Brown Shoes and the People who Wear Them

They say shoes make the man, but Andy Dufresne got away with his get-out-of-jail-free trick because I mean, seriously, how often do you look at a man’s shoes? Whichever side you fall on, adding brown, high top ankle shoes to our outfits made all the difference for me and my brother.

Let’s take it back a step.

I have struggled with fashion and getting clothes to go together leading me to believe less in clothes and shopping forays. My brother Evan has the touch but is similarly apathetic in acquiring new effects.

The Belknap brothers are not typically shopping dudes. One of our biggest problems with shopping is our body types. We are both tall (6’3” and 6’4”), thin…let’s say athletic, with long arms and legs, and thicker necks. We are not Big and Tall, not wide enough for an XL or even most Ls, and not into strangulation (in public) that comes from a tight button up. Unless we recruit a tailor, we have it tough.

Too Tall Meme

The First World Problem of being athletic.

So, when we do find some threads that work, we make it last. We use most clothes until they fray years after their purchase date. I had a pair of jeans that lasted (read as “I made them last”) from middle school through college graduation.

The Shopping Spree

A year or so ago, Evan made a decision to go on a shopping spree. He had been fashionably marching with the throngs of the working world for a few years professionally, but it had been a while since his last sprucing.

Enter The Nordstrom Rack, a strip mall outlet store with discount, wholesale versions of well-to-do brands. He came home with what would become a game changer.

Amongst many sweaters, button shirts, and a pair of nice jeans he selected some snazzy brown shoes. These shoes can easily be dressed up or trotted around in casual wear. He has always been a stylish fella, but these shoes were next level.

 

Men's brown shoes

The glorious shoes Evan claimed.

 

As time went by, Evan rightly got compliments for these shoes and his overall style. At work, Burrito stops, clubs, Arabic bakeries…you name it. The love rained down. Finally, he had shoes capable of keeping up with his large strides and even larger personality.

Surprise men's fashion

Just look at this well put together guy.

Evan and I talked about brown shoes and how it took a special kind of person to wear them. Such a person could be trusted on a deep and important level because they respected themselves at a deep and important level, obviously. This is absolutely a ridiculous joke, of course, but backstory and hidden agendas are fun to weave into life.

I was open to my own brown city slickers. I had a hopeful eye out but never found my sole mates. Just before heading out of the country, I found the pair that was meant for me, and I for them.

My Time Comes

A generous family member gave me a gift certificate to Kohls before I left the States. Little did I know this store held the future of my feet on a deserved pedestal.

I wandered through the store with a compelling determination. Then I saw them. The fluorescent, department store light brilliantly illuminated the clearance rack a bit more brightly than the other beige shelves throwing the rugged brown works of art into glorious relief.

They were brown, classy ankle shoes good for ambling, traipsing, schlepping, hiking, and most importantly jaunting. At the same time, they had sophistication. They were more cultured than I could hope to be. They had a depth of character which could only be earned, never bought. How could a price be put on such a refined work of beautiful, efficient craftsmanship? They found a way. Then they reduced it. Perfect.

Silly men's model

Me wondering what these shoes can’t accomplish.

Lacing up for the first time felt like putting on the X-men uniform, I was ready. I was able to shove my insert into the bottom to keep my foot in line. My jeans draped easily and comfortably over the top of my discount brownies. Jaunting accessory secured.

Out and About

I didn’t have much time to try them out, but I got a few miles into their soles (and souls) before heading out.

Then these wonders traveled with me across the Atlantic to the Queen’s country. The frigid London temperatures of February, no problem. Spring rains, dancing in the rain. Puddles in the Subway, no stop to my flow. Drafts in the Tube stations, warm and regulated. Any problem came my way, I gave it the (brown) boot.

man playing dog stick

Thanks to my Browns, I can keep up with Ivy!

Travel days were always brown shoe days. I need every inch of available luggage space to make my work supplies and my efficient yet tasteful wardrobe fit. I would put on a pair of jeans, slip into my brown boys (BBs), and be ready for the turbulence of travel.

At first, this worked well. But as time went on, London led to Turkey and then Italy. Early spring became summer. The classy combo of pants and brownies went from a comfortable uniform of readiness to a mobile sauna from my hips to my heels.

On the most recent travel day, I sacrificed some older clothes and rearranged some necessities to pack instead of wear my beloved Browns. We weathered the separation with stalwart composure but were glad to be reunited in the privacy of our new accommodation.

I had been proudly walking all over in these town treaders. But after all the pounding they had taken, they were starting to look worse than Logan during extreme depths of his “William Stryker ruined my life“ depression.

trashed shoes

Thrashed, but ready for more.

Enter Istanbul. There was a shoe repair shop near my temporary housing. In a burst of independence, I decided to negotiate a repair personally with a man who only spoke Turkish. No, I didn’t and don’t know Turkish aside from the well-meaning Merhaba (hello), teşekkür (thank you), and the all-encompassing afiyet olsun (bon appetit, enjoy your meal, etc.), but I made it work. For 70 Türk Lirası (about 20 USD) BBs got new soles sewed on and the top part of each fully reattached. Gone was the barefoot sensation. Gone were the ankle drafts.

Repaired shoes

Thanks, Turkey! You helped extend the life of these boys and send them off on more adventures!

 

Nowadays I am usually barefoot working at home in rural areas. But the Starks are always right eventually, Winter is Coming. And with the Winds of Winter come my brown boys. Too bad these shoes will probably never be able to see the forthcoming G.R.R.M. book.

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A Soft Start to Living Internationally Part 2: Starting with Toronto

I started this series gabbing about the morning I left America. If you would like to read about how this day began, read part one of this series here (Part 1).

TL;DR – I packed up a few bags and left America.

Landing

Laurel’s wonderful friend, Agata, kindly offered to put me up during my short Canadian stay. I would then step off from Toronto to England because the flights much cheaper. Toronto, you take me places!

But first I had to get there. With the echoes of minimalism, the thrift I try to always exude, and my fear of going broke, I thought it best to walk to Agata’s place. Who needs trains, am I right?

After the Greyhound bus from Detroit stopped, I turned just about every direction before my GPS caught up. Pro Tip: the location identifier on Google Maps doesn’t take any data and is a big help when you have no other guide or data abroad. With only a few steps backtracking, I headed off towards rest at Agata’s place.

Turns out, my densely packed bags made for a more arduous trip than an unencumbered jaunt would be. My bold plan took a lazy turn after about a mile. Sweaty and disheveled, I made my way to the closest train station. It occurred to me that I would be doing this muling around with all my belongings often; this was a marathon, not a sprint. I have to take care of myself. Vigor and focus renewed, I ambled down the steps towards the Toronto public transit.

Public Transit of Years Past

I had experience with other public transit systems, just not in Detroit. The Motorcity has a rocky history with public transit. There is the People Mover, but it has a short route. The short M-1 light rail, dubbed the Q-line, will be operational soon.

While living in LA, I didn’t have a car. I thought and continue to believe their public transit is a thing of wonder. The trains and buses combine gangsters with business people, panhandlers with school children, young professionals with crusty punks, homeless folks with the retired. The public rails and wheels took me from my home in Koreatown to my non-profit office in downtown LA, to the middle school I served at in South LA (or South Central), and to the Santa Monica Beach which I visited just about every weekend – the ocean was a great experience after living in Michigan.

But another part of the public transit was the tourists. Several times people had a wide-eyed look glancing around and trying to figure out the system; which lines went which ways and were any of those ways close to the location they wanted. The escalator at the Wilshire (unfortunately pronounced “Will sure” instead of “Will Shire” as I wish it was) Vermont station separates the tourists from the residents. This is the longest escalator west of the Mississippi (proof – http://lat.ms/2pTIXo0) so while the tourists stand with mouth agape, the residents sit down to wait out the long ride.

escalator

This is just a part of the Wilshire/Vermont escalator. Photo credit Darylynn D. on FourSquare

Often a tourist would ask me with my tanned skin and long blonde hair at the time (AKA typical LA white beach lover) for directions in broken English. I would catch mutterings in broken German, French, Eastern languages which had the ring of similarity, and Eastern languages which had no similarities before the one with the best English would approach me imploringly. Usually, I barely knew any better than them, but I tried.

Now, I was a tourist struggling to figure out a new system. At least this was in English for me.

The rail system had two lines, each going in opposite directions. Nothing crazy. I knew the stop I wanted. Now how to make the ticket machine speak to me. The plot thickens.

I needed a transfer eventually so I approached a distracted teller hoping for guidance. I grabbed a ticket from the stand she pointed to, briefly wondered why I didn’t pay any money, then she let me through. Her alluring cellphone helped this ignorant customer that night.

I knew I had done wrong, but I didn’t know how to do right. So I made it to my train, sweating from the walk and the anxiety of being found out, labeled a cheat, fined, and kicked off the train forced to walk again – this time in shame. Luckily, I played it cool and got off at my stop.

After struggling through the subway system to her stop, scaling an impressively steep hill, and making it up to her apartment, Agata immediately remarked “wow you’re tall! Let’s go eat.”

While she changed, I scrutinized her extensive library judging her shrewdly. Pursuing someone’s books allows me to judge the owner by the covers, as it were. Her shelves boasted the likes of Vonnegut, Tolstoy, and Bukowski; although we had to talk our way through Hemingway, we came to an understanding. Her immediate food demand combined with her stellar book collection catapulted her to immediate “good people” status.

agata and korean

The wonderful Agata and the delicious Korean spread she located.

Agata took me to a Korean spot cementing her greatness. I miss you LA public transit and LA Koreatown.

Out and About

The next day was “Family Day” in Canada, mirroring Presidents Day in America. Apparently, Canadians are about the people close to you; I’m with that. This was great for Agata because she had the day off and terrible for me because working parents and their ankle-biters had the day off. Time for a solo outing.

Struggling through adversity and Lilliputs, I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). This place blew my mind. Its vast collection spanned five floors! Check this out:

boat hullway

This area was constructed to be like an upside-down ship. It was a beautiful hullway!

If you think that is something, check out this set of stairs:

stairway

Stairway in the middle of the attrium!

Plus, due to it being Family Day, they had extra fun, such as a room for popping bubble wrap (read as “Jake’s personal heaven”). With my height, I have trouble passing for a human, let alone a child. I let the littles have their fun…but I will have a room like this (hint, hint – present suggestion).

Pro-tip: Stick around for the free tours at the AGO. They are short and sweet, but our guide was supremely personable and knowledgeable. She took us for an intense slice of some of the gallery instead of trying to hit everything.

 

lounging lady

Check out this “Reclining Figure” by Henry Moore. A little too scandalous for America.

 

Next, I explored Kensington Market. This was a great area to buy cheap, vintage clothes. This was also a DIY/artist/hippie/alternative area – my kinda people. In one shop, when a customer admitted he had never heard of Kraftwerk, the worker took it as a point of pride to play “Die Roboter” instead of pushing clothes. When I couldn’t help singing along, I made a new friend.

Kensington Market

The bizarre glory of Kensington Market.

After bumbling around there for awhile, I met back up with Aggie for so much Mexican food (in Jake that means “just enough”).

We headed back because Aggie had work in the morning – honestly, who works on a Tuesday?! We hung out, watched Black Mirror, gossiped, made cookies (she cooked, I judged), braided each other’s hair, etc. It was a good, chill night in the middle of so much excitement.

Goodbye Friend, Gay Morning, and Goodbye Toronto

The next day, after getting visible, matching friendship tattoos (sorry mom!), she went to work and I caught up on Facebook, politics, and Facebook politics. Before packing up again.

 

Before leaving the wonderful Toronto, I made it out to the gay district, called The Village, just in time for it to pour rain.

 

rainbow

So fabulous their crosswalks were rainbows!

 

Despite becoming a sodden boy and carrying now sodden bags, it was nice to grab a burger (two half pound patties with bacon – good thing they don’t have a weight limit for passengers on flights) and wander around the area where Queer as Folk was filmed.

 

glad

The best bookstore and my future home.

 

I happened across the oldest gay bookstore in the world, called Glad Day Bookstore (https://goo.gl/atmqKj). The original owner started off selling porn magazines out of a backpack in gay bars. It moved from the second floor (where let’s be honest, it was safer) to its present location which also serves food and booze and has dance parties on weekends. If they had a treadmill, I probably would have tried to apply for housing!

Begrudgingly, I caught a train and then bus during the after work rush hour surge (oops!). I made it up to the airport arriving on a day and time when most folks don’t travel – only two people in the security line in front of me! Let’s go Tuesday flights!

I arrived at my gate about two hours before boarding, 2.5 before take off. However, after writing a draft of this, I only had over an hour to grab food, convert to a small but serious cult, read my book, stress over whether or not my bags will be accepted within the size limit, and troll the internet. Much to do.

Next post will be a European one!

A Soft Start to Living Internationally Part 1: The Last Day

 

Since moving out of America, life has really picked up speed! Let’s go back to when I left home. Trying to catch up will take some time, but that’s the goal.

Maybe one day I will catch up to the present. Maybe beginning this series with hope is a good thing. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Either way, here we go. Back to Sunday, February 19, 2017.

I was ready to (finally) leave for Europe! I had been pulsing with this intention for over a year, refining the idea more and more of what life COULD look like. After finishing teaching at the end of the fall semester at the end of January, I had been itching to start. Now, to say goodbye to Michigan.

Preparations

I had been trimming down all my clothing, what I used and what I actually needed. My friend Kate loaned me a book which got my head in the minimalist space ready to declutter my room, my life, and my approach. If interested, the book’s title is ‘’The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever’’ by Marie Kondo and it can be found here https://goo.gl/VG0mHY. I chose clothes, shoes, books, papers, and notebooks (the last three were like purging lovers) based on their usefulness. I cut a bunch and donated them. I’m talking several bags worth. Other clothes remained at my mother’s house (you’re the best, Mom!).

Goodbye car

The last time I held my car which surprisingly held me.

Finally, I had what I thought would be the essentials to get me through the days. I had to balance the cold London February winds with the sweltering Turkish July heat in one go. I wouldn’t be coming back for awhile.

Leaving Home

The morning of my departure arrived and with it the need to do a final pack. I loaded my things into my carry on bag and a backpack (to avoid paying for a checked bag now and for each of my many forthcoming flights). I wasn’t able to fit everything, but, solemnly, I made peace with that.

My brother Evan came up to my room to check how I was doing. After a few jokes to chill both of us out, he noticed the extras sullenly sitting on my bed. “We can make this work.” Blind optimism runs in the family.

With pushing and cramming and some protips (socks go in the packed shoes, sit on the luggage while zipping it, don’t forget the extender zipper, etc.), we made it work. Reflecting on this now, I am happy to have the comfortable sweatpants which didn’t make the first round cut.

Next, it was food time. My family and a few select friends – chosen by a mix of proximity to my house or Detroit and, more importantly, the ability to wake up early on a Sunday – headed to a send-off brunch. The food was good. There may have been mimosas. Detroit does brunch right.

We fought over the bill. At this point, I’m not sure who won, but I’m glad that Evan and I could vindictively mock argue bringing to bear the full might of our beards one more time before leaving.

Evan and Jake Beard Grabs.

Belknap beards and eye contact were strong that night.

Bus and Beyond

From there it was on to the Detroit Greyhound bus station. Uncharacteristically, I got there early. This gave us a chance to wander around outside and enjoy the unseasonably nice weather (thanks, Michigan!). There wasn’t much I noticed on this walk…well, there were a few surreptitious glances at the people I became used to seeing daily. Ew, nostalgia.

Then came the last moments. We still had time to while away, more time to sit and joke. There were some back slaps and more nostalgia about when each of us had left for different reasons. But now the people I saw most days or at least a few times a week would not surround me. Thanks to emails, video chats, and a big effort on their part to figure out time zone differences we would make it work.

Then the bus wheels were moving and we were waving.

I had a low-key Greyhound ride to Toronto with about eight other travelers. My fellow riders ranged from a woman with no bags who commiserated with me about the troublesome wi-fi to a bearded man whose pack told more of the miles he had seen and would see than he was ready to share. Before I knew it, I had left America.

A customs officer grilled me when we unloaded at the border. Apparently, freelance writing from another country doesn’t make much sense; I need to work on my elevator pitch. It was some small solace that another couple were the ones to hold us up and not me; it’s okay to be a nuisance so long as you aren’t the worst one. I slept through about half of the ride and then fidgeted until drop off.

Check out part two BY CLICKING HERE to read about what I saw in my first city on my journey into the great wide open. For now, cue Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and fade to black…

I Learn by Going Where I Have to Go

So, when I moved to LA, I struggled with how to stay in contact with my people back home. I sought out one of the greatest minds I could find, but not much came of it.

einstien-edited

Einstein and I got…distracted.

Years later, I still struggled with this idea of how to remain connected. I made another friend while out and about for a short stay in New Orleans.

 

fdr-and-i-edited

FDR and I thinking deeply before lightning struck!

Then it happened – we looked each other in the eyes and at the same time said, “A blog!” Well, I looked at a statue before excitedly talked to then hugged it, but I digress.

I will be mostly posting about my travel adventures as well as fitness, exercise, health, and yoga, but if other topics appeal, who am I to hold back?!  First, I’ll start over with some background to catch you up.  Then we’ll get to my coming changes. I have always connected with the poem “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, himself a Michigander.  I will drop quotes from the poem throughout this post.

I will be leaving behind two important parts of my life in the beginning of 2017: my career and my home (again).

Teaching Time

“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” My journey into education began after college when I moved from my Michigan home to LA in order to give back through full time volunteering for the nonprofit City Year. The hardships I saw in the Los Angeles Unified School District, along with the idealism instilled in me by my fellow service members and the determined kids we served, left me wanting to do more. “We think by feeling. What is there to know?”

Next, I went to Baltimore in pursuit of a degree, a teacher’s certificate, and a means for making an impact on the national dropout crisis.

grad-school-edited-1

We were pretty excited to be masters!

I hit the ground running with a full time internship which led to my first teaching post.  This in turn led to my second teaching position sending me back home to Dearborn, Michigan. Through these positions, I balanced teaching with several extra-curriculars including: Track and Cross Country coach, Gay-Straight Alliance co-sponsor (rebranded to the Gender and Sexuality Alliance), Link Crew Coordinator (peer mentorship program), Poetry Club Sponsor, After School Tutor, etc.  I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the time and opportunities that I found in education. That is not to say this time was without my share of hardships, but let’s not do that here.

viking-teacher-edited

It has been my goal to be the type of teacher I wish I had when I was a struggling adolescent.  Viking English teacher was one wish.

But…

Great Nature has another thing to do/To you and me…”  Through all this, there was a nagging sense of more.  I have grown incredibly during my time in education.  I have become a more professional, capable person because of the last seven plus years.  However, I had been getting more of a sense that my extended time of giving back was coming to a close and the next step for me is to become a better student of the world and of myself. Over these years in education, I have drifted away from two of my passions: writing and exploration. “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.”

The Plan

In furtherance of both of these ends, I left my school and teaching position at the end of the semester (January 27).  I will begin managing content, writing copy, and editing previous writing for client’s business needs.  I will be doing this on a freelance basis so my laptop will be my mobile office. (Also, just throwing this out there, if you know anyone that needs a well-read, competent, thorough, humble writer, I’m your guy!) I will be living thriftily (to put it mildly), but I will be able to live abroad and travel extensively – which I can’t wait to begin!  My first stop will be a month and a half in London, England.  I expect great change this year and welcome it.  Initially, I was afraid to leave the relative stability of teaching, but I was more worried about an opportunity I had not taken. “This shaking keeps me steady.”

Whenever my doubts kick up, I remember I have managed 15+ hour days, 4000 volunteer hours over the course of 20 months, interning and going to school (full time for each), working multiple jobs simultaneously, and, worst of all, the inhumanity of a student not appreciating a pun!  Even though I am moving away from teaching, I will carry the memories, advice, and lessons gained into this next adventure. “What falls away is always. And is near.”  I look towards this year as an opportunity to grow in a more authentic direction and, more importantly, see what foreign puns are out there.

I learned by going where I have to go which for now is beyond my home country.  It’s been interesting, but goodbye for now America.

goodbye-america-edited