A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Spinning Our Wheels

The leaves have finally appeared, the sun is shining, Hot Licks Ice Cream is scooping the Nanook Nosh into waffle cones, and I suddenly have a whole lot of two-wheeled company on the paths, sidewalks, and road-shoulders of Fairbanks.  It’s Bike to Work week again.  

“I love my mommy because she rides us to school in a Chariot.”  This Mother’s Day proclamation was laminated for posterity by the ever-patient and good-humored teachers at Bunnell House Preschool.  It not only advertises the fact that I haul the kids about in a nifty convertible trailer with a lofty Greco-Roman-sounding name, but also features a drawing of me doing some sort of peculiar-looking calisthenics. I’m stretching all four limbs -- each adorned with precisely five digits.  Whatever I’m doing must be fun, because I have an enormous blue smile on my egg-shaped head.  Egg-head or not, though, the message seems unambiguous: Mommy is all about brawn, not brains.

I tacked up this card in my office, because I’m just as delusional as other parents about my children’s talents, and because I have a deep-seated appreciation for Crayola as an artistic medium. The work was created with the greatest goodwill on the part of the young artist, Molly.  Still, the card slightly discomfits me.  As I sit at my computer, peering at an array of downscaled Global Circulation Model data or enjoying literary treats such as “Development of scale-free climate data for western Canada” and “A high resolution bioclimate map of the world,” I wonder whether my kids have the right idea about who Mommy is, exactly.  Then I wonder whether I do, either.

It seems ironic to me – and disingenuous – that I am labeled as the mom who bikes or jogs everywhere.  With embarrassing regularity, I meet strangers who say, “Oh, I see you every single morning!” or “You’re the one who runs with your kids at thirty below!”  Some remember the 2010 NewsMiner feature on Bike to Work Week.  On the front of the Local section there was an enormous photo of Molly and Lizzy, taken from their own perspective at sub-bicycle height.  I am busy cramming helmets onto their heads.  A few people even recall another NewsMiner article from more than four years ago, featuring me and Jay and our then-infant twins on an overnight cross-country ski trip.  On the other hand, no one remembers the much more recent article in which I’m quoted saying “We’re at the cutting edge of climate change,” or the one in which I wax lyrical about permafrost. Some people seem to find my antics on bikes and skis commendable, while others clearly think I’m only a few blue tarps away from the lunatic fringe, but either way, they have typecast me as a dedicated athlete.  This is laughable.  “I’m not a jock!” I want to tell them.  “I’m a nerd.”  

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.  I’ve always been a nerd.  I’m used to it, and it fits me comfortably.  I was the toddler who sat at a green plastic desk, playing the role of earnest pupil, while my big sister Sarah taught me everything she’d learned at school.  This gave me a three-year preview on academic life, and meant that when I finally reached school-age myself, I spent a lot of time alone in the hallway reading terrific stories with protagonists who were, irritatingly, as elderly as nine or ten. I was the kid who looked forward to Mathletes meets, entered every contest in the Summer Reading Program, and as a kindergartener sent a letter to Kellogg’s, complaining about their misspelling of “Krispy.”

Sports, on the other hand, were not my strong point.  I swung a bat without any apparent regard for the location of the ball.  At early-eighties roller-skating birthday parties, I clung to the walls. The only time I made contact with the ball in flag football was when it slammed me directly in the nose.  During soccer games, I stood rooted in the fullback position, hoping the ball would never come my way, and letting my mind wander.  It was kind of interesting how those black pentagons and white hexagons tessellated.

I suppose my lack of athletic prowess wasn’t really surprising, given the influences of my family.  My dad loves watching baseball, but he freely admits that the statistics are what drew him to the game, not any innate ability to actually bat, throw, or run.  My mom dutifully took me to swimming lessons, but she is most definitely not a soccer mom.  And my sister, who was such a talented and voluble pupil that I found myself consistently tagged at “Sarah’s sister” by teachers and school staff, ended up doing a stint in remedial gym. 

As for biking, we Frescos weren’t stellar in that realm either.  Dad tooled around on an old Schwinn, but mom never learned to ride at all.   Sarah didn’t learn until she was about ten, when the peer pressure became so great that it overshadowed her fear of scraped knees.  I was not much better, getting my balance some time around my eighth birthday. 

I suppose in the back of my mind, I assumed my kids would take the same trajectory I did.  Thus, I felt a peculiar mix of surprise, pride, and alarm when Molly and Lizzy both ditched their training wheels last summer, when they were barely four.  They are avid fans of not only the Chariot, but also our double and single tag-along bikes and their own miniature two-wheelers.  They can now weave among innocent bystanders on UAF’s footpaths fast enough to cause their daddy to panic.   They are also immensely proud of their ability to handle a mushing sled, and are eager to join the Junior Nordic ski club. 

On the other hand, the twins can barely struggle – with help -- through “pre-readers” with scintillating plotlines such as “See Otto Swing.”  They only recently mastered counting to 100.  They’ll be fine little kindergarteners in the fall, but they certainly won’t be prodigies.  Nerd that I am, I find myself wondering if perhaps the kids aren’t gaining skills in the optimal order.  I wonder whether, through all my hiking, biking, ski racing, and running, I’m serving as a role model for brawn over brains.

Luckily, all that biking and running also gives me plenty of time for corralling my straying thoughts into some semblance of logic.  Does it really matter in what order they learn, so long as they are having fun, and just being happy kids?  I was an early reader and a late biker, I remind myself, but now I’m quite adept at both.  Jay was a later reader, but now he often has trouble unearthing himself from a good book.  And Sarah, my talented, gym-challenged big sister, grew up to be an avid reader, a great community leader – and a professional bicycling advocate, coordinator for the Massachusetts Green Streets Initiative.  On whatever timeline suits them, Molly and Lizzy will eventually be able to read AND ride bikes – although not, I would hope, at the same time. 

Besides, although I’ve generally been happy with my nerd persona, there were times – mostly when I was between the ages of thirteen and eighteen – when I desperately wished that more people would notice that I had non-academic personality traits, too.  I wasn’t JUST a kid with good test scores – I was also a kid who liked firing up the power tools in shop class, getting muddy in the woods, watching The Princess Bride altogether too many times, making crabapple jelly, and riding my bike to the beach. 

Maybe now, finally, I’ve got what I wanted all along. I can be a scientist AND a poster child for non-motorized transportation.  Maybe one day my kids will be able to look back and appreciate me for an eclectic range of attributes and activities. Of course, before that will come the teen years, when they will probably appreciate me for nothing at all.

For now, I’m happy to see bicycles stacked up against the fence outside Fun Time playground.  I’m pleased to hear people talking about burning calories, not gas, and I appreciate the fact that Fairbanks has embraced Bike to Work Week.  I’m also glad that Molly is proud of me, even if she’s only proud of me for my pedal power.  Besides, if I want diversity of opinion, I can always check with Lizzy.  Her Mother’s Day card is displayed on my wall, too. 

“I love that Mommy can still pick us up,” it says.

Maybe I should take up weight lifting.

Photo by Eric Engman, Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner, May 12 2010

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