I have been very lucky in life. I have met many wonderful people. Lately, I have met a number of exceptional people because I am hard of hearing. Among these people is the amazing Gael Kennedy Hannan who writes and edits a blog, The Better Hearing Consumer. Gael asked me to write a guest blog. A link to that blog appears at the end of this post.
I was five, no doubt going on six. Riding a two-wheeler was the be all and the end all. Little was I to know that learning this skill that everyone else had mastered was going to dog me until I was forty.
As you might expect the sidewalk in front of 222 was my classroom and it was hard. Unfortunately I found out how hard by introducing the back of my head to the concrete right in front of the building. There was blood, plenty to go around, but the injury was not serious for the moment.
One of the many advantages of being tracked in the NY public schools of the fifties was the special programs and services and the very special trips. Much was expected of us so when TV shows were looking for classes of smart kids. We were on the list. Obviously, from the West Side, home of so many creatives (like producers and directors and writers) we were often invited.
My luck, my class was called upon for the week following my fall from bike to concrete to participate in one of those shows long forgotten.
We sat in a semicircle before the star. I sat in the middle of the back row. I sat in the back in the middle. And, lo and behold the camera zoomed in right over my head revealing my bald spot for all to see and for my classmates to terrorize me over.
My failure to master a bike affected my life for more than 30 years. All that time I had considered trying to conquer the two-wheeled monster. At 11, I could ride a horse. At 16 I fell off a mount only to pick myself up, dust myself off and climb back in the saddle again.
All wheeled methods of transportation had been my nemeses. I never attempted to roller skate, and I was 27 before I felt comfortable driving a car. Before then, my career as a driver was marked by minor accidents. When I was 26 and dating the woman who would become my wife, I let her do the driving. When she bought a small car – one I could control – I began to drive more. Driving became a necessity as I became a Long Islander. Soon I was driving 400 miles a week (making up for lost time?).
At 36, I promised my wife: “Dear, for your birthday, I am going to learn to ride a bicycle.” Our oldest child was already buzzing along confidently on two wheels, and the middle child was coming along. It was with the best of intentions that I set my goal. My friend Lou, with strong legs, was enlisted to keep the bike upright and run back and forth with me until I had it.
I couldn’t get it. My fear of bikes was in the pedaler’s seat.
Control became an even greater issue as 40 approached. I felt I’d never realize my potential unless firmly planted behind the handlebars of my life.
I had not thought of myself as an activist since college days. By age 25, I’d simply let go of my intensity over good causes. But at 39 my office was adorned with political posters; I supported a well-known Green group, and I read a radical-left magazine (still do, same one). As I faced the big FOUR-ZERO, I wanted to be involved in life before it passed me by.
And, finally, I wanted to learn how to ride a bike. The me inside was ready. With a little pushing and shoving from my family, I attempted again to wheel rather than wobble. The breakthrough occurred, we have to call it that because I was in therapy and that had something to do with it. So did the Palestinian gentleman who owned a small bike shop who, learning of my disability regarding riding, brought a ten year old bike and himself to my Long Island home with the hill for a driveway and taught me to ride. The method was similar to those of the past but the outcome was success.
I didn’t become a smooth cyclist overnight. My balance was tentative and my coach, the bike-shop owner, plied me with tricks to get me up and rolling – for example, letting gravity get me started downhill. He ran up and down the block with me, holding the seat to help me maintain my balance.
One day I pedaled up my street, to the cheers of my children, only to fall at the end of the block.
On my own, I tackled the quiet streets of our neighborhood, first one block beyond mine, then two. One fateful morning, as I approached a neighborhood intersection, I was confronted with a major decision: I could go forward to the main drag or turn right and stay safe on the back streets. Even at 5:30 a.m., the larger road could have significant traffic. And what motorist anticipates a bike rider at that hour?
The pull to the right, to failure, was powerful. But the urge to go forward was stronger: I had to get myself out on that main avenue. All the work of several weeks would be for naught if I were to be a secret, back-street rider. I went forward.
The moment I made the decision to pedal into traffic rather than continue to coast the back roads was the moment I passed out of irrational fear and into self-esteem.
Do you remember learning to ride? The first time you stayed upright going very slowly? The first time you scratched an itch, leaving only one hand on the handlebars? Age steals the memories of these little successes from many, but I retained these images of myself for a long time.
There were practical rewards, too. I could join my family on a bike ride. And every morning I cycled alone for a half-hour of exercise.
The fears of childhood are conquerable. The embarrassment and pain of the young child still prick when I stumble; though I don’t ride anymore (falling has become too dangerous) I pick myself up and get rolling again.
Over-the-hill jokes are just the whimpering of the fearful. They make me smile because I learned more than 25 years ago you can trust someone over 40, yourself.
Click here to read A Message From The Lady and The Unicorn