I float and look up at the sky for what seems like forever.
Time stretches out like chewing gum, as I deduce my remaining lifespan to be about six seconds.
Six point four, to be exact. Less than a countdown at Cape Canaveral. More than enough for the light that is reflected by the surface of the fast-approaching earth beneath me to reach the dark side of the moon.
Synapses fire. Six point four. A Beatles song. The table of eight. Thoughts flash in and out of focus. Pop. Pop. Pop. Popping like soap bubbles. Bubbles. A monkey. Michael Jackson. Neverland. Never mind. Pop. Voltage channels open and close. My own private champagne cork orchestra.
Six point four. On second thought, the significance of that last digit is debatable. I can only guesstimate the distance that my final trajectory will span. Better to err on the side of caution. So, six. Six seconds it is.
As one part of my brain recalculates (like I always tell my students: Take the time to double-check your answer), another part tries to put together the bits and pieces of what just happened (like I always tell my students: Make sure to get your facts straight first). Who says humans are bad at multitasking?
No use to panic now – what’s done is done – so let me see. I had just traversed the plateau at about 1000 meters. The gully floor below sits at 800. I remember, because I had checked my map earlier during the ascent, after spotting a last patch of snow. Neurons reconstruct a memory I didn’t know had been in temporary storage on the hard drive in my head. Yes. I remember clearly now. I had checked my map, because I saw snow and made a mental note. Snow on the gully floor at 800 meters. Even around the summer solstice – climate change be damned. So that gives a drop of 200 meters under constant acceleration at 1 g. Yes. Six seconds is definitely safe.
Surely, the reliable functioning of my cognitive powers under such trying circumstances is impressive – to say the least. Then again, after all these years I can perform these calculations in my sleep. Or on my deathbed, so it seems.
Teacher’s joke. My bad.
Deep down inside, my cortical homunculus is smiling. At least someone thinks I’m funny. Like I always tell my students: Mental arithmetic skills will come in handy someday when you least expect it.
Do any of my words actually reach their little adolescent brains? Do I matter for just a second in their little adolescent lives? I can see their blank teenage faces, staring their bored, blank teenage stares. The air in the classroom heavy with their putrid teenage hormones. Feigning interest. Feigning disinterest. Pretending not to care about the fundamentals of life while that same life is throwing them curve balls (pimples, periods and other threats of puberty). Stuck in that all-consuming no-man’s-land where they think they are all so special (but trying oh so hard to hide that conviction under a blanket of conformity, bar the few non-binary individuals that seem to have replaced the sporadic goths in the back row). It is all so predictable. In a few years they will slowly exit their developmental lag phase and come to the startling realization that the rest of their existence is going to be totally average and mediocre at best. Whatever. Have I had even the tiniest bit of impact on any – even one – of them?
Time to impact. Am I still falling?
Seven seconds, maybe, if I round it up. Of course: I must figure in air resistance. It’s not like I’ve been thrown down a vacuum tube.
Will I be front story news? Will they make me look like a reckless fool, one of those crazy daredevil tourists? Just to satisfy and entertain their readers, so they can feel superior (because they themselves would never be so stupid – oh no siree Bob!). Shaking their heads at so much carelessness as they sip their morning coffee. And to think he was a teacher! Tut-tut. Yesterday’s news before you know it, dissolving into gooey pulp in print and already trice replaced by other catastrophes or Urgent Celebrity Gossip online. And the earth will go on turning – unaware that I have simply fallen victim to the relentless laws of nature.
Granted, I may have gotten a little too close to the edge, but that is part of the thrill of climbing a mountain. Not that I generally live on the edge. Au contraire. I always carry ample water, a compass, an emergency blanket, a first aid kit and a battery pack whenever I go on a solo hike. I am always prepared for disaster. The most boring people usually are.
Almost any disaster.
It was a magnificent day for a ramble. The pounding gale force winds arrived without warning, tunneling through the narrow passageway between the two summits – of which I have now and will forever have only scaled one, I realize with some regret. Had it not been for those violent thrusts, I would not have lost my balance. I am sure of it. I would still have been just a little too close to the edge, but I would not have tumbled over. I would have lived to tell how marvelous the view had been. Broad strokes of heather, moss and pine trees covering the hillsides like a smooth blanket. The river, dark and mysterious, meandering through the valley below – the valley itself green and fertile. Alive with birches and birdsong. Not that I am a birdwatcher, mind you. No need to tick every box of the stereotype.
Alive. I feel so alive right now.
Suddenly, I have a bit of an epiphany. It comes out of nowhere, as epiphanies are wont to do. I realize that this could be a great example for future lectures on kinematics. Much more vivid than apples falling on Sir Newton’s head, or cannon balls dropping from the leaning tower of Pisa. Better even than the Apollo 15 video – you know, the one where the astronauts simultaneously drop a hammer and a feather from the same height to demonstrate that both reach the ground at the same time in the absence of gravity. These days, regrettably, showing that footage is more likely to result in a classroom discussion about whether the moon landings were faked rather than in an enhanced understanding of the laws of physics. Perhaps one of those graphic design whiz kids could turn it into an interactive game! I will call it ‘The Tumbling Teacher’ and, coming in at just over six (or seven) seconds, it should capture even the most attention deficit-inflicted students for at least a little while. How is that for a fun and appealing active learning experience?
Six. Six point four. Seven seconds. Somewhere in between the half-life of 17N and 16N, I decide.
I really should have worn a GoPro.
I am still falling. My backpack, stuffed with a compass, emergency blanket, first aid kit and battery pack, is leading the way. My mouth is dry. I could have finished the water.
I am a flying squirrel. An upside-down parachute jumper. I stretch my arms and legs out as far as possible. Like I used to do in the swimming pool to improve my buoyancy, back when I was little. When time also stretched out like chewing gum into endless summers. And just like in the swimming pool, I float.
I float and look up at the sky for what seems like forever. It is the most majestic color of blue today and I surf its perfect wavelength of 470 nanometers.
I am still accelerating.
I am distorting time.
Stretch my arms out even further.
The brittle leaves of the Andreaea moss.
Engage my fingertips and toes.
Rocks. Covered in grey and green lichen – which not too many people know are, in fact, two organisms: fungus and algae, living in a symbiotic relationship. A functional relationship. Rocks. Life support. Algebra.
Mind over matter.
I float and look up at the sky for what seems like forever, but it cannot be more than a split second, really. Last time I checked, xt still equaled x0 + v0*t + ½*a*t2.