Welcome to This Changed My Life, an ode to the small, seemingly chill purchases bought by Autostraddle writers and editors this year that made our lives infinitely better. Did these items LITERALLY CHANGE OUR LIFE? No, we’re being gay and dramatic. But perhaps a pair of sunglasses really did change your life — who are we to judge?
I saw the warnings for years. I read the tweets and heard the stories. I watched people joke about the situation in a variety of ways. But to be completely honest, I was convinced people were just exaggerating because that’s how social media is most of the time. I turned 30 and nothing happened, so at 34, I felt like I was beating the odds. Then, one morning, there it was. I woke up to get ready for work, and I immediately felt it: a pain in my knee so sharp I could barely hold myself up. It was actually happening, I thought. I’m four years into my 30s and all the bones in my body were finally going creaky. And of course, it just had to begin in my knees.
As I went about my business the following few months, the pain got worse and worse. In the morning, my left knee was so stiff that I could barely bend it, and then throughout the day, the sharpness was consistent in its intensity and never really let up. Walking around normally got exhausting because I had to limp around a lot, and stairs became difficult because if you think about it — I hadn’t really before — stairs are all knee. Stubbornly, I let it go for a while. “Growing pains,” I joked to the people who are close to me, “I’m probably just getting taller or something.” People around me would make suggestions or tell me to see the doctor, and I’d blow it off. Sure, I could feel that something was wrong with my knee, but I didn’t want or need the confirmation that all those internet jokes and rumors were true. More specifically, I didn’t want confirmation that I was finally getting to an age (and size) where my body would begin to betray me in ways I couldn’t prepare for.
I let it exhaust me until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I made appointments to have x-rays done and to see an orthopedic doctor to finally get down to the bottom of why it felt like Beatrix Kiddo put a kitchen knife through my left knee cap. The experience at the doctor was…not exactly what I was expecting. Being fat, I usually prepare for the worst but I can’t say the experience was that bad at all. It was mostly just straightforward with a side of compassion. The orthopedic doctor looked at my knee scans for a while, then asked me if I ever had an injury to my knee when I was young. When I explained that I couldn’t remember, he told me that it was hard for him to determine where the “problem” was coming from but whatever the cause, I definitely had osteoarthritis. He couldn’t not say that my weight was a factor because, realistically, it is. Our bodies, in general, put tremendous pressure on our joints, and, well, extra body weight doesn’t help with that. But he also said that lifestyle choices play a role in it all, too. For instance, he said I should think about how much movement I do in a day and do more because increased blood flow means more strength in our joints. Towards the end of the conversation, he very casually asked, “What kinds of shoes do you usually wear?”
As soon as he asked, low-level remorse washed over me. My partner had been pressing me for months to stop wearing Vans Authentics as my everyday shoe but I kept evading the conversation. Vans Authentics were the only casual shoes I’d worn since I was 16-years-old. They were always inexpensive, I had them in a variety of colorways, and, most importantly, I wasn’t ready to give them up. When I told the doctor, he was both disappointed and shocked: “No, no, no, no, no, absolutely not. You must get some shoes with support.” He really lingered on the “pp” in “support” as he said it. Leaving the office, I knew most of the things suggested to me as treatment for my knee would take time and commitment, and I’d have to restructure some parts of my life in order to help make it feel better. But I also knew there was one small action I could take that day. I could order some new shoes.
Having never been a running-shoes-as-casual-sneaker guy, I wasn’t fully sure where to even start. I ran through the short list of popular brands in my head and started doing some research. Nike? A little pricey to get certain models in multiple colorways. Adidas? The most comfortable ones are the ugliest. Reebok? Puma? Saucony? Wasn’t really impressed with the selection. Then, somewhere along the way, my internet search took me to the New Balance 237 line of sneakers. They looked exactly how I want my sneakers to look at all times: cool but in a humble way. At the time, they had over 15 colorways to choose from, and it seemed like they rotated colorways often enough that there would always be something interesting there for me. The reviews said they were comfortable and light and provided plenty of ankle and knee support, and they even come recommended by a podiatrist as a “good lifestyle sneaker” for “low to moderate activity.” The best part? They were only about 13 dollars more than the Vans I’d been wearing for so many years.
I ordered the scarlet and forest green colorway from the New Balance website, and they came in two short days. When I picked up the box left on my front porch, it was so light that I couldn’t believe there was a pair of sneakers inside of it. After unboxing them, I was even more shocked by how weightless they felt, and I was impressed that they looked exactly as they did on the website. The deep red and green colors were perfectly rendered in the suede, mesh, and foam of the shoes, and the iconic oversized “N” New Balance is known for felt perfectly placed in the middle of it. I stuck my hands in the shoes and felt the bounciness of the inside sole. I slipped them on, and my feet just sunk comfortably into them. They were soft and springy, and still, I fully wasn’t convinced they were going to make a difference. I crossed my fingers they would, though.
That weekend, I took them for a spin every time we walked out of the door, and I could tell instantly how much of a difference it made for not only my knees but my posture, my stride, and my body in general. “This is it,” I thought. “I’m just going to be a New Balance 237 guy now.” About a week later, I ordered them in a more neutral and mostly gray colorway called “marblehead and rain cloud” to go with every outfit I owned. I wore my new, cushy, knee-supporting sneakers all summer long — to run errands, on dates with my partner, to whiskey tastings and movies and other hangouts with my friends, to birthday celebrations, to concerts, to dinners with my family, to my first public reading at a local bookstore, to watch my incarcerated students graduate through the program I work with, and to everywhere else I went. When summer was coming to a close, there was no question that I’d be teaching in New Balance 237s when the school year started. So, I went and bought them in another colorway that made more sense for my work wardrobe, “black with magnet.”
I would be selling myself and the hard work I’ve been putting in to rehabilitate my knee short by blaming all of my success on just the shoes. But I do see how making the commitment to that one small step of getting new sneakers helped open me up to all of the other, larger decisions I’ve been making since. Shortly after I made the switch, I started strength training and walking five times a week to help strengthen my joints and the muscles around it to slow the degeneration caused by osteoarthritis. And I’m regularly doing things with my “bad knee” that I would’ve been scared to do just five short months ago. The New Balance 237s certainly aren’t going to save me from the inevitability of aging and of bodily “wear and tear” on my joints, but I’m grateful they allow me to walk around without worrying there will be pain in every single step.