Whoops

By Kristen Elde

Essay

One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

An ambulance was on the way, she informed me, and, now crying, I choked out a pathetic “thanks.”

Not three hours later, I was at work. The stitches, four, had been a breeze, residual pain was negligible, my incisors were intact, scarring would be minimal, and the ER doc had assured me I could “go ahead, run tomorrow. Just don’t fall and hit the same place.”

Okay, then!

The next morning I was admittedly apprehensive. While a prompt return to the pavement felt psychologically important (my chin may have resembled a novice sewing project, but I wasn’t about to let it disfigure my training regimen), I didn’t know what to expect. Would I fixate? Zero in on every potential chin-buster in sight? Or would I slide easily into my pre-fall state, a running style marked by deliciously escapist thoughts, with little conscious awareness of stride particulars and street clutter?

Wouldn’t you know it—I fixated, my eyes drawn to every crack, every recess, every minute irregularity in the pavement before me. Suddenly everything was a hazard, threatening to trip me up, including the (distracting) scenery: the sweet corner parks, Manhattan’s jagged downtown profile, the neoclassical buildings I’d once admired free of fear…

Also, my legs felt heavy, and I found myself consciously willing them to lift my feet a bit higher off the ground. Just in case. The fact that, up until this point, I’d never once fallen while running fueled my uncertainty, filling me with dread. What if this was the beginning of a trend? Was I doomed to a running life in which ER was more relevant than PR?

Two years later, the clear answer is… nope. And though I’m just now coming off a six-month running hiatus, the reason for the break had nothing to do with fear, and everything to do with—

(Wait, that’s another story.)

This story is about fear. Sort of. More like the idea of fear. The idea of fear as influencing and inhibiting all sorts of day-in/day-out activities that we don’t generally—thankfully—associate it with.

Take this morning: It’s really snowy here in New York right now. Big, fluffy, aerated drifts of the stuff. It’s still coming down. Thirty-some hours straight, I think is the word. Anyway, though “billowy” befits, there’s also plenty of the other—of “punched-down and packed.” Icy. And with icy comes trepidation. ‘Cause one false move down the front steps and—

wooosh/thud, followed by cracked/broke/injured/hospital/death(?)

You know? That is to say—it could happen. It’s not a stretch to think. If it happened—if/when someone dies due to snow-related whatever—it wouldn’t be all that surprising. Tragic, sure, but shocking, hardly.  And, though snow/inclement weather does something to solidify the cause-effect relationship, such effects are, in theory, not altogether implausible when the cause is simply… living. You know? I mean, if you consider that the average person takes between 3,000 and 5,000 steps a day, is it unreasonable that one, just one, of those steps should be a misstep? Doesn’t seem!

Of course, in practice it is fairly unreasonable, keeping in mind the fact that the majority of people aren’t falling down on a daily, weekly, even monthly, basis. But doesn’t this seem weird? Strange that putting one foot in front of the other again and again and again and again, again, again, day in and day out, year after year after year after— doesn’t result in calamity more often than it does, which is to say, more often than “not very often”?

Seems! I mean, think about how little is required for a person to effectively “trip up”: a half-step too fast or too slow in a crowded subway station, a midair centimeter too many in descending a flight of stairs, a smidge “too left” or “too right” while walking in heels across that obnoxious metal grating that pops up on some sidewalks. No matter how careful and deliberate and aware, shit happens, you know? So why not more often?

Not that I’m complaining. It’s just interesting is all. And though 2008’s chin-nailing episode may have pushed these thoughts closer to forefront—it’s so easy! so ridiculously easy to lose one’s footing, be it at the behest of discarded car parts or otherwise!—the (concept of) imminence of disaster due to human misstep/error first suggested itself some time ago, perhaps when I learned to drive, and gained further credibility when I moved to NYC and spent five minutes in a cab.

Ah, yes, the world of cars and the driving of them. On the road. By hundreds of thousands of millions of drivers. Together, on the road. On the road, together. All that psychology bound up in so many sedans, the collectively voluminous potential for distraction…

Again with the seeming ease of it all. Of accidents. Of accidentally turning the wheel a fraction too far this way or that, of laying on the brakes the weest bit too hard, of losing the (physical) moment to x-thought or y-thought. Of being fuckin’ human. Of messing up, you know?

I don’t know. I don’t. But I read something the other month that resonated, that offered compelling evidence as to why life isn’t a huge blown-out symphony of discord (politics notwithstanding), why a cab ride in rush-hour Manhattan is a series of deft maneuverings—skirt this car, trace every last curve of that car, dodge a pedestrian, flirt with a few others—its own special symphony, really.

Two words: interactional synchrony.

“Synchronizing with those close by is neurologically efficient. … If something in your visual field echoes what you’d like your body to do, the action will be easier to perform. Pushing in unison helps the boat along, of course, but it may also relieve the rowers, as every movement in sight reinforces each person’s efforts.”

Can this explain it, then? Explain the (relative—always relative) peace on the roads? The avoidance of a massive pileup of flailing limbs and bared teeth at Port Authority at the start of a holiday weekend? The fact that when I find myself in “against the grain” mode among others—stepping here where I should’ve chosen there, aiming left when I should’ve picked right—this is not normal behavior, but rather exceptional, and thus jarring? Is the last of these a rare break from normal, “interactionally in sync” behavior—as unusual as miscalculating the length of one’s stride/winding up on one’s sorry ass?

Maybe! I love the concept, anyway, and the research is (starting to be) there.

But what about solitary acts? What’s saving me from more frequent dust-bitings  when I’m all by my lonesome? Do the principles of I.S. get memorized/carried over? Or is it as simple/complex as “it’s not evolutionarily advantageous to fall energetically and often”?

Whatever the case, the slim odds of falling, tripping, etc. have encouraged me to dwell, just a bit (is it possible to dwell “just a bit”? I’m convinced), on alternatives. Alternatives to “correct.” If I position my foot just slightly farther to the right… But—no! That’s the thing: the implications of this thinking (and, no, I don’t drive these days, which is maybe for the best—hee) are entirely cerebral. Hell, I know I’ll never act accordingly. I just won’t. Which, of course, does that much more to spur such thoughts…

Related, I think, is this thing I do while, say, on public transportation. It’ll be any old Tuesday morning and I’ll be a stop away from my Herald Square destination when it will occur to me: I should just stay on. Just stay on this train and get off x-number of stops later. I mean, sure, I’ll be late to work, but, really—so? What if something amazing, something truly amazing and beyond the farthest reaches of my imagination awaits me? Or—what if nothing, save the addition of another smelly homeless person singing Sinatra, awaits? It’s still something “other than,” and isn’t this meaningful in its own right? The fact that there’s always an “other,” always so many others? (See also: Being at the airport and noting any number of flights to any number of faraway, and not far away—Kansas City?—places and realizing that, yep, I could, if I wanted, practical consequences be damned, secure myself a spot on any one of them. And yet, consistent w/ my get-off-at-the-right-subway-stop pattern, I do not. Rather, I return home to my sweet Brooklyn apartment w/ my sweet Brooklyn boyfriend, which makes me happy, two-feet-on-the-ground style.)

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s incredibly important to trip up, be it on Red Hook garbage or otherwise, now and again. To get off at Rockefeller Center or 49th Street or White Plains Rd or wherever else. To hop that flight to Kansas City, damnit! (Or, well.) But it’s equally important to recognize when this sort of thing makes sense. (Not that I know myself , but a woman’s allowed her theories.)

I’m compelled to apply this to the situations of people who’ve been led… astray in some way. A close relative of mine, for one, who currently finds himself in the midst of a pretty rough patch. The concept of “getting off x-number of stops too late”—of opting instead for that strange and alluring “other,” whose appeal gains as its practicality diminishes—this seems to fit.

No matter what, though, there’s hope. There’s getting back on the train heading the other direction, there’s stitching up one’s split chin and doing one’s best to synchronize w/ the “right masses” going forward, there’s… yeah. There’s that. Which is hard, and a lot.

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KRISTEN ELDE, an editor by trade, lives and writes in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in the Web publications McSweeneys, The Northville Review, Pindeldyboz, and Word Riot, in addition to such magazines as BUST, Health, Runner's World, Running Times, Shape, The Writer, and Writer's Digest. She's also one half of the team behind a wildly unpopular parody food blog, to which she loves contributing.

30 responses to “Whoops”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Kristen,

    You should get a football helmet. They have really sturdy face-guards on them.

    I had a recent fall, and I’m finding the same over-cautiousness in my steps. (Of course I still have three broken ribs which keep reminding me to be more careful.)

    On the other hand, I tripped over a 1 1/2 inch high bar off the floor in my house yesterday and hurtled through the kitchen bruising every part of me, but I saved the ribs on the right side, yes I did.

    I should be wrapped in bubble wrap.

  2. kristen says:

    A helmet–yes, good call.

    And your yesterday’s fall–yikes! Nice save on the right, though. Funnily enough, I was out for a run today and bit it as well–two years after that first fall, but timely considering I’d just written about it.

    Drat. We’re doomed.

  3. Matt says:

    Oof. Chin-busters suck. Good for you for keeping on.

    I’ve never been a runner, but as a kid I rode my bike everywhere. And I beefed it on the average of at least once a week. It’s a miracle I never did anything to myself that required stitches or a cast, but from the ages of 10-16 my knees and elbows were a perpetual mess of scabs. It never deterred me, though. I kept riding, it blatant defiance of California’s new helmet laws.

    These days I’ve got a much larger sense of my own mortality, and every time I go out riding I’ve got all my safety gear on.

  4. Kristen Elde says:

    Yeah, Matt, I hear ya–as a kid, you’re unstoppable. On my bike these days, I’m more careful, like you, though admittedly not altogether consistently. I just don’t like bothering w/ all the gear, you know? I suppose that’s why I like running: it takes so little to make it happen.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Eek! I’m just about to come off a six-month running break myself… I hope I don’t synchro-tune into your stumble. I need all of my blood.

  6. Marni Grossman says:

    I really enjoyed this. Just the right mix of philosophy and humor and neurosis. Brava! I say.

  7. There’s a patch of ice lurking beneath every skim coat of snow– or so I learned a few years back when I went flying through the air on an innocent walk home from my younger daughter’s school. The worst part about the walk? My body could do it without a brain — that’s how “everyday” it was for me. And most days I was doing it while my brain was otherwise occupied. That day, however, I knew immediately that my left foot inside of my boot was doing something very, very unnatural and I had to CRAWL yes CRAWL back down the street to my house!

    One orthopedic boot later and a tangle of torn ligaments and a bag of frozen peas– and now I walk like an old lady when the snow and ice hit eying every potential hard surface as a hazard. I even bought a pair of those ice clingy spikes that you can put on your boots so you won’t fall– some days– all this fear can be exhausting and I just go for it– until I start to slip–

    It will be Spring soon enough.

  8. kristen says:

    Yikes, Robin! Sorry to hear.

    Those ice spikes do sound helpful–though, yeah, exhausting. Just *another thing* to deal w/.

    Spring’s taking an awfully long time…

  9. Lorna says:

    My God if I feared my next step after haphazardly walking into the wall or tripping over a curb, I’d be a basket case. I am not afraid. I am not afraid.

  10. kristen says:

    Exactly! You’re not. And this piece really is commenting primarily on the idea of fear–wondering why we don’t fear the fall w/ greater frequency than we seem to, considering all those thousands of steps taken (read: opportunities)…

  11. When I was a sophomore in high school, I attempted one of those cool-guy jumps over the back of a couch. In my overenthusiasm, I hit my head on the ceiling, which made me hit my foot on the couchback, which brought me to a resounding chin-thud on a my parents’ basements’ thinly carpeted concrete floor.

    I hit so hard I cracked seven teeth (which remain busted to this day. Just a chip here and there). My jaw hurt to move, and I thought I’d lost my retainer until I realized I hadn’t been wearing one.

    So I know from the chin save! Glad yours is okay!

    But I will say this: of course it’s expected many of those steps will be wrong, but I bet that some certain klutzes among us (myself for example) take up the slack for those born with such natural grace as the synchrony you mention.

    • kristen says:

      Tehe, mebbe (re: slack taken up).

      And, MAN–reading your own chinbusting account has me smarting sympathetically. Owie!

  12. Tom Hansen says:

    I’ve been doing a bit more falling lately. It’s embarrassing. (Tom falls) Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! Everyone should have a chin scar

    • kristen says:

      Yeah, it IS my first unintentional (read: non-tattoo) scar. Gotta carry some amount of pride around w/ it, eh?

      Still yet–don’t fall!

  13. Don Mitchell says:

    Kristen, I loved this, especially how it goes from reasonably straightforward balance issues to course-of-life issues. Very nice.

    I did a face plant once (years ago) running home from a race, drunk, age-group trophy in hand . . . and in a reasonably populated public park. Nothing to be done but get up and stumble on home.

    Did you ever notice that the pitch and rise of steps can, for some reason, clash with perception and body part location (“proprioception”)? That’s not clearly written.

    Here: about twenty years ago, working a race, I had to carry heavy equipment cases up (and then down) a long flight of stairs. I almost couldn’t do it, and not because the cases were heavy (I was used to that; they were my normal equipment cases). The whole design of the stairs seemed so wrong to me that I could barely function. All I knew was that something was making me so uncertain of my balance, so unsteady, that even going up I took them very slowly. And going down was worse. At one point I just stopped, trying to regain my sense of where I was and how I was proceeding (and I was completely sober, not exhausted). I felt certain that if I took one more step, I’d fall.

    It reminded me of the old days when we considered it amusing to set up a tape recorder, put headphones on, and talk into a mike while hearing one’s voice delayed in the cans. Almost everybody would do OK for a few seconds, and then start talking more and more slowly, and then finally be unable to talk at all. Those steps were like that, for me.

    Know what I mean?

    And did you ever run with somebody and find that you just can’t run with that person? Something about their pace or body movements clashes with yours, and no matter how much you’d like to run together, you can’t? One of you is always being made to run too fast, or too slow, or too something, and it’s nobody’s fault?

  14. kristen says:

    Don–yes! “The whole design of the stairs seemed so wrong to me that I could barely function.” I do know what you mean, and when I’ve come up against this sortof thing, stairs have always been involved, I think. Usually just by pausing and taking a breath, I’m able to reorient myself, but man, really is odd.

    I’ve never heard of that tape recorder thing you mention…

    And about running w/ an ‘unrunnable’ person–yep again. There was this girl, Alicia, who I ran XC w/ in college. She had this annoying way of sidling up too damn close to me on the trail, her elbow getting dangerously/obnoxiously close to my side. I made a concerted effort to dodge her running-company every time. Just an impossible running partner for me; not a good combo…

  15. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    After my recent chin split incident, I’m uber-cautious about getting up out of bed in the middle of the night. The concern of other spill hasn’t sent me running for a box of adult diapers yet, so I guess my fear is well-managed.

    So love the concept you shared: interactional synchrony. Fun to say. More fun to think about.

    • Kristen Elde says:

      Hee–yes! Here’s to well-managed fears and ‘adult diapers on hold.’

      Really dig the concept of I.S. as well. Love the combined beauty and logic therein, you know? Orchestral.

  16. Anon says:

    I’d suggest that perhaps we’re all out of sync with you and need to get our acts together before we damage you further. (:

    How about fatalism? You’re going to fall because it’s your time to fall. My wife recently broke her foot, almost exactly one year after she ended up with a green fracture of that foot, which happened almost a year after severely spraining it. I caught her mid-fall for the sprain, she was with friend who buffered her for the fracture but this time she was alone. Perhaps the foot had to be broken and each intervention was simply delaying the inevitable.

  17. Kristen Elde says:

    Ha! Sounds like a plan. 🙂

    And that’s an interesting piece about your wife. “Perhaps the foot had to be broken and each intervention was simply delaying the inevitable.” If this is indeed the case, let’s hope the gods have officially been appeased, eh? On to other(s’) appendages…

    • Anon says:

      Indeed. And hopefully not mine! My knee’s been acting awfully wonky lately and I’m about due for an ACL tear….

  18. Ray says:

    Love this piece! It really is amazing what the human mind/body can accomplish (and avoid) on a daily basis. I also think how we parcel out the ‘units’ of our experiences can have a big impact on how we perceive our ability to evade danger. For instance, 3,000 to 5,000 steps is what, just a couple miles? Which doesn’t sound nearly as daunting when considering the potential for a misstep. But break it down into inches, and getting from to A to B is suddenly a much more daunting prospect… Maybe not the clearest example, but you get the point 🙂

    I was walking in Chelsea not long ago when I got a speck of dust in my eye; like falling, it’s arguably a wonder how rarely that sort of thing happens. Not that the unlikely odds of such an occurrence gave me much pause as I scrambled half-blind around Chelsea for a public restroom with a mirror, agonized by an offender whose right to cause me so much grief seemed in proportion to its size.

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