As I was planning an upcoming challenge with a future MANtor, he asked if I merely wanted to attempt the task at hand or we should make a weekend out of it. We decided on the weekend package – it always helps to have more of an experience to mine from when I began writing.
This led me to thinking about what exactly I hope to glean from these challenges. I’m usually hoping to learn more about myself than just the basics of the week’s manly lesson. I’m not just drinking scotch or firing a gun; I’m forming an appreciation for finer things and learning to take on a major responsibility.
When Q found an online deal for a Stuntman High Falls course in Brooklyn, I was hesitant to try it, but not for the obvious reason. I don’t have a fear of heights. I don’t even have a fear of falling, though I don’t exactly enjoy standing near the edge of roofs or cliffs (does anybody?). I even had a chance to perform a stunt fall from about ten feet high while acting in college. Without a visceral fear to overcome, I was worried that there would be nothing to learn from completing this challenge. And if I didn’t learn anything, what would I write about? But I pressed on, because, hey, these posts aren’t going to write themselves.
I walk out of the subway, half asleep, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and head to the warehouse near the water. It’s early morning on Saturday, so it’s pretty deserted along the sidewalks except for a few intense joggers. When I reach the water, I discover a row of warehouses and follow the signs to my class. The warehouse that contains Hollywood Stunts NYC (to the right of the one pictured) is about four or five stories tall, and the pictures on the signs lead me to believe they use every inch of that height for their stunts. I can’t say I’m nervous as I walk through the double doors to the studio that shout “ENTER HERE!”, but I’m suddenly wide awake.
Immediately upon entering, the scaffolding commands my attention, as a single bright light behind it forms shadows that splay out against the sheet metal walls, stretching towards me like a monster in a horror movie. Sure enough, it extends to the very ceiling of the warehouse, preventing even someone as petite as me to stand up straight on the top level. I meet the owner of the facility who gives me a brief hello before directing me to the waivers.
I scan the fine print (“Death…injury…paralysis”), sign where I’m supposed to sign, and hand them back to the owner. He directs me to a row of lockers where I discard my bag and discover my eight other classmates, four couples that seem to be good friends with each other. I anxiously check my cell phone and examine my locker repeatedly to delay introducing myself, while my classmates predict from how high we’ll fall and tease each other for being nervous. I find it funny that I’m more nervous about meeting new people than starting the class.
Our instructors for the day, Calvin and Leo, who also train as professional stuntmen in the studio, ask the group to form a semi-circle around some mats stacked about chest-high. Before we start practicing, they demonstrate the three rules of falling properly: always fall on your back, let all parts of your body hit the mat at the same time, and breathe out deeply upon impact. The type of fall we practice is called a suicide fall, or step-out fall. It’s kind of like a reverse belly flop.
Our group is full of fast learners, and it only takes a few tries to nail the technique, though we spend about a half hour fine tuning. I work on kicking my legs higher on lift-off, so I’m parallel to the mat before landing, aiming for that satisfying “SLAP!” that emits when my body parts hit simultaneously. After Calvin and Leo bestow each of us with a thumbs up, it’s time for the main attraction.
Our instructors turn on two huge air pumps connected to a giant air bag, which starts expanding rapidly as my group and I snap some photos. At full capacity, the air bag stands much higher than I thought it would – the distance between the platforms and our target now seems less daunting. However, the sheer immensity of the air bag makes me worry that my cockiness may have been ill-advised. How huge are the falls we’re about to do if the air bag has to take up nearly half of the warehouse space?
As Calvin heads up the platform to 20 feet, Leo shares some extra tips before we begin. We’ll be doing the same exact suicide falls we practiced earlier, but the real issue is getting off of the air bag after the fall. It’s a matter of some rolling, some scooting, and some sliding in order not to shoot yourself head first into the sheet metal wall. It reminds me of exiting the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s as a kid, so I feel adequately prepared.
I volunteer to jump second. As I climb up the ladder to the first platform, I’m actually most concerned that I will leap off this platform and feel nothing. I’m worried that I’ll jump a few times, the day will wrap up, and I’ll still be clueless as to why I took this class. Maybe it can be a metaphor for something, I wonder. Like falling into an air bag can be like leaping from the safety of adolescence and thudding into adulthood, carefully teetering and tottering to safely navigate it without flying into a wall. Then I think about actually writing that and cringe. Thankfully, all of that vanishes from my brain the second I step on the platform.
I see the first lucky volunteer standing on the edge, grinning widely and calling where he’ll land on the air bag like Babe Ruth. After Calvin and Leo give him the “All Clear!”, he yells “Falling!” and dives off the platform, feet jutting forward, and all is silent until a loud thwap as he hits the bag. He’s all smiles as he slides off the bag into Leo’s arms.
As I wait for my signal from the instructors, I’ve finally stopped thinking. I’m only focused on my target. I get the green light, yell “Falling!” and jump off the ledge just like I practiced. It’s only a brief half second before I smack into the bag, pressing into the fabric like a human cookie cutter. It’s a rush and it transports me to that “Again! Again!” feeling I had on the playground slide as a kid.
After a few tries at 20 feet, our group moves up to the 30-foot platform. I had told Calvin I had some practice with stage falls in college, and before my first jump from the high platform, he teases me: “So, this is nothing to you, right?”
“No, it’s something all right,” I insist.
It’s not crucial that I face a fear every week. I tend to expect so much out of these challenges that I neglect to savor the fun and novelty of what I’m doing. It’s a revelation to escape overthinking and compulsion and just do the damn thing. I don’t need to imbue every leap off the platform with meaning and insight. Sometimes you’re just jumping and falling and that’s the extent of it.
And on that first flight off the 30-foot platform, I’m not concerned about anything but landing and my mind is blank and my body is extending and I close my eyes and everything is good.
And my brain starts up again and I start brainstorming something funny to say to Leo as I slide off the mat, and what should I write in my notebook about this, and where is my cell phone (I hope it still has enough battery for a video) and I wonder if I should have a bagel or a wrap for lunch. Drat. It was nice while it lasted.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
2.67. There’s no epiphany this week other than realizing there doesn’t need to be one. I’m not sure if it’s a manly pursuit, but learning that it’s okay to let go and just be present in the moment is definitely a life skill, and I’m hoping to live in that feeling more often.