Lace up your shoes—whatever the brand—and seize the day | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Lace up your shoes—whatever the brand—and seize the day 

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"Ode-writing is a two-way street. The universe will disclose itself to you, it will give you occasions for odes ... but you've got to be ode-ready."—James Parker

Not since reading John Keats' and Percy Shelley's iconic poems in college had I given a moment's thought to an ode. I certainly didn't think of myself as "ode-ready" as three of my teenage kin tried on new shoes: cowgirl boots for a getaway to Nashville; sparkling Converse Chucks for a Taylor Swift concert; steel-toe work boots for a job on a landscaping crew.

But while I watched them model the new footwear, I heard the universe whispering like Obi-wan Kenobi: "Shoes," it said.

What's with shoes? That was one question keeping me on a mental treadmill for days afterward. Another had me wondering how I came to be in ode-ready sync with the universe—whatever that entails. I eventually decided that the back door to ode-readiness had been left ajar while I was writing a biographical sketch for a high-school reunion.

In it, I experimented with a "jukebox musical" structure, whereby songs are invoked for the emotional dimension they add to a past event. My experiment foundered somewhere between Elvis singing "Blue Suede Shoes" and Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." Nevertheless, I sense that the failed autobiography left me in an ode-receptive state.

I think of an ode as a form of homage. That it is subjective and introspective is also in its nature. An ode draws as much from the writer as it does from the subject, and there seems to be no subject that is off-limits.

Keats wrote odes about a Grecian urn and a nightingale. The west wind and liberty were celebrated by Shelley. Pablo Neruda penned a 160-word ode to his socks. If the universe is boosting shoes, who am I to argue?

I have enough shoe-related memories to convince me that a shoe ode could be written. In my elementary school, for instance, a pair of new shoes was such an uncommon event, it was celebrated in a song ritual. I remember skipping around the room as my classmates sang in unison: "John has new shoes on today."

I mostly wore Converse sneakers. So did all the boys—but nary a girl. (Technically speaking, we wore "tennis shoes," not "sneakers," as prescribed by Utah's dialect.) All these years later, the high-top canvas shoes are chic enough for Swifties. Like Vans, Birkenstocks, Doc Martens and Brooks Brothers White Bucks, they signal the wearer walks the talk of an affinity subculture.

Shoes are generally part of a story—usually a story reexamined. I wore Clarks Desert Boots for a time and then Danish Earth Shoes. Both were flatteringly hip, I thought, and both were as reflective of the 1960s counterculture as leather sandals and love beads.

At Highland High School in the early 1960s, black low-tops were must-have tennis shoes. Even more popular were the unisex penny loafers called Weejuns.

My first pair was tricked out with shiny dimes on top and metal taps on the heels. I soon ditched the coins and taps, but I bought the cordovan loafers successively until the Vietnam-era draft intervened. The Army insisted I wear black combat boots instead.

I eventually moved to Massachusetts, where Sperry Boat Shoes displaced my Weejun habit. In New England, boat shoes worn without socks were a mainstay of a clothing style dominated by L.L. Bean.

At the core of Bean's preppy style was a balance between the utilitarian and the fashionable. The duck boot is a good example—with its leather uppers and brown-rubber bottoms, the distinctive footwear has been a Bean bestseller since 1911. You could wear them at a hunting lodge in Maine or a restaurant in Boston without raising an eyebrow.

Contrast that with a tactic adopted by Boston commuters, many of whom were women in suits. Some wore sneakers on the subway—they carried pumps in a bag and swapped out the sneakers at the office door. This concession to comfort was at odds with the wry premise of a Billy Crystal sketch on Saturday Night Live. It's better to look good than to feel good, he said, spoofing actor Fernando Lamas.

The urge to look good weakens below the ankles. Clothes may make the man, as Mark Twain observed, but shoe choice is consequential despite having the status of a back-up singer. (Note, however, that Gladys Knight's success relied on the Pips' vocals.)

A careless choice of shoes could be risky. To wear white "dad sneakers" in a foreign city is to alert pickpockets of an American tourist, an easy mark. Wearing white bucks after Labor Day might draw a sideways glance in some quarters—so would sandals with socks.

On the other hand, the Earth Shoe's "negative heel" improves posture. Hokas ease the pain of fallen arches. Duck boots are waterproof.

Narrowing the divide between comfort and fashion has been one result of the jogging craze that swept the country in the 1970s. The first Nikes were cushiony, feel-good shoes welcomed by weekend joggers. By decade's end, the company's logo had developed its own aesthetic appeal. The Nike brand looked good and felt good, the two becoming one in the same.

To reach this conclusion, the patient reader has walked a mile in my shoes only to stumble onto an ode in waiting. Named for a mythological Greek goddess and branded with a wing-inspired "Swoosh," Nike provides everything an ode-ready scribbler needs. So, let's just do it!

Private Eye is off this week.
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