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.