Tale of Two Cities

May 2013  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

rio2I tensed, hoping that the people joining me for dinner hadn’t overheard.  I had  flown down to Rio for the week for work.  It was an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful city.  It was also my last evening in the country, and we were at this amazing authentic Brazilian “Churrascaria” (steakhouse) overlooking the water.  The place was lively and the meal quite interactive.  For example, we were each provided our own personal meat-grabbing tongs.  As instructed, all of us at the table simultaneously turned our own circular cards over to the color green.  Immediately, numerous wait staff appeared and began offering us various cuts of steak, lamb, and assorted meats.   While I do eat meat, I prefer fish and so bided my time to wait for the best looking cuts.  The sights and smells had my mouth watering in anticipation. Finally,  when the filet mignon was up for the grabbing, I nodded my head “yes” and reached out with both hands to use my tongs.   It was in that moment, as my filet hit the plate, that the waiter offered his helping hand.  “Can I cut that for you?”  My heart dropped.  It was clear the waiter only had the best of intentions, but I couldn’t help feeling somewhat like a five-year-old.

I nodded my head in the negative, back and forth. Back and forth.  “No thank you.”

Although I could’ve selected a new offering when the next waiter came along, instead I quickly flipped my circular card to the color red, which told them to pass me by.  I looked around again.  Fortunately, those at the table did not seem to have overheard.  Having spent a long day at our local office, I was already quite exhausted.  I didn’t actually have the energy to feel humiliated…..again, for a third time.   

That previous evening I had gone out to dinner with a friend.  The restaurant overlooked the entire city, the water and mountains.  Built practically into the side of a hill, the restaurant’s unique beauty had both of us in awe even before we opened our mouths to taste the food.   That awe dissipated when our first appetizer arrived, made of a local vegetable, and I noted that the waiter cut mine up before serving me.  Only mine.

As close as I felt to my friend, I was incredibly embarrassed, and so glad he hadn’t noticed.  I just didn’t have the energy to feel humiliated…..again.  

The previous day, before the steakhouse and before the restaurant in the hill,  I had been invited out with others for lunch in downtown Rio.   There I ordered my favorite go-to salad: Caesar with grilled salmon on top.   After waiting for my salad for a while, I attempted to use the restroom.   However, as I approached the bathroom doors I looked up and realized I needed assistance reading the symbols.  But no one spoke English it seemed.  And so….I rushed back, swallowed my pride, and whispered in the ear of a man from Sao Paulo who had joined us for lunch.  “Excuse me, but am I an “H” or an “S?”   We laughed together, and upon my return I sat back down to find my bright green salad with a gorgeous piece of golden-orange colored salmon waiting for me.   “Can I cut that for you?” It was the waitress, ready to make the assist.  The attorney looked down and pretended not to hear the exchange.  I felt humiliated.

I nodded my head in the negative, back and forth. Back and forth.  “No thank you.”
Last week I was back from my trip and incredibly thrilled that Tony Memmel had come to New York City to perform downtown at a local club, “Pianos.”  We had been anticipating his visit for months since we had last presented together this past winter, and had arranged to meet for dinner before his gig to catch-up.  For those of you that don’t know about Tony, he is an awesome musician, and simply beautiful person, who just happened to have been born missing his left forearm and hand.  I have written in the past about him (http://www.donthideitflauntit.com/media/beyond-the-moon/).  In addition to his musical talent, Tony has a heart of gold and spends a lot of his free time as a cherished Ambassador to a wonderful organization called, “The Lucky Fin Project.”   There he dedicates himself to supporting parents with children born with a limb difference.   As much as people might think we connect because we both have a limb difference, I actually connected with Tony mostly because of my past history of living in Wisconsin (where Tony is from), and the fact I played an instrument and studied voice.

meg and tony kumarAs we dined together at the Kumar Inn, a delicious yet secretive dive hidden on an unmarked 2nd floor building on Ludlow Street on the Lower East side, I noted to myself that Tony and I were both in full flaunt.  Tony, with his sleeves rolled up, and I with my favorite raspberry top that provides a full-frontal of my shortened forearms and hands.  As the waitress approached us with our meal, given my experience the prior week in Rio, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was going to ask us both simultaneously if she could cut up our food.  But she didn’t.  Not a word.  Instead, she simply asked us if we were enjoying our food, and at one point noted Tony’s guitar nearby commenting how much she enjoys music.

At that point during the dinner conversation, I raised the topic of the “outside world” leaping to help us out with daily physical tasks we are both fully capable of handling independently.  I admitted to him I have appreciated the healthy discussion of late on my Facebook DHIFI page but I still felt somewhat resentful, and so had to explain further.   “When people try to do things for me they would otherwise only do for a young child, I feel instantly deflated.”   I continued to explain myself, knowing full well he would have an empathetic ear.  “On the one hand, I live my life a capable legal professional, a wife, and a mother to three children caring for their needs as any parent would.”  He smiled warmly and I continued.  “On the other hand, it’s almost like I am living on a totally different planet.  People take one glance and assume I must be in need of extra help and often try to help.    Living an independent life with no disruption is most everyone else’s everyday and for me, it is my nirvana.  But when people try to help me with something a child could handle, if I am being truthful, it is the worst of times.  I feel inadequate and limited.  Do you know what I mean?”   And of course, Tony got it.  However, rather than resenting anything or anyone, Tony simply talked about how he ends up appreciating these people who try to help.  “After all, Meg.  They simply mean well.  Think of the alternative.”

Tony’s response penetrated.  Especially because I know how directly he walks my walk.  But could I truly come around with such a positive spin?

tonymemmelThe answer came to me as I watched Tony perform, with his sheer amazing talent, confidence and grace; someone who understands and appreciates the human spirit enough not to quash it based on personal pride.  And then I thought about that day in Rio having lunch.   I actually needed some help.  Not the kind of help others might be assuming I need, no one needs to cut my food.  But let’s face it, my Portuguese stinks and  I needed assistance to use the appropriate restroom.  What if no one was willing to step in and translate?  I would have taken my chances and gone with the “H.”  Somehow I kept thinking that “S” must stand for “Senior.”  But I wasn’t sure, and that may have turned into one flaunt I would not have welcomed.  And it is true, sometimes I cannot open a water bottle and depend on whoever happens to be near me to assist.

So, here it goes.  Just like everyone, I need and appreciate help offered, at least sometimes.   Resenting unneeded help is really about preserving my pride.  Although I feel quite satisfied when I am able to demonstrate my capabilities to someone who assumes I’m disabled simply because I look different, those moments of triumph may have an unintended cost.   What if my  resentful or negative reaction leads that same person to choose not to help someone else in the future, for fear of offending?   If respecting my pride means less help offered to those who actually need it, then Tony was right.  I’d rather not think of the alternative.  That price would be too high for any of us to pay.  Now that would be the worst of times.


riomegI just loved my visit to Rio.  And, as it turned out, I learned that “H” = Hombre and “S” = Senora.   And so, I made it in to the right restroom after all—fortunately swallowing my pride worked, and I had some help with the translation.



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