Opinion

What's with this strange cultural fascination with heights?

15 September 2017 - 05:58
DON'T FALL FOR IT Do you really need to convince your body it's about to die in order to feel alive?  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? Picture: Pascal Parrot/Sygma/Getty Images

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 3500m 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 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."

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