08/13/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

How My Children Are Making Me Stronger and Braver

My children are making me stronger and braver. My children are making me stronger and braver. I chant this silent mantra while clinging to the side of a cable car as it thunders down one of San Francisco's famed, gravity-defying hills, whooshing past double-parked delivery trucks, daredevil bike messengers, and unsuspecting jaywalkers.

What am I, a self-proclaimed safety-seeker with a Hitchcock-worthy case of heights-induced vertigo, doing here?

It all started when I borrowed the children's book, This is San Francisco, from the library. In retro graphics, the book depicts the city's hottest tourist spots, circa 1962, offering factoids about each, like this one about cable cars: "Ladies are not permitted to hang on the outside."

When I read that line to my young sons, they giggled maniacally.

Something about all those sexist rules from way back -- my kids find them ridiculously comical. To think that, in earlier times, their two moms would have been banned from owning property, voting, or riding cable cars as we please? Hysterical!

"That's no longer true, you know," I said, when the gigglefest subsided.

"Have you ever ridden on the outside of a cable car?" B asked.

"Nope," I said.

"Well, I want to," he declared.

"So do I," his younger brother, K, conferred.

One might expect that I, a lifelong feminist, would jump at the chance to stand proudly where my foremothers once were barred.

But did I mention the vertigo thing?

Or my overactive imagination? An imagination that can, in one blink, transform a lovely day in San Francisco into a Looney-Tunes caliber disaster? Said imagination painted this scene in my brain: my beloved children white-knuckling the outside of a cable car as it bullets downhill, nothing between their bodies and certain death, except a feeble brakeman (brakeperson?) yanking a flimsy, rusted brake lever that snaps off in his hands.

Side note: This scenario is in no way reality-based. In truth, cable cars are equipped with a three-brake system, not a "flimsy, rusted lever." Also, never have I encountered a brakeperson who could be described as "feeble." In fact, "burly" would be a more accurate descriptor.

But have I mentioned my overactive imagination?

Bottom line: no way was I signing my kids up for that ride. So I did what all irrationally terror-stricken parents do: I fibbed.

"You have to be ten-years-old to ride on the outside of the car," I said.

B, my seven-year-old, asked, "Is that your rule or the cable car rule?"

I shrugged, "You have to be ten."

K, my five-year-old, consulted his brother, "It's her rule, right?"

B nodded, "I think so."

The boys agreed that they wanted to ride, even if they couldn't stand on the running board, so a few days later we joined the throngs of tourists, waiting forty-five minutes for our turn to complete this San Francisco ritual.

Forty-five minutes of this:

B: "Why can't I ride on the outside?"
Me: "Because you have to be ten."
B: "But why do I have to be ten?"
Me: "Would you rather sit on a seat, or not ride the cable car at all?"
B: "Please may I ride on the outside?"
Me: "Are you ten yet? Have we waited in line so long that you've turned ten? No? Then no, you may not ride on the outside."

While B and I bickered, K took a good look at the cable cars, assessed the tracks, took a long gander at the hill we would climb up and then, presumably, speed down the other side of, and announced, "I do not want to ride on the running board."

Boy after my own heart.

When we finally boarded, K and I sat happily chatting about the finer details of our surroundings -- the wooden benches, the brass accents, the signs proclaiming the dangers of riding a cable car -- while B sulked in the corner. Sulked, that is, until he noticed a young boy stepping onto the running board with his mom, ready to ride. Then that sulk turned into a laser-beam glare searing through me with such voltage that for a moment I suspected we had time-warped into B's teen years.


"He's riding on the outside," B hissed. "And he's, like, six."

Thankfully, fate intervened: Ding, ding, ding! The driver rang the Rice-A-Roni bell, and off we chugged.

"Too late," I said. "Here we go!"

If the look on B's face could have spoken, this is what it would have said: Of all the yellow-bellied, lily-livered . . .

I turned away, pretending not to notice. Then the mom-questioning started. Mine, this time, not his.

Am I being paranoid? Is riding on the outside of this car really more dangerous than riding inside? I mean, if the brake fails and we slam into a brick wall, we're all screwed, no matter where we're sitting. So what am I scared of? That he'll fall off or stick his arm or foot out into traffic? He won't do that. He's not a daredevil. He'll hold on tight and follow the rules. He's not a risk-taker. He's usually scared of stuff like this. Wait. He's usually scared of stuff like this? Shouldn't I be encouraging his newfound sense of adventure? If I don't let him ride on the outside, what am I teaching him? To be a yellow-bellied, lily-livered . . . Right.

I leaned over to B and whispered, "I was wrong about the rule. When a space opens up on the running board, you're welcome to stand there."

And so he did. While K and I enjoyed the false safety of our bench, B took his place on the running board, his smile big enough to catch bugs as we rumbled toward San Francisco Bay.

Once we landed, miraculously unscathed, as we walked to the ticket booth for our return trip, K confided, "I didn't want to ride on the outside because I didn't trust myself, but now that I've seen what it's like, I think I can trust myself, so I'd like to try it on the way back."

Leave it to the five-year-old to put the whole trip in perspective: trust the cable car, trust your kids, trust yourself.

And that's how I ended up here, sailing down Powell Street, the running board rattling under my feet, my two boys laughing beside me, each of us growing stronger and braver, stronger and braver with each turn of the cable car's wheels.

A couple weeks later, we bought our own copy of This Is San Francisco, the updated 2003 edition. As we read it, we talked about all the ways the city has changed since 1962, and then we arrived at the cable car page, which now reads, I kid you not, "Children are not permitted to hang on the outside."

Guess who's giggling maniacally now?