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When summer rolls around, something visceral in me kicks in: the expectation that my tender feet would benefit from some toughening up.

Barefootin' 

The man who delivers my newspaper each morning takes a perverse pride in locating the nexus where the unpaved road ends and our driveway begins; this allows him to lay the paper right there and say in good conscience that he did not just leave it in the street. It's actually a good thing, though, because it affords me a daily opportunity to cross about a yard's worth of rough pebbles in my bare feet during the warm weather.

OK, I don't really have to cross the rocks barefoot. I could totally put on a pair of shoes. But for me, bare feet are a summer thing, like the flavor of a Creamsicle or the smell of vintage Coppertone. It's even deeper than that.

Being barefoot is another casualty of our times. It's become a cliché that people like me, who grew up in the '70s, lament the fact that we cannot allow our own children to play outside unsupervised for hours and hours, as we did. Along with free roaming privileges, many of us suburban kids spent the summer virtually barefoot.

This was a gradual process. At the beginning of summer vacation, your feet were tender from being coddled inside shoes for most of the year; you'd have to build them up, generate some callus through your hours of trodding, so by midsummer your feet were up to the terrain—be it hot asphalt and the occasional broken bottle, or woodland paths with their occasional hidden roots and rocks.

Going barefoot is no longer what it once was. And on the surface, its demise seems perfectly logical, like wearing seat belts or applying sunscreen. I certainly wouldn't let my own kids run around the neighborhood shoeless. It seems like asking for trouble.

And yet when summer rolls around, something visceral in me kicks in: the expectation that my tender feet would benefit from some toughening up. For Early Man, having tough feet was surely an asset, something that could mean the difference between life and death. You wouldn't want to get eaten by a bear on account of a badly stubbed toe. Maybe that's the reason behind my foot-toughening regimen: I'm subconsciously preparing for a hypothetical high-speed pursuit through the woods.

It's a bright August morning, late in the season, so I barely feel the rocks as I make my way toward the Times. But Lily, my neighbor across the street, is about to drive past me; she gives me a wave and a wince. I know exactly what she's thinking.

Back in June she had encountered me in the same spot, hobbling ever so slightly over the same rocks. She was rather aghast—why I would choose to do that? Why not just put on a pair of shoes? I had sputtered something about it not hurting at all, and that for me it's a summer thing, but she wasn't convinced.

Her quizzical look tells me she still doesn't get it. Right then, my heel actually finds a sharper than usual rock, and it hurts. But I just smile and wave back.

This doesn't hurt. It's a summer thing.

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