Learning to tie your shoes at 27.

by Nic Olson


“You’re tying your shoelaces wrong,” Grandpa told me after he slipped on his insulated rubber boots he wears when flooding the North Weyburn rink. I told him that he’d shown me before, thinking back to one of the other times someone tried to revolutionize my life at mid-age by teaching me more effective ways to tie shoes. Once, a Chinese student in my boarding school in grade 12 had some extremely efficient, one-motion trick he learned in the Chinese Army. The other, an employer told me that we use the ‘weak version’ of the bow knot, overhand instead of under. Neither stuck.

“You make a loop with that there, then you wrap around twice, and feed it through, and pull it tight. Then it’ll never come undone and all you have to do is pull that one to undo it,” Grandpa said. And that’s how I learned to tie my shoes at the age of 27.

We went outside, opened the valve in the pumphouse, hooked up the thick pipe to the protruding attachment sticking out of the earth five feet, insulated with foam and plastic so it wouldn’t entirely freeze through in the winter. He gave me the nozzle and I poured water over an already well-established base of ice, begging to be cut into. Get more water more in that corner, enough to melt all that snow. Don’t flood too much, that’s when you get those little hills. Close the nozzle partially, it’ll shoot further. Ice up the entranceway so the tractor doesn’t bring gravel in when we scrape. Flood between minus 5 and 15 degrees, otherwise it’ll crack. And other pieces of advice I proceeded to forget immediately after he offered them. We drained the hose of water to and left it sitting out in a ditch next to the little hill.

After mandatory microwaved morning coffee and reading a few history books about homesteading Europeans that look like the cold survivalist versions of my grandparents, they set to making seemingly overcomplicated cabinets for the church kitchen remodel, and dropped me at the pottery wheel. Pottery, the making of receptacles primarily for food purposes, is heralded as a soul-calming, primal, spiritual experience between human being and the clay from which the human being is fabled to be formed. Pottery, that terrifying experience of being so close to failure at every minor hand motion, brings about in me an anxious rage that characterizes my last few years of life. It is so easy to lose centre. The metaphor is too damn easy.

Each time I return to the humming potter’s wheel, once a year usually, I dread the guaranteed failure of destroying a pot, of a finger digging into the too-dry clay, the wheel flinging a half-made bowl across the room. I fear the re-realization of how little I know about anything in the world. But each time, I remember part of a hand motion, part of a technique, part of an idea. And the wads of clay slowly, after decades, start to resemble something more useful than a tiny bowl used for storing lint and thumb tacks. I made five bowls, all failures, simultaneously all worthwhile successes.

The night before, Grandpa slipped on his shoes without bending over, using a four-foot shoe horn. He takes them off with a hand-crafted device of similar brilliance and simplicity. I want to forever to spend my time with those who can continue to teach and reteach me how to tie my shoes and are patient enough for me to figure out that getting rid of laces altogether is the final step to enlightenment.