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Gravity and the Geek

December 30, 2008 by · No comments

Kelly Martineau

Photo: sharif

Sometimes it is slow, a gentle whirl through space.  I seem to float as the ground spirals up at me slowly, like time unwound.  In that moment, there is still a chance that I can save myself from an embarrassing spill.

That doesn’t happen very often; usually, I crash to the ground, landing in a jumble of limbs, wondering just how many people saw the show.  Call me “Grace” with a healthy side of sarcasm.

My physical escapades are not limited to falling.  Cabinet doors open magically, drawn by the siren song of a collision with my forehead.  Of particular challenge are doorways, which seem to shrink as I pass through.  The falls, however, are my most dramatic medium.

The first spectacular fall occurred when I was two.  Running across a tennis court, I suddenly pitched onto the green asphalt.  According to my father, I thrust my arms back and took the force with my forehead.

I know all kids stumble and fall.  Like any skill worth learning, ambulation requires a good deal of trial and error. What seems unique to me is this fascination with falling on my face.  In fifth grade, a school bag foolishly hung on my bike handlebars, swung into my front wheel, throwing me to the ground. 

I landed on my chin to save my arms from jarring impact.  The following year on an ice rink, a gash in the surface sent me tumbling, face-first, onto the ice. Soothing my nearly concussed brain with that enormous cold compress finally flipped the switch – I never landed on my face again.

I did, however, find new and interesting ways to fall.  In high school, I stumbled up a flight of stairs.  Rushing groceries into my college apartment, I slipped off my wooden clog and heard an audible crack as my foot bent over the edge.  My broken bone healed; the worst part: telling people I broke my foot by falling off my shoe.

A man I knew often said of his wife’s clumsiness, “Well, you see, she is just not at home in the physical world,” a phrase that struck as me as funny.  (It didn’t actually strike me, of course, but could you blame me for worrying?)  I felt, beyond a sense of not being at home in the physical world, a fundamental lack of welcome. 

Spoons and forks flipped off my plates while glasses slipped from my grasp as if pulled by the sneaky hand of gravity itself.  Honestly, I thought the physical world was being a bit of a bully, a foe I knew all too well.

In elementary school, I had participated in a program called “Reach,” for “gifted” students.  One day a week, we attended O’Henry Elementary.  We were insulated from the other students; our only social interactions occurred on the O’Henry playground where the kids taunted, “Reach geeks!  Reach geeks!”  At our teacher’s insistence, my friend Meredith looked up the word “geek” in the dictionary, announcing that a geek was “a performer of grotesque acts, such as biting off the head of a live chicken.”

The next week, we strutted out to the playground and, in response to the teasing, proudly announced this definition of geek, finishing with the rhetorical flourish “So, you see, we are NOT geeks.”  We were certain this mental turn of play would silence their taunting and earn respect, which, of course, it did not, instead inducing shrieks of laughter followed by a new battery of insults.

I hoped to have better results with this bully, the physical world.  I would stand up for myself, hoping of course that when I stood up, I wouldn’t fall down.  But when I did, I would own my falls.

My workplace offered the first test.  One winter afternoon, a space heater cord snaking across my doorway, snagged my rushing feet and launched me across the room.  I skidded like a rock across a pond with a series of increasingly louder thuds.  Footsteps erupted from all directions.  Once all my co-workers had arrived, I recreated the whole scene in slow motion, with exaggerated facial expressions and contorted poses.  My audience was rapt and laughed at all the right parts.  Thus began the dramatic reinterpretations of my falls and near-misses.

I now have quite a catalog: missing a step, dropping behind a car when my flip-flop malfunctioned, chasing an apple forty yards down an inclined parking lot.  For that one, my face glows as I pick up the apple, only to crumple when I realize my prize is inedible – studded with a hundred tiny pieces of gravel.

It could be argued that what I lack in physical ability, I make up in quirkiness, that odd quality of being unique and taking pride in that fact.  The definition of “geek” that my friend Meredith elected not to read aloud that day at Reach was “a person thought to be different from others in a highly unusual way.”  Huh.  I guess you can call me the Grace the Geek.

Not a bad stage name, really.  I can see it across the marquis for my one-woman show of pratfalls and spills.  I will sell out theaters.  Late-night talk show audiences will cheer.  And when Jon Stewart asks about my odd occupation, I will wink and respond with mock humility, “Well, Jon, it’s like so many people say – I just fell into it.”

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