At the Chautauqua School of Art where I studied this past summer, the studios are situated in a horseshoe-shaped block that opens onto a grassy quad. In the quad are picnic tables and a big shade tree, and art students often congregate here while not at work in their studios. There’s a covered walkway that goes around the front of the studios, with lateral beams spanning a row of white wooden columns. It is on one of these beams that I managed to experience one of the most embarrassing moments in my life.
The beams hang about nine feet above the ground, and early on last summer I discovered that with a full leap I could touch the top of the beam with both hands, and with a serious commitment I could jump up and grab on. I found the process both frightening and rewarding, as I’m terribly afraid of heights, but once up on the beam I could do a few pull-ups and gently drop back to earth, which made me feel very strong and manly.
I made a point to attempt this maneuver a few times each day—usually right before meals. I felt that I was slowly conquering my fears with each leap, steadily making myself into a better person and a stronger man. Each time I would make a couple of practice jumps, then steel myself for the big leap. Each time I had to overcome my fear and commit fully to the jump, I had to visualize my fingers securely over the edge of the beam, and then throw myself up there with all my might. Sometimes, after a couple of practice jumps, I’d chicken out and head for food, but I usually got up there at least once a day.
One afternoon, in a lull between classes and meals, I approached my beam and prepared to jump. I was vaguely aware of the group of students chilling on the picnic tables in the quad behind me, but it was early on in the summer, I’d only recently discovered my ability to reach the beam, and I thought that the more I did it, the easier and less scary it would be. I made a couple of practice leaps, measured my paces to the jumping-off point, and rubbed my hands together like a gymnast preparing for a rings routine. Two steps forward, I gathered myself on two feet and exploded for the beam. I reached it, but just barely, and made a half-hearted attempt to hang on with my finger-tips, allowing my legs to swing forward beneath the beam. Realizing that my grip was failing, I let go quickly and came crashing back to earth, my heels catching the ground, my hands flailing behind me and my body skidding backwards into a stupid little wooden table. I stayed down on my butt for a moment, feeling that I’d hurt my shoulder and tweaked my back, but fortunately noting nothing broken. Then I thought of the group of students sitting not twenty yards away on the picnic tables.
There was silence. I slowly got up, but didn’t have the guts to turn and face my audience. I awkwardly shuffled into my studio, feeling the numerous sets of eyes focused on my back, and searched for some task to occupy me in safety for a few minutes. But I knew that everybody had seen it, and I knew just how it must have looked: Here’s Gabe showing off that he can do pull-ups on the beams again. Here he’s doing his little pre-jump routine, and OOHH down he goes!
It was a tough pill to swallow. I wished I’d had the balls to turn and bow to my audience, but instead I did my best the rest of the summer to practice my gymnastics when nobody was looking. For the record, I got back on the beam the next day, and I never fell again.