....and our tools make us.

Someone who followed my personal instagram account surmised the wrong thing about someone else who had been following my instagram account.  It's too big of a story and too personal, still, to explain, but my shock and horror that such a misunderstanding had grown out of something that I had little control over?  Led me to (impulsively?) delete my entire instagram account. This untold story seems much more interesting than it is, trust me.

And if you're more interested in the untold story than the ruminations that follow?  Just check back in a few years.  I've scheduled a post for the future that will tell the untold and then, those of you who care?  Will be satiated. 

And now a happy story about a different failure.

Nine years ago I decided to start a blog about old signs.  I would take pictures of the signs, post them on the blog and invite my viewers to tell stories about these signs.  I proclaimed that I was joining cartography 2.0 in imagining maps that told of experience as evenly as they described roads and elevation levels. My blog was a failure.  The hundreds of likeminded story-oriented internet-users who 1.) had a cartography fetish, 2.) were excited about the prospect of the new localism, 3.) really really liked old things like signs and 4.) had time and interest in giving me feedback?

Didn't exist.

Three people joined forces with me. Over the course of a year. Also one New-Localist / Catoraphy2.0-loving-intellectual from New York City left a very affirming comment.

Happily this wasn't my job.  It was just me experimenting with modes of engaging the new social media sphere. The failure didn't cost me anything but time and embarrassment, and a little dose of humble is good for everyone.

Did I say this was a happy story?

So the happy started about a year ago.   On a whim, one morning, just a few months after I had shut down my personal instagram  (which, for the record, is exactly how long it takes for shut-down-regret to take hold) I happened to notice a sign that I hadn't noticed before

I impulsively snapped a picture.  I'll admit that I had been primed by the some other happenstances. The curious combination of those happenstances is chronicled in another blog post which will have to wait until later.  On that day, I just happened to combine the old idea with the new disappointment.  I could make an instagram called SIGNS OF CANTON.

I spent a year making this instagram account and it was a success.;People liked it and I finally decided that I needed a personal instagram account too. Ever since digital cameras happened? I have been bleeding pictures.

So the happy ending to this story (that includes some sadness) is that I decided that I loved instagram  -- it's brevity, it's ephemerality, it's curatorial arrangement and it's insistently visual diction. 

I decided since my first terribly misunderstood instagram had archived many moments of aesthetic and personal value?  That I would go ahead and resurrect those photos, at least the ones I had saved on this new eclectic and personal collection.  After all, what's a #latergram anyway?  Isn't everything posted on the internet a "later" gram by at least a few seconds.  And in the grand scope of human history?  Who's counting? 

As I found these old photos I stumbled upon the picture at the top of this post and I was overwhelmed by my own inability to say everything that needed to be said about this picture.  

As some of you know Marshall McLuhan, the exciting media theorist who claimed (most famously) that "The medium is the message" and (perhaps) second most famously that the wold has become a "Global Village" through technology shifts?  -- also said some very important things about tools -- ahow they serve us?  And how they reverse on us. 

One of his more well known sayings is:  "We make our tools and our tools make us."  

And it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was so undone by this particular photo? Is that i had been remade (quite unexpectedly) by the pic-joining app that had allowed me to pull these three photos together.   The remaking meant that each picture was now interpolated by the other two.  Their meanings were joint in a way that made a demand on my own memory and emotions.  I now the saw the past in away that was different and definitely more rewarding. 

All three of these photos were taken during a weekend that I went home to visit my family.  I went partly to enjoy a (David Bazan) concert with my brother and I went partly to see my aging grandfather who had just been hospitalized for stomach problems.   I went without my children or my spouse and that meant that I had more fluidity to stay wherever and do whatever. 

These three pictures encapsulate some of the favorite emotional moments that I experienced that weekend: 

1. I spent the night in my brother's quirky black house in a bed smack-dab in the middle of the recording studio with the world's most faithful dog, Cooper, snuggled against my legs.   This picture was taken during a conversation that I had in the early dawn moments with my brother after an unreasonably deep and fulfilling sleep.  Daniel, my brother is one of the most unusual people you will ever meet, but if you get to meet him you will be more fortunate than most people.  He's charismatic, brilliant, idiosyncratic, inappropriate, unpredictable and very much a mad genius.  He's also loving which tempers all of those other traits in way that makes those traits both slightly less terrifying and definitely more attractive.  

2. I spent a few hours in the hospital room with my Grandpa Andy who was foggy and yet terribly funny.  I never spent a moment with him that wasn't full of smiles and laugher.  This visit was the last time I got to see him, except for a final goodbye via skype.  This is the last picture anyone took of us.  I got my name from him, and my prefernce to laugh about things rather than cry.  Also my ambition to get things done, and my commitment to relationships over success.  

3.  My sister has been making the most decadent crepes for the past few years.  It's a very involved process and she covers her kitchen counters and her wide dining table with the most delectable food.  The thing about delicious food and exquisite drinks at my sister and brother-in-law's house? Is that they are so intrinsically connected to the experience of BEING WITH that you always feel when you're there.  They are so interested in you, but still full of funny stories and ridiculous exaggerated tales.  There is always laughter.  Always truth.  Always love and always extraordinary gustatory experiences. 

I joined these pictures together in a hurry, wanting to paste together favorite parts of the weekend immediately after it happened.  I posted them on the old instagram and never imagined how much the sum total of them would mean to me years later (now) when I discovered them all pushed together. 

The tool that Marshall McLuhan might be interested in here would be the pic-joining app.  After all the principle of montage is relatively recent human accomplishment -- particularly as it relates to documentary and domestic photography.  

The idea that in this quickly achieved triptych, I am conjoining so much distant past with the elation of the moment and the future nostalgia that I will (now) feel?  The idea that these unconnected experiences can be strung together like beads on a prayer bracelet that root me in my past, my hopes, my present, my fears, my future, so unknown -- this tool has achieved something at once spiritual and transcendent.  

And of course, this tool is designed for sharing, right?  The social media publications that serve as the destination for all these moments of expression are AS important a dynamic in this equation as anything else.  I pull these pictures together to make them all more interesting to YOU.   To show you MORE in a compressed moment.

This picture is me inviting you to treasure these feelings with me: 

  • Satisfying, generous fraternity, 
  • Gustatory and generous fellowship, 
  • An unknowing goodbye to a legendary patriarch. 

These feelings (together) have no name!  Together they exceed verbal expression!  If this tool is "making" me -- it is undoing my ability to name and categorize everything, and it is inviting me to feel, to be, and to dwell in -- moments of profound human experience like the ones pulled together in this montage. 

And I am inviting you (this tool bids me invite) to feel and want and work for these things with me. 

We make our tools and our tools make us.


The Kiss Behind the Organ. Part Two.

Minnie VanderLaan talked fast and too much.  She filled the air with talk and nervous little laughs that you couldn't help but wonder why she was nervous.   Her voice had a helium edge, but a friendly rasp rescued the tone and her hair was admirably just itself: curly and going in every direction.  You could tell that she was too no-nonsense to have her hair "set" or "done" like many women in their seventies.  Her hair, like her talk, just was what it was.  Minnie.

Bob, on the other hand, was so recessive a presence, at least by the time I knew him (in his seventies), that had become an accessory to Minnie. (Alternately, possibly, the anchor that kept her from drifting off like a rogue balloon, but probably just an accessory.)  Bob didn't make eye contact. His glasses were thick and if he spoke at all it was a mumble. His body was thick and a little stooped. He moved seldom and slow, but even though Minnie moved eagerly and youthfully, Bob was always right there with her.  And partly that dynamic -- their togetherness DESPITE the vastly different tempo of their movements -- contributed to Bob's acccessoryness.

Do these people sound like villains? They don't to me. And that's part of the shock that
this story provided to me. Minnie seemed sweet, eccentric, likeable and a little high
strung. Bob seemed....well...nothing. Blank. He reminded me of the public persona of
my own Paternal Grandfather: quiet, reserved, withdrawn and maybe slightly, ever-so-slightly... disapproving. They didn't seem like bad people.

Honestly, I never even really given them a second thought.

Minnie complimented me when I gave my short sermons or sang duets or played trombones.  So my presumption was that they were in The Fan Club.  And, like any self-centered teenager, I was very on-board with anyone who seemed like they were in The Fan Club.

I passively liked them both.

(Even though I really hadn't given them a second thought.)

BUT then Minnie told her friend that Don had seen me kissing one of the Amys in the youth group. (You can read the longer story here.) Minnie's friend had told her daughter (another Amy, my friend) and then, just generally, word had gotten around:

The preacher's son kissed a girl in the front of the auditorium.

So I told everyone it wasn't true, and, because I knew that if I didn't tell my father, he would still hear: so I told my father.  I told him what had been said and I told him that it wasn't true.

Why would Bob VanderLaan start a rumor about me that wasn't true?  He didn't seem like a meddler.  I couldn't imagine how I could've wronged him from a distance.  He didn't seem like the sort of politically motivated parishioner who would have concocted a plan to involve the preacher's children in a strategic round of Get-Some-Power-Over-the-Big-Man-On-The-Platform.  It was flatly perplexing.  I was likeable.  I was distant.  I was young.

Others asked me:  maybe he saw someone else that looked like you kissing Amy Morehouse.  Amy Morehouse is a very excitable girl; it's easy to imagine her kissing someone.  Maybe it was just someone who looked like you?

I started looking for my doppleganger.  I squinted my eyes to simulate Bob's thick glasses and watched the teenagers file into Sunday School the next morning.  But I knew it was ridiculous.  Sure Amy Morehouse was excitable and affectionate, but even she would know better than to kiss a boy behind the organ during the prelude before a Sunday Evening Service.

The trouble had to be something else.

So after a few days of prayer and consideration, my father pulled a Wisdom of Solomon stunt.  He told me that he wanted to take me to to confront Bob face to face.  He reasoned that this was a scriptural method, but I understood that he was actually testing the truth of my story too.

So I said: Yes.

After all, there's nothing more important than Reputational Purity for a good young fundamentalist teenager.  Kissing was only two baby steps from Dancing and then Intercourse in our world.

I had been with my father to parishioners houses before.  Many of them were split levels like ours.  A few of them were a bit more moneyed with wider lawns and name brand sofas, but the ones that I usually visited with JUST my dad?  Were those parishioners who needed a "visitation" on Tuesday nights.  

All of the really serious faithful Baptists of any midwestern Fundamentalist church worth its salt reserved Tuesday night for Visitation.  The faithful were assigned one or two parishioners who just might benefit from a visit.

The parishioners who RECEIVED these visits had almost always been absent from church for two or more weeks.  Sometimes sickness or poverty prohibited them and in this case the Faithful visiting them would bring comfort and offer help.  Other times, the visited were presumed to be lost in sin.  The visitor would be delicate and never confront the sinner directly, but instead offer to "lead in prayer" with them.  During the prayer, the visitor could use all manner of indirect supplication in order to clarify the questions, concerns and growth areas targeted by the visit. 

The houses of these precariously situated parishioners were almost always smaller than the houses we lived in.  Tiny living rooms, low ceilings, crowded with too much furniture and wall hangings flaunting terrible taste.  It wasn't until after I had left town and left fundamentalism that I found out that fundamentalism flourishes in precariously lower socioeconomic brackets.  During my visits, the most theoretical idea that I held on to was that my parents had been called to serve people who had needs.   Like Jesus had not come for the rich of this world?  Neither had our family.

But I was surprised to find out that the VanderLaans house was one of these houses.  Small.  Cramped. Not enough windows.

When we arrived I felt nervous, righteous indignation.  What if I found out something I had done to offend?  What if I had done something worse than kiss Amy Morehouse (I didn't! Remember that!) and it came out during our visit?  I felt righteous and on fire like Moses with Pharoh and Nathan with King David.

But much of my adrenaline infused energy dissipated once the door opened.  The quiet dark smallness of their house reminded me that our family, like Jesus had come to save people who lived in places like this.

They looked old and small and frail and they were gushing and nervous in a way that let me know that they had no idea why we were there.

My feelings as I relate this story now are very different than they were then. I know that in those moments my heart was racing, my stomach sour with adrenaline, but as I relive the story now, thirty years removed -- I feel the confusion of Bob and Minnie. They were the kind of faithful parishioners who didn't miss a Sunday. They didn't miss a Sunday Evening service. They didn't miss the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

When you're that faithful you know the mechanics of Tuesday night visitation, and frankly they didn't fit the profile. No one was dead or dying or sick. They hadn't missed church or had an affair or embezzled from the children's ministry. To have the senior pastor and his son at their home on a Tuesday night? It just didn't make sense.

Unfortunately I only see bits of the next part from this distance: I remember that things went according to my plan. I was forthright, respectful, but clear. No one contested my innocence and it turned out that the accusation seemed like a confusing rumor to Minnie and Bob.  Not so confusing as to have no base, but certainly misunderstood.

I don't remember what my father said, but I assure you: he was gracious, direct and winning. He is always all of those things.

I don't remember the sequence, but I do remember that at the end of the conversation, Bob and Minnie seemed as confused as they had at the outset.

They seemed effusively supportive and apologetic. But still confused.

Clearly though,  I was exonerated. Reputationally pure again.

The incident never came up again in conversation with my parents, with either of the Amys, with the VanderLaans.  I had no idea that so much anxiety and horror could dissipate so quickly and so clearly.

But now? From this distance?  I see that: maybe it did and maybe it didn't.

Because the end of this story is very much like the beginning of the story:

I passively liked Bob and Minnie. And I never gave them a second thought. 

But from this distance, I've been trying to imagine all the possibilities.  I've been trying to give them some second thoughts.

I wonder if they talked for hours after we left?  (Meaning, I wonder if Minnie talked and Bob listened for hours.)  I wonder if they felt anxiety now?  The minister had made a visit to their house?  Was there going to be more said?  Would they become candidates for church discipline?  Who else knew about the minister's visit? Who else wondered what they had done?

I wonder if this was the sort of thing that could make even Minnie silent?  Did they go to bed that Tuesday night in 1985 without a single word in the house?  Did this whole story become unspeakable and heavy for them?  Did Minnie choose the wrong color dye the next time she was at Drug Mart because she was distracted?  Did her friends whisper about her decline when they saw the brassy tones and the orange hue when she showed up to Wednesday night prayer meeting?

And what did Bob see?  Or what did Minnie imagine that Bob saw?

Is it so terrible that everyone wanted a miniature sexual scandal to whisper about?  Humans need secrets to build trust.  Humans need sex to feel alive.  The me who's watching all of this unfold from thirty years distance wants to whisper in the ear of the younger me:  "Lean into it!  Your sexual potency is much more valuable than your reputational purity!  Even to these people who pretend that the opposite is true."

On the other hand, maybe Minnie was happy-go-lucky enough, and Don was daft enough that they never gave our visit a second thought.  I hope that's what happened.  I wish that's what happened.

There was never a kiss behind the organ, but in retrospect I wish that there had never been a Tuesday night visit.  Or that I could trade the two of them.

The power that we had that Tuesday night was so invisible to us.  It was heavier than any rumor of my dalliance, but it sat on our shoulders so comfortably and effortlessly that we had no idea how it filled that tiny living room.

If I could make a deal with the devil at this distance, I would take Amy in my arms right there next to Irene Fleagle, as she played the prelude.  I would make love to her mouth with my own and in full view of the left side of the auditorium.  And hope that like Marty McFly I could forget the weight of these ghosts that would disappear into a new and much more exciting story.

Any names, facts, memories or incidents in this story have been so distorted by time, perspective and even intentional authorial liberties?  That I can say with assurance: 

This story is NOT true.  None of the stories on this blog are true. 

Unless they ring true to you in a way that makes you recognize the Universe you live in and are a part of.  In that case? These stories are completely 100% true.


The Kiss Behind the Organ. (Part 1)

These Reputationally Pure teenagers are singing on the platform several feet from the purported site of the kiss.

So first this happened: 

Minnie VanderLaan told her friend Beth Spire that her husband Bob had seen Amy Morehouse kiss the preacher's son in the front of the auditorium behind the organ while Irene Fleagle was playing the prelude for the Sunday Evening service. Beth told her daughter who was also named Amy.   There were seven Amy's in the Lumbercity Baptist Youth Group so the story becomes a little confusing at this point.  Amy Spire told Amy Norton, but she also told Amy Norton that it probably wasn't true. Probably.  She hoped.  What did Amy Norton think?  Should she believe it?  After all, Bob VanderLaan has very thick glasses and Minnie loves to talk. 

I don't know what Amy Norton told Amy Spire, but I do know that Amy Norton also told me.  I should know, she said, because this was a rumor about me.  I was the preacher's son.  

I'll tell you the same thing I told her: I didn't kiss Amy Morehouse.

I didn't kiss her in the church or out of the church. I didn't kiss her that night or any night ever.  

But in order to understand the dramatic stakes in this story, you need to know that "kissing" in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church in the 1980s is not what you understand to be kissing. Physiologically it's the same, but culturally it's much much more taboo.  It's more like saying:  Amy Morehouse and the preacher's son were buck naked and aroused when they cavorted last Sunday Evening, behind the organ, played, as always, by dear sweet Mrs. Fleagle.

Of course I denied it and partly because it wasn't true.  But much much more?  My denial was focused on the most important virtue that a young fundamentalist has: 


(And when I say "Purity" I actually just mean reputational purity, since most fundamentalist teenagers are just like every other teenager that has ever lived -- delightfully, rambunctiously impure.)

I protested to Amy Norton, I protested to Amy Spire.  I insisted that Amy Spire protest to her mother, Beth Spire.  I really liked her mom, Beth Spire and I knew she liked me and I supposed that her opinion of me had fallen significantly in light of this apocryphal story.

And finally? I protested to my father the preacher.  

And then this happened: 

After three days of prayer, consultation and careful strategy, my father decided to take me to the VanderLaan's house and allow me to confront Bob and Minnie with my protest. 

And that's the cliffhanger, folks.  You'll have to rejoin this tale in progress later to find out what happens when the preacher's son, temporarily-reputationally-impure, comes face to face with his accusers: The VanderLaans.


Any names, facts, memories or incidents in this story have been so distorted by time, perspective and even intentional authorial liberties?  That I can say with assurance: 

This story is NOT true.  None of the stories on this blog are true. 

Unless they ring true to you in a way that makes you recognize the Universe you live in and are a part of.  In that case? These stories are completely 100% true.


Celebrating the Corrupted Company Man

Drivetime radio this morning -- the first question the journalist posed was: Is it appropriate for these celebrity players to wear these shirts on the court?

I cursed.  My son was startled and asked why.

I said: "People are dying and the first question is: "Is it appropriate?"

Suddenly going to an NBA game is like the kind of bland Sunday Dinner with Family where we pretend that the politically troubling realities of our worlds must  be quietly ignored?  In the interests of a good dinner?

The sports industry pundit being interviewed laid out the conflict in this way:  These teams are owned by someone.  All of us, when we work for someone have to realize that we are getting paid by that someone.  When we're getting paid by them -- we must say what they want us to say.  That's why we're getting paid.

His logic resonates with most of what we know.  We are bound by good taste, the expectations of being a "company man," a culture of advertising, and all the substantive rewards of a good salary.

In his recent Frontline documentary, Generation Like, Douglas Rushkoff argues that contemporary young people are unaware of the negative connotations of the term "sellout" ("to prostitute one's ideals or talents") presuming that it simply has the laudatory meaning of filling a venue with paying customers.  The focus of the film is on the ways that social media and big media collaborate to draw these young people into their whirlwind of publicity-inflected-optimism.

 The film doesn't ask how or why or where that meaning drifted away.  It's happened quite recently, though.  The grandparents of these teenagers supported the civil rights movement, fought for gender equality in the second wave of feminism, protested the government's mishandling of Vietnam and then bought really big  houses in the suburbs and focused on delicious Sunday Dinners where we Indulge in Some Delicious Pretending.

Just because selling-out has become normal, pervasive and expected -- doesn't mean that its okay.

With the concentration of capital, disparity of wealth, corrupt systems of politics and endless instruments of surveillance defining contemporary life?  It seems to me that what's needed is a new moral discourse focused on the ways that we the people can put our best efforts toward corruption.

Maybe corruption will mean endorsing the "sellouts" who have the courage to ultimately bite the hands that feed them.   Maybe when systems so steeped in actual corruption label their dissenters as "inappropriate" - maybe this is the corruption into which we should all lean?

When celebrity basketball players are willing to coordinate their efforts to give voice to those who have none in the choking, dying silence?  Our journalists, our churches, our schools -- and everyone else who is posing as moral authority these days -- should embrace, laud and celebrate their courage.