One of the vows I made upon becoming a parent was that I would not force my children into liking or doing everything I did. At least I tried to meet that vow. Sure, I dragged them afield for nature walks, pointing out birds and plants and interesting bits of garbage in the weeds, if that’s what it took. But that’s just part of being a parent.
What I did not do was take them out running with me. This was a divisive decision in my head. On one hand I believe strongly in the health benefits of physical activity. On the other hand I did not think it wise to try to make them into clones of myself. I’m happy to say they are finding their way in this world based on their own choices.
Both participated in the sport of soccer. I coached my son’s teams all the way through middle school. As a coach I erred on the side of a screamer now and then. I’m competitive and getting eleven kids at the age of 10 to work together on a soccer field is a difficult task.
So I could have done better at that. But years later when my son and I talked about our soccer days, I mentioned a particular play he made during a game and he told me, “Dad, I don’t remember any of our games. But our practices were fun.”
And he ran around a lot during practice. So I knew he was getting exercise. He also played soccer on the playground at school. So I knew he ran around even more. Yet one day he came home frustrated with the game that day.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Well, all the good kids gang up on one team, and they win every day,” he replied.
“And what do you do?”
“I play on the other team,” he said. “And they kill us every day. It’s not fair and it’s no fun if the sides aren’t even.”
(And being the dad I said…) “Have you tried getting everyone to make the sides more fair?”
(And as a son, he sighed) “Yes. We’ve tried everything. All they want to do is win.”
And that, in a nutshell, “is life,” I told him.
But I was damned proud of his commitment to justice. He made that decision on his own.
Of course by proxy it also meant that he had to run and play twice as hard and likely improved his soccer skills trying to keep the ball away from ten guys at once.
Nothing motivates improvement like anger. Nothing.
My daughter was similarly feisty on the soccer field. But she cared not for the social snarkiness of the girl’s soccer teams on which she played. Nor did she really care for all the running. So despite my fervent encouragement to use her natural speed on the field (she was among the top 10% in speed among the girls she played) she chose to play goalie.
It’s in her nature to be contrary about some things. At the tender age of three years old she was acting up in the back seat by teasing her brother and being obnoxious. I stopped the car and stared at her in the rear view mirror. “Emily, if you don’t straighten up in the car, I’m going to have to make some rules.”
She leaned forward in her child’s seat and looked me right in the eyes through the rear view mirror. “But daddy,” she replied. “I’ll break the rules.”
You try coaching a kid like that. However one of her last seasons as a soccer player the coach hired a trainer from the local fitness club to work with the girls. Those 12-year-olds were put through core workouts that made me wince. But their tummies got tight. They even compared ab muscles on occasion. And man, with all that fitness built up from within, my girl could really run.
I specifically recall the sight of her pale legs flying downfield in pursuit of a a girl dribbling in a breakaway. She ran that girl down and in full stride stripped the ball from her feet.
I already knew by that point that Emily would not go on to play high school sports. The natural infighting on sports teams just did not appeal to her. Plus she never really liked getting out of bed earlier than she absolutely needed. So I savored that moment for what it was. Just the joy of it.
Nor did sports last for my son. In high school soccer he played and started through his sophomore year. Yet when the coach did not lift a finger to talk to him or his other friends about the next season, soccer was dead to him.
Two years later that same coach lamented in a newspaper article that his team was struggling because they lacked senior leadership. Small wonder. None of the 18 freshman that began the program together made it through their senior year. “How ironic,” I said out loud to the newspaper.
My son also ran track through his sophomore year and was actually faster in the 800 than I was at that age. I think he ran 2:05. But one day he came home and told me, “Dad, when I’m doing track I’m 25% happy. But when I’m doing drama I’m 100% happy.”
I agreed that the decision was made. He went on to act and direct plays both in high school and college at University of Chicago. He’s studied Improv in New York City and has become a writer as well.
It’s funny how these aspects of personality in our children emerge despite our best efforts, in some respects, to let them become who they want to be. Despite some of their differences in personality and approach to life, my daughter now laughs that she sees her mother emerging in her language and actions. My son was really close to my wife and yet in many ways he could not be more different than she.
But these are the things that make us close.
In recent years my son has taken his running and done interesting things with it. His legs (like mine) are not perfect for the sport. He is prone to a knee injury on one side. Yet that has not stopped him from getting involved in a group that literally runs with the homeless population in New York City. Running helps the homeless in surprising ways. It frees them from adverse expectations. It builds confidence too.
He told me about the day they all attended one of those races where everyone gets doused with bright colors. At first his homeless proteges were skeptical. But then something great started to happen. “They got into it,” he said.
We can sometimes only imagine what the human mind does when released from the bonds of negativity. Running is great for that. It has saved my mind in many ways, and many times in life when troubles threatened to overwhelm. Imagine going from being homeless to be covered in bright yellow, green, pink and blue colors.
I’ve never used my running for something so cool as that.
Yet the gift I gave to my daughter for her birthday last year was one of those 0.0 ovals for the back of her car. She’s not going to become a runner anytime soon. For one thing, her feet are pretty flat from the orthopedic boots she wore the first year of walking. Her feet had been curled and the doctors straightened them out the old-fashioned way, with straight shoes.
So she needs orthotics to this day, and yet does not yet wear them. She’s no clone of me, you see. I wear orthotics everywhere I go, and all the time. We all make our decisions based on our own interests. Running doesn’t really interest her.
That’s fine, of course. It’s never been my goal to make my children a clone of me. And they’re not. But I have insisted on many occasions that they learn to “enjoy the process,” which means living in the moment. And when that doesn’t happen, I’ve always counseled that difficulties “build character.”
I’m not sure if I borrowed that phrase or came up with it on my own. The one thing we all do share is a love for the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. It grew evident over the years that I am literally the father in that strip, who loves to ride and exercise in horrible conditions, then come home and tell everyone how it “builds character.”
The one area we might all converge some day is cycling. Emily likes a simple ride on a hybrid bike and Evan used to ride off to parks during the summer with book in hand. So perhaps we’ll all ride together at some point. That would be fun.
And a bit of a time warp. I rode with them back and forth to the park when they were just little kids. Evan took to the bike pretty quickly. Emily refused to ride a two-wheeler until first grade when we moved to Batavia and we had a big wide driveway and quiet street where she could practice in peace. That’s my girl. Does it her way.
My son is also a fan of Star Wars. His Christmas gift from my companion Sue was a book in which the Star Wars story is written in the style of Shakespeare. I cannot imagine myself enjoying that book too much. He’s very well read however and has torn through massive tomes like the Brothers Karamazov and other classic literature that I have never touched.
Mu daughter meanwhile has become a naturalist in ways that I never really imagined. She picked up where her mother left off in raising monarch butterflies from the eggs laid on milkweed plants. Last summer she raised and released 50 of the insects, more than her mother even managed to do. And in Emily’s inimitable style, she chronicled the entire life cycle using her incredible photography skills and powers of observation (which she did get from her mother) to bring the entire episode of metamorphosis to life.
That’s probably an apt enough symbol here on which to close. We’re all part of a metamorphosis in some way. As individuals, as a family, and as a population.
It takes a whole cast of characters to make it work, and none of them the same. That’s what makes us all more alike than we might like to think.