In the summer of 1993, I rode something called the SkyCoaster at the New York State Fair. You put on a safety harness and a crane lifts you — just you — 100 feet in the air. In this case, it was over blacktop. They count down (“Three, two, one, FLY!”) and you can’t hear them at all so somebody actually waves a hand at you from below, and you pull a ripcord and you freefall for 70 feet. At 30 feet, the momentum shifts and you swing like a pendulum straight forward, skimming within 5 feet of the ground and narrowly clearing a fence behind which viewers and future riders stand. As I wrote in my high school newspaper column, you’re scared spitless — and I know, because the temptation to spit on the crowd was pretty strong, but I couldn’t.
Here’s the thing — when the miniscule, ant-sized guy waved his hand at me from straight below and I had to pull the ripcord, all I was trying to do was get a grip on the ripcord. I assumed that something that was keeping me suspended that high in the air would take a little bit of effort to pull. But no — I put about as much pressure on that thing as you’d put on tightening a shoelace a little bit — and I was sailing straight down towards blacktop death before a carefully engineered application of physics swooped in and saved me.
In the summer of 1998, I bungee fell. I can’t say that I bungee jumped, because I couldn’t do it. It was at a county fair, a matter of a couple weeks after Ann and I got married. You jumped from a crane over a giant air mat (and, incidentally, I’ve always wanted to land on one of those giant air mats). Some wise guy had used duct tape to make a “chalk outline” on top of the air mat. I respected the gallows humor.
I intended to jump. I fully meant to jump. I tried to jump. My survival instinct kicked in, and my lead leg turned into jelly. It was seriously shaking like Elvis. The guy at the top tried to coach me by telling me to take my right hand off the bars; I did. He told me to take my left hand off the bars. I did. Cool. Ready. He told me to take my right hand off the bars. I honest to God had no idea that I had gripped the bars again. I took my right hand off the bars again; he told me to take my left hand off the bars. Every time I moved one, the other one moved seemingly of its own accord to get me safety again. Finally, I told the guy he would have to push me. He skillfully surprised me on the timing, and I fell. By that time, teenaged boys below were booing and calling me a wimp (and worse). Whatever, I thought — none of them were even in line.
But what all that means… is that I’ve never intentionally thrown myself into physical risk.
And sometimes I think I’ve never really thrown myself into improv risk either.
Now, I’ll be fair to myself — I absolutely do take risks. But I take calculated risks, with an unintentional intent (I know that’s an oxymoron, but I think you know what I mean) to avoid embarrassment.
That’s a terrible way to do this.
And I’m now giving myself some deadlines. I’m going to teach a workshop in a few weeks that I really wish somebody had run for me several years ago.
In short: I’m fine with failing — except when it’s “too close to home” for things I’m really embarrassed about in real life.
Well, enough of that. The best performers I’ve ever seen play fearlessly.
Time to jump.