By David Shapiro

Saturday, October 19, 1996


Why Dole jokes
about falling in public

BOB Dole was still making jokes this week about his discomfiting fall from a stage at a recent campaign event.

Falling in public is frightening and humiliating. In an instant, you realize you're going down, there's nothing you can do about it, you're going to look like an ass and you may well get hurt. The picture of Dole's face just before he hit the ground showed pure terror.

I happen to know a lot about falling because I do it often as a result of a neurological disorder that affects my balance and coordination.

I've fallen backward and forward. I've fallen up the stairs and down the stairs. I've fallen in at home, at work, in parking lots, stores, schools, streets and golf courses.

I'm grateful I've never been hurt badly. I attribute this to childhood judo lessons from an instructor who fanatically believed that you had to learn to fall before you could learn to cause other people to fall.

I started using a cane a few years ago - partly for stability and partly to let people know my bumbling was because of a medical problem, not drunkenness. Some good it did.

Shortly after I got it, I stumbled and the cane flew out of my hand as my arms flailed for something to break the fall. I staggered around, nearly regaining my balance until I tripped over the cane and landed on my butt.

I took a mortifying spill a couple of years ago in front of a lot of people in our rooftop cafeteria. The building crew had protected a drain from debris by covering it with a yard of chicken wire held down with a brick. The brick dog-eared the wire and my feet got tangled in it, sending me down hard.

I pointed out the hazard to the Top Guy himself. They fixed it by removing the brick and laying it to the side of the chicken wire. Now you can trip over the wire or the brick. At first it ticked me off to see it still there two years later, but I've come to regard it as my personal little retirement fund.

If falling in front of people you know is embarrassing, falling in front of strangers makes you feel like an invisible drunken vagrant. Spills in a Punahou crosswalk, at a crowded high school and in a busy parking lot drew no offers of help from the many people around. Most avoided looking at me.

Falling can have perverse dignity. When my dog Bingo was a tiny pup, I was carrying him in from the car one night and tripped in the driveway. My first impulse was to let the dog fly so I could use my hands to brace myself. But I protected Bingo and put him down lightly just before I hit the pavement. I broke a toe and ripped up an arm, but I felt good about sacrificing myself for someone else.

Not that Bingo appreciated it. He never let me carry him again.

My favorite fall was from a seated position. I pushed back a plastic chair from a table outside a lunch shop near our office and it stuck in a crack. I teetered on the back legs until the chair couldn't take the weight and the legs broke.

I ended up on the sidewalk still seated in the chair, but in a ludicrously horizontal position. Some people from our building rushed to my aid while in the background I heard a woman break out laughing.

"I know it's in bad taste to laugh," she told her lunchmates, "but I can't help myself. It was sooooo funny."

She was right, of course.

So what do you do when you're prone to falling? You walk more slowly, you grow a thick skin and you make like Bob Dole and joke about it. Because if you don't, someone else surely will.



David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at editor@starbulletin.com.
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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