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my own Paternal Grandfather: quiet, reserved, withdrawn and maybe slightly, ever-so-slightly...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.


The Pleasures of a Victimless Crime

When I was 10 years old I went on a Men's Fishing Trip "Up North" with a group of 30 men and their sons for a weekend of fishing, bonfires, laughter and getting socialized into manhood.

I wasn't really that into fishing at the time, but I caught a big pike and the trip was awesome.  Beginning to end: I loved it.

One night near the end of the long weekend the men announced that there would be a snipe hunt after dinner.  I'm not going to spoil how a snipe hunt works, but it is a well-rehearsed prank that plays out amongst outdoorsmen everywhere.

The adults prank the kids in an elaborate quest that includes mystery, elaborate hunting rituals and a big reveal at the end.

Kids who go on their first snipe hunt?  Know nothing.  And afterwards?  They know everything.

Before the hunt actually started  I suspected deception from the faces, eyes and smirks of the thirteen and fourteen year old boys on the trip.  They were excited about the snipe hunt and while they were trying to hide it -- I could see that they knew something I didn't.  This fact made me edgy and suspicious as the late night hour approached, but by the time that I was walking through the pitch black woods with my friend Tom?  Otherwise alone?  In the woods? Carrying pots and spoons?  At night trying to flush the snipe out of the bushes and into the trap with noise?  I forgot about my suspicions of those adolescent smirks because I was SCARED TO DEATH.

My childhood included plenty of scary games in the dark (Bloody Murder, Ghost in the Graveyard) but there was something uniquely terrifying about being two kids deep in the woods alone, hearing other (also frightened kids) walking nearby and knowing that teenagers with possibly misanthropic motives could also be near.

And it was awesome.  Later, after the snipe hunt, I understood the slight smile, the slight scorn, the slight feeling of superiority that those thirteen and fourteen year olds must have had.  I understood what it meant to be an insider.  I understood the perverse pleasure they took in our initiation.  And a little bit?  In retrospect?  I see in this gentle hazing -- a rite of passage -- an invitation to join the ranks of manhood.

I hadn't thought about this experience -- The Big Snipe Hunt -- for many years until I started to think about this video that my son showed me last week.

My son is thirteen on the verge of fourteen and I'm grateful that even though he's now playing first shooter games (which I don't like and prohibited for many years), he still wants to share them with me and have me understand what he thinks is cool about them.  He also has been parented  by youtube as much as me -- not because of any abdication on my part -- but because youtube's omniscience overwhelms any parenting skill I have.  Youtube has taught him to master yo-yo-ing, to successfully hack every computer and computerized device in the house, to solve Rubik's Cube in close to a minute and to replicate every soccer move Messi ever made famous.  So "Dad, lookatthis!" live-sharing of youtube punctuates every unexpected mundane task at our house.  Rarely do the fails(!), tricks(!) or pranks(!) rise above the quotidian level of my engagement.  This one was a different.

In a  contemporary subdivision rendered in a bland iconic animation, heavily weaponized mercenary contractors engage in one on one killing duels.  Nothing new there -- this first person shooter ritual is repeated in houses all over America every day.

But instead of just hearing the sounds of warfare, in this youtube vid, we hear the sound of a whining, crying 6 year old.  This kid probably plays Modern Warfare in a cluttered ordinary dull living room untouched by any kind of war.  And we get the sense from his protests that he's getting pwned by an older, silent, merciless player.

My son held the iPad in my direction: Dad, Listen to this it's hilarious.  He's crying.  It's so funny. 

The six year old cried, he complained, he begged, he threatened to tell his dad.  And I understood right away that the video was "funny" because of the juxtaposition of these "manly" violent actions with such childish whiny vocal tones.  Begging and pleading by an over-indulged, over-entitled, under-skilled random kid both felt ridiculous (the juxtaposition!) and a comic come-upance (bratty kid! deserves it!).

The title of this video was "Call of Duty Kid Cries [So Hilarious]."  The 2000+  thumbs-ups below agreed.


I'm a big fan of rites of passage, rituals in general, the history and performance of gender, but the longer I thought about this video, the less I liked it.  Youtube provides an endless plentitude of this genre -- I don't know if there's a name for it yet -- so in the absence of knowing, I'm naming it:

the Little Kid Cries: LOL Genre.

Later in the video, as the kid's rank is downgraded and he watches as we hear him lament at length.

"Why did you do that?"

Dramatic music swells, the ranking texts are displayed over honorable looking military monuments and the kid continues his whine:

"I worked so hard!  And now I can't even play!  Why did you do that!?  Answer me! Why!"

And then he starts to weep.

I admit it: the weeping feels overwraught and overplayed.  A part of me suspects that this kid throws fits at every department store where his parents won't buy him a new toy machine gun or plastic machete.

But on the other hand, it doesn't matter to me: this is a kid crying.  He's been wronged and he's crying.  His humiliation has been repurposed for comedic affect.  And two-thousand + viewers agree:

It's hilarious.

In general I love texts that emerge from the work of fans -- remixed, mashed-up, sweded revisions that inflect mass culture with more personal and less official meanings.   So why do I feel so different about this dark corner of the machinima universe?

The straightforward answer is that this game, this video, this post and this genre thrive on a kind of dissociation that hurts people.  The title of my blog post is a lie: there are no victimless crimes and none of the crimes of this story are as innocent as they pretend to be.  This argument is more conservative than I want to be and not nuanced enough to account for any of the particular viewers or commenters or thumbs-uppers.

Possibly it's not even accurate enough to account for this particular youtuber who enjoyed trolling this kid enough that he decided to upload this episode to his youtube fans and followers and indicate with the title that a COMIC reading space was the point.

Our transcendence through his pain.   

I don't know this guy and I don't know what he was thinking, but it's pretty clear that this rhetorical move has become a common one, and I believe that dissociation is the shadow of all the laughter that these videos generate.

The pleasure of Modern Warfare does pose as a victimless crime.  All the thrill of heroism, murder and glory without any morticians, funerals, widows or orphans.

And the pleasure of trolling a whiny brat seems well-informed by thousands of videos of spoiled rotten children filmed and uploaded to the internets by their parents.   We don't even see this six year old.  We don't even know his name!  Victimless crime!  And so LOL Hilarious OMG!  Uploading this video FEELS like a victimless crime.

The most subtle pleasure though is that of the viewers, the commenters, the thumbs-uppers.  Our laughter feels as immaterial as it is instinctive.  Our contributions to big data pervade so much of our lives that this laugh, this click, this Ha!, this THUMBS-UP! hardly feels like a contribution to the rhetorical sphere.

But my argument is that these are not victimless pleasures and that these crimes victimize not only the users, but (more poignantly?) our life together.

I like Ian Bogost's arguments about the procedural rhetoric that video games articulate: modes that help players deliberate about particular questions relevant to particular spheres.  But the rhetorical moment that I'm focusing on here is an epideictic one.  Aristotle classified the epideictic genre as speeches to praise or blame (funeral orations, a comedy roast, an awards ceremony and, arguably, the entire field of public relations).  He argued that these kinds of appeals were particularly useful in helping a community share a particular value or recognize a common enemy.

The gamers who repurpose these trolling vids invite their audience to laugh at the childish response to violence and humiliation.  The viewers perform the value of hardened masculinity by laughing at a common enemy: the vulnerable weak girlish cries of a child.

This laughter offers them transcendence against the threats that still oppose them, threatening imminent loss and possible humiliation.  The laughter also offers transcendence internally over the memories they have of the times they cried, in public, as a child.  And then, surprised to find out that they were "too old to cry" (was it a taunt?  a sneer?), they soldier forward into manhood.  Repressing and ignoring emotions.  Embracing rationality and aggression.

It's not that I find rites of passage or even particular cultural articulations of manhood to be problematic.  Remember the snipe hunt?  There is a satisfaction and a beauty to knowing and understanding what is required of you and how you can accomplish it.  There is therapeutic salve in the laughter and the taunts directed toward one's own innocent past.

The difference between the snipe hunt and the crying kid LOL genre?  In the snipe hunt, the sneer and the taunt are just a part of enfolding the novitiate into a community of acceptance and maturity, accepting the forgotten naivete and innocence of childhood as a part of a never ending cycle of maturity and communal development.  Next year at the snipe hunt you will sneer with the 14 year olds.  You'll be one of us.  A man.

The experience of new media feels precariously disintegrative, though.  Games are played in latch-key living rooms, quiet bedrooms. Youtube vids are watched on small screens under the covers and the stinging humiliation and scorn we sling at the whiny brats we do not know cannot be accompanied by the same sort of re-integration or even self-recognition that multi-generational, geographically-contextualized communities provide.

I fear that the scorn and the taunts are insufficiently linked to our own development.  I fear the compassionate commitment that accompanies gentle hazing by friends or family dissipates in a world defined by such transient relationshipsand the anonymous feeling that the age of big data bequeaths on all of us.