I developed my love of Chuck Taylor Converse high top shoes as a boy living in Yemen. My family moved to Yemen when my father was contracted to work with the United States Agency for International Development, to oversee the country’s agriculture development program.
Granted my Yemeni Chuck Taylors were knock-offs, not authentic Converse, but still sufficiently similar to the real thing to yield compliments and make me feel like a rather cool kid. I have many happy childhood memories associated with my Chuck Taylors. One of my all-time favorite photos is of me and my brother on a beach in Cyprus where my family was on vacation. In the photo, some local kids are playing soccer in the background and there’s a plane, far away in the sky that seems to be on its ascent. The sun is just starting to set and my brother and I are smiling into the camera. It’s just a happy pic from a very happy memory and in it I’m wearing my Chuck Taylor high tops.
My mom liked those faux Converse because in Yemen’s main bazaar called the Suq, fake Converse shoes were extremely cheap, which was good as shoes didn’t last long there. Being the poorest and most underdeveloped nation in the middle-east, Yemen’s terrain was mostly rock, dust, and sand. Of course it didn’t help the preservation of my shoes that I was an avid adventurer, constantly trekking throughout the abundant rocky hills and the ruins of historic forts from empires past. Yemen provided an ideal setting to cultivate the bravado of a curious kid. My parents indulged my frequent explorations with lax, common-sense rules because Yemen lacked the modernity and western amenities that usually keep kids busy and more importantly, because they felt I was safe.
I loved living in Yemen. The simplicity of life, the exotic terrain, and freedom I was afforded combined with the hospitality of the Yemeni people and pervasive calm throughout the country (at that time) all made the four years of my childhood there delightful. So, it’s sad to know that Yemen’s laissez-faire attitude and open borders are probably what led terror groups like al Qaeda to infiltrate and grow their presence within the nation without much resistance. Those same rugged and cavernous mountains that attracted my curiosity as a kid now afford haven to terrorists. I couldn’t know then that this obscure, little-known, charming country would one day gain global notoriety for its close association to terrorism. I also didn’t know that it would be the catalyst for a very personal terrorism. The start of a burgeoning terror that would haunt me for years upon years. The terror induced by OCD. If traced back, Yemen seems to be the source of what would become a lifelong paranoia.
When my family moved to Yemen, the US State Department gave my parents Arabic language instruction and extensive cultural orientation. This included many publications and State Department issued documents. Shortly after our move, one of the publications I found lying around was a book titled, “Where There is no Doctor.” I remember the cover had something like a villager riding a donkey in some desolate looking region. What should have been on the cover was the face of the devil. Thinking I should be informed should something disastrous occur and should there be no doctor, I started flipping through the book. Huge, massive, catastrophic mistake bearing ramifications for years to come.
The worse part about the book is that it had these illustrations to accompany whatever ailment was being described in each section and the illustrations were chilling. They looked like they had been rendered with a very sinister hand for the primary reason of invoking tremendous fear in the poor soul who viewed them. In this case, that would be me. One section and illustration in particular caught my eye (pun intended….you will “see” why momentarily – pun intended again). The section was about some degenerative ocular disease in which the upper eyelid would swell so much that the eyelashes would bend inward into the eye and scratch the cornea so much that the afflicted would become blind. WTF?!?! I hadn’t ever heard of such a condition so I read and re-read the section to be sure I understood and could detect any symptoms in the earliest possible stages. For whatever reason I had recently become wary of ever becoming blind. Petrified of the possibility, really. To me, as a ten-year old, being blind was the worst conceivable fate and certain to devastate and ruin one’s life should it occur.
So when I read and re-read that passage in the manual, it stayed with me. I started obsessing about it. I started asking my mom questions like, “Do my eyelids seem puffy or swollen to you?” In her usual not-really-acknowledging-you way, my mom would just look in the general direction of my head for an instant and then just shake her head, “no” and get back to whatever she was doing. I had asked her to look again just to be sure often enough that she at last questioned, “why do you keep asking about this?” and when I referenced the book, she really dismissed me and stated, “Those are very rare diseases in very underdeveloped places. You’re fine. And stop reading that book.”
I did stop reading it; mainly because each time I read it left me feeling paranoid and fearful. I would look for even the minutest change in the condition of my eyelids and whether my eyelashes seemed to be inverting at all. I also had thick, long lashes as a kid so this made the task of detecting every lash’s standard position even more difficult. Eventually I grew less bothered by fear of contracting that horrific ailment mostly because I was kept distracted. I spent a lot of time playing outdoors with my friends and when I was home I would watch movies that my mom would bring home from the American Embassy’s film library. Then one morning….
Everything felt normal until I walked into the bathroom and casually looked up into the mirror while washing my hands. There. My eyelid. My right eyelid looked….SWOLLEN! Noticeably puffed and droopy. I felt rising fear. I got as close as I could to the mirror and opened my right eye as much as possible. There was definitely an unusual asymmetry. My left eyelid was seemingly normal, but the right one! I ran to the living room and found the cabinet where that horrible book was kept. I opened it up to the section about the eyelid condition that led to blindness and carefully pored through it again. One of the symptoms was the formation of small, pinkish bumps under the eyelid. I ran back to the bathroom mirror and lifted my eyelid and inspected the interior as closely as possible. Pinkish, small bumps! Oh my God!
In retrospect, I have come to realize that whoever wrote that book and the descriptions within should be shot. If one looks at the underside of their eyelid at any given time, what one finds are seemingly small, pinkish bumps. IT’S NORMAL! It’s what they always have! Pinkish?! Who the fuck wrote pink-ISH (encompassing several shades of pink) as a color of danger under one’s eyelid?! We all – every normal person – have pink-ISH under-eyelids! Oh and there are almost always small bumps there too. However, at the time, my swollen eyelid and its accompanying symptoms that fit the bill, including eyelashes that seemed more downward than usual, were alarming. Another now very apparent result of a swollen eyelid is that the puffed flesh will weigh on one’s eyelashes, making them seem less “perky.” That’s just biology and physics. However, at that age and in the midst of the panic of the moment, I wasn’t able to “remain calm” and carefully review more probable reasons as to why I looked like a cretin. I didn’t have any allergies, so the next obvious possibility was that I had contracted whatever that awful disease was in the horrifying drawings from that book written by a terrorist. I could feel the growing panic surge through me.
It was still early morning so my parents were still in their bedroom, probably not yet awake. I had to appeal to some authority to allay my fears and afford some assurance so I looked to God. I’m not a religious person by any means but at that age I would still pray to God when I felt I needed any extra insurance against imminent danger. So I would really only pray before take-off on flights and to ward off any possible disease, which was currently the case. I went to the couch in the living room, knelt on the ground in front of the couch, laid into the cushions, leaning on my elbows, and pressed my forehead against the back-rest of the couch. I clasped my hands together, interlocking my fingers and shut my eyes very tightly. I started every prayer by reciting the same opening line. “Dear God, please have me be perfectly healthy and fine with no diseases” and then I would tag on whatever it was that I specifically wanted God to help me with. In this case I added, “And please don’t let me have that eye disease and make sure there isn’t anything wrong with my eye.” I would recite the prayer four consecutive times. I would then tighten the grip of my clasped hands to strengthen my appeal.
After my prayer, I ran to my parents’ bedroom. My dad was taking a shower but my mom was still in bed. I didn’t mind waking my dad up in the morning because he wouldn’t get mad and would just send me off with some reassuring words. Mom was another story. She was very unresponsive and when she did at last respond to my whispering, “Mom….mom….mom….” progressively louder to her, she would yell, “Oof! What is it?!” I would then hesitate to ask her whatever it was I originally felt urgent enough to wake her for and be compelled to run away from her post-slumber wrath instead. However, I would make the mistake of asking her anyway, to which she wouldn’t reply and I would have to start with, “huh mom? Mom? Huh? Mom….mom….” in hopes of getting her to reply to my question. That was an even bigger mistake than having awoken her in the first place. Of course, I didn’t ever quite learn the lesson of “just don’t approach your mom” in the mornings despite many such interactions that always played out almost exactly the same.
So there I was, again, hovering over my mom, but out of reach of her grasp and whispering, “Mom….mom? Mom? Mom….” Until the inevitable angry response. After I explained the current danger I was facing, she haphazardly glanced over at my eye and then closed her own eyes again and turned her face away. After a few seconds of waiting for her to say something, I prompted her with, “Hm mom? Do you see I what mean?” To which she replied, “I don’t see anything. It’s fine.” And that was it.
Why did I even bother coming to her? I knew how very limited and dismissive any possible assurance from her would be on such things. I could come to her after nearly cutting off a finger and her response would be, “It’s fine. Just get a Band-Aid.”
“Mom, I really don’t think it’s fine. It looks just like that description in that book! I have the pink under my eyelid and everything!” I said.
“Oof, don’t read that book,” she said.
“Ok, well I did and it’s exactly like that, mom!” I said. “Mom….mom?”
She didn’t respond or move. I got up and ran back into my bathroom to re-examine my eyelid. It was definitely puffy and droopy! I had to act. Perhaps if I curbed the effects of the ailment I could reverse the possible threat and save my eye. What could prevent my eyelashes from curving inward and scratching my cornea? An eyelash curler! I ran back to my mom. She was still in bed. “Mom, I know what I should do to keep my eye from getting scratched,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” she asked grumpily.
“My eye! My eye, mom! It’s what I have been talking to you about!” I said exasperated.
“I told you, you’re fine. Don’t bother me about this anymore,” she said.
“Mom, I know how to save my eye. I need to borrow something from you.”
My mom didn’t respond….or move. “Mom? Mom? I need to borrow something from you,” I repeated but she laid still. “Mom, I need to borrow your eyelash curler. Can I borrow it?” I asked sheepishly. She stirred and turned toward me.
“You need what?” she asked.
“Your eyelash curler,” I said.
“What? Why would you want my eyelash curler?” she asked looking at me with a confused look tinged with brewing anger.
“Uh, well, I need to keep the eyelashes out of my eye. To keep them from scratching my eye,” I said in an unsure tone.
“That’s what all this is about?” she asked with a raised voice.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You want to use my eyelash curler?!” she yelled.
“Yeah, so that I can –”
“What? You want my what?!” she yelled.
“Forget it!” she roared. “And I want you to stay away from all the girls you hang out with all the time from now on, do you understand me?!”
“What are you –”
“You are a boy, Ben! A boy! Boys don’t use eyelash curlers!
“Well yeah I know they don’t normally, but I need it because –”
“No! You don’t need it and can’t ever use it! Everrr!” she yelled.
“Mom, what are you talking about?!” I yelled back. “I need it to save my eye!” I yelled.
“No, Ben! Your eye is fine and boys don’t use eyelash curlers for their eyes! And I don’t want you to spend time around all those girls you are always around anymore! An eyelash curler! He wants to use my eyelash curler! No, no, no, no!” she yelled.
“You’re being unreason—”
“That’s it! I said no! Do you hear me?!” She asked seemingly furious.
“You don’t even know what I’m talking about!” I yelled back and ran to my room and slammed the door.
Great. So now I was left to become blind and accused of being effeminate. My emotional state was vacillating between panic and anger, but what I felt most was embarrassment. I was embarrassed for seeming like a hypochondriac, which wasn’t a word I was quite familiar with at that age, so I really just felt like a sissy. It wasn’t a good feeling but I couldn’t waste time wallowing and had to concentrate on more exigent issues like saving my sight and future. I remembered among the health and sanitation practices that was reiterated in many of the State Department documents, was to often wash one’s hands. That and boiling any water to be consumed that wasn’t bottled water were emphasized strongly. Water boiling may not have been applicable in this particularly emergency, but washing hands was. So wash my hands I did. Very well. Perhaps excessively, but the longer I washed them the less anxiety I felt about becoming blind. While it was probably just the passage of time from the moment I initially noticed my drooping eyelid, which was almost normal in appearance now, that was diminishing my alarm, I felt cleaner and better by washing my hands nonetheless.
Eventually I felt almost completely calm. I would still examine my eyelid in the mirror throughout the day (and well into the next day), but seeing no changes assured me enough to eventually believe I would be ok. Later that morning, one of my friends called over to see if I wanted to play outside. I did and after getting permission from my mom, who was still being short with me, I headed to my room to change. I dressed quickly, yet when I went to wear my trusty Converse high tops, I paused. Since I was feeling more “fresh” after my thorough hand washing, it may be better to wear my newer pair of canvas shoes. I hadn’t ever worn them for outdoor play. They were mainly for wearing to “nice events” such as when my family was invited to dinners at my parents’ friends’ homes, but I wanted a fresh start to the rest of the day, so the canvas shoes it would be. Tying the laces was somewhat less fluid than usual, but I chalked that up to the newness of the lace cord and not to my now very dry, moisture-stripped hands.
As I was about to leave my room to head out, I felt a momentary pang of guilt. I knew I shouldn’t scuff my good shoes with outdoor play, but they were just shoes. They were easily replaceable. But that wasn’t why I was feeling guilty. I couldn’t quite place why I was feeling uneasy, but I felt it as I glanced back at my worn-in high top Converse shoes resting in my closet corner. Why was I avoiding them? Was I avoiding them? I probably would wear those tomorrow again anyway, so it was fine to take a break from them. I mean they still had a lot of wear in them, so yeah, I would definitely wear them again. I just didn’t feel like wearing them now. I just needed to feel fresh and for some reason my Chuck Taylors were reminding me of all the remote places I ventured into while wearing them. Places that may not have been as “safe” as I had thought. Places where one could acquire an obscure illness of some kind. Still, I loved my Converse high tops! They were part of “my look” and having a trademark at that age was essential. Of course I would wear them again. I would wear them again a lot! That’s what I thought to myself, almost convincingly, as I left my room.
Weeks later I noticed they weren’t in my closet corner anymore. I assumed my mom removed them, but I wasn’t sure as to when she had done so. I hadn’t worn them since the day of the eyelid scare so my mom possibly thought I didn’t care for them anymore and probably donated them to the local clothing charity. I tried to imagine who their new owner was, but I couldn’t. They had belonged to me and I had attached value to them. It’s somewhat sad knowing that pair was the last high top Chuck Taylors I would own and probably the first piece of clothing and identity I had sacrificed to OCD. And while I don’t believe something as simple as wearing those shoes that day would have curbed any future degeneration into OCD, I still wish that boy, who so boldly explored Yemen’s treacherous terrain, would have just tried.