A Single Step

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

--Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (1923)


Grandma's got a new pair of running shoes. Best of all, on the New Balance box (as on the box from the pair of New Balance shoes I bought last year), in a tiny corner at the bottom, an American flag discreetly waves hello. Next to the flag there's the NB logo and this unwavering, welcome message:

Committed to American workers.

According to NB's website, "25% of our shoes sold in the United States are made or assembled right here." Twenty-five percent is better than none. Sold. Well, almost sold. Here's what happened:

A few weeks ago, strolling along San Francisco's iconic Chestnut Street with my daughter and baby grandson, I decided to stop in at Fleet Feet Sports for some new walking / jogging / (let's be honest) mostly walking shoes. "I'd like a new pair of New Balance shoes," I told the high-energy, clearly passionate-about-all-things-athletic sales clerk, "but can you please check to be sure the box indicates they're made in the USA?" He was off and running, literally, and back in a jiffy with the New Balance shoes. I tried them on, walked around. They felt okay. But it's nice to have more than one option, consumer-wise, and so I said: "Just out of curiosity...is there another brand you'd recommend...? Maybe I should compare. Just for fun. Don't you think?" High energy guy nodded and chuckled. "Yeah, for sure. Actually, my favorite is Brooks. Would you like to try a pair?" I nodded. "Sure, that'd be great." Oh no. What am I doing?

Sales guy returned with gazelle-like speed, handed the Brooks box to me. I looked on its side: "Made in China." I winced, pulled the shoes out of the box, put them on, walked around and thought: My year buying USA-made is over. It's fine. I've done my duty to God, country, my Dad, the economy, factory workers in every nook and cranny throughout the USA. For goodness sake, I've earned these China-made shoes. And they feel like little pillows. Thanks, Chinese factory workers!

"I'll take 'em."

Driving over the Bay Bridge toward home, I ruminated about my China-made purchase. All along way the steel and cement pillars of the new Bay Bridge, currently under construction, loomed off in the distance. I couldn't help but think of the new bridge's decidedly Made-in-China Label. By the time I pulled into the driveway, I knew the shoes had to go back.

The next day I stopped in at a sportswear store nearer home. I tried on a pair of New Balance shoes in a different style. They were more affordable than the NB's I'd tried on in the city ($99.95+ tax instead of $149). To my relief they, too, felt like pillows, but also had hefty support. Thanks, USA workers. Nice job. Thanks NB for continuing to make at least a percentage of your shoes here in America. Twenty-five percent is better than none.

"I'll take 'em."

Here they are.

I've since returned the Brooks shoes (which had cost about the same as my newly acquired NB's). Fleet Feet Sports graciously took them back, no problem. Driving home along the Bay Bridge that day, I again looked at the new construction and tried not to despair. A pair of shoes is so tiny compared to the gazillion dollar project.

But all is not lost, my fellow Americans. Do not shun the east. Embrace it for wisdom and solace. 'Twas ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (c.604-c.531 B.C.) who once said:

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

I've always liked that aphorism. But hold on. As if to warn me against over-simplifying the complexity of today's globalized world, Lao-tzu also said:

To know that you do not know is the best.

To pretend to know when you do not know is a disease.

No worries, Lao-tzu. I know I'm still learning. Miles and miles and miles to go. Time to put on my NB's and head out the door into the warm spring day, philosophers and poets chanting in my head.