It was the sound of a car horn that woke me up, I think. I was tangled face-down in a ditch, my left foot still “clipped in” to the Look Sport pedal on the Cannondale SR500 road bike that lay spiky and scratchy across my back. The only identifiable item in my field of vision was the black Vetta Corsa helmet a few feet in front of my face.
How long had I been unconscious? And what had happened, exactly? This was what I knew: it was early in 1987, winter time, a bit below freezing, the roads salted but the fields (and ditches!) around my neighborhood still blanketed with snow. Early that morning, I’d joined the local high-speed low-drag roadie club for a fifty-mile training ride. As I recall, I was the only teenager in the group, and I was certainly the least experienced rider, but they were the only people who were doing that kind of riding and they’d grudgingly allowed me a spot at the back of the pack. I was under-supplied with cold-weather gear, having bought all of my stuff used from customers of the bike shop where I worked, and I knew that it was going to snow that day, but I didn’t want the various “Cat 3” college-aged dudes in the club to think I was a coward, so I showed up anyway.
At some point, I’d been dropped off the back as the snow started to come down thick and fast. I’d missed a turn in unfamiliar territory, and added maybe two hours to my ride as I tried to figure out the way back to my house. That was the last thing I remembered before the whole waking-up-in-the-ditch thing. As for how I’d gotten into the ditch, there was no way to figure that out. It was a 45-mph two-lane about two miles from where I lived, usually chock-filled with impatient drivers. My best guess: I’d been sideswiped by a car, lost my helmet on the way down (because, like the cool Cat 3 guys, I left it unbuckled) and hit my head on something under the snow when I landed in the ditch. My left leg was throbbing, which seemed to support that hypothesis.
I gathered myself up, clipped back in, and rode the short distance home. My hands and feet were completely numb. I ran a cold bath and dropped myself in; it felt like a bed of nails heated up to crimson with a blowtorch. I did not vomit, although I wanted to. Three days later, I showed up for the evening ride. “Did you drop off up near Delaware?” one of the older riders asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I replied, conscious of the skinned knuckles behind my cheap gloves. “I wanted to try for seventy-five.”
“Good man,” was the response. “For a guy who races kids’ bikes, you’re alright.” My hands stopped hurting as if by magic. An hour or so later, I took my first-ever stint at the front of the pace line, huddled over on the drop bars and turning the big ring at a constant 90rpm, a string of multicolored bikes and riders trailing for five hundred feet behind me, my teeth chattering in triple-time to the metronome of the rolling road.
This is what I can’t believe, looking back at that and a hundred other similar stories of misery and effort in the pursuit of dubious ends, mostly cycling-related: that I was entirely self-motivated. As Pope once wrote:
I left no calling for this idle trade
No duty broke, no father disobeyed.
By the time I was fourteen, my parents had both given up on me. I don’t mean that they didn’t care about me, and I don’t mean that they didn’t help me out when I asked for something; neither of those things were true. They’d just given up on trying to understand me. Did I want to ride bikes? Good for me, then. Did I want to work at a pizza place until 2am? Sure, whatever. Did I want to sleep, skip, and slack my way into a 2.5 GPA, even after knocking the PSAT into the stratosphere at the age of thirteen? So be it.
I cannot imagine taking the same disinterested approach to parenting my son that Mom and Dad took towards me — but they had me much earlier in life, plus they had my all-around outstanding little brother, the multiple-varsity-letter super-kid known to all and sundry as Bark M, upon whom they could focus the laser beams of their combined expectations. In retrospect, I’m more grateful to Bark than I can easily express. He was the one who had to go to all the practices, all the games, all the study sessions, and so on. He did all the work of our combined childhood. All I had to do was be as invisible as possible. The electron, the distant particle, hammering down a frozen road on a frost-white Cannondale to God knows where.
This is what I got out of it: nothing. Never made any real money on a bicycle, or selling bicycles, or writing about bicycles. It made me a pariah at my university and it gave me a butcher’s dictionary of injuries.
This is what I got out of it: everything. All of my personal stubbornness, my contentiousness, my willingness to work interminably towards an undefined goal.
And now I have this son of my own. His mother reminds me not to call him “the clone”, but it’s hard not to look at him and see myself writ small. The only way to distinguish our childhood photos: I’m wearing polyester in all of mine, because it was the Seventies and that’s what we did. He might as well be me. It worries me, makes me think that my fondness for him is just disguised narcissism.
I could leave him to discover what he wants to do and who he wants to be, the same way that my parents did for me. But I don’t trust the modern world. I’m afraid that he’ll want to be a professional videogamer or a crusader for social equality or a male hairdresser or, God forbid this most of all, one of those awful Jalopnik readers who works in a call center and jerks off to Finalgear.com.
So I’ve simply ordered up a catalog of my childhood wishes for him: motorcycles, bicycles, NERF guns, the most expensive Lego kits, any toy that catches his eye. His mother says that I’m spoiling him; I say that I’m giving him options.
When we were at Woodward two weekends ago, I had him climb up to the top of the Cloud 9 resi-halfpipe with me. “Jump off with me,” I said, and I jumped. I looked back. He was still sitting up top. His eyes were a little cloudy.
“No way,” he said, “that’s too dangerous, it’s just okay because you’re bigger than I am.” But all night I poked him about it. Finally, about half an hour before we were going to call it quits, he said, “Go to up to the top of the ramp with me.” And he shoved himself off.
Once he realized it wouldn’t kill him, I couldn’t stop him from doing it. At one point I got a little snippy. “I didn’t bring you four hundred miles to not ride your bike.” But I couldn’t be too angry. He’d convinced himself to take a chance. He’d self-motivated into something that frightened him.
Last week, we went to the local skatepark. It’s very different from Woodward: dark, dirty, spread out across multiple rooms of an old warehouse. After half an hour, John was extremely frustrated. “There’s nothing here I want to do!” he said, tears of frustration in his eyes. “Everything here is stupid. This is terrible.”
The response that caught in my throat: My parents would have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge before they would have driven me to a fuckin’ skatepark. Count your blessings and get back up that God-dammed roller. Part of being forty-five is that I no longer automatically say whatever comes to my mind. It’s probably why I remember my father as a mean-tempered, vicious man and John thinks I’m a big fat teddy bear; when I was seven, Dad was thirty-three.
“Alright, dude, here’s the deal,” I said, dropping my bike and squatting down next to him. “Chances are you’ll hate every new skatepark you ever go to. That’s because you have to come up with new ideas. About how to ride it. About what to do. So I’ll make you a deal. You try to figure out a fun way to ride it, and if you don’t like it, we never have to come back.”
For the first ten minutes or so, I was pretty convinced that we were never coming back. His lines kept getting cut off by the seemingly ubiquitous skaters. A fifteen-year-old actually lost control of his board and skated right into John, knocking both of them over; I could see my son’s determination deflate the moment it happened. But he didn’t quit.
Twenty minutes later, he’d come up with a line that would allow him to practice jumping. He was consistently pulling his front wheel up on the top of box ramps. I congratulated him.
“I’m having fun now, Dad,” he said, “but now I have a challenge for you. Can you jump all the way over that ramp?” It was a small pyramid, but there wasn’t much run-up. The first two times, I cased it pretty hard. I took a minute to sit and massage my knee. John mistook my physical misery for despair, and he rode over. “You’re so close to getting it,” he told me, very earnestly, “and I know you can do it, if you try really hard.”
“If you say so,” I replied, and climbed up the side of a roller ramp. This time I overjumped the pyramid and flatbottomed on the concrete afterwards. My whole body ached the way it had when I’d climbed out of that ditch thirty years ago. I looked across the room. John was jumping up and down, raising an imperial thumb of satisfaction with his old, battered father.
On the drive home, Danger Girl asked what we thought of the park. “I still don’t like it very much,” John said. “But Dad says that you have to get used to a skatepark, so I figured out something awesome I could do. When we go to another park, it will probably be that way, too.”
The next day, I found myself riding my CB through some really crappy weather on the way home from work. At one point the front end just completely got away from me and I kind of gave up on my prospects of continuing on this mortal coil before the tire found a dry-ish spot and snapped me back upright. Stay loose, I reminded myself. And I wondered: If I’d just gone ahead and slid face-first into the front bumper of somebody’s LX570 or something, had I done enough to plant that seed of stubborn effort in my son? Or would I find myself looking up from the fiery afterlife at a thirty-year-old videogamer/call-center employee/incel?
It made me laugh and twist the throttle a bit too much yet again. But even as the back wheel zipped up with the tach against no resistance, I realized that I trusted the kid to be self-motivating from here on out. Not that I won’t stick around as long as I can to get all up in his business, as they say. But there was no need to turn him into a self-motivated person. He was born that way. I’m taking credit for something I haven’t earned. And, again, as Pope would say:
Whether that Blessing be denied or giv’n,
Thus far was right, the rest belongs to Heav’n.