Afternoon Ride

We went back to a favorite park this afternoon — the kids and K went the short way in the car; I went a somewhat longer way by bike, just to see what the route was like.

I found myself out of suburbia and in the “country” in a matter of kilometers, and I got to thinking about taking a new way to work when I ride. It would double my current distance, but 90% of the ride was so much more pleasant.

This meant that everyone got a headstart on the walk/ride.

That meant I missed all the manhole climbing that inevitably takes place. Still, there are mysteries: did Clover jump up or was she placed? Certainly the latter.

I also missed all of L’s silly games. I don’t know if it’s just a little way to exert a bit of control over the Boy or if she’s actually enjoying it, but she sometimes proposes to E that they play something that place her clearly in a place of authority. Today, she had to check the bikes every time we reached one of the walking-only wooden bridges.

I finally caught up to them just as they were climbing off yet another manhole cover. The Boy was ready to leave the slow girls behind, but first we had to walk across yet another bridge.

And then we got the idea for the picture, one that’s instantly become one of my favorite portraits of the two of us.

His expression is just classic E: so serious, trying so hard to be such a grown up little boy.

During our ride, the Boy noticed a family riding the opposite direction.

“That’s really dangerous,” he said.

“What?”

“They weren’t wearing helmets!” This morning, coming home from Mass, E kept checking that I was going the speed limit. I’m pretty sure he’s going to grow up to be a safety engineer. I can see him coming home for a visit and with his new, more diplomatic communication skills, beginning many a conversation with, “Um, Dad, about X you did in the backyard…”

Once we all regrouped back at the car, I headed home another way. I knew the trail we’d been riding on continued a bit further, and my thinking was that I might ride that whole trail to its end next time I rode to work. It will indeed be a pleasant ride, but not for a week like this week, when I have hall duty in the morning and must be at my station at 7:45. The idea of leaving before 6:40 to make it there in time with enough time to change — not going to work.

I got home and checked my stats on Strava and had the same depressing reaction: my average power output for the ride was right at 150 watts. Some perspective: amateur riders are considered decent riders, able to start small-scale races, with consistent power outputs of 250 watts for about two hours. At 300 watts, you’re really a good rider. The pros? They are over 400 watts for a four- to five-hour, 180-230 kilometer race, with the ability to crank it up to 700 watts for twenty minutes or so. That’s so unreal that it’s like watching Tommy Emmanuel’s fingers on the fretboard: “How is that even humanly possible?” I ask myself.

A Last Long Ride and Walk

The first fall was nothing to worry about — a simple matter of losing momentum in an area where it’s challenging to regain it. Tall grass, a bit of an incline. I’m not surprised he fell. He cried just a little bit, but he managed to calm himself and ride on anyway.

The second fall was more serious. We were riding in one of the two wide tracks a tractor leaves in the fields of grass when he suddenly hit a small clump of grass that didn’t give way but instead insisted on twisting his front wheel violently to the right. His bike stopped without warning, and his little belly slammed into the stem. This time, there was quite a bit of crying. Still, I managed to calm him with our deep-breath methods.

“Take a deep breath,” I say, and he breathes in through his mouth with a quivering breath, then lets it out. Two or three times and he’s usually calm, usually past the crying.

My question was simple: will he continue riding. We’d already made it to the river and were heading, against his initial wishes, to the small concrete bridge just a bit further up the trail. Here he was, hurt, scared, crying. Would he continue?

He did. He accepted my advice to slow down just a bit and continued on.

“I’m proud of you,” I said, and trying to reorient it to his own point of view, rephrased it, “And you should be proud of yourself.”

The third fall was a bit more serious. We’d made it to a part of the path that was particularly challenging: low-hanging branches, deep ruts filled with mud. I walked my bike across and suggested he do the same. I was both worried and proud when he decided that he would try to ride through the pass.

He made it through the mud, but just barely. He came to a sudden and unexpected halt beside my bike, them promptly fell toward my bike. His upper arm landed perfectly on the largest cog of my crankset. It could have been a lot worse: in the end, he had a little scratch where his arm slid off the crankset with a long streak of grease on his arm — I haven’t exactly cleaned my chain adequately since arriving — and a long crying session.

What impressed me most was that in each and every situation, he got back on the bike and continued riding. Nevermind that the bike is a piece of junk we bought for him used at the jarmark. Nevermind that he was in real pain a couple of times. Nevermind that he’s only five years old. He kept on going, knowing the challenges ahead of him (for this was the second time we rode this path) and fully aware of the pain he was experiencing.

In the evening, I took a walk back up to the high fields to the north of Jablonka. I’ve ridden my bike there a couple of times — and there is a passage that I had to walk due to the steep slope and the size of the gravel (or should I say boulders) that made up the path — but that was always without a real camera. The clouds were just right, and I thought I’d give it a try.

The sun was still too high for soft, embracing light, but I took what I could get.

I reached the summit and noticed in the direction of Lipnica an enormous amount of smoke. Perhaps someone burning the fields? It’s illegal, but people still do it. But in late July? Unlikely.

As I walked toward the smoke, hoping with my super-zoom to figure something out, the siren at the Jablonka fire department began wailing. Shortly after that, the rescue truck seemed to crawl toward Lipnica, and for a moment, I considered jumping in our borrowed car to see what it could be. It wasn’t fields, but the smoke was so white that I wondered what it could be.

On my way back home — which led by a house I’d noticed a couple of weeks ago, with a fountain in the front yard that reminded me of the conclusion of Analyze This — I saw several over the firefighters standing in front of the station. I thought about stopping to ask what had been the emergency, but in the end, I just walked on. After all, the Boy as waiting for a promised game of soccer.

Raspberries and a Bike Ride

The Girl is in Spytkowice, a village about twenty minutes up the road. (That’s the American in me, giving distances in time and not kilometers, in this case.) That means no jarmark unless the Boy and I want to go. And we really don’t want to go. We want to sleep. Since K has headed back home, he’s been sleeping in my bed. “He kicks all night!” L explained many times and then begged me to take over the evening duties. So now he sleeps with me. And that somehow that helps him sleep a bit longer than he might normally.

When we get up about half an hour later than usual, it’s time to help Babcia gather the raspberries in the garden. The Boy willingly wiggles into the spots that are just his size.

Afterward, we take a ride to the river. We’ve walked there many times, during this visit and past visits, but we’ve spoken several times about riding our bikes there, but it was only today that we manage it. In the end, we ride a little over five kilometers and get some fantastic views along the way.

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But riding with the Boy, no matter how much I enjoy it, is not much exercise, so when we get back to Babcia’s house, I head out for another ride. This time, I head back to the Lipnica area, cutting through fields and following the ruts worn by years of tractor traffic.

There are a few impressive views along this ride, too. So much has changed, though, and yet nothing has changed. I make my way up Lipnica Mala at a leisurely 22 kilometers per hour. Years ago, I used to roll up the same road at around 28 kilometers per hour. Or at least I think so. It sounds good at least to say that.

Perfection

“I’ll never be an expert drawer!” E and I were sitting at the kitchen table after K and L had left for L’s pre-Mass choir practice, and E was trying to draw a sports car. He scratched out a basic wedge shaped attempt at a sports car, adding a deep arc for a driver’s seat, then put the pencil down and dropped his head into his hands. “I’m just not good at drawing!”

It’s tough reasoning with a four-year-old, and though I feared it feel ineffective in the moment, I thought perhaps he needed some perspective nonetheless.

“Son, it takes time,” I began. A thousand and one cliches seemed ready to rush from my mouth, but they were only cliches to me. “Everyone struggles at first when learning a new skill. No one is an expert immediately. It takes time.”

Yet his four-year-old horizon is not very distant at all. Later in the day, as we’re heading to a state park for a family bike ride, he will respond to his mother’s calming, “Only eight more minutes,” by counting to eight and demanding to know why we’re not there yet. At the sun-soaked kitchen table, though, his horizon was even closer. He flipped his sketch pad to a new sheet and tried again, with the same result. He crossed it out and again proclaimed, “I’ll never be an expert.”

I saw in this coming heartache, approaching frustration, a nearing narrowing of the Boy’s horizon. “What if he goes through life like this, thinking always that if it’s not perfect the first time, there’s no point in trying again?” I see it in my some of my at-risk students every day. They lack what, in edu-speak jargon, we’ve come to call “grit.” One girl experiences these frustrations on a daily basis: she wants to give up immediately if I offer any sort of helpful feedback that indicates the slightest flaw in her analysis. Unable to gain any perspective, she struggles with a stress she imposes on herself.

In the end, a lack of time saved the situation. Or at least put it off for a while. We got dressed and met K and L at Mass. As the homily began, it was as if the parish priest and the curria in Rome itself had seen our morning struggles and wove them into the day’s readings and homily. Father Longenecker was sketching the picture presented in the day’s readings. First, from Leviticus: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. A command from perfection for perfection. The second reading was from the first letter to the Corinthians: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. The Gospel reading from Matthew followed in the same theme: So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The notion that we’re called to be perfect, aside from proving that Christianity is not a good choice for anyone looking for an easy religion, put the morning sketch session into a new perspective for me. In his own way, the Boy was living out the callings from the readings. He must have looked to me as we look to God, frustrated at our apparent lack of progress. Our perspective on a human life must appear to him like E’s immediate frustration when he was unable to achieve instantaneous perfection.

After Mass and lunch, we headed to a lovely local state park to enjoy the unseasonably perfect cycling weather. We rode 6.6 kilometers (4.1 miles) and climbed a total of 86 meters (282.1 feet). A fair amount for a four-year-old.

He had to get off and push a few times, but his tenacity at some of the steeper portions of the short incline was impressive. It was a mirror image of the morning, for it was only toward the end of the ride that he really started suggesting, in words and actions, that he might not make it back to our starting point.

What made the difference? Why did he exhibit tenacity in one endeavor and not the other? Was it merely the physicality of the cycling, a tangible activity with a clear end? Was it the fact that a flawed sketch sits on the page and reminds him of his seeming failure whereas the road’s inclines simply disappear behind him? I sit here at the end of the day thinking that perhaps I should have the answers to those questions, and I realize that if I’m not careful, I’ll start doing the same thing he did with his drawing: why am I not the perfect parent? By now, such thoughts leave as soon as they enter my conscience, right? Hardly.

In the end, it was a reminder paradox that perfect days are perfect because aren’t.

New

The day began with a treat for the Boy: the flooring company installed our new hardwood, which has been sitting in the living room for close to a month, acclimating to our house’s moisture levels. E sat at the top of the basement stairs and watched as two men laid out the wood for the main part of the room while another worked on the small area in front of the basement door.

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They took a smoke break after finishing the layout, then came back and finished the rest of the job in less than a couple of hours.

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He of course chatted them up the entire time.

“Sorry about how shy my son is,” I laughed. The gentlemen found him generally amusing, though, and were very patient with his questions and own little explanations.

The afternoon, though, was all about the Girl: we bought her a new bike, a Trek FX, which is in fact a small adult bike. Lots of big changes for her: braking with her hands, shifting gears. Plus the size change — theoretically, this is a bike that can last her for ten years.

When K came home from work, she was happy to see the Girl’s bike (which we took out for an initial ride in the evening of 11 km), but was even more happy to see the floor.

It looks like a room again.

Monday Begins

We’re making progress on our remodel — getting ready for the big demo day on Saturday. Before that, a day of working with the electrical system in the house, replace the load center so we’ll have room for all the lovely new breakers we’ll need for our kitchen. Most of the trim and crown molding are down, as well as a few other things. And so we have a rare opportunity to offer the kids: you can kick, mark, drill, beat, hammer, and abuse the walls and cabinets to your hearts’ content.

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The Boy is especially taking us up on the offer. I give him a smaller drill with no bit and he runs around the kitchen, scuffing up the already scuffed cabinets and walls, explaining what he’s doing the whole time.

But there’s competition now, because now he’s mastered his bike — mastered in as much as a four-year-old can. Yesterday he did nine kilometers with the family in just over an hour; today he was waiting for someone to go to the quiet side street across from our house and watch him ride.

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He wants so badly to join L and her friends in the neighborhood, but he just can’t keep up. And they really don’t make it easy for him all the time. K frets about this because E feels left out, but it’s part of growing up, I think.

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Today begins my summer break, and a busy summer break it promises to be. With a kitchen remodel, a boy eager to ride more, and a girl just plain eager — busy indeed.

Tuesday

With a break in the clouds, the unseasonably warm temperatures, and a free day for everyone, there was only one place to go: the park.

First a bit of playground fun. L has been growing more creative in her daring, but still needs a bit of help every now and then. Her grand idea of swinging down from the monkey in one fluid motion ended with frantic palls for help. Her insistence that she could take whatever spinning madness I could produce on the tire swing ended with her begging me, though not in a panic, to slow her down.

Afterward, bikes. It was fairly amazing to see how L has changed with her bike riding. Adjacent to the park we were visiting was an abandoned BMX race track, with only the starting gates remaining. The Girl was eager to try riding down the lower portion, below the gates themselves. Once I showed here how to navigate the lowered starting barrier, she rode down the concrete ramp seemingly countless times. And the Boy, as he always does, imitated her. Yet, also as he always does, his trusted his intuition and didn’t even want to try going from the top of the ramp.

Finally, an odd adventure: we’ve had a leak in the crawl space, and I’ve tried a few things to figure out what was causing the leak exactly. When I suggested that the Boy could go into the crawl space with me to check the latest effort, he was literally ecstatic. “Daddy, I love the crawl space!” And as L always does, she wanted to join us. I took the camera down to snap a few shots of the damage (which was not as bad as I thought), and of course I had to take a quick picture of the kids in a once-in-their-lifetimes location.

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And while that bit of hanging insulation looks awfully close to them, it really wasn’t — an effect of the lens.

Bike

Living in Poland for seven years, I rode various bikes for a total of at least 6000 kilometers. That’s how many kilometers my two bike computers showed when combined. On my road bike, 3500; on my mountain bike, 2500. That total was during my second stay, from 2001 to 2005. It was then that I became something of a cyclist, spending an asinine percentage of my salary on cycling equipment. During my first stay (1996-1999), I had a fairly cheap mountain bike that I virtually gave away when I left. I had no cycling computer on it, so I’d have to guess how much I rode, but I wouldn’t think I did more than 1000 kilometers in those three years, and that’s probably being generous. But that second extended visit to Poland — I rode like mad. One summer alone I did 3500 kilometers, riding in the morning and early afternoon on my road bike then riding into surrounding forests in the late afternoon on a mountain bike.

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This afternoon, I dug out the mountain bike, cleaned it up, fixed a wobbling wheel, then took it out for a short spin. It had recently sprinkled a bit, and I was wary to head out on untested equipment more than a few kilometers, but still, I couldn’t resist. I rode paths I’d never done before, ending up in a spot behind the river — the destination of The Walk — that I’d always wondered about.

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Two things were different this time out: first, I felt oddly conspicuous. A young man on a bike doesn’t look all that odd; a man in his forties on a bike, clearly riding for recreation and not simply as a means for transport, is a rare sight indeed. Bikes for me of my age are usually just means of transportation, often to the fields to work or from the bar after a binge (though often the rider is pushing the bike in the latter case). The second oddity had to do with the pedals: the first time in probably fifteen years or so that I’ve ridden with regular pedals as opposed to clipless pedals that attach to a cleat on the bottom of each shoe, allowing a rider to pull as well as push. I found myself wanting to pull, especially on the one or two small climbs I encountered, and the result probably looked amusing to anyone who happened to see, adding to my feeling of conspicuousness.

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Despite the oddness of riding in this area for the first time in over ten years, it’s safe to say that the quick trip was a success. And in the meantime, K and the Boy were visiting other friends.

And the Girl? She’s at her first summer camp experience. She called this evening in tears, scared at the thought of her first night alone. What she really needed was a hug, and fortunately, a family friend was there with her to provide it. Still, it’s a stressful experience for us as well as for her.

Pavement

Just down the street from our house is another street — typical of suburbia, I know. But this street is different. It’s freshly paved, smooth and inviting, and it has just enough of a slope that anyone can enjoy riding up and down it.

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And so of late, we’ve taken to doing just that: E on his four-wheel pusher, the Girl on her new bike or her scooter, I on my bike, and usually K on foot.

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Occasionally we meet neighbors there, either by arrangement or by accident. Some are more enthusiastic about the activity than others; some ride with more abandon than others; some leave me shaking my head in wonder. Up and down, up and down, races and gentle rides, laughing and literal screaming (“That’s not fair!”) — it becomes a little microcosm of childhood.

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I have my own memories like this — summers on bikes, hills that are a pleasure (as well as hills that are hellish), riding with friends.

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Seeing my own children follow those same paths brings a smile.

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