06 June 2008

How I Learned...

A while back I was walking with a friend of mine in the woods I roamed as a child. He is about ten years younger than me, and though he lives closer to the woods than I did growing up, had never been back there. When we came to the old mill pond (I know that sounds all like Norman Rockwell, but can I help that it really is an old mill pond?). I stopped at the edge for a moment, next to the sandbag dam, looked out over the water said, “We used to ice skate back here.”

”What do you mean?” asked my friend, a bit confused.

“What do you mean what do I mean,” I said, “We used to ice skate back here in the winter, and play hockey”

“That’s insane!” he said, his jaw dropping to the floor.

“What?!” I asked, genuinely puzzled by his reaction.

“What if you fell in?”

“Well, we didn’t go ice skating in April, only in the dead of winter. My older brother and his friends would check the ice first, and mark off areas to stay away from, and then we just skated and played hockey”

“I would never do that!” he said, his mind still reeling. “That’s just insane”

This then seems to illustrate the main difference between his generation and mine. They think we are insane.

I don’t have any kids yet, so I am sure I don’t really have the right to comment on how they are raised these days. But I will anyway.

It seems that many parents are convinced that their children are on the verge of a violent bloody end at any given moment. In the interest of safety (and really who can argue with safety), we basically prevent them from doing anything that may be even the slightest bit dangerous. So, instead of teaching kids how to safely ice skate on a frozen pond, their parents tell them not to do it, because its safer that way.

They support this position with tales of all the horrific things that can possibly happen to anyone who attempts to skate on a frozen pond. You might fall in. If you fall in you will get stuck under the ice and drown. If you do manage to pull yourself out, you will freeze to death. I you manage not to freeze to death, you will almost certainly loose your legs, or your arms, or both. Then you will be a stump. A stump with no arms and no legs and you will never be able to go outside and play ever again. All because you didn’t listen to your mom and tried to skate on the pond. When the kids are sufficiently terrified, they drive them to the local rink, where you can ice skate year round for $7.00 an hour, because its safer that way. The thing is, isn't nearly EVERYTHING safer if you don't do it?

A friend of mine tells her kids to never open a can of soda all the way, to only just barely crack the seal. That way, a bee can’t fly into their soda, and sting them in the mouth. When they go to the shore, they are not allowed to go in the water, because they might drown. They are only allowed to ride their bikes around their small block, never on a main road, because they might get hit by a car. This is all well and good, until I remind her that a few years ago, in Florida, she kept trying to pet wild alligators.

“Now which do you think is more dangerous, riding a bike, or trying to pet a wild alligator who really doesn’t want you around? Hmmmmm……” I ask as she glares at me.

Its not that I am being critical so much as I just can’t relate to it. My dad did not raise me this way. To my dad, danger was not something to be avoided. Danger was just motivation. And the more you feared for your life, the more motivated you would become.

Take how I learned to ride a bike. I was a late bloomer in this arena as I was with most everything else. As I got bigger, my dad had to continually reinforce the training wheels on my bike with strips of metal he bolted on to the frame. After a while, not only was my bike stable, it weighed about 100 pounds.

I took the requisite ribbing from my friends willingly enough. But, by the age of 8 or 9, my dad decided that it was high time I learned to ride a bike. He took the training wheels off and refused to put them on ever again, no matter how much I begged.

“Come here” he said, “I am going to teach you how to ride a bike.”

I was reluctant, but didn’t seem to have much choice. He sat me on the bike and held me up for a moment. Pointing the bike towards the side of our barn (yes, we had a barn, get over it) he said “OK, on the count of three I am going to push you, and you will have two choices: You can crash into the side of the barn, or you can pedal and steer, and not crash into the barn”

I wasn’t liking this. My whole body trembled. I may have wet my pants. I really, really really, didn’t want to do this, but at the moment I had no say in the matter.


I froze. I heard a loud noise that I soon realized was the sound of myself screaming. The bike careened towards the barn. I tried to pedal, but my brain couldn’t seem communicate with my feet. Instead they got all tangled in the pedals as the barn got closer and closer. My survival instinct took over and a single word found its way into my terrified mind:



Steer, God dammit!! Steer!!

With every ounce on strength in my body, I forced my heretofore frozen hands to turn the handlebars just before I hit the barn. The bike swerved to the right and dumped me off onto the blacktop. I was in shock. My hands ached and there was a rather large road rash on my ankle.

“That was pretty good!” said my dad enthusiastically. “Lets try that again.”

The funny thing is, we did try it again, and I got better. The second time I actually was able to pedal a little bit. The third time, I swerved and rode halfway across the driveway before falling. The fourth time, I didn’t fall at all. Within about 10 minutes, I was riding around in circles whooping and hollering. The pain was numbed by the shear elation. I did it!! I could ride a bike!

This pattern repeated itself throughout my childhood. I learned to swim when my dad threw me off the boat without a life jacket and told me to swim back. I learned ski when he took me to the top of the bunny hill and skied away, telling me he would see me at the bottom.

Now you are probably expecting me to say how much I resent my father for doing such horrible things. How the memories of these events haunted me into my adult life. But the thing is, I don’t resent any of it. While I will admit there might be better, more organized, and less terrifying ways to learn such things, my dad never did any of these things out of anger. He simply felt that the best way to learn things was by doing them, and the best way to deal with fear is to face it head on. And in that sense, he is right. Absolutely right.

In each case, I found that the crippling fear that kept me from attempting these things was unfounded. In confronting my greatest fears and surviving, I was set free. My world widened, and new opportunities opened to me. I still find that true today. Do I have scars? Sure I do, both literally and figuratively. But they are simply memories of times when I faced my fears, and survived.

And OK, there is that one that I got from falling off my house after trying to scale it like Spiderman, but that’s another story…