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Of shoes...and Wooly Bears

Bill Meredith

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes- of ships- of sealing wax-
Of cabbages and kings-
And why the sea is boiling hot-
And whether pigs have wings.

I’ve never been much of a believer in the woolly bear method of weather prediction. A friend once said that if you go by woolly bears you can expect the winter to be brown in the middle and black on both ends, and I think that makes at least as much sense as trying to foretell the amount of snow on the basis of their color variations. They are bears of even littler brain than Winnie the Pooh; at least he knew his limitations. My skepticism was confirmed in mid-November when I met the last woolly bear of the season on the way to the library.

I don’t know why the woolly bear was going to the library. I was going to return a book and get a new one; and our paths converged, and we found ourselves walking side by side, at approximately the same speed. We probably would have had an uneventful stroll but for the shoes I was wearing… and my wife has to take the blame for that.

Most people who know my wife would assert that she likes shoes. I’m not sure she does; she prefers to go barefoot in the house, and in the yard too, when it’s warm enough. I do know for certain, though, that she likes buying shoes. This led to a crisis several years ago when we lived in the old house; she found a new outlet store in Hanover, came home with a box under her arm and announced that "These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever seen!" Unfortunately, the comfort didn’t seem to last; every week thereafter… sometimes even twice a week… the same scene occurred, and inevitably a storage problem developed. There was no dust under our bed; there wasn’t room for it; the space was full of shoes. I became aware of the magnitude of the problem after she started putting her shoes in my closet; when I lodged what I intended as a tactful protest, she informed me in a tone of injured logic that there was nowhere else to put them because her closets were all full, and I didn’t seem to be using the space, so why should it go to waste?

For a while I commiserated with Ferdinand Marcos and hoped the influx would stop when the last closet was full, but I didn’t reckon on my wife’s ingenuity. It dawned on her at some point that the shoes would take up less space if they weren’t in boxes. So eventually it came to pass that a mountain of shoes filled my closet and, like Fibber McGee, I was faced with an avalanche every morning when I opened the door. The crisis finally came one day when she was dressing to go somewhere and at the last minute was unable to find two shoes that matched. Unluckily for me, it was a Saturday and I was unoccupied; so as she dashed out the door she called over her shoulder: would I please "organize" her shoes while she was gone.

"Organize" is one of those words, like "is," that mean different things to different people. I never found out what it meant to her, but to me it meant sorting the shoes into pairs before trying to find a place to put them. After reflecting hopelessly for a while, I began shoveling the shoes out of the closet and lining them up along the wall of the bedroom. After the line got about 20 shoes long, I found one whose mate I recognized, so I put the pair together and scooted the line down one space. Proceeding in that manner, I began finding more pairs; but the line kept getting longer and when I picked up a shoe that looked familiar it took longer and longer to find its mate. Eventually the task took on a compulsive nature, like working a jigsaw puzzle, and the line extended all the way around the bedroom, through the hall, and started down the stairs. By the time my wife got home I had found and united 143 pairs of shoes, and there were another 76 unpaired ones. Pointing to the box under her arm, I said something to the effect of "Don’t you think you have enough," to which she pointed out that they weren’t all shoes; some were slippers- and besides, these were the most comfortable….

The ultimate solution was to build a new house, and not take most of the inventory with us when we moved; and I must admit that things haven’t been quite so bad since. My wife didn’t exactly go "on the wagon," or if she did, she falls off occasionally… but new shoes now arrive on more of a monthly basis than weekly. The only difficulty now is that she occasionally decides I need to share the thrill. Oblivious to the fact that the hiking shoes I got in 1979 are still perfectly good and have a lot of wear left in them, she came in one day last summer with a new pair that had thick soles with immense grooves in them, as if they were made from tractor tires.

Those shoes were on my feet when I met the woolly bear on the sidewalk leading to the library. As we walked along I noticed that it seemed worried, as if it were late for some important appointment; it was going as fast as it could go, and seemed to be trying to go faster yet. I thought maybe it found me threatening, so I stopped to let it go ahead; but it stopped too. Then it turned and crawled under my shoe, into one of the grooves in the sole. I waited an appropriate time for it to come out the other side, but it didn’t reappear. After a few minutes I lifted my foot; and there it was, curled up in a ball, preparing to hibernate under my shoe and clearly not too happy that I was unwilling to stand there until winter was over.

I went on to the library; where the woolly bear went, I do not know. It clearly wasn’t cut out to be a bookworm. If it was stupid enough to try to hibernate under my shoe, I don’t think it would have sense enough to predict the weather either. It is equipped to deal with just one problem: find a place that is fairly dry and sheltered from predators, make a cocoon, and go into dormancy. Whether the winter is hard or mild is of little concern to it; if something doesn’t eat it or step on it, it will greet the spring as an Isabella moth and set about the business of procreating the next generation.

As for me, life is a lot more complicated; my granddaughter got my wife a new pair of shoes for Christmas. My worst fear is that shoe-buying may prove to be hereditary… I may be looking for another new house before the next Christmas gets here.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith