Shoe String

29 December 1991

Thirty eight years old, I finally learned to tie a shoe string bow this month. It was my son Daniel who taught me how to tie the string bow. That is fair, because I'm in the middle of teaching him how to tie a double Windsor necktie knot.

I was about five years old when it was decided - by me or by my parents - that it was time for me to start tying my own shoes. Perhaps it was because we were on a vacation. I probably had the same infuriating habit that my children demonstrate each time we go for a trip in the car. I certainly do not remember being aggravating by taking my shoes off every time the car reached 15mph - but then again I do not remember a lot of times I was aggravating. For them, it is much like the automatic door locking mechanism. Every time the car starts, the shoes come off. Of course, each time the car stops for gas or for a meal, the shoes are still off and seldom can be found.

I was about five years old when my mother decided that with all that time in the back of the family station wagon, it would be nice if her oldest child could learn to tie his own shoes. We had an early version of what is now called a Fisher-Price, a completely indestructible wooden shoe. It was not really just like a shoe, because the sides of the shoe were made of plywood and did not curve over like a real shoe. When you laced the shoe there was no reassuring tightness like a real shoe, it just was loose or tight. but the edges stood up straight, and it was easier to lace up than an old shoe. Besides all that, it had a painted picture of an old lady on the side and painted children poking out all or painted windows. It was the prop of the story of the little old lady who lived in a shoe.

At five years of age, that old nursery rhyme was "just for little kids." But on vacation, it was unlikely one of my friends would see me playing around with little kid stuff.

Mom took that old wooden shoe, showed me how to lace it, and showed me how to tie a bow. Then she sent me back to the rear of the station wagon for a long vacation trip. I still have some vague memories of sitting there and practicing over and over the art of tying the shoe. From time to time I would pass the shoe up to the front seat to ask if I had tied it right. She would (do I really remember a smile and complement) say it looked fine, and send it back for some more practice.

Unfortunately, she never looked at me tying the bow. It was some time later, after the matter of tying a bow had become an automatic learned behavior, that some one pointed out the way I tied the bow was so mixed up that hey couldn't stand watching me tie my shoes.

There I was, ridiculed for the way I did something as automatic as tying a shoe string. I tried to have my brother and sister teach me the right way to tie a shoe string, but their way looked and felt as awkward to me as my method did to them. I had very real fear that if I attempted to change the way I tied the bow, I would lose any ability to tie my own shoe strings. So I kept my own method.

In high school, I was embarrassed to realize that my bows had an inherent weakness. They became untied too easily. Taking a scientific interest in the bow, I discovered that my way of tying left part of the bow tuned a half twist that simply untwisted after tying, making the bow loose and easy to come untied. The solution was easy. At the end of my tying process I had to take the bow and twist it 180 degrees and pull it taut with arms crossed. It worked, and my shoes ended up with a perfectly good bow that could not be distinguished from the tie created in the conventional manner.

But now the bow tying process had turned into a dramatic procedure with arms crossing and uncrossing several times. More than once, a friend would say - "What are you doing? Is that the way you tie your shoes?" it would end with a small demonstration and a short version of the story you are reading. This became a favorite story of our children. But I was careful when it came to teaching how to tie shoes that Diane was the children's tutor. I didn't want my children to go through life tying like I did - and by now I had not the faintest idea how to conventionally tie a shoe string.

I had become quite adept. I could tie shoes in the dark, could tie a bow in an apron sting behind my back, and could tightly tie cords on packages or on survival packs even with chapped and bleeding hands. But I could not tie a shoe in a way that looked normal.

This month, Daniel had a composition assignment to describe how to do some task. One of the suggested topics was to tell how to tie a shoe string. His paper was so clear (the test was for me to follow the directions) that for the first time in my life I tied my shoe string in the accepted manner. In just the past few weeks I've gotten to the point that I can now tie my shoe strings in the dark, with the new method. I still can not tie an apron string behind my back this way, and I don't know if I will try to learn, but that will be another story.

In most families, it is the father who teaches his children how to tie shoe strings. This father, who refused to teach his children, was finally taught by his son how to tie his shoes.

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