Monthly Archives: May 2013

“It’s Like Riding a Bike”

bike“I think it would be nice,” my mom starts in while the girls are over this weekend, “if we could go on a family bike ride like we used to when you were little.”

I listen. I’m 31, and I’ve been doing this single dad thing for about four months now. I’ve gotten to be a pretty good listener.

The trouble is that Aurie and Kiera never really learned to ride their bikes. There never seemed to be any time to teach them. Aurie’s bike, which she has outgrown, still has the training wheels on. Kiera’s bike, also much too small for her, is sitting in my storage unit (my chateau, so to speak).

“Kiera ought to be able to use Aurie’s bike,” I wager.

So we pull around Aurie’s old steel horse from the side of the house. It’s still in pretty good shape. Schwinns are like that. A little air in the tires, a little adjustment to the seat, and it’s good as new.

My parents’ property sits on a cul de sac. This is fortuitous for children riding bikes or playing ball because there is seldom any traffic. Soon enough, Kiera is tearing around on her big sister’s bike. It takes my dad about five minutes to get outside with his camera and start taking pictures. There is something magical about watching a child learn this, after all. It’s a rite of passage without being a loss of innocence, and that’s a truly beautiful thing.

I take a few pictures and videos myself.

But the real rite of passage comes when we brave the local Walmart and pick up a new bike for Aurie. It’s 24” with no training wheels—too big for my daughter to sit on the seat with her feet planted on the ground.

“They grow like weeds,” my mom says. “You don’t want to go any smaller than this one.”

Again, I listen.

We fold back the seats on my Honda deathtrap and cram the bike inside. This is no small task with the girls, but we manage. My mom and I explain to Aurie that this is something of a special occasion. As far as either of us can remember, no one ever got a new bike outside of birthdays or Christmases.

Aurie is stoked to have a new bike, but scared because there are no training wheels. This is especially true because we bought helmets (one for each girl), knee pads, and elbow pads. Once we’re back and she suits up, though, she makes a Tron reference and is ready to try.

troncycle

I have to laugh. My kids are cool.

My mom lets me try to teach Aurie to balance and peddle for about 45 minutes. She’s done this with four kids of her own, running up and down the block, holding onto seats and handle bars for dear life. In a way, this is becoming a rite of passage for me, too. I’m pretty fit from four months of hitting the gym and eating better, so the cardio isn’t that bad. On the other hand, Aurie is tall for her age and weighs about 92 pounds. When she leans the wrong way at 10 mph, I have to physically course correct her without planting my feet, or she’ll fall. I liken this to Conan redirecting charging stallions on foot by sheer brute force, but it really isn’t half that impressive.

Conan vs Horse

Damn, I wish we had done this when she was five. I won’t make the same mistake with Kiera.

The neighbor comes out and offers his advice. My mom comes out and has a whole step-by-step system for what Aurie should do that involves starting at the curb.

Friggin’ mechanics and math majors. My daughter’s brain doesn’t work like that—maybe because neither my brain nor her mother’s brain works like that. This is a rite of passage. Aurie has to feel the balance. It’s not something I can do for her. It’s not something anyone can control with their steps or processes or methods.

This is the part where I stop listening.

Aurie has to experience the freedom for herself.

She also needs that seat lowered, I realize, so my dad and I take care of that while I pound a Vitamin Water.

After what seems like the umpteenth time running with her, even though the handle bars aren’t straight and her balance isn’t perfect, I let go. I’m ready to leap for that seat, but she doesn’t fall. I count to three and grab hold again.

She keeps peddling and doesn’t even notice.

I tell her to stop ahead at the stop sign, and I let go again. This time, I try to let her see that I’m running beside her. She doesn’t catch on, and I grab hold of the bike again when she hits the brakes because I’m afraid that she’s going to fall.

This goes on a few times before I announce to her:

“Aurie, look at your shadow.”

The afternoon light throws our silhouettes ahead of us, and my daughter can see herself riding and Daddy sprinting beside her without one finger on her bike.

“I’m doing it by myself?” she shrieks. “I’m doing it by myself!”

“You have been for a while!” I manage between pants.

I’m seriously pretty tired by this point.

We discuss turning and stopping and how to get out of trouble without dropping the bike. I use martial arts terms like “horse stance” because we’ve both studied karate.

Mr_-Miyagi-and-Daniel-The-Karate-Kid

What? This is a teacher thing. Connect to prior knowledge.

Then, elated and confident, my beaming daughter runs my ass ragged all over the neighborhood. My parents think this is hilarious.

Karma, they laugh.

The truth is I’m just happy to be healthy enough to do this for Aurie.

Before Aurie got on her new bike, my mom told her it would probably take a week to get it right, and not to be discouraged. She learned in about two hours. After about three hours, my butt was planted on the seat of a loaner bike, peddling beside her. We did go on that family bike ride—Aurie and I in the lead, Kiera and my parents following behind.

You never know, can’t truly appreciate, how good your parents were to you until you go through something like this.

For me, the hardest part, far more difficult than all the running and Conan course correcting, was letting go of my daughter for just three seconds.

The best part was riding beside her and seeing her smile.

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Showing Vs. Telling

writer

A word on this–or a few hundred.

“Show, don’t tell.”

This is often considered the most basic rule of storytelling: a word that apparently we’ve misconstrued–or have we? Most major publishers and writing seminar professors do their damnedest to beat this mantra into our heads until we begin to feel like very literate pinatas. The trouble is that, like most rules in basic English studies, this one doesn’t hold water 100% of the time.

Take, for example, a novel written in the first person. In order to capture the narrator’s distinct voice, the writer has no choice but to “tell” at times. Barring this, the realism of perspective is entirely lost. Speculative fiction novels written in the third person limited perspective also require at least some exposition to let the reader into the unique world that the author has imagined. True, it’s possible to cram all the back story and world building into dialogue and internal monologue, and the story will move faster this way, but you run the risk of leaving the reader with gaps in understanding. (This also must be done skillfully; if you are not a strong dialogue writer, this tactic becomes more laughable than laudable.)

From the perspective of a fan, I’d rather the mystery surrounding a new world I’m taking the time to explore be presented to me intentionally as opposed to me wondering when in the future (or in what reconfigured version of the past) the story takes place and why I should care. A little exposition grounds the reader in the text, allowing him or her to explore more fulfilling mysteries commensurate with the plot line and the potential themes/subtext of the story.

So when is it okay to tell? In my increasingly humble opinion, the writer can get away with exposition when he/she has earned the space to breathe and to let the story expand a bit. If you begin with a strong hook that tantalizes the reader and invests him/her in the story, it’s okay to peel back a layer of meaning through exposition supplemented with either thoughts or dialogue. The “telling” doesn’t have to go on for pages–it should be as concise as possible within the workings of the craft. However, giving the reader a chance to catch his/her breath and process the world will ultimately eliminate the build up of questions that makes it impossible to suspend disbelief.

This is basic psychology: the harder something is to grasp, the more difficult it is to believe because belief comes with understanding.

I’m not arguing that the amount of exposition in a story should ever come close to the amount of action, description, or dialogue. But those three very effective modes of storytelling fail when we, as readers, fail to invest ourselves in a story because we can’t find basic elements like setting and characterization.

So breathe, people. A brief history of a planet’s struggles is okay if it’s grounded in the perspective character’s thoughts. It’s perfectly fine for a first person narrator to be opinionated and tell the audience what he or she thinks, so long as the fourth wall remains intact.

Don’t believe me? Pick up your favorite novel–not the one that just came flying off the editor’s desk, your favorite one. Grab a highlighter and go to town in every spot where the author is telling as opposed to showing. You might be very surprised. (Especially if you’re reading Tolkien.)

 

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