Recently, Gbot was consulting a dinosaur encyclopedia in the back seat. Examining the page on saber toothed tigers, he exclaimed, “Saber tooth tigers had sharp fangs to protect them from predators, and they could totally fang up people.”
I thought of The Pump Track Challenge.
The Pump Track Challenge: the bots’ first-ever competitive athletic event, which they participated in while on vacation in Idaho in July. I thought of it because it totally fanged me up, as only a competitive athletic event for the five-and-under set could.
The Pump Track itself, as, say, a static sculpture in dirt, is pretty tame. About the size of a basketball court, it consisted of a series of whoop-dee-doos (dirt rollers: think a sine wave) and banked circles–imagine twelve-foot diameter, three-foot-deep dirt teacups. It’s kind of like a skate park, but for people on mountainbikes. This one was overseen by the Blaine County Recreation District, one of those model community entities that rarely makes a wrong move.
Even when it becomes a kinetic, interactive sculpture, with bots zooming around the upper inside edges of the teacups and pumping over the rollers, the Pump Track is only mildly nerve-wracking. We discovered it, on a tip from a friend, one hot afternoon when all the locals were at the Aquatic Center next door. We were giddy with excitement. Gbot strided like a pinball up, down, and around; Mbot attacked it gamely but spent as much time in the dust as he did in the saddle. This is a kid who never used training wheels. The Pump Track takes practice.
An old friend of mine, Eric, who happens to be in charge of maintaining the track, was pulling weeds for the upcoming Challenge,. He urged us to participate. He’s got a son of his own, aged three, who would be there. It wasn’t really a race, he said. One bot on the course at a time, he said. Just them against the clock, he said. And, at the end, trophies.
“Trophies?” asked Mbot.
“Trophies!” said Gbot.
Over the next several days, the conversations around our guest house sounded like this:
Me: “Gbot, take off your shoes and wash your hands.”
Gbot: “Is this the day of the Pump Track Challenge?”
Me: “Who wants to watch ‘The Magic Schoolbus Gets Energized?!'”
Gbot: “I want a trophy!”
Belatedly, I began to sense danger.
Because, for all my trying and denying, the bots aren’t mountainbots. They’re burb-bots. They’d rarely ridden on dirt; they’d never nudged their knobbies along the steep lips of earthen teacups. They were game, but green. They didn’t know it. I did.
I tried to explain to the bots that they might not get a trophy. That only the fastest kids get a trophy. Which will probably be the kids who live here in the Valley, the kids who get to ride the Pump Track EVERY DAY! The kids who are older. The kids who are bigger. (The kids who are genetically programmed to kick your ass in any athletic event, not just now, but through your entire life, no matter how fast you pedal your own ass on the Pump Track, courtesy of the Andrews non-Olympian strain of DNA.)
This said (or, actually, I left that last part left unsaid), I do believe that persistence and passion can elevate anyone to the lofty heights of their potential. I know this personally, because I didn’t learn to ride a bike adequately until I was thirty, at which point my passion for cycling proved so strong that, in spite of the terror it inspired in me, I spent the next decade pushing my beloved Gary Fisher (it’s red! A red bike!) four thousand feet at a time up dirt trails narrower than a Republican’s mind and zooming down the same trails with a death grip on the handlebars–thus utilizing my body for activities it wasn’t originally designed for, kind of like finding one of those round plastic cones you put over a dog’s head to keep it from gnawing on some recent wound, and re-purposing it as a lampshade.
If you love to ride, you love to ride. And even if your center of gravity is at breast level and your reflexes operate on a 12k bandwidth, that passion can push you through hundreds of hours of dedicated practice, which will eventually turn you into an adequate (albeit heavily scarred) mountain biker.
The bots love to ride. Especially Mbot. But this preoccupation with a TROPHY was unsettling. A TROPHY ATTAINABLE ONLY BY THREE PEOPLE. A trophy that is significant because it indicates its owner is a winner, but is more significant because it indicates that all others are LOSERS.
I explained to the bots that you don’t ride in a race just to get a trophy. ! I explained that you did it to have fun. ! I explained that, when you race over and over, you get better, and can see how much better you’re getting. ! I explained that everyone who participated was a winner. ! Just for doing it. ! I spoke with exclamation points, in case the tone of my voice was strained and unconvincing.
Because I am a competitionphobe. Everything about a race turns my insides to liquid and shoots me to the nearest bathroom. But I don’t want my sons to grow up to be like me (in this way). I want them to grow up to feel, if not what it seems many others seem to feel in the throes of athletic competition (ALIVE!!!! GRRRR!!! JUST COME AND TRY TO EAT THESE QUADS, SABER TOOTHED TIGER!!!), at least that competition is healthy and fun. ! That it strengthens you, physically and psychologically. ! That it is a great way to share your passion with like-minded beings. ! That it builds self-confidence in a pleasurable way. !)
What I did not try to explain is that if you enter a competition, it’s feels good to win. It’s a prize for working so hard as well as a public affirmation of your athletic superiority. On that day. In that discipline and age group. And that it usually kind of sucks to not win. At least, right away, and for a while afterward.*
Also, whether you are a winner or a nonwinner (we do not use the word LOSER. The only loser is the person who uses the word LOSER) seems to matter to lots of people. People will form opinions about you based on whether you win or do not win. Also on how you win or do not win. By entering a competition, you are subjecting yourself not only to the inarguable clock but to public scrutiny.
Good luck with that.
I realize it’s one of the marks of my socioeconomic class to overthink these things. In the future, I will try not to.
Good luck with that.
I offered up to the universe my Pump Track Prayer: Please, let the bots participate in a Pump Track Challenge without having it fang them up for the rest of their lives.
When we arrived at the Challenge, at four o’clock Thursday afternoon, the Pump Track was no longer our private oasis of speed, fun, and possibility. It was crawling with others. It was foreign. It was threatening. Parents and bots and bikes and officials navigated one another to blaring music. Normally I would have liked the music, but now it was oppressive. My bots seemed unfazed by the crowd or the activity. They located the trophy table and fingered the shiny made-in-China cyclists sparkling in the sun atop flimsy plastic pedestals.
At the registration table, I found I knew the woman who handed me our papers, an athlete named Janelle. Years before, we’d waited tables and ridden bikes together. In my memory, she is very very small, and I’m seeing her from behind, because she is very very far ahead of me on the trail before she disappears altogether.
I filled out the forms and gave her my credit card to pay the five dollar registration fee. Knowing yet another Pump Track insider should have, I thought, made me feel like an insider, too. Like we Belonged. It didn’t. I didn’t know more than six adults and four children here (including my own). One of the adults was a friend, Amy; our bots had just had a playdate. But another, Eric’s wife, either wasn’t recognizing me or was recognizing but not acknowledging me. Probably not recognizing. My shirt was not quite as casual as those of the other parents. I felt like the bots and I were inside a balloon, an invisible balloon whose impermeable walls separated us from all these other people–these locals–these people whose lives were lived in this snug valley, lived on two wheels, lived within the friendly competitive communal embrace of one another.
I zip-tied the bots’ numbers onto their handlebars. #155 and #156. Suddenly astride their bikes, with their official numbers, the bots looked like they belonged. Just like that. I tried to imagine it all from their points of view. They knew only that they were gonna get to ride their bikes, with other kids, and that there were trophies. They’d gotten the $5 ride through the balloon walls. I was alone inside them now.
Gbot–steady, sturdy, strong on his Strider and 3 3/4 years old, fell nicely into the two-to-four age group. His course was marked with yellow plastic bowls turned upside down, and consisted of a brief out-and-back with a steeply banked circle around a tree at the far end.
Mbot–five years old for all of two weeks, fell uncomfortably into the five-to-seven age group. His course, marked with red upside-down plastic red bowls, consisted of a three-leaf-clover pattern of teacup rims, then a steep whoop-de-doo up to trail along a towering (well, four feet—a steep four feet) embankment—The Ledge—that gradually descended to circle the same tree as Gbot’s course, then back over Gbot’s course. I cursed myself for not fibbing at the registration desk and signing him up for the younger kids’ race. It’s not like he was a contender. I just wanted him to have a good time. I assumed that having a good time correlated directly to riding the course successfully and as it was meant to be ridden. I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was afraid he’d be upset that he wouldn’t be able to do it.
Terrified, actually. Because I want to protect these children from everything, at the same time I want to affix to them a mosaic of positive life experiences like heat proof tiles, enough to absorb the blast of entry. Get back in my body, I want to say. Where I can keep you safe. Where the biggest competition is with my bladder, for real estate.
Gbot hit the dirt for practice runs with no concept of fear or of the direction of the course. Twice he was ushered off the big boy course, wailing, “I want to go on the red course!”
Mbot hung back at the start, where other kids pushed in front of him, until I encouraged him to take a few practice rides, too. When he finally headed out, it was at the direction of one of the adults in charge, and it was roughly ten seconds behind a kid—a bigger kid—and ten seconds before another, bigger, kid. The result was that there were three kids on the course at a time. Within seconds, deep in the third teacup, Mbot and his bike ended up under a bigger kid and his bigger bike.
Technically, it had been Mbot’s fault. He’d gone straight from the first teacup to the third. But he didn’t know the course. I wanted to shout at the guys in charge. He’s FOUR! Or would be, if he’d been born two weeks late. These are small children, for god’s sake, not bees who were born with their that-way-pollen-grows figure-eight dances spliced into their genes, like the girl Olympian figure-skaters excising their compulsories out of ice. I ran.
The bigger kid extricated himself and his bike and rode away, and then I as pulling Mbot upright, pulling his bike upright, telling him it wasn’t his fault, that hitting the ground is part of riding, is part of racing. That he’d fallen lots of times and bounced right up. That I’d fallen lots of times on my bike. He was in tears. He was talking nonstop, inconsolable. He was blaming himself for the crash.
We hobbled, like a four-legged, two-wheeled monster, a Pump Track version of the Elephant Man, to the far side of the course, where we could be alone. For the next seven minutes, tears flowed onto my not-casual-enough shirt. But every time I said, “It wasn’t your fault, Bug,” and, “You don’t have to race!” the answer was a teary wail: “No! I want to go! I want to race!” My stomach was churning. How would he remember this? Maybe he wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t, it would Change him. Shape him. A hundred thousand years from now, anthropologists would see the scar in his fossilized psyche like paleontologists today can identify tooth marks in the femurs of woolly mammoths. (Mothers think not only melodramatically, but in sweeping time frames.)
Leaning against the wood ranch-style fence, looking through ridiculously clear mountain air, right out of a pre-Raphaelite painting or HDTV, toward Carbonate Mountain, fifteen-hundred vertical feet of sagebrush at whose dusty brown foot I’d lived for ten years, whose flank I’d pushed up and careened down on my bike countless times in another life–my memories, not Mbot’s, never Mbot’s–we gathered ourselves. We wiped away tears. We circumnavigated the Track and pushed into the throngs that were now readying for the first race of the day.
It was Gbot’s race. The field was fifteen-strong. Eric’s son was hiding his face (which was already half-hidden beneath an enormous brave-animal helmet), in his mother’s neck. Others went, swooping down the six-foot ramp onto the course. An announcer provided not-quite-funny commentary over a loudspeaker. Someone worked the large digital clock, setting and resetting it, from beside the finish line. Finishing times: Forty seconds. Thirty seconds. Twenty-two seconds!
Brave-animal-helmet had still not been imbued by the characteristics of his totem. Gbot, under his red dinosaur helmet, was ready to roar. Finally he was at the starting line. His name of Basque origin was, as always, pronounced incorrectly: not phonetically, exactly as it is spelled, but in the only way people have heard things that look similar pronounced, based on some person of German ancestry they once went to school or played ball with: Eckhardt. Mispronounced, he went.
He shot down the ramp and onto the first of the whoop-de-doos. His legs strode madly all the way out. His verve was admired over the loudspeaker. He rounded the tree in under ten seconds. And then…he sort of slowed down. As if perhaps he wasn’t sure of the course, or as if he’d forgotten what he’d come for. Or–and this is what it looked like to me–as if to savor the ride. He was out for a Sunday stride. He was taking it in. He was enjoying himself. He had no concept that churning toward the finish line, merely twenty feet away, would get him one of the coveted trophies. He meandered across the finish line well off the top three. I was thrilled he had made the finish line, and not headed back up to the starting line. Mostly, though, I was just thrilled it was over. I hugged him, told him great jobb. Gbot appeared unmoved by the whole thing.
The real knuckle-chewer was in the chute. Ten racers into his twenty-strong category, #155 was called to the start. Although Mbot was the youngest in his group, he was as tall as the seven-year-olds. Everyone thinks he’s older than he is, I thought. Everyone will judge this gangly kid, has already judged him, the one who cried in front of everyone. Mbot still had only a sketchy concept of the shape of the race course. “Eckhardt.” The clock started. Mispronounced, misunderstood, misjudged, he went.
He accelerated down the ramp, pedals whirling. Steered around the first teacup, skipped the second one (as he’d done in practice), hit the third (kind of) then headed up the rise onto The Ledge. And there, lacking momentum, he rolled to a complete stop. His bike tipped over. And this is what he did: Having never watched a mountain bike race, having ridden almost completely on level grade concrete since birth, he untangled himself from the bike, hauled it upright, took it by the handlebars, and pushed it up the steep rise. He walked that mother right to the top, where he threw his leg over it again, pushed off–at the edge of The Ledge, no less–and navigated the rest of the course en velo.
Where did he learn to do that? I wondered. He didn’t have to learn. He just knew.
On the safe side of the finish line, where I pounced on him and smothered him with praise, he, like his younger brother, seemed unfazed.
It was obvious that the bots were experiencing a completely different event than the one I was suffering through. For them, it really was fun! The wreck had happened to another boy, of another generation, in another universe, in front of another crowd, watching that other tall crybaby who can’t ride a bike—not only watching him but watching him as he’s crying, his narrow back to the crowd, his tear-streaked face to the mountains, watching and thinking, as even Eric had thought, “The kids taking a pee against the fence.”
At trophy-getting time, Amy’s son won the first-place trophy in Gbot’s category. (His progenitors include a grandfather whose hiked extensively in the Himalayas, with and without broken bones, and a mom who attended college on a swimming scholarship.)
Gbot did not get a trophy. Mbot did not get a trophy. What they did get was a green ribbon apiece for participation. A mother must have thought of that. Mbot was absolutely and unexpectedly thrilled with his. Gbot collapsed into a wailing heap that refused to go home without a trophy.
“I want a trophy! I want a trophy!” sobbed thirty-five-pound Gbot-the-root-vegetable, embedded in the soil beside the Pump Track, as I tugged gently but insistently, and then insistently and not gently, at the soft, plump, upraised fist. I think I carried him away. And then, blissfully, we fled.
I fled, at least. To the grass lawn outside the Track. Mbot posed for a photo with his green ribbon. I dialed up Husbot. “I was in a bike race,” Mbot grinned into the phone. “And I got a bow!” Ribbon, bow. The word “ribbon” didn’t occupy a place in Mbot’s reward vocabulary, but he was willing to welcome it in. Gbot was not. He refused to hold his bow for a picture. He wanted nothing to do with it. The next day, it only served to remind him of what he did not get: a trophy.
The next day, Amy and I commiserated over how not fun The Pump Track Challenge had been. We both asked, with dread in our voices, the same question at the same time: “What happens next time, when Amy’s son doesn’t win?”
Then you’re on, Mom.
Three days later, the bots were no longer even talking about it anymore. Not the pump track. Not the trophy. They were still riding their bikes. The uncool baskets had been reattached. The bots had moved on.
But I couldn’t. I’d been disturbed at the strength of my Pump Track emotions. They included,
- “Get the fang out of my child’s way,”
- “Don’t fanging judge my child,”
- “This fanging contrived situation to measure small children against each other sucks fanging ass.”
- “Calm down, Betsy, for fang’s sake. It’s only a race. And it’s not even your race.”
It took several more days before the good of it sank in: Without that clock, without the other kids around, without those hideous trophies waiting to be claimed, Mbot probably wouldn’t have jumped up so fast when his bike tipped over, and pushed through. And now he knew what it felt like, to try that hard in order to accomplish a goal he’d set himself.
Was it worth it? My hairdresser, the one who keeps trying to lowlight me, would say it was not, would say that since the Pump Track Challenge I am not quite so girlishly brunette. I’d say I suppose it was. Although it seemed much more of a challenge for the mothers of participants than for the actual participants.
I know that my children are not going to win sometimes. That’s life. I don’t care. But I don’t want it to hurt them. I want them to be able to be okay with it. But it’s a challenge to come to peace with the fact that my children are going to be judged. And that sometimes, they are going to end up at the bottom. I know that my children are going to enter into all kinds of situations that society has contrived to measure, distinguish, separate, label, and create desire and discontent. I want them to walk proudly away from those situations wearing their green bows.
I know that my children were born with a strength and resilience that I cannot know or measure.
It is a challenge to show some of that strength and resilience myself.
*I know this only because I was a prepubescent athletic phenom in Auke Bay, Alaska. In strictly an Auke Bay School Field Day Champion context. Because I reached nearly my adult height and weight by the age of twelve, I kicked ass at the fifty yard dash (yes, there is one, for children), the hundred yard dash, the 400-meter relay (I was not anchor), the high jump, and the shot put. Then I turned thirteen and the destiny of my body–to sit in a chair while I typed–became manifest. But the ribbons (there were no trophies) rocked.