Santa Clarita, California - 1996
I’m weightless, suspended in midair above the filthy carpet lining the floor of an 80’s-era Ford Econoline van.
I can’t breathe.
I’m laughing too hard.
Moments before, my friend Donnie stomped on the gas pedal, kicking the souped-up V8 engine to life and sending a roar of exhaust through a set of racing headers that his father must have thought was a comically ironic addition to this faded family-mobile. Racing toward an intersection with deep drainage channels on either side, he released the pedal.
Crouched on the floor in the back, a jolt of fear and excitement lit through me. My hands gripped the carpet floor in a feeble gesture to protect myself against the inertia of five-thousand pounds of flying Detroit steel. The van slammed into the first channel, launching us into the air.
I crash back to the floor for only a moment before the van hits the second drainage channel, launching us once again.
What a van.
I told myself that, one day, I’d have one just like it.
Torrance, California - 2020
Whiiiiiir, click. The automatic door slides shut.
Click, whiiiiiir. The door slides open.
Whiiiiiir, click. The automatic door slides shut.
I’m sitting in the passenger seat of our brand new Honda Odyssey minivan, drinking a beer and doom-scrolling Twitter as my son opens and closes the automatic sliding door for the twenty-seventh time.
Surely, the battery can’t take much more of this and I’ll be the first person in the neighborhood to kill one within the first two hours of bringing their new car home, but my three-year-old is happy and having fun on his own. He’s not commanding me to stand here, and not there. He’s not pitching a fit because I’m asking him to eat his oatmeal. He’s not lamenting that he’s stuck playing with me instead of Grandpa. No, he’s just happily draining the battery of my brand new van, and a three-year-old happily doing anything is not to be interrupted except in cases of immediate physical danger.
I take another sip of my beer, casting off text messages to people that I hope will understand the bitter significance of this moment. The Derek that they once knew is gone. The guy who, at one point or another, got around town in a 69 Camaro, a Porsche, two Mustangs, a 99 Yamaha R1 (the fastest production motorcycle in the world when it was released I might add), and a rigid-frame chopper had surrendered to the juggernaut of parental practicality.
I am Van Man now.
Most don’t bother replying. Those that do think it’s funny, rather than worthy of the pity I’m looking for right now.
How in the world did I get here?
I grew up in the shadow of an era where vans were still cool. In those days, there was no such thing as a minivan. The vans of the early 80’s had thick shag carpeting, plush captain’s chairs, velvet curtains, and raised tables with ash trays in them. Teenagers ripped out the tables and chairs, and airbrushed scenes of lightning-eyed wizards casting spells over fields of mushrooms on the side. A van was more than just a mode of transportation. It was a music festival on wheels, a mobile party declaring its arrival with thick clouds of marijuana smoke billowing out of its massive sliding door. Even Mr. T drove a van on The A-Team, my favorite TV show growing up.
Then, in 1984, Lee Iacocca and Chrysler wrecked it all with the introduction of the minivan. Images of B.A. Baracus driving through police barricades and the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert were replaced by those of parents dropping their kids off at soccer practice and holding your pee on uncomfortably long road trips with ugly luggage strapped to the roof.
The van became a symbol of suburbia, of practicality, of settling.
That can’t be me, can it? Am I kidding myself? Am I a wily product guy hacking my way through the startup jungle or am I Van Man?
An offshore breeze chills the van as the sun sets behind our house and I finish off my beer.
“Are you ready to go inside bud?”
That’s Fine. A little cold air is just what I need to get my head straight.
Having kids is a one-way ticket to a parallel universe, a bizarro world where the places and people around you stand still as you permanently transform into a strange, new version of yourself. Instagram stories loop through reminder after reminder that everyone you know is still meeting friends for brunch, going hiking on weekends, and visiting exotic places around the world while you’re crawling around on your hands and knees trying to figure out the best way to get bits of avocado out of the rug.
Layer by layer, pieces of the person that you once were are stripped away and sacrificed on the altar of responsible parenting. And so you muddle through, waiting for the next shoe to drop, wondering which piece of your former identity will be hauled away next, just a confused Van Man packing lunches and tripping over a minefield of toys where a coffee table once stood.
Of course, the kids are amazing. They’re beautiful and brilliant and fill your heart with more joy and love than you can imagine or probably even deserve. It’s parenthood that I’m not sure about. Parenthood is fucking nuts.
The most hysterical and terrifying moment of your life is when you bring your first baby home, walk through the front door, set the baby carrier down, and wonder “Now what?”
What kind of derelict hospital staff would send a baby home with me? Hell, I can barely take care of me. Shouldn’t a doctor be calling to make sure that the baby is still alive? Shouldn’t a nurse be stopping by to check that I’m not sleeping in until noon and forgetting to feed this creature?
Of course not.
They know that the gravity of a new baby bends space and time, sucking you in for all eternity. They know that you will immediately become infatuated with this wee noodle-person who keeps you up all night and away from the things you once obsessed over. They know that the moment you run out of room to stack yet another pack-and-play into your trunk that you’ll march right down to the car dealership, hand over the keys to the car you once loved, and politely pull away in your gleaming new minivan.
Yes, they know who you are now.
It’s getting dark. We head back inside. My one-year-old daughter heralds our return with excited squeals of “Daddy!” Her twin brother races across the floor, grabs my leg, and pulls himself to stand muttering “Dada. Dada.” I pick him up and nuzzle my face into his thin curly hair.
Maybe, when this whole Covid thing is over, we can take a road trip.
That sounds like fun.