The American Way

I’m tired. Really tired. Worn out. I’ll make my case, and you can roll your eyes and tell me to buck up. People have infants, or children with special needs, or two jobs, or three jobs, or an active social life. People are busy. People are used to being busy. I’m not.

The week that just ended was all about coaching. Growing up, my kids didn’t play sports. No soccer, no baseball and softball, no basketball. I spent my first fifteen years as a parent without ever sitting on a sideline. As an introvert uncomfortable making small-talk with strangers, I saw this as a blessing. While other parents cheered their children on frigid March mornings, shivering in small groups talking about mortgage rates and gas prices, I sat on my couch writing. Weekend family activities included afternoon hikes and bike rides and an occasional car ride to DC to visit a museum or the zoo. I was coddled.

At times I worried about socialization and teamwork and perseverance and all the other crap kids are supposed to get from sports, but my kids didn’t want to play, and Susan and I weren’t going to make them. This changed abruptly when Sophie hit tenth grade. “I need to buy a tennis racket.” This, out of the blue. “Jackie saw me play in gym class and said I should join the team.” Suddenly, I sat on the sidelines—really behind a fence—and I liked it. The following year, Sophie added Rugby to her team sport list and then I joined the rest of the parents huddled under blankets watching March matches through snow-squalls. I liked that less.

A few months later, Eli joined a mountain bike team. This is a neat story: Eli games. Like most teenage boys he owns a gaming console. And like many, he spends more time gaming than is probably good for him. We like some aspects of it. For one, he’s made some really close friends while gaming. Most, he claims, are his age. One lives in Belgium. One, Nathan, lives only a half hour away. Susan asks “Do you want to get together with Nathan?”

“No, Nathan’s a gaming friend.” But really too much gaming. We wanted him to do something else. Preferably, but not necessarily something active. Run cross country? No. Join the K-Club? No. Tennis? No. Student government? The kid’s not a joiner.

Susan works in Harrisburg. It’s fifty-minutes and a world away. As Pennsylvania’s state capital, things actually happen there. It’s urbane compared to sleepy Gettysburg. Susan grabbed a copy of The Burg in a Harrisburg coffee shop. Harrisburg is big enough and busy enough to have a give-away city paper. As she drank her coffee and flipped through The Burg, an article about a teen mountain bike team caught her eye. After reading for a few minutes, she realized she was reading about a Gettysburg team. Even Eli thought this sounded like a good fit.

That was last year. When the season ended, I bought myself a bike so Eli had someone with a car to ride with through the winter. This year, I’m coaching. Calling me a coach might be a bit of a stretch. At a minimum, I’m a much-needed extra adult. Every now and then I make a good observation that turns into a practice theme, but mostly, I’m just an adult. Because we need two adults riding with each group, and we break into three or four groups at each practice, we need a lot of adults.

Suddenly, I’m busy. We’re hosting a state-wide race next weekend. Apparently, this happens every year. We descend on a close by campground and try to resurrect the trail system that sat dormant since the previous September. With weed-eaters, loppers, chain saws and leaf blowers, we hack back all the flora that grew over, encroached and choked out the four-mile race course over the past year. In southern Pennsylvania, that’s a lot of flora.

Team shirt and team sticker on my phone

Every night this week, we’ve had trail work or practice. Sometimes crisp edges go soggy and fine lines begin to blur. Am I being selfish with my time if I’m helping my son? I volunteered to coach because I knew they needed the help, but come on, it’s mountain biking. I might have signed up even if I didn’t have a kid on the team. This morning, Eli and I left home at nine for three hours of trail work. We popped home to grab our bikes and some lunch and walked out twenty minutes later for an hour and a half practice. Susan stayed home alone and sanded and painted our screened porch.

Mountain bike coaching is a much larger time-sink than cheering at a Saturday morning soccer game. And with this sport, Susan can’t really participate. The out of town races even require a night in a hotel. Repeatedly, I ask Susan if she feels blown off. She says no, she’s ecstatic that Eli and I are doing something together, but we’re the family that always did things together. Now I’m so busy coaching, we hardly eat dinner as a family.

I know I’m complaining about something that every other family starts when their kids turn four, and it doesn’t end until they’re out of high school. It’s the American way. I’m spoiled, or I was, and now I’m trying to get used to something new. A different family vibe, a more separated relationship with my wife after twenty-five years of marriage.

When we first dated, Susan and I frequently mountain biked together. We drove deep into the DC suburbs to one of the few trail systems that allowed bikes. After we rode, we went to a shopping center restaurant like Chili’s for chips and margaritas. Mountain biking was a lively date. 

Susan has no interest in joining our mountain biking adventure–which looks certain to last for two more years. My fingers are crossed that once this race is done, things will settle down and Susan and I can spend more time together doing the things we like. Eating dinner, bike rides on the road, and sitting on the couch reading books.

15 thoughts on “The American Way

  1. I can so relate to this. My big two are in sports out the wazoo, and because of this we never get a chance to eat together. We’ve grown accustomed to that, unfortunately, and it really came to our attention how much we missed each other during the quarantine when we ate together all the time. It was really nice. Right now for games though, each child is only allowed one spectator which is usually always Bob unless we have two games at the same time. He will ask if I want to be the spectator, but I don’t. Not that I don’t want to see my kid play, I don’t handle the sidelines well at all. I swear Catelyn has been on the same team for two years and I have somehow avoided all social gatherings so no one knows who I am and I don’t know who they are. We have three sports teams seasons going on right now and practice every night except for Monday and a game every weekend day. It’s a lot. I feel your pain.

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    • I know I should just feel fortunate that this hasn’t been going on since 2006. A work colleague has her two kids in a competitive gymnastics program and they are out at practices, eating, and even zooming classes at the gym. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me. The system is really set up for extroverts. I watch the other coaches thrive on the interaction. For me, it’s forced… but getting better.

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  2. While I was a sports enthusiast as a kid, I also really appreciated that my own kids were only lukewarm into sports. No travel teams or elite camp pressure! And they continued playing multiple sports through middle school, rather than “focusing” on their “best” sport at a too-young age.

    And these days: any excuse to get away from the news of the day is a good one, to me!

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    • Mountain biking is probably more akin to travel sports with the out of town races and even long car rides to saturday morning team rides. That I get to ride along is a real plus for me. I spend entirely too much time reading news, rehashing the same topics over and over and stressing myself out about november. Sometimes, those two hours at practice are my longest break from the news during the day.

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  3. Trail work. It’s one of those things you ought to do because it’s “giving back”, but … I’m no digger, and my justification is to donate to local trail associations so they can pay trailbuilders to do the work. I call it “delegating” and is part of the work smarter nor harder mantra.
    Once all is said and done, it sounds like life will return to being idyllic again. Dinners, bike rides, and books sound pretty perfect.

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    • Giving back is one of my main motivations for coaching. The trail work is unfortunately a little wasted. After this race, our team will ride the trail sometimes at practice but then it will lie dormant again until next September. Strangely, the campground owner doesn’t publicize the fact that there’s a wooded trail on his property. I get why he wouldn’t want bikes on the trail but it would be awesome for hiking and running.

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  4. Enjoy the time with your son, Jeff. Many fathers would give anything to have an activity that their teenage sons actually enjoy doing with them. It sounds like it is good for both of you. I’m with Susan. I love my family and am all for togetherness, but Bill and all of our boys always golfed. When the 4 of them went golfing, I used to practically jump for joy. 5 hours of alone-time?!?! Yes, please!

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