The Adventures of Trying to Bond with My Son During Lockdown

I thought a rowing machine would bring us closer to together. I was right but not in the way I expected to be.

by Kerrie Houston Reightley
Originally Published: 

My blindly optimistic goal “to bond” with my teenage son, over him teaching me how to row while “sheltering in place,” was a complete disaster.

On March 17, 2020, Washington State was the first state to lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic: No going to school/rowing Crew for my son, Tanner, 18; no flying at Mach 0.85 for my corporate pilot husband; and no substitute teaching for me, or competing on my U.S.T.A. (United States Tennis Association) women’s championship-bound tennis teams. Indoor tennis/athletic clubs closed across America. And locks were installed on all our local/public tennis courts, on Bainbridge Island, WA, a 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle.

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So when my son’s Crew coach offered for his team to take home (think: old-gray-marish-looking)their Concept 2 rowing machines — driven hard for decades in their previously roofless boathouse — I jumped at the opportunity! Cross-training? Possibly writing an embarrassingly, self-congratulatory success story about bonding with my teenage son over rowing? I’m all in!

The cold hard truth is I feel like he hates me now.

On my first morning of training — in spite of my husband’s commentary about why was that “damn machine” in our living room and why was the music so loud — I couldn’t wait to show Tanner my first erging results. But when he woke up at noon, he wasn’t the sweet boy who, just the week prior, used to yell into my classrooms, “Love you, Mrs. Reightley! My Mom!”

“I can’t lie,” he said. “These numbers suck. Do you realize how slow that is?”


“1178 meters in eight minutes? You might as well have crawled there.”

I reminded him I’m 60 years old [second marriage, reader, to a younger man, and got pregnant at 42], and I don’t know how to use a rowing machine.

“Don’t use your age as an excuse,” he said. “What was your split time [your 500-meter pace]?”

“My what time?” I said. He rolled his eyes.

We then attempted to videotape a series of coaching sessions. Looking back, I look like I’m trying to look ridiculous, like a Lori Loughlin daughter, posing on a rowing machine.

“You’re doing EVERYTHING wrong!” he screamed. “Your arms are in the wrong place! … You’re not using your legs! … Keep your chin up! … Shoulders down! … Straighten your back! … Relax your face!”

I started laughing.

“This isn’t funny,” he said. “You seriously suck at this.”

“I’m trying.”

“You’re coming out of the slide too quickly!”

“The slide?”

“Oh god, you don’t know?”

“How could I?”

“And you’ve got dinosaur hands!”

“I’m guessing that’s a bad thing?” I said, trying to keep a straight face. He then mimicked how I held the handle like a T-Rex.

“I’m done!” he finally said. “Why do I have to keep showing you the same things over and over again?”

“What do you think teachers do all day?”

He stopped “coaching,” ran upstairs, and threw himself on his bed. When he said he was done, I thought he meant for the day.

“I’m sorry, mom,” he said the next day.

“It’s okay. Let’s try again.”

“No. I don’t want to be a teacher… I don’t want to do it wrong… I’m a perfectionist.”

“If you were a perfectionist, you’d try to get it right,” I thought, then said aloud.

“That’s it! I’m not doing this anymore.”

So, that was the end of my story, I never wrote. Or so I thought.

What happened next was like a scene out of Ray Bradbury’s, sci-fi, short story, The Veldt. It was as if our home transformed into the consumer-purchased “Happy Life Home,” where all needs and desires are instantly met. I turned to the Internet and typed in “Beginning Rowing Workouts,” where “The PERFECT Beginner’s Workout” suddenly appeared.

“Welcome to Dark Horse Rowing,” said Shane Farmer, the founder (who comes across as if he doesn’t know he’s quintessentially, tall, dark, muscular, and handsome), “where we help you live the life you want to live, and we use rowing to get you there.” He looked straight into the camera (from his garage set up), like he’d reached into my soul. Honestly, he had me at, “I never had somebody who believed in me…”

I started erging like a fiend, watching Dark Horse videos, and selecting activities, as if on a luxury cruise liner. I did the beginner’s workout for three weeks, as Farmer instructed, while I repeatedly threw in “The Single Greatest Drill Ever” … “How to do a 2K in 8 Minutes” … “How to do a 2K in 7 Minutes” … “ How to Lose Weight”… “How to Build a Better Butt and Legs”… and on and on. I fervently kept a handwritten journal, documenting everything. I rowed for 44 days and nights.

Admittedly, with as much fun as I was having, I felt as though Tanner had let me down.

“I shouldn’t have to fish for compliments,” I said.

“Trust me. I’ve noticed. So just stop.”

When I tried to show him my times, like doing 19, one-hundred meter sprints in a row, to try to improve my speed, he said, “Sounds like you’ve hit a wall, and won’t get any faster until you do something else besides erging.” When I’d done ten “Power Tens” (where you go at full strength/full speed for ten strokes), at a setting of ten (the highest resistance), and then I did a 2K with it set at ten, “Why?” was all he said. When I asked him if he noticed my new rowing muscles, he said, “Those are your same tennis-lady muscles, you’ve had your whole life. You still look like a tennis lady, not a rower.”

“Don’t you think these numbers look good — for any age?” I finally said.

“It shows you’re committed.”

In the end, I went from doing 2000 meters (a 2K, or 1.24 miles) in 13.2 minutes on April 1, to 9.5 minutes on May 12; and then 1000 meters (a 1K, or 10 football fields+) in 4.41 minutes on May 14. (For “lightweight” college-bound girls, 130 pounds and under, the bare minimum is eight minutes or below for a 2K). My personal best in 100 meters (just over the length of a football field) was 24.4 seconds on May 11, after starting at 30.2 on April 10.

On May 15, when we had to return the machine, I told Tanner I was headed downstairs to do another 2K.

“Wait, Mom! You said that so casually,” he said.

I then heard the unsolicited compliment I felt as though I’d waited my whole life to hear.

“Do you have any idea how hard it is do what you’ve been doing?”

In erging and in life, I’ve learned that pushing harder through the legs with intention, rather than pulling quickly and wildly through the arms, wins “the race.” I’ve discovered Tanner still loves me, but loathes erging. And, he’s embarrassed about not being “as buff” as the other boys in his boat. As for me, I’m still addicted to tennis, but now have an insatiable urge to erg.

Kerrie Houston Reightley is a freelance writer, most recently in The New York Times Modern Love, Tiny Love Stories: “What Will You Miss if you Leave Him?” She is a mother of two boys and a girl, and her next fitness goal is to compete in an international indoor rowing competition—in her age group.

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