On the Road: Making Sense of Red Subarus, Flying Neutrinos and The Logical Song

Supertramp's "Breakfast In America" album cover.

It’s official. I no longer see my daughter with any regularity.

The demise of our mother/daughter relationship coincided with precisely three factors that collided this spring — a perfect storm, if you will, of willful independence compounded by a reluctance to dive headfirst into the college application process, which every rising senior apparently dreads almost as much as their parents.

Factor number one: A third car entered our lives in late April. It’s a zippy little convertible — pre-owned, as they say, in certain car dealing circles — and it represents a long-held secret desire that I’ve had to tool around topless in the summer (and rest assured, this is the only way in which I’ll be doing that). Fortunately, unlike a lot of men who purchase convertibles at a similar age, I still have plenty of hair to blow in the breeze when the top’s down, which I’m hoping it will be quite a bit in the months ahead.

Factor number two: May 21 — Sophie’s 17th birthday — a day upon which she was declared fully licensed by the State of New York. This came a full year after the permitting process, an entire semester of driver’s ed, proper waiting time to attain required driving hours and finally, passage of the driving test in Riverhead with one grumpy DMV employee and a halfway decent parallel parking job.

Factor number three: The official end of the school year, or, as Alice Cooper so succinctly put it, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Yes, school was officially out last Thursday after Sophie took her final regents exam, having maneuvered through all the other regents the previous week, the dreaded AP exams in May, locker clean out day and, of course, the year-end scourge of the unpaid lunch bill (the school actually sent us an invoice for .50¢ which I promptly had Sophie pay off in the office using the change found at the bottom of her locker — I can only hope it was all pennies).

This is pretty much all I see of my daughter these days.

These three simple and basic factors mean that my sweet, kind, home-body daughter has been replaced by an occasional streak of Venetian red zipping in and out of our horseshoe-shaped driveway at the speed of a neutrino in a particle accelerator.

Which reminds me of my favorite science-based joke …

The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve particles that travel faster than the speed of light here.”

A neutrino walks into a bar.

To further the analogy, the particle is my trusty Subaru Forrester and the accelerator is Sophie, her foot firmly on the gas pedal, seat pulled as far forward as possible and hiked up to give her a clear view of the playing field.

And what a playing field it is.

Wandering turkeys, clueless deer, confused and lost summer drivers. Then there’s my particular favorite — aggressive work trucks towing massive bulldozers while going far too fast along the shortest path between two points on windy roads — whether you’re in the oncoming lane or not.

And let’s not forget the dreaded intersections we all try to avoid, one of which is in our neighborhood — Stephen Hands Path and Two Holes of Water/Long Lane, where crossing the road is like another joke, but in this case the game of chicken could easily result in a lot of squashed birds. The problem here is that no one is exactly sure who has the right-of-way as evidenced when two facing cars proceed through the stop signs at the same time while cross traffic speeds up and does its best to dramatically take them out, like a World Cup soccer player feigning a painful injury when the other guy didn’t even touch him.

Which is why before we would let Sophie drive to school, we found a longer, alternative route that would totally avoid the intersection all together. I really don’t think she minded though, as it gave her more time to listen to her favorite jams on the way

Before the full license kicked in we had determined that using the car was solely for going to her dog walking job and driving to dance classes. If I wanted to be really strict, I could have said she can go anywhere she wants as long as she only makes right-hand turns. But honestly, now that school’s over we’ve quickly lost control and she is picking friends up at their houses, delivering them to their jobs and going on 7-Eleven runs when the urge for ice cream strikes late at night.

I’m sure some parents think I’m nuts because I’m giving her some latitude for now. I figure she’s gotta develop those driving skills at some point. But more importantly, it seems to me that the car represents a first taste of true independence which is vital in ushering in the next phase of life — college, probably in another state, where it will be her job to make sure she gets up for class or figure out who to talk to when her meal card doesn’t work.

There’s also a bit of nostalgia involved. I remember how exhilarating, and even vital, that first taste of freedom was when I started driving my parents car at 16. It was a Plymouth Satellite in a shade of late ‘70s brown and in the summer between my junior and senior year, I drove it sans seatbelt all over southwestern Ohio in an era when drunk driving among the general populous was looked at as mischievous, but hardly a crime.

Did my parents worry then as much as I do now? Not sure. We had no cell phones that they could call or text to check up on us and they were always asleep by the time I got home.

Yes, sampling freedom was key. With the windows rolled down, Supertramp turned up and summer stretched out ahead of us like the miles of winding country roads we were exploring, it was all about liberation and discovering a sense of self.

So when Sophie took off in the car the other night after getting upset about something that happened among her group of friends at our house, I didn’t call her demanding to know where she was. Instead, I waited and worried. Ten minutes later, I heard the Subaru pull in the driveway. I didn’t say a word when she walked in the door and headed up to her room where her friends were waiting.

A little while later, I went up to check on how it was going. I found her cuddled on the bed with her friends and asked if everything was alright. She said, “Yep” in a way that made me realize that indeed, it was.

“There are times when all the world’s asleep

The questions run too deep

For such a simple man

Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned

I know it sounds absurd

Please tell me who I am”

Being a teenager is like that — sometimes, all you need to get through a rough patch is a good group of friends, a set of car keys and a little Supertramp on the first night of summer.