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Old 2003-06-30, 04:06 PM   #46
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Body Language | Making the wheel go round

By Art Carey
Inquirer Columnist
913 words
30 June 2003
The Philadelphia Inquirer
(c) Copyright 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer. All Rights Reserved.

As a proud voice of male exuberance, I run an outpatient psychiatric clinic for all manner of manly men suffering from acute testosterone poisoning.

Case in point: Norris Childs. A while back, he sent me an e-mail message in which he described himself as a "blockhead" and told me about his latest midlife passion.

I had a feeling we'd hit it off; I was right. In his garage, he has a funky '65 Land Rover (almost as gorgeous as a Willys jeep). He can handle a wrench and a welding torch and knows his way around an engine. In his basement, he keeps a low-slung, single-cylinder '42 Triumph motorcycle, a comely classic.

In the carriage house behind his house in Germantown, he built a squash court. Last year, he and his brother crafted a beautiful wood and canvas canoe. Childs is what writer John McPhee would call "a man of maximum practical application." He does his own carpentry, plumbing and electrical work.

Childs keeps bees, but earns his living as a surgeon. A Germantown Friends School alum, he's a Quaker who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He dropped out of Harvard for a couple of years to serve in the Peace Corps. At age 42, he joined the Navy, partly to give something back to his country, partly to get to know the men and women of the military. (His take: They do what needs to be done and do it well.)

He's the father of three grown children and the grandfather of two. At age 56, he's trim and fit. Every morning, he does 60 sit-ups, 60 push-ups, 60 squats, and 240 arm circles. But that's maintenance stuff. The exercise he really loves is unicycling.

Blame it on Harrie Price 4th, who used to unicycle to Moorestown Friends School. Harrie was Norris Childs' cousin, and Childs always admired Harrie's wonderfully insouciant mode of transportation.

So one day in 1988, when Childs was 41 and should have known better, he went to a bike shop and bought a unicycle. After numerous attempts at riding it, he quit in frustration and threw the unicycle in a closet.

Ten years later, Childs was cleaning the closet and found the dusty unicycle. At 51, he was in the throes of male menopause, vulnerable to lunatic impulses. He decided he was going to ride the contraption, no matter what.

He practiced every day for an hour. He balanced himself against a deck rail next to his driveway and tried to move without falling. He fell hundreds of times. Finally, after a full month, he was able to stay on the unicycle long enough to turn the wheel one revolution. After another month, he was able to pedal the length of his driveway.

But he paid a price. By month three, his left knee - the leg he usually landed on when he fell - was swollen and painful. Being a doctor, Childs did the natural thing: He denied he had a problem. A year later, when his knee locked up, he went under the knife. Diagnosis: torn meniscus.

Once repaired, Childs was back on his unicycle, cruising the streets of Germantown and Mount Airy, the trails along the Wissahickon in Fairmount Park. As his confidence grew, he undertook longer rides: the river drive loop, the bike path to Valley Forge.

Needless to say, he attracts plenty of attention. Women smile, and kids wisecrack. "Hey, mister, did you escape from the circus?" And, "Hey, mister, can you do a trick?" Childs' standard reply: "Hey, kid, this is a trick!"

Indeed it is. The challenge of unicycling is not keeping your balance side to side but keeping your balance front to back. "The hardest part for beginners is learning to lean forward," Childs says. "You pedal to catch yourself as you fall forward."

He has five unicycles of different sizes, including a 5-foot "giraffe." When he rides, he offers a double-barrel spectacle. There is the drama of his feet and what's happening to the wheel, and the ungainly ballet of his arms. With his arms flapping and slicing, Childs resembles a spastic orchestra conductor throwing a temper tantrum against gravity.

One of his heroes is a judge in Alaska who unicycles on rough terrain, including boulder-strewn beaches. The other night, Childs showed his stuff, plunging down a steep and rocky path in his backyard. "The secret is you have to believe," he says. "Once you lose your confidence, it's all over."

In unicycling, the intensity of concentration, paradoxically, is what makes it relaxing. "You can't think too much about riding," Childs says. "You have to let your body ride automatically. You have to concentrate on letting go."

As aerobic exercise, unicycling is comparable to jogging. Pedaling up hills is "a real quad burner." But the greatest benefit is what it does for your sense of balance. It utilizes a host of stabilizing muscles around your hips and abdominal core.

"Whenever I feel things are out of balance in my life, I ride my unicycle and it always helps me," Childs says. "Physical balance is part and parcel of psychological and spiritual balance."

Raphael Lasar
Matawan, NJ
Raphael Lasar

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