No cheap shoes, and other life lessons

Belleville News-Democrat - - Opinion - BY GINA BARRECA Gina Barreca is a pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture at Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut.

Un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions and cheap shoes are re­spon­si­ble for a lot of mis­ery. I know. I’ve dealt with both.

I bought my first pair of high heels at a thrift shop when I was 15. My first set of un­re­al­is­tic dreams ar­rived at pre­cisely the same time.

It was 1972, and plat­form shoes, patch­work suede boots and pa­tent leather loafers were all the rage. But the 1940s fash­ions were also hav­ing a come­back. Since my only in­come was a reg­u­lar babysit­ting job that paid 50 cents an hour, I be­came an early and adept Sal­va­tion Army shopper.

The navy blue heels I bought could have been worn by the An­drews Sis­ters when they sang “Boo­gie Woo­gie Bu­gle Boy” in 1941. But they also could have been worn by Bette Mi­dler singing the same song when it be­came a hit on the B-side of her sin­gle “Delta Dawn.”

I was ready to boo­gie. I was ready to prance. I was ready to dance.

Only, be­cause the $1.50 shoes were at least one size too small, I could barely move in them. Forced to walk like one of those awk­ward an­i­mals with tiny hooves – a mouse deer, for ex­am­ple, or a faint­ing goat – I did not ex­actly move with a groove. I leaned against the walls for sup­port and used both hands on the banis­ter.

All of a sud­den, I be­came quiet and dainty in my move­ments. It wasn’t a per­son­al­ity trans­for­ma­tion, like where the tomboy shakes out her pony­tail and be­comes all fem­i­nine. I was silent and self-con­tained be­cause I was in mis­ery and in pain.

And that’s when a cute boy asked me out. The poor soul thought he was ask­ing out a de­mure lit­tle crea­ture. I, equally poor soul, tried to be­come one. The ro­mance didn’t last long; per­son­al­ity, like mur­der, will out. I wanted to be shy, sweet and unas­sum­ing, but I couldn’t con­tain my real self any more than those shoes could con­tain my real feet.

Small scars from both ex­pe­ri­ences have lasted un­til to­day. But at least I learned that those who refuse to ac­knowl­edge the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of in­ap­pro­pri­ate footwear and im­prac­ti­ca­ble hopes re­main in a con­di­tion of chronic, yet avoid­able, dis­tress.

Some of my brighter friends learned these lessons ear­lier. A for­mer col­league learned from her mother, “Who had lived through pe­ri­ods of ter­ri­ble poverty and thus was in­clined to pinch pen­nies (and who) told me to al­low my­self to pay full price for two things: shoes and per­fume. Cheap shoes and cheap per­fume do a woman no good.”

Cheap shoes, even if they’re pretty, and dreams that con­fine you, even if they’re fash­ion­able, will wear you out, wear you down and make you mis­er­able if they aren’t a good fit.

It’s hard, when we’re given images of life on easy street, to imag­ine walk­ing a mile in the shoes of those who live in an ap­par­ently glit­ter­ing, easy-glid­ing world where step­ping com­fort­ably and grace­fully is the norm. But much of the world is roughshod, and it’s bet­ter to toughen up than to kid your­self into be­liev­ing you’re pro­tected, sup­ported and on solid ground even when you’re not.

I wear flat shoes with sturdy in­soles these days. They’re ex­pen­sive, but they aren’t glam­orous and they don’t daz­zle. My am­bi­tions are much the same: re­al­is­tic, sen­si­ble and grounded.

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