College: The Encore

I hate fussy food, boneless wings and the NFL’s overtime rules. I have unresolved feelings for Kristy McNichol, the tom-boy actress from the ’70s. I also have a lingering love for sitcom moms with their velveteen hair.

Dogs get me. Cats never have. Nor teachers. Nor shrinks.

More than anything, I hate goodbyes. No good at them at all.

For the record, I struggle with hello’s as well, but good-bye’s are where I really fail. And I don’t fail at many things. I’m a winner, as you probably know. A beast. It’s just hello’s and goodbye’s that flummox me.

Look, I’ve made my nut by depicting suburban life as raw and bleak and somewhat wonderful, and here suddenly, we have the raw and the wonderful all packed into the back of a Honda – his Dodger jerseys, 20 pairs of shoes, lint rollers, deodorant, charging cords, laundry hamper, pillows.

My son Smartacus is heading off to college again…the College of Trees, a lush and shady place, his hundred-acre wood.

“The human soul needs actual beauty more than bread,” D.H. Lawrence once noted.

Having worked his way back to the giant university, having grown up a little yet not completely, Smartacus is heading back to the big university again, after a year in community college.



“You gonna be all right?”

Since when have I — for more than an hour or two — ever been all right?

FYI, the horseradish exploded all over me the other day when I opened it. Then I completely Chernobyled the toaster.

The only thing I really excel at is grill marks. I am, quite possibly, the Picasso of grill marks. They should hang my flank steak in the Smithsonian.

Those limitations aside, I’ll be fine when he goes. Done this before. I’ll do it again. Part of life is dealing with disappointment. Another chunk is dealing with awkward college good-byes.

Of course, the emotions are different from when he headed off as a freshman. That felt like a tear in the family fabric, like something that would never be the same. 

For 18 years, I’d fussed over him, and when his mama died, well…we shared a soul. I worked hard to  protect him from any more harsh realities, at least for a while. They came along anyway, as harsh realities are prone to do. And he handled them with a smirk and a shrug.

There are landmark people in your life;  Suzanne calls them “lighthouses.”

What do you do when your lighthouse leaves? Do you kick and scream a bit? Do you turn off the lights?

Sure. Why not? Try not to trip.

Hey, just be glad you had a lighthouse in the first place. Now go find another one. They’re out there, these people who give us love and sustenance and laughter. Bittner, for one. Big Wave Dave, another.

In the meantime, I’ve changed the oil. Replaced a tire. Vacuumed the car. Sometimes, dads are nothing more than moving services. At a certain point, our kids love us mostly for our ability to lug their IKEA crud around.

Here’s what I’ll miss:

Smartacus screaming from the next room – “Dad, you gotta come see this catch…come see it.”

Smartacus groaning when White Fang wakes him every morning.

Smartacus gushing over the rack of ribs I made him on the grill.

“Made me moan,” he explained.

The dad … the son … the ribs … the symbolism… the laughs.

All that.

So, who’ll mock my t-shirts now?

Who’ll spray my joints with WD-40 every day?

Who’ll tell me I need a haircut when I desperately need a haircut?

Who’ll run White Fang up the street on a leash, both of them leaping like over-caffeinated deer?

You know, I really worry for White Fang when Smartacus goes. She really worries for me.

Onward, all you lighthouses.


Please join co-author Steve Searles and me for book talks and signings of “What the Bears Know,” his wilderness-adventure memoir, on the following dates:

Oct. 3, Vroman’s on Colorado, 7 p.m., free.

Oct. 4, Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 7 p.m., free.

Oct. 6, {pages} a bookstore in Manhattan Beach, 7 p.m., a ticketed event (for info, click here).

Oct. 7, Mammoth Lakes Library, 2 p.m., free.

25 thoughts on “College: The Encore

  1. Another beautiful expression of a dad’s complicated feelings for his children. You raised them to go off into the world of Big Trees, yet you can’t quite let go. Lighthouses. Love that. Thanks for a beautifully poignant start to the day. I am glad you and White Fang have each other for comfort.

  2. I always enjoy your column but do plurals require apostrophes if they aren’t possessive? (See hellos, goodbyes)

  3. Boy, did you ever strike a heart string today!
    Memories of droppping off my daughter at Sweet Brier College in Lynchburn, Virginia! We’d driven from here in her car which I left with her–crazy huh? along with a big trunk (a requirement). We moved her into a room where she would meet her roommate she’d never known before. I took off to the Holiday Inn in town before flyig back home. My heart anxious about leaving such a jewel so far from home.
    Bitter, sweet.

  4. Good luck to your son, Smartacus, with all the support you offer, he is ready to shine. I’m certain you and White Fang will do just fine, a bit sad, but fine nonetheless. Chris, you a a great dad and a better human being.

  5. To all parents who send children off to college, military, life, etc. , I read this quote the other day that changed my perspective:
    “I heard someone say the other day ‘I’m not an empty nester, I’m a bird launcher’ and I felt that. Fly my babies, the world awaits.”

  6. Oh Daddy! You did good. Again. That’s all we want as parents…. Isn’t it? To have our kids healthy and whole and happy …. I once read that a mom is only as happy as her most unhappy child. That goes for good dads too. And you have helped grow and mend and regrow your boy’s wings… he’s gonna soar. Now you go and do you… breathe easy and smile in this latest moment of success. Be well.

  7. Thank you for say Posh “died”. It seems everyone is afraid to say die. They substitute with “pass or pass on”, as if that makes the act of dying easier.

  8. You must be so proud of Smartacus! Our son required a reset after two years of college. After taking far too long (for mom and dad) to figure out his path, he opted to put in the hard work to return to his university and his original major. He went on to obtain his master’s and is now a successful engineer. Best of luck as you cheer Smartacus on from afar!!!

  9. If you can only excel at one thing, then grill marks are a pretty good choice. That’s pretty high up there in my book. Seems like you’re also pretty darn good at this dad thing, too. Good luck to both of you.

  10. Chris – I’ve had this quote hanging in the hallway for years: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” Fly, Smartacus, fly! – Marilyn

  11. Gee. Launch pad redux. I just wonder if kids know how much of ourselves we invest in them, how much of our essential yeast and flux in their must? They sure don’t mature like it; most of the time. Values, like aging wine, shift over a lifetime, but some things endure like sunlight. This boy/man is a distillation of many things you have lost, and here he goes, again, like held-over wine, once more into the glass. Is he ready? He better be, for the appetites of the age are at hand.

    They say this will be an exceptional wine year for the varietals that like rain. Well, he’s in Oregon, so….and then there’s Suzanne, a vintage of exceptional clarity and smoothness, seeming to hold light in a bottle. With such beauty on the palate, I think you’re going to be well requited as we head into the annual Fall harvest of time and light. As for the dog, there are compensations: for one, less division of attention, which many varietals and even more canines crave over nose and character. For scent-driven dogs, that’s saying something! Canine Enology 101. Let the fermentation begin…..

  12. This moment was so close to my heart that I was in tears. Our son followed a similar path… Best wishes to Smartacus on this next year “in the trees” and to you on adjusting to the quiet home. Thank goodness you still have the dog! Not to mention your silver companion!

    1. Thanks. I have a bit more support than the last time. Coming back to that empty house, which was bursting at the seams for so long and had turned into more of a museum, was brutal.

  13. Cheers to Smartacus! I did the same thing over fifty years ago, started at a big school then went to a little school then back to the big school and got my BS and MS. Best blip ever! Take care, Dad
    Nancy xo

  14. My oldest is leaving in January For Boston University. This post and replies will be read many times after they leave. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Reading this makes my heart ache, even though it has been 21 years since we delivered our 18-year-old youngest (i.e. last) daughter to the Big Apple to attend musical theater school. The pain, the fear, and the sadness was a killer. Surprisingly, she didn’t get raped or killed and ended coming home by Christmas to attend a “real” school — said she missed math. Ha ha.

    She did, however, go back to NYC at 20 to audition and live the good life for another year and a half, before going off to Boston for another one-semester stint at Boston Conservatory. Eventually, she graduated from UCI. Whew.

    I think I still have PTSD from those experiences, even though she was back in SoCal at 22 for good. She now lives an hour away with our amazing grandson, and every time they leave to go home, I sink for a bit. I’m forever grateful I can hop in the car at any time to get there!

    1. HI Donna. It’s a roller coaster, for sure. Glad she wound up close. So many friends have seen their kids flee to far-off places — with the grandkids. That would be torture!

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