Lucky Stupid.

March 7, 2010 at 2:09 am (By Amba)

I earned that title tonight.

My theory:  near misses and nonfatal mistakes are among the greatest blessings.  When you do something harmfully dumb, yet no harm comes of it, it’s a priceless wake-up call.  You have a much better kind of guardian angel than one that never lets you fuck up.  For one thing, you won’t make that particular mistake again for at least five years, so strike one dumb thing from the list of menaces you pose to yourself and others.  More generally, and even more valuably, you will not trust yourself to be in a trance again for some time to come (much less than five years, though, I’m afraid).

Here’s what I did.

Got J dressed, up, into the van, and drove to the dojo.  Early class today, it’s Saturday.  It was still light.  We were just a little late.  Our friend the karate teacher was expecting us and sent two green belts out to help us get out of the van.

The van is wonderful, I bought it on eBay for about two thousand dollars (compared to five figures for any newer second-hand one) — it’s a 1989 Dodge Ram with a built in Braun elevator lift, and the engine seems indestructible as it approaches 100,000 miles.  It has only one major shortcoming for us:  the frame of the lift is too low for J’s height in the wheelchair, so I have to tip him back, lean him against me and maneuver him under this “low bridge” every time to get off and onto the lift platform.

The newly renovated Durham streets are contoured to slope downward to the curb.  When we park in front of the dojo and I swing down the lift platform, it slopes downward toward the street, as it doesn’t anyplace else.  Sometimes I can tip the wheelchair back anyway, sometimes not.  It helps if someone grabs the frame near the footrests and lifts, helping it tilt back to lean on me.

Often Sensei Nathan helps us but sometimes he sends strong senior students out to do so.  These were two who hadn’t done it before.  I unfastened the four-point restraints from the wheelchair, got out of the van and lowered the lift platform, got back in and turned the chair to face through the frame.  I asked the green belts to tip the wheelchair back, leaned it against my body, and exhorted J not to stop us by grabbing the frame.  I wheeled the chair forward on its back wheels — and screamed as it dropped two, two and a half feet to the street.

As if sleepwalking, I had lowered the lift platform down to the ground before trying to wheel J onto it. The two green belts stood there watching, either dumbstruck by my higher rank or puzzled but convinced I must know what I was doing.  It was like pushing him off a cliff.  Fortunately, the way the street’s contour tilts the van made the distance shorter than the three feet it would normally be.

The wheelchair made a perfect four-point landing.  I couldn’t tell you whether the green belts leapt forward to catch it, or not.  J was jarred and furious, but he seemed intact.  Because I was gripping the handlebars, the chair’s fall yanked me forward and whacked my throat against the lift frame.  Hours later, J still seems to be all right.  I have a colorful foot and a sore larynx, which I have been treating with vanilla ice cream and bourbon on the rocks, thank you very much.  It only hurts when I laugh.

How on earth did I do that — fail to perform a logical series of steps or, as a backup, at least to see what was in front of my eyes??  I very nearly did the same thing once before, maybe two winters ago, but caught myself.  There’s evidently something about the way the platform slopes down by a Durham curb that scrambles my autopilot.  I’ve certainly been preoccupied with occupational issues and adjustments to J’s medication.  (We drove J’s friend to the airport Thursday and then went straight to the gym.  When we got back, we found a delivery inside the door and two of the cats gone.  How did that happen??  I had to retrieve Dito from Animal Services; Buzzy was still in the neighborhood.  But that’s another story.)  Still!  What a shocker.

What a blessing.  I sure as hell won’t do that again, probably ever.  (Just once, I drove off without strapping down the wheelchair.  J’s guardian angel, if not mine, intervened, and ever since, I am extremely conscious of tying down the chair.)


  1. El Pollo Real said,

    Sheesh Amba, don’t beat yourself up-it all sounds like an accident-with a fortunate ending.
    Are you OK?

  2. Ron said,

    Far be it from me to not tout the virtues of ice cream and bourbon, but yow! English needs an ’emphasis mode’ to really stress ‘don’t do that!’

    Do you sound like Tom Waits?

  3. Ruth Anne said,

    As one who’s seen this maneuver done *twice* in real life, I shudder when you do it right! Jeez aw pete! Scared the liver ‘n lights outta me!

    When I miss my routine, the tragedy that befalls me is I might leave the house without my mascara. Then I look all ‘uncanny valley’ all day.

    Annie! [shakes finger] What are we going to do with you?

    btw: enjoy the bourbon sundae.

  4. Donna B. said,

    oh oh oh… I’m so glad you are both OK!

  5. amba12 said,

    Chicken and gals: I’m fine! My throat is about 1/5 as sore this morning as it was last night.

    No, imagine pushing someone onto a platform that isn’t there because YOU lowered it to the ground, the way you’re only supposed to do when they’re already ON it! Granted, once I’m behind him tipping him back, I can’t really see. But it just goes to show what automatic pilot I was on. It’s understandable given current worries. I’m not really beating myself up as much as I’m extremely grateful to have been given a free warning to look lively.

  6. amba12 said,

    Ron: no, I sound like Tallulah Bankhead!

    Don’t do that? You mean, don’t mix perfectly good bourbon with vanilla ice cream (even in your stomach)?

  7. Ron said,

    No, no…don’t be dropping “the Package!”

  8. Peter Hoh said,

    Every so often, the brain misfires and assumes a condition that is not correct.

    Count your blessings, give thanks, and keep on living.

    It’s a miracle any of us are alive.

  9. amba12 said,

    So true! All the near misses. I’m trying to put my finger on some slapstick movie or cartoon…maybe it’s the play-within-a-play at the beginning of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” where the baby (who turns out to be played by a cigar-smoking midget toon) waltzes obliviously through a ballet of near-disasters. I think it’s Roger, his babysitter, who is playing guardian angel, barely averting catastrophe time after time, but sometimes it’s just chance.

  10. Ron said,

    Maybe like Keaton in “Sherlock, Jr.” (1924) where the front house frame falls on him, but he’s standing right where a window would be, so he’s unharmed…

  11. PatHMV said,

    Yikes! Annie, glad you are both ok. Mind a question on exactly what went wrong? Do you have to hit a button or pull a lever to lower the ramp, so that you did that and forgot you did it, or does the ramp start out lowered after you first deploy it, and you have to remember to push a button or lever to raise it up? I’m trying to remember how my grandmother’s van-lift worked, but I can’t quite recall exactly. I think you pushed one button, after you opened the side door, to make the ramp rotate outward, and then there was another button you pushed to lower it.

  12. Peter Hoh said,

    It’s not closely related, but your story reminded me of the surgeon who has been promoting checklists — borrowed from the aviation industry. Neither of these is the story I vaguely remember, which connected this idea with some seemingly obvious oversights.

  13. amba12 said,

    Hmmm. Must consider checklists. Not a bad idea! (Would keep surgeons from leaving sponges and instruments inside.)

  14. amba12 said,

    Pat, what went wrong was me. This platform is folded up inside the side doors like a Murphy bed. You open the side doors, pull a lever that swings the bottom out, and then release a latch at the top and lower the platform to horizontal. At that point it is up at the level of the van floor, where the passenger is. You’re not supposed to do anything more except wheel the passenger onto it (which in our case involves tilting him back, leaning him on me and maneuvering him under the lift frame).

    I lowered it to the ground as if he were going to be getting on, not off. It was worse than illogical. It just goes to show the extent to which I was unconscious, on automatic pilot. I’ve done all those moves so many times, but I did them in the wrong order and didn’t even see or think what I was doing. I’ve done that once before in that same location (but caught it in time), indicating to me that there’s something that confuses me about the way the Durham streets curve down toward the curb and when I swing out the platform, it isn’t horizontal; it tilts down.

  15. amba12 said,

    Wow. Peter Hoh sends me a link to an article about people who forget their babies are in the car, resulting in heat death of the baby. These parents’ brains do pretty much exactly the same thing mine did, under the same kinds of circumstances. “An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car.”

  16. amba12 said,

  17. Peter Hoh said,

    Recognizing that it may be something about the way the lift opens up on Durham streets strikes me as important.

    In the future, you are likely to see the curved streets and remember the Lucky Stupid moment.

  18. amba12 said,

    Yes! Because I was on basal-ganglia automatic pilot, a difference in stimuli set off a scrambled sequence of automatic actions, which made no sense at all. But it was not “reviewed.”

    Now I have been frightened into consciousness of that particular moment in that setting, probably forever.

  19. wj said,

    What’s is either frightening, or maybe encouraging, is the extent to which we all go thru our days on autopilot. Sometimes, it helps us do several things at once.

    Just think of the times that you are composing something that you are writing, without any attention to getting your fingers onto the correct keys on the keyboard. Or we get dressed in the morning before we are fully awake.

    Or, on the scary side, think of the extent to which your driving is on auto-pilot. Hopefully with enough attention to let you react to a situation, but that’s how you can suddenly discover that you missed (or are about to miss) your exit from the freeway.

    I suspect that we all do it a lot more than we realize. It’s just that mostly we are doing things for which our autopilots are designed: things that need the same actions the same way every time; no variations required.

    That is also, IMHO, why children take longer to do things — their autopilots aren’t programmed yet, so they have to pay attention to what they are doing. And why teenage drivers have accidents: their driving autopilot isn’t programmed…but from watching their parents they think that minimal attention is the right way to drive.

  20. amba12 said,

    Maybe that’s why time goes more slowly for children as well.

    There’s been a lot of talk and writing lately about “the adaptive unconscious” — the automatic parts of our brains, the parts that notice and process information without need for conscious awareness. Some of it — like controlling blood pressure — almost never becomes conscious (some meditating monks can actually direct autonomic changes). Some of it is automatic but more accessible to awareness, like maintaining balance in gravity. And some of it is acquired and then “programmed” as habit, like driving a car. If there is a sudden threat, you come “off autopilot” almost instantaneously (fast enough, if you’re lucky and not texting) and are flooded with alertness and the capacity for rapid analytical thinking.

    The notion I’ve read is that all of this has been honed by natural selection.

  21. PatHMV said,

    Annie, wasn’t trying to absolve you of all blame, or find some way to sue somebody into oblivion. But in-depth investigations throughout a wide variety of design fields demonstrate time after time that most “human errors” are preventable through proper system design.

    With van lifts, the market is not that large, and those in need of them are not often wealthy, so few resources are (or can be) expended by the manufacturers of these systems to design the interface and automate several of the steps. Doing so could reduce the decisions which must be remembered and replicated by the user (the caregiver, whose brains are normally operating on too much stress and too little sleep, as a matter of routine).

    For example, there could be a small arm (with a big “STOP” sign on it) which blocks the door unless the ramp is in the “up” position. That seems like a very basic and easy to implement system, as it could be an easy mechanical mechanism that raises that arm whenever the ramp is raised high enough to be level with the van.

    Or an even more automated system. The lever and the latch could be automated, as could the side door (it’s a feature on almost any new minivan, automatic sliding doors), so that you push one button, and the machine is ready for loading, and then another button to lower. That’s a MUCH easier sequence to remember and get right, even when tired, then “door, latch, lever, load, lower.”

    There’s some good stuff in the (delightful) works of Edward Tufte regarding instructions at the point of need.

  22. Maxwell said,

    Deep, serious voice:

    “This is your brain. This is your brain farting. Any questions?”

  23. amba12 said,

    No questions, doc! You’ve nailed the diagnosis!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: