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It was after dinner, just before dark. Our not-too-svelte Golden Lab, Brady, and I were about to embark on our little 45-minute postprandial jaunt through the neighborhood. We’re both trying to get our girlish figures back and evening strolls are both pleasurable and functional.
Nothing exceptional about this … except I decided to leave all footware at home.
According to Christopher McDougall in Born to Run, his seminal work on the mysterious Tarahumara Indians and their maniacal running habits, the better (read: more expensive) a running shoe is made, the worse it is for your feet.
He quotes Di Vinci on feet, “The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art”
As if to prove the point, college runners have taken to running barefoot and even forced Nike to develop a “non-shoe” shoe—which looks like a pair of gloves on one’s feet.
So, wanting to be hip, I’ve taken to going on these walks barefoot.
Now, walking around a small town like St. Helena, California, is one of life’s great joys. The fresh spring air is invigorating and the beauty of twilight settling in over the western hills unparalleled. You run into neighbors who wave and want to have a friendly chat. Keeping moving is the difficult part.
One new friend pulled up in a car and said, “I can’t believe you’re barefoot. Only in St. Helena.”
It got me to thinking how right he was. I lived 11 years in New York. One didn’t see many people walking barefoot there. In fact, there are not many towns anymore where one can feel comfortable going barefoot—especially after dark.
It shows how much people care about their town. I had my plastic bag on the leash, and it’s evident from the lack of dog scat on the street that other dog walkers pick up after their pets as well.
That demonstrates an element of pride and responsibility one doesn’t see in larger cities. There’s very little broken glass or other detritus on the streets. Folks here don’t foul their nests they way they do in New York.
Our town isn’t clean because we have a huge sanitation department. People don’t rely on the government—they pick up after themselves, and apparently after others.
Small towns are like that. Though not often articulated, it’s one of the reasons why people leave the big cities and move to smaller hamlets.
One can flick a cigarette butt on the sidewalk in New York. It just doesn’t work here. The social contract in a small town is decidedly different than the unspoken social contracts in larger cities.
If a cabbie cuts you off on Lexington Avenue, you can flip him off. You’ll never see him again. Do it here and the driver is apt to be your kid’s little league coach.
The free market operates differently here as well. If the plumber or electrician botches a job, you can’t yell and scream at him —because he may not come back to the ranch late some night during a storm when you really need him.
So a form of civility crops up, born of necessity and survival. You can be anonymous in a city. Bad behavior might go unpunished or unnoticed.
In a small town, however, park your pick-up in the widow Douglas’s driveway overnight and you’re likely to be the topic of discussion over coffee at Jackie’s Exxon station the next day.
I’ve often told the tale of my father (just out of the city) writing a nasty letter to our local vet over an incident with a horse — and then finding out the man was in charge of membership to the only square dancing group in town, which my mother had to be in.
That the vet didn’t hold a grudge and showed great kindness by not “bonging” the city slicker was a great lesson in neighborliness to us all.
Rudeness and bullying have consequences in a small town.
That’s why it is so important for folks to “be judgmental,” despite the current pop psychology that rails against the practice.
Sure, it’s heroic to talk about “being your own person” and not caving in to the opinion of others. Those are marks of high character.
Yet, throughout history, societies have functioned best when they are self-policing. If the community doesn’t set the standards of behavior—and enforce them via acceptance or ostracism — then outsiders (read: government regulators, police, or an occupying army) will enforce the rules.
Small town gossip can be cruel, unforgiving, and intolerant. But it beats fascist or totalitarian rule by a country mile.
Much better to police your behavior for fear of a bad rap in town than to have a police force or government regulators dictate personal conduct.
I’ve got the callouses on the bottom of my feet to prove it.