Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.
~ Henry Miller
Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his body?
~ Thomas Hardy
When Maurice was in his 80s, he would recount at family celebrations the story of his parents’ failed attempt to make a social dancer of him. As his wife, my adopted grandmother, Ella, seized her lips together in a low underscore, this proudly unschooled self-made man would tell how, in the earliest years of the twentieth century, his parents took him to dancing school to put the finishing touches on his preparation for adulthood.
He stood opposite the young ladies in his class; he accepted the aggravated partnering of his teacher. After the second lesson, she called his parents in for a talk. “Mr. and Mrs. Labovitz, there’s no point. Your son will never be able to tell his right foot from his left. To continue would be a waste of your money and my time.”
As a retired retail magnate in his 80s, perhaps Maurice could afford to admit to a failing, especially in such a feminizing sphere of activity as dancing. Indeed, being a poor dancer could arguably raise his masculine status. He had no sense of rhythm, he boasted, then or now. No ability to differentiate his feet. The steps would just not sink from his head down into his body. Everyone should know: Maurice Labovitz was a klutz! (Ella’s chagrin during this inelegant display of her husband’s ineptitude was palpable.)
Henri Bergson — a French philosopher writing before and after Maurice’s curt dancing days — said, we laugh when a someone appears to be a something, when there is a “mechanical incrustation” that seems to have taken hold of living things. What’s funny is when the fall arrives just after the pride. It’s the smug Rob Petrie of the early Dick Van Dyke Show, tripping over his own living room rug after, as the man of the house, having made some decree to his submissive wife, Laura. Gerald Ford’s periodic walking into other people or his tripping down the stairs of Air Force One. Rhianna’s onstage falls.
Scenes like the one Maurice painted of his dance lessons tickle us to imagine. We spend so much time trying to look like we have it all together, when someone messes up — especially when he seems to hold an intention to move quickly, surely, or unobtrusively — it amuses us. It’s such a classic strategy for cultivating laughter — perhaps best known in slapstick comedy — that Toastmasters in Honolulu advises budding public speakers with solid bone mass to pretend at clumsiness to enhance the humor of their presentations.
An advice column on the Internet addresses nurses who habitually break things and have begun to question whether they can succeed anyhow in their chosen profession. An inherently clumsy nurse admonishes: Just be sure to hold thermometers quite firmly. Keep your presence of mind and pay attention to where you are, where you’re going, and what’s happening now: avoid thinking into the future. Practice complex motions in advance so that you’re not quite so anxious when it comes time to really do them.
While clumsiness is usually cute or endearing when we see it in other people — I’ve even heard it described as sexy in men — being clumsy often feels mortifying or frustrating when it happens to us. It is as though we’re trucking along, expecting the body to be right there with us, when it’s secretly holding a “V” sign up behind our head. Or, the brain, driving the front car, leads a caravan of friends behind us to a restaurant they’ve never been to before. Without thinking to see if any of our group is behind us, we hang a right. Something, and a bunch of someones, are missing.
Where was the body when we thought it was with us? Why is it spilling, breaking, tripping over things and misjudging how far away things are — and doing these things so much more often when we’re pregnant, pre-menstrual, or male? (Boys are four times more likely than girls to be labeled as seriously clumsy.)
Blogger Tara Whitney writes, “I was born with the clumsy gene. My body grew faster than my brain could catch up. And so growing up I was all long lean spidermonkey limbs flailing about poking people in the eyeball. I can’t tell you how many times I have
broken/sprained my pinky toes. Or how many times I have tripped over something invisible in public. Embarrassed myself in front of huge crowds. Or stepped off of curbs/stairs just at the right angle to tweak my ankle. There was even a family I babysat for in high school, who eventually bought me my own special plastic cup to use at their house, because no joke–every time I sat for them, one of their glasses would go slipping from my butterfingers and crash onto the tile floor. Even if I tried not to USE one, if I did the dishes or cleaned up? CRASH ONTO THE TILE. It’s a huge family joke that I’m this big ditz when it comes to paying attention to my body vs. its surroundings. Or at least it used to be, thankfully I have grown out of a LOT of this stuff. And guess who inherited this from me? Drew. My poor, gangly, long-leanspidermonkey-limbed child. Who just doesn’t know where his body ends and where the pavement begins.”
Other than a few bruises and breakages, all this is only a “problem” if we assume the body is supposed to be the slave of the master brain, intended to be the submissive Laura to the traditionally manly Rob. It may be that the body gets the message, but refuses to treat it as important. The underclass rehearses the revolution.
What would happen to clumsiness if we didn’t believe in the body as willing servant to the mind’s orders? (One strong possibility: we’d have to find a lot of other things to laugh at, and disturb the rest of both Maurice Labovitz and Henri Bergson.)
What if mind and body were roommates rather than master and slave? Who or what is it that would serve as landlord to them
A Practice on Making Missteps
Here’s a chance to look at your assumptions about how your body is supposed to execute your intentions out in the world. Pick up something from your kitchen that’s not easy to hold: a can opener that doesn’t fit well in your hand, a metal tray that would do better in two hands than one, a coffee thermos that never felt quite right when full.
Caveat: Don’t pick something that’s sharp.
Advanced practice: Use something that’s breakable.
Walk out of rhythm (think Steve Martin in The Jerk), passing the object from hand to hand. (If that’s too easy, toss it from hand to hand.) And, as the Toastmasters suggest, if you don’t have strong bones, take the difficulty level down a bit.
Where was your mind when your body was doing its thing — When was it “there,” following or staying with your body? When was it “gone”? What, if anything, could be considered “right” about the awkwardness, the spilling, the dropping, the tripping, and even the breaking? Was your mind or your body the “boss,” or does a more apt metaphor come to you for how mind and body co-existed in this practice?