By Vernon Felton
“My daddy is a killer.”
For much of this year, that was the sentence my eight-year-old would utter when beginning any and every conversation. At the bank. At the grocery store. In church.
“My daddy is a killer.”
She always says this with the utmost sincerity and whoever she is telling this to will look nervously at me and then at her four-year old sister, who always nods slowly before solemnly confirming, “Da-da kills.”
No good deed goes unpunished.
The chicken or the egg
It started innocently enough—we wanted fresh eggs, so I decided to raise chickens. From the very beginning, I was clear with the kids about how this works. We’d get chicks. They’d be cute and fuzzy. Then they’d grow into big chickens who aren’t cute at all—they’re more like small, nasty velociraptors, but they’d lay fresh eggs in between tearing up the yard and killing whatever wandered into our acre and a half. Then, when the chickens started slowing down on the egg production—at about three years—they’d become stew.
In short, chickens are food. Not pets. I wanted to be clear about this with the kids. I realize plenty of people would disagree with me on this point, but I come at this from a utilitarian angle. We treat the chickens well while they are pecking about this mortal coil, but we don’t knit them clothes or give them names. It’s hard to put an axe to the neck of something you’ve given a cardigan to and named Mrs. Fluffy.
For the record, the kids were all on board with the plan. Until the chicks arrived. The chicks, apparently, were even fluffier than I’d described. When they realized that their father would one day kill something that had ever been so cute, they launched their public “Daddy is a killer” campaign. I’ll give them this–for people who write their propaganda with purple crayons, they’re quite effective.
A slow learner
Part of growing older is recognizing where you went wrong yesterday and trying to avoid the same mistake tomorrow. Accordingly, I’ve been thinking about the chicken fiasco. Clearly, there was a disconnect here between what I wanted (a better omelet) and what the kids wanted (warm and fuzzy pets). Keeping the family happy, then, boils down to recognizing that difference in expectations and striking some happy medium.
I started thinking about this last weekend as I watched a father teaching his three kids to ride at the Whistler Bike Park. The kids ranged in age from four to eight years old and they absolutely ripped. I saw them about a half dozen times last weekend: hitting jumps, launching drops and rolling big drop-ins. It was both terrifying and inspiring. I want to be that dad, but I’ve clearly fallen far short on the bicycle instruction side of parenting because my eight-year-old is still puttering about on her Strawberry Shortcake singlespeed. No sick air. No drops.
It was time to ratchet things up a bit. We’d need body armor. I got some. She’d need a better ride. I found a bike on Craigslist, one with a few more gears and some decent brakes. For her part, my daughter was thrilled by the prospect of hitting the trails for the first time, insisting that she wear her body armor and her helmet around the house the day before our first trail ride. It was perfect.
And then I started thinking about the chickens and what I’d learned from my experience as the evil avian-destroying dictator of our household. As a father, I have a solid track record for scarring my children by devising “enriching experiences,” so that they unfold the way I want them to, rather than the way my kids actually want them to.
As we hit the trailhead, it occurred to me that I should probably scale back my expectations a little. Maybe my eight-year old isn’t ready for the big rock drop yet.
I devise a plan B. We’d now cruise up the fire road and hit Bunny Trails—a fairly benign, cross-country loop. We started up the fire road. And then my daughter ate shit. This took me by complete surprise. How do you crash going up a hill? I ask this in as kindly a Mr. Rogers manner as I can muster.
“It was getting so hard, so I thought I’d just stop pedaling and rest for awhile…,” my daughter says sheepishly.
I stop to digest this patently crazy notion—that you can somehow coast up hills because pedaling is hard and not pedaling is, uh, easy. It’s the kind of nutty logic that confounds me and yet, is almost always my kids’ first line of reasoning.
We aren’t going to ride any teeter-totters today either.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go over the basics again. You have to pedal to keep going up a hill. This is your brake over here. You squeeze it when you want to stop and not run into something like a tree.”
A few minutes later, we’re back to pedaling. It’s kind of unnerving to watch your kid wobble up the road, veering suddenly to the right or the left for no obvious reason, riding as if they were afflicted with mad cow’s disease. It’s hard to get into a kid’s head, to remember how scary or intimidating riding a bike once was for yourself, before the same experience magically morphed into this thing that is thrilling and invigorating today. But I try.
We ride. Slow. Real slow. I look at the cedars. I point out the moss hanging off the fir trees that I’ve never noticed before. There’s a stump to our right that looks remarkably like Ronald Reagan giving his famous speech at the Berlin Wall. Wow, I really never noticed that before. Cool.
Eventually we get to the turn off for Bunny Trails. “Okay,” I begin, “so this is the fun part. This is singletrack.”
I’m about to launch into a discourse on everything my daughter will need to do in order to rip through the singletrack without also needing to visit the dentist later, when I realize that she’s not paying attention. Her head is cocked to the side and she has the same expression on her face that my dog gets when he smells a squirrel. She’s here, but not really here.
“Hey, are you listening? What’s going on?”
My daughter points to the bushes on the side of the fire road, “Daddy, those are Salmon berries. Can we eat some?”
Seriously? We have a half-acre of the same stuff at home. Doesn’t she want to ride? Doesn’t she want to test out that new, awesomely Darth Vader-esque hardshell body armor that cost me an arm and a leg? Doesn’t she want to experience the sublime brilliance that is sailing over roots and rocks as you thread the needle on some insanely tight, deep forest, pacific northwest singletrack?
No, probably not.
We put down our bikes. We gorge on Salmon berries. Other riders pass by and shake their heads. And then we head back down the fire road. No singletrack today. My daughter is knackered. She is, however, also the kind of ridiculously happy that only little kids can seem to achieve. “Wheee” she shouts as she tries to manual through every mud puddle on the trail.
“Daddy, today is the best day ever. Ever!” She punctuates this last bit with a fist pump that causes the bike to veer left and right before she gets it rolling in a straight line again. She’s riding a bike and she’s thrilled.
I’ll take that.
One day she might even forgive me for murdering the chickens.