Digging through some old boxes in my parents' house recently, I found a pile of old report cards; my childhood reduced to letter grades, brief comments and attendance records.
One still has me pegged. It was written in the spring of 1968when I was 5. "Your son is becoming more coordinated," Miss Heinz wrote, her handwriting now fading into the light green paper. "But he still climbs cautiously."
A gently worded, but still cutting remark: Your son is gutless. Mpeers were hanging by their ankles from the top of the jungle gym, and I wasn't. It was obviously a problem. We're doing all we can, you have to realize the problem starts at home.
I beg to differ. Twenty-three years have gone by, and I still climcautiously. You see, I've met a lot of people who climb recklessly. They're exciting people. So exciting they tend to spend a lot of time in hospitals. Accidents happen, right?
Perhaps. But they happen much more frequently to careless people! And I don't like falling down. Call me a coward, but there's something about losing my balance, hurtling through space and crashing against hard earth that seems entirely negative. So I take the time and effort to remain securely perpendicular to the Earth. In all situations, physical, emotional or otherwise, I make sure to climb cautiously.
One trick to staying upright in a world that moves erratically is to avoid unknown or dangerous situations. Follow the Rules of Caution. Don't rush headlong in any new direction, particularly if it means gaining altitude. Take your time. Smell it before you eat it (that's why God gave you a nose, dummy), then proceed carefully. Master a wait-and-see attitude.
I try to live by these rules. Although that's not to say I don't, ooccasion, tumble ashcan over teakettle.
Only two or three years after I left Miss Heinz's class I attended summer day camp that had an old-fashioned rope swing hanging from a high branch of a towering oak. The tree had sprouted from the bottom of a steep hill, and its branches reached back for the hillside. So if you brought the end of the rope to the top of the hill, took a good running start and held on tight, the arc of your swing would sweep up just as the slope fell away, sending you high above the shadows on the ground.
It was a dangerous and thus highly popular attraction, so kidwere always lined up, waiting to take their turn swinging in the branches. It was easy to hang onto the knot at the bottom of the rope, so I had gradually decided it was within my boundaries of caution. One afternoon a big kid sidled up to me as I waited my turn, and pointed to the rope ladder hanging from a treehouse built on the same branch as the swing. "The really cool thing to do," he whispered to me, "is to swing close to the tree, let go of the rope in midair and grab the ladder. It's like swinging into the treehouse. You ought to do it." Now the treehouse, with its precipitous rope ladder, was meant for older campers and was )) way beyond my reach. But I was flattered by his faith in my ability, and his whispered promises of neat comic books in the treehouse were just too enticing. When it was my turn, I grasped the rope and took a few steps back for a running start. Moving forward, I pointed myself toward the tree trunk and soared out into the air. Passing the ladder, I let go of the swing and reached with both hands, but continued flying into empty air. At the peak of my free flight, I somehow turned around to face the top of the hill. A girl was watching me, her hands fluttering to her mouth in disbelief. The big kid had disappeared. I started falling.
Later, when I regained consciousness, a counselor was carrying me, fireman-style, to the main office. They put a bag of ice on my head and called my mother. "You ought to be more careful," Mom said, driving me home. I didn't mention that I had let go of the rope on purpose.
Flattery and wishful thinking can cloud even the most cautious eyes. Fifteen years later, when I was old enough to drink in every state of the union and a college graduate besides, the rope-swing trick caught me again.
The first letter came out of the blue one wet November afternoon, bearing a return address from an art school in France. "Maybe you don't remember me," she wrote. "My name is Amy, and I have long red hair and blue eyes." But of course I remembered her. We sat together in economics class almost three years earlier. She was a painter, a fact that the undergraduate in me appreciated very much. Gradually we became friends, sharing notes, an occasional lunch and even a few dances at a party in the basement of my dormitory. The light was beginning to glow between us, but we ran out of time: The school year ended, I transferred to a school in another state, and she got relegated to the great list of romantic might-have-beens.
Until the letter. It was a sweet note full of memories anflirtations for return mail. I wrote back, of course, and by the time she got back to the States, we'd exchanged three or four letters, each more intimate in tone than the last. By March we were planning a rendezvous, and after that, plans to spend the summer traveling together. What might have been was apparently coming to pass.
But love is a two-person trapeze act. Because the biggest thrills come when you're working without a net, it's best to be certain before you jump into the blackness that the person swinging toward you with arms outstretched actually is going to catch you. Amy didn't, of course. When another guy bought her earrings at an arts fair, she swung off in his direction, and I spent the summer grasping at empty air.
That wasn't cautious climbing, and it was a long way down thard ground. But caution doesn't mean living life in a locked room. Inevitably time and circumstance thrust the rope back into my hands.
Cured of my fascination for artists, I eventually found someonwith a stronger grasp on trapezes. She can move gracefully, and when she looks in my direction, the beam is steady and strong enough to walk across. But at times I couldn't help looking for the missed connection. Past betrayals take on lives of their own, and they tended to follow me around, chanting like a particularly embittered Greek chorus. Even when the days passed smoothly, I could still feel the dreadful magnetic vertigo. Crossing the ragged hem between dreams and reality, I could see the ground rushing in my direction. The treehouse was still out of reach, and I was in midair, fast on my way down.
So I climbed cautiously, Miss Heinz, and eventually I made it uthere. It was at a Cajun restaurant, somewhere between the appetizer and the entree. It took some careful stepping, even at the end, but the Rules of Caution paid off. The ladder was sturdy, the ropes were strong, and even for the cautious man, it was the only sensible place to be.
PETER CARLIN'S last piece for the magazine was on acknowledgments.