Living in Tennies: An End of Summer Reverie

  I live in tennies, as we used to call canvas shoes. I own two pairs:  one is a classic mid-20th-century women’s model, the other a unisex style – a twist on a basketball shoe. The classic model is prettier, but the other is roomier.

Why are they tennies?  Perhaps people did play tennis in canvas shoes at one time.  Nowadays, my beloved tennies are usually referred to as sneakers, and indeed, when I lived on on the east coast, I yielded to common usage (“sneakers”) rather than try to communicate with midwestern “dialect” (“tennies”).

Does the name matter?  My mother loved Keds, the most popular brand, because they were inexpensive and could be washed in the washing machine. At the end of summer she threw ours out, but got several years of use out of hers.

And then there were the fall tennies.  We were required to wear white canvas shoes in gym class.  Mom fumed:  “Why white? They’re hard to clean.”  Yes, why make extra work for Mom? Typical of everything about gym class:  make everyone hate it!

My return to tennies this August has been the hallmark of recovery from My Semi-Invalid Summer, as I refer to it dramatically.  I have already mentioned my so-called sports injury in mid-June.  The cause, ironically, was not a sport, but an intensive yoga class meant to keep one ultra-fit. Unfortunately, it did not work for me:  by the end of the first session, I could barely bend my suddenly-swollen ankles, puffy knees, or weakened wrists.  In order to sit on the floor to do gentle stretching exercises, I have had to kneel on two pillows, then lean on my forearms, then roll onto my back, and pull up my aching legs with my hands. 

“This is how it feels to grow old,” I thought as I struggled to bend my knees enough to sit in the bathtub. 

This yoga class with horrible consequences reminded me of gym classes of yore, when a baleful gym teacher with a whistle round her neck and wincing-white tennis shoes bellowed at us to run faster, to  climb a rope, which I rebelliously declined to try, or to criticize my jumping jacks, which were “all wrong.  You’re jumping too high.”

In general, yoga is a gentler sport. But in this fast-moving yoga class, everything is much accelerated.  You rapidly shift your body from a sphinx pose, or perhaps a cobra, up to a plank, which is a stationary high push-up, and then up to a downward dog, and then again… and again… and again, faster and faster. 

And so, after a month and a half of alternating rest with gentle exercise (my own personally-designed regimen), and constant popping of Advil (you don’t want to go the pain pill route – stick with Advil or Tylenol!),  I am almost back to normal.  That is, if I never miss a gentle exercise session again.

And now I can wear my tennies when I feel like it. I don’t have to wear super-sensible oversized super-supportive walking shoes every time I go out. The tennies are a symbol of youth.  Who knew?  You don’t wear them for long walks, but for joyous short rambles,bike rides, or when you’re out in the garden.

Keep on truckin’, but avoid excessively vigorous exercise.


Sneakers or Tennis Shoes? The Ray Bradbury Life-Style of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Before the age of clunky running shoes, circa 1975 – and by the way, my first running shoes were Brooks Villanovas, recommended for beginners because of the cheap price – I never ran a step in my life. God, no. What was I, a jock? I walked around the track in gym. My friends and I walked to class, we walked downtown, we walked to the mall, and we walked to the park. Every summer we shed our loafers, Earth shoes, or whatever and slipped into canvas shoes, known as tennis shoes or tennies. Oh, we didn’t play tennis. But tennies were ideal for our kind of walking.

Keds tennies or sneakers?

In other parts of the country such shoes were called sneakers, as I was aware from reading literature set in New York. But in the midwest the term tennis shoes prevailed. You can confirm this by Ray Bradbury’s sentimental novel, Dandelion Wine (1957), which is set in a midwestern town. The first chapter is a paean to tennis shoes.

…Douglas saw the tennis shoes in the bright store window. He glanced quickly away, but his ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun; the shop awnings slammed their canvas wings overhead with the thrust of his body running. His mother and father and brother walked quietly on both sides of him. Douglas walked backward, watching the tennis shoes in the midnight window left behind.

Although I prefer Bradbury’s science fiction, I certainly know the magic of tennis shoes. In our family, buying tennies was an exciting summer ritual. My mother took us to Kinney Shoes, a long-defunct chain, to buy Keds tennis shoes. These shoes, as I remember, came in white, red, navy blue, or light blue. Mother begged me not to buy white. Though they could be washed in the washing machine, she thought they looked dirty after a few days’ wear. (She was right.) But after donning our tennies, we mothers and daughters had a spring in our step as we did yard work, walked to the small neighborhood store, or dragged lawn chairs from the car when we attended ghastly Little League games. Cousins and male friends wore black canvas shoes with white rubber toes – they were usually Keds, but I do not know if they were called tennis shoes.

Are tennis shoes and sneakers the same shoe? Perhaps, perhaps not. According to a 1980’s Webster’s Dictionary, a tennis shoe is “a sports shoe with a rubber sole (usually pebbled) and a stitched canvas upper that laces over the instep (1890-95).” A sneaker is “a high or low shoe, usually of fabric, such as canvas, with a rubber or synthetic sole (1590-1600).” It’s a fine line, isn’t it?

This summer I am wearing tennis shoes for the first time in years. They are so light, and perfect for going out in the yard or a quick trip to a store. No arch support, of course. You don’t go hiking in tennies. But they are more practical than sliders, flip-flops, or sandals, through which small branches (and where do they come from?) seem to wedge themselves when you take a walk.

Any thoughts on the difference between tennies and sneakers? What do you/did you call them?

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