Monday, January 7, 2008


Not too long ago I began noticing shoes above my neighbourhood--sneakers dangling off of hydro lines and traffic lights. I read recently, in the Globe and Mail of all places, that shoes are tossed over hydro lines by crack dealers to mark their territory, and to indicate the availability of the drug. I have no idea how much of this is fact and how much of it is urban legend...the explanation seems at least somewhat plausible considering that several nearby houses are known as crack houses (in fact, one of the biggest mistakes I've made recently was telling my grandmother that a SWAT team, complete with helmets and rifles, visited the house across the way...she has since told me that she never passes up a good chance to worry, and this more than qualifies as just such a good chance in her books. Needless to say, she's relieved that I'm moving.), and yet I'm not entirely convinced that the shoes on the wires have anything to do with it. It seems that I'm not the only person who has thought about this conundrum (see the Wiki article on shoe tossing, and check out that shoe tree!), but a conundrum it remains.

When I was walking in Chris' shoes to Christina's on New Years eve, I noticed this pair of shoes hanging off of the pedestrian controlled traffic light at the corner of my street. I don't know how long they've been there, but it was the first time I had seen them. Ben and I were talking about them later. He mentioned that they seemed like decent shoes, and asked me if I would wear them if he managed to haul them down. I felt quite uneasy about the whole idea, mostly because I worried I'd be infringing on someone's territory if I interfered with the shoes. It doesn't take much for me to feel nervous or afraid. So I just laughed at Ben's suggestion.

But I kept seeing them, and on my way home on Sunday evening I was thinking a lot about shoes, and excited about having another offer of shoes (ski boots!), and wondering if other cultures and languages have similar idioms, or completely different ways of expressing the value of trying to understand another's perspective. When I came to my street, I spied the shoes again, and in a moment of relative bravery and daring, walked inside my house and told Ben that, yes, I would wear the shoes if he could help me get them down, and if he agreed to also help me put them back afterwards. Ben got up, and saying that he didn't have anything better to do, he put on his jacket and grabbed a canoe paddle. I think that Ben actually really liked the challenge.

It turned out that the paddle was about 3 feet too short. Refusing to be discouraged, Ben grabbed some rope and an old lightbox, and attached the two together. I grabbed my camera. Mindful of the traffic, Ben lobbed the lightbox in the direction of the shoes hoping that the rope would wrap around the laces of the shoes and he could yank them down. He missed each time.

Unwilling to be defeated, Ben thought of another idea, which involved duct tape, a wire coat hanger, and an especially long piece of wood. He managed to grab a hold of a shoe lace with the hook, and pull the shoes down. It was kind of like a modified fishing derby.

The shoes were totally drenched--it had been misty and raining much of the day. I put each shoe on a heat register, in hopes that they would dry out by morning.

Luckily, they did. So I wore them on the first day of the winter term.

I had been feeling pretty iffy about going back to school. It has been seeming to me lately that I made myself too busy on my break, which was admittedly long. I didn't really get much of nothing accomplished. I was talking with Christina about how there were still so many things that I wanted to get done that I didn't get done. And yet, I also didn't get nothing done, and if I don't do nothing now, I won't have a chance to do nothing for a long long time. So last Friday was my day of nothing, which, of course, turned out to be a day of lots of things. It felt nice, however, to begin a day without expectations of accomplishing anything (even though nothing can be hard to do).

I was getting nervous about deadlines and the pace of school and taking on more than I have in awhile. All this was amounting to butterflies in my stomach and a looming sadness that had a bit of that what-am-I-doing-with-my-life-again quality. I also had been thinking that just sorting out the basics of how to be in and navigate through the world could really be a full time job. So, yes, going back to school wasn't really what I thought I wanted to be doing.

I got up on Monday morning kind of late, and managed to fit in all my usual morning stuff before packing a lunch and heading off to school. I was so rushed that I forgot to be afraid of wearing the shoes. The night before I had several visions of possibly nasty confrontations. But I was running late, so I threw on clothes and packed my bag and tied up the shoes and headed to the bus stop.

The shoes. The shoes are pretty interesting. I was convinced that they looked like cool high school girl shoes. They are black skater-type sneakers with purple dots all over them. On the heels it says "Ali," which I guessed was the name of the style, because the brand name on the bottom is "Etnies." The most interesting feature, I think, are the red plastic jewels that are on the tongue of each shoe. They remind me of the "Pretty, Pretty Princess" game that my sister had when we were kids. The basic premise of the game was to collect as much plastic jewelery as possible, and whoever wore the most at the end won.

Another interesting feature of the shoes is that it seems like someone has ripped out the insides of them. I think that most sneakers have an insole that is built into the shoe, but there was nothing of the sort, just the rubber bottom. Also curious is that they have really really long shoe laces, that weren't laced all the way up. I guess that whoever flung them up to their now home undid the laces so that they'd have more to work with. I wondered if they had also replaced the original laces with longer ones. There is one black lace, and one white one, which was visually kind of distracting when I was walking. It seemed to my eyes that only one shoe had laces, as the black laces were kind of camouflaged by the black of the shoes.

The shoes are pretty large on my feet. I tied them up tightly, in possibly the most uncool way: double knot. (You probably know it, it's the one your parents used when your shoe laces were too long.)

As I was walking quickly to the bus stop, the shoes felt very very awkward on me. They felt hard. Hard in all the wrong places: the bottom of my feet, the heel, the tongue. They felt hard and awkward and unusual. My feet swam a bit in the length and width of them in a way that was not comfortable at first, but by the end of the day felt just fine.

The night before, looking at the shoes, I was reminded of a teenaged girl and her male companion that I often see at the bus stop. I thought that I may have seen these shoes, or shoes like them on her feet. I feel quite intimidated by these two folks. I have never felt quite comfortable around them, but this summer, the girl made quite clear the vast amount of disdain she had for my unshaven legs, and ever since then I feel even more uncomfortable around them. On Sunday night my plan was to leave early enough to be able to walk at least part way to school and avoid the possibility of standing at the bus stop with them. But it didn't happen, and as it turns out, I was the only person at the stop.

On the bus I chatted with Maura. She supposed that the shoes on my feet were scooped from the trash to be thrown over the light standard. She deduced this from the rather large hole on the toe of the right shoe. It actually hadn't occurred to me that the shoes might have been thrown away by their owner. Maura had a really good point. I hadn't thought much about the hole (maybe because all summer I wore sandals with holes in the bottom of them, or have worn so many falling apart shoes still cherished by their owners). It makes sense considering the insoles were gone, and the laces seemed too long and's interesting wearing shoes that have so many ambiguous and unknown stories attached to them.

Just walking on campus felt busy and frantic already--suddenly it was filled with bunches of people again. I did a bit of work in the computer lab, and went to class. I'm doing another Extended Practices studio. It's really nice, because it wasn't until the end of last term that I sensed a real ease and camaraderie amongst the students in my studio class, and a lot of the same folks are taking it again this semester. Also, my teacher was really understanding about my back issue, and even suggested I pull up a table to lie on, which was great. Lying on my stomach on the table, the shoes hanging off the edge of it, I was thinking about how what I really need is an idea machine.

I have this pattern that has become less pronounced over time, but is still part of my life: I am given an assignment, and the first thing I do is worry and worry that I have nothing; that there is no way I can possibly think of a decent idea. This used to last for long periods of time--I would worry, and then worry about my worrying, and worry about my worrying about my worrying, and so on. It was intense and hurt my stomach. Now it can sometimes be momentary, or else just in the background of things, and at other times it's more pronounced. The interesting thing is that I actually have pages and pages of notebooks filled with ideas. Not all of them are necessarily great ideas, or even good ideas, but I do have ideas. Even though my brain tends to churn out things when given a bit of time and space, I often to predict otherwise. Anyhow, I thought that an idea machine could provided me with ingenuity on demand, which would be a great thing.

I was thinking about this because we were asked to bring in a kilometer for next class. There was no further explanation. I was feeling daunted by the literal trajectory my initial ideas were taking, and began a miniature worry session about how my brain just isn't very good at this, and that I should rethink my options and perhaps take up accounting.

At first I thought that I might have a kilometer of lace from St Vincent de Paul's, and that I could tie it all together and tie one end to my wrist, and the other to the front porch, and go for a walk that way, and bring in the lace to class later. Then I thought I could figure out how many centimeters were in a kilometer, and bring in that many jelly beans (which I figure are about a centimeter). Then I realized that there are 100 000 centimeters in a kilometer, and that is more jelly beans than I want in my life. And it's definitely more lego pieces than I could round up, and more than the lace I have. I have a kilometer of yarn. I might have 100 000 buttons that are big enough, but they are heavy. I thought I could make a miniature version of myself and a scale model of a kilometer, or else figure out how much I would sweat walking or running a kilometer, and bring in a liquid representation of that. I found out that calculating how much I sweat would require stepping on a scale before and after the kilometer, and I happen to ideologically opposed to weighing myself. I thought I could just pick up all the things I notice in a kilometer that are pick-upable, or else take pictures. What I ended up doing was to hold a pen over a piece of paper in my sketch book, and document a kilometer that way. It actually took 4 + pages, and was an interesting kilometer because I was running late (again), so it's a bit bumpy and frantic, especially towards the end.

I was thinking about how math and science students must hate art students for assignments like this. Some time ago Jon was telling me about his Graph Theory course. He was explaining that in that kind of pure math course, there is no bullshitting. You either have it or you don't, which I took to mean that there is only one right answer. I was thinking about how "only one right answer" is kind of nice in some ways, not to diminish the intellectual rigor that is needed to figure some of those "one right answers" out. It seems to me that the kind of assignments I have are just the opposite--there is no right answer. It's all grey. And this is equally as daunting, because there is still a hierarchy of possible solutions, but there is no reliable path to take to arrive at a good answer, nor is there any tangible, objective measure to judge an answer against. It seems to me that the cons of the sciences and maths are also the pros. And same goes for the arts (see chart below).




only one right answer

only one right answer


no single right answer

no single right answer

Of course this is a simplification. I'm sure I could list some relatively consistent standards to measure ideas against in the arts. They vary, of course, but nothing in the arts is ever so indisputable and universally accepted as a mathematical proof. On my bike ride to school on Wednesday I was thinking about how the messiness and greyness of "no single right answer" in arts is so much more true to real life. And yet, thinking about it a moment more, the simplicity and elegance of provable "right answers" in pure maths and sciences is also true to life. Maybe it's the difference between life in theory, and life applied. I don't know, but it seems to me that things are at once infinitely complex and extraordinarily simple. Please feel free to argue with me about this (or anything).

At the end of class I was wondering out loud about my kilometer, and shared my secret worry that my brain isn't cut out for this sort of thing with Nathan. He said, "well, that's why you practice." Good point, Nathan. Thanks.

After class Michael pointed at my shoes and asked me in a quick and demanding voice, "whose shoes are those?!" as if it was some sort of test. A handful of folks ask me this question when they see me, and seem to sense when it is that it isn't my own shoes on my feet. I don't know if it's the size or style of shoe that tips people off, or what, but it's neat when people notice.

The next day (Tuesday) I showed up extremely late for an art history class (due to a combination of various frustrating factors). I managed to be late by 20 minutes, and found a classroom full of students and no prof. Michael happened to be in that class, too, and we talked about our kilometers. He said, "I was thinking of converting Miles, here." The fellow that was beside us is named Miles. We asked him what he was doing at 11:30 the next day, because Micheal's idea is really too good not to use. It turns out that Miles is joining the class. On my way home I was thinking how Miles could photoshop 1.609344 of himself (an extra limb? fingers?) or else change his birth certificate or drivers license. If I had an idea machine it would have cranked out something like this. It's stellar. Unfortunately, being clever on demand isn't something I'm practiced at. All the more reason to practice, I suppose.

On my way home on Monday I was really aware of the unseasonably mild weather. The snow on Johnston Green was sublimating, and it was pretty spectacular. Things were becoming muddy fast. These past few days I've been reminded over and over of the first thaw when I was living in Sackville. It seemed like all the potential energy of the snow was released in a day long massive gush. The sound of running water was everywhere, there were miniature waterfalls teeming off of roofs. It was amazing. I remember the wind, which was incessant, wreaking havoc with the skirt I was wearing, and the sun shining brightly, which it didn't often do. Here in Guelph, melting snow banks revealed things lost and found again: soggy carrots, a sea shell, candy wrappers, a pillow case. I didn't have my camera with me yesterday, or else I think I would have photographed the carrots and sea shells. It was a strange and beautiful mess by the side of the road.

After class I ran a few errands on campus (canceling appointments, making appointments, picking up forms) and downtown (groceries, banking). I came home and didn't know what to do with myself. I think that it's been awhile since I've filled a day up so completely and with so much running around. At home I was still in go-go-go mode, and went back and forth between various tasks, having a hard time staying still. In the evening I mostly worked on the computer after I finally calmed down. It was rainy and wet, and Ben wasn't back until late, so I didn't end up putting the shoes back until the following evening.

Tuesday afternoon Cecilia screamed at me as she was riding down the Gordon Street hill. It made me jump. I saw her again downtown in the evening, and I called her name. She rode across the street, pulled over beside me, and told me how she'd like to become really good at writing love letters. To this end she is collecting love letters that people have written or received and is compiling them in a book so that when she wants to make her love known, she'll have some reference material. I think that her hope is that if she becomes really good at writing love letters, more people will love her. (She also was looking for a tutu, because she signed up for "Ballet for Beginners" and didn't want to show up without one.) I told Cecilia how I would like an idea machine, and how she is an idea machine. Another one of her ideas: haircuts for cookies. I don't think it requires much more of an explanation. Ceil agreed that I could join in and cut hair, if I gave her the cookies.

Cecilia also likes adventures, and she agreed to help me put the shoes back to their home. As we were unlacing them, Ceil noticed the tag on the tongue of the shoe. It says that they are Men's, size 9. We were both impressed that a fancy shoe company is breaking with gender conventions by making men's shoes with plastic jewels and purple polka dots.
We also noticed just how stinky the shoes were. They were very stinky.

We walked to the end of the street, and Cecilia stood on the box attached to the light standard. On the second toss, the shoes were back.

(Cecilia the brave.)

The shoes on the line are curious and mysterious with all their unknowns. They are well-worn, a bit beat up and weathered, and also have retained some of their cool. Wearing them was really interesting. It brought up all sorts of thoughts, anxieties, and questions. I still wonder about them--who they belonged to, how they made it to their home on high, and why they have been dangling over the street (if there's any reason at all). Again and again I am noticing how shoes that seem the farthest thing from what I would choose for myself, over the course of the day become familiar and natural, even in all their unfamiliarity. I am also seeing how documenting my footwear-related experiments has become a forum for me to ramble on about various things that are floating around in my head. I'm not sure if it's stuff that is at all interesting or worth your time to read--let me know, because I can be more concise.
It's surely possible.


Jon P said...

Aislinn, these posts are really wonderful.

To clarify one point: I'm pretty sure I did say that there is no bullshitting in proofs and that you either have it or you don't, but I didn't mean that to imply there is "only one right answer". The "it" that you have can be dramatically different from someone elses "it" -- there are always many ways of constructing a proof. In fact, I believe mathematicians are fond of providing alternate, more *elegant* or simple proofs of an already proved theorem, simply for it's beauty and originality. That's right, beauty.

In any case, (and you mention this), the math folks have a very clear notion of what "right" means (the proof has to be a logical valid argument), whereas there isn't the same sort of thing in the arts maybe. But like I say, beyond a mathematical idea of right-as-valid there is certainly a mathematical aesthetic, in terms of judging the beauty of "right" answer.

(My graph theory Prof would often get so excited about showing us a really "pretty" proof that day in class.)

Anyhow, you might say that the sciences are much less clear on what is "right" since there isn't the same formalisms and proofs; just compelling arguments, experiments, theories, and grant money.

aislinn thomas said...

Thanks for the clarification, Jon.
I appreciate it!

I like that there are many ways to arrive at the goal of a mathematical proof. I also like picturing a mathematician getting excited about a beautiful proof. What qualifies as beauty in math? (ingenuity? elegance? simplicity?...I'm really curious. I'm also really curious how someone might explain / communicate the beauty of numbers in words. I imagine that you could take on such a task.)

Hey, so what would your suggestion be as to how to amend the pros/cons chart? (By the way, that chart is a significant milestone for me. It came out looking a bit wonky, but it was quite the accomplishment--me figuring out all on my own a way to make a chart in thinking that I might be able to figure out all on my own a way to make a chart in blogger :)

I know of at least one artist who took the beauty of math (mathematical aesthetic?) as the content for his/her work--years ago I saw a Kazuo Nakamura show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I went back at least once, I enjoyed it so much.

When I was at Mt. Allison, we spent a lot of time in our first year design classes talking about mathematical structures and ideals in composition, colour theory and design. I really like how good designs that people arrive at intuitively can also be proven mathematically to reflect patterns found in nature or throughout human history. Have you ever seen Alex Colville's preparatory drawings? That fellow does not rely on intuition. Your graph theory prof might appreciate them.

jon p said...

I could blabber on in response to you, or I could just point you to Wikipedia, which has a great little article about all of this:

As to your chart, I'm not much of a fan of pros/cons charts... mainly because I'm terrible at differentiating pros from cons. But maybe it's not even about pros and cons, but about what different disciplines accept. Without thinking about it much, it seems like mathematics is the most strict about what is considered math (or, 'good' math), the sciences are generally looser, and art... well, what isn't art?