June 2014


I’ve been wearing “barefoot shoes” for about six years now and they have taught me a few things about feet and shoes in general:

1) We need shoes. No matter how adapted our bare feet are to forest floors or savannah, which is debatable, they are not adapted to industrial landscapes. This is true no matter how gnarly your feet get and no matter how prancing of a gait you adopt. (If this does not seem true to you, you are either young, do not have a real job, or both, and that’s awesome. Enjoy it while you can.) This is especially true if you like to have fun with foot-intense activities like dancing all night, or running marathons.

2) All shoes are uncomfortable, even barefoot shoes. You may not yet know this because you wear shoes all the time or haven’t paid enough attention.  The major problems with shoe discomfort are from narrow toe boxes, heaviness, stiff uppers, heel lift, and lack of cushion. Since there are no truly comfortable, versatile shoes right now, I have to assume these are tough engineering problems. Still, I can complain.

3) The toe box seems to be a fashion problem rather than an engineering problem. Clearly, narrow toe boxes are hipper than wide ones. I remember the first time I saw a shoe with a wide toe box (a early-2000s Birkenstock shoe) how weird and somehow wrong they looked to me. This, I think, is something we just have to get over. We need shoes that are shaped like feet. Anything else is culturally accepted foot binding. Look at any old person’s feet and ask yourself, did they “break in” their shoes or did their shoes “break in” their feet?

(Those early Birkenstock shoes turned out to be really heavy, clunky, and with painfully stiff uppers. Can’t recommend them even though their toe box was lovely.)

4) Once you get used to barefoot shoes, regular shoes mostly feel like cement blocks tied to your feet, and you can feel the weight and clunkiness of them jarring your ankles and knees with each step. It’s awful. Barefoot shoes are straightforwardly better in this way. However, if your real job involves the possibility of heavy and/or sharp objects landing on your feet, there are no good barefoot shoe options for you.

5) A surprising number of barefoot shoes have stiff uppers that cut into the tops of your feet almost as bad as normal dress shoes. Nike Frees have the best upper I’ve found so far, though it depends on the model, and they have heel-lift problems.

6) Heel lift may have a place for runners–I’m not particularly a runner so I have no opinion–but is purely uncomfortable otherwise. Once you are used to no heel lift, putting on heel lift shoes feels like standing on or walking down a slope constantly, which is hard on the toes and knees. The only thing I’d miss about heel lift is getting to be slightly taller than my wife every once in a while, which is nice for partner dancing.

7) Barefoot shoe enthusiasts say your feet need to be able to feel the terrain, and many barefoot shoes have little or no cushion underneath to accomplish this. I do enjoy being able to feel the terrain, as long as it is not concrete, but as far as I can tell the benefit of this is still an open question. It is obviously, experientially true, though, that walking without cushion is more tiring and harsher on feet, legs, and low back than walking with cushion.  Walking through a city in very low cushion shoes, like Terra Plana Vivobarefoots, it is clear that sidewalk is harsher than asphalt to walk on, which is harsher than brick or cobblestone–the more texture the better. Lawns and devil strips are the best terrain you will find in a city by far, and barefoot shoes turn you into a deviant grass-walker.

8) Barefoot shoe enthusiasts believe that arch support is just bad, that it weakens the muscles that would otherwise hold up your arch, making you dependent on supports. I think it is more complicated than that. I think spending time with collapsed arches is probably worse than having weak arch-supporting muscles, so be careful, especially during taxing activities like backpacking. After some experimentation, I’ve settled on wearing flexible, custom leather orthotics in my barefoot shoes most of the time–any time I’ve got a long day on my feet or doing anything athletic for an extended time. When my feet are fresh, the supports don’t seem to come into play much. When tired, they rest on the supports. It’s working for me so far.

9) It may be possible to design truly comfortable, versatile shoes. I’d like to try Nike Frees with no heel lift and without the wide sole in the heel. That might be the perfect athletic shoe, especially if they could tone down the bright, ugly color combinations so long compulsory for athletic shoes. For work, I’d like to try Terra Plana’s Vivobarefoot Gobi Suede but with some cushion in the sole.

10) I can’t comment much on toe shoes, but I haven’t found any that fit me. I am interested in them for the way they spread toes out–maybe they could help correct problems that years of regular shoes create. I found, though, that I needed a perfect fit: Too small hurts and too big means little floppy extensions on the end of each toe. No thanks. I have been wearing Injinji toe socks to get a little spread for the last few months and I like them.

 

My Shoes for the Last Year

Vivobarefoot Terraplanas. I wear these to work most of the time.

Vivobarefoot Terra Planas. I wear these to work most of the time. I got married in these.

Nike Free Run + for anything athletic or yard work.

photo-5

Merrell Edge Gloves for casual stuff, or a break from the others. I wear these the least, but a few times a week.

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I’m off caffeine right now and noticing an interesting and subtle improvement in my life that has highlighted a problem with caffeine. A few days ago, at work, I felt this low-energy sensation that caused me to think, “I need some caffeine.” That low-energy sensation was not low caffeine levels, though I had come to think of it that way. It was, of course, tiredness. Without recourse to caffeine I realized that I was just tired, there was nothing to do but take a rest or keep working tired. In that moment I was free of something that had caught me during the last year. I was a human being, tired, and this was what it felt like to be me right now. I could relax into that fact.

With caffeine in your life, there comes an element of constantly chasing the flame of perfect alertness, probably in the service of productivity, without having to use self-care or build distress tolerance.

Without caffeine its much easier to notice how much sleep is really enough, and that you, like all primates, get tired in the afternoon and should probably have a siesta–as is traditional among primates who have not inherited nothern-European culture. (No, it has nothing to do with lunch. How many times have you said, “Wow, breakfast really knocked me out”?) There is also the more esoteric but real opportunity for mindfulness and building equanimity towards the discomforts of life.

This kind of problem is a theme. I also happen to be off sugar right now, for example, and have noticed that my cravings for sugar happen when I am stressed. This was much harder to notice when I could just eat something sugary without thinking about it. I don’t think that sugar counteracts the stress, like caffeine does the tiredness, but I do think I’m unconsciously (and ineffectively) trying to manage stress when I eat sugar most of the time. The result is often bellyache. Off sugar, the question becomes, “Am I hungry?” or “Am I thirsty?” or just, “Am I restless and need a break or a few deep breaths?”

A third example is air conditioning. I live in the desert, and it’s hot during the day. I know from decades of experience that I can adapt to the heat by wearing appropriate clothes, using water, choosing activities based on the time of day, and just plain physiological adaptation. Now I work in air-conditioned offices 9-5, five days a week. For me that means wearing long-sleeve shirts over undershirts to stay warm enough, and never adapting to summer. So whenever I step outside it feels like a furnace and I’m dressed for a cool spring day. I have to use enough AC in my car that I don’t show up to clients’ houses drenched in sweat. It’s like pretending I don’t live in a desert.

Don’t get me wrong–caffeine, sugar, and AC are wonderful in their own ways and I don’t foresee giving any of them up permanently. I just recognize the way they get me trapped chasing a small, constantly moving space of theoretical comfort all day, often to my detriment.

I was in the gym after work on Thursday and realized I’d rather be hiking. I decided to find the minute-microconfluence nearest the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, which turns out to be N34 6′ x W116 15′ or 34.10 x -116.25. (Altimeter seems to be broken most of the time these days, so I downloaded DMS converter between DMS and decimal coordinates.)

It looked about a mile from the park entrance parking lot, so I parked and headed northeast through open desert from there–an area I’d never walked through.

I got some great vistas on the way.

Sunfair dry lake through a notch

I was impressed with how every patch of soft sand was filled with tracks.

photo 3

I thought this trek was taking me over ground people don’t really go, which may be true. The spot, though, turned out to be a few feet from Burro Loop Trail, which I would definitely take over the through-the-desert approach next time.

The area

The area

The spot

The spot

Panorama from the spot

Panorama from the spot

The coordinates on Maps With Me

The coordinates on Maps With Me*

And a couple hundred feet down the trail right next to the spot:

 

On Maps With Me I found I could put a bookmark on the coordinates I was looking for and then get a direction and distance indicator that led me eventually to the spot. It was good enough to be useful.

I hate wind. It’s a natural and deep hate that comes with growing up in the desert. So many swim practices on sunny days rendered freezing, so many treasured but aerodynamic objects disappeared to the next county, so many teenage hairstyles ruined. Wind is the Voldemort of Joshua Tree, the weather-that-shall-not-be-named: “Hey, have you noticed we haven’t had much doubleyou eye en-dee lately? Gotta love it!”

So since I’ve moved back to the desert, I’ve been thinking about what I could do to change my relationship with wind. I’d so much rather be happy than depressed when it blows, but it’s been a tough one. There’s just not much to like. I could get into kites, I guess, but I don’t feel excited about that idea. Desert kiteboarding (boarding starts at 1:00) looks like it could be fun but I’d need to get into much better shape. I’ll have to wait for my sprained wrist to heal, at least.

The obvious answer is energy-generating windmills, and I got excited about them for a while, but really we don’t need more electricity here. Thanks to a great investment by my dad, we have solar panels that generate about as much electricity as we can use.

The last idea I got excited about was a kind of wind-based CO2 scrubber. I imagined a funnel that directed air over a scrubber of some kind that was powered by an attached windmill. The scrubber would poop carbon dust (or bricks, even better) that I could bury somewhere on my property. Or whatever the hippest thing to do with carbon dust is–I never got that far. Genius, I thought. I could be happy about wind that was doing some small part to undo my pollution.

I never got that far because there are only prototypes of machines kind of like it at this point, and it is apparently not clear how well they will work. As I understand it, scrubbing CO2 out of air is difficult to do because there is so little CO2 in air. It’s much easier to do where the pollution is thick, like industrial smoke stacks. The takeaway from my several hours of looking into it was that it was probably more ethical to use whatever extra money I could scrape together to buy and install more solar panels to connect to the grid.  Not as satisfying as sucking my own pollution out of the air, but donating clean energy to power other people’s lives could mean less pollution produced in the first place.

Thinking about carbon sequestration shifted my thinking a bit in an unexpected direction. The millions and millions of stick frame houses in the US are made of sequestered carbon, for example. And landfills: All the junk mail and cardboard boxes in landfills are made of sequestered carbon.  All the plastic crap in landfills is made of sequestered carbon. I still think that forest conservation, sustainable forest management, and reforestation are some of the very most important things we can do, but I no longer cringe as much when I see forest products heading for landfills, stick frame houses in deserts, or wood siding when it should have been plaster. Even all that tragic plastic crap–at least we’re not burning it.