You want to know what's wrong with America? I'll tell you what's wrong: too many kinds of sneakers.

This problem was driven home to me dramatically when my 10-year-old son decided to join a track club. At first I was in favor of this because I was a track man myself back at Pleasantville High School, where in 1965 -- and I hope I do not sound too boastful here -- I set a New York state record for Shortest Time on a Track Team Before Quitting.

My original goal was to obtain a varsity letter. I needed one because at the time I was madly in love with Ann Weinberg, who would have been the ideal woman except for one serious flaw: She was an excellent athlete. On an average afternoon she would win the state championship in about nine sports. When we had the annual school awards assembly, various teams would troop on and off the auditorium stage, but Ann would just remain up there, getting honored, until all you could see was a large, Ann-shaped mound of trophies.

This caused painful feelings of inadequacy in me, a small chestless insecure male whose only recognized high-school athletic achievement was the time when, through an amazing physical effort, I managed to avoid ralphing directly onto the shoes of the principal as he was throwing me out of a pep rally dance for attempting to sleep under the refreshments table. Unfortunately this is not the kind of achievement for which you get a varsity letter.

So in a desperation effort to impress Ann, I joined the track team. This meant I had to go into the locker room with large hairy jocks who appeared way too old for high school. I bet you knew guys like that. At the time I thought that they had simply matured faster than I had, but I now realize that they were actually 40-year-old guys who chose to remain in high school for an extra couple of decades because they enjoyed snapping towels at guys like me. They are probably still there.

I was under the impression that all you had to do, to obtain your varsity letter, was spend a certain amount of time in the locker room, but it turned out that they had a picky rule under which you also had to run or jump or hurl certain objects in an athletic manner, which in my case was out of the question, so I quit.

However, during my brief time on the team I did learn some important lessons, the main one being that if you are on the track-team bus, and the coach comes striding down the aisle and demands to know which team member hurled the "moon" -- which is not one of the approved objects that you hurl in track -- out the bus window at the police officer who is now threatening to arrest the entire team, you should deny that you saw anything. That's because it's better to go to jail than to betray the sacred trust of your teammates and consequently be forced to eat a discus.

So I was glad that my son became interested in this character-building sport, until he announced that he needed new sneakers. This troubled me, because he already had new sneakers, which cost approximately as much as an assault helicopter but are more technologically advanced. They are the heavily advertised sneakers that have little air pumps inside. This feature provides an important orthopedic benefit: It allows the manufacturer to jack the price way up. Also it turns the act of walking around into a highly complex process. "Wait!" my son will say, as we're rushing off to school, late as usual. "I have to pump more air into my sneakers!"

So I figured that high-powered sneakers like these would be fine for track, but both my wife and my son gently informed me that I am a total idiot. It turns out you don't run in pump sneakers. What you do, in pump sneakers, is pump your sneakers. For running, you need a completely different kind of sneakers, for which you have to pay a completely different set of U.S. dollars.

Not only that, but the sneaker salesman informed me that, depending on the kind of running my son was going to do, he might need several kinds of sneakers. The salesman's tone of voice carried the clear implication that he was going to call the Child Abuse Hot Line if I didn't care enough to take out a second mortgage so I could purchase sufficient sneakerage for my son.

I have done a detailed scientific survey of several other parents, and my current estimate is that sneakers now absorb 83 percent of the average U.S. family income. This has to stop. We need Congress to pass a law requiring the sneaker industry to return to the system we had when I was growing up, under which there was only one kind of sneakers, namely U.S. Keds, which were made from Army surplus tents and which cost about $10, or roughly $1 per pound.

This simple act would make our nation strong again. Slow, but strong. Probably your reaction is, "Dave, that's an excellent idea, and you should receive, at minimum, the Nobel Prize." Thank you, but as an American, I am not in this because I seek fame and glory. All I seek is a varsity letter.

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