She’s a Good Girl, Who Knows Her Physics

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Tom Petty laid out the criteria for a good girl.

She loves her mama, Jesus, and America too.

She’s crazy about Elvis. She loves horses. Last on the list, she loves her boyfriend, too.

I was driving with my teenage daughter. We were taking off on an adventure related to impending post-high school life. I pushed the seek button on the radio repeatedly. “Free Fallin'” was just starting. I assumed she wouldn’t want to listen to a down-tempo song from the 1980s, especially from the likes of Mr. Petty. When I tuned away, she screamed, “Hey! Turn it back!”

“You know that song?” I stammered as I hit the back arrow. I never really liked the song, but I loved the video when it was released. In fact, I copied the eyelashes and pale lipstick look for about six months and thought the platform sandals the girl wore during the second verse were incredible.

“My physics teacher played it for us when we were learning about the rate of acceleration in a free fall.”

Tom wailed, “Now I’m free, free-fallin’…”

My daughter quickly sang, “…at 9.81 meters per second squared!”

Tom wailed, again, “Yeah I’m free, free-fallin'”

She: “…at 9.81 meters per second squared!”

The song ended and so did the mini refresher course in the laws of gravity. We continued our trip, which involved crossing several mountain passes. Due to a horrible accident that closed the interstate, we were directed onto a two-lane state highway. It used to be the one and only route over that mountain range. A new route was built because it’s dangerously curvy with sheer drop-offs to oblivion. There are no guardrails. Much of the detour was above timberline. I had her take photos because the views were spectacular, especially as the setting sun cast a pink glow over jagged peaks.

“I can see the interstate. It’s down there.” She pointed out her window with her finger nearly vertical. I concentrated on the road and the cars in front of me and behind me. We were beads on a wire of road, being pushed along over and up, looped to the left, looped to the right. Hairpin curve means nothing to a generation that doesn’t wear hairpins, I found out.

The detour tacked on an extra 45 minutes to our trip. Eventually, we rejoined the interstate at a point about 20 miles to the west from the point it closed. Soon, it was dark. I told her to watch for glowing eyes along the side of the road.


I had never driven a child to a place so outwardly devoted to her looming future, away from us. Somehow, it felt sanely responsible and utterly ludicrous at the same time. All weekend, I spoke to her without speaking:

I am facilitating your exit.

I am driving you to a possible future.

I am steering us up and over jagged ledges, supported by road carved into cliffsides, just so you can look around at a place and decide if you can picture yourself there. Not us. You.

I have been driving her toward this future since before she was born, tuning songs to help us peel off miles but it had never been so smackingly serious. Real. This is happening and my heart feels like it’s traveling at 9.81 meters per second squared.

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