Wednesday, September 10, 2014

False Alarm, Don't Look Up


The fire alarms in our house have gone off almost two dozen times in the four years we have lived there.

Not once was there a fire. On one occasion, there was smoke. The rest of the times, nothing.

To make matters worse, the alarms prefer waiting until everyone in our house is asleep. At least three-quarters of these false alarms have occurred between 1 - 5:30 a.m.

We have trained ourselves, through no fault of our own, to believe our fire alarm means nothing. It is an electronically-implemented Boy Who Cries Wolf, wired into our living space. We are now Pavlov’s dogs, and if God forbid a fire is ever creeping its way into our home, we’re so trained for false alarms we’ll be doomed.

In a twist of bitter irony, the single greatest threat to our surviving a house fire is our screwed-up fire alarm system.

Well, and me, the dad who keeps saying he oughtta do something about that but instead just writes about it.


"Don't look up," I heard her say.

I'd stopped in a Walgreens to pick up a few sundries on the way to a social gathering. Generally, the faster I can get in and out of drug stores in Chattanooga, the happier I am.

Unlike, say, Target, where it's easy to let your feet and eyes wander into purchasing considerations that can delay even the most urgent traveler, most of the drug stores here are Xeroxes of one another. They somehow manage to seem, simultaneously, sterile and seedy.

When I heard this woman's voice, I instinctively looked over and saw her at one of those photo monitors where you pick the prints you want printed from a CD or flash drive. Two small children, in the 5-7 range, sat one on each side of her, on the ground.

"I told you look down," the mom said, loudly. "Don't make me tell you again."

Of course it wasn't my business, but I couldn't help but look. Those two kids looked so sad. Forced to sit next to their mother but not allowed, apparently, to do anything other than state at a boring tiled drug store floor.

I made eye contact with the little girl and winked at her. My unofficial translation of the response her eyes gave me was this: "Strange man, you cannot help me. And this scene you're witnessing is nothing. I will get in more trouble before this day is done; the only questions are when and how."

Walking past them on the way to check out I couldn't help but notice the screen. On it were pictures of this woman, their mom I'm assuming, in a variety of poses on a bed, clad in various states of undress, but mostly in black lingerie. Bra, panties, some kind of hose and garters. There must have been dozens of pics, perhaps hundreds.

Once back in the privacy of my car, I just sat quietly, pondering in park while the A/C hissed. Unfortunately, we don’t always have to read the whole book because we really do know how the story goes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Joan Rivers Should Mean to My Daughters

Dear Daughters,

Joan Rivers died. She was a comedienne. She was often funny. She helped blaze an important trail for female comedians. For this she should be recognized and, at least on some level, appreciated.

If you're wondering why I expressed such sorrow at the death of Robin Williams but struggle to mourn the loss of a female in his line of work, you need to understand that it's not entirely sexist. Perhaps it is a little; I'm not the best one to judge it, I guess.

Unfortunately, the Joan Rivers you knew from cable channels was the Joan Rivers who spent most of her time insulting how other people looked. Her insults were aggressively insensitive and often flat-out cruel. The core of her humor was, as one of the mothers who used to carpool me to school would say, "hateful." Many comedians are vulgar and say cruel things, but few of them spend such a huge portion of their time and make their name by demeaning others as Ms. Rivers did.

Ms. Rivers was as critical of her own appearance as she was of others', as the reported 700+ plastic surgery procedures she underwent in her life attest. Others will claim that this excuses her cruelty. I, on the other hand, don't believe "scorched earth" is a good excuse for much of anything. Burning the town because you torched your own home still makes you an arsonist. Insulting everyone else's appearance because you believe you are ugly makes you pitiful, but it doesn't excuse you. It wasn't a good philosophy in "War Games," and if Dabney Coleman can learn it, so can you.

You are growing up in a culture that cannot seem to reduce its love affair with fame. Fame no longer even requires talent so much as being in the right place at the right time on the right social media outlet. You are also growing up in a time when the Selfie has become the single most common form of creative expression for girls and young women.

With the Selfie comes a culture as obsessed with appearance as any in my lifetime, probably ever. Nauseatingly misguided concepts like "thigh gap" have been injected into your lexicon. The siren song desire to simply be known, for anything, for whatever it takes to get attention, is almost impossible to ignore.

What I need you to see is that Joan Rivers, like so many celebrities and stars, was a tragic figure. She sold her soul, at some point somehow, for the chance to continue beaming her increasingly-altered facade into our living room. None of the stuff she chased made her any happier with the way she looked.

One day in the next few years, I hope you'll read a novel by Oscar Wilde called "The Picture of Dorian Gray." In short, it's a fable about vanity and how much of ourselves we are willing to sacrifice to maintain our surface allure.

As a father who loves you very much and who knows that my gender has done more harm than good in matters of women, self-esteem and obsession with superficial notions of beauty, I promise you few things -- maybe nothing -- worries me quite as much as how easy it can be for a teenage girl to be paralyzed by, drugged by, a reflection.

If the fable of Joan Rivers teaches you anything, know that hers is the story of someone who could never find happiness in her reflection because she never knew what she should have been looking for.

You are beautiful to me, daughters, but I’d love you if you were the color of a baboon’s ass. I'd love you even if you deformed your appearance over 700 times because you could never manage to see what I can see. I'll love you no matter what, but I cannot control how you think of yourself, or how you treat others.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Epiphany #61: Is Anybody Sleeping Anymore?

A typical morning conversation these days seems to go like this:

Person #1:  "Man, I didn't sleep well last night."

Person #2:  "Me, neither.  I was up at 3:15 and I couldn't go back to sleep."

And then what follows usually is a discussion of how each of the struggling sleepers dealt with their situations.  There's the get up and watch a movie guy.  There's the read all night on her phone woman.  There's the meditative, take advantage of quiet time person.  There's the need to pee prostate guy.  There's me, who refuses to get up or do anything other than lie in the dark, rationalizing that even light rest is better than nothing.

But if you were awake in the middle of the night last night chances are many of the people you know were awake as well, all of them, all of us, in separate, lonely places where we felt like we were the only ones awake.  We weren't.

A couple of weeks ago, when I woke up around 4:30AM, I picked up my phone and looked to see what time it was, and there, facing me was a text from a friend sent around 9AM.  So I responded to his question.  Within a minute or two, my phone buzzed with the question, "What are you doing up?"

"Woke up," I said.  "Couldn't go back to sleep.  What about you?"

"Getting ready to go for a bike ride," he responded.

There wasn't even any reason to challenge his plan.  I thought, okay, the roads are probably clear and it makes sense.  As if night, or early morning, is becoming the new day.  As if there are all kinds of things that are better accomplished at night when much of the world around us is shut down.

I wonder if there is a greater adaptation going on around us, where, yeah, sleep, a full night's sleep, a straight through eight hours, would be pretty cool, but that it might also be a worthy sacrifice when there are so many things we could get done.

It isn't healthy, of course.  Any number of recent studies have shown us that the brain can't get rid of its toxins if we don't get enough sleep, but I'm also pretty sure that most of us can't even tell that our brain has toxins.  We just know that by 3PM we are hitting a wall, ready to crash.  And we figure that maybe we can catch a quick "power" nap before the evening cranks up.

Then there are teens, who are "vamping," using late night hours for all of their social media activities, even though they need the sleep even more than we do.  Many of their lives have become so busy that David Brook's notion of "The Organization Kid" has become pervasive, teens who are  impassive schedulers of everything because that is the only way they can fit it all in.

What is pretty certain is that many of us are up when we are not supposed to be.  Ask around.  For some of us age and worry are the reasons we don't get through the night.  For others, there is simply too much.  Of everything.

From a personal perspective, I feel all of those reasons and more colliding at once, and the bad thing is that I'm getting used to it.  Or, maybe even worse, I think I am.  But it's also possible, as I sometimes wonder, that I am moving through the days in a more laconic kind of stupor, being "on" when I need to be and feel resentful when I want to be "off."

Just realize that when you are lying awake, staring at the bleakness or listening for the first birds, I am probably there, too.  It is that strange journey outside of normal time that too many of us are on.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Epiphany #60: The 2nd and 3rd Listens

Tom Petty's excellent new CD didn't catch me at first, but that is my fault.  As often happens with me, the first listen didn't grab me, but, in this case, the cards were stacked even more against my enjoyment.  Although I tend to be liberal in most every way possible, it is as a music listener that my more conservative side comes out.

Thinking more broadly, though, I think we are all of us a bit more skeptical of the latter-day output of our favorite rock stars, expecting to be disappointed, and then overwhelmingly pleased when we aren't.

For Petty, Hypnotic Eye represents (allegedly) a return to a more rock-based sound, a critical commentary on his most recent previous releases--Mojo, Highway Companion, and The Last DJ.  While the former was supposedly a blues album, the solo effort a self-conscious autobiographical CD, and the latter a concept album, to these ears all three were classic, rocking, if somewhat underrated Petty material.

So when I put on Hypnotic Eye, I guess I was expecting Damn The Torpedoes or some such, and this band, good as they are, ain't doin' that at this stage of life.  One of the problems with rockers is that we keep hoping, I think, for young men's albums when neither we nor the band are any longer young.

But that wasn't even the problem, or problems, really.  When I first heard the new CD, I had my phone on "Shuffle," without realizing it, and so the songs came at me in whatever order they felt like. You think that doesn't matter?  I'm here to tell you that it does.  When I first heard the disc sequenced as intended, the 1-2-3 punch of "American Dream Plan B," "Fault Lines," and "Red River" revealed the CD's true rock intent.  And on my phone, there is no break between songs, so these guitar-driven songs blasted at me one after another.

The other problem was that I'd didn't listen to it loud enough.  Even many of my most rock-devoted friends seem not to understand, or have forgotten, that rock is meant to be played loud.  Good rock is not background music.  It does not live below the conversation.  Good rock is better than conversation.  There I said it.  And Petty is good rock.

A song like "Fault Lines", with its insistent beat, not only has a lyric ("I've got a few of my own fault lines running under my life") that demands our attention, but it also has music interludes, like Mike Campbell's bare guitar,  that mirror those lyrics.

For me, the emotional core of Hypnotic Eye is "Red River," an apparent rewrite of McGuinn's "Lover Of The Bayou," that adds a romantic element to the mythic Cajun woman depiction.  The song is both vintage Petty and current Petty, with a rock-bottom bass and a vocal that sounds like the years haven't happened.

And I know this because for the third listen, I put on a pair of headphones.  I have alluded before to the fact that the modern world gives us increasingly-few opportunities to listen to music without distraction.  Often, only headphones, in whatever location we are willing to shut out the world (which doesn't want to be shut out), allow us to hear music as it was meant to be heard.

One of the joys of this CD is the consistent quality of the songs.  I have plenty of Petty offerings where he seems to have gotten bored somewhere 2/3 to 3/4 of the way in.  Not here.  Every song distinguishes itself sonically from the others, even as he adopts rhythms and riffs from times past.  I don't know of the song here that doesn't work; that doesn't mean that all of them are favorites, but by now I have certain Petty moves that I hope for in songs, and when I get those, I like the song even better.

Still, the highlights of the CD continue top to bottom.  Later songs like "Forgotten Man," "Sins Of My Youth," and "Shadow People" all stand out as either economical or expansive rockers that put at least the slightest twist on the standard rock song.

There was a time when I considered Tom Petty kind of a 2nd-tier talent.  His lyrics seemed simplistic compared to the giants in the game.  But now is now, and I suspect that Petty is the premiere chronicler of American life among the older generation of American rockers. While Dylan enjoys the private jokes in his head and Springsteen is a bit locked into the working man ethos, Petty feels like like a man who has been a lot of places and has built songs around his observations.

Certainly, "Shadow People," his study of the paranoid gun culture riding in the car next to you, has no parallel in modern music. It is creepy and unsettling, but it also makes you realize that you already knew what he is telling.  He just makes you confront it.  And anyone who can do that not only remains vital, but, words and music considered together, I'm not sure I've heard anything better this year.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

"The Merciful, The Compassionate"

"In the name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate."

These are your welcoming introductory words to ISIS beheading videos, according to several reports. Their compassionate, merciful God is apparently cool with His loving people decapitating other human beings.

Last week on Facebook, I posted an intriguing, if flawed, article that appeared in Time online entitled, “5 Reasons Christians are Rejecting the Notion of Hell.” One of my Facebook friends kind enough to reply to my post offered some quotes from Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, from an interview in the New York Times:
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something,” he said between chews. “I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen,” he went on. “My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’ ”
George C. Scott’s character in The Exorcist III (an underrated film, to be sure), has an even better way of putting it:

When I proclaim, with quivering voice and an aura of uncertainty, that I do not believe in hell, it is not an evangelical call for like minds. Opinions and beliefs don’t change much nowadays -- like we're afraid God would not tolerate doubt or uncertainty -- so a blog that usually focuses on pop culture nonsense is no venue to sway anyone.

The Bible is relatively clear on the afterlife. There is a heaven, and there is another place that’s eternally crappy. Call it whatever you will. Hell. Hades. Sheol. Lake of Fire. Whatevs. Jesus talks about it, about the punishment of not believing.

Jesus also talks about how you can’t follow him unless you hate your family, but even the most strident Christian loves to explain that one away. In fact, right after they will tell you that you can’t pick and choose the verses you like, and you can’t explain away all the ugly stuff you don’t like in the Bible, they’ll explain away why Jesus told you to hate your parents.

Because that’s what we all do to the Bible if we care at all about it. We interpret it. We work to make sense of it. Except for the ones who think they’ve got it all figured out perfectly. And I just call those people zealots, or crazy. Tomato tomahto.

Hell could very well exist. But here is what I believe to the core of my soul: it is my responsibility and duty as a Christian to hope it doesn’t, to pray it doesn’t. And if it does exist, it is my duty to pray that God changes his mind (which, by the way, has Biblical precedent as well) and offers parole for the eternally damned.

If you claim to be a Christian, and if you ever find yourself hoping and praying that someone, or some group of people, or some portion of humanity, will “burn in Hell” or “rot in Hell for all eternity,” then I am absolutely certain that you weren’t reading the Gospels very closely. I just know those are not Christian wishes or words. To desire justice on Earth is human, is reasonable, is understandable. To desire that someone, anyone, should suffer forever and ever amen is bloodlust, and it is decidedly unChristian.

ISIS beheads “intruders” to honor their God, “the merciful, the compassionate.” We want to “bring ISIS idiots to justice” (read: bomb them into tiny puddles of hair gel and blood) because we believe our merciful and compassionate God would champion our sense of right and wrong.

God becomes nothing so much as the centerpiece for a vicious cycle of come-uppance in our desperate thirst for what different books and faiths perceive as “justice.” God becomes our excuse to sink ever further into unGodly behavior, violence and revenge as retribution and holiness.

I hope for no Hell, but I leave it to God. I hope for justice, but I leave it to God. I know my sins make me an unworthy and undeserving soul, but I’m not worried about myself or my fate. I worry about those beyond Earthly reach or reason, beyond human hope. If His Grace is big enough to overcome any obstacle -- and it is -- I will hope it’s big enough to reach even the most lost of souls guilty of the most rotten of wrongs. And, because I know He could if He chose to, I will hope He does.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Epiphany #59: I don't listen to music; I just ask my friends who the good bands are

The following remarks were delivered to the student body today:

Summer, which I guess officially ended two days ago with Labor Day, always makes me think of reading.  Not only do we all invest, in varying degrees, in our annual summer reading program, but summer is also a time when I get to do a lot of reading that I don't get to do during the school year when I am too busy. 

This may not seem like a dream vacation to you, but each summer I go to a condominium in Venice, FL for a couple of weeks.  Sometimes there are other family members there, but my wife is an attorney and the summer  for whatever reason, is her busiest season, so some of the time I am alone. 

During those alone times, I do a lot of reading.  Venice has an incredible public library system (actually its libraries are where the idea for your current learning center originally came from) and I go in several times a week to see what they've got.  This summer, for example, I checked out and read 8 books while down there.  It was a varied list-- a nonfiction book about being a sous chef, three recently released modern novels, three flat-out page-turning thrillers, and a biography.  Along with the Sherlock Holmes book and my East Of Eden book group, it was a good reading summer.  I wish I would read like that the rest of the year.

Each semester, as a final project in my "English For The Rest Of Your Life" course, I ask seniors to write about their reading experiences in high school.  They can approach the essay pretty much however they'd like, but there is one trait that tends to distinguish the essays as a whole: honesty.  Unflinching, soul-crushing (if you’re an English teacher) honesty.

Seniors at the end of a course, or at the end of their high school careers, will tell you anything, in this case, about their reading.  And here are some of the things they have said in years past:

"First, I would like to apologize for not reading more."

"I still want to read ____________ from Mr. ________'s class,  but the other books didn't interest me much."

"Prior to junior year, I had not dug deep into the true art of literature due to my lack of interest in English."

"My reading career is not something I'm particularly proud of."

"I hardly ever read, probably didn't even read a whole book. I began to realize that I may be able to BS my way through my school work, which may or may not have been a very good thing to realize."

"When I say that I didn't read a single book that whole semester, that is no exaggeration."

So let's talk about that little Mccallie secret for a few minutes--the fact that many of us don't read as much as we say or, put differently, that we read as little as possibly can and still do well.  It's true, isn't it?  We are a good school.  You are talented students.  You go to college and beyond and do well.  But the reading?  Well, we don't read as much as we pretend we do.  At least many of us don't.  We skim, we check with a pal to find out what the reading was about, we use a lifeline to Wikipedia, we walk into a class with brazen confidence that we can talk about the reading without having read it.

So let me be clear about one thing.  This is not about guilt.  I'm not really into guilt, and I'm certainly not going to try to guilt you into reading.  I'm not trying to shame you or to make you feel bad.  But the lack of reading?  It is, quite simply, more of a reality than I think it should be.  So let's talk about why we don't.  I've got 9 reasons that came to mind pretty quickly:

1. You are busy.  I am busy.  We are all busy.  When we are busy, when we are tired, it is hard to find the energy to read.

2.    We prioritize, and our priority is what is going to be graded.  And if we figure out that our reading isn't going to be graded, we try to get by without doing it.  It’s an academic gamble.  Sometimes we win.

3.  Reading is very difficult for some of us, and very boring for others.

4.  we have convinced ourselves that we know what we like to read and we don't want to read anything else.

5.  We have figured out that our teachers go over the reading in class any way, so we think there is no need to read.

6.  There are any number of shortcuts available to us that will help us to get by.

7.  There are so many distractions, so many other forms of entertainment, so many other ways to pass the time, so many other ways to get information.

8.  The process of reading, as done in school is strange.  Read x number of pages a night?  Who reads like that on his or her own?  More likely, if we get into a book, we will sit and read it for hours.  And if we dont, well....

9.  We no longer consider reading a natural act.  Neither do our friends.  Neither does society.  It has even been said that because of our lifestyle of brief bursts of technology, our brains are finding it nearly impossible for us to tackle and finish long books.  But given the numbers of you who worked through Game Of Thrones, East Of Eden, Lonesome Dove, Prince Of Tides, and a bunch of other really long books this summer, I know that when the desire and interest is there, that theory is simply not true.

At the same time, I know that I cannot stand up here and argue that reading is its own reward.  Not when the contexts of reading in the past, like the simple joy of sitting down with a good book, are disappearing.  Not when I cram much of the non-school reading I do into the summer.

But I also know that reading is a routine.  And like weightlifting or drum practice or shooting free throws, the more we do it, the better we get at it.

I’ll focus on just two reasons why reading is absolutely essential.  Both are equally important and they work different parts of the brain.

 The first may seem obvious, but I'm not sure there is anything more important:  if you don't read for yourself, you are at the mercy of someone else to interpret what the world means.  And that could mean your knowledge of art, politics, religion, science, literature, health, the food you eat, the pills you take, the air you breathe, the climate you live in, the problems that need to be solved first, all would be beyond your control.  Given what you know about the divisive nature of our world, about any number of groups and ideologies who want to keep us polarized and in the dark, for whatever reasons, do you really want to leave your understanding in the hands of someone else? 

What becomes increasingly important today, probably even crucial, is your ability to understand both what is being said and how it is being said.  It has to be both.  If you don't know how to figure out a writer or speaker' tone, then you can't possibly know what he or she is saying.  And if you don't work through the words on the page, you can't learn to do that.  If you can't learn to figure out whether a source of information is reliable or not, then you have nothing to base any of your opinions on.  And if you don't grapple with the words on the page, you can't check statements and sources, assertions or representations.  Lastly, if all you have is someone else's summary, you miss out on the beauty of ideas.  So somebody told you that The Great Gatsby is about the corruption of the American Dream.  So what?  That doesn't even begin to capture the complexity of our country's values and hoped as represented in that book.  And that is as true in a science class as it is in history.

2.  The second reason for reading may be a tough one to accept, especially given how often we as men are told that we aren’t in touch with our feelings:  reading makes you more empathetic.  What is empathy?  Most of you probably know, but in case you don't, Merriam-Webster defines empathy as "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings."  In other words, the ability to walk a mile in someone else's shoes.  Scientific studies have shown that reading novels, for example, "make you kinder, cleverer, more productive, and a whole lot more open to the experience of others."  I have no doubt that this is true of other types of writing as well.

Do you think that a bunch of boys in a boys school have any interest in empathy?  No?  Well, consider this--year after year, when my seniors write about their favorite books, novels like The Kite Runner and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close bubble to the top, books that allow guys like you to experience situations that are foreign to our experience, but that resonate with your own experiences of friendship, betrayal, and loss.  Even McCallie's current favorite book, The Great Gatsby, I would argue, clicks with those of you who read it because, more than ever, the conflict between seeking wealth and finding happiness is something you want to understand.

And so, I leave you with a challenge. For all of us.  Let's buck the national trends of a decline in reading, the same way we do with our code of honor, with our sense of community.  Let's acknowledge a) that reading makes us better people and b) that we want to better people; otherwise, why are we here.  And let's read what we are asked to read so that we can become increasingly better at figuring out what we want to do with what we have read.  But the burden for that is not entirely on you.  As one of my seniors wrote last year, “When I was in middle school, I read everything I could get my hands on.”  That same senior didn’t read much in high school.  So something changed, and it is the responsibility of all of us to make reading a want-to, have-to, and can’t-live-without experience.  But it will require your buying into it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Epiphany #58: Your Back Windshield

Think of us as weird, if you must, maybe even a little creepy.  I don't care.  The drive was very, very long, and I offer no apologies.

So, we are driving through Indiana, just past Terre Haute, heading south, one of the most Godawful boring states in the union, full of farms and cornfields, broken up by a few "plantings" of wind turbines generating electricity for excitement, and my wife is at the wheel.  When you go down long stretches of straight roads, you encounter the same few cars, you passing them or them passing you.

A truck passes us.  We have seen it before.  We recognize it because on the back in one of those "In Memoriam" stickers, with the lost loved one's birth and death dates.  This one has a cross in between the two dates.  Behind the cross, two automatic rifles form an "X."

We look at it for a few moments.  Again.  Neither of us says anything.  Then my wife says, "Seventeen years.  I can hardly stand to look at that."

Indeed, the boy named on the back windshield lived a mere 17 years, it seems.

We look at it some more, taking in the tragedy of a life cut short, like most parents would do.  Then my wife says, "Look it up."  And though we have traveled thousands and thousands of miles together and have never done this before, I know exactly what she wants.

So I get out my phone and put in the boy's name, plus the word "obituary," and hit the search button.  Despite the poor cellular service, it comes up quickly.

"He's from around here," I begin.  "He was born in Terre Haute."

"He was actually only 16 when he died."

"What did he die of?"  I am wondering, because of the assault rifles, if he died in the military, having enlisted early, or in a school shooting, or in some kind of a gun accident.

"It doesn't say," I say.  "He died in a local hospital."  We are quiet.  There doesn't seem to be much more to say.  But I have nothing to do. So I keep looking.  "According to the obituary, his father died five years earlier."

I keep digging, hoping to find out, was it a disease or a drug overdose or what.  But there is nothing except more hits with the same name.  But I have nothing to do, so I keep looking.

"Wait a second," I say.  "His stepbrother died in West Virginia just a couple of months after him."  Now, something strange hangs in the air, the feeling that we have walked into a family and its tragedies and a series of dates too close together, for what?

" That poor mother, " my wife says.  "She must be suicidal."

But we have nothing left besides speculation.  A bit of Internet research leads to nothing but greater mystery, which we cannot solve.  Heredity? Bad luck? Coincidence?  We can't know.

And then the truck gets into the turning lane and we shoot past.  "Sullivan," I say.  "That's where they're from."

"Probably the father," my wife says.

"He's dead, remember."

"Stepfather, then."

And that's how it ends.  A predilection among certain Americans to turn the backs of their cars into tombstones and our incursion into their lives, sharing the deepening darkness a truck otherwise never reveals, until that truck turns and we look out onto the road ahead and move on.