Ruby’s First Race

Last Sunday, Ruby ran in her very first race. We did the Top Pot Doughnut Dash 5k, with Ruby in the jogging stroller, and afterwards she did the Kids’ Dash 1k. We looked forward to ending the morning with a performance from Caspar Babypants, Ruby’s new most favorite band.

When I was in high school I competed in long-distance track and field. I remember one race in particular: it was 1500 meters, 4 laps of the track, and I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I started slow and dragged behind the pack. Eventually I was chugging along a good 50 yards behind the second-to-last runner. But I have a rule: never come in last. As the bell rang for my last lap of the track I turned it on. Hard. I had plenty in reserve so I easily passed Mr. Second-to-Last and even caught another runner in the final stretch. The crowd went crazy as I sprinted across the finish line. I climbed the bleachers afterwards, receiving congratulations from my classmates, and my coach gave me a stern look. “That was an interesting race,” was all he said.

Before her race I sat Ruby down to give her some advice. She was a kid; she could spend hours running around… but she’d never done a straight kilometer. I was worried about the distance that stretched ahead of her. Here’s what I told her:

  1. Have fun.
  2. You don’t have to run the whole way; you can walk if you want to. But it’s important to finish.
  3. Don’t come in last.

Ruby disappeared up to the start while I maneuvered the jogging stroller through the crowd of parents who had gathered behind the line. Eventually I ditched it and fought my way to the front. Ruby was there, foot on the line, a determined look in her eye.

 

Ruby is Ready to Run

I grew up running. I can remember thinking of myself as the fastest kid in my class (until another one definitively claimed the title in 6th grade). I was a member of the cross-country club and the track and field team. I kept running through junior high school, and picked it up again as an adult. My brother, sister and I have all done half-marathons or more. We’re not built like elite lean runners, but we get the job done.

The horn sounded and Ruby was off! Older kids quickly sprinted well ahead of her, and she lost herself in the pack of the race. The course looped around a big sports field, and I ran across the middle of it, keeping abreast of her, planning to cheer her on at the halfway point. She kept up a steady pace.

Ruby had told me, a few days before, that she thought she would win the race. I had responded that it was a great goal to have, but not very likely.

In my whole life I’ve won just one race. I can still remember what it was like: a Wednesday night. The race was the 600 meters. My father was there; he was helping to measure the shot-put competition when the gun went off.

I was a good runner, but not the best — but my prime competition had not shown up that night. We bolted from our starting positions and I was in first place. After 200 meters the lanes merged and I was still in front. 200 meters later, 200 to go, starting the final turn, and I was still leading.

Feet, I thought to myself, don’t fail me now.

It’s funny, nearly 30 years later, to think of it: I don’t remember crossing the finish line. But I remember that plea to my feet; that feeling of being carried away by this unstoppable force inside of me. I will always remember it. And I remember looking for my Dad in the aftermath. Did you see? I won! Did you see?

The path went up a slight incline towards the street and I saw Ruby start walking. That’s fine. She got to the top of the hill and started running again, then disappeared as the crowd turned toward me.

I was so proud of her. She was only five years old, running a kilometer by herself, surrounded by older kids and parents and doing just fine — she was running, just running, lost in the moment, and that’s what it’s all about.

I stood by the side of the path, waiting for her to come into view. Finally the crowd parted and I could see her running towards me.

She was in tears.

She reached me and I scooped her up, holding her. Kids and parents streamed past us. I whispered that she was doing great, that I was so proud of her. She said, I wanted to run with you, Papa.

I dropped her to the ground, back onto the running shoes I’d bought her just the day before, and I held her hand. We ran together. We had fun. We picked out people to beat, and we passed them, hand in hand. As the finish came up I let go of her and she sprinted across the line while I cheered, and then I gathered her up and carried her off to celebrate.

* * *

In retrospect, I think I know what happened.

Ruby thought she was going to win the race. She is five; competition of any real sort was still a novelty. As far as she was concerned, she was the smartest, strongest, most beautiful girl who ever lived. She really thought she was going to win.

In fourth grade I entered a lunch-time chess competition at my school. My first opponent was Dennis, an overweight classmate whose natural intellect was masked by awkwardness. In short order he had the advantage and put my King into Check. I couldn’t find the way out. My brother, three years older than me, finally pointed out the only option but by then I was forced to concede. I was devastated. I spent the remainder of the lunch hour sobbing into the librarian’s flowery polyester blouse.

As Ruby’s first race finally commenced, the reality of the situation came crashing down on her. She was not going to win. She had no real concept of the distance or the people who were running; all she knew was that an endless stream of runners were passing her as she walked up that hill. She was losing the race.

If I could do it again I’d hold her hand the whole way.


Taking a Five-Year-Old to Paris

Ruby and I returned yesterday from a 12-day trip to Paris (with a dogleg to London). The vacation was amazing: Ruby is an energetic, enthusiastic, resilient and amiable travel partner.

Me, Ruby, Sparkly Tower

Planning a trip like this with Ruby was a little daunting. I was excited to take her away to a foreign culture and experience it through her eyes. The Eiffel tower! Walks along the Seine! Stepping into a tiny shop, sampling the wares, exploring the bits and pieces of life that make that somewhere else so exciting … but I was also nervous: how would she handle the two long plane rides there and back? Would we find a way to meet in the middle of how a child experiences a foreign place and how an adult does?

Well, the answers are mixed.

The Plane Rides

I was so nervous about the plane ride — just she and I for 10 hours trapped in tiny seats — that I splurged on an iPad 2 and loaded it up with movies and games. The iPad turned out to be a great travel computer anyway, but on the long international flights it mostly supplemented the in-flight movies. Ruby watched the Yogi Bear movie 3 times in a row on the flight out of Paris, and only turned to the iPad between showings. Still, it was the perfect distraction and Ruby could explore whatever movies and games she wanted at her pace, leaving me to nap and read. A few minor inconveniences (and inevitable exhaustion) aside, the flights were painless.

Attitude

I’m still in awe at Ruby’s attitude and energy. She was, for the most part, a non-stop bundle of go-go-go. Whatever we suggested, wherever we wanted to go, she was up for it. The movement of travel appealed to her; riding the metro and tube and train and plane were all exciting. It was a simple joy to hold her hand and just walk the streets of these big, crowded foreign cities. At times we both wore down, of course, and got too hot or tired or crabby. But in general, this trip really did reinforce what a special kid Ruby is: she can take something like a 15-hour travel day totally in stride and still be perfectly pleasant and social at our first bistro dinner in Paris. Damn, I’m one lucky Papa.

Travel and Play

Headstands in the Park

Even though Ruby loved the trains and planes and (to a lesser extent) just walking, the destinations didn’t really impress her quite as much.Travel is so much about context that it’s really hard to appreciate why we should go out of our way to see the Most Famous Painting In The World when it looks just like all these other ones. Our trip up the Eiffel Tower was terrible; it was hot and crowded and the lines took forever. As soon as we were at the top, Ruby wanted to descend again. “But,” I said, “this is the Eiffel Tower! It’s … it’s the Eiffel Tower!” And the same happened for the Mona Lisa, and the Venus de Milo, and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”, and Buckingham Palace, and the Crown Jewels and a score of other destinations. We’d get there and I’d try to explain the significance and context and why it’s so cool that we are currently at This Important Thing, but a five-year-old can’t relate.

A five-year-old wants to play.

So we did: Ruby spent a lot of time each day at a playground, running from slide to swing to bouncy thing, just being a kid. It’s hard to be a kid when you’re in a strange city and your parent has an iron grip on your hand so that you don’t get dragged under a bus or smear snotty fingers on the Picasso. It’s hard to understand why this tiny butcher’s shop is any different than the meat case back at our local Safeway. But a swing and a slide: now that’s something Ruby understands.

Independently Traveling

My parents and sister met up with us in Paris and they took Ruby to parks and gardens and playgrounds as

Eiffel Tower with Nana

well, leaving me free to explore Paris’s museums and cafes and tiny shops and just walk and sit and go at my own personal, grown-up pace. There really is a difference between how a kid and an adult relate to being somewhere new; and making sure we each had room to take care of our needs really made the trip worthwhile. I couldn’t really explore the modern art of the Pompidou with Ruby by my side; I wanted to do the audio tour and read every placard and really absorb as much of it as I could. Dragging Ruby through the museum for several hours would have been a terrible experience for both of us. And meanwhile Ruby really needed to run around with other kids at a playground, but several hours each day watching her climb the exact same equipment we’d find in Seattle would have made me regret the $2000 plane tickets. Getting some time apart was necessary.

If It’s Important, Be It

It’s an inevitable attitude of parenting: you want to do something special with your child, but you want to make sure he or she is old enough to “really appreciate it”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s something you need to fight against. If something is important to you — if an activity espouses the values you hold dear — then do it. And then do it again. It doesn’t have to be Paris every time, but if you want to raise a traveler, you need to be a traveler. If you want to raise a hiker or camper, you need to get out in the woods. Don’t wait to read her your favorite novel; read it to her every few years.

The question of whether Ruby would remember this trip often came up when discussing it with friends. I think that’s a bit of a red herring; 33 years later, I remember just a few tiny snatches from a Disney world trip I took with my grandparents when I was five. But to me the question isn’t whether she’s going to remember this trip in 30 years: it’s how it’s going to color her life next week, next month, and next year. She’ll carry the confidence of having traveled well. She’ll have the context of knowing what a real-life Paris looks and sounds and smells like.

And, most importantly, we’ll both appreciate and cherish the bond she and I reinforced every day we spent together, holding hands, walking the crowded streets of Paris.

The Mona Lisa!