The Joy Menu #27: Walking
Your author walks in his father's shoes. Literally.
During his life, my father had a habit of doing things intensely and fully—not unhealthy things, like drinking or gambling, but regular things, like buying CD box sets, watching foreign films, changing careers, or exercising. To this effect, he liked walking. At some point, when I was still a boy, he started walking the Loop, the 5-mile path that circled our master-planned neighborhood. During his walking heyday, he walked it every day. Sometimes twice.
The Loop is paved, tree-lined, and safe. It passes two man-made lakes, two shopping centers (perfectly parallel on each side of the neighborhood) and hundreds of houses built to look like mansions but which are actually pods of multiple individual family homes sharing interior walls. Remarkably (and purposefully), it only crosses two major roads and is ideally sloped and coiffed to maximize smoothness, shade, and comfort. In our suburban Southern California of the early 90s, it was also usually empty, with rarely more than a half-dozen people walking it at a time.
In his small way, with all those walks, my father gained a public presence in the neighborhood. It was not uncommon for kids to come up to me at school and say, “I saw your dad walking the Loop yesterday.” It seemed he was always walking, even though it couldn’t have been more than an hour or two a day. But such was the limited number of people—especially men—who walked with regularity in Irvine in those days; it rendered my father noticeable. In our bland, quiet suburb, a foreign man walking miles a day in short-shorts was interesting enough to elicit notice.
Instead of making me embarrassed—which is what I would have expected myself to feel—I felt proud of his status. Everyone knew and saw my dad (and our 12-pound dog was extremely healthy). And joining him on those walks became a significant way I could engage with him when he was otherwise hard to reach. It gave me a chance to talk to him. Though, often, it was more of me talking at him. Not that he ever seemed to mind.
I stand a little over waist-high next to my father. I reach my hand out and up, touching his thick fingers, the back of his hand with the round blue mole in the middle, surrounded by thin hairs, black and straight. Then he does what he always does: encloses my hand in his, so I feel the soft pads of those fingers, and the middle flesh of his warm palm. With one hand holding mine, his other begins to tickle the back of my small hand. And we walk.
In some corner of my mind, the thought: should a friend drive by and see me, would I be embarrassed? Maybe. Probably. But the feeling is too nice, and my father’s confidence in the gesture unequivocal. To deny him this, to pull my hand away, would be to kick a dog. There’s purity in this connection, simplicity, and in a world where I’m already bothered by the expectations of boyhood, this sweetness is a refuge.
Why, I ask my mother, do the boys want to wrestle on the front lawn after school? And do I have to wrestle with them? That mound of grass, once a flag of entreaty before a safe place—where I’d enter with fantasies about what the day might hold—is now a minefield of greasy aggression, waiting to launch an uncomfortable attack and pull me, gasping for air, to the ground.
And so it is that hand-in-hand, we head out from our inlet street toward the Loop. The air is cool, the sun is warm, the trees wave as if underwater and on the ground, I watch—sometimes counting, sometimes just crunching under one foot and then the other—pinecones, black and dry, wide, flat seed casks, crisp, olive pine needles shaken from the coastal oaks, as if shed from large, ungainly animals which lurk unthreatening above our heads, alternately blocking the sun, and letting it break through to warm out arms and hands and heads.
At the first corner, my father plucks a leaf from a privet hedge and begins to fold and tear it in one hand, tossing the smallest of the pieces, once desiccated, back into the bushes. The next bush we pass, I do the same, plucking and folding my own leaf. I am small and knobby-kneed, my hair is still cut into a bowl shape; blond highlights from the excessive sun give me a local glow, despite feeling cloyingly confident in a certainty that I don’t fit in, don’t belong to this place.
Looking up at my father, I notice he’s looking away, forward, carefully scanning the cars that drone by—they slow to a stop at each stop signs, then lurch forward with low growls. He’s either peaceful in contemplation, or deep in thought, though neither occurs to me, ignorant of what an adult could be concerned with, except probably money, work—those things I hear in my parents’ talk about when, in low tones, they send us to the back of the house in the evening to sleep.
“These are cape cod plants,” my father says. “This one is a Sputnik Buttonbush.”
He never says these things, but now, in reconstruction, I imagine he has. He might have; he knew all the plant names. Knew why each was planted where, whether they were indigenous or not, whether they sucked up the limited water we had or gave back to the thirsty ground. Talk of the drought has been on everyone’s lips at school. Our teachers tell us only to flush when we make number two, and I’m shocked when my grandmother visits from South Africa and flushes before and after she takes a pee.
She also knows the names of all the plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, bushes, in the neighborhood, at the beach, and along the roads we drive when we leave the developments and head into the canyons or out onto the desert roads. I don’t know why they know this, but I know my father had been a gardener when he was young, and has a “green touch.” My mother complains he never applies it to our own backyard, which is mostly raw scrub and a half-bricked area where our dog pees. “The cobbler’s kids have no shoes,” she says, and I look down at my shoes: Nikes, or New Balance, which my father helped me choose at Chick’s Sporting Goods the last time my feet had grown.
Today, as we continue past the dry creek bed and the shopping center that houses the credit union bank (our bank), the grocery store (where we shop), the sandwich shop (where I love the hard chew of the dry, white bread), my new sneakers squeak. I’ve just had insoles made from plasters, sized to fit me exactly, to compensate for my lack of arches. I feel honored to have such attention given to me; proud to dip my naked feet into that cold, cement-like mixture. My father also wears insoles, and also has flat feet, as did his father, my grandfather, and my uncle, too.
This, I understand, is my first patrimony (as a boy I look entirely like my mother). Years later, when my father is already dying, I will climb up onto the bed and put my long, flat feet next to his and take one last picture of our matching appendages. To touch the earth with the same defects as the men who have made me; I am hungry for these connections.
Today, I listen to the honking of the fiberglass as it rubs against the rubber of the soles and laugh a little to myself. Later, at home, my father will offer me a shake of Gold Bond to neutralize the sound. That too, is a connection.
When he dies, I will take his last pair of grey New Balance 990s home and wear them on my own walks. I will wear them again today.
May you find your way onward
toward creative joy,