I must have been about ten, the first time it happened. My brother had brought home a bright red Model A Ford. He took my parents for a ride around the block. How I resented being left behind! So when they got out I jumped into the passenger seat and insisted he take me for a ride, too.
Grumbling (the gap between a seventeen year old and a ten year old is pretty darned wide), he agreed. I jumped in the car and we zipped off down the street. However, I had a problem. Just in case he had angrily refused to take me and I needed to decamp quickly, I had left the door ajar. As he was obviously not too thrilled with me, I didn’t want to swing the door wide and slam it shut with the car moving. So I just held on to the door handle, trying to keep the unlatched door from rattling.
My brother, unfortunately, had no intention of taking his little brother on a long ride. At the end of the street he swung the car into a U-turn. I felt the weight of the door starting to swing it open despite my best efforts. Instead of my holding it closed, it was dragging me across the seat as it opened. I finally let go, but far too late. As the door finished opening I was falling out of the moving car.
That is when it happened: Suddenly the world slowed down.
I can remember feeling myself sliding slowly off the edge of the seat. I can remember reaching, wildly inside but with a dreamlike deliberation outside, trying to catch myself by the door handle I had just let go of. As I missed the door handle I can remember turning my head down and seeing, in sharp focus, every rock in the asphalt coming slowly towards me.
Next thing I remember was my brother lifting me into the car and rushing me home. Truth was, of course, that nobody outside the movies takes out a U-turn very fast. I’m sure my speed was not really more than a few miles an hour. Still, my having led the fall with my face made the results look pretty dramatic.
Last thing I really remember was my mother laying warm, wet towels over my rapidly swelling face and telling me how foolish I had been. That, and my marveling at how things had gone into slow motion, just like in the movies.
There is, of course, no emerging pattern here, but a remarkably similar event happened about three years later. I was bicycling home at night with a school friend and we were taking a short cut through an unlighted residential area. The moon was full and I can remember how the cold light of the moon seemed to give everything a sharp-edged clarity. I looked up and back at the moon and it seemed more beautiful than I had ever seen it. I was calling to my friend, John, to look, too, when it happened.
My bicycle suddenly stopped. I didn’t.
Reconstructing it later, with the somewhat profane help of my friend, what happened was this: Looking up and back over my left shoulder, my bike had naturally drifted off to the right. Before John realized what was happening, my right pedal slid neatly into his spokes while his left pedal slid into mine. Naturally, this stopped not just my bike, but his as well.
As I sailed over the handle bars, that strange thing happened again. The world slowed down. This time, though, I had more time to appreciate the phenomenon.
I can remember how, as I swung my head back (remember, I had been looking up at the moon), I could see the edge of the road, the hedges in front of the yards and the lights of each house beyond the hedges.
I was just completing my upward trajectory as my head got around to facing forward. Just like the first time, I seemed to be able to see every rock in the asphalt as I drifted slowly towards them. I can even remember thinking that they looked just as clear as the other time, but they seemed almost blue in the moonlight.
It seemed to take a very long time to fly through the air. Long enough, anyway, for me to remember to put out my hands this time and not lead with my face. But I can remember thinking that it was a waste of time, since this flight was so slow that I would obviously hit softly, like diving into a marshmallow. I could see the ground getting closer and closer, the rocks getting bigger and bigger and clearer and clearer. I could see my hands stuck out in front to break my fall.
Then a remarkable thing happened. It was dazzling. As soon as the first, outermost fragment of the skin of my hand touched the asphalt, the world abruptly speeded up again.
I have no real recollection of my hands hitting the road. It was only later that I figured out that as they hit the road and the rest of me continued its travel they were whipped back under me. Bang, there I was, leading with my face again. I am quite sure of the sequence as this time both my face and hands were: a) bleeding, b) full of gravel, and c) sore as hell.
Having cleverly arranged to do this far from home, there was no one to carry me (and my friend, John) home to warm, wet cloths. Instead, battered and bruised, we had to disentangle our bikes and straighten the spokes enough to finish the ride home. Thirteen year olds have (or rather, back then, had) a limited supply of profanity. Still, John did his unbroken best to curse my stupidity, his bad luck, and my stupidity again all the way home.
Now, I wouldn’t want anyone to give the impression that I am somewhat clumsier than average. Nor is it true that I always lead with my face. It is true, however that a rare ability to contrive and execute fallacious plans (a la the Model A’s door) and a solid talent for gazing at the moon (literally and metaphorically) have been consistent motifs in my life. Character, they say, is fate.
Suffice it to say that my talent for diving into events and a consequent relativity of time have been impressed upon me repeatedly throughout my life. Of course, as I moved beyond fast-healing youth into a more mature and brittle phase of life, I tried to make the diving part more metaphoric than real. As a result, I haven’t often had that odd sensation of suddenly going into slow motion. Still, I discovered that time can be made elastic through other means.
Have you ever executed some pratfall so spectacular that you wanted to disappear into a crack in the floor? Does time seem to speed up so you can get out of there as quickly as possible with some shred of dignity intact? No, indeed. In only a little less dramatic fashion than my first accidents, I have discovered that at such moments time seems to slow down so every bystander has ample time to turn and capture every detail of one’s embarrassment. Escape takes forever.
Ever find yourself caught in some social or romantic (personally, I’ve always specialized in the romantic) solecism? Just when you need all the time in the world to recover your equanimity and think of some graceful way to correct yourself, time seems to rush, with your brains stumbling clumsily after. It is only on the way home that you finally think, “Oh my God! What an idiot I am! What I should have said was…”
Which brings me to Johnny Mercer. A charming and creative songwriter, he once wrote a song called, “Fools Rush In.” It had a line I always found very odd, “And so I come to you, my love, my heart above my head.”
I once thought that among the dumbest lines imaginable. That image is pretty strange, not to mention anatomically improbable. Why, the only way you get your heart above your head (both metaphorically and actually) is if you are diving…
That’s when I finally got it. Johnny Mercer, that good and prescient man, had somehow anticipated (six years before my birth) the persistent folly I would display in my life and had put a small, private warning, just for me, into his song. I now translate it as, “Doofus, no matter how you feel at the moment, the ground is still coming. Don’t lead with your face!”
Now, there might be some who would think that a smarter bit of advice might have been to avoid diving in the first place. All things considered, that suggestion would probably have been a waste of time (remember that thing about character being fate?). I think one of the wisest things we can do in this life is recognize that some of our errors arise from deep within us. We are going to see them again and again.
It is a sad truth: There is nothing on earth that will keep you from being a fool on occasion. The trick is to keep from being a damned fool.