As I was leaving my sister’s house the other evening, crossing the street to my car, I spotted a couple trying to navigate their way through the ice and slush that remained on the sidewalk following the heavy snowfall from the previous week. They were holding hands, walking gingerly in the dark. The man took a misstep, sending his head lurching backward and his free arm sweeping upward for balance. This caused him to jerk his companion violently, sending one side of her body air-borne as she crashed against him. Still upright, they assumed a kind of sideways shuffle off the sidewalk and into the snow, his free arm now pin-wheeling and her legs taking giant cartwheel steps to keep up. They somehow managed to right themselves without falling down. After straightening up, they resumed walking along the sidewalk.
I was concerned, of course. But I was secretly laughing, too because, well, they looked hilarious. In a fit of self-interest, I slowed my own gate to a crawl, stepping gingerly over the layer of ice beneath my car. I was relieved after buckling myself in , happy that I had not slid underneath my vehicle as if to do some nocturnal under-carriage repair work.
This couple’s near-tumble, and my dual-reaction, got me to thinking (as many things do) about my childhood and how as children we responded to minor or near-accidents. Growing up, my younger sister and I, along with our friends, typically laughed uncontrollably at each others’ physical mishaps (slips, falls, bumps, trips, scrapes, cuts, bruises — you name it). Throwing our heads back, guffawing, holding our sides, rocking, pointing, and slapping our knees in delight was a common reaction to others’ misfortune. In more enlightened moments, we’d make vain attempts to suppress our laughter, or, as my younger sister used to do, inquired between muffled giggles, “Are (laugh) you (sigh) alright (snort)?” The victim could only wail in response, “It notttt funnnnnnyyyyy!!!”
I could laugh weeks later just remembering such events. Sometimes I couldn’t stop laughing . I’d laugh, then stop after gaining some control. Then I’d start all over again, laughing until tears dripped down to my chin. A more adult-version of this happens now, on occasion. (Remember the Mary Tyler Moore episode when she can’t stop laughing at the funeral for Chuckles the Clown? I pray that something like that never happens to me.)
This certainly doesn’t endear me to you, dear reader, but there it is. I also wonder if there is a connection to this and my enjoyment of bumper cars at carnivals. I start laughing and never stop, and laugh just as much when somebody smashes into me as when I crash into someone else. This — despite my inability to handle certain motion-oriented activities. (In a previous post I wrote about my inability to handle strong motion, especially carnival rides — so this doesn’t follow logically, I know.)
Chalk it up to childhood immaturity, or perhaps a nervous response to another’s stress and pain. But it was just plain funny to observe someone reduced to the most basic form of physical embarrassment. Or maybe we were just relieved to be on the other side of the peer’s accident.
I’d posit that this is a universal response, with the full recognition that it is not an example of highly-ordered human behavior. Vaudeville comedy, children’s cartoons, the Lucy Show, the Jackie Gleason show, Mr. Bean, reality TV shows, and Saturday Night Live, among so many other forms of visual entertainment, all seem to exploit this natural human tendency.
Of course, I have had more than my fair share of awkward physical moments throughout my life. And while this may be a universal experience, I have thought that either I possess an Awkward Gene or perhaps am the victim of an Evil Awkward Hex.
Yes, this goes all the way back to childhood. So, let’s take a little trip together into my past, through my teen years, and up to my most recent awkward moments. Perhaps by sharing these experiences, I can push back against nature … or undo that Evil Awkward Hex.
When very young, my sister and I used to jump up and down on our beds, a typical childhood activity. However, on one occasion I miscalculated and landed on the corner of the wooden frame — square on my tail bone. This was one of those times when, as I writhed in silent white-pain, my sister, pulling her lips as far inside her mouth as they would go, eventually mustered a halting inquiry about my general state of health. I reached out to grab her by the face, but she was too deft to ever be within miles of squeeze-range.
At the community pool one summer, I spotted a penny in the deep end. Diving in and swimming down the twelve-foot depth to grab my prize, I was taken aback upon scooping it up. It was the softest penny I’d ever come across. I dropped it readily, shot to the surface, and never told a soul. This was a solo awkward moment. As far as I know.
In high school, there was a brief time when I rode my bike to school. Our house was only a few blocks away, and this was before I had a driver’s license — and when bikes still had those baskets screwed to the handle bars . (I can’t believe how much I’m dating myself, but alas, this is true.) There must have been five or six heavy text books sitting in that basket, and I was wearing my Catholic school girl’s uniform, which in this case was the usual blue-green plaid skirt and white blouse. As I lifted myself from the seat to take a turn, about a block from school, the weight from the books sent me pitching forward over the handlebars and onto the sidewalk. Only after pulling my skirt from my head did I turn my attention to picking the gravel from the heels of my hands. I walked to school from that day forward.
When leaving an end-of-year party hosted by my junior-year teachers, I stepped onto the front door steps and promptly slipped, my legs flying out in front of me, and bumped my way down every single step all the way to the bottom.
One day, while teaching in a lab preschool at the University of Illinois, I was outside on the playground with my class. I was tossing a ball with one of the boys, trotting backward to catch it. As I raised my hands to catch the ball, the backs of my legs hit the large sandbox, pushing them out from under me and dropping me backwards directly into the sandbox. The sand supply was rather low, so only my legs were visible from the box.
After arriving at work one morning when I was directing a preschool, I removed some items from the trunk of my car. I closed the trunk with my right hand, catching the pinky finger of my left hand in the trunk. My finger was stuck inside the trunk and I could not get it out. I was standing there. I could go anywhere. I tried pulling my finger out but it was sealed. I tried lifting the trunk, and could not budge it. I thought about calling for help, but my pride stopped me. Finally, perhaps through sheer force of will, I wriggled my hand while pulling on the trunk, and freed my pinky, now mangled and pinched. All the tugging stretched out that arm, too — it’s several inches longer than my other one, and when I walk my hand brushes against my ankle.
On the very first day I taught a college class, upon entering the room, I walked to the podium to move it near the window. As I did so, the top of the podium came off the base, and I, in my nervous momentum, continued walking toward the window with it in my hand. Of course, re-attaching it proved impossible, so I dragged the base to the window, and set the top on the floor beside it.
Several years ago during class I could feel my slip inching down below my waist while leading a discussion. I could feel it hitting below my skirt, though it was not readily apparent that any students were aware of this mishap. It had fit fine when I left the house that morning, so I’m at a loss to explain what structural change took place in the molecules holding the elastic together between my departure for school and the start of the class session. Anyway, I attempted subtle, alternating yanks at the waist line to keep it from dropping any further. When class was over and I walked to the door, it dropped to my ankles, and I waddled around the corner to the bathroom, where I promptly discarded it.
While raking leaves in front of my house several years ago, I managed to disturb a yellow jacket nest. Feeling stings on my legs and back, and with some of them getting underneath my shirt, I began a wild, shrieking run through my front yard, slapping at every part of my body, twisting and twirling head-long into a tree, falling backward and clawing at my back, eventually making my way to the front door after three swipes at the knob, when my husband finally opened the door and I knocked him into the kitchen table as I ripped my shirt off on the way to the bathroom.
Remember the cicada visit several summers ago? They flew in thick clouds at my college campus, diving and swooping everywhere. The walk from the car to the building was like being in a really bad low-budget horror flick. I would try to trot in a care-free manner through the parking lot, but I am not care-free even when there are no cicadas present, so who was I kidding? I would break into a run, covering my face with my forearm, slapping at the air as they fell on me, and claw at my hair and back until reaching the safety of the building. I would then collapse on the floor, quivering and dripping sweat, my hair askew, and clumps of it clutched in my balled fists.
The following mishaps I have experienced somewhat regularly. Lord knows I try to be cool when faced with such challenges, but I just haven’t pulled it off all that well.
When gnats do that buzzing thing in the ear-face range, I find myself swiping at the air and then placing my hands in my lap to feign calm. It is never a successful venture. I swipe at the air and my face and my ear and my nose until I’ve worked myself into a clawing frenzy, causing anyone nearby to retreat, and I shriek, “What the hell are you looking at?”
Bees, of course, fall into their own Category of Loathing. It matters not the setting. I back up, run, squeal, leap, and twirl, demonstrating a kind of high-energy interpretive dance all aimed at separation.
I have been known to get my sleeve caught in a door handle, only to be yanked backward and twirled around back into the door, face first.
Given this life-long pattern of awkwardness, whether it is constitution or the effects of an Awkward Hex, I have decided it is time to accept my fate. It is my own Desiderata of Awkwardness. My world is unfolding as it should. In falls and bumps and splats.
I have a response now, too. So after the next time I fall, trip, claw, slip, flail, or pinwheel in front of a crowd, I’ll stop — stare the onlooker in the eye — and say,”I meant to do that.”