You Are Go For Orbit


Up from The Cape: 16 March 2019

If rehearsing is an effective way of preparing for an actual event, what does it mean when someone has recurring dreams – especially about falling? That’s really a confusing question because most people don’t often rehearse falling – at least not consciously (unless they’re joining a circus as a clown). There aren’t many people who can rub their hands together and decide just before bed “Right! Tonight I’m going to dream about falling so I can experience fear and panic, and also become good at it.” By the way, if fear and panic rings your bell, I’ve got just the thing for you. My shaving mirror may not be inherently dangerous, but what I see in it every day increasingly frightens me.

In the early 1970s some of the astronauts on Skylab (the first American low Earth orbit space station) found they awoke in a panic occasionally due to the ever-present sensation of falling. If you’re in space, unless you’re experiencing acceleration or deceleration, it feels literally like you’re falling – all of the time. That’s because you are. The conscious mind can adjust to this, but it takes the unconscious mind longer to adapt. In orbit you’re falling with forward momentum of 17,500 mph without air resistance. Because of that momentum you travel so far so fast that the surface of the Earth always curves down away from you as you continue to fall forward. That for practical purposes, is an orbit.

The sense of physical threat associated with falling and falling and falling triggers an occasional panic reaction in some people when they’re asleep. It’s something I’ve also been through, but in my case only on trains when they jolt unexpectedly – most often if I’ve slept on past my stop. When that happens my confused and abrupt awakening has a cattle-prod aspect to it, and probably models the Skylab experience in its essential details, though obviously without me being in low Earth orbit. That’s too far outside of the travelcard zones I’ve got a ticket for.

I also used to encounter the cattle-prod effect in the days when I worked in a corporate environment. It happened most commonly if I had to attend post-lunch meetings. Recollection of these post-lunch meetings was of distant droning voices interrupted by my irregular blackouts. It was an experience punctuated by helpful digs in the ribs from the person sitting next to me as my head listed over in slack-jawed slow motion, or I sagged forwards gradually like someone who’d just been shot by a sniper with a silencer. I’d have been useless on a committee in those days, unless it was for the obvious utility of the gavel-like thud of my forehead hitting the table periodically.

It’s easy to understand why a constant sensation of falling while in orbit triggers a panic “wake-up” call. That’s evolutionary self-preservation at work, probably drawn from our origins as tree-dwelling fruit eaters. Coincidentally I knew a couple of boys like that at school, though one of them preferred a window-ledge to trees. It’s harder to explain why it happens in bed on Earth, because it does to some people. Technically, the Earth is also falling, so in that respect, subconsciously, it may feel like being in a very big lift that’s just had it’s cables cut. If that is the reason, or it’s that our galaxy is falling off into space as well, with its cables cut, there’s not going to be an easy solution. Tablets probably won’t help either. There’s something much more fundamental at work here than car-sickness. Everything’s always moving. Being stationery is an illusion. Just because that’s hard to believe doesn’t mean it won’t seem real when you’re trying to sleep. Sometimes the numbers on my electricity bill look like total fantasy, but that doesn’t put off the energy company; it still demands the money promptly as if the bill were real.

When the sensation of falling is purely a metaphoric one instead of a real one, it’s a new sort of problem to grapple with. Again there’s an incident this touches on that reminds me of my dreary corporate days. Looking back I can see now that my attention span was inadequate to make a go of the corporate world. Predictably, it came to a head when I sent out an email to a group of ten people in which I’d made reference to how having to work on some dull minutes of a lengthy meeting had chloroformed my brain. A moment’s inattentiveness, as they say, can lead to a lifetime of regret. Laziness, disinterest, or sentient fingers with a sense of mischief led me to substitute the word “brian” for “brain”.

For days afterwards colleagues revelled in my evident embarrassment – asking me repeatedly if my brian had woken up yet after being chloroformed. Usually I knew when to expect this. Whenever I saw a cluster of grinning colleagues huddled together at the other end of a corridor, and glancing my way, I braced for the inevitable. My colleagues always looked like cheerful hyenas who’d just stumbled on some road-kill. They were filled with evident glee in anticipation of a feast at my expense. I often smiled back, but it was a hollow mechanical smile, bare of genuine warmth. It was only window dressing for my growing sense of malevolence towards them, and dark thoughts of revenge. I could never hear the silly chatter of their voices; all I heard was the distant thumping of war drums.

During this episode, mine was the sort of expression you don’t want to see on anyone’s face – especially if they’re armed, which fortunately I was not. If you see a face like that, you should leave immediately. For anyone still waiting for the lift to arrive as they jab at the button like a woodpecker, looking back over their shoulder as the lengthening shadow of their predator draws closer, they’ll probably be thinking about the stairs. By then of course it’s too late. This is a story that never ends well unless the lift arrives in time to avert a tragedy.