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The History of My Shoes


The Evolution of Darwin’s Theory

By Kenny Fries

Copyright © 2007 by Kenny Fries

Originally published by Carroll & Graf

This memoir is a product of the author’s recollections and is thus rendered as subjective rendering as a subjective accounting of events that occurred in his/her life.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passage in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

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Also by Kenny Fries

In the Province of the Gods

In the Gardens of Japan: A Poem Sequence

Body, Remember: A Memoir

Desert Walking: Poems

Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out

Anesthesia: Poems

The Healing Notebooks

A Human Equation

Night after Night

For Ian

your book

List of Exhibits

Prologue: Where Darwin Stood

Still Disabled

The Beehive

Utilitarian Shoes

A Little World within Itself

Bodies of Water

Darwin at Home

I.D. Shoes

Wallace in the Amazon

Echoes of Extinction

What Wallace Found

My Salamanders

Birds of Paradise

Bananas and Dew

Ambulatory People

The Emerald Buddha

The Old Monk Priest

Extinct like the Wolf and Tiger

Shoeless in Phang Nga Bay

Departure from the Original Type

A Hole in a Shoe

The Hidden Bond of Connection

Dark Water

A New Science

Something about You Kids


Shoes on Fire

Under the Form of the Baboon

Natural Affection

Wallaces Survival

Disability Made Me Do It

The Origins of Desire

The Imperfections of Beauty

The Accumulation of Little Things

Shoes in a White Cardboard Box

Living among Them

Spilled Rice


A Gap in the Wiring

A Young Man in a Hurry

Black Monkeys

Perverse Nature

Aqua Booties, Size Six

Foaming Over It

Reciprocal Altruism

The Schist

A Port-a-floor and Yellow Boats

Crossing the River

Radiant, Not Blinding, Light

Shoes and the Calvaria Tree

Black Shoes

The History of My Shoes

Disability as Zeitgeist

Birds in November

Changing the Question

A Cane with No Story

The Niche of a Flightless Bird

No Reason

Big and Small

Transformation to Flight

Infinite Space and Time

Epilogue: Sky-pointing


No one ought to feel surprise at much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the

origin of species and varieties, if he makes due allowance for our profound

ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us.

— Charles Darwin

An ancient tree

Too fibrous for a logger’s saw,

Too trusted to fit a carpenter’s square,

Outlasts the whole forest.

—Lao Tze

Prologue: Where Darwin Stood

We anchor in Tagus Cove off Isabela, the Galápagos island where Charles Darwin landed on September 30, 1835. Before and after Darwin, many other ships anchored here, as evidenced by the graffiti carved into the tuff: Pike 1816, Franse 1836, Cotopaxi 1907, St. George 1924, SS Surprise 1925, Iolanda 1931.

We climb the steep trail to what once was the crater of a volcano. Numerous lava lizards, including females that have a patch of red around their heads or necks, scamper along with us, easily making the rocky ascent past more carved graffiti.

Javier, our guide, points out the saltbush, “The plant has adapted so its leaves turn down for colder weather, and up in the heat. “

Three-quarters of the way up, I need a rest. I tell Ian, who has traveled with me to the Galápagos, “I’m exhausted.”

When I’m ready to continue, Ian walks in front of me. Every few steps he turns around to offer me his hand and, when needed, I reach for it and he helps pull my weight up the trail. In this way we get to the top of the ridge.

At the summit we see a lake in what was once the volcano’s crater. Looking at the lake, it seems the body of water does not have an outlet to the sea. Darwin had the same thought. On a day of overpowering heat, the lake looked blue. He hurried down the cindery slope and, choked with dust, eagerly tasted the water. But to his sorrow it was brine.

Somewhere deep beneath the earth there must be a duct of some kind that allows the saltwater to travel from the ocean to the lake and back again. If Darwin ever discovered such a conduit, he did not write it down. I am too tired to ask Javier how the lake, called Darwin Lake, fills with saltwater. Today, it is enough that I have made it to the place where once young Darwin stood, unaware that the questions he asked about what he saw around him would change not only the course of his life but the course of what we understand about life itself.

How did I get here?

Worn dark leather molded to the contours of my feet. The sole of my right shoe slopes down gently, not quite forty-five degrees, from outer to inner edge; there is a three-inch lift attached to my right sole. The left shoe’s half-inch-thick sole flat to the ground. My gait has frayed the sides of the plastic tap, strategically fastened, two to a shoe, to protect the edges of the sole.

In 1960, I was born a month premature with bones missing in both of my legs. For most of my life, when I looked at my shoes, I saw only the different way I walk.

But now when I look at my shoes I see much more than my own particular difference. I see the places they have allowed me to explore: Beehive Mountain overlooking Frenchman’s Bay; Balinese jungles; the temples of Bangkok and Chiang Mai; the Colorado River rapids running through the Grand Canyon; and, especially here, the Galápagos Islands, where Charles Darwin found much to animate his theory of evolution and where I witness a new meaning of “survival of the fittest,” the phrase—often misused and misattributed to Darwin—which has haunted me since I first heard it when I was eight.

Looking at my shoes, I see Darwin’s journey toward evolution, and the quest of the often forgotten Alfred Russel Wallace, cofounder of evolutionary theory, and I am deluged with images of the marine iguana and giant tortoise, the orangutan and King Bird of Paradise, the species which led these two Victorian men to change the way we think about the world and the way we live in it.

Now, finally arriving where Darwin stood, his questions have become my questions and my shoes conjure entire unseen worlds, a reimagined history informed not only by all I have seen but by all I have come to understand about chance and change, fear and transformation, variation and cultural context, ideas about the body that question the definition and existence of difference in all of our lives.

But what does any of this have to do with a pair of shoes?

Still Disabled

“Take off your shoes,” Dr. Mendotti says.

For the first time in close to eight years, Social Security has decided it needs a medical review to discern if, according to their rules, I am still disabled.

Still disabled?

Specifically, I was born without fibula, with sharp anterior curves of the tibia, and flexion contractures of the knees. Also absent were two toes and posterior calf bands on each foot. There was no scientific explanation for this situation; no medical name for the condition. Medical records simply state that I was born with “congenital deformities of the lower extremities.” Despite numerous childhood surgeries, those bones are still missing— and since around the time I turned twenty-eight, because of the almost three-inch leg length discrepancy, my increasingly weakening lower back sends a constant flow of low-grade pain throughout my body.

Dr. Mendotti’s office is in Enfield, Connecticut, a half-hour drive from Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live. It is a building shared by many different doctors, more like a building housing a small town’s bureaucratic departments than medical offices. The structure feels makeshift, as if these were temporary quarters until funds were raised to build a new building, but somehow as the years went on the funds never materialized. The examination room, where a secretary has placed me, looks as worn as my shoes. As worn as the disheveled, portly Dr. Mendotti who, after doing a double take at the examination room door—as though he, a specialist in the field, has never seen someone with legs and feet like mine before—has ordered me to take off my shoes, then disappeared somewhere down the hall.

Alone, I watch the clock across the room. The black second hand moves through black numbers around the unornamented white face of the institutional clock, a clock like the one in every classroom and every hall in P.S. 200, my elementary school on Benson Avenue in the Bath Beach section, between Bay Ridge and Coney Island in Brooklyn, and once again I am eight years old, staring at the P.S. 200 clock, its thin black second hand making its sixty-second round over and over and over again. In front of my third grade classroom, Mrs. Krimsky, my silver-haired teacher, is telling my class about Charles Darwin, his theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest.

At her mention of this phrase, sharp to my skin as a surgeon’s knife, I instinctively reach beneath my desk and clutch my legs, protectively lifting them so my shoe-clad feet rest against the edge of my chair.

What am I afraid of? Other children’s stares? Amputation? Panic-stricken, I wonder as I grow older how will I be able to walk, let alone realize my childhood dreams of becoming a basketball player, a foreign diplomat, a United States senator. Forget about dreams, with these deformed legs and feet. How will I survive?

Now, sitting in the doctor’s office, I realize this clock does not tell the correct time. I know it is later than one p.m. because I left my house in Northampton at one p.m. I look at the brown, padded examination table with its familiar, unwelcoming rolled white paper to show it is clean, as well as a small black stepping stool nearby. Above, on a shelf, are five models—two white, three beige—of legs, the kind that show not only the bones, but the ligaments and tendons as well. I have always been fascinated by these models because, although I know which bones I am missing, neither my doctors nor numerous physical therapists have ever been able to tell me which ligaments and tendons my legs do contain. When I’ve fallen and torn something in my right knee, my doctor and I have never been sure whether it is the meniscus or the anterior cruciate ligament that I have torn, or whether it was some soft tissue adapted solely for the odd orthopedic configuration of my legs.

“Why did they send you to me?” Dr. Mendotti asks, as I take off my shoes and socks. Does he actually want me to answer?

“Wow,” he breathes a mixture of pity and surprise. I wish I could recoil my legs, like the legs of the Wicked Witch of the East that curled underneath Dorothy’s house which fell from the sky, when Glinda the Good Witch of the North removed the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers.

But in this situation, wanting to keep my Medicare and other benefits, I cannot curl up my legs. I must not only go through being examined by a doctor who has never seen a body like mine before, but in this situation I must act as if my disability is the worst thing that could have ever happened, when the truth is, this examination, Dr. Mendotti’s stare, are much more difficult to endure.

“You can walk on those? How can I describe this to them? They won’t believe me,” Dr. Mendotti says, after I’ve given him a cursory history of the congenital deformities of my legs. “I’ll have to take some photos.” Decisively, he gets up, goes to the door and out into the hallway, where he talks to his secretary. “That old Polaroid must be around somewhere. You’ve got to come in and see this.”

Dr. Mendotti returns and asks me to roll up my pants to reveal more of my legs. “You really should be using Canadian crutches to walk,” he tells me. “With the right shoes I walk just fine,” I want to tell him.

“There must be doctors in Hartford who can do something for you. They work with children like you,” he says.

“I’m okay as I am,” I do not say.

But am I okay? This has become a recurrent question ever since, after enduring a year of back pain and knee problems, I went to see Dr. Victor Frankel, the former assistant of my childhood orthopedic surgeon.

“We can use the Ilizarov procedure,” Dr. Frankel had suggested. “We cut the shell, the cortex of the bone, but leave the bone’s marrow cavity, which contains important blood vessels necessary to the formation of new bone, intact. The Ilizarov apparatus consists of wires put through the bone, and external rings that are kept under a great deal of tension to apply slow traction so the nerves, muscles, tendon, and bone can grow.”

As I listened to Dr. Frankel’s description, my fingers reached for the four-inch scar on the right side of my knee, a remnant from the unsuccessful surgery he performed in 1966. “Theoretically, your lower back pain is caused by the length discrepancy between your legs. I can surgically line up your right foot, which now juts out from your leg at almost ninety degrees, into normal weight-bearing position, and, using the Ilizarov method, I can achieve bone growth in your right leg, making it almost as long as the left.”

I have had five major reconstructive surgeries since I was born, and I did not need my searching fingers to remind me I did not want to endure another. My mind searched for an alternative. “And if I decide not to have surgery?”

“A cane would help, “ Dr. Frankel offered. “I’d also suggest adding three inches to your right shoe—but only an eighth, maybe a quarter of an inch at a time, so your spine won’t overcompensate. That could cause more pain and disorientation than you’re experiencing now.”

Seven years have passed since I rejected Dr. Frankel’s surgical solution. But now, with my back pain increasing and new problems developing with my right knee and my left foot, had the time come when my asymmetrical body, with or without properly fitted shoes, had reached the apex of what it could do, of where it could take me?

Sitting in Dr. Mendotti’s office, in yet another of the seemingly endless number of medical examinations, I begin to question whether or not the costs of avoiding surgery have become too great.

Dr. Mendotti takes a photo and the camera noisily releases it. From my vantage point the photo seems very yellow, as antiquated as the camera. “That should show them,” he says. “Even with photographic documentation, you wouldn’t believe the mistakes they make. I wish there was more I could do for you.”

I smile.

Job done, Dr. Mendotti has clipped the photo to a manila folder and is now standing at the door. “If they deny you,” he says with too much concern, “give me a call.” The doctor pauses at the door, then he turns back to me and says: “I shouldn’t say this to you, but if you ever need medication, you let me know.”

I take my cane, get up, and, not paying attention to his final offer, pass the secretary’s desk. I open the door and go out into what serves as the doctor’s waiting room. As I make my way to my car, my limp seems more pronounced than usual.

Although the sky is full of white billowy clouds, the day seems much brighter than I remembered it an hour ago.

You can walk on those? I keep hearing Dr. Mendotti say, his words with their underlying disbelief, repeating over and over. It is as if I, too, believe that my being able to get the short way from the doctor’s office to my car must be some sort of miracle. Through some act of God—not to mention doctors, shoemakers, persevering parents, and some innate drive of my own—I am able to stand here with the assistance of a cane and twenty-year-old orthopedic shoes. In this suburban world of office parks and strip malls, I am sure that if I look up I will see cherubic angels, hear them trumpeting the proof of the miracle of my being alive at all. But I don’t see angels. I don’t hear trumpets. Driving on I-91, I hear the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: Glory be to God for dappled things—. I check the sky to see if it looks couple-colored as a brinded cow, and am thankful for Hopkins’s poem celebrating all things counter, original, spare, strange.

But when I arrive home, I keep seeing the clock that did not tell the right time in Dr. Mendotti’s office. I hear his offer of medication. Even then, I knew what he was offering, the “help” he couldn’t ever voice out loud. The medication was not for pain but in case I decide that the pain is too much and I do not want to survive.

Survival of the fittest.

Somehow, I know Dr. Mendotti’s reaction was not based on my pain or on my body. His reaction was based on his misunderstanding of what it means to survive in an often inhospitable world. He assumed I could not walk without crutches, although I have walked without crutches my entire life. Was Dr. Frankel’s surgical solution based on the same assumptions? I have not had surgery since I was ten years old. Isn’t the pain of the surgery far worse than the pain I live with now? Was I wrong to believe there had to be another way for me to adapt to my body’s changes?

My childhood questions of survival are answered by Hopkins’s question: how do each of us become swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim? Disabled, nondisabled, I add to Hopkins’s list. And I realize I am just beginning to understand what survival of the fittest actually means.

The Beehive

What is a five-foot-tall man without fibulae in both legs doing at the top of this mountain?

During my previous visit to Acadia National Park on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, I became entranced with the small islands in the bay, which seemingly float in the early morning fog on what I know is water but what could be air. Since first seeing the islands in Frenchman’s Bay, I have been repeating the first lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “North Haven”—The islands haven’t shifted since last summer, even if I like to pretend they have—over and over again.

My boyfriend, Ian, carries the backpack that has the two bottles of water, lunch, the camera, and the guide book. Walking the first two-tenths of a mile on the flat but uneven trail, I am propelled as much by my early morning excitement as I am by my by now deft maneuvering of my cane over larger rocks. Just a few minutes into our hike we reach the sign: beehive ⇨.

“Here’s where we make a right,” I call to Ian, who is a few steps ahead of me.

“Up we go,” he says when I reach him at the sign. He lets me take the lead.

Nowhere do I appreciate Ian more than when we hike together. His patience and understated cajoling have helped me reach places in Alaska and in the Canadian Rockies, as well as in Bali, I don’t think I would have reached without him.

Four switchbacks later, in front of me is a small iron ladder. I count five rungs. “This should be fun,” I say as I look up to plan my route.

“How do you want to do it?” Ian asks.

“You go first,” I tell him, not wanting to feel the pressure of someone coming up the ladder behind me.

“And your cane?”

“I think I can pass it up to you when I’m on the first or second rung.”

Climbing, I do not have trouble with heights. My challenge is to fit my right foot, jutting out at a ninety-degree angle where my ankle would be if I had one, in my bulky right shoe with its three-inch platform, securely on the ladder rung. I also need to figure out how to bear my weight since my body has changed since the last time I hiked, so, at first, I’m not sure how much either leg can bear until I try. From experience, I know that I need to do it slowly, one rung at a time, stopping on each rung to plan out my next maneuver.

As I thought, from the first rung I can pass my cane, which is not helpful in going up or down ladders, to Ian, who has bent over the side of the trail to retrieve it once he has reached the top of the ladder. Although the ladder is not long, it is narrow, making it difficult for me to fit both feet on a rung at the same time. However, the rungs are also too far apart for me to have one leg on the lower rung and the other on the next. I search the cliff in front of me for a rock I can hold onto as I move from rung to rung. Fortunately, the hard gray granite of Mount Desert Island is suitably sturdy for me to make it up the ladder by stabilizing my body in midair with my arms, until I am able to root my foot on the next rung.

At the top of the ladder, I see another ladder, a bit longer, but similar to the one I just climbed. This time Ian hooks my cane into one of his belt loops and I climb up in the same way I climbed the first ladder.

At the top of the second ladder, I dust off my hands. Ready to take on the next challenge, I look up. Ian is staring at me.

“What’s wrong?” I ask, thinking I must have dirtied myself from the climb up the first ladder.

Ian turns toward the next ladder, which is more of a cliff with metal hand holds than a ladder.

“That doesn’t look too hard. I can use the hand holds for my feet,” I tell him, remembering the way I made it to the cliff dwelling I wanted to see five years ago in Mesa Verde.

“How am I going to do it?” Ian asks.

“Oh,” I say, too absorbed in my own thoughts on how to pass safely through this next obstacle to realize that Ian might have trouble on the trail. “I guess that’s why they call it the Beehive,” I offer feebly as we both look at the curving cliff on which we need to climb.

I watch Ian ascend, handhold to handhold. He slips a bit when he is unable to fit his size thirteen feet where they need to be to keep his six-foot one-inch body steady during the climb. Once he’s through, I throw my cane up to the next ledge and start my ascent. Just as I thought, my feet fit easily into the handholds and I make it up this ladder more easily than the first two.

When I reach the ledge, I retrieve my cane, and make my way up a few more switchbacks until I find Ian sitting down on a large granite boulder.

“What’s the matter?” I ask, sitting next to him.

“I almost slipped on the last one. I’ve never been afraid of heights before,” he says, gesturing his head toward the next ladder.

I walk over to where the next ascent begins. This time, not only do we have to manage the handholds on a curved cliff. This fourth ladder also turns a corner at the same time as it ascends. From where I stand I cannot see what will confront us around the bend. I have no way of knowing what the remainder of the ladder will consist of.

“We can go back,” I offer, looking back at the first three ladders we climbed. They already seem stories below us.

“I don’t think I can take the pack with me. It weighs me down. It feels as if it is going to pull me off the cliff.”

“Okay,” I say. “We can hide the pack behind the boulder. Let’s drink some water now and we can have lunch on the way down.”

What would Ian say when I’m having difficulty during a hike and am doubtful I can continue, the situation we usually encounter?

“Take it slow. One rung at a time. Don’t look down,” I offer. I don’t sound convincing. “You sure you want to continue?”

“We’ve made it this far.”

We both smile, realizing that is what I always say when trying to convince myself to continue on a hike that has become more difficult than I thought it would be.

I try to watch Ian’s attempt at turning the curve. For a moment, his long body seems suspended too far from the side of the cliff and disappears around the turn.

“Are you okay?” I call out, unsure he can hear me. No response. “Ian?”

I see a leg coming around the corner where Ian, a few moments before, disappeared. The leg is followed by an unfamiliar body.

“Did you see a tall blond guy up there?” I ask.

“Yeah,” the hiker tells me. “He doesn’t look so good.”

“What’s around the corner?” I ask.

“Just the next ledge, really,” he says.

“Can you do me a favor and hand me my cane when I reach the corner?”

“Sure. No problem.”

When I reach the corner, the hiker hands me my cane and I nod my head to thank him. As I hoped, the next ledge is close enough to put my cane on it before I go around the bend. As I make the simultaneous ascent and turn, for once I am glad I am top heavy, because as I shift the weight from my left to right foot, one false move could topple me over into what I know is at least a three-hundred-foot drop off the side of the Beehive. My right foot fits perfectly into the top rung and I am able to swing my left leg over, lift myself up, and land kneeling on my left knee on the ledge.

I retrieve my cane and see Ian, head down, leaning against the side of the cliff. All the color has drained from his face. His chest heaves.

“You made it,” I tell him. “There’s only one regular ladder to go.”

After I make sure he’s okay, I continue up the ladder. He follows.

At the top, the Porcupine Islands—I count ten of them, each forested green on top, ringed with gray granite where it meets the sea—float before us in Frenchman’s Bay.

“Drifting, in a dreamy sort of way, a little north, a little south or sidewise,” I paraphrase the next lines of Bishop’s poem, “they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.”

The longer I look at the islands, the sky becomes the water, the water becomes the sky.

Closing my eyes, I watch the islands float before me and I see Darwin, not long after the Concepción earthquake of 1835, making his longest expedition across the Andes. Darwin reaches the crest and looks backward, astounded at the glorious view. The clear sky, an intense blue, the wild broken forms of the Cordillera Valley. The bright colored rocks contrasted with the snow-covered mountains. No plants. No birds except for a few condors flying among the peaks.

“I never thought I’d be so problematic on this hike,” Ian says as we hold each against the now even stronger wind. “Sorry we don’t have the camera.”

“It’s okay,” I assure him just as he assures me when I feel my wanting to hike to these places is just a ridiculous desire, something I cannot, or should not do. “I’m sure I’ll have more problems than you coming down.”

But today, coming down the Beehive, isn’t a problem. Going down, my right shoe still fits into each ladder rung or handhold. I either pass my cane to Ian or throw it down to the next ledge. We retrieve our pack, eat lunch, and take a picture from the spot where we decided not to turn back earlier in the day.

At the bottom, as we pass the beehive ⇨ sign, I trip over a large rock that dislodged when I stepped on it. Looking down, I notice that the rock made a small gash in the leather of my right shoe.

Sitting on the side of the trail, I take off my shoes to see if the leather has been torn or whether only the polish has been rubbed off. I could not have survived the Beehive today if my shoes were any different than they are. Because of the shape of my shoes I was able to transform metal rungs stuck into the side of a cliff into footholds. Because of my shoes I was able to get to the top of the round-topped granite mountain I now see from its base.

I look at the shape of my feet—my left heel wandering to the side, my right foot jutting out at almost a right angle—so different than the way they looked ten years ago. When did the change occur? How soon before I am walking on the edges of both feet? How much longer will shoes enable me to walk? How many earthquakes did it take to change the world’s surface? The granite of the Andes, seemingly so stable as the Mount Desert Island granite that enabled me to climb the Beehive, had once been as fluid as the blue water—or is it sky?—of Frenchman’s Bay.

Utilitarian Shoes

Before I was ten years old, five reconstructive surgeries were performed by Dr. Joseph Milgram, the head of orthopedic surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases, then located in Manhattan at 125th Street and Madison Avenue. Dr. Milgram was the first doctor who did not recommend amputation of both my legs. This bespectacled doctor’s doctor, by force of his gruff yet endearing personality, convinced my parents to let him begin the course of surgery that would enable their son not only to walk but to live, according to Dr. Milgram, “a normal life.”

But shoes, to Dr. Milgram, were an afterthought. Early on, my mother fit me in sneakers that attached to my braces. By the time I entered kindergarten, I was able to shed my braces. I ran around like any active little boy, and my sneakers wore out on the inside edges very quickly.

By the time I was old enough to attend a full day of school, my parents realized that sneakers, even bought a dozen pair at a time, would not do the job. Before I entered first grade, at my by then semiannual appointment, they told Dr. Milgram I needed shoes. “Do you know where we can get him what he needs?” my mother asked.

Dr. Milgram, always in a hurry and usually ten thoughts ahead of everyone else, stopped short at my mother’s question. Though largely responsible for my being able to walk on my own feet, it was as if he had never considered what a youngster needs to walk beyond proper weight-bearing and alignment. “Eneslow—go to Eneslow” was his mysterious command before he retreated to greet his next patient.

Not a week later, I was taken to Manhattan to see this Eneslow who had been conjured by Dr. Milgram. Eneslow, it turns out, was a shoemaker who had his office in an old narrow building with an old narrow staircase on East Fourteenth Street near Union Square. At the top of the flight of dark brown wood stairs was a dark brown wood balustrade with decorative columns, in front of a platform leading into an office lit only by the daylight that managed to make its way through an unwashed window. We went inside and Eneslow appeared from behind a curtain that led to a small back room.

This man who was to make my first pair of shoes had an unruly mop of silver-white hair and a matching mustache. He looked like a more flustered, and even more unkempt, version of Albert Einstein. The pair of shiny brown shoes he showed us cost one hundred dollars, a lot of money for the time, especially for my lower-middle-class parents. (My father was then a kosher butcher; my mother, a housewife raising my brother and me.) But the shoes were well made and, except for the heel support and the extra-thick soles that would not need to be repaired nearly as often as my sneakers, looked no different than shoes worn by the other boys I knew.

My Eneslow shoes had no left, no right; one shoe was the same shape as the other. I remember my first pair of shoes not only because, finally, like everyone else, I had shoes I could wear, but also because of the wing-tipped ornament gracing the toes, decorative like the balustrade at the top of Eneslow’s staircase. My new shoes felt festive and I felt both normal and special.

Even though the reason for having specially made shoes was entirely utilitarian—I needed them to be able to go to school—my Eneslow shoes made me feel like Cinderella, as if during my visits to the white-haired, distracted wizard, my sneakers had been magically transformed into wing-tipped designer model shoes that, if not getting me into a prince’s ball, did allow me to go to a mainstream school, a place where, at that time, children like me did not go.

A Little World within Itself

“The chief sound of life here is a hiss,” Herman Melville wrote of the Islas Encantadas, the Galápagos Islands. “No voice, no low, no howl is heard.” These desolate islands were bypassed by such explorers as Captain James Cook, who charted the Pacific in three voyages from 1768 to 1780. George Vancouver, following up Cook’s surveys in 1792, allowed his ship’s naturalist Archibald Menzies to go ashore. Menzies described the island as “the most dreary, barren and desolate country I ever beheld.”

Shortly after his graduation from Cambridge, twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin began his voyage as naturalist on the HMS Beagle in December 1831. He did not reach the Galápagos until September 17, 1835, over half a year after he experienced the Concepción earthquake. Earlier, Darwin had read Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which put forth Lyell’s idea that the process of geological elevation is piecemeal. Century after century, epoch after epoch, gradual shifts in the earth’s surface slowly accumulate. After the earthquake, Darwin began considering Lyell’s ideas about how millennial changes of the earth’s surface affect species’ survival.

Darwin’s onshore Galápagos excursions were limited to only four of the islands, and did not total thirty days. His published Beagle diary of close to four hundred pages contains only twenty pages about the islands.

Suffering from severe seasickness, how happy Darwin must have been on land. Upon landing in the Galápagos on Chatham, now known as San Cristóbal, he found the island uninviting, mostly volcanic, consisting of black basaltic lava. Other than stunted brushwood there was little sign of life.

But Darwin also had inklings of what makes the Galápagos unique. Despite being just below the equator, the islands’ climate is not excessively hot, which he suspected could be because of the low temperature of the surrounding sea. Except during one short season, little rain falls in the archipelago, but the clouds generally hang low. A large number of the Galápagos’s plants and animals could be found nowhere else. Once, a mockingbird landed on Darwin’s water pitcher. He noticed the bird was tame and unsuspecting of him, not even understanding when he threw stones at it. The birds came so close that they could easily be killed by a stick.

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