There comes a sobering moment in every man's existence when he realizes that he's already seen the best life has to offer, and that everything from this point on is a long, dark slide into the cold ground.
That time has arrived for me. I'm buying a van.
Plymouth Voyager, Toyota Previa, Dodge Caravan . . . what difference does it make? My life is over.
Four-speed overdrive transmission, 3.0-liter V6 engine, wood-grain side panels, extended luggage rack . . . so what?
What did the author William Styron call the gloom that came to envelope him? A veil of darkness descending slowly? Yes, I can see how that would fit. There is an ineffable sadness associated with the sight of a man in a van.
When a man sits behind the wheel of a van, all pretense of being even vaguely hip vanishes.
Somehow -- even before he sings out to the children: "Everybody have their seat belts on?" -- he loses his identity. He loses his soul. He loses his swagger and his sense of cool.
He becomes a . . . dad, the doppelganger of Homer Simpson and Cliff Huxtable and Dagwood Bumstead and a million other nameless, faceless wretches who exist solely (it would seem) to fire up the grill on weekends.
Teen-age thugs snicker as he drives by, greatly amused by the van's bumper stickers proclaiming recent family visits to Aunt Bee's Gingerbread House or Walt's Famous World of Reptiles.
Single people stare in horror as he pulls up to the Dairy Queen, and the van disgorges five brawling children (three of his own and two of the neighbors') for a tranquilizing round of chocolate shakes.
Women no longer glance over and smile as he pulls up to a traffic light. In fact, as far as young women are concerned, there might as well be a sign on the side of the van that says: "St. Joseph's Seminary."
A man driving a van becomes, for all intents and purposes, invisible.
Eagle Summit, GMC Safari, Mazda MPV . . . is this what it's all about?
Optional moon-roof, rear wheel anti-lock brakes, swing-out and fold-down Dutch door . . . I guess it should matter. But it doesn't.
Sometimes, if I really want to feel low, I think back on the evolution of the cars I've owned.
There was high school and the Age of Aquarius and a succession of beat-up old Volkswagen Beetles with amateurish psychedelic paint jobs.
There was college, tuition struggles and an economical Ford Pinto, the Death Machine, a young man praying that a soft tap from behind by a careless motorist wouldn't produce a towering fireball visible for many miles. Or that if it did, it would be all over before his 9 a.m. Introduction to Chaucer class.
Then a few years later, it happened. I bought a brand new Camaro. Metallic gold paint job. Black interior. Powerful V8 engine. Four on the floor. Hurst shifter. Zero to 60 in what . . . six seconds?
It was the greatest car a guy could own -- until I drove it into a stone wall. How? Don't ask. It's too painful.
The repair job cost $2,100. The garage should have sent a priest along with the bill, because the car was never the same. Six months later, it was sold to an earnest young man who announced he needed it to attend culinary school.
It didn't strike me as the kind of car a chef would necessarily favor, but the world was changing fast.
After that there was a sporty Nissan 200-SX, a wonderful car for a newly married man except that it had all the leg room of the Apollo 12.
Then the newly married man and his wife had a child, and then another child. It was time to buy a Subaru station wagon. A station wagon, for God's sake!
The station wagon should have sent up a flare that things were changing dramatically, that there was to be a great dimming to the joy of driving. Then a third child came along and suddenly it was an effort to shoehorn everyone into the station wagon.
Now it's a van.
Mitsubishi Expo LRV, Pontiac Trans Sport, Oldsmobile Silhoutte . . . it's so hard to get out of bed in the morning.
Integrated child-seat option, heavy-duty upgraded upholstery, rear climate-control system. . . Gertrude Stein was right. There is no there there.
I go around to the various dealerships now. I test-drive the vans. gaze listlessly at the brochures they hand me.
"Go ahead, take 'er out for a spin!" the salesman says cheerfully, tossing me the keys to yet another hulking seven-seater with all the sex appeal of a bakery truck.
What's the point? I think.
What was it that Nietzsche said: "A great-souled hero must transcend the slavish thinking of those around him?"
Sure. I wonder what he was driving.