Monday, October 15, 2012

A Game of Risk

Like about seven or eight million other people, I dialed up that bit of daredevilry everyone seemed to be buzzing about yesterday morning and watched Felix Baumgartner jumping from a balloon 24 miles up to a (thankfully) safe landing in New Mexico.

And like a lot of those who watched, I hadn’t heard the first thing about the attempt until I woke up yesterday and began seeing folks tweeting back and forth about it. I tuned in occasionally during the long ascent -- ultimately to 128,100 feet -- then became fairly locked in during the nine minutes or so it took Baumgartner to fall back to earth.

I have to admit I wasn’t as immediately inspired as others seemed to be while watching the successful attempt. I most definitely felt the anxiety and worry that necessarily arises whenever someone’s life is at risk, and, of course, is all the more intense (or excruciating) when bearing witness. And while I’m all for space exploration and its benefits -- direct and otherwise -- to the advancement of the species, I was perhaps too unclear on the specifics of the sort of research being accomplished by the stunt to appreciate its value while watching.

From reading around a bit, I see that the jump did help test parachute systems as well as offered some useful data for future space programs, in particular with regard to coming up with emergency evacuation systems from high altitudes. So yeah, I see how it all added up to something more enduring than jumping a motorbike over a dozen buses or whatever.

The one thing watching the jump did inspire me to think about, however, was the whole idea of risk and its importance to our experience -- the way our ideas of risk could be said to shape our understanding of the meaning of our lives. Some of us crave it, a lot of us shun it. But we’re all aware of it, pretty much at every moment, and thus does it have a huge influence on our ideas of ourselves and each other.

Self-preservation tends to keep us from taking too many risks, particularly those that threaten our survival. But within that scope a lot of us frequently indulge, taking gambles constantly, usually (but not always) motivated by ideas of improving some aspect of our lives when we do.

Thanks to many of the readings I assign in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class, I’m constantly invited to think about how the significance of risk-taking provides an important link between poker and American culture. I’m talking about that argument for poker being a particularly “American game” that stems from the way the game so neatly reflects the country’s penchant for risk-taking, its history having been so dominated by examples of such.

Of course, a willingness to take risks -- and curiosity about others’ doing so -- isn’t just an American thing. (Nor is poker, for that matter.) The jump by Baumgartner, an Austrian, was carried on 40-plus networks in 50 countries and streamed by something like 130 digital outlets. For whatever reason, a lot of people were into it.

I think there’s always some benefit to taking a leap once in a while, whether by buying into a poker tournament or pursuing a new career path or just testing oneself in a way that enables one to edge outside the otherwise carefully-maintained orbit of one’s existence.

So -- to quote @BadBlood’s reapplication of Bud Light’s Real Men of Genius campaign -- “Here’s to you Mr. Jump Out of a Capsule From Space Guy.”

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