Disobedient digits

I have heard, or perhaps read, that if you cannot see your feet and a third party touches one of your toes, you will struggle to correctly identify the toe being poked.  I think most people are fine with the big toe, but thereafter are only accurate to ±1 toe.

I can believe this of toes, they are a long way from the seat of power (especially for we taller folk) and are mostly imprisoned against their will in shoes or sneakers.  Rarely are they allowed to operate independently of their fellows.  Such small acts of rebellion against central authority are only to be expected.

Fingers, on the other hand (and indeed the first hand) are molly-coddled their whole lives.  Only being gaoled in gloves or mittens to protect them from being nipped at by Jack Frost.  They have been given individual names and roles and are often invited to star in their own right.  As an occasional, if very bad, pianist my fingers have been given a lot of responsibility.  Indeed, often when seated at the old joanna, they seem to know where to go even when management hasn’t got the foggiest idea and is in a state of panic while the notes seem to dance across the staves.  I’ll admit that the ring finger can be a little shy, and doesn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of its two companions for company but, in general, I thought I could trust my fingers to follow basic instructions.

However, my attempts to master the guitar have made all to clear the limitations on my control of my own hands, especially the left one.  Even when I am staring right at them, the fingers of left hand still fail to follow even basic instructions.  When moving from G to D, I want to pivot on my ring finger: it, alone among its colleagues must not move and yet more than half the time it wanders off across the neck on some unknown mission of its own.  When playing scales (oh yes, I am teacher’s pet), I want all my fingers to stay close to the strings and yet they wander off like children on a school trip: worse actually, as they do so even when directly supervised.

I am far from convinced that I possess free will, but am increasingly sure that my fingers do.

Still, despite this mutiny by my own phalanges, I am making slow progress with the guitar.  At a gig last Sunday, while watching Jonny Phillips play I could recognise several chords and even more standard chord shapes.  Some of these, given a decent run-up, I can actually play: though there can be quite a long wait between chords (and a fair few extraneous sounds produced): it would be as well to bring a book to any gig at which I’m performing.  I can even speak somewhat knowledgeably about inversions and root notes, having been shamed into re-reading The AB Guide to Music Theory Part I following my stumbling attempts to identify broken chords at a lesson.  I think my guitar teacher now finds my attempts to create new chords from first principles (one note and string at a time, while visualising a piano) somewhat amusing and I strongly suspect I am his only student obsessive enough to try this.

Later at the same gig, there came a distant ray of hope.  The frankly amazing Marty O’Reilly made reference to ten years of his youth (mis-)spent in a shed with his guitar, smoking pot (him, not the guitar) as the source of his condign mastery of the instrument.  I don’t have a shed and am not entirely sure psychoactive substances will be a help – let’s face it, I already fear that my fingers are out to get me – but I’m only two months in to the process, so there remains the very real possibility for improvement by some point in my sixties.  In the meantime I thoroughly recommend going to see Jonny and Marty – the latter came perilously close to bringing a tear to my eye (something which music almost never does) – and imagine that one day (probably roughly cotemporaneous with the heat death of the universe) I might sound like that!

Toe Story

I find myself in Wales without a bicycle (or a unicorn, but I don’t have one of those at home either – though I quite fancy my chances taming one, subject to availability), and so am reduced to shanks’ pony (or nag if you’re Scottish) for my personal mobility.

Whilst arguments derived from the theory of evolution are often applied way beyond the point at which they become nonsense, I do use one to support my preferred walking footwear.  I posit that my feet (whilst things of beauty) are of basically the same design as those of my ancient ancestors – back even before homo sapiens.  The fossil record has not preserved any shoes worn by homo erectus, and so I theorise that my feet did not evolve to wear brogues.  On a more personal level, almost the only good thing about wearing shoes is the joy to be obtained when they can finally be taken off – and this is rather akin to the “joy” experienced when you stopping banging your head against a wall (so, probably better not to start at all).

Some do espouse the barefoot lifestyle, but I’m not keen on dirty feet and fear the transition could be quite painful as my feet “toughen up”.  So, I sought a solution which kept my feet clean and protected from sharp objects but which otherwise maintain the barefoot experience.  My answer is the rather curiously-named FiveFingers (which seem to refer to the wrong set of phalanges).  These provide just enough “shoe” to protect my soles, but still allow a “natural” gait.  The name comes from the individual toe-pouches in the shoe providing a separate home for each of the wearer’s toes – much as a glove provides a separate home for each finger (a traditional shoe in this view, is the analogue of an oven glove).  As a bonus, FiveFingers never need polishing – I just stick then in the washing machine with the rest of my laundry.

I use them whenever possible when walking outside (indoors, barefoot is fine) and very comfortable they are too.  They do attract a degree of comment (occasionally positive) as they are a rare sight (in Cambridgeshire at any rate) – but I take this in my stride!

But, sometimes when I ride Bayard of ten toes, I cannot use my FiveFingers:

  • In snow or frost,  my feet would get terribly chilly;
  • For business meetings, I have yet to find a “formal” FiveFingers model; and
  • Hiking – especially on boggy ground – can leave a pair of FiveFingers swamped

which sadly leaves me forced to go abroad conventionally shod.  In the first two cases, I am generally walking only shortish distances (though airports can involve quite a route march) – but it is in the third case where my feet take the most punishment.  My hiking boots are pretty good, but are still of a conventional design and my poor pedal extremities object to their unfamiliar confinement.  I need the folk at Vibram to develop a FiveFingers model suitable for hiking in these (sometimes) soggy islands (they do have good hiking options for drier spots) – and some formal-wear would be nice too!