Friday, September 25, 2009

My Midlife Crisis Shoes

Last month I took my son Blaise out to lunch at his favorite diner.“Wait!” I implored as I teetered across the parking lot after him. “I can't go that fast. Walking in these new shoes is like walking on stilts.”
Blaise turned and glanced down at my feet, encased in a pair of brand new embroidered espadrilles with 2-inch wedge heels. “What are those, your midlife crisis shoes?”
Definitely. With four kids in college and one in junior high, it's high time for my midlife crisis. Shoes are cheaper than a boob job, a tummy tuck or a new car. That was my rationale, anyway, when I decided to spring for a pair of comfortable heels.
Except that now I had to wonder if “comfortable heels” was an oxymoron. Imported from Spain, those ankle-twisting espadrilles had called my name from the top shelf of a boutique while I was shopping with my daughter, Taylor. Taylor's blond curls, blue eyes and perfect runner's body make her look runway ready in anything from flip flops to Gortex boots, but she's a sucker for pretty shoes. When she spotted these exotic espadrilles, she had to try them. “These are the most comfortable shoes I'll ever own,” she declared.
Since I was footing the bill, Taylor urged me to buy a matching pair. “You'll love them,” she said.
I didn't. As it turned out, my luncheon foray in espadrilles was a near-death experience when I tipped over into a pothole, then had to curl my toes like Aladdin so I wouldn't fall out of my shoes while climbing up the diner stairs.
I came home feeling old. I grew up in the age of platforms, kind of like the ones Meryl Streep struts around in during Mama Mia, and I loved how they made me look leggy, hip-swishing and, well, taller. I'm 5'3” on my best posture days, so wearing heels in my youth was a guarantee that I could reach the wine glasses on the top shelf. Besides my platforms, I owned red stilettos, pointy black boots and working women's pumps. As a young woman I always chose beauty over comfort: I had lethal chandelier earrings that scraped my neck, tummy-tightening pantyhose and underwire bras that could come unleashed at any moment and stab me through the ribcage. God, I looked good.
Then, somewhere between motherhood and deciding to work in a home office, I took off my earrings and kicked off my heels in favor of sensible flats. My favorite shoes are black, round-toed Merrills that make me look like a nun, no matter how often I tell myself that they make me look like a British mystery novelist hiking the moors.
The night after my espadrilles escapade, I modeled the Merrills for my stepson Drew, who just finished a film internship in Los Angeles and is the family's resident fashionista. “What do you think of these shoes?” I asked.
“They scream 'unavailable,'” he said at once. “But at least they're one step up from Crocs.”
That did it. I set out on a mission. There had to be comfortable heels out there. After all, I am no reality show virgin. I've seen Dancing with the Stars. Those people don't just walk in heels, they dance in them! Even intellectual women manage to get around in heels. Sure, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor fell and cracked her ankle while rushing to board an airplane in heels. But there she was, just minutes later, filmed using crutches but wearing a sexy black high heel on her good foot!
For my next foray into the upper reaches of footwear, I went with a pair of cute gray El Naturalista shoes stamped with abstract ivory designs. They had a respectable heel, just under two inches of comfy looking cork. I fell in love with the little frog label, too.
The woman in the shoe store gushed. “Naturalistas are made of all natural materials, so they're not just good for your feet. They're good for the environment!”
“Great,” I said. “But can I walk in them?”
“You'll never need another pair of shoes,” she vowed.
Okay, maybe she didn't mean to say that. What shoe clerk would ever tell you to put your wallet away? The point is, I bought that pair of shoes for philosophical reasons: I wanted to be a Naturalista! According to the company's web site, “Naturalistas start their journey observing everything that surrounds them. They travel through the world and observe it, becoming impregnated by its textures, its colors, its lines... and after a thousand journeys, real and imaginary, they discover that a single idea brings us together. Whatever our race or culture... we all walk in search of happiness. Movement is El Naturalista´s reason to exist. That is why we enjoy creating comfortable and attractive footwear, that helps us to move along the amazing journey of life.”
Formerly impregnated with children, as a Naturalista I could now bravely move along in my amazing journey of life in environmentally correct high heels! I was ready to become impregnated anew with textures, colors and lines.
Alas, my journey proved to be a short one. I wore my new Naturalistas to a marketing meeting – they went perfectly with my swishy gray mid-calf skirt and slinky black sweater – only to tear them off the minute I was out in the hallway an hour later.
“Cool shoes,” my colleague Laura remarked as I was limping back to the car. “Are they comfortable?”
“Sure,” I said through clenched teeth. “It's kind of like not noticing you sprained an ankle because your feet are on fire.”
Maybe I was going about this all wrong. Maybe wearing high heels was like learning to ride a bike: I should start with training wheels before navigating stairs on a unicycle. On my next shoe store odyssey, I opted for black leather Ecco pumps with a 1.5” heel. These were more streamlined and less Croc-ish than my Merrills, more pilgrim than nun. Their motto was good, too, or at least shorter: My world, my style, my Ecco!
Alas, my world, or at least my foot, was too wide for an Ecco. After half a morning these shoes made my feet feel bound in baling twine.
“High heels that don't fit are a torture chamber all their own,” I complained to my husband.
“Why are you even bothering?” he asked. “Men don't notice a woman's shoes. To me, women in heels look like hooved animals.”
If my husband didn't care about high heels, why did I? I thought about the waitress who had served me in one of our local restaurants recently. She was French and wore high heels to serve scrambled eggs, along with dangling earrings and a beautiful bell-sleeved wrap dress. I wanted to look that put together at least sometimes.
Over the next few weeks I went through all of the shoe outlets north of us. I started with Ariats, Clarks, Danskos and other brands that advertised sensible comfort and offered chunky, clunky heels. The problem was that these shoes might be tall, but they were undeniably ugly. I might as well go back to Merrills. I moved on up to the pointiest, tallest dancer shoes, some of which had wraps and ties that made me feel like I should wear a toga with them.
At one point, I fell head-over-heels for a pair of gold Elites close to three inches high; these shoes had a gold patent leather upper and special cushioning inside that looked and felt like bath mats, with all of those little dots. I'd gotten smarter, however, and wasn't about to buy any of the shoes I tried on if they felt even a little bit uncomfortable. A shoe that's too snug or slips on your heel in the store will feel like a snake is biting your toes or a dog is chewing your heels when you wear it doing anything other than sitting down. I really wanted those Elites. I visited them three times, walking for fifteen minutes up and down the shoe store aisles during each of our encounters, willing them to be comfortable. Eventually, I had to give up. The straps around my heels weren't enough to keep me from sliding around. Even Cinderella, with her fairy godmother tailoring her shoes to keep her stepsisters out of them, couldn't have danced in those.
Finally, I went to the swankiest shoe store within an hour of my house and explained my situation to the patient clerk. What I needed, the clerk said, were heels made of top quality leather, because those would be softer. A pillow insole would be a good thing, too.
“Here,” she said. “Try these.” She handed me a white box with an abstract design in bright green and yellow green. Inside it snuggled a pair of black Joy Chen shoes with 2 ½-inch heels. The shoes had a closed back, an open toe, a wide elastic strap, and a snazzy gold interior. The heels were thick but not wedged. In fact, the shoes were shaped like an elegant bridge, or even a piece of art. I was instantly in love.
I tried them on. I walked around. My feet didn't seem to notice. I looked in the mirror and still saw a middle-aged woman in jeans, only this woman was elegant and lanky. I saw me, only better.
“Let's try one more thing,” the clerk suggested. She ripped open a packet of little gray rubbery things shaped like clouds, called “Tip Toes,” and thrust them into the Joy Chen shoes.
I put the shoes back on. “Wow,” I said.
I walked. I jogged. I pranced in place. I had found my shoes! And the best part? They were on sale.
The next day, I had a meeting with an attorney over a house sale. I wore my Merrill's as far as the lawyer's parking lot, not wanting to chance driving in heels. Another obstacle presented itself as I got out of the car: a gravel path leading to a steep set of stairs made out of rough timbers. Could I do it? I cast a wistful glance at my abandoned Merrill's, but squared my shoulders and got out of the car in my heels.
There was nothing to it! I could have run up those stairs!
I shook hands with the lawyer, and I swear to you that he looked me in the eye, then did one of those looks men do when they think you're not noticing. It might not have been the shoes. After all, the shoes had inspired me to wear earrings and lipstick, too. But after the meeting, I drove home in my Joy Chen's with the windows down and the radio on, feeling like it was spring all over again.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Bride Wore Red

While my friend Judith tried on dresses, I watched the brides.
There were six of them in the tiny wedding boutique. The brides had brought mothers and friends to help sort through the racks of silk and chiffon. The gowns billowed as the brides carried them to the dressing rooms, yards of promise held aloft by young arms and hope. We friends and mothers gathered on the floral armchairs and watched as, one by one, the brides climbed to the single stool in the middle of the room like awkward birds of paradise taking turns on a mirrored perch.
My friend Judith was the reason I was sitting here instead of hanging out on the playground with Dan and our four children on this bright September Saturday afternoon. “This is the place where you and I will both find perfect wedding dresses,” she had crowed as we pulled up to the shop. “I feel it in my bones!”
Amazingly, Judith's determined use of online dating services had led her into the arms of a man she wanted to marry. I was getting married to Dan in four weeks. The fact that we were both, as she loved to say, “betrothed,” should have brought us together. But I was feeling increasingly isolated. This was Judith's first wedding and my second. Plus, my backyard ceremony would include our four children – Maya, Taylor, Blaise and Drew were 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old – so Dan and I had invited their friends as well as ours to celebrate the creation of our new family. Of our 96 guests, half were going to be children. Our crowd ranged in age from three months to 91 years old.
I hung back as Judith plunged into the racks and started trying on dresses – all of them white and strapless to show off her toned arms and slim waist. She giggled along with the other brides as the sales clerks pinned dresses here and lifted hems there to give every bride the perfect princess fit.
I'd never felt so old. I was 39, old enough to be the mother of some of these brides. In fact, I was a mother. I didn't belong here.
Judith made me try on four gowns, each dress worse than the last. “I can't wear a dress that I can't zip up by myself,” I declared. “And I don't want to wear something that I'll trip on when I have to go upstairs to help the kids get dressed.”
“What's the matter with you?” she grumped on our way back to the car. “You're not even excited about trying on dresses! You act like you don't even want to get married.”
Was that true? I loved Dan with all my heart. Yet, the reality of my approaching marriage was getting on my nerves. I kept wiggling it like a sore tooth, poking at it in places that I knew would hurt. Getting married with children meant that the details of domestic life – the school lunches, the laundry, the mortgage, the car repairs, the holidays – would swell around us like a river of responsibility with unseen rapids. We would surely be swept away from each other.
“Well?” Judith demanded. “Do you want to get married or not?”
“I do,” I said, taking a deep breath, but I couldn't say any more. Just practicing those two words aloud had sapped the last of my courage.
A week before the wedding, I finally bought a wedding dress. It was red. Not fire engine red, but a deep red lace the color of a pricey claret draped over an even deeper red satin. The neckline was low but not too slutty for a mother to wear, and the skirt moved so easily with me that I could imagine grocery shopping in it – a possibility that I did not exclude from my imaginings of what might really happen on my wedding day. (With four children, you never knew when you might run out of milk.) As an added plus, the dress was on sale; I paid less than $50 for it.
Our daughters, both fashionistas who changed their outfits three or four times daily at the ripe ages of 5 and 6, were horrified by the sight of my dress swaying brazenly on its hanger.
“But it's red,” my daughter Taylor wailed. “Brides should wear white!”
“It's true. You don't look like you're getting married,” Dan's daughter, Maya, agreed mournfully.
It was such a rare thing, having these two girls agree – our daughters sometimes played well together, but couldn't seem to get past the idea that neither was the only girl in her family any more – that I momentarily thought of returning the dress and getting a white one to make them happy. I still had a whole week left to shop!
But no. Our wedding was the start of a different sort of life for both Dan and me, I reminded myself. We wanted to be in a marriage where we could be truer to ourselves than we had been in our previous relationships.
I finally hit on the perfect solution. “How would you two like to wear the white dresses?” I offered.
The girls were ecstatic. By some miracle, the week before the wedding I found two matching white dresses with full skirts and lacy underskirts. We bought matching white Mary Janes, too. Oh, and veils. The girls wanted headbands with veils, and I found them in a costume shop for less than $10 each.
As the girls dressed for the wedding, they asked if they could use their dresses to play in afterward. I said yes, why not, and they immediately started arguing.
“I should be the princess bride when we play, because I'm older,” Taylor asserted. “Besides, you're just the stepsister.”
“You're a stepsister, too,” Maya reminded her. “Besides, in stories the real princess bride is always the youngest.”
I left them to it and went to put on my red dress, worrying about how it would turn out for our daughters. Would they grow up to tell their friends about the special day when they first became sisters and each gained a new brother? Or would the arguments escalate, until by their teens they scarcely spoke, and in the end they wouldn't even attend each other's weddings?
I shuddered. There are so many unknowns when you marry. But, when you marry with children, these unknowns spool out into infinity.
It had started to rain early that morning, a light drizzle from a pewter sky. Luckily, we had ordered tents for the backyard. The rain added to the beauty of it, as the tents caught a kaleidoscope of falling leaves, like handmade Japanese paper in a complex geometric pattern of reds, oranges, and yellows.
At any wedding, being the bride means that you're in a fugue state of anxiety. You know less about what's going on than anyone else there. I do know there were the usual last-minute crises. Our boys refused to put on their neckties and scratchy jackets; they wanted to wear their black Ninja Turtle t-shirts. “We want a Ninja wedding!” they cried, karate chopping each other.
Dan finally coerced them into their suits by bribing them with $5 each. Twenty minutes later, Dan insulted my mother when he banished her from our bedroom as we were getting dressed.
“But she's the bride,” Mom said. “You're not supposed to see her before the ceremony. It's bad luck!”
“Yes,” Dan said, not unkindly. “But this is my bedroom, and I need to get dressed.”
I kissed him, impressed that he would have the courage to stand up to my mother – few men did – but I worried about bad luck just the same.
As we stood in front of the minister beneath the tents, I tensed my shoulders as we got to the part where we had to read the vows we'd written for each other. My vows seemed lame in front of this crowd of well-wishers. My children, the people dearest to my heart, stood next to me, and Dan's children, their faces pale and expectant, stood next to him. What were we doing, bringing these children together when they really had no say in the matter? What right did we have to turn their young lives upside down forever?
Just then, our dog – a white American Eskimo named Ben, who the girls had adorned with a deep red bow to match my dress – wandered up the aisle to stand with us. Everyone, even the minister, started to laugh as Ben wagged his tail and tipped his snout up in the air – sniffing the lamb kabobs the caterers were grilling, no doubt – and I suddenly felt an overwhelming love for everyone there: Dan and our children, our family who had traveled so far to be with us, and the furry, benevolent presence of this white dog. I said my vows.
During the reception, our sons, having kept up their end of the bargain and earned their $5, tore off their ties and suit jackets and wore their t-shirts. My grandmother and her two sisters, all three of them in their eighties, sang, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart!” And our children danced together with their friends -- the chicken dance, the hamster dance, and the Macarena -- between nibbling on treats in the separate children's tent.
Dan and I danced with our daughters on our wedding day, too, holding their hands as their white skirts billowed around them, our girls like two tiny, giggling brides just beginning to learn about love.