Archive for June, 2012

No more training wheels

At some point you’ve got to let go and see how they fall.

The boy is riding without training wheels. This milestone has as much to do with moving forward as it does looking back. Second or third grade, I remember coming home from school and finding a rocket ship on our porch: a silver dirt bike with red mag rims and a bow on the handlebars. It was shining. My first wheels. Freedom! Each summer we’d explore a greater territory, busting our comfort zones and breaking our parental boundaries, riding to wave pools miles and miles away, dodging traffic to hit the arcade two towns over. Riding a bike at that age is the most immediate and visceral exploration of your curiosity. It is adventuring.

Now I get to share that with the kids, in what I expect will be a small window of time. My daughter, who is four-and-a-half, has always been the more avid biker. When she was just three, she rode 1.5 miles each way to her dance class, on her trainers and in her tutu. Her brother, who is six, complained of his legs “working too hard.”

Now that he’s got the training wheels off—which are balances as much as they are brakes—he wants to ride wherever we go, or, more accurately, he doesn’t complain about riding wherever we go. The girl keeps up, too, pedaling twice as hard. We tried getting them on the same schedule, which taught me a few things about teaching them how to ride independently:

  1. It’s a process. I brought the wrench to the playground a few times last year, holding on to their seats down the length of the path. Had this not been so back-breaking, we might’ve accomplished this last year. Which brings me to the next point.
  2. Readiness. The teacher and the pupil have to be ready. To give my back another year, I raised the trainers to the highest setting, encouraging them to try and ride without sound. “Daddy, is this riding without sound?” This spring we practiced on the park path twice without trainers. They both could go straight for 30 yards or so. Then we did circles around the cul-d-sac. The boy got it. The girl, 17 months younger but more athletic, wasn’t ready for me to let go.
  3. Wanting it. I’ve wanted it for two years but it’s got to come from them. The boy wanted to impress his older cousin, the girl wanted to feel safe. She can keep up with him on trainers. The only thing I can do is keep asking til she says yes.
  4. Both parents. On Father’s Day we all went to the open lot at the school. All the build-up paid off when he rode between me, then past his mom, then circles around all of us. There’s something to be said for having both parents there. Wife holds on a lot longer than I do, which initially would’ve benefitted our daughter. She’s a more verbal coach, too. They—and we—respond differently.
  5. Keep stopping and keep starting. He’s been riding to and from camp or the pool, about a mile, four times last week. In that time he’s learned to stop and put his feet down at the intersection of the sidewalks i.e. five feet before the street. Since sidewalks slope down to the curb, this also gives him a rolling start. Now he can start from a flat surface. Doing it every day avoids drawing out the nicked knees and scraped shins over the whole summer. One week is all it takes. Now he wants to race.
  6. Letting go. A metaphor for life. At some point you’ve got to let go and see how they fall. You’ll be pleased at how easily they get it.

His favorite part of riding without trainers is “Turning. Because you don’t have to slow down.” He’s on his way. Now I have to get used to him riding further and further away from me.


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The Penny Pincher family holiday

We do our holiday getaways on the cheap. Otherwise we don’t do it.

Last weekend we went to the Wisconsin Dells for the annual Penny Pincher Memorial holiday. Two years ago we rendezvoused with my in-laws at the RV Park at Cedar Point, the nation’s greatest amusement park, though our kids might say the in-laws RV—the Griswald—is the best thrill ride. We do our holiday getaways on the cheap. Otherwise we don’t do it.

Our three-night trip to the Dells was sponsored by Wyndham and a 3-hr one-on-one, high-pressure time-share sales pitch. Poor guy. When he told me I had to do it for my kids, however, and his boss said don’t disappoint your kids, they need you, I experienced delightful joy in the word no. Eye contact: No. Hold it, hold it…No. No, there’s nothing you can do. No. No. No. Your best offer? After your last three best offers? No. Where’s my gift card?

Prior to the trip, I explained the conditions of the time share penny pincher holiday to my wife, who is from the east coast and is accustomed to family vacations on boardwalks and seasides. She asked if Wisconsin Dells is like Las Vegas. “Oh,” she said, obviously disappointed in my reply. “So what do you do there?”

A Midwestern most of my life, I couldn’t recall the one time I went as a child, and I really only knew one thing, so I told her. “What’s a duck boat?” She asked.

It’s a good time is what it is.

We loaded up the van, turned the cooler into a fridge, and set out for the great playground to the north, waving our FIB flag at Great America to use our season passes for the second time this season (we paid $32 each at Christmas, so we’re winning), then stopped in Madison at Ella’s Diner and Ice Cream Parlor. Let me pause the travel narrative for a moment at Ella’s. We stumbled upon it, taken by its old world carousel out front. Inside is like no other place I’ve ever seen, and that’s no hyperbole. Suspended over the tables are 2 ft tall superheroes and Simpson’s characters and other pop culture icons and circus-like curiosities traversing the ceiling; the tables themselves are display cases of yo-yos, or Pez dispensers, or working model trains, or shuffleboard, or magnetic beard makers, or…there is something happening everywhere. It is a house of mechanical whimsy, of wondrous marvel, and even for the most road-wearied adult Ella’s rekindles the awe of childhood. And there’s decent food (when you see the corned beef hyped in the menu, do not think Manny’s, Chicagoans; that’s our incomparable place) and an ice cream parlor to put boardwalk ice cream parlors to shame.

Ella’s wonderworld in Madison, WI

This wasn’t very Penny Pincher, but it was the first night of vacation and we hadn’t bought a meal that day. And who cares, it was vacation. Herein lies the paradox of the budget-strapped family vacation: it’s vacation, you want to let loose and enjoy yourself, you want to indulge in the local flavors and experience what you can’t experience at home. That does not mean eating out every meal.

Here’s the math: Let’s say we’re on vacation for four nights, two adults, two kids who still eat from the kids meal. A nicer dinner, without cocktails (austerity!), at a place with waitresses instead of speaker boxes, is at least $60. Do this each night and you’re at $240. Say $30 for lunch/$120. Breakfast twice, near $40/so $80(eat the leftover bagels, damnit). That’s $440 for four days. That’s a day of work. Or two.

The penny pincher compromise would be nicer dinners in exchange for breakfasts (-$80); pack breakfast bars, cereal, fruit, yogurt stuff. One day, the sleep-in day(there better be one), have a late breakfast, early dinner, no lunch (-$30); another day do pizza for dinner sat $30 (-$30). Dinner leftovers one day for lunch, or that loaf of bread and tub of peanut butter you brought(-$30)? That’s $170 off your dining bill, or almost 40% less than you’d be spending if you ate out most meals. All of this gives you more time to actually vacation, too.

I do not go on vacation to eat out. I wanted to Duck Boat it up, hit waterparks, buy a goofy hat, whatever the fuck you do in the self-proclaimed water park capital of the world, which of course raises the questions, what was it before that and why was that not enough?

So we get to our room at 10pm. We knew Wyndham overbooked the all-inclusive Glacier Canyon, where I originally expected us to stay. I had bitched and moaned several times in the preceding week, so they gave us a $150 gift card. The hotel we were booked at reminded me of that resort in Dirty Dancing, that is, in desperate need of an update, and we were Baby, in a corner. Being the fiscal conservative that I am, I upgraded to a room with a bedroom door for an extra $30/night. Vacation, right?

Despite my questioning the value of some of the wristbands at the second and third arcades, and though my favorite part was indeed the duck boat ride on the Wisconsin River followed by something that cost nothing (an impromptu picnic in the spot Lake Delton flooded into the Wisconsin River in 2008, washing five houses into the river, where we stepped further into the past and rolled up our trousers, unbuttoned our shirts, fanned ourselves with our hats, had some ice cold Summer Shandy, skipped stones, and waved at the passing boaters (not Ho Chunk Indians, alas)) the trip was a success. Everyone had a different favorite moment and, all tolled, we spent less than $500.

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