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    Admiring the beauty of wire-walking

    By MARGO HAMMOND

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000


    Robbins came to the area last Sunday to catch Jay Cochrane's walk on a cable less than 1 inch thick suspended 300 feet in the air from the Ice Palace to the Marriott, some 900 feet. At first scheduled for Tuesday, it finally took place on Wednesday.

    Robbins admitted that he had never come this far just to watch a high-wire act, although he had traveled more reasonable distances on many occasions. But as soon as he heard that someone was going to "walk over downtown Tampa," he said wistfully, "that was enough for me."

    Robbins didn't get to talk to Jay Cochrane, but the author did get fairly close to the high-wire artist just before his walk. "He had on his game face," said Robbins.

    It is that intensity that draws Robbins to the event, he said. "The intense focus and grace and danger combine to jack reality up several notches . . . like a higher state of consciousness."

    "An event like Jay Cochran's represents the triumph of beauty, risk and artistry over the pragmatic, safe and mundane. Society needs events such as this, just as it needs art for art sake," he added. "The people I admire are people who work without a net -- both figuratively and literally.

    Has Robbins ever attempted any death-defying walks himself -- besides his novelistic acrobatics, that is? He almost got to ride across a high wire on the back of Philippe Petite, he said. His friend, actress Debra Winger, who is also a fan of aerial acts, invited the famous high-wire artist to her son Noah's bar mitzvah. Petite carried Noah on his back across a wire on their property in the Hudson River Valley, but Robbins, alas, was on a book tour and missed out.

    Before returning to Seattle, Robbins had dinner with Richard Dietrich, a University of South Florida professor who has studied Robbins' work and compares him to George Bernard Shaw. Robbins tried to tell him that he has only seen one of Shaw's plays (Heartbreak House) and read the introduction toArms and the Man, but Dietrich is undeterred. He recently read a paper on Robbins and Shaw at the Shavian Society of New York.

    Does Robbins see any similarities between himself and the British playwright? "He was a vegetarian like I am," Robbins admitted. "Also he would drive to the far reaches of London if he found out about a dessert he liked. I can relate to that."

    Robbins' latest novel, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (Bantam, $27.50) is the current number one bestseller in Australia, Robbins told me proudly, but he confessed he has no desire to go to the Olympics next month. It's too commerical, he told me. "That's the beauty of wire-walking. It has no real utility or commercial ties and because it's graceful and dramatic and thoroughly impractical and even bewildering, it has the ability to jar us."

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