust fumes mixes with hot pretzels, pedestrians bump and jostle in their haste, traffic whizzes by and the rushing sounds and vibrations of the 7th Avenue Subway emanate from beneath the grating underfoot.

Crossing where Broadway intersects the avenue, the light changes and I'm stuck for the duration on a traffic island, engulfed in the middle of Times Square. I look up, ant-like, transfixed by the larger-than-life displays heralding our greater culture.

From every looming building digital images flash and swirl: advertisements for Japanese electronics, four-story high faces of celebrities, blinking pharmaceutical promotions. Running digital text like ticker tape streams instant news clips: car bombings in Damascus, congressional hearings on security leaks, the latest influenza epidemic, spikes in the stock market. The light changes and I hurry on, the images flashing behind my eyelids in persistent vision, insistent reminders of the weighty world, of forces beyond my control.

The trapeze school sits on an elevated pier on the west side of Manhattan, the frenetic city rising on one side, the mighty Hudson tossing on the other. A long rectangular net swags like a hammock below two bar swings. At one end is a narrow ladder leading up 25 feet to the jumping off platform. The setting is calm and serene, perched beneath the open sky, the bustling world below.

The mentor of this world is the head flyer. At rest, his form is worthy of classical sculpture. In motion, he is grace personified. While birds require wings for flying, the trapeze artist defies gravity from a simple swing.

Gripping the suspended bar, he vaults off the platform and flies into the air, pumping higher with each sweep. He soars above the platform, changes direction with a deft about-face, releases his grip to hurtle through open space, twisting and turning until his arms reach out to link hands with the catcher and sail to the far end of the rig. On his return he spins off and swirls through space like a spiral galaxy to bounce gracefully into the net. Down below, observers breath deeply and applaud.

I'm nervous as I climb the ladder. I'm fearful standing on the platform. I'm filled with dread just before I jump. But as soon as my body feels the rhythm of the swing, when I'm soaring high above the net, what fills me then is a thrilling sense of freedom and control. As soon as I come down I want to go up again.

One of the most impressive tricks is the "Suicide," a culmination of the flyer's bravado in defeating gravity. Precision is key; timing is critical; survival hangs in the balance. The flyer swings to a great height and then plummets straight down, headfirst. This is most effective at night when the lights cut out just before he tucks his head and rolls into the net. He has mastered movement in this weightless world.

Out on the street the cacophony of our urban culture carries on. Horns blare and speeding traffic bounces through the potholes, the homeless stand hunched, their hands held out in supplication, street vendors hawk their wares, everything from faux Rolexes to weight-loss brochures to flyers announcing lectures with mystics on meditation and the secrets of Nirvana.

But on my return trip across town I'm still floating, encased in my own enlightenment. As a rookie, for a few brief moments I've defied gravity and sailed unencumbered. And in the practiced flyer, I have witnessed transcendence.