Wednesday, August 11, 2004

If the shoe fits

"Dandelion Wine," Ray Bradbury's great paean to his Midwest childhood, has a chapter about the delights of donning sneakers after a long winter. It is a passage I used to read often to my high school students. Every Friday for 15 minutes of each class I had a tradition of sharing a part of some work of literature I hoped would inspire them to enjoy reading.

Douglas, Bradbury's young protagonist, craves a new pair of tennis shoes. "Well, he felt sorry for boys who lived in California where they wore tennis shoes all year and never knew what it was to get winter off your feet, peel off the iron leather shoes all full of snow and rain and run barefoot for a day and then lace on the first new tennis shoes of the season, which was better than barefoot. Shoes like these could jump you over trees and rivers and houses; they could jump you over fences and sidewalks and dogs."

As I was selecting some shoes to pack in my quest for even lighter lug-gage, I thought of this passage and how my attitude has changed from those early days of teaching in the late 60s when I wore high heels with pointed toes to work. I stood on pinched and painful feet most of every day. As a result, I now wear "sensible shoes," a fate I couldn't envision in my younger days. I was required to wear uncomfortable girdles because my teaching supervisor required them so we wouldn't "tease the boys" by jiggling, but I chose other rituals of my time. Drinking an occasional martini at Bob Burns' restaurant in Santa Monica at TGIF gatherings, and getting a deep tan are just two examples. We had never heard, for example, about ozone layers and SPF factors as we heaped on cocoa butter and turned on our imaginary spits on the sands of Malibu. At UCLA football games, Marlboro represen-tatives would toss free ten-cigarette packets to students in the stands. I quit my couple of cigarettes a day when I was pregnant, not because any doctor thought to tell me not to, but because it made me nauseated. Somehow, my body did the right thing, and I bore healthy girls. What a world of change since those dark ages!

One of the delights of living in Thailand was that I could go barefoot much of the time. Now that I have to wear foot supports most of the time, I yearn for the freedom I had then to wiggle my toes in lush grass and toss off my flip flops whenever I entered a structure, a sign of good manners. When I returned from China in 1986 I wrote a poem about the old woman I saw hobbling on her baby-sized feet, smaller than the lotus buds in the nearby pond, a remnant of the days when girls in China had their feet bound for the pleasure of future suitors.

?Lotus Feet?

Clad in gray peasant pants and shirt and stubborn white hair,

her lotus buds encased in black cloth slippers,

the bent old granny still minces as she walks in pain.

To gain the favor of her mother's master,

she kept her debt of bondage.

Who could run away on feet like these?

Her shrieks of pain as bindings changed,

the practiced sighs turned up to please a man,

moans of simulated joy as lord stroked and kissed the tiny toes,

worms of alabaster.

Now she skitters like a rat behind the walls of Jingdazhen,

hiding those gifts of beauty,

designed to impress as sculpture in a museum

rare spices from far Zanzibar.

Poor antiquated ayah, how incorrect

to have suffered so for the wrong despots.

Unlike the unfortunate Chinese woman, I chose for vanity to wear un-comfortable shoes. No one forced me, just as no one forces people to eat greasy food or pay a fortune for a pack of cigarettes. We have choices, thank God. Let me leave you with this happier description from Bradbury on the beautiful sunny morning I write this just before I pack my heavy boots fitted with orthopedics, realigning my walk and giving me painless hiking.

When Douglas put on his shoes for the first time, he "looked down at his feet deep in the rivers, in the fields of wheat, in the wind that already was rushing him out of the town." May you, too, enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

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