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.
Not to brag, but I was all about retro before "retro" was cool.
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, but too proud to confess it.
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. Former colleague Patricia Juliana Smith 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."
J. Barrett Wolf, a friend from high school who accompanied me on those thrift shop outings, draws his footwear wisdom from author Terry Pratchett. Pratchett's character, Samuel Vines, has a "â€˜Boots theory of socioeconomic unfairness" that goes as follows: "A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet."
Vines concludes that the rich stay rich because, in the long run, they spend less money.
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.
In other words, if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.
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. They might not make me seem alluring but they keep a smile on my face and, with care, they'll last for years.
The Hartford Courant