My sons knock chips off the old bloke

Park Life
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The Independent Culture
"COME ON Dad," the boys urged as I puffed and struggled in their wake. I pumped my elbows, pushed as hard as I could with each foot, but try as I might I couldn't persuade the wheels in my rollerblades to spin fast enough to catch them.

I thought no more of it until we were sitting down to lunch and I happened to mention that I couldn't keep up with the boys. Tom, who despises all sports anyway, was merciless. "Dad's never been able to keep up with me, because he's a wimp," he pronounced. Then he really dug the knife in. "And he's old - he's just a sad old man."

Steady on, Tom, I thought but didn't say, this is a tricky moment for me. For the first time I have been soundly defeated by my own sons in a physical contest: what I need is a bit of understanding, a little sympathy. This, I recognised, was an important rite of passage for me - and it signified the start of the return journey. Up to now, each rite has been a marker on the voyage upwards towards maturity: first day at school, first night away from home, first girlfriend, first job, first child and so on.

There I was, until a week or two ago, cruising along in the back straight, thinking I was in the very prime of life, only to discover that I had reached a turning point - and it is all downhill from here. Soon enough, the boys will be beating me at any sport they choose; they'll have to "take it easy" when we go for a walk, to avoid tiring me out; they'll offer to carry my bag, and help out with heavy jobs around the house, or drive me to the doctor for a check-up...

Of course I knew it would come to this, eventually. But I was not ready yet, not for a good few years. After all, Darcy still hasn't turned eight - and he's a skin-and-bone strip of a boy with great knobbly knees and the diet of a supermodel supplemented by as many sweets as he can get his hands on. I am a grown man. I eat healthily, exercise thoroughly, and was banking on keeping him in his place at least until he was a hulking teenager.

Sensible people, starting with my wife, might suggest that it was foolish of me to pit myself against my sons in physical competition, that it was misleading, even dangerous for me to link their respect for me with physical dominance, and that the dent in my male ego was just what I deserved. All this may be so, but the instinct for physical competition is embedded deep in the male psyche. Surely it is better to compete openly and laugh at it than to keep it secret and serious - and much more malign.

The only absolutely vivid memory I have of what I am sure was an otherwise enjoyable family holiday when I was Darcy's age is of spending summer afternoons engaged in long-jump contests with my father (it must have been an Olympic year). I can't remember who won - the result was not important - but I can close my eyes and summon the competition at a moment's notice. I also have, from the same era, a terrible and guilty memory of losing my temper with my father, who laughed at me so much in the wrestle that followed that he lost his balance and I was able to knock him off his feet. I hated this victory more than the humiliation that preceded it, because it upset what I instinctively knew to be the natural order of things.

Perhaps this was the mirror image of what I felt when beaten on rollerblades by Darcy. Whatever, I took the boys out blading again a few days later, this time to a broad, open space where I could devise a course more suited to my lumbering style than the tight turns where Darcy had left me standing. We raced round this wide circuit in the gloom of a winter's afternoon, and I managed - just - to keep ahead of Darcy, although I was still far behind Tom.

This was only a short-term solution. Clearly I'm going to have to get used to the new status quo. But not for a while. From now on, I'll only challenge the boys at sports that were already invented when I was young, such as tennis or football, because I have the edge that 30 years of practice brings, or sports such as distance running or swimming that require stamina, which improves with age (up to a point). But I know that I've got my work cut out, keeping fit enough to compete in the years ahead. I'm not ready to cede my position just yet, boys.

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