Pink Tights, Big Decisions, and Funambulism

One hundred and sixty-three years ago, on June 30th of 1859, the man Mark Twain once referred to as “that adventurous ass” rappelled 200 feet down to a rock at the base of Niagara Falls to retrieve the end of a cable that he then stretched across the Falls and used it as a footbridge. 

Blondin crosses the river. New York Public Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Clad in pink tights, soft-soled leather shoes, and plenty of spangles, the 19th century’s most famous funambulist, or tightrope walker to those of you less imaginative 21st-century types who don’t do crossword puzzles, Charles Blondin made the world’s first high wire trek across one of the world’s most famous waterfalls.

For trip number one, Blondin, whose real name was Jean François Gravelet, carried a twenty-six-foot-long balancing pole and started from the American side. Partway across he stopped, sat down on the cable, cast a line down to the momentarily anchored Maid of the Mist tour boat and brought back up a bottle of wine, which he then drank before continuing his journey to Canada.

Not many of the 25,000 people there that day were betting he could accomplish the task, but he’d been walking tightropes since he was four years old and had been known to compare himself to a poet, “born and not made.” I know a few poets who work really hard at their craft and might disagree with his comparison, but there is little doubt that the five-foot, 140-pound Frenchman was particularly well suited to walk his way across Niagara Falls that day, and many subsequent days.

Over the years, he performed the stunt more than three hundred times, adding to the challenge in various ways. He crossed it without a balancing pole, backward, at night, blindfolded, pushing a wheel barrel, transporting his agent on his back, carrying and using a daguerreotype camera, and once hauling a portable cooktop that he set up in the middle to cook an omelet he then lowered for a passenger on the Maid of the Mist to enjoy.

Not to complain or anything but I have been on the Maid of the Mist and no one gave me an omelet.

His stage name became synonymous with tightrope walking itself, prompting Abraham Lincoln to once compare the work of government to that of Blondin, slowly and carefully balancing the wealth, welfare, and priorities of a nation while steadily and often dangerously crossing from one issue to the next.

I’m feeling that right now in a big way. You may have heard that the US Supreme Court recently made a big decision that resulted in overturning a previous big decision. The move had been highly anticipated for months by a lot of folks, some with fear and anger and others with hope and joy. Now that it has come down as expected, it has sent big ripples and maybe even some significant rifts through the nation.

I have strong opinions about the decision and I bet you do, too. Maybe we agree, and maybe we don’t. I know for certain that there are people I love and respect on opposite ends of the spectrum of opinions.

Abraham Lincoln depicted as Charles Blondin. Harper’s Weekly, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That makes the powerful waters and the turbulent winds of public opinion tough to navigate right now. In general I have very little faith that politicians will ever get anything particularly right, and it is in their hands, and by extension in the hands of those who elect them, what might happen next in each state.

No matter where our personal opinion falls, I do think we’re all trying to get from the court decision through the imbalanced feelings of highly emotional shock and frustration that don’t allow us to have reasonable conversations with one another, to whatever the fall-out from the decision will eventually be.

There’s a lot of anxiety out there, and it is incredibly difficult to walk that line of compassion that stretches precariously through passionate conflict. But if that uninsurable adventurous ass in pink tights could cross a high wire over Niagara Falls more than three hundred times and die peacefully at home at the age of seventy-three, then I’m betting we can probably do it.

The Truth about Streaking in December

In the Early 13th Century, Roger Wendover wrote in his Latin history Flores Historiarum of a very generous 11th  Century noble couple. Leofric, Earl of Mercia, in modern day Great Britain, was one of a few powerful Anglo-Saxon noblemen leading up to the Norman conquest. And his very pious wife the countess Godiva liked to give away his money. Largely at her urging, the earl founded and supported a Benedictine Monastery at Coventry in addition to giving great support to five or six other monasteries throughout the countryside as well as to Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Seems to me there are worse ways a lady could be remembered.
Seems to me there are worse ways a lady could be credit: yuankuei via photopin cc

That’s all pretty well-documented in contemporary sources, but what is missing from those earlier accounts of the countess is mention of her stark naked horseback ride through the streets of Coventry that she’s come to be known for (well, that and fancy chocolate). According to Wendover, writing almost 200 years later, when the earl grew tired of Godiva’s pleas to lessen the tax burden on the peasants under his authority, he remarked that he would do so as soon as she rode naked through the town.

The countess took him at his word, commanded the townspeople not to peek (and they didn’t, until the 17th century when the original “Peeping Tom” crept into the legend), and set off on her horse in nothing but her birthday suit and some seriously long hair.

I think she could use more hair.

As you may have guessed, this story is likely not 100% historically accurate. In fact, most historians would be quick to point out (and please forgive the professional jargon here) that it’s complete and utter hogwash.

In addition to the story not surfacing until long after the countess’s death while remaining conspicuously absent from contemporary accounts of her, historians support their accusations of fraud with evidence as weak as the fact that Leofric never actually levied taxes on the people of Coventry outside of a horse toll and that according to the law of the day, it would have been Godiva herself who had the authority to either tax the people or not.

Peeping Tom of Coventry. He does look a little pervy.
Peeping Tom of Coventry. He does look a little pervy.

It seems then that Godiva’s story was resurrected and buffed to a nice heroic sheen by a well-meaning, if highly inaccurate, chronicler of history long after her death. And with the exception of all the Toms in the world, whose name for the last four hundred years or so has sounded kind of pervy, no one seems to mind too much. It’s a great story about standing up for the little guy even when it means stepping way outside of your comfort zone, because really, I don’t think there’s much that sounds less comfortable than riding on the back of a horse in your altogether. And it’s a story that has made “Lady Godiva” the most famous streaker in history.

It’s because of this that I bring her up. About a week ago, I was invited to go streaking this December. It happened because a friend of a friend posted on Facebook that she was going to start a group committed to a December “streak” of running (or walking because I don’t run unless I’m chasing a penguin) at least one mile every day in the month.

My walking partner, always ready to help me add a couple more miles to my total, and, it should be noted, always without a stitch of clothing.
My walking partner, always ready to help me add a couple more miles to my total, and, it should be noted, always without a stitch of clothing.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it doesn’t have to be because it’s the streak that’s important. And considering this is the month when the temperatures begin to plummet where I live and I’d rather sit on the couch wrapping presents and eating Christmas cookies than do about anything else, I think this is just the motivation I need to get moving.

I’ve set my goal (and my extra early alarm) and so far so good. But it’s cold here in December and you can rest assured that just like the noble lady Godiva before me, I am not going to streak naked through town. I may, however, eat some fancy chocolate in her honor.