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.”
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.