Read Responsibly

Once while reading a book on the way to work, I almost walked into a telephone pole. I don’t know if it was actually a telephone pole, but that’s what we tend to call them.

I say almost because, as some sort of luck would have it, I was stopped just prior.

I was stopped just prior by one of those 1/4″ steel support cables, that are often anchored about ten feet from the pole.

While engrossed in my book, I happened to step directly to either side of that support cable. What are the odds, right? I guess it was just thin enough that I didn’t spot it in my peripheral vision or something. That’ll be my excuse, anyway.

Although I’m walking slow, the essential effect of this adventure was that suddenly, a 1/4″ thick steel cable, taut enough to hold up a telephone pole, rose up at just about walking speed, right between my legs and caught me.

I say caught me because as we all know, steel cables are not know for their flexibility.

The moment I notice something’s up, I manage to stop, but there’s still a little travel because, well, there’s momentum.

And that cable still doesn’t move.

Imagine a 1/4″ thick steel thong. Imagine it suddenly appearing.

My brain at this moment realizes something’s going on, but it’s still mostly connected to the book. My eyes are trying to make sense of what’s around me, but I still haven’t quite seen the cable. I’m just not focused on that, and frankly, that’s not a surprise, considering the direction of pressure.

Stegosaurs and other dinosaurs had a brain between their hind legs. Apparently I do as well, because it was telling my legs “Move us aside, move us aside! We’re in the yellow zone!” This was a fail move, of course, because I was straddling a taut 1/4″ woven steel cable. So there was a kind of shifting trying to happen, but my body wasn’t actually moving in a coherent fashion. It was lurching.

About that time, my eyes and brain had agreed on what had happened, but it was a little too late. My hindbrain apparently had decided for me that the solution to this was to dump a bit of adrenalin into my system and lurch sideways to get out of the way of whatever was attacking me from below.

Once again, it’s worth noting that my mass is considerably less than the mass of a telephone pole. So, that cable was going nowhere. Nor was anything attached to it.

Do you know what a barrel roll is? It’s when you rotate along your axis of movement. This is not a normal motion for a human being.

Of course, it’s worth noting that essentially being skewered on a 1/4″ woven steel cable isn’t normal, either.

It was at that moment that my vestibular system fired off its first Red Alert.

When your vestibular system, which is that Rubik’s Cube of fluid-filled coils inside each ear, fires off a Red Alert, your body immediately clears its to-do list and focuses on regaining your balance. Typically, this is accomplished by shifting your center of mass, using a deft a combination of quick footwork and graceful arm flailing.

Millions of years of evolution has produced this kind of response.

Being pinned by a 1/4″ woven steel cable, however, is not something that millions of years of evolution has prepared me for. Three things happen at that exact moment.

  • First, my “takeoff foot” leaves the ground in preparation to shift. It hasn’t realized it’s not actually going anywhere yet.
  • Second, one of my flailing arms catches the cable rising up in front of me, hooking it into my elbow.
  • Third, my center of mass shifts past the tipping point.

When I say “tipping point,” in this instance, I mean it literally.

At this exact fraction of a second, I am now attached to a static steel cable at two points — my elbow, which is fairly sturdy, and the soft malleable area where my legs join, which I would not consider extremely sturdy. Therefore, I do what any other bag of watery meat would do under those circumstances.

I spin.

About 1/4 through the circle of my barrel roll, my brain is trying to juggle input from the following sources:

  • My eyes, which are seeing the world shifting rapidly sideways.
  • My vestibular system, which is sobbing incoherently into a microphone, frustrated at how ill-prepared it was for a barrel roll.
  • My arm, which is reporting that a significant portion of my weight is now being supported by my elbow.
  • My legs and feet, who are doing their level best to interpret what my midbrain is screaming at them.
  • My midbrain who seems to think that the Action Of Last Resort, which it is firing off to my legs, is “Jump! Jump! Jump!”

There is a moment when I am suspended in the air, except for my two contact points on the cable. I am still swinging in my barrel roll.

The perceptive reader will realize that I am now in a Warner Brothers cartoon, and that I am the Coyote.

I am on the world’s shortest and steepest zip-line, and instead of soft bushes, or perhaps a hastily placed mattress, my landing area is the ungentle embrace of the sidewalk.

Just as I finish 180 degrees of my barrel roll, I strike the concrete. My ass absorbs most of the shock, but manages to translate enough of it up my spine to simulate hitting my nervous system with an EMP.

Everything stops moving at once.

Except for my brain. My brain is still processing a flood of panic-ridden information coming in from all points of my body. The fact is, all of those points are still in a sort of panic, so this is not unexpected.

I think nearly ten seconds passed with me sitting flat-assed on the morning sidewalk, straddling a steel cable, before two distinct rational thoughts hit my brain.

The first was “Fuckin’ L. Ron Hubbard.” Because the book I was reading was Book 10 of Mission: Earth, which was a guilty pleasure, but by Book 10 I just wanted to know how he wrapped the story up, and was so desperate to know that I was reading it as I walked. If you like, think of this entire story as a review of that series.

The second was “So that’s why they call these ‘guy wires’.”

Read responsibly, my friends.