Bittersweet Surrender

Do you remember learning to ride your bicycle without training wheels?  That sublime mixture of freedom and terror, often accompanied by abrupt conference with pavement.

I remember.  I distinctly recall my dad running down Rigger Lane holding my bike by the back of the seat.  My father, who later became a marathoner (and ran a portion of the 1984 Olympic torch relay) never got tired.  His encouragements to “steer into your fall” made no sense at the time.  These directions were counter-intuitive.  But they worked.

Before I knew it, dad had let go.  I was on my own.  Then I crashed.

He made me do it again and again.  Game over from that point forward.  I was a bike rider.  Still am to this day.

On this Fathers’ Day, I busted out the wrenches and removed Island Boy’s training wheels.  I gave his tires some sweet lovin’ with the air pump, and threw his Toy Story 3 bicycle in the back of the truck.  Off to the tennis courts at IB’s soon-to-be elementary school.

When he arrived here, IB knew this particular piece of machinery as a bekan.  Unfortunately, now he doesn’t even recognize the word.  Some of you may recall that IB’s relationship with his bekan has been a bit tenuous at time (click here to read A Pleasant Walk After Dinner).

At the tennis courts, I took charge of the instruction.  I painstakingly explained to Island Boy how events would unfold.  I tossed in softball reference to physics and explained to him how to cheat Sir Isaac Newton at his own game.

Island Boy blinked at me and asked if he could keep his backpack on.

When Running Girl intervened, I curtly told her to back off — this was MEN taking care of serious business.  RG retreated to the fence line to watch the show.

When we began running, IB immediately released his grip on the handlebars.  I tried to explain to him that bike riding (like ballroom dancing) requires a firm grip at all times.  None of that limp wristed stuff here.  Grab hold of the beast and show her who’s boss.

Predictably, IB responded with the old Haitian trick of saying “I’m scared” and “I want to stop.” [Actually, this is not so Haitian.  It’s really just typical four-year old behavior.]

After the longest eight minutes of either of our lives, Papa finally got the message: You suck at this, Major.

Where had I experienced this sensation just recently?  Oh yeah, when I was attempting to teach Subway Dude to drive.

Turns out, I’m not the natural teacher I presume myself to be in my own self-important mind.  In fact, I’m kind of piss-poor.  I’m probably over-explaining to the nth degree, while evincing a total lack of empathy for my student.

In short, I shouldn’t be doing this.  Particularly when there are much better teachers around.

Like Running Girl for one.

She responded to my helpless glance by immediately stepping up to the plate.  She grasped the rear of the seat and the handlebars (why the F didn’t I think of that?) and paraded IB around in a manner guaranteed to inspire confidence in the tyke.  She did this over and over and over again.  As in the case of my dad, Marathoner RG did not tire.

I stood there and stared in wonder at my incredible wife.  She was performing a miracle right before my eyes.

Before long, she was holding on to the back of the seat with the lightest of touch.  Then → she wasn’t holding on at all.

Island Boy was still nervous.  But, he was doing it.  And, at one point, RG clocked him actually smiling.  Busted.

IB is terrified of falling.  We explained that falling is part of the game — just like in skiing.

IB wanted to quit.  We explained that to do something complicated, sometimes you have to keep trying — just like swimming.

“Enough,” said Island Boy.  He was tired and thirsty.

We decided it to call it a moderately successful first outing.

On the Kay Nou bike learning scale, Island Boy ranked solidly center mass — far below Subway Dude (a true prodigy who required no instruction prior to lighting off on two wheels), but still much better than The Fashionista (who seemed to have a total misunderstanding of bike riding — she was blowing into her bike like a musical instrument.  Not really).

I don’t want to make this about me — it really isn’t.  But, as I watched my incredible spouse teaching a child (after all, this is what she does, right?), I realized that, like Island Boy, I had to surrender a little to move forward.

I shouldn’t have charged in head-first assuming I was the best one to teach IB to ride.  There was a teaching professional on site.  And, I shouldn’t have jumped down said teaching professional’s throat when she offered some advice.

I guess I was trying to create some the magic between my dad and myself on Fathers’ Day.  He lives far away and I was missing him today.

Parenting, like learning to ride a bicycle, involves a bittersweet surrender.

— The Major


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jo Meachem on June 20, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Oh, lordy, Major! What a flood of memories you have brought for me! My dad worked as the purchasing/payroll dude in a small specialty sand-casting foundry when I was very, very young. He also had an entrenched mistrust for the mass-produced childrens’ play things on the market, so my first tricycle was built by guys at the foundry almost entirely out of scrap steel! [And you should have seen our swing/trapeze/see-saw setup! Though it did mean we had the finest sand possible for our sandbox!] I was 11 before I learned to ride on two wheels – on the bike my mother rode at college in the late 30s. It was a bit big for me, and teaching me to ride it “took a village”. Our neighbors had a huge, smooth lawn, and all the nearby kids and parents gathered to take turns holding the back of the seat, or cheering me on! When I finally stopped falling over, and was able to ride out, make a U-turn and get off without falling, I felt such a sense of power and freedom all I could do was laugh. By that time, Dad was selling insurance with a company that awarded points that could be redeemed for prizes, and a year later, my sister and I both got brand new Columbia 3-speed bikes for our [shared] birthday. Hers was blue… mine was red! Even at age 12, I was not supposed to ride in the street, so, of course, I did, out of sight of home. Not long after getting this beauty, I was speeding home, swung into a driveway to get to the sidewalk, and skidded on loose gravel. The pedal tore a gash in the back of my calf, my finger got broken because I failed to let go of the grips, and the front wheel was tacoed! I pushed/carried my beloved new bike home, and when my mom saw me with a swollen purple hand and blood running down my leg, she began screaming hysterically “What happened? What happened!?!?!?” I burst into tears and replied “I ruined my bicycle!” Fast forward nearly 40 years – I got car-doored, and my leg just below the knee was badly smashed. My first call [after the guy who done the dirty called for an ambulance, was to ask my SU to please come pick up my bike before the ambulance got there to take me to the hospital. Now, almost 20 years after that, I still ride to work whenever I can, to Wegman’s for groceries, and sometimes just for the sheer love of it. Bicycling RULES!


    • Posted by Tony Marshall on June 21, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      Dear Major & RG –

      Your efforts to get IB on two wheels reminded me of two stories. Somewhere in the late ’60s my then estranged wife & I gave my son (who is a kid about your (TM) age; probably 5 or 6 at the time) a two-wheeler for Christmas. She wanted to include training wheels but I said no-way, that’s sissy stuff, and took him off to Washington Square Park, in the December cold, to learn how to ride a bike. I remember that the day was gray and very cold and we went around that circular fountain about 50 times before I could let go… but it worked. Of course I have no idea if he’s ridden a bike 5 times since then… but he never needed training wheels.

      The other story is my own, and I haven’t thought of it in years. Around 1947 or 48 (when I was somewhere between 6 & 8 years old) we were living in Anaheim, California. This was way before Disney and professional baseball or hockey or anything else… it was bungalows and orange groves. One weekend we went to visit friends who had a teenage daughter, and she had a bike. I guess I was bored, but all I remember was that I found myself outside, on my own, determined to ride her full sized girl’s bike. (Bikes were only available in one size in those days.) And I was willing to try riding it because of the way the cross bars dipped to accommodate a girls dress… because it also accommodated my short legs… my memory of the day is almost like a ’40s movie… warm, orangeish, dappled, dusty, only one or two other houses nearby, and that I picked it up pretty quickly… but also being very aware that I could manage it because it was a girl’s bike. That is: no cross bar. As most boys know, slipping onto a crossbar would discourage learning almost anything. Be patient… he’ll learn, love, Unca Tone


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