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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Something Completely Else

It’s like…in a way…
the time we almost talked,
and I was…we were…
fumbling for the words to say
stumbling for
something completely else
but
something completely else
was said,
and there was a hole—
not emptiness but strange—
like the hole in the heel
of a sock that no one sees,
but all day...it's there—
the kind of care
that circumstance suspends,
a warmth that chills
a cold that melts...
something completely else
and not
what I was thinking
we were thinking at all.
I somehow
missed the meaning
of the message on the wall.
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TK

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Call to Arms

"Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason." Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot


My childhood church eventually outgrew the small auditorium where the pony was given as a prize and moved into a new sanctuary that the local press had dubbed "Noah's Ark up-side-down"—not because of the church's history with animals, but because it did indeed look like the capsized hull of a deep wooden ship with huge sweeping beams and a keel. Settling into the new building was an eventful time for the congregation, but one Sunday morning in May things were especially exciting.

Somehow a pair of sparrows got into the ark, and every minute or so they'd flit from light fixtures to the tall cross that towered over the baptistery. It looked like a game of tag, but in fact it was spring and this was the timeless dance of love—in a Baptist church no less. Fortunately, the female was playing hard-to-get and showed no signs of fatigue. They were still darting about as we all went home.

After Sunday dinner Dad asked my brothers and I if we wanted to go back over to the church with our BB guns to discreetly eliminate the distraction. He made us promise not to talk about it. Dad was Chairman of the Property and Facilities Committee, but even with that high rank, he thought it wise to "classify" this particular mission, and we agreed to the terms.

Boys and birds and BB guns are inseparable. Dad understood this. On Christmas Day a few months before when the three of us opened our Daisy Winchester replicas, he laid down the law: we could not use the guns on Sundays and could shoot only grackles and blue jays—irksome, noisy birds that raid the nests of others to eat their eggs to take over the nests for themselves. He was as convincing as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird,* and by honoring his code, we could aim our sights with little guilt. We weren't just shooting bad birds; we were making the world safe for "Good Bird Democracy."

But this was the Viet Nam Era, a time of social unrest when moral absolutes like "good bird, bad bird" were "blowin' in the wind"—what else could explain the demonstrations and angry protests of the lady next door every time one of the bad birds we shot landed across the fence still flopping in her yard until her dog playfully shook it to death and retrieved it to us for a simple pat on the head. Mrs. Giovanni definitely opposed our military intervention.

We knew that if shooting bad birds in the neighborhood was divisive, it would likely be even more controversial to shoot birds inside a church—sort of an ornithological "Murder in the Cathedral" if you will—especially since these weren't bad birds. They were good birds trying to "be fruitful, and multiply." And it was Sunday! Dad explained that securing a no fly zone before the evening service trumped these otherwise valid concerns.

Arriving at the back door of the church, we carried our BB guns close to our legs and entered. "Remember," Dad whispered, "No shooting while the birds are on light fixtures, in window sills, or in flight—only when they're perched in the wooden rafters with nothing breakable behind them." We spread out and slowly walked down the aisles, staring up at the high ceiling for anything that moved. No one said a word.

Soon we were all standing at the front like penitent gun slingers responding to an altar call. There was no sign of a sparrow anywhere. We made lame attempts at sparrow calls —not "Hear, Sparrow!" but chirpy whistles and tweets that sounded like a deranged cuckoo clock. Still nothing. Dave ran through the choir loft slamming a hymnal shut with loud THWACKS, but there was no sign of a bird anywhere.

We went home in utter disappointment that we would never have the chance to be tempted to tell the secret we had promised to keep—that we had snuck into the church and shot that morning's unwanted guests. We later learned that Pastor Sedalia had opened the doors during the parsonage lunch hour, and as if guided by a higher power, the birds flew outside where they lived long, productive lives (assuming no grackles or blue jays raided their nest).

If this were TV fiction, the end of this episode would show us driving home in silence with the radio playing in the background, "All we are saying... is give Peace a chance." Father and son's eyes would meet in silent understanding of a lesson learned (camera fades—cut—commercial). But this is not fiction, and Dad did not like the Beatles or listen to stations that played them. I did learn from the experience, however, and the lesson stuck with me.

Every two or three years, I share some thoughts on problem solving with our teaching staff. One of my three points stresses the importance of proportionate responses (not reactions) to problems. Whether the conflict is global or in the classroom, at one time or another, most management situations cause well-meaning policy wonks, politicians, teachers, or knee-jerk leaders to address minor problems so broadly or with such bombast that their "solution" becomes far worse than the problem. That day in the church makes a good case for proportionate response.

Never use a shotgun when a BB gun will do, but before you shoot at all... try opening a door and giving God time to work
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TK
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*To read Atticus Finch's speech about BB guns, click on the linked title of To Kill a Mockingbird in the fourth paragraph above. Scroll down the linked page once it opens. (For a change of pace and a jib-jab style pirate-friendly spoof on To Kill a Mockingbird click here. )
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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Give-Peace-A-Chants

Since I added a light "hawkish" theme to the posted story above then ended with the coo of a dove, perhaps I should explain that I agree... some global conflicts can solve themselves over time or be settled by a song amid the chaos. If taking a deep breath before taking action was all John Lennon [RIP] meant... I'm all for it. But if one side is chirping away about peace while the other side is swooping in attack, the nest will be taken by the bad birds in the end. As I see it, that's why the give-peace-a chants of the late Sixties seem naive in a post 9-11 world. The war against global terrorism is not another "Viet Nam."

The question we face this time around is not whether this war affects us... it is whether we are the good or the bad birds. The cynicism is nothing new. When the Viet Nam Conflict ended, it was the returning soldiers who were treated like grackles; this time, it's America's position, power, and motive that are being lampooned. Most of those breeding this national doubt are simply posturing for their own political purposes, but I dare say if Oprah Winfrey could posthumously interview a 9-11 terrorist-pilot, allowing him to explain why he swooped into our world, a frightening percentage of Americans would say, "Oh... I guess they were the good birds after all." I hope I'm wrong.

I believe we are on the right side in the War on Terrorism, but this conclusion is not based on our 'goodness' as a nation or our 'fitness' to export freedom. Unfortunately, from a moral perspective, it's harder to make a case for democracy's contrast to tyranny if that democracy is linked to moral decay. (e.g. Which is worse: a woman’s choice to be dressed in veils or her willingness to be undressed in vile men's entertainment?)

The cause is indeed complicated by a caricature of Western democracies reveling in unfettered 'freedom' which values the right to have choices more than the responsibility of choosing wisely. Even so, I believe that on our worst day, our system of government—not our moral example—reflects more of our Creator's ideals than tyrannical systems of fear.

The song "Freedom's Never Free" reminds us of those ideals and that our liberty was paid for with life. But there is another meaning to the paradox of that song title: In order to truly enjoy the best elements of Freedom, Freedom itself must be restricted (else why the need for STOP signs?), and thus "an authoritative moral code" ultimately prevails even in the face of those who are free to dismantle it. That is the cause of the constant tension between freedom and self-governance. Finding the tolerable balance is the story of law; understanding democracy's dependence on Truth is the story of God's law; and the denial of Truth is how the story ends.

When the glass on a nation's moral compass is fogged, its direction will likewise be clouded, but the day it denies that True North exists... it is hopelessly lost to the wind.
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TK

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Property

During the pioneering days of the Technological Revolution, my father was one of Michigan Bell's three most highly trained data technicians in an elite program called Datek. Shortly after retiring from MaBell in the late ‘80’s, his years of experience prompted Ross Perot (prior to Perot's odd political career) to hire him to help oversee EDS (Electronic Data Systems) installations in the greater Detroit area.

Throughout these twenty years of high-tech pioneering, Dad had the most low-tech weekend hobby one could imagine—pioneering in the old sense of the word. Dad had “cabin fever.” Not the kind that makes you want out of the house—the kind that makes you long for a cabin and the life of a lumber jack.

In 1968, at the prime age of thirty-eight, Dad bought a large tract of undeveloped timbered land in northern Macomb County (which was rural at the time). From that day on, the property was Dad’s hobby. We did not use the word “property” in its usual sense. Over time, it became the official name of our homestead before it was our home. Jane Eyre had Thornfield; Scarlet had Tara; Little Joe had the Ponderosa; and we had… The Property—has a nice ring to it. Don’t you agree?

Our friends would ask us if we wanted to do something on a Saturday, and we’d say, “Sorry, we can’t. We have to help Dad at The Property.” Often they decided to join us. Through the years we blazed trails, made a clearing, built a barn from logs, bridged the creek, dug a 30-feet-deep cistern well, and then built our house on the hill.

All of these projects are stories in themselves, but my point in mentioning them here is that most Saturdays during our teen years were summed up in the eight words: “We have to help Dad at The Property.” My older brothers and I felt like Shem, Ham, and Japheth, Noah’s three sons who helped him build the ark all those years. As was true with those boys, time spent with Dad paid off in the end. We learned the value of hard work, earned play, and the skills that make them fruitful and fun. And from the start, we, too, learned to love The Property. We liked it so much we named our dog “Property.” That’s a fact.

Here’s how it happened: After a typical, fifteen-hour Saturday (6:00AM to 9:00PM) of work on our house-in-progress, we’d call it a day and drive to the end of the winding two-track that connected our deep woods to civilization. Dad would stop at the gravel road, and one of us would walk-shut the long, log gate that blocked the entrance. I never told the others, but after they went off to college, walking the gate shut alone at night was creepy. The woods were dark and haunted with hoot owls. I always kept the dome light on by leaving my car door slightly open.

On one such cold and moonless night, I got out and hefted the gate shut, arm vaulted over it, and then froze in my tracks. Something big was rustling in the brush beside the car. In the dim light I saw a low shadow jump inside my open door. There in the driver’s seat, Dad jumped back in shock, slamming against his closed door…. then he laughed and waved me forward. Opening wide my door, I saw a tired Springer Spaniel pup sitting in my place. I smiled, but my heart was still keeping time to the eerie moment before.

You see, just a year or so before that night, our old Springer Spaniel, Duke, had died (well, sort of… Dad shot him. That sounds worse than it was. Duke was very old and often dozed off in our driveway. One night he was accidentally run over as we were loading the car for vacation—his hind legs were broken.* Other than the initial cry of pain, he barely whimpered in the remaining hour of his life. Dad wrapped him in a blanket, and drove him out to The Property. He courageously dug a grave beside the barn, and rested Duke comfortably in it (still wrapped for warmth). My brother Paul was there, and that’s how I know the next moment was courageous. There was long pause before the silence of the dark woods was shattered by the shot.

And now it was, on a cold, dark night, a few hundred yards from Duke’s grave, that this gangly puppy climbed into our car with eyes begging to belong. A long-lost stray, no doubt, the last of a litter that didn’t sell. With little thought, we took the puppy home.

The next morning, my five-year-old brother Jim could hardly believe his sleepy eyes. It was Jim who named the dog. “I know!” he announced, “Since we found him on The Property, let’s call him Property.” This followed the logic of calling our childhood parakeet “Alex" (after Alexander Graham Bell)* because we found him on the ladder rung of Dad’s old Bell Telephone truck. (Actually this was more like naming the bird "Truck," but we all agreed and Property it was.) We called him "Prop" for short except when we called him home. Then we sang out “Prah…ahhhh.. per teee..!” in that three-note Ricola drone.

While I was away my sophomore year of college, Prop made the move with my family from the crowded suburbs to the basement of our semi-finished house on The Property. Once we lived on the land, we simply called it home, and the name Property referred only to our dog. Through those years, when I returned home on college breaks, it was Prop who was the first to greet me in the middle of the night. He’d sit poised at the back door, till I stepped in whispering, “Hey, Prop. How you doin’ boy?” And he’d just look up at me, unable to comprehend time, unaware that we hadn’t seen each other for many months, as if to say, “That was sure a long walk. Take me with you next time.” [This is a photo of Prop and Dad around 1983.]

Later when I was a young teacher far from home, I taught Shakespeare and Drama and directed many school plays. When my students learned that back in Michigan I had a dog named Prop, they thought is was a “drama teacher thing”—you know, like a “prop” used in a play—and I must admit that would be a cool dog name for a stagehand’s pooch, but our Prop was dubbed for the land from which he sprang, and all the years of his life, we repeated his bewildering name to guests as if it were "Spot" and needed no explanation.
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*See my brother Dave's account of Duke and Alex in his response to Dream Pony back in December 2005 . If the link on the word "land" works, that is the tract of land on Sass Road now, but at the time none of the homes and development were there. TK Copyright, Patterns of Ink, 2006

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Knock

The house
that barely lit a lamp,
content to let the passers by
believe no one was home,
pulled back
at a knock upon the door,
pulled back
the cold curtain
in a trembling pinch,
pulled back an inch
in time
to lean toward the pane,
but not a soul was there—
just footprints
in the snow upon the stair.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A House in Winter's Hold

There’s a house on a hill in a woods somewhere,
in a woods where no one sees
(save those who pass with a lasting stare
at its glimmer of light through the trees).
In winter it’s a shadow of black
half-hidden by trees of gray,
and an arm of smoke

gropes from its stack
and waves with a lonely sway.


Then comes a whistling winter wind.
The house shuts tight

with a shoulder pinned
against a threatening door
and waits for what’s in store.


A blizzard is coming;

windows are humming;
to the wind’s tune

the shutters are drumming.
The house is clenched in Winter’s hold—
freezing, frosting, frightening cold,
bare tress bending to and fro
in the pageantry of snow:
sifting, blowing, drifting, growing,
Autumn’s reaped and Winter’s sowing—
sowing seeds of icy white;
snow sifts through the moonless night;
falling thick with crystal frills
skirting ‘round the timbered hills;
lacing lace on dry leaves curled,
still clung to branches bare;
and covering softly all the world
that the house on the hill

in the woods somewhere
will ever, ever know.

© Copyright March, 1978, TK, Patterns of Ink
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This was one of the first poems I ever wrote. (The title never seemed right but I left it all unrevised.) It was an experiment in rhythms. The setting was inspired in part by Frost's "An Old Man's Winter Night" and the knowledge that a part of my father could happily live that life... but the linew were based mostly on that fine but foreboding feeling that comes when a family is snowbound in a winter storm as we were more than once in our house on a hill deep in the woods (which, by the way, is not in the first picture. Also, our house never did get shutters, but they were part of Dad's original plan.)
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