Tag Archives: pixar

The Training Wheels Problem


Our oldest took his first bike ride without training wheels this weekend.

He’s 9, which is old for that step I guess, but our house isn’t the most conducive to practicing bicycle riding and he had never been particularly motivated to pick it up, so it was no big deal … this year, though, he and little sister have the bug and we’ve been going to the local soccer field and doing laps in the parking lot.

(By the way, and just as an aside, the build quality on kids’ bikes is garbage. It feels like we can hardly go five minutes without a pedal unscrewing itself (seriously, what engineering genius threaded it so that it spins WITH the natural pedaling motion instead of AGAINST) or the chain jumping a tooth on the gear and falling off (that one I *might* attribute to the sprout’s bombastic way of “crashing” when he wants to stop…. he’s not exactly gentle on the machine).)

So we’ve been going out for several weeks, and they’re gaining in confidence, like they do, as he’s riding on the training wheels. And the training wheels are … they’re this double-edged sword, right? They keep you from losing your balance and falling over entirely, but they also inhibit the natural function and physics of the bicycle. (It’s impossible to take a sharp turn at any speed greater than a crawl, because on a bicycle you have to lean into the turn, and … well, the trainers don’t allow you to lean.)

This is the training wheels problem: they allow you to do a thing that you may not yet have the skill to do, but they don’t give you the full experience of the thing. If you lean on them too long, they actually stop you from getting better.

And I’m watching, and he’s getting surer and surer of himself, and I’m watching, and on this last pass around the parking lot, the trainers don’t touch down on the ground even once. So, okay, it’s time for those things to come off.

I tell him so.

He freaks.

I’m not ready, dad. I still need them. I’m gonna crash. I can’t keep my balance yet.

“You *are* ready, kid. I watched you ride a hundred yards without using them… you just can’t feel it. You’re ready.”

I’m not, dad. Please don’t take them off. I need to use them for a few more weeks.

This is where parenting gets weird, because you want to respect the kid’s wishes, and what’s a few more weeks? If it’ll make him feel better, what’s the big deal? But you also know things the kid can’t know — namely that these things are doing him more harm than good at this point — so what do you do?

In my case, I tell him.

“Nah, buddy. Next time we come out here, those things are coming off.”

He thinks it over.

Okay, well, if you’re going to take them off next time, can I try just once without them, with you helping me?

“What, right now?”

Yeah.

As the cool kids say these days? BET. I’ve got the ol’ crescent wrench in the van. I whip them thangs off lickety-split. His eyes get big as they clatter to the ground. (I don’t bother setting them down gently; I let them fall dramatically, and allow them to make a ton of noise, because I’m theatrical like that.) I walk the bike over to him.

“All right. Hop on. I’ve got you.”

Don’t let go, okay?

And here’s the lie every parent in this situation tells their kid: “You bet.”

He starts to pedal, I give him a little push, and immediately let him go. He takes off like a shot, loops around the parking lot. I jog to keep up, but it’s never in doubt; he’s 100% dialed-in. He zooms. He leans. He doesn’t crash, not even close. And from there, it’s a total reversal of energy:

Did you see me? Wasn’t that awesome? Did you see how fast I went? Were you watching me lean? I didn’t think I could do it, but then I did it!

This is not exactly a subtle metaphor. It gets re-used all the time, nowhere so heavy-handedly, or adorably, as in Onward, the most recent Pixar film to make me cry. Ian, the younger brother, is learning to use magic, but he lacks confidence along with knowledge. His brother, Barley, knows all about magic but can’t use it. The two need to cross a chasm, and this can only be accomplished by means of magic, so Barley convinces young Ian to try out a levitation spell with the assurance that he’ll keep a rope tied around the young man’s waist, just in case the spell fails. Well, the spell works, and the rope runs out of slack and comes untied, and Ian makes it to the other side entirely out of the safe grasp of his brother… and realizes, safe on the other side (okay, he falls a little bit because movies gotta complicate everything), that he didn’t need the support at all.

And this is the way, right? We use these safeties to teach kids how to do things, and then we slowly take the constraints away. This is education 101. Heck, it’s even how we do bowling with little kids now: those bumpers on the sides of the lanes? They’re just training wheels to keep you from throwing a gutter ball every time you take the line, to give you the kick of knocking some pins over, that dopamine hit to bring you back to the line and throw it a little bit better next time, until you don’t need them at all anymore.

We use training wheels, like we use all safety constructs, to keep ourselves from crashing too hard when we’re learning a thing… but who’s there to tell us when to take them off? When you learn new things as an adult, most of the time you’re learning them on your own. And maybe you put your own “training wheels” in place to one degree or another.

But if you want to really ride, you have to take them off sooner or later. Because we all know that riding a bike with trainers on isn’t really riding a bike. Somebody riding a bike with training wheels is capable of so much more.

Where, in our lives, are we relying on training wheels without even knowing it?

And what would we be capable of, if we just had somebody to take our training wheels off?

Child, Tricycle, Play, Drive, Bike, Bicycle, Toy

How to Write an Ending Like a Boss: Ask Pixar


So you wanna write a great ending. Look at the classics, right? Well…

Disney Pixar animated GIF

It may or may not surprise you to learn that we watch a lot of kids’ movies at our house. Rather, it might be more correct to say that we watch a few kids movies a hell of a lot. Now, I love a good kids’ movie. In top rotation at our house are Frozen, Cars, Toy Story, The Lego Movie, The Little Mermaid, and an occasional Despicable Me or Aladdin (which the kids will suffer through only when my wife and I can’t stand another iteration of the first string). Now, those are all, in their own right, pretty good movies. Check their Rotten Tomatoes scores for that. But what I didn’t realize was just how good these kids movies were at endings.

Think about it. How many stories have you read, movies you’ve watched, TV series you’ve slogged through, only to get to the end and say “what a let down”? Fantastic premises can take you only so far. A good ending ties a bow on the story and sends you walking out of the theater or running out to buy the next book in the series buzzing with excitement.

As a general rule, any writer will tell you that you should never solve a conflict without a cost. For every step the protagonists take toward their goal, either the target should move or the zombies should snap at their heels. As a result, the story becomes a series of “Yes, but”s: Do the space pirates find the lost treasure of Kala-Zeron? Yes, but the ruins of the ship are filled with moon-vampires; or “No, and”s: Can the star-crossed zombie lovers find each other before the survivors hiding in the mall blow their brains out? No, and also, each of them is losing limbs at an alarming rate.

It’s not hard to find this pattern in any story. Good stories do this effortlessly, but what I’ve noticed is that not only is the entire plot of Toy Story set up this way, but the last ten minutes not only sticks to the formula, but cranks it up to eleven.

These go to eleven.

These go to eleven.

The characters go from ALL IS SAVED to ALL IS LOST again and again, and each setback is worse than the last.

Take a look at the last ten minutes of Toy Story to see what a roller coaster ride a good ending can be, and bear in mind that all of what happens below passes after the big bad has been dispatched.

Woody and Buzz and Sid’s toys best Sid in time to make it to Andy’s car before he leaves on his move across town. ALL IS SAVED! But Buzz, with Sid’s ridiculously oversized rocket still strapped to his back, can’t fit through the fence. ALL IS LOST.

Woody jumps off of the car to help free Buzz from the fence. ALL IS SAVED! Buzz is loose, but the car drives off just as they reach for it. ALL IS LOST.

Luckily, the gate strap on the moving truck hangs really low, and as it drives over them, they realize they can grab hold of it and get onto the truck. ALL IS SAVED! They catch the moving truck, but Sid’s dog (who was let out of the house earlier in their scheme) chomps onto Woody’s leg and he can’t get on the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Buzz is no slouch, and saving people in need is his jam. Just as Woody did for him, Buzz sacrifices his ride to launch a suicide attack on the dog, who immediately lets go of Woody. ALL IS SAVED! But, now, Buzz is in a tangle for his life with the dog. The dog whips him around and he skitters to rest under a car as the truck drives off. ALL IS LOST.

Woody is safe on the truck, but is now more determined than ever to bring Buzz home with him. He opens the back of the truck, quickly finds his buddy RC car, and kicks him out onto the street to go scoop up Buzz. ALL IS SAVED! But the other toys, distrustful of Woody after knocking Buzz out of Andy’s window in the first place, think he’s just tried to murder another of their friends. They toss him out of the back of the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Buzz, still on a crash course with the truck from Woody’s driving, plows into Woody and scoops him up. Now they race after the truck together on the remote controlled car (now driven not so remotely by Woody). ALL IS SAVED!

They catch up to the truck through some smooth driving, but they can’t quite make it onto the platform dragging behind the truck. ALL IS LOST.

Slinky Dog extends himself as a lifeline to pull them in. They catch hold of Slinky Dog, and it looks like they’ll make it into the truck after all. ALL IS SAVED! But all of a sudden, the car’s batteries start to die, and as the car slows to a halt, Slinky slips out of their hands and goes recoiling into the back of the truck. ALL IS LOST, for real this time.

This time, it really looks dire. RC is dead weight, and the truck has sped off into the distance. All seems lost, but then they realize that Buzz is still wearing the rocket, and Woody still has a match to light it. ALL IS SAVED!

Woody lights the match, but a passing car blows it out. ALL IS LOST.

Woody prostrates himself on the ground in sorrow. The light from the sun refracts through Buzz’s bubble helmet and begins to cook Woody’s hand. Woody, having earlier been roasted under a magnifying glass, has a revelation; Buzz’s helmet can function as a focusing lens. They can light the rocket. ALL IS SAVED!

They light the rocket, remembering an instant too late that rockets explode. But there’s nothing for it; the rocket ignites and sends them screaming after the truck.Their breakneck speed causes them to lift off as they close on the truck. Woody tosses RC car back into the truck with the other toys as the rocket carries Woody and Buzz soaring into the air.

It looks like they are well and truly fargoed. Either the rocket will blow them to bits, or they will smash themselves to pieces as they fall back to earth. Woody says his goodbyes, but Buzz extends his wings, shearing the tape. The rocket explodes in dramatic fashion as Buzz and Woody sail away on Buzz’s previously-thought-useless wings.

They sail through the air with the greatest of ease, passing the truck entirely. The ride ends as Buzz and Woody drop through the sunroof into the very car they were trying to get into in the first place.

Tracking the ups and downs is enough to give you whiplash, not to mention the callbacks to previously established arcs (Buzz’s determination to fly, Woody’s redemption in saving Buzz, Sid trying to blow up Buzz but giving him the means to save himself and Woody). This is a truly masterful ending. Now, if only I could get a fraction of that many twists and turns into my upcoming ending…

All screencaps are courtesy of Disney Screencaps dot com. Toy Story is property of Disney / Pixar.


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