Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

I don’t remember my first pair of shoes.

I do remember that it took me a while to master tying shoe laces.

It is a long learning curve to perfect knot.

At first, you overlook dissimilar lengths of lace on the right and left sides and end up with an imbalanced knot. Then you overlook applying the right tug at each twist and end up with a poorly constructed wobbly knot begging to come undone. After much trial and error, you get it right – a balanced, adequately tight knot keeping everything in place. Once that stage is achieved, you learn finer aspects like how to adjust the knot without undoing the whole thing.

Most of us begin our tryst with shoes laces around the same time we commence our tryst with school. Years later, wearing the black shoes of office, the pattern of relationship is similar. The shoes arrive well made and polished from the store. For some time, every speck of dust on its polished sheen is unbearable. You frequently inspect the shoes, wipe it clean. Then you realize that loss of sheen is inevitable. To be around is to weather. Enter that phase when instead of constant eagle eye on shoe, once every few days you dust, clean and polish it. Then as the activities causing wear and tear became more important than shiny shoe, black shoe acquires creases. Sometimes, the shoe sports a patch of dull leather where the outer layer has flaked off with intense use. Polished, it is shiny black where leather is still intact; in other places, a sort of matt finish-black intervenes. Through all this wear and tear right up to eventual retirement of shoe, one thing consistently improved at school – your ability to tie shoe laces. You tied them well, you tied them fast. Till it got burnt into your brain like a permanent tattoo. The art of tying a shoe lace is widespread skill acquired early in life that it is rarely called `skill.’ It has dissolved to being part of one’s being. We don’t analyse the art of tying a shoe lace to notice the framework of learning it brought. On the other hand, even after mastering it, we always questioned the knot seeking ways to escape it.

Sometime in high school, I recall buying my first pair of black slip-on shoes. It was an attempted premature graduation to adulthood for many adults sported slip-on shoes. But life at school was way too active for slip-ons to stay securely on the feet. How do you run with shoes that tend to fly off? I returned to shoe laces. The only time I reverted thereafter to shoes without laces was in rock climbing. My personal impression is that the world of rock climbing is neither for nor against laces, it has its moments of respecting laces and moments when it values alternatives. My first pair of climbing shoes was a lace-up. It took time to lace up and be ready for a climb. My second pair was also a lace-up but it was so for a particular reason – precision. Climbing demands attention to choice of shoe. There is a lot of foot-technique involved and accordingly shoes are designed to deliver. Many climbing shoes are designed to focus the foot’s strength on the big toe; some others are designed for sensitivity, yet others are shaped to generate friction for smearing. Some are specialists for certain types of climbs; others are all rounders. There are also a few other expectations that arise with continued climbing – when you are in the thick of climbing and having fun with your friends at a climbing wall or boulder, you don’t want to waste time tying shoe laces. Sometimes, you are so focussed on a boulder problem that you don’t want your shoes interfering with the climb. You just want to go. Enter Velcro. However from what I know, Velcro isn’t as precise in harnessing foot strength as a lace-up. Velcro is convenient. My third pair of climbing shoes used Velcro straps; I had much fun in them.

Velcro is photography in auto focus to lace-up’s art. You know this because you tied laces long enough – right from school – to know what art is. That’s when you reflect upon the first knot learnt long ago; the movement it taught your fingers, the hand-eye co-ordination you acquired and the imagination the act of tracing the knot lent your mind. True, climbers tell you: don’t take your climbing knot as casually as you would your shoe lace-knot; and rightly so, for the consequences are serious in climbing. What we forget is that we bring to bear on the climbing knot an understanding of knot and ability to make it, honed on the humbler, less sexy shoe lace. Marry that comprehension and imagination to a purpose with far more serious consequences – you get the mindset for learning a climbing knot. In small acts performed, lay the seed for bigger ones. My repertoire of climbing knots is limited because my flair for them isn’t much. That’s my adult mind. As a late entrant to climbing, when I struggled with climbing knots, wondering what I should do to remember how each is made, I did think about my tryst with the shoe lace. Unfortunately the child in me is a whole middle age away in the past to revisit and ask: how did you do it?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The other day in a Mumbai suburban train, a college student treated me to an ultra fast completion of the Rubik’s Cube puzzle. His fingers flew. I noticed that even the way he held the cube was different – it was worked back from the requirement to flick and flip the squares fast. Solving a puzzle is not just an individual’s flair at specific art; it is one of nature’s evolutionary masterpieces showcased – our being as this evolved machinery capable of solving problems. I wonder what all that young man must have been doing in a physiological and psychological sense when he solved the puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube. If you slow down the process to notice – there is motor activity, motor activity co-ordination, imagination, imagination of things as they were, as they are and how they will be, not to mention, all this happening at once. Muscles twitching, neurons firing, eyes darting, mind focusing – it is thoroughly engaging. I got my first Rubik’s Cube in high school. Those days it wasn’t available in India; it was typically brought from overseas. In my case, a family friend visiting from the US gifted it. Now, decades later, Rubik’s Cube is easily available in India. Its days of popularity are over. It is the committed, who stay with it. That college student in the train was working specifically on how to solve the problem super fast. He was timing his effort, trying to match a certain timing he had read about. Even his cube had evolved; unlike the cube I had, his was designed to flip around fast.

Examples ranging from climbing to Rubik’s Cube, make me wonder: what would have been our first puzzle; the first challenge requiring us to focus, marshal our intelligence, focus our faculties to pay attention to a given task and co-ordinate the effort to produce a result? Some of us may say – sitting, walking etc. I submit these are underlying expectations from life, things we do without exercising deliberate choice; probably why those tasks are attempted by children like genetic programming unleashed. I think tying a shoe lace is definitely one of the earliest puzzles we consciously wrestled with; it is almost in the same league as a Rubik’s Cube, something not essential for existence but quite fascinating if you meditate on what it leaves behind as imprint. The puzzles we choose and the ones we grow to like, betray our preferred style of thinking. Solving a puzzle can also tell us much about our level of mental alertness. At high altitude the humble shoe lace-knot has often been an index of alertness and well being for me. When your fingers find it a chore being dexterous enough for the task, you know the cold is getting to you. When your mind finds it a chore, then you know that both cold and exhaustion have got to you. Sometimes the need to pause and focus on tying a shoe lace slows down world flying by. It helps you gather your thoughts, gives you time to breathe. When you do that, you sense yourself. You know you are alive. Breath is life.

Mid-March 2016, I was at the office of a media company thriving on product reviews, when somebody excitedly mentioned about a leading shoe manufacturer’s just concluded press briefing.  That night, browsing the Internet, I discovered the reason for the press conference – the company had launched a new shoe model, one that automatically tightened its shoe laces. The video showed a foot slipping into a shoe with ankle guard; the laces automatically tightened to snug-fit. There were no fingers weaving lace into a knot, actually there was no knot, only a few parallel lines of perfectly aligned, well tightened shoe lace. It was the end of an old puzzle. It wasn’t puzzle solved and therefore puzzle ended as was the case when we learnt to tie those laces and burnt the art into muscle memory. It was puzzle eradicated. An opportunity to learn lost? – I don’t know. I am no psychologist or researcher of human behaviour to hold forth on that angle. But I do wonder: what will be the nature of human being growing out from those `high tech’ shoes with no lace to knot. What will a society of such people be like. Hopefully, as with climbing’s lace-up and Velcro, it isn’t a question of one replacing the other but both, coexisting.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

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