To the mother who complained in the Times about people looking at her ‘special needs’ kid.

Your letter brought home to me, once again, what an awful specimen of humanity I am. Yes – I’m a starer. In my defence, I add the adjective ‘covert.’ But I’m still looking, attracted by all that is different or unusual. Human variation far outside the norm grabs me every time. Not only that, I am a tubby-peeper. The extremely obese I find mesmerizing, doubly so when they are tucking into a triple-decker hamburger with a large side of chips. And interesting handicaps, jet black skin with magnificent Africanoid features, the extremely tall and the very small, severe stutterers, people using sign language – all grist to my prurient mill.

My only consolation is that am I among the majority, which will remain so despite any quantity of preaching and condemnation because it’s the way we’re made.

I used to ride a recumbent bike, one of those lying-down and pedaling with your legs in front of you things. Friends were constantly urging me to fly a flag on a pole and to wear glow-in-the-dark costumes. I ignored them with impunity because I knew that man, like many other species but probably more so, is hard-wired to watch for the unusual. Nothing I could do would improve the very high visibility I already enjoyed – cars didn’t hit me, the drivers slowed down to look at my weird bike.

Millions of years of programming to notice and inspect that odd pattern in the bush, the atypical animal gait which may signal easy prey and especially people who look ‘other’ and may therefore be after your lunch are not going to go away in the evolutionary eye-blink of a century. For thousands of millennia the different has represented either danger, or opportunity, or both. And thus we look.

So I accept myself but employ good manners in restricting myself to a discreet, compulsive peek. Manners which also have their roots in safety – in big cities we still learn not to challenge with eye contact.

So I am sorry, all you who are physically unusual or care for such a one. You are going to go on attracting attention. But I applaud those parents in this day of amniocentosis and elective abortion for giving the treasure of life anyway. Most of you chose your cross – bear it with pride. And if you want a break, take a trip to Ireland, Spain or Italy – Catholic countries where abortion is still a regrettable last resort, and the unusual are not so unusual.

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