This lark is for the birds

Mis­ad­ven­ture What’s with this strange cul­tural fas­ci­na­tion with heights?

The Times (South Africa) - - Ideas -

● I think the worst thing about get­ting old must be fight­ing off the peo­ple ex­pect­ing you to go sky­div­ing.

I was speak­ing this week to a para­chute in­struc­tor, one of these chaps who gives you a run-through of the pro­ce­dure for form’s sake, then takes you up in a plane, straps you to his back and jumps out with you flail­ing around back there like some kind of jump-suited ter­rapin. Please un­der­stand: I was not con­sult­ing him on a pro­fes­sional ba­sis. I see no point to a great height. Heights, snakes, loud mu­sic in restau­rants and mar­ket­ing peo­ple who feel pas­sion­ately about the brands they rep­re­sent all cause my body to re­act in un­pleas­ant ways — ac­cel­er­ated heart rate, sweaty feet, a deep con­vic­tion that I will kill ev­ery­one in the room if it’s the only way for me to es­cape — and since I am one of those peo­ple who don’t find life so monotonously pleasant and cloud­lessly sunny that I need to ac­tively seek out ways of mak­ing it less so, I avoid them with ev­ery­thing I have.

But heights in par­tic­u­lar have a strange cul­tural cur­rency. A mag­a­zine once sent me to the Vic­to­ria Falls to bungee jump off the bridge across the Ba­toka gorge.

“I don’t bungee jump,” I told the ed­i­tor. “That’s why it’s a good story,” she said. “I’ll go,” I said, “but I won’t bungee jump.” “Just go bungee jump al­ready.”

I went and spent a very nice week in the Vic­to­ria Falls Ho­tel. I could see the bridge from the lawn of the ho­tel and I watched other peo­ple bungee jump, but I am a man of my word and I did not bungee jump my­self.

“If you don’t bungee jump,” said my ed­i­tor over the phone, “you are pay­ing for that trip.”

That had the ef­fect of con­cen­trat­ing my mind a lit­tle. One of the other things that causes an ad­verse phys­i­cal re­ac­tion in me is pay­ing for things. I walked back out, half­way across the bridge. The bungee fel­low held out the har­ness invit­ingly. I peered over the edge. The bridge is 3 500m high. I turned around and walked back off the bridge again.

For my 40th birth­day my wife and a sup­posed friend of mine bought me a paraglid­ing flight off Sig­nal Hill. This was puz­zling to me. Had I ever ex­pressed an en­thu­si­asm to go paraglid­ing off Sig­nal Hill? I had not. Then what the hell, guys?

“We thought it would be an ad­ven­ture,” they said. Now, I’m all for an ad­ven­ture. Ad­ven­tures en­rich your life, they widen the hori­zons of your world and sharpen your senses with nov­elty and new­ness and

“My dear, I want a cup of tea. And could we hurry? I’m just at an ex­cit­ing place in my book”

some­times the chal­lenge of do­ing some­thing you didn’t know you could do. But I al­ready know I can be strapped to some­one’s back and taken out into a scary world — I learnt how to do that quite soon af­ter I was born.

I find this mod­ern trend of cel­e­brat­ing oc­to­ge­nar­i­ans who para­chute on their birth­days sim­ply puz­zling. How is sky­div­ing a cel­e­bra­tion of life? Be­ing alive isn’t about the adren­a­line of per­ceived im­mi­nent death, it’s about fig­ur­ing out ways of liv­ing bet­ter, be­ing hap­pier. If you need to con­vince your body it’s about to die to feel alive, then maybe you need to spend more time work­ing on be­ing alive.

This is why my hero of the week is the old lady that my para­chute-in­struc­tor pal took up on her 80th birth­day last week. Her fam­ily had booked a group ex­cur­sion. She, her daugh­ter and son-in-law and their kids would all jump to­gether. One of the kids and the son-in-law were a bit ner­vous, but the old girl was per­fectly fo­cused and calm. She kit­ted up with no fuss and sat read­ing a pa­per­back while the oth­ers ner­vously psyched them­selves up. Ev­ery­one mar­velled at her. She pro­posed an egress from the plane in or­der of age: youngest to old­est.

“Good idea!” said her daugh­ter, “then we can film you as you come out.”

They went up in the plane and she calmly watched them jump one af­ter the other, like a rustling fam­ily of ducks de­scend­ing from a rooftop. Then she leant for­ward and said to the in­struc­tor: “All, right, they’re gone, you can take us back down.”

“You don’t want to jump?” he asked. “My dear,” she said with some as­per­ity, “I want a cup of tea. And could we hurry? I’m just at an ex­cit­ing place in my book.”

Pic­ture: Pascal Par­rot/Sygma/Getty Im­ages

DON’T FALL FOR IT Do you re­ally need to con­vince your body it’s about to die in or­der to feel alive?

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