I pull into the car line at my daughter's elementary school and wait for my kid to clamber inside. She's ecstatic. And completely unintelligible. My daughter turned nine recently and, honestly, it's like living with someone from another planet or, at the very least, France. There's lots of high-pitched noises, much hand waving and none of it sounds remotely like English. Eventually my daughter catches on that I'm not grasping any of it. She rolls her eyes, takes a deep breath and slows her talking voice down to something just slightly slower than chipmunk chatter.
"Missus Knight says she's going mountain biking today with some other girls from school and I want to go super, super bad, daddy and I promise I'll clean the rat cage and do my math if you let me go! Can I go? Can I go? Can I go?"
At this age, repetition plays a big part in the communication process. Kids figure if they shout something in your ear three or more times in a row, you have no choice but to cave in to their demands. It's like they're all reading out of the same hostage-negotiations manual.
But unlike her demands for a unicorn or the Tooth Fairy's top-secret mailing address, this is one of those rare moments when I can actually deliver on the demands. In fact, I'm more than happy to. My kid wants to go mountain biking? That's a welcome surprise.
Dr. Frankenstein, I am not
Unlike a lot of my friends, I haven't pushed my kids on the bike riding thing. I never wanted to be one of those parents who tries to mold their kids into a smaller version of themselves. That kind of Dr. Frankenstein approach to child rearing has always struck me as creepy, controlling and ultimately doomed to failure. You want your son to become the lead tenor in a barbershop quartet? Just keep pushing him to become America's next great defensive end. Ninety percent of parenting is just lowering your expectations and making sure no one sets the cat on fire.
So, rather than force feed my kid a steady diet of "You must go on a death march with Dad", I've tried to let them lead the way when it came to the bicycle. I figured, if the rug rats wanted to ride, they'd let me know. Beyond that initial spark of interest that led them to learn how to balance on two wheels, however, none of my kids have shown much interest in the one thing that gives me great joy.
Can I go? Can I go? Can I go?
It's music to my ears.
It’s not you, it’s me
An hour later we're at the trailhead parking lot waiting for Ms. Knight—a first-grade teacher at the local elementary school—and the other girls who will be joining the teacher for a ride. My daughter is ecstatic; turning lumpy circles around the parking lot and gamely trying to stay upright. I'm starting to think that maybe I should have worked her through some balance drills when another girl and her mother ride into view. The kid pulls an amazing bunny-hop (a legitimate couple feet of the ground) with a nice little whip to it and it hits me—my kid is seriously outclassed here. Another pig-tailed, freckled little grom rides into view and comes ripping in with a big power slide.
Ms. Knight starts laying out plans for the ride. She'd been thinking of starting us out on a little circuit of the mellower cross-country tails on the mountain. The other girls are having none of it. Kaya? Bunny Trails? Butter Scotch? Those singletracks are for babies. They want to climb Three Pigs and then hit Mullet and Cheech and Chong. Maybe rip down Meth Lab.
These 8-year old girls are officially bad ass. My daughter? We just took her flower basket off her bike a couple weeks ago. My kid is darting nervous little glances at the other girls; she can sense that maybe she's not riding on a level playing field here with the others, but it’s not until the groms are ripping up the fireroad like little, pink-helmet-wearing greyhounds that it starts to sink in: We are not going on a ride with the other kids today.
By the time we hit the dirt, my kid is off the back in a big way. The other parents are more than willing to wait up for my daughter, but the mismatch in talent and fitness is so severe that it's plain as day that doing so wouldn't be doing anyone any good. I beg off with a couple "Let’s do it again another time." comments. And then my kid and I watch the group vanish up the trail.
My daughter is trying to be brave, but she's also wearing one of those pinched expressions that just gut punches you as a parent. She feels like a failure and we're not even five minutes into the ride. Of course, nothing's further from the truth. If anyone has failed, it's me. I never wanted to be that lunatic little-league father—screaming instructions at my kids and making them hate the thing I wanted them to love. But then again, maybe I should have tried a little harder with this whole mountain biking thing. Maybe there's a point when being hands-off as a parent lapses into being half-assed as a father.
Fake it till you make it
"Hey, hey" I tell her. "Those other girls are really fast because they ride all the time. You can be that fast too—I just need to take you out more. Okay?"
She nods, but she's staring at the ground…more focused on not crying than on listening to anything Dad has to say. I officially feel like the world's douchiest father ever, but I channel my inner Kathy Lee Gifford and start taking Norah through a few drills with what feels like a maniacal level of cheer and praise. I'm like a one-man cheerleading squad.
It feels odd as hell, but as a parent, you eventually realize that when everything is crashing and burning around you, a big part of not completely sucking at your job simply amounts to salvaging the day by being as over-the-top positive as you can stomach. You practically speak in upper case. Every sentence ends in an impossible number of exclamation points. So the cat did catch on fire? Well, that’s great! Now we don't have to worry about him coughing up any more fur balls!!! It's midnight and the car just blew a head gasket somewhere on a deserted highway? Hey, now we all get to practice running four-minute miles to the nearest gas station! On Interstate 5! In the dark! As a family! Even grandma!!!
The funny thing is, if you keep up the delusional let’s-be-happy charade long enough, you often wind up actually becoming happy. I can't explain how the hell that math adds up, I'm just grateful that it does. And so 15 minutes after we've been dropped on our first real ride, my kid is actually smiling again. She's watched me crash a dozen times (part of my Crashing Is Okay!!! drills), she's worked out how to climb steep sections out of the saddle and she's starting to get the feel for hitting roots at 90-degree angles. Every time she wrecks and gets up, I give her a high-five. Every time she gets those 20-inch wheels to roll over a branch or log, we stop and celebrate with a dance. We hang out at the creek and catch water-striders. We listen to a wood pecker. She almost gets her rear wheel off the ground after a couple dozen attempted bunny hops. More high-fives follow. It's dark by the time we get back to the car and start loading the bikes on the rack.
I turn to see that she's wearing one of her dead-serious, my-hamster-won't-wake-up-anymore expressions again. My stomach sinks for a second—I'm absolutely sure she's going to say she had a horrible time, but she surprises me.
"Can we do this again tomorrow?"
Damn straight we can.