Sunday, August 24, 2008

shoes in the news

Here's the story that ran in the Guelph Tribune the other week, and a picture with Mike's shoes on my feet.
Just for the record, I happened to be wearing safety shorts under that dress.
It turned out to be a wise choice.

She's Walking Miles in Someone Else's Shoes
By Dave Bowden
Arts & Entertainment
Aug 15, 2008

Imagine wearing shoes that don't fit, shoes so old they're nearly falling apart, shoes that are meant for the opposite sex. Now imagine spending a day in them.

As part art project, part social experiment, Aislinn Thomas decided last November that she'd try taking the phrase "put yourself in someone else's shoes" literally.

Since then, the University of Guelph art student has borrowed shoes from friends, family members and complete strangers, wearing them for a day (or as long as is comfortable) in an attempt to learn about herself and the people around her. While she admitted that it's difficult to know someone by just wearing their shoes, she said she's surprised by how much she's learned since she began.

"I thought (the project) would be . . . doomed because I didn't think there was any way that I could get that kind of a sense of a person from just wearing their shoes," she said. "And I don't (get that sense), necessarily, but I have learned a lot of other things." For instance, Thomas said she's been touched by the generosity people have shown when she explains the project.

"Even strangers have been really generous with me, because shoes are kind of an intimate thing in a way," she said. "Strangers on the street, even in winter - in blowing snow - will take their shoes off and exchange shoes with me."

Of course, not everyone has been so forthcoming. When she first conceived of the notion and pitched it to friends, Thomas said reactions varied.

"The first person I asked seemed a bit hesitant," she recalled. "Some people are really excited about the idea right away. Other people warm up to it."

Thomas established a blog, "In Your Shoes," to share the stories associated with the shoes with a broader audience. One man was so taken with the idea that he actually mailed her his shoes all the way from Pennsylvania. She said she's been surprised and humbled by the response and attention her project has garnered.

"People lend me shoes that have been all over the world, or have seen them through really trying experiences," she said. "(And) I'm thinking, I'm riding my bicycle, is this enough? Am I doing these shoes justice?"

Thomas estimates that she's borrowed about 50 pairs of shoes since she started in November. She has no end in sight for the project, choosing instead to stop "when it sort of comes to its natural conclusion." For now, she said she's not done experimenting.

"I'd like to keep going with it, because I feel like there's still stuff I can learn from it."

To read the stories Thomas has gathered, visit her blog at

(You can also read this story at:

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Not long ago, a friend of mine told me that I had to ask Mike about his shoes. I happened to see him a few days later at a cafe, and he was kind enough to let me pester him with questions. Mike has been suffering from serious back pain for some time. He told me about his sneakers. The day that he bought them, he wore them to walk over to the pharmacy to pick up more painkillers. In that short amount of time, his back pain was reduced by 50% (!!).

So I was inaugurated into the world of terms like "pronation" and "supination," and bright white sneakers. Mike explained to me how running shoes are meant to keep ones weight evenly distributed, and correct the habits that an individual may have (rolling in or out, for example). He showed me a website of athletic shoes. I had no idea that sneakers were so specific. The pair that he bought were "neutral" shoes, that keep him centred in the shoe, and help his tendency of rolling towards the outside of his shoe. He urged me to try a pair. I think that he could sense my hesitation and said, "you could always paint them."

I did end up trying out a bunch of running shoes one rainy evening at a store downtown. The woman there was really helpful, and okay with the fact that I had no idea if I actually wanted to invest in a pair. I must have tried at least 5 different kinds. She told me that when walking, my weight is evenly distributed, so it's not rolling that's causing or prolonging any back pain. The shoes felt strange on my feet. Like whole other worlds.

Anyhow, that was a whole bunch of preamble. The upshot of the whole situation is that I thought it was about time to put myself in another person's shoes again. And I thought it might be a good idea to ask Mike if he was willing to lend me a pair of his.
He was.

Of course Mike didn't lend me his miracle sneakers--he needs those on his own feet each day. But this pair of shoes came to mind as a pair that I might find comfortable. He described the as "deck shoes," which is a term that was unfamiliar to me. Since then I've heard it a few times (as a sidetrack, I have also been seeing a lot of desert boots these days, which I haven't seen in about 17 years...). Mike told me that he got these shoes, which are light brown leather Aldos, at a factory outlet store in Quebec. He said that they were pretty comfortable shoes, and would likely stay on my feet despite their large size. He kindly brought them into work, where I picked them up from him the next day.

That week I was working mornings in Elora. I decided it was unwise to wear Mike's shoes to work. The previous day a little girl had (accidentally) dropped her paint palette on my feet. My shoes were covered in yellow paint, which happened to be washable, but still not something I wanted to risk subjecting someone else's shoes to. The other reason that I decided to wear them for just half a day, was that they were difficult for me to walk in. Although they have laces, even when tied as tightly as possible the shoes still felt like they were at risk of falling off. I had to do that ball of foot kind of grab with each step, which was fine for a little while, but eventually didn't feel like a helpful thing to be doing.

So I wore Mike's shoes for an afternoon and evening. I biked with them to the library and bank (it was funny to see the length of them sticking out from my bike pedals as I did so). I met with Dave Bowden, a reporter at the Guelph Tribune. I tried hard to smile comfortably as he took photos for the article he was working on. I went to an appointment, and noticed that there was a receipt in the bottom of one shoe. It was for cantaloupe. I worked on a video briefly at the school, made dinner, and walked with a friend of mine to an art opening downtown. On the way I tripped at least 3 times, and noticed for the first time ever that the Curry in a Hurry restaurant at the bottom of the hill is in a house that is only half a house.

I saw some really great paintings and reconnected with some friends. We wandered back home, and my pal showed me photos from her trip to Costa Rica. We pined for distant travels, and I walked home and went to bed. Mike's shoes stayed at the bottom of the stairs with all the others as I slept.

Mike was right--his shoes were comfy. I enjoyed how big and roomy they were on my feet. They just didn't want to stay on there, and continually conspired to trip me. In the end I decided not to wear them for an entire day because it didn't seem like the best idea for my back. Which is interesting, because that's the same reason that Mike opts to wear different shoes these days as well.

Mike's shoes are comfortable. They are soft and floppy and kind of squishy on the inside. They are comfortable, and yet not what he choses to wear these days. And not the best thing for me to be wearing, either, although neither of us predicted that. Mike's shoes made me think about what it means to outgrow ones own shoes, to own shoes that are no longer helpful. This is somewhere where the phrase ("put yourself in his/her shoes" ) may fall short. What happens when someone's shoes don't support them very well? Can they still be reflective of that person, their life, and their perspective? I'm not sure that there is an answer. But it's interesting to think about.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Reva is a good family friend.
My mom grew up in Missouri, and whenever I visit St. Louis, I have a very hard time seeing all of my relatives there--my St. Louis family is huge, and there is an intricate and enormous network of relatives and friends. My mom understands how they all fit together, but having grown up out of town, I always forget just how it is that this cousin or that aunt is related to me. Not that the how of it matters. Suffice to say that the experience of going there (which I try to do at least once a year) is like coming home to a stadium full of people who think you're the bees knees regardless of what your day (or year) was like.

Reva is one of those people in the stadium. Her family isn't related to mine, but they may as well be. Mama Jean and Reva met when a mutual friend indirectly accused Mama Jean of stealing Reva's daughter and passing her off as her own. Amy Beth (my aunt) and Amy Beth (Reva's daughter) are the same age, grew up blocks away from each other, and looked very similar as infants. They are also the best of friends.
(They are also both tornado babies, but that is another story.)

Since Reva lives so close by to Mama Jean, and since I love her and her family dearly, I almost always get to visit with her when I'm in town. One of the marvelous things about her house is that she is always finding interesting things to do with it. She has raised chickens, installed a "diamond mine", has a mouse house underneath her stairs, and is working on a wall tattoo. For a number of years now, a good part of her basement has been designated "the costume room." There is an impressive contingent of bridesmaid's dresses on the metal racks that line the wall, as well as Hallowe'en and Purim costumes, vintage dresses that make me swoon, boy scout uniforms, wigs, veils, gloves, hats, masks, and of course, shoes.

In the past Reva has let me take outfits out on long term loan--dresses to wear to weddings, or just for fun. In fact, the local high school borrows clothing for their annual musicals, and neighbourhood kids and relatives "shop" at Reva's for costumes and formal attire. This year a pair of tap shoes caught my eye.

I've always been intrigued by tap shoes. Growing up I took ballet and modern and jazz classes, but it was a well understood rule in our household that tap was out of the question. My mom had three other sisters in her family, and two of them were avid dancers. The sound of tap shoes drives her nuts. So tap dancing is something that I've always been a bit curious about.

My Auntie Andrea let me try on her tap shoes once when she was visiting. They were white, and a bit too small. My Auntie Amy once told me that I could have her old tap shoes if she could find them--her feet are closer to my size. About 6 years ago, my old dance studio was celebrating their 25th anniversary, and invited a bunch of graduates to come back and dance in show. It was a tap number, and having never taken tap lessons, I wore an old pair of (tap-less) character shoes and did my best to seem like I knew what I was doing. I really wished I did know what I was doing, but had a good time not having to worry about any sounds giving me away.

When I saw a couple of pairs of tap shoes in Reva's basement, I got excited. Reva wasn't sure of the origins of the shoes I ended up taking home with me. My guess is that they belonged to Auntie Amy. The other pair, which was larger, shinier, and the flat-heeled style, belonged to Reva. She told me their story.

Reva said that she and her sister were sitting together "kvetching about the fact of their lives," and that their family wasn't able to afford to let them take dance lessons when they were younger. They had both always wanted to tap dance. One of the sisters suggested that since they were able to afford it now, they should buy themselves tap shoes. And they did.

Reva recounted how she and her sister could be found giggling and goofing around at the dance store, how the staff and other customers must have thought they were crazy with the noises that were coming from their feet. They bought the shoes, but Reva never took lessons. I don't think that that was important to her. She and her sister just enjoyed making noise and "tip tapping" together.

Reva encouraged me to try the "tapping shoes" on, the ones that were closer to my size. They are capezio heeled tap shoes, size 8 or so, with dance studio pink insides. It turned out that they fit me really well, and I stepped off the carpet, onto the cement floor and started making noise. Reva was astounded, "you sound really good!" She said that it sounded like I knew what I was doing, that it was as if I was making music with my feet. She was so impressed that she said I should bring them home.

I tried walking to my grandmother's house in them, but I gave up after about half a block. It seemed so wrong tapping as I walked on the sidewalk, plus I think that it just feels wrong in my body to spend so much time in heeled shoes. So I took them off, and reverted back to my regular shoes. Inside Mama Jean's I put them on when no one else was home and tapped up a storm of made-up moves that may or may not be proper moves or pass as tap dancing. (We had recently seen part of a documentary on dance, and I think that watching Fred Astaire and the way his body moved made me all the more eager to try dancing with taps.)

Back in Guelph, I decided to wear the shoes for just part of the day, due to the heel factor. I
wore them while taking a much needed break from planning camp programming and gathering books at the library. I was nervous -- I wasn't sure if our downstairs neighbour was home, but risked it anyway. I just put them on, and started making sounds. It felt kind of freeing, although I was a bit tentative. I found a very funny book at the library that I thought might help me, but turned out to not be very helpful at all. I imagine that it's the sort of book that my mom would weed off the shelves, if she was weeding at the Guelph Public library.

Unfortunately, Erica wasn't home. She had offered to show me some moves. Later on, she tried on the shoes and showed me what she could remember. According to her I do a pretty good modified buffalo-type step. Hmm...

The tapping shoes are exciting and playful. When I put them on, if no one else is home, I can imagine that I'm a super-swell tap dancer making up my own music to dance to as I go or slow, syncopated rhythms and pauses that I can play with and delight in. It's also a bit of that feeling of breaking the rules, doing what I wasn't allowed to as a kid, being really loud, and making lots of really loud mistakes, and just laughing afterwards. Although the tapping shoes' original owner is a mystery, I imagine them as having belonged to my aunt and having lived in Mama Jean's house, probably packed away in the basement for some time. I also somehow imagine them as carrying Reva's story of two sisters finally just doing what they had wanted to for so long, making their noise and laughing. And they are also caught up with my idea of St. Louis...that stadium full of people ready to hug me, or applaud after a convincing series of pseudo buffalo steps.