BIRKS ARE FOR THOREAU BROS

Hello friends--

For no reason in particular, it’s been a bad few days. My mood has been bad, I should say. The days themselves have been neutral though the weather has been foul. It’s the sort of mood that sets in just as the summer is ending and the semester is beginning, when everything hurries to lock into place as if to make up for the summer spent at dissolute ends. Suddenly, I feel like I’m running late for things I cannot even remember. Threat from every corner, stress in response to the formless sense of anticipatory neglect. I should be somewhere. I should be doing something. I have that anxious, stretched-out feeling. A feeling of so much to do, but what is it?

Anyway, I’m trying to pull out of it. To make myself feel better, I went to Active Endeavors, a sporting apparel store here in Iowa City. You might think it an odd destination for me as I am not sporty except for tennis in the fall and sometimes in the warmer part of the spring. But Active Endeavors is really more like an outlet store for the large outdoor brands: Fjällräven, The North Face, Patagonia, Marmot, Toad & Co., Camelbak, Hydro Flask, Leki, etc. The logo outside is a large green and white rendering of mountains, and it looks like an 80s decal from a shitty infomercial. It has the weird, cardbox-y cheapness of a local store that you know almost before you enter will be dim and playing country music. I grew up on Wal-Mart and chain stores, the day-glo brightness of corporate oversight. There’s something about a store run out of a back office that feels eerily like a cave to me, some kind of animal desperation in the air. But Active Endeavors is smart.

Entering the store, you do indeed find the dim interior one expects, but they’ve put their apparel up front. It’s all soft fleeces and cool, dry shell jackets. There are shirts in marbled, muted fabrics with crisp, minimalist logos on the breast. Often, these logos make use of animals or landmarks (mountains, rivers, waterfalls) or equipment (oars, a campfire). You find them on caps, backpacks, water bottles. What I find eerie browsing the clothing on the racks is how well coordinated they are, even across brands, as if there had been some agreement that everyone would put out collections starring muted burgundy, faded slate, deep navy, and moss green. Or, I guess it’s more accurate to say that these colors are the core vocabulary of outdoors brands. The color of dying embers, the color of deep, impassable waters, the color of the earth underfoot. They churn out variations, but never stray too far from this constitutive vocabulary of color and tone. There’s very little play in a sporting apparel store. Everything feels like an outdoor Lutheran meeting, which is to say that it feels like dating a guy who’s really into Thoreau. 

I find great peace here. Running my hand across the flannels, admiring how soft they are, how warm, admiring also the unintentional humor of it all.  While there’s very little play in an athletic apparel store, there’s plenty to laugh at because what becomes clear to anyone who spends more than ten minutes in one is that the reason it all feels so solemn is because the articles of clothing take themselves quite seriously. And how could they not. These aren’t just clothes. These are clothes with a function. Clothes meant to keep you alive in extreme conditions--in rain, in blizzard, in flood, in wind, in earthquake, in avalanche, in being perilously suspended in thin air, in being pinned to a rock in the desert. These are clothes and implements designed not just with look in mind but with utility. Holding on to their sleeves, you feel the stiff edges of the tags that advertise on slippery laminate rectangles promises of their capacity to save you. Features: various meshes, cords, cables, layers, microfiber, insulation, flexibility, plastene, spandex, stretch, stiffen, dig, claw, rake.

Among the many shelves of muted, minimalist clothing, one spots brilliant bolts of color: blue, yellow, steely gray, red, a hot pink. The Hydro Flasks perch like birds in the ramble, invisible until you spot the first one and then there they all are, falling out of the blind. You become aware that someone has planned this. Arranged everything so that it looks functional, like those tables one sometimes stumbles across on Instagram, tutorials showing you how to pack, how to live. Or, else, showing you arrangements of how your life could be and might be if you dared to change. Also seductively colored, hiding as if they were shy of their color but proud of it: the $300 packs meant to hold all of your items for camping and living, made of durable fabric with an industrial but environmentally consciousness machine somewhere in the third world. 

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos of people who argue about whether or not The North Face has betrayed its founders’ vision of conservation and preservation; these tan, beautiful white people with semi-okay teeth and shaggy hair urge people to try Marmot instead, try Patagonia instead. Suddenly, not merely enough to ensure survival of one human in conditions nonconducive to human survival but also, somehow, the planet too. Wrap the world in a Patagonia jacket and hope for the best, I guess. These people are not mere people but adventurers. People with a mission. With a cause. They have dreadlocks and I wonder, why, in a way that is both ironic and sincere.

Another thing I have been watching lately, the number of people in Birkenstocks. It’s like I closed my eyes, and now suddenly, everyone is wearing them just like how in the winter, everyone will be wearing the same tan Timberland boots. Tall, shaggy blond men. Fit athletes walking with the staggered gait of the injured. Young women in yoga pants carrying bags slung across thier shoulders, laughing at the street corner. Tall, short. Black guys in short shorts that they will soon trade for skinny denim. All these people, laughing as they go, crying as they go, talking about drama from last night, how Taylor was totally fucking in the wrong and how Heather like, won’t call me back but why, bro, she’s so into me, and like, why does Mike think I’m not smart, I’m totally smart, I took calculus in tenth grade, like? How do they know which jackets to buy, which shoes? How do they know how to dress themselves? Is there a signal? Is there a catalog? Or is it like the brands with their three-color vocabulary? It’s baked in, perhaps. Ingrained. Or else, imitation, biomimicry, an improvised solution to a question that some of us don’t even hear being asked. Amazing what we can do.

I went into the store because I was finally going to buy some Birkenstocks. I meant to back in the summer, when I was helped by a tall blond man with eyes so blue they seemed unnatural and terrifying. He had one of those perfectly symmetrical faces and hair that was delicate and fine, but a little long and combed back. He had very pale skin, and I could see his blue veins in his arms when he rotated the shoe around and inspected it for the size. He was near-sighted but embarrassed to hold the shoe closer to his face. I could tell as I am also near-sighted. He was wearing a vest. It was cool that day. I was also wearing a vest. We were dressed alike. He told me they didn’t have the color I wanted. He would order it. I would return for it. He was also wearing Birkenstocks--gray, I think. As I left, I tweeted about him being my husband, met in a department store. He was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at me, no doubt waiting for anyone to walk through the door. The other thing about a sporting apparel store is that they are not merely self-serious but also deeply competitive. The clerks sweep their grid looking for unattended customers, waiting for them to cross the invisible lines that mark up the territory. As I passed into this guy’s territory, he was at my elbow almost immediately. Need anything? I said No, and he backed off. But I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. Waiting. It felt like cruising. When both parties silently know that there is an exchange to be made. He circled the rack of shoes as I looked, and I felt him pass closer and closer until, finally, I was ready for him. His vest was a little too short. He had on a white shirt, and had the stiff upper carriage of a lifelong athlete who has shifted into recreational weight training. His little squint was endearing because it told me something about him that he had wanted to hide, and I think there must always been something endearing in the way people accidentally give themselves away. His ankle bones were red, as if chapped.

On this day, he was not here. On this day, I was helped by a shorter, squatter man who looked like he had wrestled in high school but had been outclassed in college. There’s something in the body of a wrestler that gives it away. You know almost immediately when you look at one. Or I do. I knew a lot of wrestlers in high school. They were sleepy and anxious. One of them was in my anatomy class. We dissected large rats and sheep brains together in 11th grade. He was really gifted, could perfectly separate membranes. His hands were swift and nimble. He said he used it to get guys to give when they needed a little help. Sometimes, he showed me a weird thing he could do with his shoulder. I remember he had an insulin pump. I remember a school project once, where he brought in food that his mom had made. They were from Sicily, originally, he said, his mom’s family. He had a very English last name, but he identified as Italian. Last year, he moved to Pensacola, which I found out via Facebook. I hadn’t thought of him in years. Suddenly, there he was. With blond dreadlocks, which was not surprising but still, I thought, Oh, ew, why. He played in a reggae band. A few days ago, he died. 

I bought the Birkenstocks offered to me by this short, friendly blond man who talked too loudly for the quiet store, but was solicitous. He seemed to not really know what he was doing. The first man was really good. He helped me divine my size. The right tension between big enough and small enough. You have to grow into a Birkenstock. It has to relax around you. So you have to buy a shoe that you know one day you’ll have to cinch up. You have to account for widening. This guy smoothed his hair back off his head. His arms had that kind of softness that seems like it used to be firm. He had glossy brown eyes. His vowels were watery and wide. Midwestern to the core. Where had he learned to ape his surfer aesthetic. He was wearing a vest. It wasn’t cool that day. It was far too hot.

The good news was that the Birkenstocks were on sale. I got the gray ones. They were hard the last few days. Like a new pet. Testing me. But they’ve begun to give just a little. I feel them settling in. Last weekend, I went to a party. A workshop party, a list-serv party. People were surprised to see me because I do not typically go to parties. I’ve been a ghost in Iowa City. There but not there. Anyway, I went out back behind this tiny house where some people had made a fire in the ground and were sitting around, talking. I was on the edge of them, couldn’t get close. It was the sort of scene you see sometimes in these late summer nights, a scene like one I wrote into my novel because I myself had experienced them when I lived in Madison. A night when you sit around in the casual ease of too much time and too much anticipation for the semester to begin and you burn wood but what you’re really burning is your old self. Or maybe that’s just me. Whenever I see a fire, I like to put things into it, and I imagine I am placing a part of myself I want to get rid of into the heart of the blaze. I used to burn things with my grandpa in the winter. He’d pry open the wood burning stove to put more logs in, and I’d throw paper into it. I’d write people’s names on it and throw them right in there and watch them turn gray and then to nothing before he put logs in.

In Alabama, in the country, we burn our trash in barrels. Everything goes in, all the trash. Sometimes, the men do it for warmth while they drink cheap vodka that rots their insides. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get warm outside and they have no desire to go inside. Sometimes when I think about campfires as this cultural signal of recreation, of good times, of affluence, of freedom for the constraints of life, I think about those barrels in Alabama. And how sometimes, the men would pick up raccoon skulls and toss them in, and up would shoot a strip of orange stars, curling into the night like a wish nobody could hear. 

I think of Birkenstocks as perfect autumn shoes. You put on some thick-ish socks and you slide and clomp around in the crisp air like a new person. People see your Birks and they think they know something about you. It tells them something. It lets them know that you are tuned to the signal pulsing through the air, the one that lets all of the people with good lives and good homes know what they should wear and what they should do. At the campfire, I stood there moving my mouth and talking, but secretly thinking I do not belong here. I should leave. Wanting to leave. 

It’s been a bad couple of days. But I am getting better. How are you?

b