Rebecca Fish Ewan: Physics in the Car

I stop by the curb in front of the junior high and wait for him to come lumbering out of the windowless building complex. His saxophone gives him a lean to the right. Like each day, as he walks towards my car, he seems to be suppressing a smile, like he’s just heard a joke but now’s not the time for laughter. He opens the back and puts his things on the seat. Then he gets in front beside me. K does everything with precise routine, sits in the back seat going to school and up front on the way home. I’ve never questioned this practice or any of the other immutable gestures that define his days. Regularity relaxes him.

PHYSICS IN THE CAR

By Rebecca Fish Ewan

K and his wings for hipmamaPhoenix is easy to get lost in even though it’s a giant grid and I used to teach algebra. The most nowhere place in Phoenix is in my car, beige inside, with cloth seats. Compact. Dull. But each weekday from 3:30 to 3:45, it’s my favorite place to be, because it’s where my 14-year-old son and I have conversations.

I once saw an Inuit hunter on the Discovery Channel who used his spit to freeze a single thread of duck down to the edge of a narrow hole he had drilled in the ice. He then stood over this hole, staring at the feather thread, waiting. He could wait an entire day, bent over the hole, spear held ready to thrust through the nose of the seal who came to the hole to breathe.

Waiting for my son to speak can feel like this.

Neither of us have the conversation manual that most people seem to know by heart, the one that tells you where to rest your gaze while talking or how to read other people’s eyes to know when it’s your turn to talk. But in the nowhere of my car, we can’t look at each other while we talk, which makes the words come easier. In the car, we can both just look forward and be free of eyeball anxiety.

I stop by the curb in front of the junior high and wait for him to come lumbering out of the windowless building complex. His saxophone gives him a lean to the right. Like each day, as he walks towards my car, he seems to be suppressing a smile, like he’s just heard a joke but now’s not the time for laughter. He opens the back and puts his things on the seat. Then he gets in front beside me. K does everything with precise routine, sits in the back seat going to school and up front on the way home. I’ve never questioned this practice or any of the other immutable gestures that define his days. Regularity relaxes him.

We pull away from the curb and I call another parent a dickhead before we make it out of the school parking lot. We’re all in our car capsules, so only K hears me. Once I navigate onto the road, the conversation opens.

“How was school?”

“Good.”

Silence.

I turn left and we drive along the neighborhood street, past ranch houses painted varying shades of beige—gravel yards, dormant grass yards, a landscape conjured from dust.

“We’re starting physics in science,” K says as I hurry over a speed hump.

“Awesome!” I don’t need to feign interest. We both love physics, the science of things in motion, explainer of the universe.

Even before K learned to talk, he studied physics. As a baby crawling about the house, he developed a round bruise on his forehead. He’d crawl up to a wall, stare at it and then bang his forehead against it. He’d give it one more long look and then crawl to another wall to do the same. All about the house. Gaze. Bang. Gaze. I think I laughed out loud when I realized what he was up to. Using his head, he was testing the materiality of our home.

Bang! Wood is smooth and only moderately hard.

Bang! The metal fridge is cool and firm.

Bang! Plaster walls feel bumpy.

Bang! Brick is the hardest so far.

He had no words for the things that imprinted on his forehead and instead seemed to memorize each surface. As K grew out of diapers and began to walk upright, his studies moved beyond the roughness of walls. More than anything, he tried to understand gravity. K dreamed of flying.

Not all maternal instinct is about protecting children from pain. There is also the inclination to let them hurt themselves so they can learn how to protect themselves. A jock might say “No pain, no gain.” As we curve slightly to the left where the trees form a bank of pale green, a haphazard mix of mid-century species—palms, sumac and mulberry—I wonder if I’ve afforded my kids the right balance of protection and pain. We drive under a big pine tree, the kind that fell all around my neighborhood in the last storm. Pines aren’t made for desert living, the physics of wind and heat varies too much from the mountain slopes and dense forests of their natural homes. If I were a tree, I’d be a redwood, living on fog drip by the sea.

“In my first college physics class, the professor shot a monkey as it dropped from the ceiling,” I say.

Silence.

“It wasn’t a real monkey,” I add.

“Yeah.”

Why do I always have to tell old stories? I need to listen more. Ask more questions.

“What did you cover today?”

“Just terms,” K says “velocity…”

“Acceleration,” I interrupt and bite my mouth shut before I unleash my high school F=ma story, how my favorite teacher always said that this was all we ever needed to remember about physics.

F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration. Newton’s Second Law. My teacher believed every fact of the physical world could be derived from this simple equation. He would write it on the chalk board, circle it twice for emphasis and bellow like a Keatsian preacher—”Ef equals em ayyy! That’s all you ever need to know!”—his face aglow for having bestowed on us the secret of the universe.

imagesMy son used to explode with a similar kind of excitement about physics. He’d revel in how mud flies into the air when he jumped in puddles. K used to live without knowledge of Earth’s vastness and exalted in the physics of his microcosm. I don’t need to look over at K to see how much he’s changed, how like a frightened monkey he’s become. We’re afraid of the same things. Uncertainty. Speaking first. Crowded rooms. And we share the same sadness that springs from our boundless fascination with a world too huge and overwhelming for us to bear, especially when other human beings are involved. We, instead, study people and places like specimens. As a child, I was more of a naturalist, spent my time outside, catching lizards, my tiny finger stroking their bright blue bellies. K is more of a laboratory scientist. He makes things to understand them, real things and digital things. Things that test gravity. Rockets.

“Acceleration, that’s feet per second per second?” K says, not so much as a question, but to verify what he already knows to be true.

“Correct,” I answer anyhow. “It’s the rate of change of rate. No matter how fast you’re going, if you don’t change your speed, acceleration is zero.” I can hear the metaphor forming as I say this. Physics is full of parallels to day-to-day life. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (in other words: Karma’s a bitch). I press on the gas pedal to push the car over another speed hump, then roll to a stop near the corner.

“People always mix up velocity and acceleration,” I say as I wait for the cars ahead of me to turn left or right. “They’re totally different.” I turn right and dash over to the far lane to ready for an immediate left.

“Yeah,” K says.

So far, this isn’t one of our more enlightening conversations. In the 8 ½ years I’ve been driving K to and from school, we’ve discussed worm holes, string theory, time travel, rocket fuel ingredients, black holes, binary code, the God particle, ornithopters, how to get to Jupiter. And it’s not just physics we consider; some days K tells me about John Coltrane, modal scales in jazz and where the bamboo grows that’s used for saxophone reeds. Or we debate the effectiveness of the three-branch governmental system.

“Congress sucks,” is how I usually contribute to our talk about social studies, but today we stick to physics.

“NASA flew to Jupiter and back on the same fuel it took to escape Earth’s atmosphere,” K says.

From the turn lane, I notice the mountain silhouette far to the north. Traffic streams by, buffeting my car. I think about what K said, what it reveals about our longing to break away from Earth’s incessant yank. It all comes down to F = ma.

To escape Earth, a rocket must push away from the planet with a strength that exceeds gravity, the force that makes everything fall with an acceleration of 32 feet per second per second. In the F=ma equation, that’s a big ass F, so imagine how big an a is needed for a dinky little NASA Jupiter Voyager to escape from Earth. I turn the car left into the traffic that surges along like blood pumping through veins, each red light a new beat.

“When they dock at a space station, they have to match the speed of the station,” K says. We’re no longer going to Jupiter in an unmanned Voyager. People live on space stations. Stories unfold. I sense a window into a topic I try from time to time.

“I keep thinking you might like Sci Fi,” I say.

“Yeah,” K says.

“It’s fiction, but it has a lot of reality in it that I think you’d like,” I add.

For most of K’s life, he’s rejected fiction. He sees no sense in making things up. When he was five, he’d only listen to product descriptions from his LEGO catalogs as bedtime stories. He’d have me read them over and over until he memorized each one. Sometimes I’d skip a word to test him. He’d put his tiny hand on mine and ask me to read it again, “right this time.”

“Mysterious fighter for the light! Immensely powerful, Axonn vows to fight the Piraka and keep them from stealing the Mask of Life! Axonn wears the Kanohi Roden, the Great Mask of Truth, which can spot any deception. Ages 8 to 16. 196 pieces.”

Back then, there was one exception to his ban on make-believe: the myth of Icarus. A dozen times a day, I had to tell him about the boy who could fly. K didn’t seem to care that Icarus flew so high his wings melted and he fell into the sea to his death. K never saw this story as a fable about the dangers of venturing too far from Earth, on how it’s better to forgo bright things, keep your head out of the clouds and feet planted firmly on the ground. Icarus could fly on hand-made wings. This is all that mattered to K. Following K’s designs, penciled out on sheets of white paper, I cut cardboard wings and attached them to his arms with duct tape. K flapped and jumped in the front garden. I worried he might think to leap from the roof. My husband hid our ladders.

83183310.sY4Y4TKJ.FrontLawnWe turn right onto our street. I always gaze at the ash tree in a front yard just beyond the corner. Living in a desert city can be hard on trees. They get baked in the heat, chopped and malformed to make room for busses passing under them and power lines strung above them. But this tree’s canopy is a perfect bell of leaves that today has begun to yellow from cold winter nights. Each day I drive by this tree, I delight in its beauty and try to ignore the lament I hear in my head for its likely demise. Here’s another law of physics. Things fall apart. Entropy wins. Maybe life’s meaning comes from how we struggle with these laws of physics. And sorrow from knowing we will always lose. I look back up at the tree as we drive by, as proof of life. This tree is a namable thing, Fraxinus velutina, the Arizona Ash, yet I don’t know how to derive it from F=ma, and I’ve never banged my forehead on its trunk.

One more speed hump and we’re home.

“Do you have homework?” I ask as we get out of the car.

“Yeah.”

 

 

Rebecca Fish Ewan writes, draws, teaches and lives with her family in Tempe, Arizona. Author of A Land Between and By the Forces of Gravity, a completed cartoon/verse memoir manuscript on a childhood friendship cut short by murder, she’s also launching a walking zine, GRAPH(feeties), in 2016. @rfishewan

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