- Sitting on someone else’s pee unexpectedly in a public bathroom
- Nails on a chalkboard
- Being cornered by a “close talker”
- Being cornered by a “close talker” who spits while they speak
- Driving behind a slow vehicle on a one-lane road
- Driving behind a tractor on a one lane road (worse)
July 4, 1976
It was another hot, sticky summer in Urbana, the town where I grew up in Central Illinois. Within a month we would be leaving to live in Islamabad, Pakistan. But for now, celebrating the 4th of July in the year of the Bicentennial was in our immediate focus.
When my parents and brothers, Peter and Ted, and I arrived that evening in the field near the University of Illinois Stadium, I became somewhat overcome by my surroundings. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people, spreading their blankets, preparing for the dazzling show in the sky. Peter and Ted began running around and my parents were distracted trying to keep their eyes on them amid the crowd. I thought this was my chance. Maybe, just maybe, in this massive crowd, I would finally see another kid born like me, with one finger on each hand, one toe on each foot. As we passed through the throngs, I looked at every person’s hands. Even as the fireworks drew everyone else’s attention skyward , I continued my search from our blanket.
Only seven years of age, I longed to know that I was not the only one in this world, different like me. Although too young to articulate, I loathed how I felt when others kids stared at me in public. My brothers were always there for me, but even they could never fully appreciate my experience.
Recently, I had to go to the Midwest on a business trip. As much as I am grateful for my job, I never like to leave my family, so I left quite late in the evening. When I got to the airport, to my dismay, I was at the wrong terminal, and had to make a mad dash across the airport. This served to increase my stress and darken my mood. Upon finally reaching the gate, the agent took one look at me and offered to move me to a seat at “the front of the plane,” which I readily accepted. I had thought she meant to upgrade me to First Class, but I was to be disappointed. The plane was so small there was no First Class – just a seat next to another unoccupied seat, which gave me room to move around. But it didn’t matter. Easy come, easy go, I thought.
What did bother me, actually, was that a few minutes earlier, when she was ready to board the plane’s passengers, she motioned me to come. “Yes?” “Ma’am, go ahead.” She motioned me to walk aboard. So consumed in my book, at that moment, I hadn’t noticed that no one else had entered the plane, at least not yet. Over the loudspeaker behind me, I heard, “If there is anyone else that needs extra assistance, please come up for early boarding.” There it was. You hear people use the expression, “it made my skin crawl,” which doesn’t really make literal sense to me, but at that moment the concept applied.
Often friends will tell me they don’t even notice my physical difference. I appreciate that, given I typically forget about it myself, unless reminded by the world of strangers. I also know people who have issues, or their kids have issues, that don’t show on the surface. They, too, frequently forget my difference and as a result don’t see the big deal in missing a few fingers. As nice as this sounds, it also teaches me that there are very few physically “perfect” people who can actually relate to those of us who are not. I get that. And once you have someone with a physical difference in your life, you certainly can forget all about it. But we don’t. Believe me, we would love to, but we can’t. Being reminded of your difference when it is otherwise a non-issue….how best can I explain?
The other evening I was at “Back to School” night. At the end of the evening, I ran into another mother, and realized I had not put in any money for class dues. As I reached for my wallet to grab the cash, the mother, with (I am certain), the BEST of intentions began to physically try and help me take the money out of my wallet, as she said aloud, “Oh, can I help you?” I smiled and said politely, “No, thanks, I got it.” Reflecting that evening as I sat listening to some favorite music (which always makes me feel good), it hit me. I think I can help people with no physical difference relate to how it feels when someone else makes you feel inadequate. Here we go: Imagine how you feel when you are experiencing your worst possible pet peeve. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard, or inadvertently sitting on someone else’s pee….really.
As I wrote some of this blog while on the plane coming home, something happened—all of a sudden, without warning. Lightning struck our plane. We heard a thud, saw a flash of light. It was, for at least a short moment, frightening. Fortunately, all was okay and we landed safely with no other disturbance. But I realized something by it. Again it served as a descriptive tool. Just as lightening can strike out of nowhere, even when the day is otherwise sunny, every time someone calls out my difference, even with the very best of intentions, I feel the jolt. It’s typically unexpected, and, keeping it real— depending on my mood that day, it can even feel more harsh than your worst pet peeve.
So why give all these analogies? Even though only some of us look or feel different, all of us can identify with a pet peeve. My hope is to help a reader to understand what it might feel like to live in my skin. Once you can truly relate, then as I stated in my promo video, “Unless you remind them of their difference, people are functioning simply in their own definition of normal, capable of doing everything, within their means.”
This weekend “Finding Nemo” is being released again, this time in 3-D. I have always loved that movie, and the fact that Nemo had an undeveloped “little fin” and he felt like no one ever understood him clearly resonates. When I was seven, I never had any organization around like, The Lucky Fin Project, created by Molly Stapelman. The Lucky Fin Project is designed to not only embrace difference, but brilliantly exposes kids that look different, to other kids that are similar. Not that it really matters how everyone looks. But the Project lets kids who may never meet each other see and relate to how each other feels—the epitome of celebration of difference.