The NBC affiliate in Los Angeles labeled me the “bionic man” on its 5 pm broadcast last Thursday.
Now there’s a moniker that makes me uncomfortable. I’m not a world-class athlete. I didn’t saw my limb off in some incredible act of bravery or lose it under extraordinary circumstances that merit any special attention. And I’m not a role model for anyone, hopefully, other than my own children.
I’m the moron who, depending on how you look at it, either (a) tried to stop two cars from hitting each other by planting his left leg between them, or (b) lacked the intelligence to see that stepping into a snowy road at midnight to push a vehicle might entail some degree of risk. Either way, 14 years after the event, the score remains Honda Civic 1, Me 0.
In this blog I will not offer glowing platitudes about how I’ve magically determined the meaning of life since that night. (Precept #1). I will not serve up glib statements of inspiration and hope for readers (Precept #2) – note that I optimistically use the plural, “readers.” I will, however, write about things I think might be interesting to people living with limb loss or limb difference, hopefully in a mildly entertaining way.
So – let’s get back to that catchy opening line. “Why, Dave, does NBC-LA think you’re the bionic man?” (By the way, a quick search of Google as I write this reveals that the press has bestowed that tag on at least 5 other prosthetic-wearing individuals over the last few years. Including one featured in the Altoona Mirror. So I’m feeling much less cutting-edge now than I did when I typed that first sentence.) There are two equally-relevant and ultimately unfulfilling answers to that question.
First, it rolled so effortlessly off the tongue of Chris Schauble, the very cool and charismatic NBC reporter who was responsible for converting the 3-5 minutes of blather I provided him into a succinct, catchy sound bite. Second, I was lucky enough to be one of the few people in the US selected to beta test a new device.
“Dave . . . that’s not nearly as awesome as your opening sentence might suggest.” Sorry. But that’s also kind of the point.
I’m on a plane back to New York as I type this, having just spent the last few days in California for the Amputee Coalition of America’s National Conference. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a member of the ACA’s Board of Directors.) And while the technology on display there was cool, sexy, and highly marketable, it’s only a part of the total picture.
I had the opportunity to speak with an amazing group of people while at the Conference – people with stories a lot better than mine and who are doing much more interesting things than a middle-aged father of 3.
Scout Basset, an above-knee amputee, is a world-class triathlete who added the Los Angeles marathon to her list of accomplishments earlier this year. I especially enjoyed Scout asking me, earnestly, how I could deal with the frustration that my job sometime entails. I oh-so-cleverly suggested to her that most normal people might find 4-5 consecutive hours swimming/cycling/running mildly frustrating. Scout is too polite and good-natured to slap me across the face for that snotty answer, so she instead smiled and said, “I guess so.”
I talked with Dave, a Vietnam veteran who lost his leg in that conflict. Dave expressed his concern that the build height of a new prosthetic knee I’m testing might be too tall to fit the foot he likes underneath it. And he needs that foot because it allows him to comfortably rotate while swinging a golf club, which it appears he does somewhat regularly with a reasonable degree of proficiency. In talking about that same new prosthetic knee, I advised Dave that based on my experience, it’s particularly effective when trying to climb out of bunkers on the golf course . . . where I seem to spend most of my time the one time every other year I play.
I heard Marlon Shirley, the first person wearing a prosthesis to break the 11-second barrier in the 100m (10.97 seconds), describe how the high school classmate who first dragged him out onto the track after he lost his leg had recently had his leg amputated above the knee. And how grateful Marlon was to be in a position to “pay it back” to that friend. I also learned that Marlon can stand for hours at a time in the Nevada desert taking professional-quality photos of lightning strikes over Las Vegas, which seems like perhaps not the best thing to do when wearing a prosthesis made, in part, out of titanium. Then again, perhaps he just assumes that he’ll simply outrace any strikes headed his way.
I got the chance to catch up with Peggy, author of a successful blog that provides information and support for other amputee moms. When I invited Peggy to lunch with a group of people on Saturday, she stared straight through me while answering that she was too nervous to eat and had to get “in the zone” for a speech she was going to deliver later in the day to 200 Conference attendees. I’m glad I missed that talk, as it apparently reduced her audience to tears, and I make it a rule to cry only once every 30-or-so years. (My kids ask me on a somewhat regular basis if I ever cry. Being the emotionally-crippled man I am, I flatly answer “no,” and then go to my bedroom, curl up into the fetal position, and hug my daughter’s stuffed animals.)
And that segues me (shamelessly) into my star sighting of the week. (Actually my second, having seen Kobe Bryant at dinner a few nights earlier. But he’s one of those boring “I’ve got all my limbs” people, so I mention him here only to increase my crossover appeal.) I saw a curly-haired young lad racing around the Conference with a basketball and Lakers jersey. I recognized him as Ezra, recently featured on TV meeting his idol, Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol.
On the “Cute Meter”, Ezra rates somewhere between “Very” and “Alarmingly.” (For frame of reference, I’m the kind of person who sees kids as, at best, benignly inoffensive from an aesthetic standpoint, and at worst, jerk-your-head-convulsively-away-while-threatening-to-sever-neck-from-spine unattractive.) Ezra politely smiled while the strange bald guy he didn’t know bemoaned the fact that Ezra’s hero, the aforementioned Mr. Gasol, had sent “my” Celtics to ignominious defeat in the NBA finals. (Perhaps he found the word “ignominious” confusing?)
Ezra came to the Conference late because he was busy scoring the winning basket for his youth team in the championship game. I learned this from his mother, Bahar – I’m getting to the star sighting part, I promise – who proudly informed me of his accomplishment while Ezra dribbled Magic-Johnson-like around and between several hundred people.
And Bahar (finally!), for everyone who saw the Oscar award-winning movie Crash, played the daughter of the convenience store owner. In the movie, she buys blanks for his gun, thus preventing the accidental murder of a young girl in the movie’s most memorable scene. I would have tagged the preceding sentence with “spoiler alert,” but I’m making the command decision that if you haven’t seen the Best Picture of 2006 in the last 4 years, you’ve forfeited your right to complain.
To continue this non sequitur, I told Bahar how much I enjoyed the movie and her important role in it. But only after first calling the movie “Drive,” thus continuing a long-running and, apparently, genetic predisposition to making an idiot of oneself in front of famous people. My father, while the superintendent of a school district in Massachusetts that the late Senator Ted Kennedy visited, escorted Ted to the exit, waved goodbye as his car drove away, turned around, and walked headfirst into a steel beam. Bahar magnanimously ignored my confusing her participation in the 2006 Best Picture with a 1997 straight-to-video movie I never saw featuring, among others, Kadeem Hardison. And that, folks, is as close as I will ever get to the Oscars.
But back to the main point – I walked away from the Amputee Coalition of America Conference feeling oddly refreshed and clear about why I do the work I do and why I enjoy it so much. “It’s the people, stupid.” The “more” in less IS more refers to that.
For those of you who couldn’t follow the brilliant and completely linear-in-a-string-theory-kind-of-way thesis of this first less IS more post, here it is: it’s the people – not the technology – that define the limb loss community. (Have I violated lessISmore Precept #2, above? I think I’m still just on the right side of the line.) A microprocessor-controlled ankle-foot system, a motorized prosthetic knee, or [insert super-awesome, game-changing device of the moment here] are tools – sometimes very powerful ones, but still tools – that people use.
One of the best and most unique ways to meet those people is to attend the Amputee Coalition of America’s Annual Conference. Next year, the ACA celebrates its 25th Anniversary in Kansas City. Visit the ACA’s website in the coming weeks and block out the dates.
In closing, I refuse to watch the interview Chris conducted with the “Bionic Man.” The last time I saw myself on television, in a piece that CNN for some reason chose to air despite my presence, I stood with my arms behind my back. Little known to me, the cameraman was shooting only from my chest up. So the finished product produced the quite-unnerving (to me, at least) impression that your humble author was a bilateral above-elbow amputee. I’m still getting over the loss of my left leg above the knee, so even the hint of additional limb loss sends me spiraling towards psychotherapy. I think I’ll just let Sarah Reinertsen – another remarkable woman whom Chris also interviewed for his piece – act as my interview proxy in the future.