Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Problem with Stairs

Stair-steps are brilliant. Through their power, you can put human habitats right on top of other human habitats, and, rather than having to climb a rope or ladder or something that our longer-limbed ancestors might have recognized, you simply elevate the upright-walker's savannah-surface one "step" at a time, just high enough for the foot to clear and press and bipedal up.

I've always admired them.

But I've mainly admired them from a distance. I'm not sure I encountered a single set of stairs until I was six or seven years old and my parents took us to visit family in Ohio, where my grandparents and aunt had basements. I found the basements fascinating as children do: it was a secret world where everything smelled different and sounded different. But it was the journey, those stair-steps, the bridge between the two worlds that most amazed and delighted me, a tomboy who loved to climb trees. The stairs themselves were a thing to play on -- up and down, stop in the middle and look around -- and I did, until I (inevitably) fell down all the way from the top to the floor of my aunt's basement. I remember the fall seeming to last forever. I remember how I tumbled backwards and how my head and back and arms repeatedly fell on the steps, like running a gauntlet and being pummeled.

Fortunately, it was not a trauma I had frequently to re-live. We returned to Florida where stairs were rare, where basements do not exist and the construction of two-story houses is a folly almost never repeated since Hurricane Andrew quite efficiently removed everything above 10 feet. Florida does have some tall buildings: beach condos, for example. But these are buildings where stairs are for emergency use only, where the architects anticipate such a high percentage of arthritic knees among the inhabitants that elevators very often are shared only among a few families, and will take you directly from your personal parking spot right into your own foyer. There are some more modest apartment buildings in Florida that are 2 or 3 stories, but usually you climb that only once or twice a day, on your way out or your way home, not every time you have to take a pee, or find a pair of scissors, or pull something out of the dryer.

I can't even count how many times I go up and down in a day.

It's led to some anxiety -- though I think the anxiety is probably a good thing, something to keep me on my toes. Because the fact is, walking up and down stairs does not come easily. But even as (rightly) nervous as I am, my mind still wanders, I still slip, I still fall. Most of the time I'm holding onto the banister, so when I fall it's really more like I "swing" down onto my arm. But I'm worried the day will come when both foot and hand slips, and then I'm done for.

I'm not receiving much sympathy about this from the locals. Mainly I think they have no idea what I'm talking about. I even suspect they think I'm lazy. But it seems to me that we train our bodies to do certain things when we're first learning to walk, and if walking up and down stairs is a part of that, you internalize it -- until, without having to think about it, you can walk forward even though the ground is rising or dropping with each step.

I don't have to think about walking, or running, and I'm still good at climbing and hopping over fences and tables -- no problem, barely a thought. Because I learned all those things when I was small. But stairs? I have to consciously inform my leg with each step that it must go high-high-higher in search of footing, or reach-search-lower (a toe scans about) in search of the next step down.

And it really is much better to learn this stuff when you're small. If you're small and you fall, the potential for injury is much less. (For example, when I fell down my aunt's basement stairs as a little kid, the damage was almost 100% to my psyche -- and pride.) But Brian slipped from a bottom step while carrying a heavy box, and we've been waiting weeks now for his broken arm to mend. I tripped at the top of the steps a few days ago, and the bottoms of "roast beef" and "wee wee wee all the way home" split open in the impact, forcing me into bandages, double-socks, and closed-toe boots before winter's even arrived.

I've decided that when we look for a house to buy, we're going to try to find one that's one-story. It's going to be hard, considering what's on the market, but we have to try. There's no way we can avoid stairs all the time and everyplace, but by reducing the number of times we go up and down them at home, we may actually avoid the tumble that takes away our mobility or our lives.

Who knew Des Moines would be dangerous? :)



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