Jonathan Hiskes

Jonathan Hiskes is a writer in Seattle. Find his work at Jonathanhiskes.com.

She Left Me at a Praise Rally

I wasn’t confused about much when I was 16, really just three things: God, myself, and other people. The first was the most important—my church, my youth group, and my Christian school were clear on this. The point of a holy life was to have a close, personal relationship with Jesus. Understanding the self mattered less. As long as your thoughts were pure, no one cared what other feelings lurked inside. Paying too much attention to feelings was kind of girly anyway. The third thing, other people, was tricky, because they kept complicating everything else.

For me, this complication kept focusing on Helen, a girl in my youth group. I thought she might feel the same way, judging by the way we exchanged glances and smirked about teachers and youth pastors and praise songs that kept repeating the word “desire.” I wasn’t sure how she felt, though. We didn’t talk about these things. We had started to do something much better.

First there was the kiss in the pool, where we were splashing and joking in her backyard one night and then suddenly for a few seconds we were embracing in the blue glow of the underwater lights. Then just as quickly we were splashing each other again and she tried to dunk me, probably because her parents might look out the window at any time. And now she let me put my arm around her, here on the open road, away from the gaze of parents and teachers, even if our youth group still had chaperones. We were on a coach bus heading south from Chicago, toward a four-day youth rally in Knoxville, Tennessee. All year we had worked to raise money, holding car washes, hosting a spaghetti dinner, and selling candied nuts at Christmas. Now we’d find out if the annual rally was worth the hype from upperclassmen. You got two kinds of descriptions, depending on who you asked. Sometimes it was all about “powerful” worship and getting on fire for Jesus. But then Helen’s friend’s sister told us, “It’s supposed to be this big spiritual thing, but it’s all about hooking up. Don’t go with your boyfriend or girlfriend. You’ll break up.”

We rode all night, Helen burrowing in her hoodie and sleeping, and me too excited to sleep. In the morning we disembarked in the July heat, sunlight already glaring off the sidewalk. A woman with a clipboard checked us in. Why were we so sleepy, she wanted to know. Weren’t we excited to be here? I had to look away from the radiance of her morning cheer. Helen caught my eye and smirked. The woman handed out little maps and warned us the campus was big.

“Here’s your dorm, and way over here’s the cafeteria, and down here is the arena where the nighttime rallies are,” she said. “That’s almost a mile so give yourself plenty of time. Grooters & Beal are playing all week, so you’ll want to be in time for the music.” I squinted and nodded. I hadn’t given much thought to where Knoxville was—the South? Appalachia? I had a typical teenage gaze that focused only on people within a few years of my age. Everything else was background blur.

The convention planners understood this phenomenon, and every element of the program was dialed in to register at our frequency. I’d already heard about the basketball tournament, whitewater rafting trip, and nightly karaoke. I thumbed through the booklet of morning sessions. Many advertised “inspirational,” “quirky” or “powerful” testimonies. Most were on what you’d call “teen faith issues”. Several promised to answer whether secular music was permissible for Christian youth. Inevitably, one session on dating was titled “How Far is Too Far?” I’m sure it was jam-packed. I’m sure a session on “How to Get Farther” would have been even more popular. I told my little joke to my friend Derek, who laughed. We found our way to the dorm to unpack.

“Are you going to hook up with Helen or what?” he wanted to know. “You better decide before you get distracted.”

He tilted his head toward the window and the busy sidewalk below — a parade of soft cotton tank tops and tanned legs. I didn’t expect to get distracted in the way Derek meant. I found Helen plenty thrilling, partially for tank top-related reasons, and partially because, as much as anyone, with her I could at least kind of be myself, whatever that meant. I didn’t know how to whisper sweet nothings on the bus, but she didn’t either, and neither of us minded. In safer settings, we had fun. She shot me a glance while the clipboard woman was talking and I knew we’d laugh about it later.

The first genuine, non-sarcastic fun happened at the evening rally in the campus arena. Grooters & Beal was a praise-rock band from Holland, Michigan, who understood the power of volume, stage lights, and sing-along choruses. They had learned devotional yearning from Michael W. Smith and punchy power chords from Bon Jovi. I had written off this kind of contemporary Christian music, but I’d never heard it played this loud, in a stadium this big, with thousands of other excited kids. I’d only been to a few real concerts, and this was as exciting as any of them.

“That bass player can play,” Derek yelled into my ear.

I knew what he meant. You could feel it in your chest.

“Feed the fire, Lord, be my one desire,” Grooters sang, and we soon learned to sing along. “Fan the flames in my heart.”

Those evening rallies became the highlight of each day. After dinner, sun-worn and giddy, we trekked through the lingering heat to hear a preacher or inspirational speaker followed by soaring devotional anthems. There were even goofy motions to some songs, and I was surprised to find myself not rolling my eyes but participating. I didn’t feel self-conscious. A crowd of peers can do that.

“Light a spark, lead me on through the dark,” we sang. “And feed the fire in my heart.”

The only morning session I remember was a faith-and-music thing where a speaker surprised me by sneering the word “Aerosmith.” His voice carried so much revulsion it sounded like the aging hard-rock band had personally seduced his daughter. Aerosmith was a guilty pleasure for me. I knew they hadn’t been cool since the 70s. I knew their guitar solos mostly sounded the same. I knew “Pump” and “Get a Grip” and “Big Ones” were silly. I didn’t care—I loved them. To be honest, I was mostly taken with Steven Tyler, the serpentine frontman who screamed, yawped, caressed his microphone stand, and dressed in leopard-skin shirts and got away with it. He was confident, outspoken, uninhibited—the things I wanted to be.

Earlier that year Aerosmith had released a single with these lines:

There’s a hole in my soul that’s been killing me forever.
It’s a place where a garden never grows.

I misheard the last part as “a place where a girl can never go.” To me, it sounded like unintentional prayer. It sounded like this vocal atheist was primed for a conversion.

Jesus, I wanted to tell Steven Tyler. That’s the only thing that can fill the hole in your soul.

I knew it was stupid. What can I say? I rolled my eyes at well-intentioned church ladies, slouched through entire meals at home saying as little as possible to my family, and inside I harbored fantasies about washed-up rock stars coming to Jesus.

If you pressed me to say what I believed about Jesus, I don’t know what I would have said. A personal “relationship” with him was supposed to be at the core of my life. But he was more of an idea than a person, an abstraction that filled me with a vague anxiety that I was failing some test. Steven Tyler, on the other hand, I could picture clearly in his leopard skins and leather jeans. Now this youth pastor from wherever was dismissing one of my favorite bands without even saying why. He couldn’t imagine grace flowing through, or toward, my crass hero. I wasn’t interested in whatever else he had to say.

Helen and I kissed just beyond the lights of the karaoke stage on the second night. I could sort of sense this one coming, unlike the surprise in the pool. I still didn’t know if it would happen again, up until it did. We were watching karaoke in the muggy night and I was hoping and waiting for an opportunity. Finally she leaned over and said “Do you want to walk me back to the dorm?” Even I wasn’t too clueless for that hint. We left and found our own little shadow beneath the campus trees. The soft press of her lips was exhilarating, both for the culmination of weeks of wondering, and for the promise it held of future embraces. I casually assumed this promise was a done deal when I floated into a blissed-out sleep that night.

And I was still assuming when the phone woke me the next morning. It was Helen. “Hey. Do you guys want to come to breakfast with us?”

“Did you seriously have to call so early?” I said, still finding my bearings.

“Whoa, Mr. Cheerful,” she said.

Any number of apologies would have worked for me here. Anything to acknowledge that her considerate phone call didn’t deserve my rude remark. But apologies showed weakness, right? They brought you into the messy realm of feelings. Much simpler to insult the girl I’d been longing for.

“Whatever,” I said.

“All right then. Forget it.”

She went to breakfast without us and realized that hanging out with her girlfriends at convention was a lot of fun too. For the rest of the week we sort of coexisted on uncertain terms. We didn’t talk for a while, and there was so much entertainment buzzing around us that it was easy to forget we hadn’t moved past our little fight.

The last-night rally was meant to be a climax. Grooters & Beal led us in the praise anthems now familiar to us. We counted down to the revealing of next year’s convention location. Speakers blared “I Love L.A.,” a song I’d never heard before. Video screens flashed palm trees and the Hollywood sign. Actual screams swept across the crowd. I didn’t know if I’d be going next year and didn’t know if I liked Los Angeles. For the first time in the arena I wondered if I was as excited as everyone else was acting.

The band played slower, more reflective songs, and the mood shifted. Brian, the leader of the organization that ran the whole convention, spoke about the joy of being with young men and women all week. He spoke about the awesome privilege of seeing Jesus change hearts and lives. His voice grew quiet as he leaned out toward the sea of faces.

“I’ve got to tell you: Tomorrow morning you’ll be packing up and going back to a world that doesn’t care what you’ve experienced here. They don’t care.”

His voice grew even softer. “They don’t care.”

He told us what this would be like and how our faith would make a difference.

“You can be strong,” he said. “You can feed the fire.”

Finally, he invited us to leave our seats and move toward the stage. He wanted to offer a blessing, or a final chance to recommit ourselves to God, or a place to repent…or something.

My friends pressed forward, tears streaming down their faces. I moved forward to stay with the people I knew. Helen drifted a few yards ahead—a flash of blond hair disappearing into the crowd, the last I would see her that night. The dim corners of the arena emptied out as figures flowed toward the stage, arms raised. Music played slow and mournful. Everywhere I looked faces were blotchy and teary. I don’t know if they were experiencing shame, relief, or something else. I was too concerned with what I was feeling. Or, rather, wasn’t feeling. I wanted to be carried away in a cathartic wash of tears, but I wasn’t carried anywhere. Instead I felt stone dry.

At the end, Brian said there were adults backstage who could pray with us one-on-one. My youth group was going back to karaoke. Neither direction seemed right. I drifted with the crowd into the night, unsure of where to go. We came to the university running track, its field lights blazing. I set my sandals and t-shirt on a bleacher and felt the nubby rubber surface under my feet. Back at school I was a mediocre cross country runner, but I never ran without timing myself and measuring the distance. Here, I eased into a jog. The day’s heat lingered into the night, and by the second lap I was sweating. My mind returned to the rally. I was so eager to be swept away in the arena. Feeling some intense spiritual climax was supposed to be the whole reason for coming to these things. It made no sense, just like how everything with Helen fell apart before it got started. I wouldn’t have minded apologizing for being rude to her on the phone—pride wasn’t the issue—but something had stopped me.

My muscles loosened and my breathing settled into a rhythm. As I lost count of laps, I felt calm for the first time in days. I realized I was disappointed—disappointed and weary. That should have been obvious, but it wasn’t. Guys didn’t go out and name their feelings, even to themselves. Guys weren’t supposed to have feelings. It was shameful. Getting a spiritual high at a praise rally, sure, that was a noble condition. Steven Tyler rolling his hips on stage to demonstrate his desire, sure. But not getting all emotional when I couldn’t even say why. A life of faith required discipline, I thought. Determination. We were supposed to worship a savior who didn’t lose control.

The track’s nubby surface tickled underfoot. The faintest trace of a breeze swept across the infield, and I remembered there were mountains standing off in the distant dark. I was finally noticing things outside the clamor of my mind. As my legs pounded, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for that moment alone in the night. A sense of fullness came down and settled on my skin like the humid air.

The Pacific North Wet

Tonight I am thinking about the endless sticky heat of Chicago summers. The best part of the day, back then, was the moment it finally relented, and you could breathe again. Late in the day at some backyard barbeque, the sun would finally dip below the neighbor’s roofline, and everyone relaxed. The basketball game found new life in the shade, the ball bouncing and thudding off the rim on the garage. The last swimmers flopped into the pool, horseshoes clanged in the sand pit, the coals in the grill glowed seething red. Everything of the slow-burn afternoon dimmed and faded — except the basketball that kept skipping and swishing and singing.

And something else happened too:

The yard lit up.

Flicks of bright neon green appeared for a few seconds above the pool. They drifted in the oak trees. They landed on pop cans. Tiny bellies lit up and glowed around the yard, slow-drifting radiant insects. We caught them and held them in our palms.

There are no fireflies here in the Pacific North Wet. Tonight there is hardly any light at all in this gray-green soggy corner of creation. Despite living here for several years now, despite having walked beneath a thousand rain clouds, I still haven’t learned to wear the right effing shoes. So tonight I’m trudging in soggy sneakers on a wet beach. I might as well thrash in the surf for all the good they do me, sand working its way into my socks, water pooling at my toes.

Even though it’s August, there is no summer warmth on this sodden beach. The sun here lacks the fortitude to send heat through the fog. Instead we’ve got the eleventy-billionth consecutive day of drizzle falling on the sea, falling on the forest, falling on this small island we chose for our vacation. My companions are silenced in their tents in the forest, behind a wall of wet branches. Whorls and swirls of mist slide across the beach, proof the great mysterious Creator has never ceased inventing new kinds of wet.

We could have vacationed back in the land of sunshine and backyard swimming pools. We could have lounged with our families on a warm Lake Michigan beach. But no, we ventured further into the fringe of the continent, deeper into this drippy murky climate, for three days of camping in the rain.

As I trudge along, the fog transforms the forest from a fixed place into a catlike shadow. Everything slides and swirls. Salty waves lap and retreat. Even the rain-pocked beach appears and disappears under the drift of mist. I begin to wonder where it’s safe to stand, where solid earth lies.

I wonder if my family back in the Midwest will ever understand why we moved out to this chilly hinterland. I wonder if our new friends in the tents are ever going to feel like family. I wonder if my feeble writing on behalf of this great wounded planet is ever going to make a damn bit of difference. I wonder about my wife, who grew up in many places, and finds home here as much as anywhere. Will she ever understand the claim that Midwestern summers hold on me? I wonder if she’s any less confused, reading in the tent while I shuffle in the rain.

I pick up a stone, water-smooth and reassuringly heavy. I fling it toward the sea, sending it arcing from behind my imaginary three-point line.

The stone falls into the water — and then something happens:

The sea lights up.

I do not mean this metaphorically. I mean the water turns electric yellow for a moment. The rock’s splash creates a flash of light in the water. Neon circles ripple outward, fading as the water settles. I throw another stone: more eerie circles. Each splash disturbs invisible microorganisms swimming in the murk. Disrupted, they set themselves aglow.

These invisible creatures, I learn, are dinoflagellates, named for the whip-like tails they use to propel themselves. No one knows why they are bioluminescent — why they create their own light. Approaching predators set them aglow, so the light may serve to attract larger predators — the enemies of their enemies. The light may signal their distastefulness or poisonousness. It may attract prey. Or it may form a language — songs and prayers and complaints and commerce and flirtation and praise for the wet world.

Beats me. I watch these microscopic creatures shine for a moment and fade, my mind growing still as they disappear. Then I reach for every stone and pebble I can find. I heave great handfuls into the darkness, watching them splash in a great tiny chaos of light. The sound on the Sound attracts my companions from their tents. From this point I’m not alone. We splash up all the brightness we can manage, an even larger chaos of light in the water.

I still don’t know where I’m supposed to live. I still expend too much energy thinking about the past. I am trying to trust that flashes of light might appear anywhere. I am trying to learn to stop worrying and keep my eyes open. If light doesn’t appear on the backs of insects, it will arise from the unimaginably simple bodies of single-celled creatures. Propelled by their long tails, they thrash through the surf, oblivious to the worries of ponderous multi-celled organisms on the beach.

I take comfort in that.

 

Mad Men, Snickering and Sobbing

What sort of man kisses a secretary at an office party and expects his wife to praise him for going no further? What sort of man quits an affair because it’s too much hassle? What sort of man begs his wife to deliver setup lines at cocktail parties to tee up his pre-planned punch lines? What sort of man attempts to declare moral bankruptcy to escape his obligations, pledging to be half the friend he was, half the husband, half the father?

A character in a Peter De Vries story, that’s who. The 20th-century New Yorker writer created a parade of shabby husbands and fathers who fail their families in hilarious fashion, offering a rich portrait of male vanity and insecurity. His heroes, almost to a man, are white-collar stiffs with jobs in Manhattan and comfortable homes in suburban Westport, Connecticut. Their concerns are the aggravations of timeworn marriages, the politics of dinner party invitations, and the quality of their highball cocktails. Borne aloft on the greatest rise of middle-class affluence the world had ever known, they eye each other’s wife and obsess over what college sweethearts think of them twenty years later.

A trio of long out-of-print books, republished this fall by the University of Chicago Press, underscores the satirical brilliance of a mostly forgotten humorist. De Vries skewered a distinctly male form of idiocy, demonstrated by characters who are witty, well-spoken, and lacking what a later generation would call emotional intelligence. We get a slew of such heroes in Without a Stitch in Time, a collection of short stories reissued in November.

“When a man can no longer discharge his financial obligations, we let him off the hook,” says one character. “Why not when he can no longer meet his ethical ones? I have too many emotional creditors hounding me … Everybody keeps talking about moral bankruptcy, but nobody does anything about it. Well, I’m going to. I’m going to declare it.”

“In other words,” his companion says, “you want to tell your wife about us.”

“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

De Vries’s name has nearly vanished since his death in 1993, but for decades he was a mainstay of the East Coast literary establishment. He spent forty-three years as an editor at The New Yorker, contributing stories and assisting with cartoons. He published twenty-three books, to moderate commercial success. Proficient in one-liners, he coined phrases such as “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” and “Deep down, he’s shallow.”

Peter DeVries

Peter DeVries

I’ve been mildly obsessed with De Vries, who shares my religious-ethnic roots in the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. Born in 1910, he belonged to my grandparents’ generation, growing up among devout immigrant families who went to church twice on Sunday, forbade dancing and moviegoing, and cast a wary eye on the world beyond their South Side neighborhoods. In religious schools De Vries learned the doctrine of total depravity: our lives might be redeemed by grace, but they’re also marred by sin as pervasive as oxygen. For Calvinists, sinfulness includes more than specific lapses such as lying to your parents about skipping youth group for the pool hall. Total depravity means sin is a cancer that corrupts every cell of our God-created selves. Little wonder De Vries craved the levity of humor. He strained against the pieties of his family, mocking religion, especially the smug brand of Calvinists who believed their God had sorted the world into the elect and the damned—and they could discern who was who.

De Vries decamped from his working-class roots to the refined world of New York publishing, establishing a suburban commuter’s life in Westport presumably much like those of his characters. That Mad Men setting of martini lunches, commuter trains and the giddy newness of suburbia provided the most fertile ground for his satire. Several of his best novels explore that territory or launch from it, including Tunnel of Love (reissued this year), The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk (1968), and the dark masterpiece The Blood of the Lamb (1961, republished in 2005).

There’s no doubt his work has aged unevenly. Reading De Vries requires a certain patience for wordplay, and later novels rely too much on farcical gags. Some of the parodies gathered up in the anthology Without a Stitch in Time are aimed at long-outdated targets. But that book, which draws mostly on his New Yorker stories, also contains some of De Vries’s finest stories. Those deserve a closer look.

In “The Flesh and the Devil,” we meet one prototypical schlub at the boozy end of an office Christmas party. Frisbie finds himself with an empty stomach and a friendly temp secretary. They leave together for a bar, after which she invites him to her apartment. He kisses her, remembers his wife and excuses himself. He congratulates himself, thinking of all his colleagues who might not have showed such marital loyalty: “The more he thought of it the more gratifying his conduct seemed, and, presently, the more his satisfaction struck him as worth sharing with his wife, not for the light the incident put him in but as a certification of their bond.”

Not surprisingly, his wife reacts differently than he expects.

“Where?” she asks. “Where didn’t you sleep with her.”

Frisbie stumbles forward like a man “having stepped out on a high wire on which going ahead might be difficult but turning around impossible.”

“You’re not looking at this thing right,” he protests.

Such emotional cluelessness surfaces throughout the collection. De Vries’s men are fluent in Freudian psychology and deeply analytical about their own lives. About their partners, they are considerably less perceptive.

De Vries’s women are rarely fully drawn characters—one of his chief limitations as a writer. But they are often capable sparring partners who expose their partners’ blind spots. In “A Crying Need,” a film critic for a community newspaper brings dates to watch screenings with him. One girl takes him to task for his pretentious criticism: “You could be too clever for your own good, you know. Your stuff is brilliant…but I wonder if life can always be lived on that plane.”

That’s a bit of self-criticism from De Vries, whose pun-loving mind was always running out ahead of him. He can’t seem to resist a well-turned quip. At times that serves him well, such as in “Compulsion,” about a compulsive punner whose incessant wordplay drives away companions. But some of the weaker pieces in Without a Stitch seem to be stories in service of a punch line, rather than the other way around.

When his humor works, though, it works. In “The Last of the Bluenoses,” the narrator whines that his dreams have not kept pace with the sexual revolution. While the broader culture flings off Victorian mores in favor of miniskirts and free-love credos, he complains that the orchestrator of his dreams provides nothing more risqué than a bare ankle: “Ankles! Can’t he get his mind on higher things?”

One of the things I appreciate most about these stories is the way they show how humor is a double-edged sword. It can cut through trivial cocktail-party banter to reveal the heart of things, like the jester who’s the only person in the medieval court allowed to mock the pompous king. But it can also be a weapon a speaker wields to keep others away, forming a protective distance of irony. De Vries grasps both possibilities.

The punner in “Compulsion” visits a therapist who tells him, “You are fundamentally afraid of people. This habit of yours was a way of mutilating conversation…you do so in order to escape the risks of engaging in it on an adult level.”

The characters in Without a Stitch begin to run together, which is sort of the point. The stories function as a cycle about the anxieties of the middle-class man at mid-century. Over and over, they invent crises: starting affairs, confessing to non-affairs, picking fights with dinner-party rivals. One adolescent sweating over his girlfriend’s possible pregnancy delivers a line that could be the book’s theme: “We pay for security with boredom, for adventure with bother.”

I found myself wondering which is the core problem for these men, anxiety or boredom? Or if it’s both, which causes the other?

That got me thinking about what’s missing from these stories. Except for showing up at their nondescript office jobs, these characters have few obligations beyond themselves. They have wives and children but seem to take them for granted. They don’t seem to be from the bedroom community of Westport, but they don’t seem to have roots elsewhere, or obligations to extended families or aging parents. (I say “seem” a lot because these brief stories leave much unstated.) With few exceptions, these men are not involved in churches, civic groups, PTAs, little-league coaching or other roles that weave a person into the fabric of community. One man is told by a doctor that he needs a hobby other than pouring himself highballs. He buys a model airplane and tries to fly it in his yard, a decidedly individualistic activity.

Lurking beneath these humorous flights is a void these characters do their best to ignore. It goes unspoken, but it shows up in their vanities and their all-too-relatable attempts to be the smartest person in his room. If life is nothing more than a popularity contest, you’d better be damned sure you’re popular.

The narrator in “The Irony of It All” chokes down a cocktail as the host of a party, a novelist he can’t stand, reads a maudlin passage from his latest project. At an especially bad line, the man says, “A snicker escaped me at the same time that a sob caught in my throat.”

De Vries adds a hiccup to the man’s troubles and plays the scene for laughs. But the snicker and the sob—rising up together—encapsulate his characters’ condition. They snicker so they do not sob. For his characters, success seems to roll in on the breeze, fickle and arbitrary. But failure arises from something broken deep inside them. De Vries rejected the religion of his youth, but he never shook the Calvinist understanding that our best efforts still bend toward brokenness. That sense of total depravity stayed with him. It appeared in the guise of humor, and it charged his light-hearted stories with surprising depth.