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Posts Tagged ‘shoes’

One of the few novels that I read again and again (every two or three years) is Don DeLillo’s magnificent Underworld. I won’t give too much plot away, but there is one section where a teenager is wasting his life away in a young offenders’ institution. He’s got no worldly prospects, not desire to put things right or move forward, no personal ambition at all. And the path to his redemption begins when one of his mentors, an elderly Jesuit, asks him to name the holes through which the laces are threaded in his shoes.

The Jesuit has a thing about shoes, and before too long he has given him an education in every aspect of the shoe, and the technical word for every single piece of leather and string and metal and cloth that goes to make up this triumph of human civilisation. (It reminds me, by the way, of that scene in the West Wing Series 6 when Josh first meets Senator Vinick, who gives him a lecture in the art of polishing shoes.) It’s the first time that the teenager has ever really paid attention to the world, and seen that there is a truth out there waiting to be discovered. A truth that is bigger than his narrow emotional connection with his environment that has defined his life up to this point. Even if it is just the truth of the humble shoe.

I say all this because I had one of those ‘vocabulary’ moments yesterday. I was visiting a friend with an outside staircase up to his first floor flat. I kept scuffing my shoes on the front of the steps, and I said that the stairs were very ‘narrow’. My friend said that this wasn’t the right word – narrow would be the width of the stairs from one side to the other. I wanted to describe the horizontal distance from the front edge of one step to the front edge of the next step; the space, in other words, that you have to step into before your foot falls over the edge.

My friend happened to do a carpentry course thirty years ago, went to an old bookshelf and pulled out a dusty file of handwritten notes about the construction of staircases. And there it was. The height of one step above the other is ‘the rise’. And the horizontal distance from the front of one step to the front of the next is ‘the going’. Isn’t that beautiful! A word that describes exactly what I wanted to describe. That people use every day. That was there all the time without me knowing it. The joy of language. And found without Wikipedia — although you can see the Wiki definitions here.

A final connected aside/recommendation: A great track on a great album, Aimee Mann’s ‘I know there’s a word for this’ on her masterpiece Whatever.

Whatever

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I was having lunch in a cafe this summer and went round the back to find the toilet. There were two doors facing me, and neither of them had any signs saying ‘Male’ or ‘Female’, or those stylised figures in trousers or skirts. Instead, fixed to one door, with a huge rusty nail driven through the toe, was a 4 inch stiletto; and on the other, with another nail, a black boot of the Doc Martin variety, looking as if it had spent a few years on a building site. I avoided the stiletto.

rεsılıεnt hεtεromogεnεous rhızomε . . by jef safi.

Prehistoric? Sexist? Certainly. But it embodied a cultural truth that Nicolas Sarkozy has been tiptoeing round most of his life: that women who want to be tall are allowed to show it, but men who want to be tall must pretend that they are not trying. At about 5 feet 6 inches, Sarkozy is well known for his ‘stacked’ shoes (you can’t say ‘high heeled’), and for the specially imported platforms he stands on when he speaks from a podium. But then the following story broke and made it worse:

A worker chosen to stand on the podium behind the French president at a visit to a Normandy factory last week has admitted in a Belgian TV report that she was chosen because her small stature wouldn’t make the president look short. The report on the Belgian state channel RTBF said a group of specially selected workers of smaller stature had been bussed in to stand behind the president at the Faurecia auto parts company.

“I am told you have been chosen because of your size, is this true?” the Belgian journalist asked one woman worker on the podium. “Yes,” she replied. “You must not be bigger than the president?” the journalist continued. “That’s right,” the woman said.

 

lilliput by kristinamay.The ‘sin’, for which he is being punished so mercilessly, is not wanting to be tall – it is wanting it so much that he is prepared to make others short (as it were). He, or his team, has crossed a cultural line. We all want to be beautiful, or strong, or tall, or thin, or whatever will make us more attractive to others. And not many people make absolutely no effort to care for their appearance (although it’s possible…). It’s not vain to want to present yourself in the best possible light, to want to fit in; even the desire to impress can go hand in hand with a certain humility of heart – if it is with the right motivations.

But there are two things you can’t do: try too hard, or do it at the expense of others. This is what turns an endearing human characteristic – the desire to please and to be attractive in the sight of others – into an unacceptable foible. It doesn’t at all mean that Sarkozy is more vain or insecure than the rest of us, perhaps it just means he is less able to hide it, or dogged enough to run the risk of disclosing it.

It makes one reflect: What are the hundred little things we do each day to fit in, to please, to attract? At least we can be more and more aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. And that awareness might lead to a deeper simplicity and peace, so that we are glad to please others – for good and honest and ordinary reasons – without the desperation that makes us completely dependent on their being pleased.

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