Riding Like the Wind

I rode my bike all the time when I was younger.

I rode a fair amount when I was 9 and 10, but the neighborhood where we lived in Chicago was laid out as a grid, so I never really had to worry about getting lost. I was also fairly young, so I wasn’t going to venture too far away from home. I would usually ride up to the park a couple blocks away and then circle back around, although I do remember widening my radius gradually around the time I turned 11. A month after my birthday, though, my family moved to Long Island, New York, which was a more typical suburban neighborhood. We had left the grid behind; our new home was in an area with winding streets and lush green lawns. Everything was new for me, from the strip malls and diners to the stand-alone houses and the people with their “Lon-Giland” accents. I didn’t meet a lot of other kids right away, so I spent a lot of time on my bike.

I rode everywhere. I rode farther and farther away from home, spending hours exploring my new surroundings. Once school started, I paid attention to my bus route and rode my bike past the other kid’s houses. I found elevated breaks in the sidewalk and raced over them so that I went airborne. I walked up hills so high that the air screamed in my ears when I rode back down. My bike was my independence and my sanctuary. It was my space to think and to not think. It was more than just transportation; it was freedom.

I rarely ride any more. Part of it is that I’m so busy with my different jobs and other adult responsibilities that I don’t have much time to ride. Part of it is that there isn’t really much space left in our one-bedroom apartment, let alone enough to keep a bicycle there. Most of it, though, is that I would usually rather spend my free time with my wife and son, rather than off by myself. I spend enough time on my own during the week, either commuting to and from work or traveling to and from home visits. A lot of that independence I used to cherish is now already built into my week. By the time I get home, I may be exhausted, but I’m ready to be exhausted with my family.

This past weekend, though, I did get to ride again. Trudy, Eitan and I made the trip into Manhattan and took the ferry over to Governor’s Island, where we rented two bicycles and spent a few hours riding around the island. Eitan relaxed in a seat on the back of my bike, while he took in the sights. We stopped at the Play Lawn, where we saw the art sculptures, playground and miniature golf course, which was particularly impressive, given the quality and artistic nature of the course and the fact that it is maintained entirely on the basis of donations. We grabbed lunch at the food trucks nearby and Eitan got to sip a milkshake from Mr. Softee when we started riding again. In the afternoon, we checked out the Urban Farm, where they grow different flowers, herbs and vegetables and raise chickens and goats. Eitan also got to see the Statue of Liberty from a distance and enjoyed showing us how he holds up his torch:


The best part, though, was the bike ride. Of course, the stops we made were interesting and fun and kept Eitan engaged, which helped him continue to enjoy the day. For me, though, the key was the return of that feeling of freedom that I had remembered. The breeze rushed by my face, my legs pumped as I pedaled along and I couldn’t help but pick up a little more speed when the road opened up in front of me. The difference was that, this time, I wasn’t alone. The sanctuary of independence that I had sought as an adolescent had been replaced by the company of my wife and son. The quiet opportunities to process my thoughts were now occupied by my wife’s comments about how relaxed she felt and by Eitan pointing out the boats, buoys and other objects by the waterside. I recognized the sense of calm, the acceptance of the world around me and the release of tension from my body. And I realized that, at that moment, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

The sanctuary looked different; but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.

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Just For Fun

The other day, I was listening to a podcast interview with Scott Weinger, a Hollywood writer and actor. Weinger is probably most well known for his roles as Steve on Full House (Kimmy Gibbler’s DJ Tanner’s boyfriend) and as the speaking voice of Aladdin in the 1992 Disney movie (the singing voice was a different actor). Weinger was a teenager when he acted in those roles but he starred in a few commercials when he was younger, as well. During the interview, Weinger made a number of references to his wife telling him that he did not have a childhood because he grew up working in show business, as opposed to living a more typical life. He said that she makes that type of comment anytime he mentions working in a recording studio with Robin Williams or something about having a trailer or traveling for a movie premiere. Weinger said that his response to his wife’s comment is always some version of correcting her assessment.

“I had a childhood,” he says. “I just didn’t have a ‘normal’ childhood.”

They’re both right, of course. Weinger’s wife feels pity for her husband because he did not get the chance to have certain experiences because he was a working actor. Weinger, on the other hand, contends that childhood happens, regardless of whether the child is a working actor or a typical full-time student. It’s seems to me, though, that the real thing they’re both talking about is fun.  Children are supposed to spend their childhood having fun. They’re supposed to learn, obviously, which is why they go to school. But they’re also supposed to play and interact with each other and have social lives. That’s how they learn to become independent human beings, which is what we, as their parents, are supposed to want for them.

But what if the work is part of the fun? Weinger may not be the most talented actor in the world, but he was very good in the parts that he had and, as he says, he was enjoying being an actor. He didn’t mind missing out on all the “typical” childhood experiences because he was having fun with what he was doing.1

The reason I’m spending so much time thinking about this is because Eitan took his first tennis lesson last week. He’s been showing incredible progress hitting a baseball; he watches the pitch and swings for contact, as opposed to just swinging wildly and hoping for the best. A couple weeks ago he hit a Wiffle Ball off the fence a good thirty feet away on the fly. There is a tennis club nearby that offers fairly cheap lessons and Eitan had expressed some interest, so Trudy brought him for a group lesson with a few of his friends, just to see how he liked it.

He was really good.

I know, I’m his dad, I’m biased, I’m supposed to say that. Let’s be clear: he wasn’t that good. The teacher dropped a ball and wanted Eitan to hit it on the first bounce and Eitan usually didn’t get it until the third or fourth. Sometimes the ball had stopped bouncing completely before Eitan hit it. But he’s three years old; he hit he ball and he hit it well. His hand-eye coordination was terrific, though not as terrific as his determination to keep trying, even if the ball was sitting still on the ground. Then my wife practiced with him once – once! – and he started consistently hitting the ball on one bounce. This past weekend, we did it again and he was hitting the balls that same twenty to thirty feet he had with the Wiffle Ball. Out of curiosity, I started throwing the tennis balls to him, as opposed to dropping them next to him, and he returned them all. Hard.

While I was watching Eitan play, I couldn’t help but start thinking of competitions and scholarships and who knows what else. I pictured the videos of three-year-old Tiger Woods putting and young Venus and Serena Williams preparing each other for careers dominating their sport. Eitan may not be there yet, but even the best athletes have to start somewhere, right?

I snapped out of my reverie, only partially because a tennis ball was screaming toward my face. I had to take a minute to realize what was happening. Eitan had one tennis lesson and I was already picturing him winning Wimbledon. Was I already that parent who heaps on the pressure to succeed at everything? After all of the reading I’ve done about the dangers of helicopter parenting and emphasizing achievements, was I going to let all of that go because my son showed he can hit a ball with a racket?

It was in that moment that I made a conscious decision about the role I would play regarding Eitan’s involvement in extra-curricular activities. Whatever Eitan does, whether he wants to play sports or learn an instrument or design computer programs, it has to be fun. The last thing I want is for Eitan to become the kid who is driven by parents or coaches to play so much, to practice so relentlessly, that they end up hating the game. Andre Agassi, one of the best American tennis players in history, wrote in his autobiography that he hates tennis, largely because of the pressure his father placed on him to succeed.

I refuse to let that happen to Eitan.

There is a fine line between challenging a child to reach their potential and forcing them into an unpleasant situation. I will push Eitan to improve his abilities at whatever activity he chooses, not because I need him to be successful, but because I want him to experience the rewards of working hard. If he wants to quit, he will have that option, as long as he can give a legitimate reason for doing so.2 Eitan will do things because he wants to, not because he has to. The choice will be his, no matter what, and I will be there cheering him on throughout his journey.

And, if he happens to win Wimbledon, that would be fine with me too.


1. Considering that two of the main people he worked with were Bob Saget and Robin Williams, can you really blame him?

2. Also, “It’s not fun anymore” is absolutely a legitimate reason.

Embracing My Inner Villain

I’m a good guy.

I don’t mean this as a brag, humble or otherwise. I’m a pretty good husband and father. I care about my family, both immediate and extended. I’m a social worker full-time and a religious school teacher part-time. I put a lot of effort into treating people with respect, even when they are not necessarily returning the favor. I think it’s pretty safe to say that people would consider me a good person.

And yet, even with all that positive energy, I love being the villain. When I would play video games that gave me the option, I would always play the bad guys. In Star Wars, I would play as the Empire. In Street Fighter, M. Bison was one of my favorites. I loved X-Men comic books, but I thought Magneto and Sabertooth were more interesting than the good guys.1 When I watch action movies, I’m the first person to criticize the bad guys for wasting time talking to the protagonists, rather than just killing them and carrying out their plans for world domination. Honestly, Goldfinger, what were you thinking? You had Bond immobilized; the laser was fancy and made every guy nervous because of where it would have hit Bond first. You say you expected him to die; you should have just shot him.

But I digress.

I bring all this up because last week, my inner villain came back for a brief encore performance. Eitan and I were spending the afternoon together while Trudy went to a doctor’s appointment and we were having a great time. We played baseball outside, built skyscrapers with his Magna-Tiles and read a few books. But it was getting later in the afternoon and I knew that Eitan needed to nap in order to control his behavior when we went out to dinner that evening. Also, I had some work to do, which I knew would not get done while he was awake.

I tried to be reasonable, at first. I agreed to play for a few more minutes and I set a timer on my phone so that Eitan would know when it was time to stop. When time was up, I let Eitan choose where he wanted to sleep. I offered to lie down with him and to play a lullabye on my phone. I offered to sing to him. I agreed to read a few books and gave Eitan another drink of water and another applesauce pouch. Each time I tried to get him to fall asleep, though, he resisted. This went on for over an hour; time was ticking and my patience, which is usually in abundant supply, was waning.

It was at that moment that I remembered a post I had seen on a fellow Dad Blogger’s page2 and realized that Eitan was probably just old enough that I could use that same idea to get Eitan to fall asleep. And so, my villainous side resurfaced.

I got Eitan’s Buzz Lightyear toy and placed him on the counter with his head and shoulders over the edge. The slightest push would have sent him hurtling downward into the garbage can.

Then I went to Eitan and exclaimed, “Eitan, Buzz Lightyear needs your help! Can you be a superhero just like Buzz and help him?”

Eitan’s face lit up. “Yeah, I can help him!”

I brought him into the kitchen and showed him where Buzz was lying, with the open garbage can below him. “Buzz is in danger! The Evil Dr. Pork Chop put him here on the counter and put a force field around him. He’s going to fall into the garbage and you won’t be able to play with him anymore if we don’t do something to save him!”

Eitan’s eyes grew wide with fear. “But I want to play with him!”

Immediately, all I could think of was Mr. Burns:

“I know you do, that’s why we have to work together to save Buzz! Dr. Pork Chop put the force field around Buzz so that you can’t touch him but I know how to get rid of the force field: you have to fall asleep!”

Eitan looked at me without a trace of skepticism. “I can’t touch him?”

“No, not right now, because of the force field. Here, look.” I picked Eitan up and stretched his hand out toward Buzz. Just before he touched Buzz, I pulled him back and made a clanging sound. I did it a few times and Eitan actually laughed at the sound a bit before the fear came back to his face.

“But I want to play with him!” he repeated, tears starting to well up in his eyes.

“I know, and I want you to also. But you have to fall asleep in order to get rid of the force field and then, right after you wake up, you can come and save Buzz from falling. In fact, once the force field goes away, I bet Buzz’s wings will start working again and he’ll fly over and wait on the bed until you wake up.”

“Okay, I want to go to sleep to save Buzz,” he said, trying to sound hopeful through his sobs.

I brought Eitan to the bed and laid him down. I lay down next to him and put some soft music on my phone. Eitan looked up and asked, “Buzz isn’t going to fall, right?”

I smiled back and said, “No, he won’t fall. Once you’re asleep, he’s going to break out of Dr. Pork Chop’s trap and he’ll fly over here to wait for you to wake up.

Satisfied with the answer, Eitan closed his eyes and fell asleep in minutes.

I breathed a sigh of relief, closed the garbage in the kitchen and brought Buzz in to watch over his superhero best friend while he slept.

Do I feel badly for scaring my son into taking a nap? I suppose, a little. Of course, I’d have preferred to get him to take a nap without resorting to creating an evil plan. That being said, I did not threaten him with something real. I did not make Eitan question my love for him or whether he was in danger. I gave Eitan the chance to do something good for his friend. He knows that superheroes help other people and this was an opportunity to let Eitan be a superhero too. Plus, I won’t be able to play these games forever, so I figured I should make the most of them while I can.

The evil plan was just an added bonus.


1. Wolverine was an exception because he had a more checkered past, but Cyclops was such a boy scout that I always found him boring.

2. This particular Dad Blogger’s name is David Vienna and he writes over at The Daddy Complex. He’s hilarious and thoughtful and sarcastic and just published a book. Also, here’s the post that gave me the idea for this bit with Eitan.

Turning Sadness Inside Out

A couple of weeks ago, on Father’s Day, in fact, Trudy and I took Eitan to the movies to see Inside Out. We had not made any significant plans for Father’s Day, aside from having dinner with my in-laws, partially due to the threat of inclement weather and partially due to the fact that the rest of June was so busy with other activities, like Eitan’s moving up ceremony from preschool, his birthday party and my brother’s wedding. A movie seemed like a nice relaxing way to spend some time together as a family.

First of all, the film was terrific. Most of the themes were probably a bit over Eitan’s head; after all, as smart as he is, he is only three years old and he is not quite ready to grasp concepts like moving to a different city or the emotional attachments that we have with certain memories. But he was able to recognize that Bing Bong’s tears were candy and that it was funny when the House of Cards got knocked over. He also enjoyed seeing Riley jumping on a trampoline and making goofy faces with her parents, two activities I’m sure he associates with his own parents.

funnyfaces

And, as is usually the case with Pixar films, there were plenty of comments interspersed through the dialogue that were designed to keep adults interested, such as Riley’s mother’s frustration with her husband during dinner and Fear’s running commentary of Riley’s dreams. Pixar has been inserting those types of nuggets since their first few movies (A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Toy Story; etc.) and they usually do a masterful job.1

The other reason I continue to go back to Pixar movies, though, is because they tell meaningful stories. Sure, kids watch Finding Nemo and enjoy it because of fish with funny voices. The same could be said about any of the other movies; they all have colorful characters who do silly things and have silly voices. But the film makers are particularly adept at portraying complex and challenging situations through those characters. Finding Nemo is about finding the balance between keeping one’s children safe and letting them explore and become independent. The Toy Story movies are about loyalty and friendship. Cars illustrates the dangers of hubris and the importance of treating others with respect. Inside Out demonstrates the ways children develop emotional intelligence and gives insight into the ways that parents encourage – and sometimes discourage – that development.

One of the things that I’ve seen parents do is try to shield their children from having to experience difficult situations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, our world is filled with enough negativity that our children will realize quickly enough that life is hard and that bad things happen. It’s why we monitor the shows and movies that our kids are watching and, in a perfect world, why we watch those programs with our kids; we want to be there to explain why bad things are happening to certain characters. But I think there is a danger in being overly zealous about “protecting” children from adversity, fictional or otherwise.2 If children never experience challenges, they will never learn to overcome them. The whole point of resiliency is that people are able to experience difficulties and use their problem solving skills to move past them.

In the movie, Joy believes that Riley should be protected from Sadness because she does not want Riley to feel any sort of suffering. The lesson that Joy learns – and that we have to teach our children – is that negative feelings may be uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are “bad.” Feelings like sadness, embarrassment, fear and anger may not be the most enjoyable experiences, but they also present opportunities for growth. The fact that we are capable of experiencing different combinations of feelings is what allows us to cheer each other on when things are going well and to comfort each other when tragedy strikes. We need to be able experience different feelings in order to understand what other people are going through. Completely ignoring a feeling not only prevents us from having a realistic view of the world, it prevents us from being able to feel empathy.

It makes us less human.

Our kids need to realize that they have the ability to develop coping skills to respond to negative circumstances, rather than just trying to avoid them. They need to know that it okay to feel sad or angry or afraid, just like it is okay to feel excited or happy. They need to learn that feelings are not “good” or “bad,” but that they are the ways in which we experience the world around us and the ways we share those experiences with others. They need to understand that empathy helps us become better people.

And it is up to us to teach them.

 


1. If you haven’t seen these movies, or it’s just been a while, I can’t recommend them strongly enough. The Toy Story trilogy, in particular, continues to be a set of my favorite movies.

2. Remember what happened to Phoebe?