As you might imagine with a project involving an English professor, a woman nicknamed Spider Monkey, and 1,000 feet of nylon rope, there were complications. Mistakes were made. There was profuse sweating and profanity and a knot of Homeric proportions. It started with a simple geometry problem.
In the garden of the Nasher Sculpture Center sits an installation called Tending, (Blue), by the artist James Turrell. It is a room with a square hole in its roof through which visitors gaze up at the firmament. White walls lit by a computer program that reacts to atmospheric conditions and a knife edge framing the aperture turn the sky into a wild high-def TV.

Next door to the Nasher, though, on what is now a parking lot, developers plan to build a 42-story condominium tower. And therefrom arose the geometry problem: will the tower block the view from Tending, (Blue)? The folks at the Nasher said they didn’t know.

My first thought was to train a hamster to use a sextant, strap him to a model rocket a la Buzz Lightyear, and launch him from the parking lot. No bad ideas in a brainstorm, right? But then I hit on the balloon concept: get one of those big suckers that car dealerships use, fly it 420 feet over the condo site (figuring 10 feet per floor), and enlist a confederate to reconnoiter inside Tending, (Blue). If he could see the balloon, it would mean the tower will cause a problem.
As a reader service: should you ever need a commercial-grade balloon and the helium with which to fill it, call Rit Kriechbaum at Balloons & Helium (972-276-9820). He charged me $92, which seemed a fair price, though I confess I didn’t do any comparison shopping.

That’s when Spider Monkey, the magazine’s staff photographer, insinuated herself into the project. She walked into my office, sized up the 5-foot-tall tank of helium, and said: “In.”

“You don’t even know what I plan to do with it,” I said.

“Don’t care,” she said. “I’m in.”

I informed her of my intentions, and she shot back with questions. “How big will the balloon be?” “Big.” “Who’s gonna sit in Tending?” “The good Dr. Spiegelman.” “With wind, how will you make sure it’s 420 feet up and directly over the site?” I produced a diagram and showed her how I would measure the angle formed by the tether line and the ground, then, using the length of the tether, calculate the height of the balloon. “Did I mention that I got a 1350 on my SAT?” I said. Spider Monkey stared at me. “Why don’t you just use two ropes? A tether that’s however long it needs to be. And a second one that’s 420 feet long with a weight tied to one end that dangles from the balloon. Then you fly the balloon so that the weight touches the parking lot where the condo tower will be built.” I used my great big brain to vividly imagine punching Spider Monkey in her larynx.

The day of the experiment was hot and windy. We parked in the empty lot, and I inflated the balloon, which was about the size of my car. The good Dr. Spiegelman took up his post inside the Nasher. I began unspooling the balloon’s tether. So far, so good.

But while I was focused on the tether, Spider Monkey had taken the premeasured dangle line and coiled it around her forearm like an extension cord, creating all sorts of hellish, knot-happy torsion in the nylon rope. As she flapped her arm around to let out dangle line, it became tangled. She took the coil off her arm and wrestled with it, but the more she struggled, the worse it got. I calmly offered advice such as: “Stop doing that! No! Bad!” Perhaps fearing that Spider Monkey would asphyxiate herself, the parking lot attendant brought over a pair of scissors. I turned him away and took the tether line in my teeth to free up both hands so I could help Spider Monkey. Of course, my spool of rope went rolling down the parking lot, which led to another sizable tangle. It took more than an hour to get the dangle and tether lines all sorted out, but we did it.

As the balloon climbed higher, the wind carried it toward the Nasher, forcing me to walk away from the museum, across Pearl Street, and into the backyard of the Meyerson Symphony Center, where the red Mark di Suvero sculpture called Proverb stands. That’s where the symphony’s PR director, exiting the parking garage, saw me standing, sweat soaked, red faced. She recognized me and rolled down her window.

“Why are you flying a kite in our yard?” she asked.

“First,” I said, “I’m not flying a kite. It’s a balloon. And, second, as you know, I am a journalist. I’m doing journalism. Good day to you, ma’am!” I turned my attention back to the balloon, now just a red dot against the clouds.

And the experiment? For the results, I direct you to the good Dr. Spiegelman’s dispatch. Not to give too much away, and at the risk of sounding immodest, history books will note that on that hot day, we performed a valuable service to art lovers the world over. Oh, and also: Spider Monkey accidentally popped the balloon almost as soon as we had it back on the ground.

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