the fall of man

Took a lovely face plant in warm-ups. Laughed and got my revenge w/ solid races. When you fall down get back up!

@ScoutBassett, Feb. 18, 2012

@ScoutBassett “why do we fall? so we can get back up again. awesome job!”

@limblogger, Feb. 18, 2012

This was the Twitter exchange between me and Scout Bassett on Saturday. Scout has moved from the world of triathlon to the 100M dash and yesterday was her first competition. I found it noteworthy that her post-race tweet focused first and foremost on The Fall, not the race.

I responded by misquoting (slightly) one of my favorite lines from Batman Begins, simultaneously exposing my lameness (by messing up the quote) and geekery (by revealing my comic-book-loving background). The actual line, from Thomas Wayne to his son, the future Batman, is, “Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” I’ve adopted this as my unofficial motto because it resonates strongly with me, the same way Scout’s pre-race nosedive apparently resonated with her. (Otherwise, why would she mention it in a Tweet that the entire world can read? None of us saw her fall. If she said nothing, no one would have known.)

There’s something about The Fall that’s powerful. It becomes the defining event of any broader experience when it happens. And I have a hypothesis as to why that’s the case.

*   *   *

If I had to put forward a conservative guess, I think I’ve seen my three kids fall over 1,000 times in the last 13 years. Jackson’s in fifth grade and I counted about 17 falls in the final three basketball games he played in January alone. But when they’re younger – just learning to walk – The Fall is the defining characteristic of their ambulatory existence.

Parents know what I’m talking about. Watching a kid wobble unsteadily around the living room with every tabletop, chair, and pet posing an IED-like danger to their well-being is a harrowing experience. But no matter how concerned we are, no matter how many obstacles we remove from their path, they still fall. Repeatedly. But they keep picking themselves up.

Pick yourself up enough, and suddenly you’re mastered the art of walking.

Now, if you will, invert things slightly. Think about how kids respond to the cues of their parents when they fall.  What does a child do when his parent, upon seeing him fall, shrieks in terror and rushes over to him saying, “”Ohmygodbabyareyouokdidyouhityourheadareyoubleeding?!?” while stroking his head and clutching him against her chest? That child bursts into tears, secure in the knowledge that disaster has just befallen him.

On the other hand, the parent who sees her child fall and responds with wide eyes and a big smile while exclaiming, “Oh my goodness! That was a BIG one,” generally elicits a laugh from the toddler, who quickly clambers back up to his feet so that he can give it another shot. In that scenario, the toddler sees that the fall isn’t cause for concern – in fact, so far as he can tell, it’s both humorous and expected – and proceeds accordingly.

*   *   *

In one respect, losing a limb anytime after the age of 5 is, in one respect, like becoming a toddler all over again. We can’t quite make our limb(s) move the way we want them to yet. Until we get them under our control, we inevitably fall. But, especially as a teen or adult, our self-consciousness and the cues we pick up from those around us as when we topple over teach us that we want to avoid The Fall at any cost.

First, think about the first time an amputee walks with a prosthesis. We either (a) start between parallel bars, or (b) step into a harness attached to the ceiling. Either way, we receive a clear message: take all necessary measures to avoid The Fall.

Second, the prosthetists and PT’s responsible for our care reinforce the point. Virtually all initial gait training focuses on safety. If you do fall, the reaction of the health care professional is often more like that of the freaked-out parent than the mom and dad who encourage their child to try again with a smile, laugh, and positive exclamation.

Third, we’re programmed to regard someone inexplicably falling as the butt of a joke. The fact that a video of a woman falling while walking and texting behind a news broadcaster went viral this week – 2.5+ million hits as I write this – illustrates just how entertaining we think The Fall is. The successful 22-year run of America’s Funniest Videos –  a painfully unfunny show that consists solely of people falling or getting knocked down – further underscores this point. Bottom line: we like to laugh at people as candlepins, particularly if they’re not obviously infirm or permanently injured as a result.

Finally, because we’re so attuned to the hilarity of someone else falling, the line separating the woman on Canadian television from every one of us is frighteningly thin. Our ability to shed the psychological impact of The Fall when we’re the ones tumbling ass-over-teakettle is extremely limited. It’s also inversely proportional to our age.

Children at 12-18 months – the age most of us learn to walk – don’t experience embarrassment like adults do. They fall, look for reassurance from their parents to confirm that the time-space continuum hasn’t shifted as a result, and then get up and try again. Adults, on the other hand, fall and as soon as they hit the ground simultaneously inventory for broken bones while screaming the question, “Did anyone see that?” at themselves. (Sometimes, we actually put the physical review after the effort to stand up, as if getting back to our feet quickly will somehow erase the fact that we’ve knocked out all our front teeth.)

I speak from experience. In the last month, I’ve fallen more than in the past two years combined.

*   *   *

As those of you patient and diligent enough to read through my previous posts know, over the last 10 months I’ve successfully transitioned from a sedentary state to running multiple times a week. I started last spring only able to  jog 1.5 miles at painfully slow speeds. By last November, I had whipped myself into good enough shape to run 13.5 miles, and my normal “base” run was 6 miles. Through November and into December, I hadn’t fallen once while running.

At the end of 2011, I finally blew the hydraulic in my running knee, an accomplishment that both annoyed me (because I couldn’t run until I got it fixed) and left me feeling enormously self-satisfied (I had blown out my hydraulic!). That required me to get a new knee, which I put through an immediate 6 miles on the treadmill at my prosthetist’s office without incident. I went into the New Year confident that I would be ready to roll for another 10-12 trouble-free months.

However, in early January the knee started behaving erratically. While jogging out of my hotel room in California to, ironically, meet Scout Bassett for a quick jog, I found my face suddenly pressed against the pavement. Chalking it up to carelessness on my part and psychically still intact since no one witnessed my swan dive, I leapt back up and completed a few miles with Scout while managing to stay on my feet the whole time.

But upon returning back to New York and logging normal mileage on my normal routes, I suddenly found myself struggling to stay upright. I spoke with my prosthetist and modified the alignment of my running prosthesis slightly to enhance its stability after falling four times in the space of two weeks.

Ironically, the safer alignment didn’t solve The Fall. I still felt like the knee was lagging behind me. The faster I ran, the more trouble I had getting my foot on the ground with the knee safely extended. After consulting the instruction manual and my prosthetist, I adjusted the knee’s resistance to (supposedly) increase the speed and force at which it moved into extension from a bent position. This should have been the magic bullet that addressed the exact problem I had identified.

I survived my first interval workout in years last Monday, but the physical torment was secondary to my now all-encompassing focus on staying upright. I rationalized the slowness with which the prosthetic knee moved from flexion to extension by telling myself that I wasn’t used to running at faster speeds and the increased muscle control and force it required. It couldn’t possibly be a mechanical issue – the knee wasn’t even 2 months old. I emailed my prosthetist after the run, and said “Things better, but not perfect yet.” Not perfect yet sounded like the understatement of 2012 after Wednesday’s run.

I went down twice in less than 10 minutes in front of what felt to me like all of Western Civilization. The second time I screamed an obscenity as I clambered back onto my feet and continued onward, wondering what the people in the cars going by me were thinking as they saw me hydroplane across the blacktop on my chest. The pain from the fall was a distant concern compared to the turmoil in my head.

I finished the run, checked myself for injury – none, other than bruised pride – and called my prosthetist. As he and I reconstructed the events of the past two months in detail, it became apparent that we had addressed every possible issue. The only explanation for my sudden instability was that the knee – my new knee – was malfunctioning. But even armed with the knowledge that my recent tumbles likely result from a mechanical problem, I don’t feel much better.

Other people have seen The Fall. Running, an activity that makes me feel somewhat invincible when I do it because of its high degree of difficulty, now robs me of that aura. The Fall exposes my disability much more obviously – at least in my own mind – than the highly unusual carbon graphite appendage that any sentient being can clearly see looks different from the average foot.

*   *   *

By the end of this coming Wednesday I’ll have confirmed what it is I should have suspected as soon as The Fall became a sudden acquaintance of mine: it’s not me, it’s my equipment. As my prosthetist told me on the phone, “The thing that’s so frustrating is you can put together the right components in exactly the same way you had them before, but if there’s a mechanical problem, it’ll send everything sideways.”

I’ll get past The Fall. Fortunately, the severest physical injury I’ve suffered as a result of my repeated face plants is minor bruising on my palms, so there’s no long-term issue that will keep me off the roads. But as I read Scout’s tweet yesterday, thought back on the YouTube video that has roughly 2,470,000 more views than the President’s weekly address, and watched America’s Funniest Home Videos unmask (again) the stupidity of average Americans on the bar television at the restaurant I had dinner at tonight, complete with shouts of approval from the well-lubricated audience, I realized how profound the psychological impact of even one fall can be.

But I reassure myself with the following thought/cliché/platitude: The Fall is just a physical, highly visible manifestation of those challenges in life that we usually hide behind layers of denial, misdirection, or outright dishonesty. When you fall on your face – physically – you’re exposed, flawed … weak. Unlike the typical failures we all experience as professionals, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, The Fall can’t be hidden behind fancy words, anger, or silence.

“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

Everyone experiences The Fall at one time or another. Amputees just tend to do it more visibly than others. And that’s its beauty: it exposes our failure, which makes picking ourselves up an objectively observable act of courage. I could see it when responding to Scout – “awesome job!” – but was blind to it while falling repeatedly over the last two months on the streets of my hometown.

Maybe we should be teaching The Fall instead of how to avoid it.

One thought on “the fall of man

  1. Pingback: it’s not you – it’s me. « less is more

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