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.

Growing Up for Grownups

Coming of age movies areduncan about adolescents, right? And we still watch them after we’ve left coming of age in the dust because, what, we’re nostalgic? Or we hope to get some insight regarding our own adolescence and the crud we went through growing up ourselves?

These were the thoughts rumbling through my head the last few days as I’ve read the reviews of The Way, Way Back, the coming-of-age movie de jour. It’s about Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old with a distracted divorced mom whose boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), is an unmitigated jerk. The Way, Way Back is up to 87% on the Tomatometer, receiving lots of raves from reviewers and ordinary moviegoers alike. It sounds terrific, and I’m thinking I’ll even pay full price to see it as soon as I can scrape together the cash.

No doubt it’s a wistful hearkening for days of yore, but I’ll still fork over to see these kinds of movies—like Mud earlier this summer and Super 8 a couple years back. They do tend to be associated with summer, which is itself evocative, and my guess is that most of these films probably premiere in the summer months as well. Coming of age, warm weather, vacation—they all seem to go together.huckleberry

It’s a genre with a noble pedigree, including standouts like Breaking Away (1979) and Stand By Me (1986), but, really, they’re all just rehashed Mark Twain, at least the ones about boys. Alienation and separation from parents (especially dad) is a mainstay, and the assumption of a task or mission, usually involving danger, provides narrative scaffolding. Usually there’s a replacement father, and often a love interest, but the heart of every coming of age story is the protagonist charting his own course—Huck Finn setting off down the Mississippi with a runaway slave in other words. It’s a familiar theme, and The Way, Way Back, from all reports, does it justice.

So, with all that in mind, I watched the trailer, and…I got all choked up.

“Really?” my wife asked me when I showed it to her. “That made you cry?” My teens were incredulous as well. “He sure is going soft in his old age,” is what I imagine they were thinking as they shook their heads. No matter; I admit it: The trailer made me cry—yes, just the trailer. If you’re a parent, especially a dad, maybe it’ll make you cry, too

Here’s why, I think.

The introspection that films like this often inspire in the middle-aged and their elders is backward looking, and often fruitful and needed—we think back, we reflect, we process, we sigh. The producers and marketers know this, I’m sure, and they tailor these movies as much for people like me looking back as for actual coming-of-age adolescents looking forward. After all, it’s about ticket sales, isn’t it? Hit as many demographic groups as possible!

Yet there’s something about The Way, Way Back that makes it forward oriented for both audience demographics, despite the title—at least based on the reviews and the trailer. I saw lots of screwed up adults in the clips, but even that short two and a half minutes radiated joy and vitality and an overarching hope that somehow Duncan would be OK, that he was going to do just fine despite the parents and grownups in his life.

For me, an insecure parent haunted by regrets and doubt, who knows he’s made lots of mistakes he can’t undo, and who is clumsily trying to make up lost time by grasping at family living like a desperate rock climber grasping at belays and fissures—for me? Even that short trailer was a blissful reminder that it’s not all up to me in any case. My wife and I are players in the lives of our children, and critically important players at that, but we’re still only players—there are others.

And the other players aren’t always the ones we’d expect or choose, another note this film apparently (I’m guessing here) gets right. Sam Rockwell plays Owen, a unselfconscious wounded healer free of ambition who becomes Duncan’s surrogate father. “You gotta’ go your own way,” Owen tells Duncan, “and you, my friend, are going your own way.” He builds up where Carell’s Trent tears down, and Owen pointedly reminds Duncan’s mom, “You’ve got a helluva’ kid here.”

A bonus big plus is that The Way, Wway-way-back-rockwellay Back avoids peddling a feel-good story in a neat two-hour package with an unrealistic horizon. “You don’t see too many movies about the importance of fathers, and they’re rarely done this well,” writes Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Rockwell is the good father figure, and Carell the awful one, but Carell is too sensitive to play a total monster.” In other words, even when we screw up? It’s redeemable.

Pope Francis gets at this in his new encyclical—the idea of marriage and having kids appearing like a huge gamble that’s still doable to the degree that it is infused with love, particularly Love from the source.

Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love. Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person (Lumen Dei, 52).

“Possible,” “sustains,” “enables,” “helps”—these are words of hope, not surety. Marriage and raising kids is not math,  it’s not a lab assignment. It’s a messy adventure filled with risk and reward, for which we’re all ill equipped, and we’ll muck it up time and time again. No question.

It sounds like this movie, though, offers a heaping serving of perspective on all that, and can provide us paranoid parents with just the right dose of insight into how God can fill in the gaps we can’t prevent in our children’s lives. Not much of a revelation when you think about it. He gave us the kids and put us in charge for a while, but they’re His. God loves them more than we do, and He’s more than capable of caring for them when we fall short.

So, all this from a handful of reviews and a single trailer? A bit much, perhaps? Maybe it was just an exceptionally good trailer. Perhaps. Let’s say that’s the case, and I never get a chance to see the movie itself, and this whole post is an embarrassing exercise in presumption and hauteur.

Look, my kids are getting older and college is on the horizon for them, and the time is slipping through my fingers like water—not sand, mind you, water. If a 2-1/2 minute trailer can jostle my sullen spirit and restore my confidence in Julian of Norwich’s “all shall be well,” then so be it. I’ll take it. And maybe I’ll save the $7 for a different movie another day.

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