J.M. Perkins wants to tell you a story about his feet, machismo, and becoming a Dad.
I’m sitting naked in an empty bathtub with a bottle of rubbing alcohol, my sharpest knife (made sharper by an hour worth of honing), my belt, some sterile pads, and a half dozen ace bandages ready to go. I take a deep breath, put the belt leather between my teeth so I have something to bite down on, and get to work on my feet.
It didn’t start there, in the bathtub, it started with my stupidity. I had just turned nineteen years old and I had decided to go backpacking with some friends, but realized I didn’t own boots. My father offered to let me borrow his.
We grew up poor; not hungry-poor but we did made it through the hard times on hand-me-down clothing and hand-me-down food collected from the Church where my father worked. We didn’t go to the doctor much, and my Dad certainly didn’t; because there was always a question of whether or not we could afford it (and, in retrospect, he had never been taught to go care for himself in that way). I internalized a lot of bad habits about money but almost all of them follow this circuit: I felt, and sometimes still feel, guilt whenever I asked others to spend money on me (or, alternately, when I spend money on myself).
I’m a big guy with big feet (15.5 to be exact). The vast majority of stores top out at size 13. As such, I’ve tended to buy whatever shoe was available at the time, and wear whatever I bought until they dissolved into a porous, fungus choked mesh of hypothetically cohesive strips.
Which is to say, shoes had always been an issue growing up.
At 19 I was apparently fully grown and having always purchased shoes a size or more up (to ‘grow into’), I had begun to have doubts that my feet really were size as big as I’d come to believe; maybe I was really a 14 with delusions of grandeur. When I tried on my father’s brown boots they were snug, but I figured they’d be fine.
Which is why I ended up spending a week tromping around the backcountry in too small boots.
Matching grins of angry pink blisters appeared around the curves of my feet before we’d even stopped for the first night.
I’d brought moleskin (blister protection pads not the the hipster notebooks that I also own) and plenty of clean socks; I did my best to protect my feet. But between the too small boots, rivulets of my sweat pouring down my ankles, and regular soakings as we marched through brooks and streams my best wasn’t nearly good enough.
Every step hurt.
Within 48 hours, my feet were in tatters.
I kept hiking, ignored to my feet as much as I could.
The blisters popped and were replaced with new blisters which then merged with the loose flesh of the water log. The bottoms of my feet morphed into pads of undifferentiated grayness; something like trench foot.
Eventually, we got back to the parking lots with our cars.
Through the hike, I made sure I kept up with the others, and never once complained. For some reason, even after everything that’s happened and all the ways I’ve grown, I still feel idiotically proud of that fact.
I didn’t mention what was happening to the rest of my backpacking group, and I didn’t mention it to anyone when I got back home. Between my survivalist upbringing and my own undigested machismo, I had plenty to prove: like the fact that I could take ‘it,’ that I could make my own way. More to the point, with my talking up a good game, with my all my supposed ‘knowledge;’ I wasn’t comfortable admitting I’d made such a moronic, utterly basic mistake that had endangered me and people I’d been hiking with.
But, when I got home I didn’t trust my feet to heal on their own. I knew I needed to do something because my feet smelled… wrong.
Which is why I had to handle things myself: naked in the bathtub, with the knife, the ace bandages, the belt, and rubbing alcohol.
Most of my feet had become waving gray folds: blisters on top of blisters on top of water log on top of blisters hanging loose and stinking in a way that went beyond foot funk.
So bit down into the brown leather and I cut it away the dead flesh.
The thing of it was, it didn’t hurt; mostly. I took my time, only slicing off a little with every cut. Half by half inch, I didn’t want to rush this. I cut and I cut, kept cutting until it bled, until it did hurt. Because I knew, once I reached the part of me that still bled, that still felt pain; I’d gotten past all the rottenness, all the stuff that used to be skin that could spread infection to me.
I finished my right foot, washed away the blood and watched it circle down the drain; rinsed in stinging alcohol to disinfect. I placed sterile pads to sop up the blood, wrapped it tight in an ace bandage to keep pressure applied.
Then I got to work on the left foot.
In the weeks to come, I did my best to walk on the edges of my feet to help with the healing because my feet were on my fire.
During my childhood, my parents spent a lot of time (I spent a lot of time) preparing me for a different world. My parents believed in the post tribulation biblical apocalypse, in the imminent ascension of the antichrist, in disaster, and societal disruptions. Our basement full of guns and our 55 gallon drums full of water would help us through; but most important was a mindset.
Specifically, the mindset that our family was, or shortly would be, on our own.
That I would be on my own.
In a lot of ways, I think this is something like our culture’s ‘default’ male mindset writ large, taken to its own (il)logical conclusion.
Even as I moved past a lot of what my parents taught me, that notion clung for years. I still find it blooming now and again.
I got good at relying on myself, got good at ‘handling’ my shit, got good at going out of my way to prove I could hack it. Sometimes, it was something I needed to prove.
Even when it hurt me.
Especially when it hurt me.
I didn’t get good at asking for help.
I didn’t get good at treating myself like I treat my friends, like I want to treat my family: with the belief that pain and suffering are not my birthright, that the world exists full of people who can and perhaps more importantly want to help.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my upbringing, the lessons I learned and the lessons I didn’t learn because very soon I’m going to be a Dad for the first time. And this isn’t about blame, this isn’t about rejecting everything I’ve been given. My self-reliance, my endurance, my ability––as my father was so fond of saying—‘To improvise, to adapt, to overcome’ are all wonderful things about me that I’m happy to have developed.
But I’ve been realizing that even my virtues can become vices.
Resilience is absolutely important, and I hope I can help my daughter develop resiliency; but needless suffering? A sense that you are, essentially, alone and you need to prove—now—that you won’t die when this belief is vindicated? Those concepts are asinine and horrible and the thought of my baby girl hurting because she was too embarrassed or had too much to prove to ask for aid breaks my heart.
And even though I’ve gotten better at loving and caring for myself, nothing crystallize that imperative like the knowledge that in everything, I have to strive to model the behavior I want my daughter to emulate. That, more than anything, who my wife and I are is going to teach our daughter how to be a human being.
At least until she’s a teenager and will hate everything we stand for.
In the end, I only ever hurt myself when I tried to ‘deal’ with my life as though I got bonus points for self-righteous masochism. I’m grateful that I’ve had a chance to learn to do better, to be not as I was.
And I have to tell you, my feet—at least—are happy that I did.