A firm grip

A firm grip

My mother was a climber. Not socially – she loved to physically climb things. I remember riding my tricycle alongside her while she walked north of our apartment in Manhattan. Together, we climbed the granite boulders of Inwood Hill Park. Years later I heard the story of her theft of the tower bell at Syracuse University. She was the first female student to perform this annual ritual, and she did so alone. The bell was not discovered in her closet until the last day of school that year. Nobody thought to check the women’s dormitory in the search.

My son Spencer is much like her. When he was six, while I was helping a friend do some work on a house, he asked for permission to climb a tree in the front yard. When my wife arrived later and asked where he was, I looked up. He was 30 metres above the ground, twice as high as his friends had ventured. I asked him to come down and watched him while he made his way back towards the earth. I may have breathed.

Four years ago, my daughter Morgan got her learner’s permit. The first 20 hours behind the wheel are the hardest. It was difficult and frustrating and scary, both for her and us. We had only manual cars, so nothing was easy. For the first few months of driving, we crawled around every corner on our local streets at no more than 10 km/hour. She stalled frequently. She would pull over to the side and stop if she saw a car drive toward us on the same street. She is methodical, precise, and has an appreciation for rules, but theory and practice are not the same. A tone creeps into your voice when you are trying to offer instruction without revealing your emotional state. It’s like approaching a pet that’s managed to get free of its lead while on a walk. Every half hour of practice we got a little better, and a little more assured. She is now an excellent driver and I can sleep soundly at night when I know she’s out driving somewhere.

Spencer displays a faith in his ability out of scale with his experience…

Spencer has been very different. With no more than two hours behind the wheel, he shifts up and down with confidence. He slips between cars parked on either side of narrow, suburban streets. He asserts his right-of-way against oncoming vehicles. Perhaps most alarmingly, speed does not concern him. Advised that the limit is 70, he replies that he’s not exceeding it. There’s no hesitation in getting the car up to speed when merging on the freeway.

It is concerning. He displays a faith in his ability out of scale with his experience. It is unearned, and my wife and I worry that he leaves little room for error. He lacks the skill to get himself out of trouble if something unexpected happens. But spending time driving is how he’ll gain the skills he needs, and so we suppress our anxiety and take him out as often as we can and give him the instruction we believe he needs to hear.

Look in your mirror, do a head check, slow down, put on your indicator, slow down, start braking now, take it out of gear, slow down, wait for two clear lanes, leave plenty of space, slow down.

His technique is remarkably good with one significant weakness: He’s prone to shuffling the wheel left and right between his two hands when cornering. I have corrected him repeatedly, but he’s not quite there. The correct form not yet second nature.

My mother did not live long enough to see me learn to drive. My father tried to teach me one summer in a terrible manual four-speed Chevy Cavalier wagon, a car so prone to vapour-lock that the first five sessions of driving finally made him throw in the towel and pay for a professional instructor. During one of our final drives together the car was stuck in the middle of an intersection while we waited for the engine to cool down enough to restart. His impatience and my frustration were a toxic mixture in the air. We endured it without words.

It was a poor experience, a sin I do not wish to revisit upon my son. And so when I correct Spencer it is my mother I think of, and her advice to me as we climbed the massive glacial rocks and stone walls of Inwood and Fort Tryon Park. “Firm grip with one hand, then reach and grip firm with the other.”

Michael Finke, an American expatriate and proud Australian who has been living in Melbourne for 20 years, is a regular contributor to The Dad Website. He has two teenage children: daughter Morgan and son Spencer.




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  1. John B Owens II

    I have known Mike for over 25 years, we went to college together in upstate New York, U.S.A…. Even though he and I do not always see eye to eye politically, I know without a doubt he is a great dad. There for his kids, ready to encourage them through success or failure… ready to help them stand back up, brush themselves off and try again if they fail. Life is harder as parents, its seems to get harder as we raise our children and grandchildren. There is a deep wisdom in Mike’s words, and I am proud to call him a friend.


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