Shock and awe

The truth is, while I personally hate to lecture, I thoroughly enjoy attending them — even when the lecturing occurs in the backdrop of my increasingly confused state of mind. This was the case when the professor who taught a biomechanics course that I took during my early undergraduate years delivered weekly lectures on tensile strength of bones, on torque and tension, and many other related topics, nearly none of which took root in my memory.

One of the only lectures that I recall with significant clarity had to do with the differences between the bones of adults and children. In brief: children’s bones are more flexible.

Physiologically speaking: over time, cartilage becomes calcified bone and levels of collagen decreases. Some bones become fused as time passes, which is another reason that a child’s body contains more bones than a typical adult skeleton — 300 compared with 206.

But these facts are the ones I just googled. What I remember — the story I recall with precision and that I have often produced as a narrative party trick is the following scene:

In the large, newly renovated lecture hall, Prof. X began drawing on the white board with a black, dry erase marker. He reached up high above him and drew a line about two feet wide and then ran the marker straight down, his lines produced a rectangle.

He pointed to the board with the tip of the marker, leaving a floating black mark near the rectangle and resumed talking, gesticulating with all of his appendages to convey a simple and yet remarkably intricate point about the human body: “If you or I were to take a fall, we would probably be badly injured or die. If a baby took the same fall, he would most likely bounce!”

This enthusiastic declaration had a graphic chaser — Prof. X indicated a “bouncing” motion with an exaggerated check mark that resembled the path said baby might take were it to engage in the aforementioned fall. The very notion of bouncing babies seemed to fill him with a peculiar delight that hardly ever surfaced again.

Babies bounce. This was the major takeaway from my three semesters as an engineering student. So while kids fracture their bones more easily, they also heal more quickly. Youth truly is nature’s balm.

And thus perhaps the cautionary notes I received from well-meaning loved ones about aging and bone fragility were not entirely off base.

But bones repair themselves, cuts heal (faster with the aid of some ointment), and we regenerate in many ways, including the fingernails I routinely slice, chop, or otherwise injure when getting lost in a rapid julienne or a distracted dice. (I’ve spent the past two weeks in full amazement while watching nail enamel form where just days ago flesh was peeking through; the shock of hurt, in awe of the heal.)


I suspect that if I had stories of bouncing babies or, as my high school physics teacher used to do, if I had concocted grand narrative metaphors for deceptively simple principles of physics that involved (no joke) action figures, wind-up motorcycles, and homemade ramps… then I might like to spin a yarn or two, as well, during class. For now, I’m comfortable sticking my pedagogical public with questions to ponder and invitations to engage with readings and texts through art and media…

The shock of falling, thankfully, is soothed with the awe of healing.



Slip and fall


The almost-gash on my leg, just below my knee, refuses to bleed. The indentation, the size of a large staple, taunts me as if it is daring me to take a closer look, knowing full well that the sight of actual blood would induce swooning. So instead, the capillaries along the two-inch abrasion scream silently, the bright maroon from a few hours ago now settling into a brownish wine color. Another, smaller patch of this strange hue sits just millimeters below.

It’s not the pain or the embarrassment that lingers after a fall. No, it’s the split second between realizing you’re about to fall and the moment you begin your descent. The heart, perhaps out of self-preservation, holds its breath. We’re falling, it says, steadying itself before bracing for impact. It’s that instant that reoccurs, the memory of the moment just prior to losing all control that leaves the most indelible mark on the mind and in the body. It’s a recognition of fear about which we can do nothing but succumb. Powerless.

Let me go back a few hours, back before I had cause to wonder how early my doctor would be able to see me Monday morning.

Friday, the 23rd, the day after American Thanksgiving. To the internet and consumerist world, it is Black Friday. For me and three others with whom I passed the time this afternoon, it was a respite from the busy-ness of ordinarily hectic and over-scheduled days. All of us educators and researchers; three of us faculty at universities and the fourth a junior high teacher; all of us, despite our geographic distance, are ever in conversation with one another.

I snapped the second plastic buckle into place and adjusted my scarf before swinging the bag over left shoulder. What I was wearing as a scarf was a large, rectangular, thick cut of green wool that my grandmother had used as a shawl. Along the edges thread has been woven back and forth to resemble the shape of flowers or something else in the flora family. Folded lengthwise, I could wrap it around my neck a few times or, as I was wearing it this time, I often left one end hanging low in front of me and flung the other end across the opposite shoulder. As I started walking toward the door, I was filled with a soothing bliss, a flashing remembrance of the last several hours spent in the company of friends and colleagues with whom I had attended graduate school, with whom I enjoy talking and thinking about and imagining new questions and ideas that arise from our intersecting threads of inquiry.

We sat in the corner, occupying two small tables that on one side offered seating in the form of a curved cushioned bench with a tall, arched back covered in dark fabric, and on the other side could accommodate chairs. I had noticed the clusters of food scraps that rose up from the dark, vinyl floor like mini-landfills here and there, but, other than making a mental note to avoid them I hadn’t paid them much mind. During the course of the afternoon spent at the cafe where I once was employed for 36 hours, and to whose food preparers I almost completely handed over the responsibility of meal preparation during the year that I was writing my dissertation, I had successfully maneuvered my way to the counter to order a total of two cups of coffee and a scone. The service had been pleasant — not overly impressive given my very simple order, but worth noting all the same.

My friend, who would be giving me a ride home, walked a few steps in front of me and I had no reason to think anything was out of the ordinary… and the next instant, I was gripping onto metal and plastic poles that had been set up to direct traffic to the salad station. Down I went, but not before gliding uncontrollably for what, in that instant, felt like an unending spell of torture — the ground mocking me as I struggled to maintain some semblance of an upright posture before recognizing that pain would be unavoidable.

Perhaps I should have stayed down for a few more seconds, but in that most powerless of moments, the only thing the body wants to do is return to normal. How bad can it be, you think, fully aware that your shock impulses have taken over. There is an inexplicable impulse  to smooth your hair, to dust the unbelievably filthy floor dirt from off of your jeans, and then, while all of this maneuvering is happening, a glimpse of crumbs on the floor. A patch of wet crumbs. The culprit. So harmless looking. A non-issue had the crumbs never been dropped, or had they been swept up in a more timely fashion.

And it was perhaps this latter point that brought the manager, who was working his very first shift, rushing outside while my friend and I waited for our ride. Was I ok? Was I sure? What was my name? First name? Last name? And my number? And my address? But I wasn’t comfortable sharing my address. Oh, well my supervising manager will ask me for it. My head was reeling, I wasn’t all quite there. Thankfully, my friend had the presence of mind to ask for the manager’s card, noting that I would get myself checked out and be in touch if necessary. The man shook my hand asking, Are you sure you’re ok? Do you promise?

My friend later told me that I had inadvertently used the magic words that no business wants to hear: Slip and fall. It was the simplest explanation. And yet, they carry with them the ominous promise of legal action. Litigious action was the furthest thing from my mind as I inspected my leg at the scene of the crime incident. A visible scrape, some swelling, the promise of an abrasion and no doubt a scar to come.

Our bodies carry stories. And now mine carries a reminder of one more.

Have legs, will amble

It’s that time again, for branches to emerge as spindly remembrances of their former, leafy selves.

No doubt some of the former fall foliage was blown away by the storms of the past fortnight…

This, taken just days after Sandy blew through town. Awe, again.

So much we have to trust, simply to live through our daily day
without sinking through the earth!
Trust the snow clinging to the mountain slope over the village.
Trust the promises of silence and smiles of understanding,
trust that the accident telegram isn’t for us and that the sudden
axe-blow from within won’t come.
Trust the wheel-axles that carry us on the highway in the middle
of the three-hundred-times magnified bee swarm of steel.
But none of that is really worth our confidence.
The five strings say we can trust something else.
Trust what? Something else, and they follow us part of the way
As when the lights turn off in the stair-well and the hand follows
— with confidence — the blind handrail that finds its way in
the dark.

Another bit from Tranströmer’s “Schubertiana”


…is a funny thing. Not “haha” funny, more like “ain’t that a damn shame” kind of funny… The kind that leads one to drink or cry rather than belly laugh or giggle (and if one is belly laughing or giggling, it is often accompanied by the drinking and the crying). So funny in fact that I am starting to wish I was still pre-tenure, ever longing am I for the sort of busy-ness that I had grown accustomed to

And then someone tweeted this…

Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live./

The giant city over there is a long flimmery drift, a spiral galaxy seen from the side.

— Tomas Transtromer, trans. Robert Bly

…and I received a reminder of this in my email…


By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.


… and all is really quite well. Having retreated momentarily to my mental Innisfree, summoning my muster to see anew, ’tis only a meeting that stands in the way between me and what I hope will be at least a monthly “spontaneous” department happy hour — that seems right: following each department meeting, the secret society gathers around libations in the cloak room. Or, the copy room. Whatever’s handy. (hear me, e?)


Snow’s white

Snow started to fall, started to zig and zag maniacally at the whim of the winds and all at once. The first snowfall — that is, the first snow burst of the season.

This was another day that had forgotten how to end. Conversations bled into one another, the clock kept time, but an hour fast because I had not found the time to turn the hands back. For months it had been five minutes slow. And now, keeping time 55 minutes faster than everyone and everything in the surrounding office suite — somehow, that felt all right.

Finally at a few minutes past 10:00 at night, I walked out into the flake filled air and it felt like bliss. This photo — the original is below the doctored one — was one of the first I made that night with my camera’s phone. The frenetic moisture that drenched the night was no deterrence and soon after reaching home, I turned right back around — stopping only to pull on my waterproof boots and grab my slr. Those pics turned out terribly. But for those several minutes, there was no deadline looming, budgets to approve, and the like. There was just a sepia world that awaited…


In the aftermath

A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.

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And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city