My knees, my back, my marriage — all saved by this the humblest of accessories.
One of the ironies of getting older is that though there are advantages that come with age, one has more and more trouble remembering them. Like the names of acquaintances and the reasons you got married, the best attributes of middle age on tend to stay stubbornly on the tip of the tongue, forcing one, when enumerating them, to stutter for a bit before weakly blurting out “wisdom” — knowing full well it’s a red herring: most folks no longer in what we’re constantly told is “advertisers’ most coveted demographic” (what, our money’s suddenly no good here?!) don’t actually feel much wiser, and if we do it’s very specifically of the “if I only knew then” variety whose partner is an acute sense of regret.
No, getting older is mostly about the sudden mutiny of the teeth and the ever-steady erosion of the back, which can be thrown out just by looking a bit too quickly in the other direction — which we’ve done, after all, most of our post-collegiate lives. And that back is under no greater threat than when getting ready to leave the house: the contortions necessary — the bending, shifting, balancing, pulling — just to get one’s shoes on represent a rubicon of which chiropractors’ second-home-dreams are made.
But consider me for once the bearer of good news: there’s a salve for post-traumatic back disorder, though it might sound straight from the bygone days of galoshes and the fedora: a huzzah is due for the greatest invention pre-incognito mode: the humble shoehorn.
An O.G. “lifehack” invented to help Renaissance nobility maintain respectability in the midst of their newfound passion for soft shoes — imagine mesdames trying to wriggle into a pair of 10” silk-backed chopines while bound in their ribcage-crushing corsets and the need is clear — shoehorns were originally made of the carved, yes, horns of oxen and cows, though hoof, ivory, and bone quickly caught on, too. Examples of metal “Shoein Hornes” from the late-16th Century sit in their rightful place of honor near silver finery and royal flasks in the British Museum.
Nowadays, as with most semi-obscure and totally fetishizable objects — think typewriters, yeast starters, and the middle class — shoehorns come in all shapes and sizes and at every price-point, from short Americano to Grande Cuvée: plastic, silver, carbon fiber, or topped with a lion’s head carved in mahogany. Five bucks or 500 — the range of possibility as a collectible, if that’s your thing, is only limited by your budget. A plastic Kiwi branded horn will set you back a buck and change at Target, for example, while a Salvatore Ferragamo leather model sells for nearly of $400 at Saks.
Still, it’s the simplicity of the thing that’s its chief merit and most appealing virtue: neither “smart” enough to sell your info to Russian hackers, nor dumb enough to break and need fixing, the clever class 2 lever uses the shoe’s own collar as a fulcrum and the horn’s smooth surface as a lubricant, the small sliver of metal or wood solving the problems of shifting and balancing and pulling with a simple flick of the wrist. Feet glide into the tightest shoes with an easy slip and a solid thump both quick and deeply satisfying. Elongated models make it so one needn’t bend over at all.
Fit your fancy with a two-foot shoehorn handmade from water buffalo if you’d like, but the best present I ever got myself was a simple stainless steel horn that cost me five bucks at my local shoe repair joint, which is probably way too much but still: simply put, it changed my life.
No longer did going out — a perilous idea under any circumstances — involve a grunting and groaning and squeezing and yanking that left me panting for breath, too tired to leave after all. Gone were the nights my wife would come home to find me laying flat on the floor near the door, unable to move. (“Throw your back out again, dear?” she’d say, before stepping over me — as if I were a bum in an ATM — and heading toward the bourbon shelf.)
Gone were the crushed counters and heel cups that come with “indelicate” entry. Gone the handprint stains on the foyer walls, like grimy reproductions of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, telling not of centuries’ worth of exhausted Católicos reaching pilgrimage’s end but of my own balance lost again and again before even leaving the apartment. Gone was the act of tying my shoes at all — unnecessary with the leverage provided by a good shoehorn: nuzzle your toe through the collar and let it do the rest. And this without the indignities of velcro — to know that a pair of Propets is no longer in my future is no small relief on its own.
A sense of hope, more-regularly kept appointments and even, dare I say, social hours — or even just the ability to join wifey on the couch for half-a-dozen Old Fashioneds after work — it’s hard to fully express how great the thing is.
Perhaps what “wisdom” really is is something the people who raised you once had, before the world changed so quickly around them: one of the things my father always used to tell me when I was growing up following him around his workshop, was that using the right tool for the job meant everything. (The other thing he always told me was to “never write it down” — whatever ‘it’ was — because if you write it down they’ve “got you.” And yet here we are. So.) Years of back pain and ruined Weejuns have proved him right yet again.
To think of all the great shoes — and vertebrae! — I’ve had and destroyed that would’ve been saved if only, yes, I’d known then what I know now: that the shoehorn is that right tool.
Now, if I could just remember where I put the damn thing.
David Stoler - A quick Non-Fiction hit about the most essential invention in human history -- the Shoehorn -- from a writer published in Politico, the Guardian, McSweeney's, etc.