Dear Long (Second )Toe,

I was 39 when I truly noticed you on my right foot–a petulant worm riddled with arthritis. I’d been steadfast in ignoring you my whole life. After all, you’re no showman. That’s Big Toe. He’s got rizz. (Yes, I used that slang). He’s sturdy and competent at most things. But he’s also a bit ridiculous. My seven year old’s current obsession with the old tv series Little House on the Prairie has me thinking and breathing the Olsen and Ingalls families. So Big Toe is Charles Ingalls in suspenders and no shirt.(See photo below).

My 7 year old daughter drew a Charles (Ingalls) toe when she learned of my odd association. I’m loving the boobs she added and the suspenders.

We all know what it’s like to polish Big Toe’s massive nail; it’s sublime. Seated on my bathroom floor with my acrylic polish in hand, I’m Jackson Pollack taking in his large blank canvas every time. No limits! (Big Toe also looks like Tutankhamun (in his sarcophagus) or else, a limbless Madeline (spirited childrens’ book character) or a nun. Big Toe’s diverse that way). With his stocky build, he’s the only toe that competes in toe wrestling–a real sport!

Photo of Jackson Pollock//life Magazine/ photographer Martha Holmes
Toe wrestling

Baby Toe of course is just that–primordial and eternally curled in for warmth. She may be the smallest but she’s no guiding coxswain (a reference to the Spring I took up crew at Carleton College and was no doubt the worst coxswain in collegiate history. Needless to say my shoddy navigation skills lead to an embarrassing crash that avoided bodily harm but resulted in a big gash to one side of the boat that made contact with rock).

How in heavens did I get this position on a collegiate crew team? It was to begin with, a club sport but the real answer for those uninitiated: my small liberal arts college was proudly non athletic as illustrated by our team’s ungainly recruits–each one more charmingly ill-suited for team sports than the next. I would marvel at the lot of us mumblers, slouchers and weak-limbed as we attempted coordination and vigor. Miraculously, no one mocked us. (Of course there were no spectators as we never raced another team. But at Carleton, there was a solid argument that it was the artsy/intellectual kids, not the plain jocks,who reigned. I recall an off-campus party in which the hostess turned to the other (tittering with wonderment and condescension) when an unknown wrestler somehow wandered into the fray with a beer in hand. The hostess could be heard saying out loud “[i]t’s very possible, we’ve never seen such a wide neck up close”).

Capping off the unique experience, our crew captain was a defiantly East Coast boarding school type—oft seen in stiff blue blazers at our school that was deeply entrenched in the 1990’s grunge aesthetic. I imagined, he with the erect posture and curls perfectly pommaded, was a shade embarrassed watching us try to lift the boats and flip them over in a cohesive, non-life-threatening way. Poor guy, trying to hold onto his prep school privilege!

You (my second toe on my right foot) get none of the affection that is reserved for Baby Toe. But I have to say, what did you expect? You, middle toe and fourth toe are a bland trio. You are the Supremes with three Flos and no Diana Ross or Mary Wilson. But Baby is not perfect. She may be a fan favorite, but her nail doesn’t seem so protective and is rubbish to paint. And she could be cuter. Nature/natural selection should have coated her with a light, downy fur–the kind bunnies have inside their ears. Then we’d all lavish our feet with attention 24/7 and therefore increase our longevity according to the New Yorker article I once read. (Indeed, studies have shown that the ability to stand on one foot for 10 seconds is correlated with longevity).

When I stare down at you and the rest of you digits, I can’t help but see you as uncomfortable reminders that we humans have evolutionary ties to other creatures, and something about this connection repels me. I just learned that the wings of a bird actually have bones inside that are basically fingers/hands. And fish fins have the same genetic material that allow animals to develop fingers and hands. I could hurl. Maybe I just dislike fish and birds. (Sorry DB!). I mean have you ever pet a parakeet? It’s a uniquely gross experience–the soft feathers luring you but then spiky bones underneath. (See the alarming x-ray below of a chicken wing. See those fingers under the wings? WTF!)

I guess I am a bit of a Human Supremacist. (This idea first surfaced during a recent walk through the Boston Commons with one of my oldest childhood friends. She showed me her curious and charming trick of making clucking/clicking sounds to compel a host of squirrels to surround her and get on their hind legs to beg for food. I was blown away by this ability. But along came a high energy kid who tore after one of the squirrels, which caused my friend to gently scold him for scaring them. A second later, the boy’s mother showed up–irate at my friend; in a long winded, overheated way, she accused my friend of terrifying her little boy (who frankly looked non-plussed). My friend apologized and then explained to me it annoyed her when people thought they were more important than animals. In that moment, I first realized I am a human supremacist but that is not something I say without some shame. I do, however, enjoy teasing my friend about her Disney princess-like affinity for squirrels!).

Maybe this is why I don’t understand foot fetishes. I know Anna Wintour has waxed poetic about toe cleavage. I know when I was eleven a creepy adult man saddled up to me at a bus stop and gazed wistfully/lustfully at my toes in open toed sandals, extolling my beautiful feet. (I have never again been singled out for pretty feet so it was my foot heyday). A relative of my husband’s once had his own porn site called Sweet Nectar that featured photos of feet and penises “dancing” together. I viewed his site once as a young woman and guffawed. But I assure you, I am less judgmental of fetishes now.

But I digress. Returning to the night you rose from obscurity, my family was on our annual trip to visit my in- laws in Boca Raton. My MIL known to us as “Baba” and I were in the middle of our nightly routine of staying up late to stretch and do a medley of moves learned from years of Intro yoga classes. (Despite, a slew of classes, I never advanced). We were sprawled out on the carpeted floor of her apricot-hued ranch-style house; we wore our finest stretch-wear.(My son, father in law and husband were already tucked into their respective beds–wisely shielded from the spectacle of our graceless limbs sliding on carpet instead of yoga mats).

Apparently, one of my wobbly, quickly aborted yoga squats on the carpet pushed you to the brink. Back then, I was still struggling to shed post-partum weight so I should have paused before kneeling on the carpet and then pushing into a low squat–you one of my only anchors. And you’re a pin of a thing! Sure, miraculous sculptures (see the upside-down elephant balanced on his trunk)seem to defy natural forces but they are pure artistic illusion. You can’t fight Gravity. (So sorry I forgot that).

I shivered in pain. I winced. My tush dropped to the carpet and my hands landed behind me. Hopefully, more delicately than I move a stick shift on a car or jerk around an Atari joy stick, I grasped the top of you with my thumb and pointer finger and rotated you to source the pain.

Days later, I found myself in a strip mall orthopedist’s office. The doctor emerged, x-rays in hand, and delivered the weighty news that you were riddled with arthritis with flat affect. I waited in vain for the requisite empathy and fanfare that the situated merited.For I was no senior yet! And arthritis was reserved for those like my admirable distant cousin Ruth who, surprisingly nimble and commanding in her nineties, would sometimes break down and complain of pain in her butt (always cheerfully adding “or maybe I’m the pain in the butt.) Pardon me, but I was still proof that “Asian don’t raisin.” At 39, I had so much more life to live!

Sure, there had been other harbingers of middle age/ the loss of youth; gray springy hairs slowly emerging atop my head at age 34 had mildly deflated me. (When I went to Seoul, Korea around this time to meet the foster mother who cared for me before I was sent to the United States to be adopted, she spent our lunchtime tenderly plucking out the few gray hairs so I viewed my grays with some affection).

When I turned 36, I learned I was a year too old for the 92nd Street Y’s Young member discount that provides those 18 to 35 reduced rates for talks and readings. Was 36 the end of youth? I had no idea. (Turns out, yes. The American Psychological Association defines “middle adulthood” as beginning at 35 or 36 and according to Wikipedia and sources I do not cite here, modern social scientists generally agree that midlife begins around 35 to 40). What a blow! The Y’s declaration that I was no longer young, had shaken me to the core.

My friends had a similarly bleak view of aging. One confided that she was bummed she was about to turn 36 because she thought 30-35 was the sweet spot for women–a time when we were still sexually desired but also taken seriously. She said before 30, women sadly are treated like little girls and aren’t taken seriously and then after 35, we are regarded as post-sexual but authoritative. What a drastic but not entirely off-base analysis! I do recall being an Asian attorney in my twenties and having clients say “What? You are my lawyer? You can’t be!” when they’d meet me in person in the waiting room, which really rattled me. At the same time, sometimes clients would ask me out to dinner inappropriately after their case was done. (So even after I had proven I could lawyer, they’d not take me seriously).

Now clients of course never cry out in disbelief that I’m their attorney nor ask me on sketchy thank you meals so that’s a plus. But occasionally and sheepishly, I admit I miss the less dark variety of attention that young women get. Most recently at a jazz foundation fundraiser I attended, I couldn’t help notice a young pretty Asian woman surrounded by a flock of admirers. Apparently, I wasn’t the only observer of the adulation. A certifiably elderly lady at my table expressed my thoughts quite simply when she leaned over to me and said “Sigh. To be young and beautiful.” Two crones admiring what has been lost.

Other than these sporadic wistful moments, I managed not to fall into despair about the realities of aging until you emerged whining in pain. You devilish sprite! I pledged to rid you of arthritis and bring you back to your former quiet obscurity. I temporarily disavowed high heels. I slathered lotion on you every day. I went for weekly pedicures.

But in these days of my intense scrutiny, I noticed little things about you I’d never observed before. You were a hair longer than Big Toe. You Freak! (But I realized I liked this quirky fact as it turns out 10-20 percent of people have this trait called Morton’s Toe. I hate being boring after all).

I learned that supposedly, the Vikings believed that a long second toe meant you’d have a long life. So Toe, L’Chaim!!

My husband will love the next gem: “Other cultures believed that women with long second toes were bad-tempered and would control their husbands.” Amazing! Next time, I don’t follow my favorite piece of marital advice (“Talk to your husband no worse than the way you talk to a stranger”) and my husband says I’m getting snippy, I’ll look down at you and shrug conspiratorily.

In the practice of psychic foot reading (something new to me) readers interpret a long second toe as a sign of leadership ability or royal ancestry.” Not sure about leadership but this might explain why I want to read Spare—after a lifetime of indifference towards the Royals.

It turns out, Longie, you are my favorite, most storied toe!

And my admiration for you is increasing in spades. I just learned that Big Toe and you can be used to replace my fingers if I lose them and need a transplant. (And unfortunately, I know from clients of mine who have lost fingers while working, fingers are vulnerable. My husband who recently anxiously watched me try to cut a thick skinned Pomelo with a butcher’s knife as I turned away repeatedly to engage in discussion with friends at our dining room table, understands this too). At the same dining room table, I mentioned this newly learned fact that Big Toe and you can be used to replace missing fingers, which made my friends laugh as the sacrifice of toe for finger is a choice one hopes never to have to make. (As my erudite dinner guests chimed: A Hobbesian choice! A Faustian choice? A pyrrhic victory!)

Having just experienced the enthralling Titanic pop up immersive exhibit that featured a model of one of the sparse lifeboats for passengers and highlighted how the scarcity of lifeboats resulted in the high death toll, I observe that you and Big Toe are like two lifeboats docked on my foot in case my fingers are lobbed off. So I must treat you like gold, especially since only you and Big Toe can be used to replace fingers; It hasn’t escaped my attention that I really only have four life boats (i.e, two sets of Big Toes and Long Toes) for potentially ten lost fingers. Egads, the Titanic part II!!!

The titanic’s lifeboats docked

I also learned that as we age we lose collagen on the bottom of the feet, which makes them less padded and more painful to walk on. I foolishly didn’t think we had to worry about collagen depletion outside of the face. Though I’m one of those people who shun Botox and plastic surgery, I can get obsessed with beauty trends that are less invasive like collagen infused everything. At my recent Korean New Year’s party, I walked around passing out those delicious apple flavored collagen gel drinks that allow you to suck on their spout like an infant and help your complexion at the same time. (I also gave away collagen face masks). Of late, I’ve also been known to unearth those convenient collagen sticks that appear in many Korean dramas, from the recesses of my pockets to give to friends as spontaneous, unasked for gifts. (If this happens to you reader, I am not face/wrinkle- profiling you. I’d bestow the same gift to Nefertiti herself!)

Collagen jelly drinks
Collagen stick

So Toe, be warned, soon I’ll be swiping you with collagen and you will G-L-O-W!)

How interesting to learn that arthritis in the toe may be genetic. Perhaps my Korean birth family is hobbling around Korea right now. This warms my heart. When I travel to Korea this summer, I will look out for Koreans with really thick wavy hair and flat noses who are hobblers. Who needs Heredity.com?

It occurs to me that if your arthritis is a genetic trait, maybe I don’t want to get rid of it! I’ve got an uber small mouth (with a low palette that supposedly causes me to snore) that some mysterious Korean relative passed on to me. I like this quirk most days (except when I recently went to the dentist and they stuck the water pick in my mouth as I was reclining, which filled my mouth with water fast and made me joke to my dentist that I was being waterboarded. (He laughed out loud). I imagine my birth mother had a doll mouth like me and that she too ate whole apples with trepidation. These imagined connections/similarities with our birth families are all most of us Korean adoptees have to grasp onto.

Long Toe, if I can speak frankly: aging petrifies me. How about you? Do you wake with nightmares about fallen arches, fungal growth, bunions and getting crooked with age? I’ve been reading articles about all the new age sounding benefits of aging–deeper appreciation of priorities, better self-esteem etc and I recognize these are positives. But turning 50 and realizing it’s unlikely I can wrangle up 50 more years, is alarming to me. What can I do to steel myself? The recent Korean New Year’s party my family and I threw energized me and reminded me what i can do: be creative, make big efforts to be with loved ones and try to laugh as often as possible.

Our family’s annual paper mache for our Korean Lunar New Year party. This year for year of the rabbit—scientist ballerina bunny and mushroom bunny.
My kid made her lambie a hanbok- traditiinal Korean dress with a lace scrap, a hairbow and a piece of felt.
My son’s mushroom bunny

Though normally, the old age trait of having a weaker memory is not something I embrace, occasionally, my loss of words leads to a good guffaw. Take this past New Year’s Eve. My husband and two kids and I were seated at our dining room table playing board games. When we’d worn ourselves ragged, I asked if anyone wanted to watch the Times Square New Year’s ball drop. I had a vague memory of a New Year’s Eve TV show but couldn’t place the famous host. This lead me to turn specifically to my teenage son and blurt out very loudly and enthusiastically,

“Let’s watch the Dick Show!”

(I had in mind Dick Clark’ show and then Dick Cavett so all contemporary hosts were stuck in the recesses of my brain).

My son, sometimes and understandably impervious to my gaffes/odd humor, started hooting in appreciation and then I joined him. Tears in our eyes.

Friends, Happy Lunar New Year! May we find more and more pleasures in aging!

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