Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Death of Mischief

I just got through watching Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit, the French high wire artist, who, in 1974 strung a line and walked between the Twin Towers.  The feat itself was of course extraordinary, but more remarkable to me was the reaction of the people of New York after he'd completed his forty-five minute walk in thin air.

One cop, who waited at the end of the wire to arrest him, was so clearly moved by what he'd seen, he said to a reporter, in his thick N.Y. accent, "I'd cawl him a tightrope dancuh, more than a waalkah, cuz he was really more dancin' up dere." and then later, "I was watchin' sumthin' once in a lifetime." This officer was not a guy you'd think would be comfortable with a Frenchman, in tights, or even with saying the word dancing, but he didn't take the act as an affront to his authority, or position or ego. He just scratched his head and watched something beautiful unfold, something once in a lifetime. 

They took Petit away in cuffs, as you'd expect, but his sentence from the judge was appropriately lenient -  to perform for the kids of N.Y. in central park.  The whole episode was regarded as a most beautiful act of mischief, which is exactly what it was.  Never mind that Petit and his accomplices had forged documents, trespassed, hidden out in plain sight of the night watchmen, and generally made fools of the security of the building, the law and gravity. 

The irony that this event took place at the World Trade Center, can't be lost on anyone.  The collapse of the towers marked the beginning of a new, more serious era and subsequently the definitive end of mischief as we knew it. Can we never again take things lightly, or see the forging of documents by a foreigner as anything less than a water-boarding offense? It is my sincere hope that one day we might.


When I went to boarding school there was a cook named Art.  He was a strange, very tall, man who spoke in what I can only describe as a Marty Feldman, Igor voice ..."Abby Nooormal". Very nasal and wispy and sort of pervy-sounding. This was his natural register. He was weird and wonderful in ways that I hope to post about later, but suffice it to say, he was an original and I really loved him.  

Art cooked for the whole school, some 350 students, from scratch.  Every pancake, every cookie, every piece of baked chicken was made by him, from actual ingredients, with the help of a  small staff and a rotating crew of students on kitchen duty. The food there was incredible and I hope there were a few people who new how good we had it.  

In particular, Art made these pouffy dinner rolls that came hot out of the oven, twenty-five or so at a time, that were flawless. Perfect buttery baseballs of love.  Everyone loved those fucking buns.  How could you not?  So, when a student snuck up onto the dining hall roof in the middle of the night, and with a four inch brush painted across the shingles, "WE LOVE ART'S BUNS" I don't think there was soul there that felt it was anything less than proper homage. It was great; a perfect act of mischief.  How do I know that if this same thing happened today, the kid(s) responsible would be kicked out and their parents sued for the repair of the roof. 

Our old friend, Henry, told us that his nephew, Sam, a stunningly bright kid, with all the wit and promise in the world, was recently kicked out of his blue-blazer private school for writing his name,  the first day of school, on the passed around roster,  as follows:

Hugh G. Rection

After the humorless teacher read it aloud - just as you would hope she would, sounding out every syllable before realizing what she'd said -she felt humiliated, and Sam was summarily expelled.  

My own nephew has been called to the office of his prep school, and his mother, too, called in,  for loosening the tops on the salt shakers, making objectionable art(!) , and, I think, texting in class. These are serious offenses apparently, and garner serious consequences. 

I worry about a society that takes itself so seriously.  It shows a rigidity of character that I find unpleasant in the extreme.  I've never trusted or enjoyed people who didn't laugh first at themselves and then at everyone and every single thing, next.  

Self-seriousness is the buzz kill of a thriving culture.  Might not some gentile breaking and entering do well to be forgiven if the intent can be discerned to be playful and not damaging to anything other than ego? Can we not find our way back to a time when kids could screw the caps off the shakers without a call home?  It seems to me a school is not educating if it cannot find suitable, equitable punishment for such a child.  How about making my nephew fill those shakers for the rest of the school year?  Or have Sam come up with thirty-five more such monikers by tomorrow and recite them in verse?

There is a jolliness missing in public discourse, and an over-seriousness that I think may ultimately be the demise of our empire.  What cannot bend will be broken, and I for one see mischief as the yoga of of the soul - it keeps us supple and lubricated. Mischief reminds us that walking the line is not an act of freedom, unless its done 1000 feet up, by a laughing man in tights.


  1. Excellent piece! So true, mischief is a creative endeavour and should be appreciated as such,nurtured even.

    A teenager here got up on his parent's roof while they were away and painted a massive cock and balls on the tiles and they didnt find out for years! Proper mischief, got to love it. xx

  2. There was a statue at Buxton that lived in front of a teacher's house and was hence named "Brad's Statue." Every so often, over the four years I was at that school, the statue would disappear at night and then turn up in the morning in a suprise location somewhere on campus. The best was when it was found out in the middle of a pond, sitting on an elaborate, submerged pedestal.

    Great piece, all so true. I loved that film, too.

  3. I love this post. I also loved "Man on Wire". I found it very moving and bittersweet, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Your review has given me an insight to the film that is totally in line with the way I see our culture today. Everything is tinged with this self-righteous seriousness. True, harmless mischief can be so refreshing, yet so hard to find. I guess that's what makes people like Jon Stewart so like-able.

  4. Loving these. If you were inspired by Man on a Wire, maybe check out Colum McCann's new novel: Watch the Great World Spin. You might like. Petite makes an appearance.

  5. I've always valued flexibility over brute strength.

    Growing up in Madison in the 70s there was a student group at the UW called the Pail & Shovel Party that brought mischievious antics to the city. One night, while everyone else slept, they put thousands of plastic flamingos on Bascom Hill - a stately spot with a statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting at the top. They were the ones who put a cross section of the Statue of Liberty's head and torch on the ice of Lake Mendota, which really livened up the bland frozen tundra our winters bring.

    I miss those days. You're right, a culture of dead-seriousness has sucked the fun out of this modern life. No one dares joke about it, lest they end up in a little holding facility off the legal shores of our "free country."