Just like riding a bike

Whomever coined the term “like riding a bike” assumed there was a certain level of coordination and skill to begin with.

He (or she) might have picked an activity that’s impossible to forget, even for those of us who are sorely uncoordinated. Finger-painting, for example. Blowing your nose. Pouring milk in the cereal bowl.

Because one thing that’s not just like riding a bike, ironically, is riding a bike.

Not in my experience, anyhow. At least not a road bike. Maybe he/she meant just like riding a Huffy?

Sure, I rode a bike as a kid. And yes, the training wheels came off at a respectable age. I must have been decently adept because many weekends I’d zip off on my bike in the morning and be off riding and playing with friends most of the day. I don’t remember ever being stranded at the other end of the neighborhood because I couldn’t make it home on my bike.

But all of that was of no help when I decided to buy a road bike five years ago after a twenty year hiatus from riding. “Where’s the kickstand?” was my first question.

My aunt accompanied me on my inaugural ride on my new grown-up bicycle. We covered maybe eight miles at a top speed of 10 mph – and that might have been on a downhill. Mostly we practiced stopping.

I dropped the chain twice. I spent more time riding the brakes than pedaling and I was terrified of cars, parked or otherwise.

As I proudly crested the lone hill on our second training ride, I asked her what she’d rate that hill on a scale of one to ten.

After a long pause, she gave it a two. My face fell. “Maybe two and a half,” she added generously.

A few weeks later, I decided I was ready to add clipless pedals to the bike. Which, in my opinion, is a confusing misnomer because clipless pedals are the type that clip to your shoe. Clipless is the “abridged” of the pedal world.

Friends will tell you clipping in is easy. They’ll say that everyone falls once, but then it’s like finger-painting. Keep in mind these are the same friends who can hit a tennis ball and ski without doing the pigeon-toed snowplow formation.

On my first attempt, the bike and I fell sideways into the grass. On the second, we toppled to the sidewalk. On the third, I crashed into a massive tree. Bloodied and defeated, I quietly wheeled Fuji back into the house.

It wasn’t always pretty but I did get back on. I made do with the clipless pedals for awhile, even when it meant pedaling with only one leg for three, four, ten miles because I couldn’t get the left shoe clipped back in.

After a couple bad falls, I eventually gave up on the pedals and went back to “normal” pedals with toe clips (the kind you don’t clip into). If they were good enough for the first 80 years of the Tour de France, they’re good enough for me.

I gave the clipless shoes and pedals to my sister, who only fell once. She’s one of those people who can hit a tennis ball and ski properly.

Still, I celebrate each little victory.

Like the a-ha moment when I realized how to shift gears to get up those hills. (It only took three years and a couple thousand miles.)

Or the first time I took my water bottle out of its holder without stopping. (Getting it back in place was, however, problematic so I just held onto it for twenty miles or so. It only took a few days to regain use of my thumb.)

Obviously, I still have much to learn but I love cycling so I’ll keep working at it. I aspire to pointing out potholes to riders behind me and standing up on my pedals on really steep hills.

And then, ever after, riding a bike will be just like pouring milk in the cereal bowl.

Good idea or great story?

Yesterday, the motivational quote on my disposable cup (you know, the little paper ones for teeth-brushing) read, “It’s either a good idea – or – a good story.”

My immediate thought went to book story ideas. What a myopic lens I’m viewing life through lately! I’ve been so engrossed in working on my manuscript that even the bathroom cups seem to be speaking to me personally, lending me writing advice.

When the next cup in the stack declared, “Wake up. Be Awesome. Repeat,” I realized these were not aimed directly at me. That Dixie was reminding us all that adventures that aren’t such a great idea, that we should probably avoid, make for great cocktail party stories.

Riding a bobsled, for example.

While in Park City almost precisely one year ago, three colleagues and I decided to spend an afternoon exploring Utah Olympic Park, home of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

The most exciting draw at Olympic Park is the opportunity to ride the bobsled track, the actual course run in the Olympics and now a training track for future gold medal hopefuls. For just $100, you can sign your life away and experience hurling down a mountain at 70 mph.

Before being transported to the top of the mountain, an orientation video explained that we’d be riding in a 4-person sled, modified to run on wheels during the summer, with an experienced pilot who would control the steering and brakes. The track is 8/10 mile with 15 curves, including a 400-foot vertical drop. We’d be traveling with up to 5G’s of force.

No red flag went up during the orientation section entitled “If you are having second thoughts…” I was nervous, but in that scary-exciting way that one might be nervous before a blind date or singing karaoke.

Once we reached the summit, however, I spent a lot of time staring at the “EXTREME CAUTION–Severe injury or death can occur beyond this point” sign as we awaited our turn. I texted my mother and got her commitment in writing to adopt Wrigley if I didn’t make it home. I let her know who to contact regarding my life insurance policy.

Ten seconds into the run, I was ready for it to be over. What followed was the longest 51 seconds of my life.

I made the mistake of attempting to sit upright, thinking it would create drag and slow our momentum. I silently begged please, please, please slow down. Please let the end be around the next curve.

I was a bobble-head doll in the heavy helmet as we whipped down the bumpy track. At one point I heard a crack and my head ricocheted backward. I thought I had smacked helmets with the person in front of me. But it was just my neck.

The week that followed, back in Virginia, was a streak of oppressing hot days where there’s no way to avoid wearing sundresses and tank tops. But I wore my skinned elbows and softball-sized bruises as badges of honor on each arm.

“You may think I was beat up in a back alley, but in actuality, I went bobsledding last weekend,” I proudly announced to the salesman at the car dealership. During one of many physical therapy sessions that followed for the neck pain, I boasted, “No car accident here! It was the Olympic bobsled track that did me in.” With anyone who would listen, I shared my newfound respect for bobsledders and the sport’s physical demands.

So was it a good idea, or just a good story?

I think my sled-mate summed it up perfectly, as we recounted our bobsled experience for the upteenth time recently. “I would probably regret it… except that I like telling people I did it.”

So if you’re tempted to add the bobsled to your bucket list, I might suggest sky diving or hanggliding instead.

Unless, of course, you’re looking for a good story. In which case, riding the bobsled is great fodder for years of dinner conversations to come. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Because, trust me, you won’t consider doing it twice.

When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut. Or a unicorn.

Tonight, I attended my niece’s pre-school graduation. I’ve made fun of preschool and kindergarten graduations for years. Forgive me – I didn’t know what I was missing! Watching thirty-some five-year-olds sing and dance in miniature graduation robes was adorable. But the high point for me was the list of aspirations the teachers read as each student crossed the stage to accept their diploma.

“Grace wants to be a wrestler when she grows up.” “Henry previously wanted to be a scientist, but has now decided to be a ninja.” There were many with very traditional goals of becoming doctors, veterinarians, teachers and engineers. We saw a future banker, dentist, several police officers, a firefighter. One little girl wants to be a zoologist.

Then there were the ones that reminded me what it’s like to be five and live in a world of make-believe. My niece aspires to being ballet instructor. A puppy trainer. A boy band back-up dancer. A horse hair braider. A rock star. An ice skating princess. A lifeguard. The queen. And a castle guard. And, yes, a unicorn.

Lately, I’ve been rethinking (again) which manuscript to tackle first. And I’d come to the realization that although there are some bigger, harder, more emotional stories I will eventually write, writing should be fun. It should be like playing make-believe.

I heard several authors mention recently that they set out to write the book they wanted to read. Which makes total sense! So I decided to define what my perfect book would be, as a reader.

I listed out the last fifteen books I read and it wasn’t what I expected – there was no literary fiction among the last fifteen. It was about evenly split between fiction and nonfiction. Multiple young adult fiction books in the mix. The overall themes seemed obvious – tales of survival, fantasy or dystopian society, and a maybe a little romance for good measure. Jane Austen meets Into Thin Air meets The Hunger Games.

Instantly I knew which scrap of a story idea I was going to write. It’s one I’d shelved after one chapter a couple of years ago and I won’t give the details yet, but I’m so excited to play in this make-believe world!

I’m forcing myself not to think beyond the first chapter until I get it all down on paper, but I haven’t been this excited to write in ages. Maybe this is what it’s supposed to feel like? A story I’m so excited to explore that I’m giddy with excitement to write it because until I write it, I won’t know how it ends and what happens along the way.

I feel like I’m five years old again, sitting on the playroom floor, making up elaborate worlds and storylines where Brother Bear and Smurfette live next door to Strawberry Shortcake and her older brother, Mork. Where it’s not strange at all that a stuffed peach’s best friend is a Care Bear. And no one questions why a horse is driving a pink convertible.

Funny that no one said tonight that they wanted to be a writer (maybe that will change once they learn how to read!). Because the secret I want to whisper is – being a writer means you don’t have to choose. You can be a scientist and a ninja. A teacher and a race car driver. An astronaut and a unicorn.

(The pic is me at Johnson Space Center a couple years ago, playing astronaut for the day.)