Amicus lector
When a slip on the ice becomes a measure of intelligence

There’s an ugly undercurrent running through the commentary on this story of a Sioux Falls mother who burned herself with boiling water during Monday’s intense cold snap.

You’ve probably noticed it. Maybe you’ve thought it yourself: Danielle Albers did a dumb thing. Plenty of readers went straight to the insult: Danielle Albers is dumb.

Normally, I try not to jump in when comments get ugly. It happens a lot.

I’m a crime reporter, and people love to judge those they read about in crime stories. If I made it my practice to stick up for everyone unfairly slighted in the comments section of one of my stories, I’d spend half my time commenting on comments.

That’s not my job.

This is a different situation. It’s different because this isn’t a crime, and it isn’t just a local story. USA Today’s website ran a version of it, and Albers’ video has been viewed and shared tens of thousands of times.

Everywhere the story goes, the ugliness follows.

Let’s make this as clear as possible: This stuff is unfair, short-sighted and downright mean. There’s no room for debate on this.

First things first: Albers slipped on the ice.

If you’re in the Midwest and you’re reading this, you’ve slipped on the ice.

Everyone who walks around here has hit a slippery patch on the sidewalk. Sure, we all try to pay attention to where we’re walking, but everyone – everyone – steps onto some ice they missed from time to time.

Albers didn’t throw the boiling water into the gusting wind. She didn’t overfill a huge pot. I saw the pot. She had about two cups of water in it, maybe a bit more. She wasn’t drunk or high.

She just slipped.

You’ve slipped, I’ve slipped, your mother has slipped. Would you call your mother stupid for falling on the ice on the way to get the mail?

But, but, but, this lady was throwing boiling water! Of course she got hurt! That’s not getting the mail or going to church! That’s dumb, dumb, dumb!

Wrong again.

I noted in the story, media outlets and weather service meteorologists across the country did the same experiment, surely hundreds of times. 

L.A. Times reporter Matt Pearce used twitter search terms to find 50 people who’d hurt themselves doing the boiling water trick.

Why did he get curious? Because he saw a search about the boiling water toss on twitter and saw hundreds of people posting photos and videos. Do the search now. You’ll see plenty.

My guess is that most people weren’t hurt throwing boiling water. A few of us in the newsroom had friends or family members who did it. One woman said she thought about trying it with her own kids after work on Monday.

Was Albers doing something dumb, or was this simply about the law of averages, bad luck and the same simple human carelessness that causes thousands of people to burn their hands on hot pans and plates every year at Thanksgiving?

Consider this: Every year, there are a handful of people killed while deep-frying turkeys. People still fry turkeys, because it’s quick and fried birds are tasty.

Let’s step back and remember what Albers was actually doing: Showing science tricks to her kids.

The boiling water toss was one of several made possible by the ridiculous and historic low temperatures that hit Sioux Falls over the weekend.

Some media outlets were specifically encouraging people to do this sort of thing, and we’re not talking about patently irresponsible organizations, either. Here’s a link from an NPR blog.

Albers said she was trying to be “supermom” and show her boys some of those experiments on one of the only days out of the year – perhaps the only day in several years – on which those experiments could be done right outside her window.

Would you rather she put the kids in front of the television?

What if she’d slipped and fallen at a snow hill? Would she be “dumb” for taking her kids out sledding?

Part of my reaction to the meanness is about my impression of Albers as a person. She and her family were kind and genuine with me, and later with photographers and videographers who showed up at her door to ask about the embarrassing situation.

I wasn’t expecting that. When I got there, I felt certain she wouldn’t want to talk about it at all. I wouldn’t want to talk about it.

I’ve slipped on the ice, fallen face-first into the pavement while running, burned myself on hot pans, walked into open doors and stepped on my cat’s tail more times than I care to remember. I chopped off a hunk of my finger while cutting onions a few years ago and ended up in the ER.

I try to be good-natured when my klutziness gets me hurt, but it’s always embarrassing. Luckily, I’ve never been burned as badly as Albers, and I’ve never had a reporter show up at my door to ask about my adventures in absent-mindedness.

Albers talked about what happened to her in part to let people know that the boiling water trick can and does go horribly wrong. Again, she’s not the only person who was hurt. But she wasn’t blaming anyone

Was there some measure of carelessness there? Of course there was. Albers told me so: “It was stupid of me not to make sure there was no ice on the ground,” she said.

Was it kind of funny? Sure. She was laughing at herself during the interview. Most of us laugh when we tell our friends about falling on our butts.

This was an accident, and a pretty horrible one, at that. A mother sustained first- and second-degree burns - in front of her children - while trying to make the best of an awful, freezing afternoon.

That so many people feel comfortable crying “dummy” from afar at someone willing to be open about her mistakes says a lot more about a judgmental public than it ever will about Albers.

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