On flip-flops, we flip-flop, for and against, from adoration to disgust.

Here is the footwear that helped Americans devise a loophole in the "No Shirt/No Shoes/No Service" rule, a devastating if comfortable triumph of the casual. A bra can be a shirt, and flip-flops count as a shoe, and therefore do not prevent emergency entrance into convenience stores and access to beer, Slurpees or cigarettes in the middle of an unkempt summer afternoon. Somewhere a television camera crew is always waiting so it can shoot videotape of anonymous people from behind as they walk by, wearing their flip-flops and tank tops and stretchy shorts and eating enormous ice cream cones. The tape will serve as B-roll for the next alarming expose of national obesity rates.

Flip, flop. Flip, flop.

In flip-flops, your feet sound like they're chewing gum.

Ka-smack, ka-smack, ka-smack.

This is either a horrible racket or the irresistible song of summer. Can't decide.

In flip-flops, everyone feels like they're on vacation, when actually they've acquired the dressed-down style of a just-released hospital patient. Fashionistas are split: Either the flip-flop has entered the realm of the chic (ergo the $175 Prada flip-flop) or it's another lamentable faux pas, a shoe that shouldn't ever be worn in public, unless there's an ocean or swimming pool within a couple dozen ka-smacks.

The world's mothers would never let you walk into a 7-Eleven barefoot, and so you go there in flip-flops. The world's mothers would also never let you wear flip-flops to church, but now it's too late, and people do.

College kids wear flip-flops both semesters, even in January, most certainly to annoy you, the same grating annoyance that could be caused by Jenna Bush ka-smack-ka-smack-ing her way into a state dinner or onto Air Force One. (Just because she hasn't doesn't necessarily mean she wouldn't.) Teenagers wear flip-flops everywhere, conjuring up the same disdain that deliberately ripped jeans must have caused in their elders 20 years ago. The bare midriff issue is a sort of yellow-level terror alert. Somehow, wearing flip-flops to a relative's wedding sets off a code red in parents: You're wearing those?

Last summer was the summer of the pastel-colored, kitten-heel flip-flop, $85 at Bergdorf's in Manhattan and impossible to get, and women despised other women who already had them, at least if you were believing Us Weekly. Movie stars wear high-dollar versions of flip-flops in transit between various levels of fabulousness, from the studio set to the Fred Segal boutique to the carefully orchestrated publicity event. (Carmen Electra ka-smacks around in $195 bejeweled Lily Holt flip-flops, which Steven Cojocaru then brings to the "Today" show and effuses about, giving Katie Couric an opportunity to claim she has ugly toes -- and repeat the cycle next week, with a different kind of high-end flip-flop and a different celebrity allegedly wearing them.) Los Angeles is really just a big beach town, and so you see a lot of flip-flops, even on people who never go to Santa Monica anymore. If you pay more than $100 for them, it helps to call them havainas. (Or lay hands on a pair of the actual Havaina brand of flip-flop made in Brazil.)

Now everywhere is a big beach town.

The beach is in your mind and between your toes.

The flip-flops are at Target.

Courtney Love wears flip-flops to some of her many court arraignments because she is deranged and anti-fashionable, which we all know is fashionable. Your nephew wears them to the prom, with a tuxedo, because, at 17, he has declared himself "not a shoe person." The summer interns will wear them to work, just you wait, until someone tells them not to, someone female and frumpy; the interns will then regard her with a special scorn reserved for the hopelessly outdated.

Prisoners in most states are required to wear flip-flops in the shower, protecting them from fungus but not from anything else that may happen therein. So, too, certain germophobes at the gym are fanatical wearers of flip-flops in the locker room. (Which is nothing personal against you or your feet, understand. The naked man wearing the flip-flops could perhaps be confessing something about himself: His feet are the problem, or were at one time the problem. He is the fungus among us.)

Flip-flops: Let's be clear about what we're talking about. Not mules, slides, sandals, Birkenstocks, Tevas or mandals. Each of those come with a different set of sounds, making use of a different set of muscles and bones in the feet.

The flip-flop was once upon a time known as the thong, until thong underwear and the apple-bottoms of a number of strippers and pop singers usurped the word. By semantic necessity the thong had to become the flip-flop.

The only real requirement of any sandal wishing to become a flip-flop is located between the first and second li'l piggies; once they are separated by a thong, you can design and market your flip-flop however you like, manufacturing it from rubber, or plastic, or Astroturf, or leather, or bamboo. You can get the 99-cent pair or spend several hundred dollars. Either way, you are broadcasting a message of vacation, of summer, of disregard. You are saying that your comfort is the No. 1 concern. You've believed the implicit gospel of fun preached by Old Navy commercials: wacky, flappy, cheap good times. In flip-flops, you're not really here, not really on the clock, not appropriately dressed for anything. This is the shoe that let everyone off the hook.

A downside: It has given people unprecedented, constant access to their feet. At the turn of the 21st century, toes became the new fingers, open to new obsessions, beautification techniques and hateful scorn. The promise of scanty footwear is the possibility that at any moment you can become barefoot. A young woman absently-minded picks at the gunk between her toes while sitting in the audience at a recent author-reading at Politics & Prose bookstore on Connecticut Avenue until she notices us staring at her, and then she quickly places her foot back on her flip-flop.

An upside: Driving barefoot.

Flip-flops are almost always made in China, where unhappy millions of wage earners have been oppressed in one way or another for millenniums, and so many of them have never known the pleasure of driving fast and barefoot on a summer's evening. Those flip-flop factories labor hard for our $12 tropical-themed J. Crew flip-flops. You pull over to the soft-serve stand, shut the engine off (but not the radio) and reach down for your flip-flops and life is perfect, for the moment, at least on one side of the globe.

Republican kids took to showing up at Sen. John Kerry's campaign rallies this spring and waving flip-flops in the air, because they say John Kerry "flip-flops" on the issues. Get it? Get it?

(And people wonder why the young don't vote. Because getting involved in politics is all so dorky, that's why, hammering a lame joke over and over, until, predictably, there's a Web site selling flip-flops with all the evolving positions of the presumed Democratic nominee spelled out on the top side of the sole. They weren't even the first to think of this: The National Organization for Women left buckets of flip-flops on the doorstep of the New Jersey statehouse in 1999 when they believed that then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman had altered her position on requiring parental notification for underage girls seeking abortions.)

Kerry has been defending himself against the flip-flop accusation as far back as 1988, when he wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal regarding an editorial about his position on Manuel Noriega and Panama: "You are absolutely wrong, however, in opining that this position is some kind of 'flip-flop,' something newly arrived at as the result of reading the opinion polls."

The Bush campaign's Web site has a 13-page list of what it considers Kerry's flip-flops: the Iraq war, trade with China, tax relief for married couples, married relief for gay couples, missile defense, etc.

Hannity, to Colmes, on May 21, on their Fox News kennel-bark show: "You sit here every night and you defend John Kerry as not being a flip-flopper. Alan, this guy is the only guy I know that could flip-flop on whether or not he owns an SUV."

MSNBC asked Kerry last week if he flip-flops. He said no: "They are absolutely dead wrong. This administration has flip-flopped on almost everything," Kerry said, then launched into a harangue about the Patriot Act.

The point is this: The worst thing you can do in politics is change your mind, whether you have good reason to or not. No flip-flops. No waffles. But this is a long way from Wal-Mart and back yards and public swimming pools and actual people who wear actual cheap flip-flops, further than anyone in professional politics would like to admit.

Podiatrists: A little worried.

They're seeing otherwise healthy, fit college kids who keep coming in and complaining of severe heel and ankle pain, and sure enough: The sheet of tendon that spreads along the bottoms of their aching dogs looks as if it belongs to a geriatric Tarzan. They've got a condition called plantar fasciitis, caused by wearing flip-flops too far, too long, bringing misery to the eleventyseven bones in their feet.

The remedy: arch support.

(The podiatrist was all: Wear shoes. And I was all: Hello, I am not a shoe person.)

You're young and free and gorgeous and enviably laid-back. We've seen you. The young women passing by in little skirts and two tank tops (explain that someday) and flip-flops: ka-smack, ka-smack, ka-smack. And the guys, with shaggy, curly hair and knee-length cargo shorts, ka-smack, ka-smack, ka-smack. It's like they all grew up down the creek from Dawson, or got pulled over with Albert Gore III. There is a party in progress. Something lazy is going on. They live in some catalogue setting, somewhere else, not here. Their happiness and cheerfulness is sickening, but that's because you have sweaty feet and sore calves.

Are you people going to put on some shoes?

No. Not in this country, not at this time. Not all summer.

Some in the audience at a San Diego campaign stop by Sen. John Kerry express their views on the presidential candidate's position changes.Flip-flops are everywhere these days, from the supposedly staid streets of Washington to California's beaches. And the style is democratic in price, too, ranging from 99 cents to hundreds of dollars.