TIME Culture

‘Madam, I’m Adam': Meet the Reigning World Palindrome Champion

His name is actually Mark, though his brothers have been known to call him Kram

Eat poop tea.

When he was a kid, Mark Saltveit would sit in the car with his two young brothers, bored silly during 500-mile drives on family trips. Eventually he and his siblings turned to palindromes to pass the time. They had learned about these delightful strings of wordplay in school, a row of letters that read the same backwards as forwards. Poop, to the grade-school boys, was of course the consummate example. And when they worked out “Eat poop tea,” they felt like the Albert Einsteins of palindromy—until they realized that it didn’t quite work.

“We were crushed,” laughs Saltveit, now 53, as he recalls the cruel realization that the actual mirror image would be Eat poop tae. But during a bout of insomnia during his 20s, he remembered how he had filled the hours in the family car. Saltveit broke out the dictionary and embarked on what would become his life’s work. Within hours, he had written his first palindrome, at a length that most people couldn’t achieve in a month, or maybe ever. He called it “The Brag of the Vain Lawyer:”

Resoled in Saratoga, riveting in a wide wale suit, I use law, Ed. I, wan, ignite virago, tar a snide loser.

Within three decades, he would become the reigning world palindrome champion.

Saltveit is the star of a new documentary short that filmmaker Vince Clemente is hoping will inspire people to pay for making the feature-length version, as he follows the world’s leading palindromists up to their showdown at the next world championship in 2017. A Kickstarter campaign to fund the initial stages of A Man, a Plan, a Palindrome went live this week. The short debuted in March at—where else—the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, an annual gathering of people who like to debate whether puzzles are better solved using .3 mm or .7 mm lead in mechanical pencils.

“I am drawn to niche worlds. I feel that they need to be explored,” Clemente says. “If you are a palindromist, you are an artist and a genius. There is no doubt. The amount of skill that goes into each one is beyond calculation. Sure, when one is done anyone could look at it and say, ‘Duh, that was easy.’ And I think that is a sign of great artistry.”

Doc, note, I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.

In a rare cultural moment, some of the world’s greatest palindromists have just been given the Hollywood treatment — even if palindromes aren’t even mentioned in the film.

These men are the stars of The Imitation Game, which tells the story of the mathematicians who unraveled Nazi codes during World War II. Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), plays a background character in a biopic that focuses on Alan Turing, but he is the stuff of palindrome legend. Taking a break from his work, Hilton puzzled out the above palindrome over five hours. The skills these men brought to code-breaking, says Saltveit—who may know more about the cultural history of palindromes than any other living person—are the same skills one needs to mentally run through all the possible letter combinations that might build out a grammatical, coherent sentence in opposite directions.

“The amazing thing about Peter Hilton is he did this all in his head,” Saltveit says. “But that was his gift. That’s why he was famous even among the code breakers, because he had that ability.”

Constructing a palindrome starts with the middle, Saltveit explains. In the case of Hilton’s famous work, that was:

never prevents

That leaves a “ts” dangling on one end that must become “st” at the end of a word on the other. So one runs through all the words they can think of that end in “st”—last, vast, past, amast. When Hilton decides that a fast jibes well with never prevents he then knows he has to work with this:

a fast never prevents a fa

And on he goes, running through his mental Rolodex of words that being “fa,” until he has created the deceptively straightforward three-sentence masterpiece, without so much as a pencil or a piece of paper.

As an avid student of palindrome history, Saltveit was bequeathed rare copies of the journals of British mathematician and word-artist Leigh Mercer, who died in 1977. While people don’t generally know his name, they’re probably familiar with his most famous palindromic creation:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!

In the journals, it’s clear that he also worked from the middle outward. On one page, Saltveit says, is this revealing fragment:

Panama, a man a p

Saltveit, of course, used this same method when he took home the world’s first World Palindrome Championship title.

He and the other few but proud souls who can call themselves true palindromists (pronounced pal-IN-droh-MISTS) gathered in Brooklyn, New York in March 2012. Each was called to the front of a ballroom at the Marriott, in front of about 700 or so eager audience members, and given a choice of three challenges: write a palindrome that contains an x and a z; write a palindrome about someone who has been in the news in the past year; or write a palindrome about this competition.

They were given 75 minutes to craft up to three palindromes off-stage, as the audience was entertained with other wordplay. The winner was to be decided by audience vote. Each attendee had a little sign they could use to convey their approval or disapproval: It read “huh?” on one side and “wow!” on the other.

Saltveit, who is also a freelance writer, stand-up comedian and editor of the Palindromist magazine, was going up against the likes of cartoonist Jon Agee, who Saltveit describes as the only person to ever make money off this art. Agee was and is a formidable foe, a man who understands how to balance the ridiculous and sensical in just the right measure. He is the author of this book and its famed, eponymous palindrome:

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A great palindrome, in Saltveit’s estimation, is a little weird. It should be basically grammatical and follow some rules of natural language, but more important is telling a story or creating an absurd image in the reader’s head. Take this example, he says:

Enid and Edna dine.

“It’s a perfectly good palindrome. There’s nothing flawed with the English. It’s just boring,” he says. Now tweak it just a little bit, swap a verb and a name, and you’ve got this:

Dennis and Edna sinned.

That’s basically the same palindrome, he says, “but it’s a heck of a lot more interesting.” Much like this one:

Sit on a potato pan, Otis.

“There’s no such thing as a potato pan and nobody has ever told anybody to sit on a pan anyway. So the absurdity of it is its strength,” Saltveit explains. “You’re almost kind of showing off how far you had to jump to make this work, like you really had to push yourself to heroic bits of cleverness to pound your way through. And that’s the trade-off, versus being smooth. You can be too smooth.”

So when Saltveit sat down for his 75 minutes, he started with the already silly, vivid phrase trapeze part. Like other palindromists, he keeps his own “dictionary,” a collection of tens of thousands of mirror-image fragments that he encounters in daily life—reading every sign, advertisement and text message forwards and backwards. Sometimes, in fact, he so busy inverting letters that he neglects to read them forwards at all. It can become so distracting that he makes himself stop for a time.

When he emerged with the six other contestants, Saltveit revealed a palindrome that—in its charming, barely sensible senselessness—could not be beat:

Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived.

The “wow!” signs sprung into the air. “The audience went for the dirty one, which is not surprising,” says Saltveit. “I threw in a y just to show off.”

Part of what Clemente’s documentary seeks to record is the training that Saltveit and other palindromists are already doing in advance of the 2017 championship, with about two years left on the clock. In Portland, Ore., Saltveit is already running himself through timed trials, asking his wife to throw him a topic—any topic—and seeing what he can come up with. (I asked him how she felt about this hobby of his. “I was completely open about my palindromy before the marriage.”) Unlike most palindromists, Saltveit also has a personal trainer who has crafted a regimen of progressive exercises designed to increase the blood flow to his brain.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who professes to love words not donating a few dollars to see what else these brains get up to—and whether Saltveit can defend his title. There is a rich history of palindromes to weave into the tapestry. Saltveit has traced their origins back to the Hellenistic era, when people stood in the shadow of the world’s first library and stumbled across these magical, symmetrical strings of letters that they believed must be the blessings of god and the curses of demons. As God tells Moses from the burning bush when a man dares to challenge his identity, in what is a word-unit palindrome in Hebrew: I am who I am.

“There’s so much more to explore and share,” says Clemente. To donate to the campaign, visit the Kickstarter page here.

TIME society

Waitress Tracks Down Customers Who Left $1,300 Behind

Kantessa Smith used Facebook to find them

ABC 9 reports that a Georgia waitress who found an envelope with 13 $100 bills while cleaning tables returned the money to the owners, whom she tracked down via Facebook.

Kantessa Smith, a waitress at Country’s Barbecue in Columbus, Ga., told ABC 9 that she reviewed the restaurant’s security cameras with her manager to find footage of the couple and posted zoomed-in pictures on Facebook, asking followers if they could identify the two.

Sure enough, the post went viral this week, and made its way to the couple, who returned to the restaurant to claim the money.

TIME society

Why Indiana’s Controversial Act Does Not Represent Religious Freedom

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act blurs important lines between authentic religious freedom and 'Christian freedom'


Nearly 20 years ago, I was working at my local newspaper when a small controversy arose concerning religious freedom and gay rights. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) wanted to send speakers in to the local Catholic schools to give presentations; the school board said that this would violate their right to instruct students in accord with the teaching of the Church.

At the time I was an atheist in a lesbian relationship. So I called the school board and asked if they could explain why their decision was not just blatantly homophobic. They sent me a small pamphlet explaining Church sexual teaching. I read it, thought it was bizarre but coherent, and ended up writing an article defending the right of Catholic schools to teach Catholic doctrine. My thinking was that although I disagreed completely with what the Church taught, I believed that religious freedom is an essential principle of liberal democracy.

One of the challenges of living in a liberal democracy is that you have to be willing to play nice and get along with people who you’d much rather kick in the eye. It doesn’t matter whether the disagreement is ideological or religious, philosophical or academic, visceral or personal. Part of the social contract that you accept as a citizen is that you agree not to force others to act in accord with your personal beliefs.

But there are places where this gets sticky. Every so often a conflict arises where the way that one person chooses to live impacts another person’s right to live in accord with their own beliefs. The present conflict over Senate Bill 101, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, concerns these kinds of situations.

What do you do, for example, if the only hospital in town is a Catholic hospital and a woman wants to have her tubes tied? Or if a nurse working at a secular hospital refuses, for religious reasons, to assist in abortions?

I think it’s important, on liberal grounds, to recognize that people’s right to act in conscience must be protected under the law. The fact that a woman wants a tubal ligation should not give her the right to force a doctor to perform surgery which he or she considers to be mutilation. An employer does not have the right to compel one of its employees to participate in an act that she or he believes to be murder. These are serious violations of the individual’s freedom of conscience, and in so far as Senate Bill 101 is intended to defend people’s rights in situations like this, it’s a very important piece of legislation – not just from a religious freedom perspective, but also as a defense of the core values of liberalism.

Unfortunately, SB 101 seems also intended, by some lobbyists behind the bill, to blur important lines of distinction as it equivocates between authentic religious freedom and “Christian freedom.” Eric Miller, the Founder and Executive Director of Advance America (an organization that provided much of the impetus for SB 101) says, “It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana…It was therefore important to pass Senate Bill 101 in 2015 in order to help protect churches, Christian businesses and individuals from those who want to punish them because of their Biblical beliefs!”

Religious freedom is a much broader concept that includes mosques, Buddhist businesses, and Vedic beliefs. When “religious freedom” really only means Christian rights, it’s not religious freedom in the sense intended by the American Constitution, or by Catholic teaching.

Advance America gives three examples of situations where Senate Bill 101 will “help.” The first is the provision of peripheral services such as baking or flowers for gay marriages. The second is transgender bathroom use. The third is the use of church property for gay weddings.

The only one of these that really has anything to do with religious freedom is the last one. The other situations described have nothing to do with freedom of religion. They’re just blatant opportunities for public displays of discrimination.

It’s something that I’ve seen before. When I was growing up, my town experienced a major demographic shift: we went from being a primarily white, middle-class suburb to being one of the largest South-East Asian communities in North America. I remember hearing arguments about restricting signage to English and French (Canada’s two official languages), arguments that single-family housing should exclude extended families, arguments that prohibitions on head-gear at schools should be extended to turbans and hijabs. People claimed to be arguing about city planning, Canadian culture and school safety. They were really just being racist, and nobody was fooled.

The same is true in Christian communities that want to deny services to LGBTQ people. No one in these communities would actually want to live in a world where this kind of religiously-motivated service denial was the norm. A society in which Baptist wedding photographers refuse service to Catholics because they might have to take a photo including a statue of Mary. Where you stand in line forever at Walmart only to discover that your Jehovah’s Witness cashier won’t ring through your coffee. Where Muslim restaurant owners refuse to serve women unless they’re dressed according to Islamic standards of modesty.

The difference between a valid conscientious objection and an arbitrary refusal of service lies in the difference between material co-operation with an act, and superficial involvement with it. Refusing to dispense abortifacients, for example, might actually prevent an abortion from happening. Refusing to bake a cake, on the other hand, is just a needless annoyance that makes Christianity look bigoted, intolerant and petty.

Melinda Selmys is a convert to Catholicism, a contributor at Spiritual Friendship, and the author of 4 books including Sexual Authenticity and Eros and Thanatos.

This article originally appeared on Patheos.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Watch a Professor Teach His Class a Thing or Two about Pranks

No advanced math knowledge necessary to enjoy this trigonometry lesson

Matthew Weathers, a math professor at Biola University and technology whiz, often treats his class to performances that mix live action and video.

He starts off by showing a clip of himself botching a trigonometry lesson in a YouTube tutorial. Then the whole show turns into him yelling at this digital version of himself, even stepping behind the projector screen to look like he is inserting himself into this Windows Desktop. Pretty soon, the mini-mes are fighting and throwing Chrome and Firefox web browser icons at each other.

His 2010 prank boasts more than 6.1 million views on YouTube.

TIME society

How High School Students Use Instagram to Help Pick a College

Getty Images Group of teenagers using mobile phones

An unfiltered look at colleges through filtered Instagram photos

When Jackson Barnett, 19, began applying to colleges, he realized he was going to have a problem. Not only was it difficult for the son of two high school teachers to afford applying to many colleges, but the Alabama teen didn’t have the resources to tour the various East Coast and Midwest schools he was interested in.

“One of the most challenging parts of the admissions process was not getting to see all the colleges I was applying to,” he says. “I had to have a lot of faith in colleges’ websites. That’s where Instagram came in.”

It was easy to find schools’ official Instagram accounts. (“What does one semester on campus look like?” prompts Duke’s admissions website. “Follow @DukeStudents on Instagram.”)

But Barnett soon realized that if he clicked on an Instagram photo’s geotagged location, he would be able to see all of the pictures tagged in that specific area — which means he’d see images taken by actual students.

“I definitely went through a bunch of people’s Instagrams just to see what the life of an average student was,” he says. “It’s like having a tour of the school by a real student who isn’t paid to show you the school and tell you the things the admissions office wants you to hear. It’s like you’re getting a tiny slice of that college and it’s real and raw.”

Barnett paid particular attention to whether a school was diverse and politically active. For example, he noted that students at Macalester College were celebrating when gay marriage was legalized in Minnesota, and that campuses were friendly toward protesting students.

The “Natural” Thing to Do

A recent survey found that 76% of teens use Instagram. The graduating class of 2015 will be the first set of students who were able to capture their entire high school experience — from the first day of freshman to the last of senior year — on the photo-sharing app, which was founded in late 2010. So it makes sense that they would use it to not only to follow friends and celebrities, but to research the next stage of their lives as well.

“The natural thing I’d do after visiting a school was to follow it on Instagram,” Morgan Levy, 17, says. The more the New Jersey high school senior looked through school accounts, geotags and hashtags, the more she was drawn to schools that had large athletic departments. She fed off game day energy, which is one of the reasons why she applied early to and accepted a spot at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

“When I began looking at schools I didn’t think I’d end up at a division one sports school,” she says. “I never thought I’d be sitting here watching the first round of March Madness.”

Of course, Levy saw some things on Instagram that would act as a red flag.

“I definitely did find some things that bothered me,” she says. “Some campuses seemed more socially oriented towards a lot of partying and that overwhelmed me a little bit.”

Instagram provides an unfiltered look at a campus via filtered photographs-in contrast to the often highly curated pictures on a school’s official Instagram feed.

“I’ve noticed that we’ve all been using Instagram to see the authentic side of the college, beyond the pretty, glossy brochures,” Isabel Song, 18, says.

The Colorado senior is in the process of hearing back from the 21 schools she applied to. “Now I really want to see where I can fit in with students,” she says. “If I find a really cool post I’ll go through the student’s Instagram page. It shows them out with friends and being social, but they’ll also show community things going on.”

Song hopes to be a pediatric oncologist, so she keeps an eye out for Instagram photos that show undergraduates doing scientific research. Although she’s wary of student Instagram feeds that are over-filled with activities, indicating it might be an environment in which students overextend themselves.

Colleges Are Paying Attention to Their Insta-Image

Bowdoin’s director of digital and social media, Holly Sherburne, is aware that prospective students are following the school’s accounts and hashtags. In fact, Sherburne hired a freshman to work for her this year after noticing that she chronicled everything from receiving her acceptance letter to buying college gear to her first day of class at the Maine college using the #Bowdoin hashtag.

“We have what we call a student digital media team and five students deal with Instagram specifically,” she says. Students will post pictures of student activities on their way to class to offer prospective students a slice of day-to-day life on campus.

Although when clicking on actual students’ Instagrams, applicants might see activity that wouldn’t exactly be advertised by the university, like underage drinking or partying or even protests against the university.

University of Virginia senior assistant dean of admissions Jeannine Lalonde says that that isn’t a huge concern. Students are smart and they know if they don’t lock their accounts down, prospective students aren’t the people they should be worried about — employers are,” she says.

And if a high school student does see an Instagram photo that a UVA student posted participating in a protest, she says that that isn’t a problem. “I want a prospective to student to know that a protest is OK,” she says.

Lalonde encourages applicants to follow her quirky Instagram (that shows off Quidditch matches and beloved cafeteria workers), but she notices that most of the comments she gets are from parents. She says if high school students really want an inside scoop on what campus is like, then they would probably be more intrigued in stalking the school on Yik Yak, an anonymous messaging app.

Staying Off Instagram

Instagram stalking colleges certainly isn’t second nature to all prospective freshmen.

“I did not use Instagram to look at colleges, and I rarely followed universities on other types of social media,” says Maya Sherne, 18, who is currently spending a gap year after high school studying in Israel. “That being said, I used the schools’ official site quite frequently throughout the application process, and only glanced at their social media pages when I was seriously considering the school or when I had been accepted.”

Ian Miller, 18, stayed off Instagram prior to getting into colleges for superstitious reasons.

“For some reason in my head it made perfect sense that by avoiding the college completely on every website but the Common App, I would keep my expectations as low as possible and soften the blow should rejection be eminent, the thought being that just looking at the social media accounts would make me want to go even more and increase my devastation if that would not be possible,” he says.

Although for Barnett, who had searched colleges’ Instagrams for signs of embracing diversity and social activism, using the photo-sharing app was useful in helping him decide to go to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he is currently finishing his freshman year.

And, Barnett says, “It’s even better than what was on Instagram.”

TIME society

Meet the World’s New Oldest Person

Danny Johnston / AP Gertrude Weaver holds a flower given to her a day before her 116th birthday at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation in Camden, Ark on July 3, 2014.

She's 116, but wants Obama at her next birthday party

Following the death on Wednesday of Misao Okawa, a 117-year-old who lived in Japan, the world’s new oldest person is an American.

The title now belongs to Gertrude Weaver, 116, who lives at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation, a nursing home in Camden, Ark., according to the Gerontology Research Group.

“At the moment, Gertrude Weaver is the oldest living person for whom the Gerontology Research Group can adequately verify her age, with the three documentary conditions of original proof of birth, name change and recent identification having been met,” Robert Young, director of the group’s supercentenarians division, tells TIME.

In an interview with TIME last year after she was first recognized as the oldest-living American, Weaver said her secret to longevity is “kindness.”

“Treat people right and be nice to other people the way you want them to be nice to you,” she added. These days, she enjoys “wheelchair dancing,” manicures, Bible study and attending concerts by singers from schools and church groups.

On Wednesday, Weaver told the Associated Press she would like President Obama to attend her party for her 117th birthday on July 4.

Read next: Long Life Secrets from an (Almost) 115 Year Old Woman

TIME society

Try to Be Happy For the Couple That Just Won the Lottery for the Second Time

They also once won a Jaguar because...why not?

April Fools’ pranks might be everywhere on the Internet today, but this isn’t one of them.

A U.K. couple won £1 million ($1.22 million USD) from the EuroMillions lottery last week for the second time in as many years. They amazingly beat the 283-billion-to-one odds and made sure to celebrate accordingly.

David and Kathleen Long had been engaged for 12 years before purchasing their first winning ticket in 2013 that bankrolled their “smashing” wedding.

“David was always convinced he’d win big,” Kathleen told the Mirror. “It’s brilliant.”

Long, who also reportedly won a Jaguar because why not, got that feeling again last week. “I just knew it would be my turn again some day,” David Long told The Guardian.

His trick seems easy to replicate: “Just believe that one day you will do it.”

So that’s what you’ve been doing wrong.

TIME society

What’s More American Than Skydiving?

Legs and feet of skydiver above coastline
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Encounters with freedom, optimism, and exploration at 10,000 feet

When I quit my first real job, I didn’t have a plan. I just walked out with the recklessness of a Harvard graduate who had come of age during the Clinton-era Internet bubble. I was barely out the door when reality set in, and elation gave way to doubts about the wobbling post-Y2K economy. What if I had doomed myself to poverty? I wanted catharsis. That’s when I got the idea to jump out of an airplane.

Soon after, in a boozy haze at a San Francisco loft party, I recruited friends to skydive with me over the Russian River. Everyone sounded brave, but the next morning I was the only one who showed up. Instead of bowing out, I signed the paperwork. My senses felt dulled by a vortex of never-ending work and play, and I wondered what my inner voice would tell me about the path ahead if I could actually hear it.

When we opened the door at 10,000 feet, the only thing I saw was blue. It was a threshold to air, to nothingness. I am scared of heights, but the blue was more abstract: the terror of the unknown. I hadn’t even told my parents I was going to jump. I dug in for a moment, heartbeat in my throat, reconsidering.

The tandem instructor nudged me toward the edge like a reluctant sheep while telling me to pull back my head. I breathed deep, looked up, and, much to my surprise, found calm. Safety was supposed to be inside the plane, with a seatbelt on. But a deeper voice stirred, and it said: Maybe the places most enclosed—by walls, by rules—are the ones that pose the greatest danger. After all, isn’t that why I had quit my job? Outside was an uninhibited place, full of possibility.

“Ready, set …” And we launched into the wind.

My senses were overwhelmed by the relative wind at terminal velocity, a feeling not of falling but of flying. The parachute deployed with a big, decelerating tug. In the quiet peacefulness under the nylon canopy, floating thousands of feet above the sparkling river and green hills, I came home to myself.

We reached the ground softly. My instructor high-fived me and said, “You could be good at this!” I was adrenalized to the gills, driving away well over the speed limit with the windows down, radio blasting and dancing like a maniac. The following week, I started training for my first skydiving license. Sometimes I was so scared to jump that I prayed for high winds to keep me on the ground. Still, I kept showing up.

Exiting through that door became a passion, an addiction, a ritual. I woke up early to go skydiving at tiny little airstrips surrounded by artichoke fields. People I would never have encountered in the Harvard bubble changed the way I thought about friendship. The drop zone was a magical equalizer, where trust fund kids with BMWs hung out with elevator technicians. Parachute packers living on ramen noodles schooled emergency room doctors in flying skills.

There are skydivers all over the world, but the United States has the greatest numbers—our Parachute Association has around 35,000 members. We are a big country with a relatively free market for personal risk-taking and a high enough average income to put extreme sports within popular reach. The early history of sport skydiving is filled with innovations by both members of the military and pot-smoking, barefoot hippies, reflecting a cultural and socio-economic diversity that is rare in places where skydiving is more expensive and therefore more exclusive.

True, the sport’s pioneers were largely white and male, and skydiving remains demographically skewed that way. The culture is evolving to be more inclusive and welcoming to minorities (for whom daily life may seem to carry enough risk). No matter what they look like, the skydivers I’ve encountered in this country seem to share the core values of freedom, optimism, and exploration, all essential elements of the American character.

About a year after I started jumping, I embraced my own desire for new frontiers. I sold most of my belongings and moved to South Africa to pursue my dream of a meaningful career researching the impacts of war and violence on marginalized communities. Taking my skydiving rig with me, I fell in love with the man who first drove me to the Johannesburg Skydiving Club. Freefall became an emotional choice.

Eric, who became my life partner, was the chief instructor at the club and an early adopter of the new discipline of wingsuit flying. A wingsuit is a jumpsuit spanning nylon between arms and legs to transform the body into a human glider (think: flying squirrel). Eric taught me how to use one, igniting a shared passion.

We spent weekends at the drop zone chasing clouds and holding hands. Sometimes at the end of a day we would sit at the end of the runway, tracing its cracks, philosophizing as we took the world apart and put it back together. We knew what we did carried risk, and we talked about what would happen if one of us died.

It was a Sunday morning when I got the call. Eric had made a small mistake on a high-speed landing and the error had, as he had once phrased it, “cascaded into eternity.” All of the matter in the universe is sucked into the moment when the consequences of risk become real. The impossible density of it squeezed everything alive inside of me into pulpy deadness.

As a skydiver, I had learned to handle situations most people can’t deal with. Even beyond the sport we both loved, Eric had never shied away from bearing responsibility for others, even when doing so was painful. And so I wrapped his strength and conviction around my own and refused to give up on our—now my—life.

Four months passed before I was ready to try skydiving again. I didn’t want to let fear of the unknown—how would it feel to fly again without him?—dictate whether I quit. On my first jump back, I wept in the plane and performed the ritual of exiting into the blue. When the time came, it took everything I had to pull my parachute and choose life. I saw him next to me, flying on, and understood that I could not follow. Yet there was so much joy in sharing the flight.

Eight months later, I took some of his ashes up on a wingsuit jump and set them free. Achingly, I dismantled the dream life I had built and returned to the United States, where I felt I had the greatest chance at finding another open door. I spend a lot of my life in the air now, teaching people to fly and organizing world record wingsuit formations. I survived the transitions from sensory-overloaded novice to lifelong student to teacher and leader. On this path, Eric became part of me.

I continue to bear witness to small human errors that take my friends away. But like any other risk-embracing journey, there are trade-offs that make the seemingly perpetual loss worth it. I have become part of a family made up of people from all walks of life. We are joined by our desire to experience the space between sky and ground, using the very force that pulls us down to help us fly. My hope is that our resilience, and the triumphs of our explorations, will inspire all who dream of freedom in any form to take the first step.

Taya Weiss is a professional skydiver, wingsuit flyer, and chronicler of gravity-powered adventures. More of her writing can be found at http://www.tayaweiss.com. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Cards Against Humanity Introduces Science-Themed Cards to Fund College Scholarships for Women

Students play Cards Against Humanity in Denver, Colorado in 2012.
Brian Cahn—Zuma Press/Corbis Students play Cards Against Humanity in Denver, Colorado in 2012.

The scholarships will be funded by sales of the game's new expansion pack

Playing Cards Against Humanity can result in one laugh-out-loud joke after another, but a new college scholarship sponsored by the game’s creators is no joke.

The company says proceeds from sales of its new science-themed expansion pack will go toward its new Science Ambassador Scholarship, which will offer a full ride for women who want to pursue undergraduate degrees in science and are starting college in the fall of 2016.

Applications will be reviewed by more than forty judges who have worked at NASA, Harvard Medical School and the National Science Foundation, among other prestigious institutions. The program will also be run in partnership with Zach Weinersmith of the web comic “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” and astronomer Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy book and blog series.

Game co-creator Josh Dillon, who is getting a PhD in astrophysics at MIT, said in a statement: “Women are underrepresented in science, tech, engineering, and math, and we felt like the funding from this pack could have the greatest impact by making it possible for more women to get an education in those fields.”

Needless to say, while the game is a way to make science more fun, women studying for finals in these courses should not mistake these cards for flash cards.


TIME society

Watch a Woman Recreate 100 Years of Fitness Trends in 100 Seconds

Grab some hand weights

A new viral video pays tribute to fitness trends from the early 20th century to the present day, where Zumba! classes are apparently all the rage.

Produced by Benenden Health, a healthcare service in the U.K., the clip showcases every fitness fad, such as stretches dating back to the 1920s that mimic the Charleston dance moves, and the Trim Twist, which dates back to the 1960s and consists of a brown board that women would stand on to twist away “bulging thighs” and “heaping hips,” as one advertisement put it.

The montage will also bring back memories of Jazzercise, 80s aerobics and workout wear that consists of wearing fanny packs over brightly-colored leotards — and aren’t we glad those days are behind us?

Read next: See 100 Years of Korean Beauty Trends In Just 90 Seconds

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