the (non) accidental tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The real McGill Tartan

The first prosthesis I ever received had a socket with a vaguely skin-toned hue to it. It was not an aesthetic triumph. But it wasn’t supposed to be. I had been an amputee for less than 8 weeks. My prosthetist informed me that I would receive a permanent socket a few months later after the size and shape of my limb stabilized. At that time I could hand-pick something specific for the socket.

The thought of being able to customize my prosthesis with whatever I wanted laminated over it was exciting for a guy who (at the time) had never gotten a tattoo or worn anything more daring than an occasional linen sport coat. As I mulled over my options, I remembered that I had a few square yards of our family tartan lying in a trunk in my attic. The McGill tartan is a predominantly red/green/yellow explosion that looks acceptable only two days out of every year: December 24th and 25th. But now, down a leg and thinking of how to decorate my socket, the McGill tartan finally became relevant.

My second socket left the tartan behind in favor of the U.S. men’s soccer team’s jersey, which at the time was a horrific simulated denim with white stars across it. What then followed, to the best of my recollection, was a series of superhero-themed sockets: Batman; Spiderman; a high-tech looking Superman logo; the Fantastic Four; The Avengers; Ironman; and Captain America.

I used to think that I whimsically selected socket designs based primarily on which franchise was then ramping up at the local cineplex. But as I stared at some old sockets lying around my house over the last few weeks, I began to reconsider that assumption. What if the underlying selection criteria were more subconsciously and psychologically based? The more I considered it, the more I found that explanation plausible.

Why would I ever choose the McGill tartan for my first permanent socket? All my life, the impossibly bright mashup of colors had been a punchline when my father donned his tie and my grandfather his (gulp) pants during the holidays. Even today, I have a McGill tartan tie in my closet (photo above), unworn since I received it. Neither aesthetics nor a positive historical/sartorial attraction to the nauseatingly vibrant colors should have led to my decision.

I have concluded, in retrospect, that out of the universe of possible options I chose this previously locked away swatch of cloth because it was the McGill tartan. It defined me, even with all its Yuletide garishness. It was a personal statement about reestablishing my identity. Never mind the fact that who I was looked suspiciously like the aftermath of a large Italian dinner seen while staring into a toilet bowl after a touch of food poisoning: the McGill tartan socket was my first post-accident stake in the ground when it came to showing people who I was.

In the year after my accident, I began coaching the same soccer team that I had previously played for. Soccer had been a big part of my life through high school and I came back to the game in an adult league in my mid-20’s. My  identity had always been impossibly and delusionally entertwined with my belief that I was a remarkable athlete. When viewed through that lens, the decision to select the U.S. men’s soccer team jersey as my second socket seems not only unremarkable, but inevitable. “Look – I’m still a soccer player [athlete] [normal guy]!”

As the newness of being an amputee began to wear off, I then went down the Marvel/DC socket wormhole. What does every superhero have? An origin story; a seminal event that defines who and what they are. For Superman, it’s the destruction of his home planet and the fact that he’s an alien living among earthlings; Batman arises out of the ashes of his parents’ murder; Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider; the Fantastic Four are exposed to cosmic radiation that fundamentally alters their biology; the Hulk is what’s left after a scientist gets exposed to what should be a lethal dose of gamma rays; Ironman (in the most recent movie trilogy) is born out of the trauma of a missile that leaves metal fragments on the verge of shredding Tony Stark’s heart but for the miniaturized arc-reactor technology that he incorporates into his body (and that ultimately powers his exoskeletal cyborg suit); and Captain America volunteers to become a (highly successful) lab experiment before getting frozen in Arctic ice for a generation.

Every one of these individuals emerges from the transformative experience stronger, more powerful, more remarkable than they were before. To a young guy who had walked into the middle of a road on a snowy night and woke up in a hospital bed two days later with virtually no memory of what had transpired in between, I suspect these stories subconsciously resonated with a unique acuity in the years following my accident.

Comic books and movies have been informing us for the last 65 years that the survivors of random, life-changing events morph from nerds, weaklings, or at most, ordinary people, into individuals who change the world. It’s a well-established mythology that’s so omnipresent we tend not to think about it.

As I look back on the superheroes who have graced my socket for the better part of 17 years, I have the sneaking suspicion that my attraction to them lay in more than how damn cool they look. As a person obsessed with tricking people into not noticing I’m an amputee, I navigate the world with an alter ego: the prosthetic-wearing Dave McGill that (hopefully) no one realizes is an amputee unless I choose to take off my mask. (Less colorfully described as “wearing shorts.”) Similarly, I construct my life around the conceit that I’ve emerged from my accident stronger and better than I was before. (“I am Ironman.”)

Perhaps this is an example of me creating a retrospective narrative to make random past decisions appear more logical. But then again, maybe the tartan was more than just a tartan.


(im)balance 05.06.14

The carpeted floor rushed up and smacked my side. I lay there, stunned. Why wasn’t I standing? How had I gotten here so quickly? My anger spiked and I could feel my face getting hot while in a lower level of my brain I dimly registered that the thin maroon rug covered a concrete slab that was – son of a bitch – hard. As I felt my fingers shake from the adrenaline pumping through them I heard nothing. But I saw a face looking down at me. It was Max. And he’d just knocked me on my ass.

*   *   *

Every son remembers the first time he physically beat his father at something. For me, it was when I ran my 40’ish dad into the ground one winter day during wrestling season when, unbeknownst to me, I had transformed myself into the best shape of my life. For Theo Huxtable, it was when he beat his dad in a backyard basketball game on The Cosby Show. And for Max it was when he knocked me to the ground like he was pushing a toddler over. The events leading up to this life-altering moment were, like so much of my life, ridiculous.

I had returned home from CVS with candy for each of my three kids to consume while we all watched a movie. Jackson had scored some Reese’s, Caroline had gotten a Hershey’s chocolate bar and I had procured an impossibly large bag of Twizzlers for Max. After giving them the candy but before they finished it, I decided that it was appropriate for me to tax them for my efforts. As the person who had (a) volunteered his time to obtain said sugared goods, (b) driven his car the 1.1 miles to the CVS, thus using about 1/275th of the total volume of his gas tank, and (c) purchased the items, I unilaterally determined that a small levy would be appropriate. I therefore made known my intention to exercise the Paternal Candy Tax in a manner uncharacteristic of our current tax system: simply and briefly (i.e., “Max, give me a few Twizzlers.”).

I had not known before that exact moment that my son had Libertarian tendencies. But Max, like the proud men and women who built this Republic, clearly believes that big government – which, within the 4 walls of our home, he refers to cynically as, “Dad” – must be resisted. Implicit in his response – a shouted, “No!” as he clutched the bag containing 20 uneaten Twizzlers to his chest – was his well-thought out, experientially-crafted personal ethos that absolute power corrupts absolutely, leading necessarily to the conclusion that the only way to prevent such abuses lies in the active creation and support of states’ rights. (Which he labels, unironically, “me,” in daily conversation.)

Big Government stared at the revolutionary, aghast at the insolence – the arrogance – of his refusal to pay the tax that it had decreed necessary for the continued well-being of all its citizens. Jackson and Caroline – small satellite states – watched, enthralled by this real-life reenactment of the principles upon which our country was founded and that so many died for, no doubt realizing the nuanced philosophies and theories of power unfolding before them. Relying on my historical power base and perceived greater strength, I chose a policy of rapid, aggressive escalation. “Are you kidding me?” I asked, incredulous that 2-3 Twizzlers weren’t already resting in my Big Government hands. I got up from the couch and took a step in Max’s direction.

Faced with Big Government looming over him, hand outstretched, Max retreated. Hugging the Twizzler bag to his chest, he screamed “No!” in a mock falsetto, leaped up and slunk to the corner of the room, back towards me as he looked over his shoulder. Confident that continued pressure and brute force would result in submission and production of an ever-increasing number of Twizzlers with every second that went by, I stomped over to Max, hand still out, expecting payment.

I don’t know the precise moment when Max decided that there, on that day, he would break the chains of Big Government in defense of his candy. But I do know that the Great Twizzler War of 2014 will go down as one of the shortest and most definitive battles in military history. From his semi-crouched, protective position, Max suddenly launched at me and gave me a solid push, no doubt intending to merely back me off with a warning attack. But to his surprise and mine, I toppled over, my facade of strength and dominance crumbling in a single, irrevocable moment. Max stared at me, wonderment and fear blending together as he realized what he’d done. “Oh my God. I’m so sorry …” His voice trailed off. Jackson and Caroline looked on, dumbstruck. I swore, an expletive directed as much at the realization that Max could knock me down as at Max for actually doing it.

Jackson then broke the stillness, yelling at Max at the same time that he came over to help me up off the floor.

*   *   *

I’ve carefully constructed a model of myself that acknowledges no weakness or downside to wearing a prosthetic leg. I walk on ice in the winter. I run on a treadmill. I scale (small) mountains. I view the world as something I control while I interact with it physically. But given the fact that my 15 year-old son took me out with virtually no effort, it’s a lie.

After this happened, I kept thinking back to when I took karate, all the thoughts I used to harbor when sparring. My head filled with memories about how I believed that with enough training and skill I could hold my own physically if attacked by a human biped. Then they disintegrated, gone forever.

I don’t physically dominate the world; I just work harder than most people to always keep my balance while hiding the effort it takes to do so. That makes me weaker than I thought I was. But I think I’m ok with that now.

stay low

Far be it from me to offer fashion advice. I am one of the most fashion-challenged individuals you’ll ever meet. But when it comes to commenting on prosthetic fashion, I do believe I can speak with some credibility. And I’m going to limit my 1000 word harangue this week to a seemingly small prosthetic fashion faux pas, but one that forces me to shake my head every time I see it: pulling your socks high up over the prosthesis. It’s an unforgivable sin in my extremely short fashion primer, but for those of you who don’t live, eat and breathe both prosthetics and fashion, humor me as I give you some important background information.

First, this fashion advice doesn’t apply when you’re wearing long pants. If the prosthesis is fully covered, neither I nor anyone else cares a whole lot about your sock style choices. Go crazy. Knock yourself out. Wear different colored  socks on your prosthetic and sound sides; wear a sock on your sound foot and none on the prosthesis; or do the opposite. Wear them high or wear them low. (This sounds perilously like a Dr. Seuss amputee style guide: “Upon the fake foot you can wear red or blue/polka dots or stripes will both dazzle under that shoe/Pull the socks high or wear them low/Cool off those dogs by cutting a hole for your big toe/(Don’t be ashamed – be proud, let it show)”.)

Second, for those of you asking why bother with wearing a sock over the prosthetic foot at all, the answer is simple and relatively banal: it’s difficult to get a shoe over a somewhat “grippy” rubber foot shell. A sock makes it much easier to slide shoes on and off the prosthetic foot. So there! With this two-pronged prologue in mind, now permit me to rant.

My fellow amputees, my brethren: when you are wearing shorts and proudly baring your prosthesis for the world to see – i.e., not wearing a cosmetic cover of any kind – why exactly do you need to pull your sock up to dangle limply against the prosthetic pylon? Men especially – you don’t want to ever wear anything where the words “dangle” and “limply” could be used in conjunction with each other to describe what’s showing.

Everyone makes fun of septuogenarians who wear their white socks pulled up as high as their arthritic hands and gravity will permit. So why, dear God, why do amputees from 25-50 insist on perpetuating this known fashion atrocity? Is it because they think that pulling up the socks as high as possible will detract attention from the prosthesis? There are about 73 things wrong with this possible explanation, but allow me to touch on just a few.

First, your sock never covers enough of the prosthesis to actually hide it. In fact, white socks – which seem to be disproportionately favored by the missing limbed – often serve to accentuate the difference between a “normal” piece of clothing and the (often) black titanium it’s covering.

Second, wearing your socks high attracts attention, whether you’re able-bodied or not. Think about runners you now see jogging around with compression socks that run up their leg to just below the knee (see photo at the top of this post). My good friend Scout Bassett insists that these compression socks are the greatest thing since the invention of electricity. She may be right from a performance standpoint. But I have informed her in no uncertain terms that I would rather get hit by a car again than don those ridiculous looking things. If the Tarahumara don’t need compression socks to run 30 miles a day through Mexican canyons, I think I can survive just fine on the brutal terrain of suburban Long Island wearing socks that top out around my ankle. If knee socks look awful when you’re running – and let’s face it, runners are the same people who voluntarily wear tank tops and short shorts together, so looking awful in that context is roughly equivalent to being told that you don’t have  strong enough lyrics to open for One Direction – think of how truly dismal they look when worn this way with regular clothes.

Finally folks, I’ve got bad news for you: if wearing your socks high (a) doesn’t cover your prosthesis and (b) attracts attention, you’ve combined the worst of both worlds by opting for (a) and (b) simultaneously. Let me pretend that I’m the average able-bodied person and give you a sneak peek into their mind as you walk by them looking like this:

What’s the deal with the white socks up to your neck there, big guy? Looking sharp in a Larry Bird rookie year kind of way. Wait a second, why is that sock flapping around like a flag in a stiff breeze? Oh – he’s got no leg. Quick, look away! Can’t stare at that. [Three seconds elapse] Must. Look. Back. Dude, props to you for the whole rehab thing, but the sock. Oh Lord, the sock? You’re not a starting midfielder for Barcelona, my friend. Yes, now I’m staring at you. And I know you think it’s because you have a prosthetic leg. But it’s not. It’s the sock, dude!

Look, I’m a guy who buys almost exclusively grey and black shirts so that I don’t have to worry about matching them with whatever pants I have on. A daring fashion statement from me consists of combining brown dress shoes with a dark gray suit. I actually buy magazines like GQ and Esquire when traveling for the articles. But please, for the love of all that’s holy, listen to me: do not, ever, under any circumstance, pull your socks way up over your prosthetic pylon while wearing shorts and think for a second that you look ok. You don’t. You look awful. And when you see people staring at you as you walk by, don’t blame the able-bodied world for its inability to do anything but stare at “disabilities”, mouths agape. Look down. If you’re wearing your socks high, the disability people are staring at isn’t the one you think it is.