Friday, August 15, 2014

Mom, I'm Running Away to Join the Circus

The first time I ever tried to do a zip line, I was in high school and acrophobia was not part of my vocabulary.  I'd been on the tops of mountains and ski lifts and tall buildings, crossed bridges, peered over cliffs, flown in planes, and none of it ever bothered me.  Until now, when I was securely seated on the T-bar with my legs over the edge of the platform, completely incapable of shoving myself off into the air.  I looked back over my shoulder and asked, 'Can someone please push me?'  Someone did and I zipped the line and it was fun!  But what the heck!

A few years later, I'm standing on the platform at Kawarau Bridge outside Queenstown.  My ankles are trussed together and I'm peering down at a frothy river over 100 feet below.  I'm a shade nervous, naturally, but then that darn zip line pops into my head and suddenly I'm terrified that someone is going to have to shove me off the platform because experience has proven that I won't be able to make the leap myself.  Of course then I get annoyed and even though it's shaky, my own muscles propel me into open air and I'm bungy jumping in New Zealand.

So I'm obviously not afraid of heights.  I'm not keen on falling from heights, which comes into play sometimes with things like obstacle courses, but that's not a show-stopper, nor is it an unusual fear.  This fear that I've convinced myself I have is specifically fear of flinging myself into space.  Is there a word for that?  There should be.  (Ready, go.)  It's okay when someone else is responsible for the flinging into space, which is why I have zero problems with skydiving.  But YIKES when I have to rely on my own muscles, my brain gets way too involved.

All of these things are zinging around in my head as I'm climbing the stairs to the top level of the trapeze platform, trying to make myself believe the coach's instructions.  Just follow my commands, he says.  Just bend your knees and jump forward, he says.  Point your toes and keep your body tight, he says.  It'll be easy, he says.

I foresee two issues.  #1: jumping off the platform.  Into thin air.  Never mind that I've got a safety belt attached to wires attached to a belayer on the ground, or that I will be holding on to a bar before I jump.  I consider that a moot point anyway, because of #2: I will lose my grip the second my full weight hits the nadir of the swing.  I've never had a lot of faith in my chicken arms.

I pat some chalk on my hands and watch the girl in front of me practice a trick where she does a 180 while hanging from the bar.  She makes it look easy.  I pat on some more chalk while the next girl attempts a trick, although I don't know what it was and she shakes her head when she lets go of the bar to drop down to the net, so she must have messed it up somehow.  Looked fancy enough to me.  More chalk.

The platform supervisor catches the bar with a hook on a pole and pulls it up to the platform so she can hold it with one hand.  She stands to one side and motions me up to the edge of the platform.  I cautiously ease my toes over the edge.  The platform supervisor gets a secure grip on my belt and pulls back as I lean forward until I can grab the bar.  It's a bit awkward as my hips are being pulled in the opposite direction from my torso, which is angling forward over empty space, but at least I feel anchored.  I bring my other hand to the bar and fidget for a minute to get the most secure grip possible.

The coach is standing on the ground near the belayer, and it seems like way more than twenty feet down.  When he says 'ready,' I'm supposed to bend my knees.  When he says 'hup,' the platform supervisor will let go of me and I'm supposed to jump.  It'll be easy, he says!


My knees bend.  I've got a solid grip on the bar, but I'm prepared for that to go to hell in about one second.


Moment of truth.

I look straight forward, through the frame made by the bar and the ropes on either end tying it to the top of the rig.  And I jump.

I'm flying through the air, but I'm doing it the way I was supposed to.  I'm still hanging onto the bar, and my body weighs nothing and I will not be falling off unless I actually let go!

With Issues #1 and #2 out of the way, I have to remember all the other things I'm supposed to do.  Toes pointed, legs straight, check.  Arms straight, check.  Keep body rigid, check.  Keep listening to the coach because, even though not falling off on my first jump was my entire agenda, his agenda is for me to tuck my legs into my chin and swing both legs over the bar so I can hang by my knees.  YEAH RIGHT!

Although I'm hanging on with pretty decent form, I'm a beat too slow at following the coach's directions, and I don't have enough momentum to get my knees tucked and legs over the bar.  I'm also still afraid of falling and when the coach says 'drop,' I completely ignore him.  The bar has almost come to a stop before I'm able to pry my fingers off and fall, stomach flipping, on my back onto the net.  I clamber over to the side, hook my hands through the rope grips, and do a somersault over the side of the net as directed.  I land on my feet, but my legs are shaky.  In fact, as soon as I let go, I realize my entire body is shaky.  But you could probably read a book in a cave 300 meters under the earth with the light of sheer joy that is shining through my mile-wide smile.

Take that, fear-of-flinging-self-into-space demon!  All I did was swing a couple times on a trapeze bar, but it was amazingly exhilarating!  The coach reminds me of the sequence of commands one more time, along with my corresponding actions, and off I go to climb back up to the top of the platform.

On my second attempt, I get my knees hooked over the bar.  For one beat, I'm curled in a ball with both hands holding on, both legs hooked over, and my nose resting on my knees.  Then the coach tells me to release my hands.  I instinctively tighten my leg muscles to absolutely make sure I do not find myself sailing off the bar, and I open my fingers.  Now I'm hanging upside down, arching my back as much as I can, looking forward and also reaching with my arms towards the invisible person who would be catching me, if this was actually the circus.  As I swing back, the coach tells me to grab the bar again.  Once my hands are secure, I unfold my legs until I'm once again hanging straight down.  He tells me to release and tuck my knees, which would result in a beautiful back flip dismount, but I'm a beat too late again and I just unbeautifully fall to the net.

On my third go, I am able to use my momentum to get my knees over the bar instead of relying on sheer muscle.  I'm also beginning to feel a little more comfortable, so I don't cling as desperately with my legs.  In the end, this is a good thing, because my frantic flexing into the unforgiving metal trapeze bar is going to leave a gorgeous medley of colors on the backs of my thighs and calves.  I'm also developing a little more faith in my coach, and when he tells me to let go, I let go.  I tuck my knees and wrap my hands around them.  I'm at the top of a swing when I do this, and physics once again takes over.  I do a full somersault in the air and land on my back on the safety net.  Probably not perfect form, but do I care?  I just did a SOMERSAULT DISMOUNT off a TRAPEZE BAR.

I'm at trapeze school for almost two hours.  I lose count of how many times I run back to the platform for another round.  Every time, I feel a little more comfortable, I respond to commands a little faster, and my form gets a little better.  I rip open the palms of both of my hands from the friction with the tape-covered trapeze bar, but I only take a short pause to wrap athletic tape around the oozing wounds so that I can get back on the ladder and squeeze in a few more swings before my time is up.

I'm not a trapeze natural, but I'm good enough by the end of the session to take it up a notch.  The coach changes into neon blue tights and climbs up to the swing on the opposite end from our platform.  This entire time, I've been practicing one half of a two-person stunt.  It's time to finish the equation.

The coach sits on his swing and pumps away until his swing is going parallel to the ground at the ends of the arc.  He wraps his ankles around the ropes and flips upside down, still swinging.  He waits for the perfect timing.  Hup!

I get my knees up, swing them over the bar, release my hands, hang upside down, and stretch my arms forward as far as possible.  I keep my fingers tightly squeezed together with my thumbs perpendicular to make an L shape.  These are catch hands.  We meet in the middle, at the high point of our swings, and his hands grab my wrists.  I'm still holding my hands in the L.  I release my knees and my bar arcs away without me and I'm hanging straight down, supported only by the coach's grip.  That solar flare smile is on my face again.  The coach tells me good job, but then asks what's up with my hands.  I look up at them.  Perfect L.  So?  He points out that I'm supposed to actually use my catch hands to hold on to his wrists, the same way he's got mine.  Doh.

I get one more shot.  Hup!  Knees up.  Hands off.  Reach forward.  Catch hands.  And release.  I remember to close my grip around the coach's wrists.  And then he lets go and I'm falling to the net.  Maybe not a perfect ten by professional standards, but a ten for my books!  I thank the coach, platform supervisor, belayer, and other students for a fantastic introduction to the art of the flying trapeze.  They clamor that I have to come back.

As two hours of adrenaline rush finally ebbs away, I realize exactly how tired my muscles are.  I've got oozing palms wrapped in layers of white tape and chalk handprints all over my legs.  I can feel that the bruising will be spectacular.  But my ear-to-ear smile of exhilaration will remain a fixture for the rest of the week.  After one last glance at the incredible and now empty trapeze rig, I shoulder my backpack and walk across the parking lot to my car while the coach's initial advice resurfaces in my mind.  As it turns out, he wasn't quite right.  Flying trapeze is not easy.  But it is a LOT of fun.

If you want to try trapeze (HIGHLY RECOMMEND, IT WAS SO MUCH FUN!  Also a wicked workout!) and you're in the general vicinity of Boston, you are in luck!  Jordan's Furniture in Reading is also home to a location of the Trapeze School New York (although they are moving at the end of August).  They frequently offer deals on Groupon, Living Social, Amazon Local, and similar sites so you can get your initial experience at a significantly discounted rate.  Then, just keep going back for more!  Also, there will be a photographer on-site and you can buy one or an entire thumb drive of photos from your session.  Trust me, the facial expressions you'll make when you're doing your first back flip will be worth it.

If you want to try trapeze and you're not in the general vicinity of Boston, do some research because there are a surprising number of schools and programs out there!

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