I probably should have googled ‘how to teach a child to ride a bike’ but, in fairness to me, I had no idea I’d be teaching a child to ride a bike any time in the near future. Z’s Thomas the Tank Engine bike had training wheels since he first got it (a hand me down) and for the past few weeks it had sat idle in the garage with a flat tire. I promised to get it fixed but that particular task just kept getting pushed down on the to-do list. Among other things, I’ve been getting ready to take a job that involves a great deal of travel and a lot of nights away from home and I’ve been buried in buying plane tickets, packing bags, sorting out child care at home and a million other little arrangements.
When we finally got around to repairing the flat, Z and Pebbles and I wound up in one of those fancy, high-end bicycle shops; the kind of place where serious cyclists wear skin tight shorts, Live Strong bracelets and a look that says “my bike is made of a high density polymer and weighs 28 ounces.” It’s hard not to feel out of place dragging two spirited (read spazzy) toddlers and a dirt covered bike from Target up the to repair counter. But I promised to get the thing working again and the shop (I think it’s actually a “shoppe”) was open and close-by.
Turns out Don, the cycle tech, was incredibly friendly and didn’t bat an eye at our low tech suburban ride. When Z, enamored of all the shiny, spoked adult bikes hanging from the walls, asked for the training wheels to come off, Don looked to me for approval and then cranked them right off and handed us back a fully functional big boy bike.
On the one hand, I thought the two-wheel bike experiment might be a recipe for disaster, a case of Z’s desire to be independent out-pacing both his physical prowess and his tolerance for crashing repeatedly. Then again, if we were able to pull it off, this was the perfect chance to cram in one more moment before I hit the road for a while. Kindergarten was well underway, why not get ‘teach your son to ride a bike’ checked off the list while you still can? This is the knot in my stomach, the ball of anxiety — the feeling that working in and out of town will mean missing these milestones.
Z, it turns out, is a natural on the bike and requires only a modest amount of hand-holding. “Find your balance,” I tell him, and sure enough he does. For the first half an hour or so I hold the back of his seat and then later just the back of his shirt – ready to yank him off the bike should he careen into the street. Every now and again he gets too close to a tree or a curb and he freaks out a little bit and, by doing so, drives straight into the thing that frightened him in the first place. “Sometimes it’s going to be a little scary,” I tell him, “the important thing is to not panic.”
Every trip down the sidewalk, he’s getting better until, eventually, he asks if we can get the video camera out and make a movie showing just how awesome he is on the bike. With the camera set up, he asks for me to let him do it by himself, close enough to intervene but hands off. I give him one last piece of advice “Whatever else you do, just keep peddling.” and with that, we roll the video.
Another milestone in the books…
There’s no question that I am genuinely excited about my new gig, it’s exactly the kind of work I want to be doing and it comes at just the right time in my career. But I’m also deeply conflicted. I never wanted to be an absent father, the guy that missed the little, mundane, details of his childrens lives. Now I am worried that I have signed up for exactly that. It’s a rather unoriginal complaint, I know, wanting to fulfill my duties as provider and caregiver and having those two roles strain against each other in opposite directions. I certainly didn’t invent the weird combination of guilt, loneliness and anticipation that goes with these choices, but I have also never felt it so acutely as I do here on the 20th floor of the midtown Marriott.
Watching the world zip by, I can still see my boy, racing down our sidewalk away from me, relishing his freedom, shouting “speed is nice!” at the top of his lungs as I sprint after him, shouting encouragement the whole way so he knows I’m there with him.
I want to get on a plane right now and be home in time to read him books and kiss Pebbles in her crib. But I know I can’t. Instead, I’ll order room service, pour a glass of wine and try to remember that the advice best heeded by new two-wheel bike riders isn’t all that different than that of weary fathers on the road.
Find your balance.
Sometimes it’s going to be a little scary, the important thing is to not panic.
Whatever else you do, just keep peddling.
I have spent much of my adult life traveling — not rum runners on the beach travel but backpack, third world, swamp-ass, don’t ask what kind of meat is in the goulash, travel. Travel is something Karen and I bonded over on our first date and we vowed that as long as our money and knees held out, we’d see as much of the world as possible. Before the kids came along we managed to pack our way through about 65 countries.
After Z joined the family, we decided drag him to El Salvador and Nicaragua for 3 weeks of family travel time. We learned two important things on that trip: 1) our days as carefree nomads were, for the foreseeable future, over and b) it is, in fact, possible to conceive your 2nd child with your 1st child napping in the same room.
What follows is part of an email I sent home from our trip after Z made friends with some of the local street urchins.
It’s with no small amount of guilt that I shoo away a kid of about 8 who approaches me with a “hello, amigo.” Z doesn’t notice. We’re sitting on the front steps of our hotel, me poring over the map of Granada and him captivated by the horse-drawn carriages that line the central square of this well-preserved Spanish colonial town.
Street kids—whether the pint-sized kitsch hawkers at Angkor Wat, the frequently belligerent Gypsy girls outside the Louvre, or the pack of 9-year-old boys who follow you Pied Piper-style to the bakery in Hue (where you inevitably buy them a loaf of bread)—are a fixture in the life of a traveler. Almost anywhere you go, there’s a predictable culture of children working tourists on the streets.
Emotionally, it’s complicated. Sometimes you want to give them all your money. Sometimes you want to yell at them to leave. Sometimes you want to jump in the middle of them and sing “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” An appropriate response seems impossible.
Even more so once you’re traveling with your own child.
Before I can shoo him away again, the Granadan street kid is playing hide-and-seek with Z, who’s howling with delight at having found someone closer to his size to play with. Every now and again, this grubby 8-year-old pops up from behind a planter and yells, “Estoy aqui!” which sends my 2-year-old screaming and scampering in that direction.
The next morning, as we head for breakfast, Z calls out “Estoy Aqui!” at random intervals—his first words in a foreign language.
At the local waffle house, we’re tearing through the staggering platefuls of food when the first of the street kids appears, throwing us a forlorn “You gonna eat that toast?” look. In fact, we’re not going to eat the toast, so I reach down to the street and hand it off to him. At which point the manager shouts and chases the kid away. It’s a game of cat and mouse that will play out again and again while we sit here, the manager now paying particular attention to my side of the cafe since I’ve proven myself to be an easy mark. Of course, the manager won’t correct or scold me. I’m a paying customer, after all. But he’ll throw me a disapproving look and keep a better eye on my side of the patio. The last thing he needs is for packs of kids to run off his clientele.
And you can’t really blame the guy. The family from Richmond sitting behind us definitely doesn’t want some skinny, unwashed child asking them for a strip of bacon. That isn’t the holiday they signed up for. People get mad when poverty is waved in their face; it’s full of messy feelings of guilt, helplessness, self-doubt and the knowledge that there but for the randomness of the birth lottery go you. And—honestly—who wants to deal with any of that over waffles and coffee?
Z, of course, is dealing with nothing but the conundrum of how to get the chocolate chips out of his pancakes without having to actually eat the pancake.
He isn’t old enough to ask why he has piles of food—most of which he won’t eat—and that little boy gets yelled at for having my toast. He isn’t old enough to wonder aloud why this potential hide-and-seek partner can’t come have breakfast with us. He isn’t aware enough yet to ask all the obvious questions we’ll spend the rest of the meal ignoring. And I’m relieved. Because when he does, I have no idea what I’ll say.