You Can’t Solve a Fact of Life


When I mentioned in my previous blog about Roz Savage and our mutual friend Sisyphus that I had decided to “leave high heels and dayplanners behind” in order to travel a different path through life, it was more than a throwaway line, or exaggeration for artistic effect.  Today, I wear boat shoes 90 per cent of the time, and when I’m not wearing boat shoes, I’m wearing sandals.

 As matter of fact, I have quite a wardrobe of boat shoes.  Even if you take a girl out of her high heels, you can’t always take the impulse toward shoe collecting out of the girl.   I prefer the Sperry brand, and my favorite is the “Bluefish” model.  But I don’t limit myself, and I’m ready for any occasion.  I wear white boat shoes for work, since colors fade onto your toes when you get them wet, and I do get wet, on a regular basis.  I have wash-off-the-sawdust-and-go-out-in-public boat shoes in fancy, coordinating colors like salmon and turquoise and grass green.  I have summer boat shoes (with cute little vents), and winter boat shoes (sturdy and enclosed, with no vents).  Since I apparently still carry a vestige of the old “no white after Labor Day” rule hidden deep within my psyche, I have plenty of brown and hunter green and beige boat shoes to mark the begining of the fall season and carry me through until spring.

Unfortunately, no matter which boat shoes I’m wearing, I can’t keep the laces tied.  They’re always in the process of working themselves loose and flat dragging the ground, streaming behind me like a snapped piece of leash around the neck of a too-rambunctious dog.  My mother fusses continually, “You’re going to step on those shoelaces and fall down the steps and kill yourself!”  Friends offer suggestions for keeping the things under control.  Strangers stop me in the grocery store and ask, “Do you know your shoelaces are untied?”   

Well, yes, I do.  And the fact is that I’ve tried everything I know to persuade them to stay tied.  Since they’re leather, I’ve wet them and let them dry, hoping to shrink them into a nice, secure knot.  I’ve double and triple tied them.  I’ve cut them back and tied the newly-shortened laces into square knots.  I’ve tried dipping them in varnish (not my best idea) and I’ve super-glued them.  Nothing works.

One day, sitting on the deck of a boat looking at the untied laces I just had retied less than an hour before, I remembered something my grandmother once told me.  “If you want to be wise,” she said, “you have to be able to distinguish between a problem and a fact of life.” 

Looking at my shoelaces, I began to ponder.  I always had seen my untied laces as a problem that needed solving. I had put a good bit of thought and energy into finding a solution: partly to keep the laces tied, but mostly to silence my critics and prove I was at least as competent as the average second grader.  But with Grandma’s words echoing down the years, I saw those shoelaces in a new way and thought, “What if those straggly pieces of leather aren’t a problem at all, but only a fact of my life?”

Thinking it over, I realized that in all my years of untied laces, I’d never tripped over them, stepped on them, or suffered injury because of them.  Despite everyone’s fussing, they’d never caused me a bit of trouble.  Looking at them with new eyes, I could feel my burden falling away.  I didn’t need to do anything.  I didn’t need to solve anything.   If I wanted to make an occasional attempt to keep my shoelaces tied, so be it.  But there was no need to worry about them any longer.  They’re not a problem, they’re a fact of life.  And you don’t have to solve a fact of life.

 A lot of the so-called problems of life aren’t “problems” at all.  Gray hair and wrinkles come to mind, along with the rest of the aging process.  You can see gray hair as a fact of life, or buy into billion dollar  marketing campaigns meant to convince you the “problem” should be solved with this product or that.  Birds nest in boat sheds and perch on spreaders and masts.  Do you throw daily fits about their feathers, twigs and droppings and spend your time rigging up everything from artificial owls to water cannons to dislodge them?  Or do you simply accept them as a part of life around boats and learn to use a water hose?  You see the issue here.  Misidentifying one of life’s realities as a problem can lead to enormous wastes of time, energy and resources as we try to “solve” something for which a “solution” is impossible.

Sometimes, it goes the other way.  It also can be tempting to define things which are real problems as “just a fact of life”, as though taking that attitude will absolve us from responsibility for finding a solution.  The homeless fellow who walks his bicycle through our streets and spends his afternoons under our bridge is “just part of the scenery”.  The low voter registration and electoral participation in the U.S. is “just the way things are”.  The fact that governments around the world continue to “disappear” their own citizens is “beyond our ability to control”.  The unwillingness of nations and individuals to control their consumption of natural resources is “part of the human condition.”  Or so we say.

Distinguishing between problems and facts of life is one of the most important and most difficult tasks we face  Context is everything in these matters, as one person’s fact of life may be another person’s overwhelming problem.  Hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita are perfect examples.  For those directly affected, both were terrifying, life-changing and absolute problems.  For folk watching the hurricanes play out from the safety of North Dakota or Utah or Connecticut, not so much. 

A photo snapped by a friend illustrates the point perfectly.  Watching a hawk soar against a perfectly blue sky, I tend to see it as a lovely fact of life, a counterpoint to nature’s song, a bit of undeserved beauty waiting to be enjoyed and treasured.  Watching that same hawk cruise into their neighborhood, those smaller black birds saw a problem on the wing, and joined forces to solve the problem as quickly as they could. 


Perhaps if I had been as instinctively attuned to my shoelaces as those birds were to their space, it wouldn’t have taken me so many years to figure out that untied laces weren’t a problem I needed to deal with.  It’s just another bit of proof that Grandma was one smart lady.  All of us live with problems, and all of us live surrounded by assorted realities we can’t, or don’t need to, do anything about.   All we are called to do is to sort out our problems from the simple facts of life and respond appropriately: coping, solving, accepting or enduring, over and over again.



© Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “Grands” (especially those most beloved) have such wisdom. Enjoyed hearing what your Gran said. And it somehow applied to a the crazy corporate day I had.
    Great timing – thanks.

    Good morning, oh,

    We’ve lost so much by relegating our elders to their nursing homes and such. I don’t have a thing against the young (having been young myself, once) but folks who have had a few decades to think things over DO have wisdom worth sharing. One of the best things about wisdom is that it can be applied in a variety of situations – glad you enjoyed my little bit for the day!


  2. What an excellent piece of advice! And what a lovely way you brought all three pictures together. A very nice piece Linda; it has a very warm feel to it.

    Thanks for the kind words, JD – for the writing and the pics! I do enjoy it when I find just the “right” photos. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, even the right photo takes effort. Glad you were there to capture the moment for me!

  3. Is the rain in my garden a problem or a fact of life, likewise my weeds? I think this might be a gray area, since they are both. If I want produce the weeds are a problem to be dealt with. The rain is a fact of life which adds to the problem of the weeds. The garden will dry and the weeds should be dealt with.
    By the way, the sponge with teeth? I am afraid I am a bit dense on that one. (First time I have seen the spelling of galinsoga).
    Jeff Le Doux
    The WiltonWeatherGuy

    Hi, Jeff,

    Things do get complicated, don’t they? I was thinking about that in regard to things like hurricanes, where they are certainly a fact of life, but present all kinds of problems to be dealt with.

    As for the sponge with teeth – it took me a minute until I figured out you meant the flower blossom!
    According to all my googled images, that little baby is a fully-blooming galinsoga. It DOES look like a sponge with teeth. It’s a natural Rorschach test!

    Thanks for stopping by, and hope you dry out soon.


  4. Those pesky laces will stay tied better if you use a leather conditioner, such as mink oil or neatsfoot oil, on them. This is a one-time application to new stiff laces. Go easy. You don’t want the leather to absorb too much, or it will get soft and squishy and the laces will break. Use just enough to take some of the stiffness out. Rub it into the surface to make it a bit rough and tacky rather than hard and slick.


    Look at that. A new suggestion! Now that I think of it, isn’t neatsfoot oil what they use on baseball gloves or something? I’ve heard of it, anyhow. I was pretty amazed that two-part epoxy didn’t do the trick. I did have a friend who made me a pair of teeny, tiny little bungee cords with tiny little hooks. The suggestion was to take the laces out entirely and bungee the shoes closed. Who says we’re not a creative society?

    The funny thing is, it’s over two years since I wrote this and I still haven’t tripped over my laces, despite my mother’s dire warnings. I guess they really are just a fact of life for me!

    Now, Galloping Gertie – there was a problem!


  5. About a month ago I helped judge a science fair at a local elementary school. The original judging date got snowed out and rescheduled. I was a substitute judge. My main qualification was availability on short notice. :)

    It was interesting. Each participating student created a poster with visual aids and documentation. At least two of them had prepared an exhibit on adhesives.

    The approaches were different. One applied a single standard test to a variety of products. She identified the best product for sticking plastic hooks to a piece of finished wood. The other student figured out that different adhesives are suitable for different materials. It’s all about materials. When it comes to adhesives, there is no One Size Fits All solution. That’s why we have e. g. rubber cement and carpenters’ wood glue and model airplane glue and the fluid plumbers use to assemble PVC pipe.

    Two-part epoxy makes a strong, durable bond between strong, durable materials. Your shoe laces are soft and flexible. The epoxy is harder and stronger than the leather. I bet that when the leather flexes, its surface layer, which is truly bonded to the epoxy, will simply tear free. The leather will lose some skin, and the epoxy will fall off.


    Now that you’ve made me think about it, I suspect you’re exactly right. It’s one of the reasons polyurethane coatings can be problematic on a boat – or any of the two-part coatings, for that matter. In any spot where there’s flexing, the coating can crack and eventually begin to peel, and boats flex a lot. Varnishes, with their oil content, are much more forgiving.

    And that, of course, brings us back around to your original suggestion of the oil, which increases the natural flexibility of the leather rather than working against it.

    Since I regularly wear out boat shoes, I have some new pairs around. Maybe it’s time for a science experiment!


  6. Having spent a lot of time working on boats, wearing boat shoes and encountering the pesky prob…. sorry … fact of life! … of persistently untied laces I can offer you a simple and usually permanent cure.
    You do the first part of the knot as a slip knot and then, one at a time, you fold the long length back on itself into a loop. (you’ll need to practice where to fold it but at about 25/75. You then wrap it tightly around itself until you get down just a small loop at the fold just big enough to push the loose end through it and pull down tight. Repeat with the second long length on the same shoe. You should end up with two cute little toggles on each shoe which can’t unravel themselves.
    It always worked for me so it if doesn’t for you it’s probably my confusing directions!

    • Fran,

      Oh, my gosh! Another tip to try – and just in time. I’ve been living with well-behaved laces for a while, but my new pair of Sperrys is coming untied on a regular basis. That would be about six times a day. I’m not good with visualization, but I just looked at a page showing the process for rock climbers. Sure enough – I think that ought to do it. I’ll give it a try tonight and see how things go.

      Not only that, I’d forgotten this piece. I think it deserves to be rewritten and reposted, or at least redone and kept in the files as an “emergency backup”. And it didn’t do me one bit of harm to be reminded of the lesson myself.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for making my life easier!


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