In a population obsessed with its widths, I’m afraid of heights. Acrophobia. Put me on the edge of a cliff, and I’ll soil myself every time. Some people can walk right up to the edge and peer over. My wife, for one. Early on, I asked her if she’d think less of me if she knew I was afraid of heights. She reassured me that she couldn’t possibly think less of me.
When approaching a cliff, I start leaning back a full 50 meters from the edge, stopping altogether when I hit the 25 meter mark, frozen in my tracks. I don’t understand why: If I drew a line on a gymnasium floor, I could run up to it and stop right on the line. But when it’s a cliff, or tall building, or bridge, I feel something drawing me over the edge. I simply don’t trust myself. My head gets woozy, my legs go wobbly, and I feel the sudden neo-natal need to nurse. I’ve been slapped more than once in such situations.
Interestingly, I have no fear of heights when in a plane, or watching the Outside Channel on TV. I was even briefly in the flying club at college, before I threw up in the flight simulator. Generally speaking, as long as I’m fully contained, I’m good with it. I’m good on ski gondolas, as long as I can ride them back down. Drop me in a capsule from the International Space Station, and I’ll ask for a window seat. But left to my own devices, something manic takes over, drawing me into the abyss.
What inside me do I not trust? I’m fearless when it comes to using power tools (like electric screwdrivers), and intrepid crossing cow pastures in snowshoes. So, why should I not trust myself with anything higher than a step stool? Moreover, why must I feel nervous for others who have no signs of Acrophobia? I once rounded up all the tourists’ children at the rim of the Grand Canyon and scolded their parents for letting them out of the car. Meanwhile, my own child was safely harnessed to me while I was, in turn, tethered to a large tree.
And speaking of trusting oneself, would you pack your own parachute? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t pack my own suitcase—let alone, parachute. I’d want a professional, full-time, fully-licensed parachute packer (preferably one I never sold a car to) to pack my chute. No paraprofessionals—if you will. I’d want only seasoned, serious parachute packers, without too much of a sense of humor, who loved their jobs, and had no problem with insomnia. Finally, I’d want their favorite offspring strapped to my chest for insurance–and a note from their ophthalmologists.
Even then, upon jumping out of the plane, I’d suddenly have to weedle. Every time I get nervous, I have to weedle. I mentioned this problem once to a parachute jump instructor I met in therapy. She assured me that I’d only have to worry about wet trousers if I landed safely: if the chute didn’t open, they’d be blown-dry by the time I hit the ground.
While I found this somewhat comforting, it brought to the forefront my overarching issue: My worry isn’t so much about getting back to Earth, but how far into it.
So whether it’s a fear of mortality, or pain, or undue wetness, I’ve learned to forgive myself for this weakness. Everyone deserves one failing and, like the presidential candidates during debates, I can’t think of any other flaws I have.
Chappaqua alumnus and 35-year resident of Chappaqua, humorist Rick Reynolds resides in southern New Hampshire with his wife, daughter, and two dogs.