Bradstein Household
Bradstein Household

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My commute is a reverse retreat

I reverse the retreat of the President every morning. That is, the retreat of President Monroe in 1814, who fled Washington, DC to our small town to avoid capture by the British.

But for one weekend this summer, the president returned to our fair town. Or, as Jewel would have it, the fake president came to our town. Being patriots, of course we turned out. He came on horseback. We rode our bikes.

Monroe spent one night in our town along with some other government officials and a number of troops. As a result of this, the town claims the title of U.S. Capital for a Day, which is quite a big thing for a place where the population has probably never exceeded 300.

The town put on more of a show of his visit this time around, not so scared that the British army level it in an artillery barrage or ride in and burn it to the ground. There were hundreds of people in period costume, each acting the role of a person who had been in town when the non-fake President had arrived.

In addition, there were many re-enactors showing off period woodworking techniques, blacksmithing methods and surgical procedures, including trepanning. Not sure how that last one was relevant, even if the British were a headache for Madison. But I let the surgeon be, since I didn’t wonder about the Ben & Jerry’s truck parked up the street from the house Madison stayed in.

Maybe the surgeon was there to treat brain freezes.

I went with the kids and we had a good time talking about horses, soldiers, surgeons, saws, and playing with period musical instruments. We also talked a bit about the government, the war, why we like the British now and so forth.

I pointed out that the President isn’t the entirety of our government, so the claim of Capital for a Day is a bit shaky, but it was August, so Congress and the Supreme Court were in recess. Because of this, President Monroe did embody our government more than a President typically does. And what a coup it would have been for the British to capture him, regardless of the position of the other branches of our democracy.

Of course, as 3B said, “Americans would have kept fighting the British, though.” Yes, which is what they did while Monroe was on the run. And since communication was so slow in those days, by the time anyone learned that the Union Jack had flown over the Capitol and White House, Monroe was back in DC.

As I ride into work on an air-conditioned train, texting and emailing, I sometimes think about how fraught Monroe’s journey must have been. He wasn’t the fake President, and the British Army troops in Washington were regulars, not re-enactors, so Madison wouldn’t have stopped long, if at all, and would have been out of contact with his commanders. But he would have known that Americans would continue fighting, though that might have been his only comfort. When he returned from days on horseback, separated from his wife, he would have found his official residence burned down, along with the Capitol and most major buildings of the relatively new government of the republic.

All of which puts any bad commute I may have in some perspective, and reminds me that it’s an honor to serve in the city I do–in a building also burned by the British, but that still stands. Because, just as Madison returned, so did citizens, masons, plumbers, electricians and so many others, ready to raise our Capitol and our capital city to new heights.

I slept soundly last night

Jewel spends most days in Mommy-only mode, meaning that when she’s hurt, crying, hungry, angry, sad…only Mommy will do. When 3B was younger, I recall these times, and my frustration with not being able–not being allowed–to help.

I could quickly make things worse by pressing on into the situation, so I’ve done my best to just walk away when that’s what Jewel tells–or screams at me–to do.

Of course, there are plenty of other times when either I can help or only Daddy will do. 3B, for example, is so big that there’s no way Mama can carry him from the car to his room while he sleeps. I can barely do it myself, but I do. And Jewel still decides, seemingly whimsically, which parent is best suited to her need. Fortunately she decides it’s Mama most of the time, since I’m away at work most of the time.

There are times, however, when only Daddy will do.

Yesterday Jewel stiff-armed our bedroom door open at 6:30 a.m., as she is wont to do immediately after she wakes up. By then I’ve been gone for half an hour, but this didn’t stop her from walking right past Mama’s, “Good morning, Jewel” to my side of the bed, staring at it for a moment, and stalking back to her room, leaving the door open in her wake. Jewel matched this at bedtime.

3B and I had spent the evening at his baseball practice, getting home just in time to give Jewel a kiss good night. She’s been struggling with some congestion recently, so I offered to snuggle with her for a moment. As soon as I lay down, she wrapped both her arms around my arm and rolled over, pulling my arm around her. Other than a short break for me to get her some PediaCare after listening to her struggle to breathe easily, that’s how we lay until she drifted off.

She would prop her head up on my other arm or shoulder, she would push closer to me, she would move the blankets around herself, but she would not let go of my arm. Nor did she need to.

Fatherhood: push it

Jewel had her birthday party this weekend, with a teddy bear theme. We held it at our house and, thanks to Mama’s diligent planning well in advance, it was a great success. We had a few activities for the kids and they spent the rest of their time roaming the backyard, bouncing on the trampoline, swinging on the swings and picking tomatoes in the garden.

This was after a morning of mini-meltdowns from Jewel–nobody will like those activities, nobody will have fun, 3B will ruin my party. 3B joined in with salty cursing and general grumpiness followed by breakfast and screen time. By the time the party started, what with all of the preparations Mama and I had to make, we were wrung out. Nothing we did was rocket science–hence no rocket–but there were lots of little things to keep track of and complete.

So, after the party–at which Mama and I had a splendid time as well, visiting with friends and watching the kids play–we all took a little bit of down time and then took the dog for a walk. Snowy had been crated during the party, for everyone’s sanity and her safety–what looks like a tasty bowl of grapes to you looks the same to her, but is actually a bowl of toxic death to her.

Even though we’d let her run around the backyard and played with her after everyone left, Snowy needed a walk. And, despite playing all day with their friends, 3B and Jewel could use one too.

3B led most of the way on his bike while Jewel followed closer behind than ever on his old bike, which I just put training wheels on. Previously she was on a bike that was too small and didn’t run as well, so she had a hard time keeping up with even a scooter. Now, however, you better let her take a turn in the paceline.

But, she still did tire out on the long hill back home, and so I pushed her. As I did, I pulled out my iPhone and played Push It, which actually gave her a lift and got her to pedal harder for a little ways.

As Mama and Snowy caught up to us, Mama said, “Nice music.” But Jewel liked it enough that I played it again when we got home. Or maybe I was just reliving my college days for a moment.

Either way, I’d forgotten that 3B learns a song the first time he hears it and never forgets it–hence his picking out Ode to Joy and Yankee Doodle Dandy on the piano earlier this week. So, for the rest of the night, we were all serenaded by an eight-year-old whistling Push It as he curled up in an armchair reading about Star Wars.

Yo, pick up on this, indeed.

She came to me as if in a dream*

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I met the girl who changed my life five years ago today. It was love at first sight. She didn’t talk much and spent most of her time eating and sleeping–we got along just fine.

Jewel is five years old today and she amazed me as much this morning as she did on her first morning among us. She wakes up cheerful and eager for her everything the day has to offer. Mostly she’s glad to greet her family–she’s even learned to wait for her brother to emerge before greeting him. She’s patient with the snuffling, nibbling doggy greetings and with Mama and Papa’s morning rushing about, and ready to see her friends at preschool.

Every time she eats the cucumbers she loves, she reminds me of her uncle MrJumbo, walking across Israel to archaeology digs, munching raw cukes. She shares a name with Mom in a way, and I wonder if that’s where Jewel got her love of broccoli. And in Jewel’s green eyes, I see a unique girl, as happy to be here as we were to greet her in this world.

(See some of her first yawns and hiccups.)

*Really, it was as if in a dream, since it was about 3 a.m. when she arrived.

The plague of blogs

I’ve had an existential crisis of late. Unlike in high school, this crisis doesn’t involve reading and re-reading Camus while listening to The Cure on repeat. Or Joy Division. Or Bauhaus. Or…oh, you get the point.

Also unlike in high school, nobody has died. On the contrary, somebody has grown–two somebodies, actually.

When 3B and Jewel were smaller, it was cute (maybe) to write about their boogers and poop, but now they’re eight and (almost) five. What third grader wants their dad writing about their poop on the interwebz? In the case of 3B, he not only reads, but reads everything obsessively. At the grocery store, I’d almost rather take him through the checkout lane with all the candy than the one “for kids” with all the magazines.

“Daddy, why did Kim Kardashian do that?”

Easier to say no to a pack of gum than to answer that question. And while Jewel can’t read, she’s as close to reading as she is to being five. Further, if there’s anything she loves, it’s her privacy, when she wants it. That doesn’t stop her from taking a Lady Godiva perambulation about the house from time to time…but, see? Should I even mention that?

Because her brother could read about it and then tease her. Or she could read about it and wail for her privacy, but the internet never forgets, so once it’s written, there are no backsies.

But if I’m not going to write about my kids, on this blog that I created for that purpose, do I even keep writing here? I had originally meant it to be the place where Mom kept in touch with her newest grandkids, but then she had the temerity to die right after 3B was born. But the kids have many–many, many–aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles, grandparents, cousins and so on who keep up with them here. Or did, back when I wrote here regularly.

Have I already pocket vetoed this blog?

But what about the other person this blog serves–me? MetroDad always joked that writing his blog was cheaper than therapy, which is true. I’m not always sure that it’s as effective as my favorite form of therapy–riding my bike–but is sure is cheaper. Maybe writing tales of my kids builds a bridge out of the exile from them I inhabit each day at work. You know…exile, “That sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.” (Camus)

Beyond my mental health needs, possibly caused by years of reading Camus and listening to The Cure on repeat, this blog also allows me to write what I want to.

As a professional communicator, I spend my day writing (and reading and editing), but never about anything as engaging as boogers and poop. So is this my creative writing outlet? Hm. Maybe I could make up stories about the kids…except, you know, ethics. But if this is my outlet, do I let down my guard and post everything I love to write, which includes poetry? To misquote Cracker, the world needs another bad poetry blog like I need a hole in my head.

So, perhaps the point here is the sorting out of issues like this. If I can be honest, perhaps it will be more of a gift to 3B and Jewel than a recounting of their first steps. They can learn how to avoid falling down by reading my accounts of doing so–and hopefully of how I recovered.

Of course he rode

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Feeling was just returning to my hands as my room/teammate walked into our dorm room at the Mass Maritime Academy (MMA) with a space blanket tucked under his helmet and wrapped around him. He looked a little stunned and pasty white–and for me to say that means he’s looking pretty pale.

As he unpacked to locate what he needed to shower, he explained that he’d gotten cold in that final 20 miles of cold rain showers and just couldn’t get warmed back up. As he talked, it looked like he was just this side of uncontrollably chattering teeth.

He explained that as he’d rolled into MMA, he had been shivering uncontrollably, and as he was being checked in, a nurse pulled him aside and started warming him up. Kudos to the PMC medical staff for being proactive on such a difficult day. I don’t know how he felt about it, but it made me feel good that they were so on the ball and took such good care of him.

I ride with this guy several times a year and not only is he one of the strongest riders I know, he’s always sharp, from start to finish of a ride, no matter how long it is. While I can get tired and forgetful, he is always just as alert and quick-witted as we’re getting back into our cars as he was when we got out of them a few hours earlier. So when he showed up in our dorm room looking dazed, I was truly concerned.

Fortunately, a shower, change of clothes, massage and dinner all got him back on track. Again, kudos to PMC for providing everything riders need to recover, no matter how difficult their day was. (What’s truly amazing is that this all is at no cost to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, since rider fees and corporate sponsors pay all the administrative costs of the ride, so that 100 percent of your donation goes directly to cancer research and patient care at Dana-Farber.)

Knowing how strong he is on the bike, how tenacious he is always and how committed he is to making cancer history, it was no surprise to me that he was up with the rest of us at oh-my-G_d-it’s-early the next morning, wrapped in spandex, ready to ride. But when I told this story to a friend, after I returned home, she exclaimed halfway through, “Oh! So he didn’t ride the next day, then.”

I cocked my head like Scooby Doo trying to figure out the mystery and stammered, “What? Why not? Oh, because he was hypothermic? No. Of course he rode.”

She laughed. But of course he rode.

I forget that this isn’t a normal reaction when I’m surrounded by 5,700 riders and over 3,500 volunteers who will do anything to kick cancer’s ass. I would assume any other rider would do the same, if possible, because all of us understand the stakes in a painful, personal way. It’s the same reaction I have at 5 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in the winter, when I pull on my heavy gloves, slip insulating covers onto my cycling shoes and roll out into the darkness. Of course I ride. It’s the same reaction I have at 9.30 p.m., getting onto my bike trainer in the family room after the kids are in bed, my suit is laid out for tomorrow, and Mama is reading a book in bed. Of course I ride.

We ride because as cold as the losses to cancer we’ve suffered have left us, we’re never so cold that we’re immobilized. Quite the reverse. I’ve seen it on the faces of riders as we’ve talked, rolling along–the colder cancer leaves us, the tighter we grip the handlebars, the harder we stomp down on the pedals and the firmer we grit our teeth. We’re coming for you, cancer, and nothing will stop us.

Of course we ride.

Elsa pulls on a tauntaun coat

80 miles on a bike is a long start to any day, especially one where the finish line is at 110 miles. Add rain and you’ve got a recipe for misery, unless you add a dash of hope, a pinch of purpose and a cup of context.

So, after I learned about love, we rolled out. I was with the bulk of my team, PHAT Tuesday, and with only 20 or so miles to the finish, I counted on being with them to the end of day one. Even though we only ride together once a year, I know how they ride–aware, careful and strong.

We hit the road at over 20 mph, hovering between 21 and 23 mph, as soon as we left the Pedal Partner water stop. I’d been at the water stop long enough to cool down somewhat, which was a welcome respite most years, but which would almost undo me this year.

It was soon after we restarted rolling that the rain came pouring down. Again. By this time, I was soaked with rain, road spray and sweat but now the new rain was falling cold, in bucket loads. I wouldn’t have been chilled so quickly or thoroughly had I pulled on my vest and arm warmers as we rolled out of the water stop, but I took a chance. It hadn’t been raining for awhile and I’d been overheating with either of those layers on.

Now, however, that a cold, heavy rain was soaking us, I debated–stop, put the layers on and lose the team, getting to the finish warmer, but much slower? or keep riding with the team, without the layers, and get to the finish faster?

I opted for the latter.

Honestly, at that point, anything that would have gotten me to the finish faster–paceline, bionic legs, jetpacks–was welcome. Under other conditions, I might have attempted layering on the go, but in a heavy downpour, with increasing car traffic, after that many miles wearing down our reflexes, it wasn’t worth it. If I stopped, though, I was sure I couldn’t catch back up to that train. The locomotives were too strong.

But waiting to layer was wearing me down too. I started to notice that a few of my fingers were tingly, and then I realized that I couldn’t really feel them as well as I could, well, when they weren’t numb. With layers that made as much sense as the sudden slit up Elsa’s dress that appeared while her ice castle rose from the mountainside, I couldn’t count on my clothes to save me. I started moving them around on the handlebars more, flexing my arms (don’t laugh, there are some muscles in there) and doing whatever I could to get blood–warm blood–flowing to my hands.

Whatever I did was just enough to get me to the next water stop, where I didn’t need water, but I pulled in with the team anyway. Usually we stop and chat a little, but I had only three things I wanted to do there, and talking over tea wasn’t one of them. First, I dropped off some water I picked up earlier. Second, while I was doing that, in out of the rain for a moment, I pulled on my extra layers. Finally, I got some water and poured in my recovery drink powder, so it would be all mixed in by the end of the ride, in 10 miles.

Before I could finish those three tasks, PHAT Tuesday was already back on the road.

I scrambled to catch them, through some of the worst road conditions–weather and surface deterioration–of the entire route. Fortunately for me, they got caught at a red light, so I was able to roll right up and latch onto the back of the train as they pulled out.

The rest of the way, with my extra layers, was smooth sailing. You know, smooth sailing through a gale. My hands returned from numb to tingly, and I stopped looking for a tauntaun to slice open and hibernate in. My teammate and roommate wasn’t so lucky, though, as I found out after I arrived in the dorms at the end of day one.

All you need is … what I got

Standing with 5,700 others in garish spandex, listening to an opera star sing the Star-Spangled Banner in the pre-dawn darkness, with Mardi Gras harlequin masks strapped to my helmet and beads around my neck, the 2014 Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) got off to a totally normal start.

Totally. Normal.

Mercifully, the first little bit is a slight downhill before we hit the hilliest sections of the ride, all of which come in the first few several many miles of the first day, as did much of the rain. We went slower in the rain, more cautious on the downhills, wary of the painted stripes and reflectors, which are like ice and moguls in the rain.

Like the hills, the rain came and went, soaking us and then letting us dry out, but never really making us cold. We put our heads down when the rain came and rode on, watching out for each other and calling out warnings to one another. When the clouds parted, we lifted our heads and continued talking and laughing, giving thanks and high fives to the many who lined the route, throughout the day and throughout the rain. All of them had been touched by cancer, so it would take more than a little rain to dampen their spirits.

Lunch was a mercifully dry spot, where I was able to grab a selfie with Billy Starr, the founder of the PMC, responsible for over $450 million in donations to cancer research and patient care.

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After that, we rolled onto the Pedal Partner waterstop. Pedal Partners are kids–pediatric cancer patients–who are in treatment, recovery, remission or who are cured, who are partnered with PMC teams. The teams support the kids by visiting with them during the year, as possible, sending them messages, etc., and the kids definitely motivate us during the year. This year my team’s Pedal Partner, Kira, wasn’t at the waterstop, but I spent a long time visiting with VampBoy, who has a spectacular smile and a wonderful little sister.

I was talking with his mom about the standard challenges of parenting elementary school and preschool kids when she told a story that stuck with me. It was about a time when VampBoy was trying to be in charge and control his little sister–stop me if you’ve heard this story before–when a squabble broke out, because, guess what, she didn’t want to be controlled. She’s now old enough to do everything herself, of course.

VampMama listened to VampBoy insist that VampGirl had to do it the right way, and to VampGirl explain why she could do it her way, then asked them, “What’s the most important thing?”

“Love,” they both replied.

Wow, I said.

I’m articulate like that, especially after 80 miles on a bike.

That’s amazing, I told VampMama. You definitely got that part of parenting right if that was their answer.

That seemingly simple exchange has stuck with me ever since. When I’m agitated, upset with someone or find myself in a power struggle with the kids, I wonder to myself, “What’s the most important thing?”

And if I look around and I don’t find love with us in that moment, I take a pause. Because really, what’s more important?

OK, so a little bit past that waterstop, love plus appropriate layers would be important, but in that moment, all I needed was a reminder of what I got.

What not to wear to cure cancer

As 5,700 of us woke to ride 200 miles on our bikes, it was dark–still nighttime–cool and wet. As I explained previously, I have something of a system for figuring out what to wear when riding, but the system falls apart a bit around the edges.

Specifically at the edge between temperatures and conditions. The day was forecast to be in the mid-50′s to mid-60′s. OK, so let’s say it will be 60. But wait a minute–it’s going to be raining. OK, so let’s assume it will feel colder than 60. But wait a minute–it’s not going to rain the whole time.

Agh.

I started my day packing my cycling vest and arm warmers in my jersey pocket. Yes, cyclists wear arm warmers. We dress to make what you wore in the 80′s–leg warmers, those colors, the whip-thin ties–look like a couture gown. Not that I ever wore any of that.

I figured that would let me adjust to conditions: push the arm warmers down if I got too warm, unzip the vest if I got warmer, even take off the vest if I got really warm, though unzipping it is usually enough since the back is just mesh. Yes, mesh. Really, we dress to make your off-the-rack outfit look like Armani.

But as we rolled from our hotel to the start line, I felt that cool air and thought maybe I wouldn’t be warm enough. Maybe I’d want my cycling jacket–you know, the stab-you-in-the-eye-bright yellow one. Decisions, decisions…but, you know, none of my decisions that day were nearly as tough as the decisions my college roomie makes right now, facing stage IV colon cancer that has metastasized to his liver and lymph nodes.

  • Write a will?
  • Stop chemotherapy?
  • Fly to Mumbai?

My decisions that morning don’t have nearly the long-lasting effects that my roomie’s do. But if I left my jacket in my duffel bag, that meant not seeing it until the end of the day, since my duffel bag goes on a tractor-trailer truck, which is driven to the end of the route. So before I handed my bag over, I pulled it out. Then, as my teammate stood patiently by, I paused.

  • Wear this jacket?
  • Wear the vest and arm warmers?
  • Fly to Mumbai?

Standing there, in the pre-dawn dark as thousands of cyclists clacked around me in their silly shoes, I hear Mama’s Grammy’s words in my head: You’re not made of sugar; you won’t melt.

No shit. I thought. Our team is riding for a 12-year-old girl facing down brain tumors a third time. If she can take three separate rounds of cancer treatment and still grow up and go to school, I can get through a little rain, even if I’m a little chilly.

Besides, breakfast was waiting.

I stuffed the jacket back in my duffel, heaved it up on the truck, thanked the volunteer who took it and tossed it into the growing heap, where it was immediately lost in the deluge of bags raining into the truck.

While my system for deciding what to wear when riding frays at the edges, at the core, there are some truths. Among those is the fact that if you’re going to ride all day in the rain, you’re going to get wet and cold and uncomfortable, no matter what you wear. Knowing that, I probably should take my roomie’s advice and pack a Magic 8-Ball to make my decisions for me.

It couldn’t do worse than I did.

Weather or not, we ride

A pilot’s life depends on their knowledge of the weather, so if you want to know what the weather will be, ask a pilot. Or, like me, drive for eight hours with a pilot toward an event in which you’ll both be outdoors for two full days.

It fascinates me that he follows the same guidelines I learned when I was bike commuting. Check the weather

  • 10 days out for big trends because specific forecasts have low probability
  • 5 days out for a somewhat accurate forecast
  • 3 days out to know what to pack
  • the day before to find out how bad it will be

We were driving up on the day before, so we already had gone through those four steps and knew it was going to rain during the ride. We started off talking about many topics–Middle East, Ebola…we try to keep it light–always circling back to a check of the weather. As we slowly spiraled around the topic, we were drawn into the eye of the forecast, which focused on one word: rain.

Thirty percent chance is where I start paying attention to rain forecasts. Lower than that, the probability of the forecast being accurate deviates from meaningful to a topic for polite conversation. (BTW, Nate Silver confirmed this in The Signal and the Noise. Part of the deviation is caused by weather broadcasters whose forecasts tend to be wet–a term of art that means something different than more milk in your cappuccino.) That meant that as we were driving, I had plenty to pay attention to.

Our route covers 200 miles–it is called the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, after all–and about six hours each day, so it doesn’t do much good just to check the forecast in the starting town. By lunch we would be 60 miles and 3 hours from that forecast. My job was made easier by the fact that almost every town on the Saturday route had a chance of rain over 30 percent.

Sunday looked like it would be dry, and continue the low temperatures of Saturday, making our second day a pretty nice one for riding. If we survived the first day. Going back to those low temps on day one and bike commuting–I used to know that what layers to wear at each temperature and weather condition, but I’m out of practice now and can’t remember what I used to do.

I think I recall that at 60 degrees and higher, I just ride in my bike clothes–jersey and shorts. Below 50, I like to cover my joints–elbows and knees–but only lightly, or I overheat. Often a vest or jacket isn’t necessary. Below 40 and a vest or jacket is needed. Below 30 I switch to heavier tights and maybe add arm warmers below the jacket…..probably a neck gaiter too. I might add toe covers too. Below 20, I might switch to a long sleeve jersey to avoid gaposis between arm warmers and the jersey…oh, and watch for ice.

But that all changes if there will be rain, sleet, snow, or other weather that leaves you alone on the road with the postal carriers. Because the temps were forecast to be from 50 to 60 in and out of the rain, I wasn’t sure what to wear, so I brought many options, as did The Pilot.

Although I said we eventually talked about only one thing on the drive north–the weather–there really were two topics: the weather and what to wear.

Tomorrow I’ll explain how I picked the wrong thing to wear. Twice in one day.