Betsy Shebang - Column for 8/14


I kept thinking about somebody falling four thousand feet straight down, leaving a lunch half-finished at the top of the cliff, the remaining friends helpless to do anything but hike the exhausting hours back down to the valley floor and report the tragedy to the scrape-off-the-rocks squad. I'd been to the top of Half Dome a few years before, and visiting Glacier Point at Yosemite last week I still couldn't get the image out of my mind. People visiting a great plunge naturally dangle their legs off the edge of the cliff with a calculated casualness - the kind of pathological indifference faked up to create a story for the grandkids, or just to cradle the ego with an adventure that scares away the limitations of everyday life for the duration of a tuna sandwich and a bottle of water. I did it too. I enjoy the sublime expanse of space into the infinite distance; I enjoy the bikini-clad women sunbathing on the edge of the cliff; I enjoy the novelty of a truly dangerous tourist attraction.

Every ten minutes, like clockwork, some idiot feels compelled to do the fake-push-friend-over-the-edge move, followed with a weird smile and a laugh that draws an uncomfortable connection between humor and murderous control. "I might have killed you", it says, "but I didn't. Isn't it funny how we all have to trust each other?" Funny, funny, funny. I still find myself unconsciously leaning far back and to the right when I think about it.

Closer to the valley floor, the adults climbed over the "NO DIVING FROM BRIDGE" sign to dive from the Swinging Bridge into the shallow, rock-filled creek, then encouraging their as-yet-uncrippled 5-year-old kids to follow them in doing so.

People are very, very stupid.

I came home from my weekend in Yosemite all pissed off and ready to write an article about the stupid things people do. On the way home, stopped to see a friend in Santa Cruz and spied the cozy fortress her housemate had built in the backyard tree, maybe fifty feet in the air. The thick trunk produced no branches over the bottom thirty-five feet of its growth; only a weathered rope ladder and short telephone-pole spikes drilled into the wood offered a human path toward the structure high above the ground. I praised the work to its builder - smart, irreverent artist/web designer, father of two kids - and was told "You oughta go up"; and suddenly I was alone in the backyard, loading my lunch into my backpack and pulling myself up one spike at a time, carefully testing every hand grip and foothold before releasing the last one for one more reach upward. Some part of my life was waiting up there for me; seeing it would be like breathing anew. One sweaty palm, one decayed branch snapping off under my weight, and I'd tumble forty feet backwards and impale my spine on some piece of lawn furtniture.

I decided I was glad the builder of the treehouse had built the treehouse, and I was also glad he wasn't my dad. Somehow it bothered me that he was anyone's dad.

All my life I'd wondered: why do we like reading about adventurous lives, when we go so far out of our way to live safe ones? I might even say I want an adventurous life; yet, to my reliable detrement, I choose the safe path. I'll never step off the cliff while I'm walking on the treadmill.

There are those whose worlds are truly dangerous, of course, and who seem to pursue risk with a hunger. And for every one of them, I can name ten people who won't dare to mail out a resume for fear they'll be offered a better job and more money. "I hate my job, but I won't take a day off for fear I'll lose it." Hating my own stagnation becomes a way of holding it in a place of high reverence; the scariest thing of all is for things to be any different than they are right now. Political campaigns promise change, but people vote for the candidate who's gonna end the suspense.

It gets much worse when we actually know that we want nothing to change. The word "safety" has come to mean "guaranteed safety", so that personal responsibility plays virtually no role at all. Our clouds of illusion are growing thicker all the time: doctors know everything, education always makes you better, safety can be guaranteed by passive lawsuits and warning labels; you're entitled to live to age one hundred, no matter what. And God forbid we bring children into the picture: shut down the playgrounds! Soften the hardballs! Hire a crossing guard to follow the kid all the way to grad school with a handheld stop sign!

So, maybe insanity is expecting nothing to change when cliff edges become footpaths and high bridges become diving boards for preschoolers. Maybe insanity is wanting nothing to change when life can progress in no other way. Or maybe the only real insanity is trying to tell other people what to do.

Ugh. Waiter? Some reality, please. Just a few bites. Don't wrap it up: I'll just eat it here, on the edge of the cliff. Thanks. And here's your tip - whoops. Sorry about that.

Copyright 2001 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang