I’m a terribly flawed human being.
I don’t steal. I’m not greedy. But falling strikes me funny. Friends tell me their falling stories to see me snort with the sort of uncontrollable laughter that continues to erupt well after the conversation has moved on. They also send me video clips of strangers tripping and stumbling. Surely that’s not to feed into an unhealthy preoccupation, but only because they care about my happiness.
I don’t enjoy the falls of children, the elderly or anything looks remotely painful. But ordinary falls, those that tend to be accompanied by awkwardness and shock, show me the vulnerability that unites us as a species. You may be a glamorous celebrity, a rich girl on your wedding day, a confident dare devil, a casual visitor to a muddy llama farm, whatever. But when you fall, this is what we share. A moment of instability. A look of disbelief spreading across your face that expresses, “I’m a bi-pedal Homo sapiens well acquainted with upright posture and this can’t be happening.” Gravity continues to exert its influence as your feet and arms flail in an effort to push time backward. This sequence from stable to unstable is my favorite part, actually. The body slamming I could do without. I’ve had a few serious falls myself; two in my twenties required an ambulance ride with the World’s Best People, paramedics. I’ve learned it’s better to find the humor in our own falls, even when they hurt our dignity and our limbs.
Falling is on my mind after a phone call from a loved one. He tripped recently and can’t seem to stop going over the incident. To him it’s embarrassing, an ugly reminder of his own incompetence. That no one else saw him doesn’t even matter.
Here’s what does matter. What we tell ourselves has tremendous power over the way we store and retrieve memory. Each time we call up a memory we color the details with our current emotions. If you fell down on your way into a job interview, then later while depressed you cite that incident as evidence of your own worthlessness, that memory will be more closely associated with a negative state. If, on the other hand, you relate that incident as a wonderfully funny story to a group of friends who howl with laughter, that fall will be associated with more positive emotions. I probably laugh about awkward falls because I am a person entirely lacking in gracefulness. My own history of dropping over at inopportune moments is only tolerable because I recall it as funny.
So tomorrow I’ll call my loved one back. I plan to tell him one of my many falling down stories. Perhaps the one about what did and did not happen between myself and a boy who looked like Jesus, back in North Olmsted Junior High. Maybe he’ll feel some empathy for my plight, hear my laughter and know that laughing about falling is just another way of seeing that we fragile beings are in this together.
Here’s the story, in case you need a laugh.
Falling for a Guy
Back in hip hugger days, guys and girls flirted slowly. At least in junior high (a term that came before “middle school.”) Romance started with glances. After a few days or even weeks of glances came long soulful looks. Then the first “hi.”
Our school was hugely overcrowded with grades 7 through 9, so packed that administrators had traffic lines complete with no passing zones painted on the hallway floors. I was in 8th grade. I wore hip huggers and tiny little tops I bought with my babysitting money at the forbidden head shop on Lorain Road. I listened to WMMS, the cool station that played entire albums. I wasn’t interested 8th grade boys. No, I liked a boy whose long wavy brown hair made him look like Jesus, and whose name, Joe Gagliardo, sounded warm and exotic. Being a grade ahead of me made him out of my reach. But, miracle of miracles, he started the “eye thing” and before long he was looking at me and smiling. I knew he’d be saying “hi” soon. I could barely sleep at night.
My friends advised playing hard to get. I bought a pair of the newest fashion, cuffed high-waisted jeans. With these on I could get away wearing a midriff top, a little skin showing as I walked down the hall between classes. Joe’s locker was up ahead and there he stood with a group of his friends. Suddenly those 9th grade boys looked huge and scary, but I mustered up my confidence. Joe was looking my way. He smiled. Then he said, “Hi Laura.” He knew my name!
Exultation took over, limiting what little coordination I possessed. I hurried so that I could pass by while tossing a brief, hard-to-get-girl hello. At the moment I was closest to Joe, my right foot stepped directly into the left cuff of my new jeans. There it stayed trapped. My mouth hung open in shock. I looked straight into the eyes of the boy I was trying to impress as I teetered forward. My knees buckled. I dropped down in a fall that seemed to take centuries. My head landed directly into Joe’s open locker, my butt hung out facing Joe and his friends.
Although I willed myself invisible or better yet, dead, nothing happened aside from some kind of static that replaced my ability to hear. I backed up like a crab, hurriedly stood and skittered away without looking at any one. I never ever exchanged another glance with Joe. It was easy in that crowded school to avoid him after that. But I used that story to amuse my girlfriends, although most of them couldn’t believe I would laugh about it. A few months later I met the taller, smarter and even older boy who later became the man I married.
Still, thinking of the girl who tried so hard to be cute yet hurled herself headfirst into a locker can make me smirk. Especially when I think of the expressions that must have been on the faces of those guys watching a girl playing hard to get.
photo of statue shared by benleto, Creative Commons