The feat of dressing feet
I’m going to risk my credibility here and admit publicly that footwear is the main obstacle standing between me and Life.
Unlike other morsels of heightened self-awareness, it only took mild reflection on recent conversations and Google searches for me to stumble upon this realization.
Exhibit A, friend describes hiking an active volcano in the middle of the night to get to the summit in time for the Indonesian sunrise.
Me, considering a similar outing: What kind of shoes did you wear?
Exhibit B, colleague tells of a group of Burmese refugees who fled oppression across the mountainous Thai border.
Me, trying to empathize: What kind of shoes did they wear?
Exhibit C, guy asks me to dinner.
Me, silently assessing the proposition before saying yes: But what kind of shoes would I wear?
Prior to passing judgement, please note, I’m not just planning around style issues and pedicures here. I’m dealing with hot lava, monsoon rains and, the most insurmountable of all, height differences.
Regardless, I have done some excavation to uncover the origins of what I admit to be a worrisome preoccupation and I came up with some formative moments from when I was quite short myself.
From as early as I can remember - two years old? - I had an annual fitting for black patent leather Buster Brown mary janes (which, confusingly I called Mrs. Browning shoes after our grandmotherly gardening neighbor whose honeysuckle bush was a delight of our St. Louis summers – ah, but this is not a therapy session.)
Years of saddle oxfords and brogues later, I then graduated to the pressure of selecting the sole non-uniform article allowed in my school wardrobe. I started with the trendy Doc Martens (it was the 90s), but I soon discovered the outlandish John Fluevog and went as red and punk as possible, counteracting the plaid of my skirt and prep of my v-neck sweater, I suppose. Then, of course, there were the Easter shoes, homecoming shoes and shoes for various sports.
However, on a more superficial and societal level, I blame the marketing of the shoe need for pummeling me into submission. We are in an age that somehow necessitates a $200 ankle-supporting hiking boot with heat resistant, gripping soles. Or, even more ridiculous, those shoes that slip on like satanic foot-gloves, and ironically mimic bare feet without being barefoot (I admit it, the people in their ads look really happy and comfortable).
There are so many specimens of urban warriors traipsing around Bangkok, outfitted for a Southeast Asian adventure with all their expensive equipment, epitomizing this point. Little do they know that the people in the natural habitat know nothing of treads or foot beds and that their over-preparedness falls just short of alarming for those of us bumbling around seemingly unaware of what hazards might come our way.
Luckily I avoid looking like said chumps, mostly because despite my penchant for having the right shoes, buying practical things depresses me astronomically. As a result, I’m much more likely to have a closet housing holographic pink stilettos than a pair of walking shoes (shudder). And herein lies my problem.
But while the urban adventurers look ridiculously out of place, the fact is, they are out of place. We office folk are just less sturdy and agile and we want, if not need, some insulation from the elements.
I had a humbling experience reflective of this recently.
I knew I had some outdoorsy days ahead of me and the decision to wear a pair of ill-advised sneakers came after hours mulling over my typical “what shoes do I wear” anxiety.
I made expeditions to several shops around Bangkok in which I could only find women’s options that were either hideously ugly in their obvious comfort or terribly impractical with bows and frills, so I resigned myself to what was in my closet: A pair of old, leather Converse-types mostly worn to bits from treks through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and such.
Later, as I carelessly maneuvered my way down a rocky incline on the way to a village’s water source, I lost my footing and slid, landing on my back. I couldn’t breathe for what felt like a long half minute and I still can’t raise myself from bed without a wince.
I’d like to blame the fall on the shoes, meant for skateboarding really, and not marketed at all for “fetching water down rocky cliffs,” but when I am being completely honest with myself, I think I would have fallen wearing anything. How else do I explain the children who haul gallons of water up the treacherous hill every day, without any shoes at all? (A cup of strong coffee certainly would have been a welcomed preventative measure, though that’s putting the cart before the horse when we’re talking about collecting water.)
As I look forward to an upcoming trip to Nepal, I know for sure I will not climb Mount Everest. And it’s not that I haven’t trained for it or that I don’t have time. While both are true, I foresee viewing the peaks in the distance with my gut still nagging me with the incessant: What kind of shoes? What kind of shoes??
And, to be honest, I just don’t like the answer.
From each paralyzing scenario to the next, it’s the same. What should you wear when climbing a volcano, fleeing oppressive governments through mountains or out on a date with a guy who is your same height?
Well, that’s how they’re marketed and used around here, anyway.
Almost weekly, I wake up in the middle of night with no clue as to where I am.
This recently happened when I found myself in a town I had never heard of and which does not exist on Google Earth (opportunities for existential musings will be foregone here for the sake of focus).
The moment begins with acute confusion which soon escalates to sheer panic as questions of what I am meant to be doing race through my head.
If I have learned anything from the nightmarish experience, it is that I am polite and lazy when verging on hysterics.
I first realized my penchant for diplomatic apathy when the rudeness of a stranger would stun me speechless. Or when I could not make a sound, let alone movement, when I discovered a tarantula-sized spider when closing my bunker’s curtain for the night. In retrospect I would be disappointed that I could not conjure a comeback for the New Yorker who had just gotten in my face or stand my ground against the spider in my cabin. But I believe this self-preserving method of operation is also why I am still alive to tell the tale.
And it all came to a head when I was exhausted and discombobulated after traveling across seven timezones - a long-distance jaunt that followed a few months of week-long stints in East Asia in which I had stayed in and assessed a different hotel every night - making note of the quality of the bedsheets and minibars. This, in fact, was the gig in which my mid-night panic sessions originated.
Alarmingly, it turns out not even home base is off limits. I have awoken in my very own bed with only one coherent thought: “I don’t know where I am, but these pillows are definitely not down.”
This time, though, was different. First of all, the pillows filled with feathers. Second of all, there was someone else in the bed, and I had no idea who it was.
With my heart racing, I sat up, looked over and quickly considered the possibilities, all of which, at that moment in time, ended with one fact that needed to be dealt with:
There’s a stranger sleeping in my bed.
So, I said, “Um, excuse me, who are you?”
Silence, heart pounding. I thought I might die of fright.
Then, “Natalie, it’s me.”
Thank God what followed was a general clearing of the fog – I realized I was in London staying with one my dearest friends. All was well.
And with my heart racing as if I had just finished a spinning class, I tried to go back to sleep.
As I continue with this travel schedule fraught with strange towns and hotel fear factors through the roof – I will endure the exposure to opportunities for panic with one valuable asset: The knowledge of my tested instincts.
Now I know that if there is ever a true stranger in my bed, I will assume a calm veneer, ask them who they are and then likely go back to sleep.
Note from Kupang, Indonesia
There’s a truth that’s deeper than experience. It’s beyond what we see, or even what we feel. It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it, from heart to heart, just as Prabaker told it to me, just as I’m telling it to you now.
- Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram.
Here’s an essay about post-college unemployment. Take heart, recent grads; hindsight is 20/20.
I look back on the few months I spent as an unemployed citizen of Boston with this deep, calm feeling - though it felt nothing like that at the time.
It was Autumn and I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree that past Spring. After spending one last carefree summer working as a Wendy at an all boys summer camp, I blew nearly half of my savings ($350) on a 1988, Mazda 323 standard station wagon, learned how to drive it (marginally) and set out for the big city.
The sky was gray and rainy the day I (accidentally) peeled out of camp and drove down from Maine, but I subsisted on a lot of hope, especially when I realized my car’s brakes were quite the opposite of anti-lock. It was also then, that I learned why it was impossible for me to find car insurance transferable from Maine to Massachusetts. I had previously, naively asked “How does a company named All State exclude a state?”
That was before I realized exiting Interstate 95 involved dodging cars barreling past me using the breakdown lane as a passing zone.
My destination was actually Dedham - a sleepy New England suburb-type town where colonial style homes decorated with patriotic bunting flanked a quaint post office in the center of town. I was to do a bit of house sitting whilst looking for employment with the deadline of impending student loan payments quickly approaching.
The owners of the home, still finishing up the season at their summer compound, welcomed me into my new residence, had dinner with me at the formal dining room table and then left me in my new life with a word of caution: “Some of the chairs are antiques - don’t sit in them.”
My responsibilities, above not breaking anything in this sprawling museum of a mansion, involved watering the plants, feeding the fish (exotically fragile, of the saltwater variety) and winding the extensive collection of ancient grandfather clocks - a task which, if executed correctly, ensured I would invariably be hiding under my covers every night around midnight when the twenty or so clocks rang out in a cacophony fit for a horror film.
Once I settled into my oasis, physically unscathed, but emotionally weary, I wasted no time searching for jobs and sending out my resume into the cyberspace abyss. Every once in a while, I would receive a reply, which served as a source of encouragement. But with no money coming in and only a few job prospects, I decided to take my chances with a headhunter. That was a harrowing experience in which the “headhunter” worked on wearing down my confidence so that I would take any job she threw in my pitiful, under-qualified direction.
On my way to one of these said job interviews, to which I barely could afford my train ride, a homeless person asked me for money. Fresh out of country-living and not yet streetwise, I politely said, “I don’t have anything.” Which soon led to a confrontational, “Liar!”
Disgruntled and offended, I did not feel in the mood for pointing out how close I was to homelessness myself. At that moment, I thanked God for my friends.
I couldn’t apply for jobs from 9am to 5pm without going mad, so I broke up the day by going for a run or making use of the indoor pool. I swam laps, until I frightened myself with thoughts of a freak stroke or heart attack – or worse, death by an intruder. Any of the aforementioned scenarios left me tragically and unflatteringly wet, lifeless and unfound for possibly weeks.
It didn’t help my morbid imagination that I was simultaneously reading As I Lay Dying and Slaughterhouse Five. Why I chose to lift those works of the essential cannon from the house’s library at that particular time in my life can only be explained by ineffective masochism.
Bored and hungry for human interaction as well as a paycheck, I put my name in with a temp agency. I was soon placed at multiple temporary jobs that required little to no skills. Such opportunities also require you to take little to no responsibility for your actions - the beauty of which circumstances can certainly be appreciated – temporarily.
I recall being placed at the receptionist desk at one such job within fifteen minutes of arriving. Everyone had a meeting and I was to answer the phone if it rang. It rang within five minutes of my sitting there. When I answered the inquiry with “I’m not sure, I’ll have to take your number and get back to you,” the person replied: “What do you mean you don’t know?” I responded, “I’ve worked here for twenty minutes.” That shut her up.
I went through several of these very temporary jobs, some lasted five hours, some lasted five days, until I was placed with a snow plowing company that had recently gone under and was trying to build the business back up to what it was.
The office was a large, dingy room above a garage where mechanics with rough hands and even rougher accents toiled away. One day they all went to their friend’s funeral, who had died by knife in a bar one week prior. The boss had an office off the main room in which he chain-smoked. The door was always closed, but the smoke seeped into the main room and mingled with the smell of stale coffee and clean, eager temps.
I was one of three temporary workers hired. My task was to answer the phone when it rang, which was approximately ten times a day. The two other temps, one of whom had just quit his minor league Midwest baseball team and moved back out East to start a more sustainable career; the other was a college student on sabbatical from working toward his second (or third?) degree.
These two were charged with calling potential clients and faxing information. We were a team. More often than I would have liked, I answered the phone to find an angry mobster-sounding character asking me where his $5,000 was. Once someone asked me what I was wearing.
Les, a mechanic, with ten – twenty? - years of grease beneath his finger nails and caked into the creases of his forehead, was really into me. He spent his breaks interrupting my phone-answering-responsibilities by sitting on my desk asking me how my day was going.
One night, Les lost one of his last two teeth in a bar fight. Feigning disappointment that I wasn’t free to come with him to that Aerosmith concert he had tickets to was one of the great accomplishments of what I don’t like to think of as my love life. I know I pulled off not hurting his feelings, as I later learned I was known as “Les’s Sweetheart” down in the shop. I have since learned how to wound a grown man’s ego without remorse.
The funny thing actually is that when leaving the office on my last day for the comparatively dreamlike, corporate job awaiting me in which I imagined a human resources department would exist to protect me from annoying things like sexual harassment, my boss made the very generous offer in between drags of his cigarette:
“If things don’t work out, you can always come back.”
But I just smiled cordially, said thank you with as much conviction I could muster, and like many of life’s episodes, I went on my way.