FROM SEQUENCE 2012
Walking my son Jonah to school I noticed that his heels were rather swimming in all the space at the back of his new soccer shoes. I asked him if the shoes were too big. No, he said, in fact they were quite comfortable.
“After I tie them,” I said, “they’re going to be a lot more snug.”
“You think,” he answered, “that if everyone tied their shoes your way there’d be no more war.”
Yes, I thought to myself, he’s absolutely right, and not only about me but about morality and moralists more generally. To get one thing right, we think, is to get everything right. Or, more often, it is: To get one thing wrong (have sex out of wedlock or without a condom, tell a lie, litter) is to get everything wrong. (A modern way of putting this is “The devil is in the details.”)
And this is also a sign of how misguided the moralists’ (we moralists’) approach is. Not only is it of course possible to be wrong in some domains or at some moments and right at others (presuming we have a way of distinguishing right from wrong!), but there is also more than one “right” way to tie one’s shoes, or to relate to other human beings, live a life. And it may turn out that my ways are wrong, or that they are right in one context (playing competitive soccer) and wrong in another (making the scene in middle school). If the devil is in the details, it is also the case that one can miss the forest for the trees.
That said, I note that the famous and often triumphant college basketball coach John Wooden apparently began each season by teaching his new recruits how to tie their shoes. After dominating game after game on rough and tumble urban playgrounds and in steamy high-school gyms, these boys had been wined and dined and promised fame and fortune if only they came to play at UCLA. Then, when they showed up, the coach told them they didn’t know how to tie their shoes. Because John Wooden knew not only that well-supported ankles are essential to succeeding and surviving as a basketball player, but also that — I was going to say that he knew that if you get one thing right you get everything right. Or was his primary goal infantilizing his new recruits, firmly establishing himself as the father figure?
Or could it be that the way to wind up getting the larger things right (the way to winning basketball games? to making it to the NBA? or . . . ?) is to begin by getting the little things right. If we would all just tie our shoes correctly, and put our cellphones away when we were with other people, and make time to give our kids and our parents a kiss before bedtime, . . . There’d be no more war.
“Yeah, right,” Jonah would say.
(A memory from when I was 12 years old, 1967, a line from the hit recording of Arlo Guthrie’s talking blues song “Alice’s Restaurant”: “If you want to end war and stuff, you’ve got to sing loud.” The “and stuff” is the brilliant moment.)
(1) Jonah says I got the quote wrong. What he said was, “You think that if you tied everyone’s shoes for them, there’d be no more war.” I suspect that in this case, as in many others, he’s right.
(2) He has subsequently developed foot problems, which he does every year because he doesn’t tie his shoes correctly — until he develops foot problems and lets me tie his shoes for him!
(3) An important update from October 2020: I myself have developed foot problems (extensor tendinitis) as a result, I believe, of tying the lower (toes) part of my shoes too tight!
Googling, I suppose I should not be surprised to get more than 1 million hits for “John Wooden shoe tying”. These include a YouTube video of an elderly Wooden teaching a boy exactly my son’s age to tie his shoes. Apparently on this same occasion, perhaps as part of this video, one of Wooden’s most famous players, Bill Walton, tells the crowd about the shock that he and other new players felt when the first thing Wooden did was sit them down and teach them how to put on their shoes and socks. Doing this properly, Walton said, was the initial lesson for “everything we would need to know for the rest of our lives.” (See Coach John Wooden’s lesson on shoes and socks, by Claudia Luther, UCLA Newsroom.) The original recording of Alice’s Restaurant is also available on YouTube.