I Feel Like I Should Be Doing Something

father-of-the-bride-5Is this what it feels like to be the father of the groom?

Father of the bride is bad enough – as Spencer Tracy showed us in 1950, followed by Steve Martin forty years later – but it seems like father of the groom would be even more irrelevant to the whole wedding vortex phenomenon.

Not that any of my sons are heading to the altar any time soon. No, my feelings of irrelevancy are related to a different life event and milestone: My oldest is heading to Notre Dame. As a freshman. Next month.

Shouldn’t I be doing something?

Practical things – equipping the dorm room, last minute tips on laundry, etc. – seem to be covered by my wife at present. At least, Ben isn’t coming to me for advice, so I’ve got to assume that his mother is fielding those questions. If there are any. He’s pretty much launched out on his own already.

So, how about composing a fatherly testament of vision and values as a farewell gesture?

I’ve read plenty of “To My Son on the Brink of Manhood” (or marriage or fatherhood) screeds written by celebrity and journalist dads, but I’ve really no interest in attempting anything along those lines. It seems like any sage advice or tidbits of paternal wisdom that I’d offer in such a declaration ought to have taken root well before now. Otherwise, I’m guessing it’s a bit late.

Like riding a bicycle. Today I was out with Katharine, my youngest, who is just on the verge of training-wheel freedom. She is balancing on the bike just fine – the trainers rarely touch down when she’s pedaling along – and it’s just a matter of time until she has built up enough self-confidence and I can remove the side wheels once and for all.

It seems like just a blink of an eye since I was doing the same for Ben. In fact, I think it might’ve been the same bicycle, and even the same set of training wheels! But let’s say I’d never taken the trouble to help him wean off the trainers when he was in grade school. Let’s say he skipped riding bikes as a boy, learning to use public transit inst488438538_6babc2c765ead, and then jumped right into driver’s ed as a teen.

And now he’s getting ready for college, where freshmen are generally not allowed to have vehicles at their disposal. Wouldn’t a bicycle be convenient? Completing his two-wheeler training at this late stage would be awkward at best, and likely to fail altogether.

An eloquent parting shot, untethered to a commensurate upbringing, seems equally awkward and prone to failure. Any advice I have to give now that I haven’t already attempted to instill is too late, and a late-breaking Desiderata would pointless. And yet if I did attempt to raise my son with attention to truth and beauty and permanent things, then rehearsing it all in bullet point form would be unnecessary, and perhaps even somewhat ridiculous.

Still, I feel like I should be doing something, and, consequently, I’ve come up with a different kind of list. Instead of looking backward, at the things I hope I’ve taught him (or wish I had), I’ve decided to look forward. It’s a list of questions – questions I’ve already grown accustomed to asking former students when I encounter them long after graduation, and I’ve decided they’ll be among the questions I’ll ask my son when we see each other on weekends and breaks in the months and years to come.

  1. What are you reading? He’ll be at Notre Dame, so he’ll be reading a lot, but he’ll know I mean what is he reading that he doesn’t have to read. Reading for pleasure, in other words. If it’s something I know, I’ll enjoy hearing his insights. If it’s something I don’t know, all the better. Note, too, that I’m not asking, “What are you watching,” or “What are you listening to?” These can be important questions as well, to be sure, but they don’t deserve anywhere near the same priority. My kids have grown up surrounded by books in every conceivable way, and I’d be very surprised if books didn’t continue to surround them as they make their own way hence.
  2. Where are you working? That’s what I ask my former students, most of whom are staff nurses here and there (or full-time mothers, or both). For current students, like my son, I’ll ask, Where are you in your studies? The inquisitive “where” allows for an unfolding of conversation on a number of fronts: The progress being made in a particular program or discipline; the kinds of classes being taken at the moment; and, most importantly, the trajectory along which which current pursuits are trending. It’s an inquiry with both quantitative and qualitative angles, and it’s helpful in getting beyond mere questions of “what” classes and “what” jobs to the “why” and “who with” of daily living.
  3. How’s your soul? This one is loaded, no doubt, but it, too, is calculated to get into meaty matters as rapidly as possible. “Are you getting to Mass and confession? Are you praying?” are too easily dispensed with – either with a hasty “yes” (whether truthful or not), or a painful “no,” followed by an even more painful conversational stall. Who needs that? We’re all adults here.  Sacramental obligations, vocational discernment, and the pursuit of holiness are totally his responsibility now, so I’m not going to grill him. I might’ve acted as a coach in such matters as he got older, but I’m on the sidelines now – a cheerleader, to be sure, and a ready consultant when asked. Yet, now I’m only one among many that he can turn to for input. Consequently, instead of grilling, I’m hoping for openness and candor, a space for us both to voice our inner joys and struggles as we wind our way along the murky years. No challenges, no guilt. Just invitation, and cross-bearing of burdens. And honesty. Listening.

These are questions that assume a lot, but don’t presume anything. They take for granted where we’ve come from together, but they leave lots of room for where we’ve made – and will make – side trips apart. Like I said, they’ll be the questions I ask my son in the months to come, and probably they’ll be the same questions I’ll ask him years from now when he’s launched beyond Notre Dame, rising in his chosen profession, and raising his own family.

And, soon enough, maybe he’ll be asking them of others as well. Now that would be something.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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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.
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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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