Man About Man On Wire

I write for Barkley, an independent creative agency big on inspiration. Our central stairwell is festooned with one-liners and a poetic dictum or six about what an idea is.

Hey, Don McKinney and Adam Elwell. Your posters are still here, even if you’re not.

We’ve had year-long “required to inspire” Reply All email threads. Our chief idea officer sends out a more-or-less weekly collection of “connect the dots” ruminations on culture, history, and design. And one of our many talented designers turned an agency-wide survey about everyone’s personal heroes into a Sgt. Pepper’s-esque photo collage on the top floor of Barkley, viz.:

Close-up of a bigger installation with hero-identifying AR technology, created by Anthony Schmiedeler.

At Beyoncé’s shoulder is my hero, Philippe Petit. It’s a fairly recent photo, showing his age (he’ll be 70 this year), nothing like the iconic images of him balancing on a wire between the World Trade Towers in the summer of 1974.

Those images are indelible to me. I had just graduated high school (I too am ancient) and was spending that summer lifeguarding before heading off to college. The news of Philippe’s astounding feat hit me with great force at the time. I thought about it as I sat there baking in the sun, twirling my whistle. If he could do that, was there anything a person couldn’t do?

What could I do? My friends thought I was a musical genius because I could figure out their favorite songs on the piano. I liked playing, but I knew the limitations of my talent. I was a hack.

Killing ’em loudly at the senior class banquet.

But what if I worked at it? If a guy could sneak into the World Trade Center, run a wire between the towers, and cross it back and forth eight times, couldn’t I be great at something?

It seemed possible. It felt as though anything could happen.

Anything Doesn’t Always Happen
I went off to study music and met some actual geniuses — not only more talented, but more committed, more certain of their path. Then I took a writing class where it seemed clear that I had something unusual, an edge, something the professor called out as exemplary to other students, a few of whom expressed admiration for things I wrote. I wondered: is this a college version of my high school crowd, luring me into delusional self-regard?

By now, I knew I wasn’t a genius of any kind. I was just better on the page than I was in real life. Writing was a way of knowing more than I really knew.

I dropped out of school. I worked in a steel foundry, where everything was super-hot, razor-sharp, heavy, loud, or moving fast. I traded that for a college registrar’s office, angling for free tuition to finish up my degree, once I figured out what to study. But before that could happen, I married a co-worker and almost instantly became a father.

When I tell people I was a dad at 22, the looks on their faces often suggest a question: “Were you just stupid, or is there another explanation?”

Stupid goes without saying: I was 22. Two years younger than Philippe Petit when he walked the wire. Stupid enough to believe I could balance fatherhood with my adolescent uncertainties, over an abyss of poverty.

In Which I Meet My Hero
My daughter was born — a DIY homebirth during an ice storm, midwife arriving hours late — and I won an award for a story I wrote about it. I won a poetry prize for crafted doubts about my marriage (it would end twelve years later). I got a B.A. in English. I got a job as a writer (it would end 30 years later). I wrote screenplays on the side and a couple of them got produced. I met movie stars. One of them became my sister-in-law.

In 1999, I told my sister-in-law that we should pack up our families and drive to Arizona to witness Philippe Petit’s planned walk across the Grand Canyon. She was in New York and learned that he lived there. She tracked him down. They became friends. And that’s how I met the greatest highwire artist of all time. His Grand Canyon walk didn’t work out, but he was the featured act at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.

Heroes often disappoint in person. Not Philippe. His eyes twinkled and pierced. He spoke of fascinating things in a winning accent. He strapped my nephew onto his back to walk a wire across the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he was Artist in Residence (a title he took literally, whispering to me at dinner, “I’m staying in a storage room upstairs, but they don’t know it”). This guy, who had made his living in Paris as a street entertainer and pickpocket and had come to America to conquer the twin towers, carried my nephew high overhead, accompanied by a Bach cello suite. I was blown away.

What Is Your High Wire?
I’ve done nothing of wire-walking magnitude in my life. A homebirth sans midwife comes close, but honestly, I just caught the baby as she came flying into the world. It’s parenting itself that’s more like an aerialist’s art — a balancing act with disaster hovering. Most of us stumble through it with no real sense of mastery. And our day jobs? They may have some of the tension of the high wire, but deep down, we know the drama is mostly internal.

Is there a way, though, to make each day’s work just a little more daring? I won’t suggest a “What Would Philippe Do?” ethos, because whatever your job is, be assured, he’d never do it. He’s as pure an artist as I’ve ever met, with a knife-blade steeliness: if you ever got between him and his next project, he wouldn’t hesitate to gut you.

Maybe daring just means a more difficult equilibrium. It’s always surprising when you see wire walkers at work, how big that balancing pole is.

Criminal makes good (illegally).

It takes length and heft to stabilize a body on a wire humming in the wind a thousand feet up between skyscrapers. What are you balancing? Work/family. Art/commerce. Your idea/The Brief. Your heart/head.

The systole/diastole of life. You step out. Another step. Keep stepping. Come back. Go again. It’s the same walk, but can you take it farther?

I’ve been walking past Barkley’s stairwell posters for three years or so, and had never noticed this one until today:

If you put no value judgment on that declaration, it goes two ways, back and forth across the wire of meaning. Some days, I’m fine being a baby. Some days, I don’t want to put anything on the line—just sit and take in the vista, go blank and let something come to me instead of going after it. Take a little step, play around, revert to crawling, speak gibberish, and maybe, as Rumi once wrote, “nurse the milk of millennia.”

Don’t feel so daring? Keep your steps the size you want ‘em, baby.

But every so often comes a chance, a new space to move into, a connection to make and follow. It may not be a life-and-death risk, but you can feel yourself on the verge of something that feels fresh and mysterious, yet absolute.

“I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it.”
-Philippe Petit

What’s more daunting than the unknown? The perilous, preposterous known.

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