Once upon a time, sometime in August, I made three friends.
It was not long after Mbot’s fifth birthday. It seemed all the toys he’d received at his party were breaking because they had outlived their unwritten life-expectancy of three weeks, or collecting dust, because they’d entered the boring zone.
The idea of robots originated with Mbot’s very first show-and-tell, over two years ago.
On the eve of his first show-and-tell, we (I use the term very loosely) made a recycle robot for his first preschool show-and-tell–not because we were trying to be clever, but because we were panicky and desperate (again, the term “we” used loosely). I documented that event in my post, Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus. Ever since, I secretly wanted to make more.
So I’d been piling recyclables in the garage–not all of them of course, but the choice items with interesting shapes or moving parts (cardboard tubes, ketchup bottles, wipies lids), in preparation for a recycle party that we hadn’t had. I envisioned inviting over some of the bots’ friends and making cool stuff out of all the cool stuff that other people thought were trash.
We have yet to have our recycle party, but I started partying with recyclables by myself. While During the seven weeks that I was going through radiation, I promised myself that I wouldn’t push myself too hard. I wouldn’t try to make headway on any of my writing projects. I would be kind to myself. I would have fun. I decided it was time to get out the pile o’ trash. I made these three dudes as toys for the weebots. They’re all about twenty inches tall (antennae not included) and have swiveling heads, moving arms, grasping hands, and secret compartments. I avoided using brads or any metal parts, for safety reasons.
What I didn’t know before I made the recycle robots is that they would turn out to be the perfect toys. Why?
1. They are cheap. They are made out of garbage!
2. When they break, I can fix them myself, because I made them in the first place!
3. When the bots get bored with them, I can change them! They will seem new again!
4. They can serve as friends, targets for Tae Kwon Do kicks, storage containers for other toys, or piggy banks. And it’s always nice to have a friend who’s also a piggy bank.
6. They can double as décor by adding a test tube filled with water and a flower.
7. They have turned my own weebots into lean, green, recycle machines; their favorite craft now is collecting junk, gluing it together, and adding eyes. They can, literally, make their own friends.
My friend Solveig, who’s been around since the failed Scotch sewing machine days, dubbed the robots–and we who make them–the Recycle Robot League.
Thanks to St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival–where, after three weeks of collecting recyclables, the children built their own recycle robots–there are now nearly fifty members!
Next week, I’ll post pictures of the kids’ robonderful creations. Toilet paper tubes have never had such a shiny future.
When a friend asked for step-by-step instructions so she could make them with her eight-year-old homeschooled twins, I sat down to write them, and at her prompting, made them downloadable on Etsy.com for $.99. The process that actually made the robots better, because I wanted to make sure to include tips on how to reinforce their bods to make them as durable as possible. Because while it’s great to be able to whip out a glue gun for a quick fix, it’s even better not to have to!
Several weeks ago, Mbot, in the backseat, said, apropos of nothing:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.
Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake,
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The snow is lovely, soft, and deep,
But I’ve got promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
Before I could fill the car with astonished applause, Mbot added, “I wonder why he has to go to sleep twice?”
Apparently, Mbot’s class had learned the poem in preparation for St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival. This was the first I’d heard of it. I knew they’d been learning songs–Gbot spontaneously throughout the day would lift his voice to sing that the autumn leaves were falling, falling, and (crouching down, hands at his feet) touching…the…ground. But Robert Frost?
The fascinating thing about the spontaneous recitation was the the expressiveness with which Mbot spoke–it wasn’t like he was reciting it by rote as much as telling me with great enthusiasm about what he did last night (in extremely articulate rhyming iambic pentameter). He owned that poem! And obviously enjoyed the tumble of it from his tongue.
It reminded me of the first time I can remembering hearing classical music (although I’m sure I’d heard it before)–in a gray-linoleumed, fluorescent-lit music room where my third grade class filed once a week to sing simple songs very badly. The music teacher lowered a record’s needle onto a vinyl disk, and the first notes of “Morning Song,” at the beginning of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite were breathed into my consciousness. I didn’t know what it was. I remember sitting in my metal folding chair as the music described the rising sun, transfixed with joy–I had never even imagined that anything that beautiful that could exist. I went home and asked my mom if it would be possible to actually buy it. Soon afterward, this appeared in our living room:
I couldn’t care less about the Nutcracker. But I listened to the B-side of that record as often as my mother would agree to load it onto the turntable of my dad’s treasured hi-fi stereo, whose amplifiers he had built by hand (and whose vacuum tubes periodically self-destructed in a dramatic cloud of smoke that filled the house with the smell of freshly charred wiring).
Partly because of the vividness of that memory, I’ve never believed in dumbing down language or music for children. Sure, we read picture books by the shelf-foot, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But I also read to the bots whatever they’ll sit still for–parts of articles from National Geographic or the New Yorker (Ian Frazier’s adventures in northern Russia, for some reason, particularly captured Mbot’s interest), and I intersperse what is now the Bot’s fave music–“beat music” (any popular dance song, whose lyrics they argue over, both of them wrong), with large doses of classical, and not the Little Einstein version, either. Once in a while they complain about it (Mbot: “I will NOT thank whoever wrote THIS music”), but not often. Who knows what the bots get out of all these grown-up forms of artistic expression? But if they’re ready to get something, it’ll be there for them to get, and they’ll get it.
The Fall Festival was just over two weeks ago. Mbot and the other kindergartners recited Robert Frost, almost incoherently–it was much better performed solo in the back of the car; Gbot performed his extremely brief song about falling leaves while waving a gauzy scarf in autumnal colors, and the elementary class recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Arrow and the Song”:
I shot an arrow into the air
It fell to earth, I know not where,
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak,
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Since the Festival, Gbot has been reciting bits and pieces of this poem, out of the blue. I provide the words when he can’t remember, but generally, he just seems to be enjoying saying a couple of lines at a time; his favorite combo goes straight from breathing a song into the air to finding it again in the heart of a friend.
Since Junebug has died, we’ve been talking about her almost every day; we’ve been talking about death lately, too, because the antique cat–after nearly eighteen years, having beaten diabetes but unable to conquer renal failure–is finally sneaking up on the end of his ninth life. Needless to say, there are way more questions in the house these days than answers for them.
Yesterday afternoon, I happened to say to Gbot at breakfast something like, “Goodness, your cereal just disappeared.”
At which point there was a brief pause before Gbot responded, “And June disappeared.”
“Yes,” I said.
There was another pause, and Gbot replied, “And you know not where.”
Gbot’s use of the poem’s antiquated syntax made me think that he was making a connection to the song breathed into the air, and its trajectory. It reminded me of the power of poetry–not only to create beauty in the presence of grief, but to connect seemingly disparate facts, objects, memories, experiences–and build a harmony of them filled with subtle and complex understanding.
Even as tears sprang to my eyes, I had to stifle a giggle. I thought for a moment. “Into the hearts of her friends,” I said. Then we went out and rode bikes.
Yesterday we said goodbye to Junebug.
Since I picked her in 2001 from among sixty inmates at the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, where she’d been living for twelve months, we never really knew how old she was. According to the lady at the shelter, the scrawny black and white dog was one or two when she’d arrived, which would make her fourteen or fifteen this year.
Friends and I in Idaho’s Wood River Valley joked that she was a genuine Wood River Retriever. The product of ne’er-do-well parents sporting substantial doses of Labrador and Border Collie in their questionable pedigrees, these middle-sized, athletic, poorly trained hounds are ubiquitous in the Valley. The B.C./Lab mix gave Junebug webbed toes, an unquenchable desire to run far, far away, and a dense, fluffy undercoat protected by a long, oily topcoat, with which she performed Olympian feats of shedding.
Junie was as strange a dog as her appearance suggests, by turns cripplingly empathetic and discouragingly aloof. In spite of her flipper-like feet and waterproof coat, she did not like to swim. Instead, she preferred to wade, and after our first month as a team, during which together we watched dozens of tennis balls bob downstream and out of sight, she finally succeeded in training me not to throw tennis balls.
But if I demonstrated undue optimism in the early days, I wasn’t alone. Every morning she woke up knowing that this–this!–would be the day that she would finally catch a squirrel.
She chased cats (although it’s important to note that not once did she chase Tesserwell), and she chased foxes, but her quarry of choice was the squirrel. Idaho, where she spent her first seven years, is ideal for such pursuit, boasting thirteen species of ground squirrel. All of them were faster than June.
This morning, teary-eyed while tying his sneakers, Mbot asked me to tell another Junie story. “Juniebug woke up every morning,” I began, “knowing–just knowing!–that that day would be the day she caught a squirrel.” I zipped the bots into sweatshirts and we shuffled over the new Bermuda grass, glowing green around our shoes, to the car. “But she never did.”
“Well, there was one time….We were housesitting at Nanny and Poppy’s. Now, you know how Nanny and Poppy don’t like the smell of onions, right? For some reason I can’t remember now, I had one with me, and put it on top of my car overnight instead of bringing it inside. Then I did some gardening at Nanny and Poppy’s and Junie spent the morning racing around in the grass and woods after squirrels. Now, Junie was fast–fast as a cheetah on the African plains. But not as fast as a squirrel.
“Well, just as I was getting ready to get in the car and go home, Juniebug prances up to me, and by jigger if she wasn’t carrying a squirrel in her mouth. Oh, she was so pleased with herself! She was prancing and dancing. Can you imagine Junie prancing and dancing? I, on the other paw, was horrified. By the look of the squirrel, it had probably been dead for a day. That would explain why it was so stiff, and also why it couldn’t outrun Junie. I took it out of her mouth–she didn’t care, she was still dancing and prancing with glee to finally get a taste of squirrel–it tasted just like candy to her–Squirrel Skittles, and Squirrel Duds–and I put it on top of the car next to the onion.
“Then I went to get a bag to put it in. I didn’t want it stinking up Nanny and Poppy’s garbage. But I got distracted, and forgot about it, and finished up the gardening, and called Juniebugs out of the trees, where she was looking to double her score, and she leaped into the back of the car–can you imagine Juniebugs leaping? Just like a gazelle on the African plains. And we drove home.
“And out on the road, I said to Junie, ‘I must look awfully lovely today! Everyone we pass is looking at us. Aren’t we a couple of beautiful girls?’ And it was true: heads were turning on the highway the whole drive home.
“And then we got home. I climbed out of the car and Junie jumped out and sat looking at the car. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘It’s time to go inside.’ But she just sat looking past me, and so I turned around, and what did I see? There on the top of the car were the onion and the squirrel. I had driven all the way home with an onion and a dead squirrel on top of my car! Everyone we passed must have thought I was going to make squirrel soup. Junebug particularly wanted me to, because after all it was the first squirrel she’d ever caught. Oh, that was a happy day for Junebug!”
By that time, we’d reached school. We bundled out of the car, navigated the parking lot holding hands, hugged and kissed goodbye, Junie temporarily forgotten in pursuit of the day.
I have told the bots that we need to be thankful that Junebug was part of our family. I can’t with a clear conscious tell them that she went to heaven. Unless heaven is our collective consciousness, the narrative through which we navigate past and present and future, as real and powerful and invisible as oxygen or gravity. We’ll tell Junebug stories.
And so Junie’s having a good day, today, chasing squirrels, and catching them.
From the back seat:
Evolutionary biological evidence that the automobile did not develop in tandem with Homo sapiens:
Gbot, having not finished eating his lunch at school, spreads a napkin on his lap in preparation to finish his soup on the drive home. And then pouts when I put the kibosh on opening his thermos.
Against all odds, I remembered this morning that today is Picture Day.
I wonder that the School Picture hasn’t gone the way of the Scratch ‘n’ Sniff t-shirt in an age where a teacher can just whip out her cell phone during class and upload, but apparently, there is still a market for generic photos of overdressed children.
They are hard to take seriously.
Even so, I pulled out the bots’ wedding outfits–buttondown shirts and nice pants. We attended a beautiful family wedding this past weekend and I took no pictures, so I figured I’d let Special EFX capture the bots’ Wedding Look.
But everyone knows you do your hair first.
Mbot’s coif was in its usual morning Harry Potter look-alike mode, so I dribbled a little water on it while he was rinsing toothpaste out of his mouth, and plugged in the blow dryer. He was excited about the blow dryer. He wanted to do his hair himself. I set the switch to “cool” and figured it’d be safe to go finish packing lunchboxes.
Silly me. I’d thought “cool” referred to temperature.
Several minutes later, the following conversation ensued over the sound of the blow dryer:
Gbot: “Mbot, are you done yet? Your hair looks completely perfect!”
Mbot: “I’m trying to make a Mohawk. Where’s the water, Gbot?”
Gbot: “I can get the water cup and fill it up!”
Gbot: “Here is the water!”
Mbot: “Okay, pour it on something!”
Gbot: “You mean your hair?”
Mbot: “No, a towel!”
Gbot: “I brought you the towel!”
Mbot: “Now, pour water on it!”
Then it was Gbot’s turn with the blowdryer.
Then, for some reason, perhaps because he likes playing with water, Gbot dampened his hair again.
But he didn’t realize the effect applying water would have.
Gbot: “Oh, my hair is back to curly! My fashion’s wearing off!”
Mbot: “I’m going to try to cool it outside.”
(Rushes out the front door to cool his hair.)
Mbot (rushing back inside): “Oh, I need to see if my fashion’s wearing off!”
(Disappears into bathroom.)
Mbot: “Oh! It’s not!”
They spent the ride to school discussing which world they were going to choose to have their picture taken in. These were their world choices:
I decided that DP140 was the lesser of the cheevils (cheesy evils), because, with the fanciful mushrooms and far-off castle, at least it didn’t look like it was trying to fool us into thinking it might be real. Mbot was very excited by the possibility of going into Mushroom World. Then I had to explain to the bots that they would not, in fact, be going into Mushroom World. The mushrooms would be added on a computer. They took it pretty well. Although, when we get the pictures back, Gbot, who preferred River World, might be disappointed to find that I sent him to Mushroom World instead.
When we hugged goodbye at school, Mbot was concerned that I not mess up his hair.
Mbot: “What if someone else messes it up?”
Me: “Then just say, ‘Hands off the ‘do, Dude!'”
Mbot: “I think I would feel a little bit foolish saying ‘Hands off the ‘do, Dude.'”
Me: “Then just ask them nicely not to touch your hair.”
And off they went, leaving me very glad I live in Bot World, and that it’s not just in my computer.
and not because he’s dead. The antique cat is alive and not long ago,smelled like a coconut. Along with the smell was the visual effect: he looked like he’d lost a sun lotion squirting fight. Of course he lost. He doesn’t have thumbs. It’s the price he paid for my sleeping in (6:30).
Gbot did not sleep in.
Gbot, although he insists loudly that he’s fourteen, is three.
And I’d left the Hawaiian Tropic SPF 30 sunblock in the swimming bag, and I’d left the swimming bag within fifty inches of the floor.
I did not take a picture, to preserve the dignity of the victimized party. Also to preserve the upholstery, pillows, and antique quilts. Because the antique cat was getting ready to curl up on all three, threatening to transfer the great white globs that were slathered from withers to hips onto anything that moves slower than he does.
A few minutes in the shower with the baby shampoo did the trick and the antique cat emerged clean, albeit nonplussed, and smelling like babies instead of beaches.
The sound of the shower awoke Mbot. “Mom, why’s Tesserpiglet so wet?” he asked.
I explained that Gbot had smeared sun lotion on him, and that we do not do that to animals. “Why?” asked Mbot. “Why did he do it?”
“I think to be funny,” I said. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t really know WHY Gbot had done it. “Gbot, why did you smear Tesserwell with sun lotion?” I asked.
“Because!” he replied guilelessly. “I wanted him to be cool in the sun!”
“Oh,” I said. I explained why kitty cats don’t need sun lotion. I explained that when it gets too hot for them, they go inside or lie in the shade.
“Then I will NEVER take Tesserpiglet to San Diego,” announced Mbot. “Because that’s the HOTTEST place on earth.”
I was grateful that my children are (at least attempting to be) kind to animals. I was grateful to be reminded not to prematurely assign nefarious motivations to others. I was grateful that I’d stored the Rainbow Animal Painting Kits more than fifty inches above the floor.
Introducing the Lunchbot. We’ve been making Recycle Robots, in our house, out of household recyclables and so I didn’t make a fuss when I discovered this morning that Husbot had left Gbot’s lunchbox in the Rolling Black Hole (aka Husbot’s truck. When an object goes into his truck, it may not be seen again, and if it does reappear, it will do so only–in the case of an item of clothing–after it has been grown out of).
I made a lunchbot. Van’s box, 4 pipecleaners, and the hacked-off end of a Cling Wrap tube, sliced at the top. And a few squirts of hot glue to attach one of the pipecleaner loops to the tube.
Gbot loved it. Mbot did too. It’s a good thing I put in another Zappos order yesterday.
And, as if that’s not enough for one morning, here’s our second world-changer:
And the conversation that went along with it:
Gbot: “Mom, I have something special in my underpants.”
Me, not turning around to look: “Yes, honey, I know.”
Me, turning around to look: “WOW! What is that EXTRA special thing in your underpants?”
Gbot: “It’s my Mortal Shield! I need it when I battle Mbot because my pito is very sensitive.”
WARNING: The second invention does not generally fit into a pair of jeans.
Me: “Mbot, what are you drawing?”
Mbot: “It’s a fox. It has super attachments and power-boosters and a giant cannon and he can’t shoot a squirrel. He (the squirrel) is looking into his computer and he’s seeing the fox’s giant blaster. Then he’s transferring his giant thing that has a camera–he has lots of cameras-and he has knee protections on his giant robot….”
Me: “Is this the squirrel?”
Mbot: “Yeah, the squirrel, because of the sideways wings. The fox is dropping a box on the squirrel but the squirrel is shooting giant missiles….”
Me: “Gbot, what are you drawing?”
Gbot: “Oh, just an OLD-FASHIONED telephone!”
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.