Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Up on the Wire

I may be one of the last people on the planet to have found out about this, but  friend of mine sent me this video yesterday morning. Later in the day, as I was browsing through the New York Times online, I noticed this op ed piece about the cyclist, Danny MacAskill, and the impact that the video, which according to the article is "the Top Favorited sports video in YouTube History," on McAskill's life.

What interested me about the video is not so much what it shows, mind-boggling as that may be, but what it implies about what isn't shown: the the 10,000+ hours of practice, the falls, the miscues, the injuries, the pain. I've never quite grokked the skateboarding ethos: kids on the street spending hours and hours obsessively practicing a set of skills that have no practical value and often constitute an considerable annoyance to those within earshot. For what, exactly? But out of every thousand kids who waste amazing amounts of time on something they'll never be much good at, and at the expense of learning something else that might actually serve a purpose, for them or somebody else, there are always perhaps one or two guys like MacAskill who manage to raise their skill level in whatever idiosyncratic discipline they are engaged in to the point where it's somehow transcendent, inspirational, even somehow spiritual. The Zen of Bicycling.

I've spent a lot of the last few days deeply engrossed in Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I think it's a terrific book, broad and deep and profound in many ways, and I'll probably have more to say about it in days to come. But the reason I'm bringing it up now is that its inspiration, the founding event that gives rise to the entire imagined world of the novel and that intersects the lives of each of its characters, is the story of Philippe Petit, who had his fifteen minutes of fame in 1974 when he snuck in to the World Trade Center Towers, stretched a tightrope between them, and spent 45 minutes on the wire in full view of thousands of people. Colum McAnn uses that act of imaginative daring as a kind of symbolic reference point both for his characters and, inevitably, for himself inthe writing of the novel, a high-wire act of a different kind. One of the risks the McAnn takes is in the range and depth of his characterizations. Major characters include an Irish Catholic Missionary, a New York socialite grieving the loss of her son in the Vietnam War,  a prostitute, a trial judge, and the funambulist himself. McCann often writes extended passages that get deep inside the minds of each of these characters. Here, for example, we are in the mind of the tightrope walker as he steps out onto the wire:

On the night of the walk it took them ten hours to string the furtive cable. He was exhausted. He hadn't brought enough water. He thought perhaps he mightn't even be able to walk, so dehydrated that his body would crack on movement. But the simple sight of the cable tightened between the towers thrilled him. The call came across the intercom from the far tower. They were ready. He felt a bolt of pure energy move through him: he was new again. The silence seemed made for him to sway about in. The morning light climbed over the dockyards, the river, the gray waterfront, over the low squalor of the East Side, where it spread and diffused—doorway, awning, cornice piece, window ledge, brickwork, railing, roofline—until it took a mighty leap and hit the hard space of downtown. He whispered on the intercom and waved to the waiting figure on the south tower. Time to go.

One foot on the wire—his better foot, the balancing foot. First he slid his toes, then his sole, then his heel. The cable nested between his big and second toes for grip. His slippers were thin, the soles made of buffalo hide. He paused there a moment, pulled the line tighter by the strength of his eyes. He played out the aluminum pole along his hands. The coolness rolled across his palm. The pole was fifty-five pounds, half the weight of a woman. She moved on his skin like water. He had wrapped rubber tubing around its center to keep it from slipping. With a curve of his left fingers he he was able to tighten his right-hand calf muscle. The little finger played out the shape of his shoulder. It was the  thumb that held the bar in place. He tilted upward right and the body came slightly left. The roll in the hand was so tiny no naked eye could see it. His mind shifted space to receive his old practiced self. No tiredness in his body anymore. He held the bar in muscular memory and in one flow went forward.

Wow. I could write for the rest of the day about all of the stuff that's going on there. But I guess the thing that I like the most is the pacing, the patience, the precision, the focus of the description. McAnn's careful focus and balance precisely mirrors that of the man he is describing. He's in the zone, and he's bringing us into it as well.

What the tightrope walker is doing, what MacAskill is doing, what McCann is doing: they are operating at a very high level of technical expertise with a terrific concentration and focus. I like that. I respect that. It makes me feel good to be a part of it, even as a spectator.

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