Of Auto Insurance and Raising Sons: An Open Letter to MetLife

Kindness to a father will not be forgotten (Sirach).

Dear MetLife,

My son, Ben, is a resident freshman at Notre Dame this year, and he’s not making use of any of our vehicles while living on campus. Consequently, he’s not driving at all, and I called you recently to inquire about taking him off our auto insurance policy to save some dough.

god_quad_in_the_winterscholasticYour agent (let’s call him “Eric”) was very kind –  although I thought it was a little strange that he neglected to comment on my son’s good fortune at becoming a domer. Regardless, Eric informed me that Ben could not be removed from our policy until he obtains a policy of his own first – a MetLife rule.

You’ll forgive me for grumbling a bit – finances are tight these days, both for my son and for us. Still, I guess your rule makes sense, what with your risk/benefit analyses, amortization tables, and the liabilities involved. Anyway, Eric was savvy enough to offer me a conciliatory gesture: A discounted rate for full-time college students who only drive occasionally, mainly while home during breaks. The gesture worked – I was consoled – and I asked Eric to see if our family qualified for the special rate.

When he came back on the line, Eric indicated that he was all set to enroll Ben in the discounted program. “Just a couple questions,” he noted. “First, is your son attending a college 100 miles away from home or more?”

Now there’s an interesting question.

Technically, Ben is a mere 5 miles away from home – within walking distance really. Unlike most parents dropping their firstborn off at college, I didn’t have to take time off from work last fall to make a road trip with a van full of boxes and suitcases. Instead, it was a short ride up Miami Street and then over to Eddy and Notre Dame Boulevard – we were there in 15 minutes. I dropped Ben off, drove home, changed from jeans into Dockers, and headed to the office.

So, no, Met Life, he’s not 100 miles or more away from home. Not even close – at least in terms of geography. In fact, when Ben asked me to meet him at Notre Dame’s bookstore for coffee last week, it required only a minor detour off my daily commute, and I gladly obliged.

Coffee_and_Bagel“You buying?” I asked cautiously, after placing my order for a bagel and a schmear. Ben grunted, and the lady behind the counter laughed. I laughed, too, but I still let him pick up the tab.

As we ate our bagels and sipped our coffees, we talked. I shared a bit of what was going on at home, but I mainly listened, relishing the exorbitant luxury of a tête-à-tête with my collegiate son. Physics, chemistry, calculus. (Are you kidding me? Way over my head…but do continue.) A seminar on classic literature, plus his work-study jobs and life in the dorm. “And did you see that game last night?” he asked – the big one against Duke. “Here, check out these three-pointers” (photos on his phone) – “unbelievable!”

Then it was time for me to get on to work, and Ben to class. “See you later, dad.” No big deal, right? Almost like he never left home.

Why then, I ask you, the tears as I drove away – where did those come from? Just a few miles from home and work, and close enough to drop by for a chat, but the reality of the true distance between us hit me like a sledge that day. Can you see it, too?

I mean, here we are, MetLife: I’m in South Bend, and my son, grown to manhood, is a student at Notre Dame – just across town, sure, but embracing a life hundreds of miles away from my own. He’s learning new things, making new connections, and exploring new ideas well beyond me.

In short, Ben’s moving on, declaring his own direction, sifting through the influences from his youth and retaining only those that meld with his fresh start. How George-MacDonaldmuch further away could he be from my day-to-day existence? It could be 1,000 miles – a million even – and it would still be the same.

At least it would feel the same – I don’t suppose you offer an auto insurance discount for that, do you?

On the other hand….

All this is precisely what we signed up for as parents. We love our children, devote ourselves to their formation and upbringing, and then we work ourselves out of a job if everything goes right. “What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk?” asked George MacDonald, and then he linked that question with its corollary: “What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son!” Agreed.

Besides, in my case? I’m blessed with a full-grown son who sought out his dad for a meal and conversation, and so I’ve nothing to be whiny about – indeed, I’ve got every cause to rejoice! That pause last week over coffee and bagels wasn’t just a privileged luxury; it was an incalculable gift of grace and a profound sign of filial love. There might be a yawning gap between our daily lives these days, but it’s a gap that my son chose to bridge of his own volition.

So, never mind, MetLife. Leave our policy the way it is. It’s a bargain reminder that he’s not so far from me after all.

Empty Stadiums, Empty Promises

J8255969ohn Dillinger robbed his last bank here in South Bend – the Merchant’s National Bank, at 229 South Michigan Avenue. On June 30, 1934, Dillinger and his gang entered the bank, shot up the ceiling, and got away with $29,000. A South Bend traffic cop, Officer Howard Wagner, lost his life trying to intervene, which prompted J. Edgar Hoover to put a $10,000 bounty on Dillinger’s head. About a month later, Dillinger was gunned down by Chicago police outside the Biograph Theater.

The building at 229 South Michigan Avenue still stands, and you can visit it today. But it’s no longer a bank. In fact, it looks like the Cambodian restaurant that’s housed there now was always there – like it belongs there. It doesn’t even look like the building was ever a bank.

Down the street a piece from the Cambodian restaurant stands another old bank, but this one definitely retains it’s bank-y allure. The building at 911 South Michigan is an imposing edifice with big marble-looking pillars, and it’s frieze still2769984996_d9aae32fa5 bears the name, “South Bend State Bank.” It definitely looks like someplace you’d want to store your cash, maybe even today. I’m not sure what’s there now, but what you can see from the street gives an unmistakeable message of safety and security.

It seems like most banks used to be built that way – big, sturdy, stone, impregnable. It was a marketing ploy even after it became obsolete in terms of actual security – after, that is, money was not kept piled up in safes any more, but was relegated to digital blips on computers and fiber optic filaments.

Today, long after banks transmuted into storefronts in strip malls and mere counter space in grocery stores, colleges and universities have gotten into the act of building big to impress and sell.

Last fall, Colorado State University was in the news for the pricey football stadium they were building, despite the poor performance of the CSU Rams on the field. Even now, after cutting back the plans by $20 million, CSU’s president Tony Frank still insists the $226.5 million they’ll still end up spending is in the University’s “best long-term interest.”131008085725_new-csu-stadium-01

The CSU story is unfolding at a time when stories abound about the sinking relative value of a four-year college degree – and at a time when CSU itself wants to raise tuition by 5%. It seems the more colleges and universities spend on stadiums and amenities, the less cost effective it is for most Americans to obtain a college degree, especially when it involves crushing debt. And even when they do manage to get through college, many graduates struggle to find gainful employment in the fields in which they trained, not to mention the struggle to pay back loans.

So, what’s the alternative? Skip college and become, what, a plumber or something?

Well, maybe. For some – why not?

Better that than, say…, getting robbed.


Of Fatherhood and Notre Dame

chris-christiejpg-b5ab967aa73027fcTurns out, Chris Christie and I have a lot in common.

First, there’s New Jersey — we were both born there. He stayed and became the governor; my family and I moved to Colorado when I was in grade school and we never looked back. Still, Jersey roots run deep, and that distinctive accent is always lurking just beneath my relatively featureless Hoosier drawl – all it takes is 20 minutes in the presence of another Jerseyite, and “war-der” will bubble to the surface.

Next, we’re both Catholics with Sicilian (maternal) and Irish (paternal) flavorings. Admittedly, Christie is a cradle Catholic, and I’m an adult convert – a big difference in terms of upbringing and formation. And there’s more German blood on my dad’s side of the family than Scotch-Irish (although that trickle from Grandma Addie O’Boyle seems to be pretty potent). In any case, lineage and creed count as two more points of convergence between the governor’s story and my own.

But now we come to the point – and the reason why any of this is worth commenting on. It seems that Christie and I can both claim membership in a fairly exclusive club: Dads whose kids have been admitted to the University of Notre Dame next fall – his Sarah and my Ben.

I came across this connection in Peggy Noonan’s WSJ column over the weekend:

I asked some smart, accomplished people: What was the best thing that happened this year, some breakthrough, some joy, some encouraging sign. It was interesting that with a lot of them, their first thoughts went to the personal….

Chris Christie, elected in 2013 to a second term as governor of New Jersey: “I am grateful that my oldest daughter Sarah got her Christmas wish — admission to the University of Notre Dame Class of 2018. I am a father full of pride and joy this year.”

Did you catch that last line? “I am a father full of pride and joy.” That’s where I feel some real kinship with Christie. Yes, we’re both Jersey natives; yes, we’re both Italo-Irish Catholics; yes, we’re both dads – things we have in common with millions of other guys. That can’t be said, however, of our both having kids admitted to Notre Dame, a rare privilege. We’re a couple dads full of pride and joy indeed — a very particular kind of pride and joy that seems associated with the Fighting Irish.

Which raises a question: Why the special pride and joy?

Neither Christie nor I are Notre Dame grads, so there’s no particular loyalty there. True, I’ve been living in South Bend for some 18 years — ever since Ben was a baby, in fact. So Notre Dame has bee12-university-of-notre-damen the cultural backdrop for all our kids growing up here, but we’re townies and have always been relative outsiders when visiting the campus or the stadium.

And, yes, admission to Notre Dame is prestigious — a mark of distinction, no matter what comes next. Obviously, the objective is actually getting our kids there for classes, but that’s almost secondary at this point. Admission itself is a sign that they have already accomplished something extraordinary. At our house, we’ll be framing that admission letter and hanging it in a prominent place.

Nonetheless, the prestige belongs to my son, to Christie’s daughter — it’s not mine and not the governor’s. We didn’t achieve anything; our accomplishments aren’t being heralded, unless you want to derivatively and with hindsight grant us some vicarious credits for our paternal contributions. So why the peculiarly intense reaction?

The bottom line is this: My son’s gifts and hard work were recognized by ND’s admissions people, and his college dream is coming true — plenty of pride and joy there to go around for everyone. No doubt, the same holds true for Christie and his daughter.

Yet, for me, there was something else: A phone call.

Ben had also applied to I.U.-Bloomington and got an acceptance letter a few weeks back — I found out when I got home that night. He applied to and was accepted by Butler and Purdue as well: No calls. Notre Dame was different, however, and it was no secret that Notre Dame was Ben’s real goal.

I don’t know how Christie found out about his daughter’s ND acceptance — maybe he got a call during a budget meeting in Trenton; maybe he ducked out to answer it and leaped around the hallway with glee. All I know is that when I heard Ben’s voice mail message the day he was expecting his letter, I was ecstatic — not just because I suspected he got his wish and was Notre Dame bound, but also because he called to include me in his triumph right away. That phone call was a sign that he was anxious to share his good news with me directly, and it sent an unmistakeable message of love and respect — a huge gift to a dad.

“Kindness to a father will not be forgotten,” Sirach announced in today’s liturgy. Indeed it will not. Congratulations, son. And thank you for kindly keeping me in your loop.

Football Widowers Guide

My brother got all the sports genes—what can I say? I collected baseball cards when I was a kid, but I always got killed on the trades because I didn’t know the good players from the bad, nor why they were good or bad. And let’s just say my Little League record closely paralleled by trading card record.

And basketball. And football. Football was especially important by the time we moved to Colorado. Back then, the Broncos were always contenders, as well as the C.U. Buffaloes—yes, those Buffbroncosaloes. The ones who went up against Notre Dame for a national title in 1991. (I remember that much.)

Then there’s the year the Broncos were in the Super Bowl against the Cowboys. While my dad and brother and his buddies crowded around the TV, I drove the family wagon to McDonald’s for burgers and fries, taking time to do some donuts in King Soopers’ parking lot. Yeah, no hurry to get home. It’s only football.

These days? We’re in Irish country, but I have retained my indifference to football. My wife, though, has become a super-fan, and the autumn revolves around Notre Dame’s schedule. We’ve even been to a few games, but staying at home is preferred: You can see what’s going on better on the big screen, and the snacks are cheap and plentiful.

It’s the radio for me, if anything at all. It’s too nerve-wracking to watch the tube and see what’s going wrong and not be able to do anything about it—like being in one of those nightmares that you can’t wake up from. (Not that the N.D. coaches would want my advice anyway, as my sons are all too quick to remind me.)

I used to listen to games on the radio while I worked in the garage or balanced the checkbook, but not so much now. Instead, I putz around, wander in and out where the game is on, and keep tabs on the kids and the dog. My wife can enjoy the game; I can enjoy that she’s enjoying the game.

Probably there aren’t too many American males in my predicament. But for those two or three guys out there who get what I’m talking about, I have a few suggestions. It’s a LIST, and I present it to you despite the objections of Joe Queenan last week in the WSJ.

1. Prepare gastronomically. There’s a good chance there won’t be a regular sit-down meal during the game, so plan ahead. Eat light but nutritionally prudent for breakfast, and skip lunch. You’ll be leaning heavily on cheese puffs, Chex Mix, and other junk food late on Saturday to get you through to Sunday.

2. Don’t radio-jump the TV-watchers. Games on the radio are always a few seconds ahead of television broadcasts it seems. Consequently, if you’re listening and hear a touchdown called and then let out a cheer? The TV-watchers (including your wife) won’t appreciate it. It’s like telling somebody the punchline of a Sunday comic he’s reading before he gets there himself. Taboo.

3. No patronizing or gloating. If you’re not rooting for the home team, keep your mouth shut.notre-dame

4. Anticipate broadcast issues. Get cable or satellite, and make sure it’s working. If you’re like me, and you’ve rejected cable and satellite on principle, then make sure you know ahead of time whether the game will be broadcast at all.

And it’s important to determine the network ahead of time so that the proper channel can be located and the antenna adjusted. Of course, if it’s ESPN, forget it. It’s the doghouse for you that week. Plus you’ll be picking up the tab for nachos and Coke at a local eatery so your spouse and sons can at least watch the kick-off and the first half.

5. Do the dishes. And do them in such a way as to draw attention to your contribution. Once the game is over, and everyone who watched it is either celebrating or weeping, you can use your dishwashing oblation as a means of reconnecting with your spouse. And if it was a bunch of dishes, it can carry over throughout the week.

Until the next kickoff, that is. Go Irish!

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