cut the grown-ups some slack


07.30.13

While in the Caribbean last week, I got up from the chair where I spent close to 6 hours a day reading (and drinking copious amounts of water) to go to the restroom. On the way there, a young boy, probably 4-5 years old, raced past me, soaking wet. I got the distinct impression – confirmed by his destination – that the alacrity with which he moved arose out of a compelling need to relieve himself in someplace other than the hotel pool.

We reached the restroom at the same time.

Now, let me stop for a moment. Any story that begins with me and a 5 year-old entering a bathroom together may lead readers to feel vaguely disturbed, as if what follows must implicate me in some horrific tale. (Prospective NY Post headline: Ampu-Pee Sex Horror!) I consider, as I type this, that it’s not outside the realm of possibility that I may find a Suffolk County detective at my door later this week to review my web-browsing history and stored photographs. Please take a deep breath and relax – it’s not that kind of story.

Anyway, as we entered the public bathroom, I noticed that despite the youngster’s desperate need to use the facilities, the sight of my prosthesis stopped him in his tracks. (I’ve never considered the ancillary benefits of an uncovered prosthesis: “Don’t like diapers? Get your very own amputee and buy an extra 5 minutes of ‘dry time!'”) The intensity of his focus led to the disquieting feeling that he was staring at me as I did what people do in a bathroom. (He wasn’t. I checked.)

I washed my hands and walked back to the pool area when I heard a stranger shouting at me. “Hey! Excuse me!” I looked to my left and saw a slightly overweight man in his swimsuit jogging towards me, two kids in tow.

“I’m sorry, is it ok if you show that to my son? He came back from the bathroom saying he saw this guy with a cool robot leg!” I looked behind the man and realized that the younger of his boys was, in fact, the desperate-to-pee lad I had seen just a few minutes earlier.

I sat down on a wooden bench and showed the kids the entire prosthesis – starting with the socket, and moving all the way down to the foot. The father – Igor (making him the first actual Igor I’ve ever meet in my 43+ years on planet Earth) – translated for his sons as I described the different components and what they did. When I finished I asked, “Cool?” and gave the boys a thumbs-up. They both grinned and nodded and jumped back into the pool.

I spoke with Igor for a few more minutes and then returned to my family on the other side of the pool. Jackson, who had observed the exchange, said, “So you explained everything to them. Did they like it?” I nodded, smiling broadly.

*   *   *

As I thought about what to write this week, the following question came to me as I turned over my meeting with Igor and his kids: why do many amputees find a child’s gaping at their prosthesis acceptable, but react so negatively to adults doing the same thing? I’m pretty serene when it comes to these kinds of things, but even I feel differently about the two situations.

I understand a kid standing 10 feet away in fight or flight mode as he considers my prosthesis. In fact, my kids get angrier about these situations than I do. On more than one occasion, Jackson has sidled up to me and whispered, “I want to punch those kids in their faces – they’re just staring at you!” (While the thought of sic’ing Jackson on complete strangers, generally much smaller and younger than him, amuses me in the abstract, I’ve convinced him not to act out on the impulse.)

But the guy who looks at my face, then down at my prosthesis, and then jerks his head wildly in any direction but where my leg is, that guy earns my mild contempt. And I’m not sure it’s deserved. Why does that guy get less credit than the kid who stands, mouth agape, pointing at me and, if with a friend, whispering into his buddy’s ear all while never taking his eyes off my prosthesis?

I think there are two main reasons, though they may be flip sides of the same coin. We give kids the benefit of the doubt because we know they have a limited frame of reference – they’re “innocent.” We don’t expected these small, non-threatening creatures to respond to an artificial limb in a sophisticated, nuanced way.

Second, we cut adults no slack because we assume they should “know better.” They’ve been on the planet longer. They understand many complex things, like how to use a fork and knife (usually) and how a bill becomes law (occasionally). It doesn’t help that adults aren’t nearly as cute as children, making them as a general rule more threatening.

But this view ignores the same rules that all of our parents taught us as kids. “Don’t stare!” “Don’t point!” “Shhh – we’ll talk about it later!” Adults who look at me and then suddenly tear their gaze away are doing exactly what their parents always told them to do. Upon realizing that they’re violating this basic principle of etiquette, their heads pinwheel away to find some excuse – “God, look at all those flourescent lights! Simply amazing.” – for not staring.

I can’t lie. I’m guilty of the same thing. A few years ago I was at the airport in Atlanta when suddenly in front of me materialized former NBA center Manute Bol – all 7′ 7″ of him. My parents brought me up right. I know I’m not supposed to stare. But there I was, walking in one direction, my head rotating around my body in the other as I tried to grasp just how different this guy looked because of his height. I ended up rolling my rather heavy carry-on bag directly over a woman’s foot as a result. If that hadn’t happened, I might have snapped my head off the top of my spinal cord as I continued to gaze at him like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.

Look, no amputee should have to endure an adult leering at them and making them feel uncomfortable. But at the same time, we need to have some perspective. We’re one-half of one percent of the US population. Up until the last 10 years or so, many amputees never even wore shorts, much less exposed their prosthesis, inviting others to look at it. That means most adults have never seen a prosthesis in person. We may think that’s backwards and “not our problem,” but it’s a basic truth.

So we can continue to burn energy and emotion, silently (or sometimes not-so-silently) fuming at the people staring at our limbs.  Or we can accept the fact – especially those of us who regularly wear shorts and proudly display our external cyborg – that the adult isn’t all that different from the kid. We just perceive them differently.

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