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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, January 27, 2007


The little boy’s days
passed in unremarkable ways—
but began and ended with his face pressed down
in an old feather pillow
that was remarkable indeed.

Beneath its clean cotton case
was the dark, drool-stained ticking
that told the pillow’s true age
and why on damp days
it held the scent of time
and the dank dreams of others deep inside.

The boy knew only that he liked
the way the pillow held his head.
He was unaware that long ago
on a different bed his great-grandfather
had liked it for the same reason—
not ten, not twenty, but more than
thirty years before—
when it was purchased with a mate.
It was one of what had been a pair for two
‘til death left him to sleep alone.
And then he chose to use the pillow
that was hers and kept his own
on the high hidden shelf
of his corner closet.

By then the ticking had more than aged
—as all old pillows do.
Like a blotter, it was hopelessly imbued
with years of hair tonic,
and hot-night sweat,
and deep-sleep drool,
and toward the end…
the tears he did not touch for fear she'd know.
The pillow was a dark and blotchy parchment,
with all the variegated circle stains
of paper peeling from a mildewed wall.

(All this was hidden by the flannel case
that each night touched the little boy's face.)

Such an ancient, ugly sack of feathers
would never be deliberately given or received;
it would never be offered to a guest
or sold at a sale. For who would want to use it?

But life is full of things still kept
well past their being wanted,

and this was true of the old pillow
before it was the boy’s.

Just how the thing came to him
the boy would never know.
One morning he woke up and it was there.
He liked the way it slept;
he liked the way it kept the form
of his face even as he rose
to look back down at where he’d been.
He liked the dreams of flying
that it brought that first night
(and would bring for years to come).

But what happened was:
The day before the pillow came,
his family spent a warm fall day
at his Grandma’s.

Her house sat on the corner
of Forest and Riverview,
a tired tract of broken streets
and pocked and painted clapboard walls
with faded-curtain windows
and front-porch steps that stretched
toward the narrow walk
of broken concrete slabs that rolled unevenly
(like dominoes laid across a lawn),
heaved ever higher over time by the roots
of chestnut trees that lined the way,
their shade the only remnant of the better days
the neighborhood had seen.

(The boy did not know the house, in fact,
was and always had been
his great-grandfather’s
whose daughter (the boy's grandma)
and her husband moved in with
when hard times called them home.
So long before that now it seemed
Great Grandpa was the guest,
and those who knew the difference never said.)

To the boy it was simply Grandma’s house,
and for his siblings and cousins
it was a magic place to be.
There they were allowed to walk
without grown-ups to the tiny corner store
for ten cents worth of long paper strips
with countless, clinging candy bumps
in pastel rows for nibbling off like mice.
Turning back toward the house
(and passing it a short block the other way),
they went to the park to play
and roll down grassy hills
'til someone called them home.

After all that and more that day…
the little boy was sitting on the front porch
listening to the melody of older voices
talking in the dark...
and fell asleep
right there on the gray painted planks.
They laughed when they saw him
lying in the glow of the dresser lamp
beyond the front bedroom window.
His great grandfather slipped away
(to that lamp-lit room inside)
and came out with a pillow
that had been out of sight and mind for years.
“Here. Put this under his head at least.”
They laughed again.
The pillow had no case, but in the dark,
its age spots went unnoticed.

When it was time to go,
the pillow floated with him
in his father's arms
from the old house to the car
and once at home up to his bed—
all without the glare of light—
and through it all the boy was
dead to the world as only children sleep.

From then on, the pillow was the boy's to keep
(not that anyone but a four-year-old
would claim it as his own).
But even more remarkable is
that this heavy feather pillow remained
with him for more than twenty years—
(equaling the first half of its use).

It was on his bed when…
they moved from the country to the city;
still there through grade school;
still there when his little brother was born;
still there when he did paper routes at dawn.
still there when they built the barn
and house on worn-out Saturdays.

It went with him to summer camps
and road-trips far away
and eventually...
to college covered in a starchy new case.
There at night it was a touch of home
and brought him sleep
through love and loss and learning, too.
But what he never knew…
for no one ever does…
is that the pillow held and shared forgotten dreams
and kept him close to the past
and to things forever passing
and to those who gave them meaning.

Even when he married
the pillow was still kept
with no more thought
than had been given through the years.
But marriage is a time
for good and new and matching things,
and not for the inexplicable artifacts of life—
like this the nastiest pillow ever seen
that for decades avoided scrutiny
but whose sudden unsightliness
leapt out each time
they changed the sheets.
It was highly recommended not to keep—
and actually brought the man
a laugh in letting go—
that day the pillow passed
in some unremarkable way
like all the unremarkable days
it had absorbed.
© Copyright 2007, TK, Patterns of Ink

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These are my great grandparents (Wesley and Lura, who once shared a pair of heavy feather pillows).They built a new house on Forest and Riverview in Port Huron (circa 1915) where they raised my grandma (Charlotte) and her brother Bud. My grandma got married in the late 1920's, and times being what they were, moved back home with her husband to ride out the Great Depression, My mother was born in that house. Her sister and brother soon followed. With two households and three generations under one roof, My mom called her grandparents Mom and Dad (since that is what her mother called them). She called her own parents Mumma and Daddy. "Mom" Collinge died in 1949, about two years before my parents were married. My great grandfather, died about 20 years later, never having moved from his house. My grandparents remained there until my grandpa died in 1975, (Grandma had lived in her childhood home roughly 60 years.) Thirty-two years later, my grandmother is still very alert and active. We all celebrated her 95th birthday with her last July and New Years Eve with her last month. (Oh...It was about 1981 when a certain "fictitious" pillow was discarded.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Blue Skies...Sepia Days

It’s cold season here in West Michigan. I escaped for a couple weeks but got ambushed over the weekend. I spent the day finishing some demographic reports for our re-accreditation process. I should add two words to that “I spent the day…” at home. Believe me, it’s for the best. My youngest daughter is also home with a bad cold (along with 34 of her school mates according to one of the calls from my office). Julie made homemade chicken and noodles—they really hit the spot. What a woman!

I’ve said all this to say that late this afternoon, I put my work away and watched a movie with my daughter. It’s called Dear Frankie and is set in a foggy seaport village in Scotland, which evoked images of the unseen shore in “The Herring Net” (see post below). In fact, much of the film is drenched in the muted sepia tones of that painting. I won’t spoil the film by talking more about it. You can watch the trailer here, and read a review here.

What I wanted to point out is that the video cover (above) chooses to depict a bright and beautiful day like the one in Winslow Homer’s "Sailing the Catboat” (at right, a water-color painted in 1875) even though when you see the waterfront scenes of the film they are nothing like that picture.

The film's visual tones are much more like “A Fair Wind” (Homer's 1876 "oil" version of a very similar subject with a very different mood). The film maker used the somber sepia to tell the Dear Frankie story, but the graphic artist evidently thought a mood change would help get the video rental off a shelf at Blockbuster. You can't tell a video from its cover. In this case, the excellent story needs no artificial backdrop.

I don't think I would have noticed this blue sky manipulation before writing the post below. And that post came only after I saw a small etching of “The Herring Net” in an antique store in Whitehall last week. Seeing the etching, I remembered my paint-by-number disaster from nearly forty years ago. That’s what I love about writing and art and memory—they find strange times to come knocking. The older I get the more I’m glad to be home when they call—especially when I'm down with a cold.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Herring Net

My parents used to surprise us at Christmas with things we didn't ask for. I'm not talking about socks or underwear—they did that, too—I'm talking about educational gifts like Erector Sets or a tool box or a Gibson portable chemistry lab.

On Christmas morning 1967, I unwrapped a large paint-by-number blank "canvas" of Winslow Homer's "The Herring Net" (which I used to call "Two Guys in a Boat"). I wish I could say the picture above is a photograph of my work, but it's not.

On one of those sad days toward the end of Christmas break, I decided to paint by number until my masterpiece was done. Using a wooden chair covered in newspaper as an easel, I set up a studio in our finished basement and began the task.

The slow-drying oils were not on a crusted pallet with a thumb hole, of course. They were in little numbered flip-cap tubs in egg-crate rows to avoid any possible confusion. My tongue curled up over my upper lip in concentration. I dabbed and dragged the brush methodically through the morning and well past lunch, unaware of the time.

Every so often, I'd step back hoping to see the drama and tension of that piece coming through. I finished the boat, the fishermen, and portside water and hurried my way to the starboard corner, saving the boring brown sky and detailed fish in the net for last.

I walked backwards to the far wall the basement, squinting toward my work. Even from a distance, the painting looked nothing like the picture on the box. It was a pedantic mosaic of the artist's brush strokes. Not quite pointillism; not quite impressionism... [terms I didn't know at the time]. It was ugly! How could that be? I had followed the instructions precisely.

Numb with disappointment, I decided to quit for the day and leaned the painting against the front legs of my "easel chair" to begin cleaning up. Bending over to put the paints in the box, I accidentally bumped the chair and the painting fell like buttered bread, face down.

My heart sank. I said nothing, but my left brain cried out to its right, "Ruined! Ruined!" as my trembling fingers tried to raise the tacky board from the smooth tile. It slid a little as my fingertip pried under it. "Ruined," my right brain sighed back in agreement.

Lifting the board, I saw the mess on the floor first. "Ohhhh, nooooo," I whined out loud. The wet paint left a speckled Rorschach inkblot on the waxed checkerboard tiles. I was pretty sure the vague splatter was a picture of my dad kicking my butt. Leaning the picture back against the legs, I ran to get a rag.

[My dad eventually became a calm Ward Cleaver-type of guy, but at this time he still reacted badly to broken windows, dented Bar-B-Q grills, misplaced tools—you name it—and I wasn't sure how seeing a huge blotch of paint on the floor would score on his emotional Richter Scale (no matter how sad the story behind it).]

The floor cleaned up fine, but the picture looked smeared and distorted like the world does through a rainy window. My brother Dave came downstairs as I was kneeling before my loss.

"Cool..." he quipped nonchalantly in passing. "That's more like it?"

"Very funny, Dave. I didn't do it on purpose. You haven't even started yours. It's harder than you think."

"First of all, I have started mine. Second of all, I'm serious. I like it. It looks better than what I saw at lunchtime. If you follow the instructions, it looks like a coloring book. Just use the lines to get the basic idea. Then paint it how you want. That's what I'm doin'.”

He went in the furnace room and came out with his painting. It was also a Homer seascape, but it looked much more like an original work than mine had before the accident. “See what I mean? Don’t paint in the lines. Whatever you did to make it look like that...you should do that to whole thing."

His suggestion would be hard to implement, but looking at his painting, I knew he was right. It’s difficult to re-create creative processes. Drama and tension and emotion cannot be precisely traced. Just as a waltz is more than its 3/4 time, painting the sea cannot be done by numbers. It's a dance of method and motion—it’s a rise of the deep reaching up into light that’s lost again in the brine.

That sky is not a pattern of #14, #17, and #18. It’s the backdrop of time, stretching from past to present, with a hint of the lingering night that lives in a morning fog...and the faint tea-stain of smoke from a distant shore... and foreboding clouds so heavy they press down the backs of the fisherman, those faceless forms whose lives and livelihoods roll with the forces around them.

Homer's eye and brush captured all that on canvas, but I didn't see it at the time. I was too busy looking at instructions and numbers. My brother's observation was dead-on. My effort came closer to real painting —and better replicated the reality of life—after it fell flat on its face and was picked up.

I don't recall what happened to that paint-by-number. I do know I never finished it, but thinking back on it today, I'm not sure art is ever really done—even if done by us it's never quite done with us.

Contrast the tone of Homer's "The Herring Net" with his water color "Sailing the Catboat."
Below is an unrelated carry-over comment and reply from last week's "Hign Noon."
It was separated from the above post while republishing.

Monday, January 15, 2007

High Noon:
Follow Up on "A Better Life"

A previous post on 1-7-07 prompted some interesting comments and questions from Obsession. As that cautionary film's disclaimer says, the radical Muslims are a minority and vastly outnumbered by those who would prefer to live in peace. Unfortunately, we know from 9-11 that terrorists are willing to borrow the freedom they hate in order to make a statement against it. This makes life more difficult for non-militant Muslims who choose to practice their faith in non-Muslim countries.

I'm writing this on Martin Luther King Jr. Monday. This weekend, I've heard many references to King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This is interesting in light of a BBC documentary I watched last week called "The Power Of Nightmares" By Adam Curtis. (It's on Google Video here. It's in 3 one-hour parts but worth the time.) The premise (though perhaps a generalization) is that political leaders have lost the ability to cast dreams and have resorted to leading through fear.

“In a society that believes in nothing, fear becomes the only agenda. While the 20th Century was dominated by a conflict between a free-market right and a Socialist left….at least they believed in something. Whereas, what we are seeing now [post Cold War] is a society that believes in nothing [and is therefore] particularly frightened by people who believe in anything….” (from The Power of Nightmares, Part III)

There is useful information in Curtis' presentation, but I disagree with his premise and many of his conclusions—especially that the fear of global terrorism stems from fear of a misunderstood religion in general. I think it comes more precisely from an understood fear of random death. His treatise (Part I) did, however, help me better understand the long and ironic "prologue" of what some call Jihad and why much of Europe and the Arab world is afraid to speak out against the radicalism behind it.

He also points out that Jihadists who oppose the West (including Westernized Muslim nations) do so because freedom leads to individualism, materialism, and selfish, vulgar living.

In my February 19, 2006 post I said...

"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 [if such were possibe]. 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.... [Curtis would say "there's the rub," and it's why Americans must better model the values promoted at TFFABL.] Freedom itself must be restricted (else why the need for STOP signs?)....That is the cause of the constant tension between freedom and self-governance....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."

I would suggest that the poor moral example set by the West is a result of man's depravity not his freedom. It is my personal belief that the values at the heart of a better life were established by God and cannot be maintained while rejecting Him. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom for those who understand His gospel, but this understanding cannot be forced upon anyone. That mistake has been made by many religions—including Christianity—through the centuries.

As in the 7th's post, I can't say that either side is fighting "for God," but I will say a better life or a bitter life depends on victory over terrorism because fear of the unknown brings out the worst in mankind.

Iraq is the current focal point of this clash of ideals. The goal is victory not peace. As outsiders, the Coalition cannot hope to settle the ancient civil wars in that region. (We didn't start and cannot finish those.) On the other hand, it must give the new Iraqi government a fighting chance against the insurgents who wish it to fail. Everyone wants the war to be over, but most agree that we cannot simply cut and run.

This war has resembled High Noon from the start. (Rent it and see if you agree.) But the role of sheriff must change to the Iraqi people and its leaders. The insurgents may hate the West, and the Iraqi people do not need to be Westernized, but they must understand the courage of that Western when it comes time for the Coalition Forces to withdraw. For all the obvious reasons outsiders cannot remain indefinitely as the sheriff. Self-government must ultimately be self-maintained. [As seen in this June 2007 update.]
Because the intent of this follow up was to clarify these thoughts--not to initiate or prolong this topic on my blog--I have chosen to close comments on this post for the time being. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Walker Road

I have a friend I’ve never met—
don’t even know his name—
don’t even know if anything
about us is the same.

We meet most every day it seems
about the same ol’ place.
I know it’s him from
little more than glimpses of his face.

Our eyes have never met for long.
We’ve not exchanged a word.
I speak. He speaks, too, I think,
but neither voice is heard.

He doesn’t know where I live,
but I’ve seen him at his gate.
If he’s stepping out I’m early;
stepping in I’m late.

You see, he walks his dog like clockwork
on the road I take to school,
repeating each step, each pause,
each turn, each wave it seems as a rule.

On dark snowy morns he ambles—
even before the plow—
in boots and a hood and tan cover-alls
that match the coat of his chow.

I’m confident he knows my car.
Each time we intersect
he raises his small flashlight,
and I blink my brights in respect…

to patterns of life, though routine
they show faithfulness just the same.
I’ve learned this from the walking man
though I’ve never learned his name.

T.K. © Copyright 2007, Patterns of Ink

Update: Last weekend I needed a personal sample of rhyming "quatrains," a form I don't often write in. So this morning, when I passed this faithful walker and his dog (as I do everyday in the early morning darkness on Walker Road) these thoughts came to mind and I squeezed them into "form" (which is why I don't often write in quatrains). Because I opened the building this morning, I had time to post them before morning meeting.

At the end of a long day, I remembered the lines, and it occurred to me to share them with him. I made a copy and dropped it in his road-side newspaper box on the way home.

A few hours later my phone rang, "Hello, Tom. This is Ralph..." the call began. He thanked me for what I wrote. We visited for several minutes—one topic led to another and neither of us was in a hurry. I learned that he's lived in the area all his life most of which he was a milkman for the old Farr Dairy just past where he turns around with his dog each day. (The dairy has long-since closed and was converted into a commercial wood-working shop there on Farr Road.). Come to find out...I know Ralph's daughter (and grandson, of both he is rightfully proud). It's a small world—and sometimes it becomes pleasantly smaller.

I'm so glad he looked up my number and called me. He wondered why I wrote it today. I really had no idea why something I see so often suddenly seemed noteworthy and why it occurred to me to share such a quickly-written piece with someone so unexpectedly. I've never done anything like that before. It's strange how seemingly insignificant threads of life intersect—and why and where and how? Those were my thoughts when Ralph thanked me again and said, "You couldn't have picked a better time to do this... today is my 80th Birthday."

(Sometimes life is sort of like a Providential Twilight Zone. =)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Better Life

This afternoon I was watching the play-offs, and a PSA (public service announcement) came on in the middle of the endless beer commercials. It was like a Hallmark ad, but instead of selling cards, it was selling values. Randy Travis was singing about a truck driver in the middle of nowhere who decides to remain faithful to his wife. See it here. (Scroll down to the frame called "Truck stop" and click on the your media player.)

While you're there, check out some of the other short spots (30-60 seconds long). It's a user-friendly site brimming with inspiration.

The FAQ link of The Foundation for a Better Life (TFFABL) makes it clear that they are "not affiliated with any... religious organizations" yet it clearly espouses a worldview and set of values. I doubt that the dollars behind TFFAL are from atheists trying to fan the divine spark of humanity, but I could be wrong. Perhaps the foundation consists of private members of a very particular religious group trying to appear non-sectarian in order to reach a larger audience and accomplish a "greater good." Either way, overtly leaving God out of the equation makes man sound pretty capable without Him (a la Pelagianism, explained here). Which raises some questions...

Can actions and attitudes be based only on "personal accountability... regardless of religion..."? As important as human accountability is, can it replace accountability to God? Can values survive in the vacuum of subjective thought? The answers to these questions are important, but my intent is not to start a theological debate.

I wish rather to point out that these values are not "religion-neutral" at all. They appeal to us because they are rooted in the truth the Gospel.

Virtually* every value on the TFFABL site springs from Biblical principles and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I'm confident that I could footnote them with a Bible passage (in context). In terms of self-government (salvation is another discussion), they do indeed represent a better life even for those who do not put faith in the source. For that, I like these TV spots.

Question: I've browsed through the Koran. Can Muslims likewise show how the values modeled in the TFFABL TV spots are explicitly taught in the Koran? (I'm not talking about any parts of the Koran taken from the Bible. Since Mohammed and his writings came at least 600 years later. I'm talking more specifically about the words attributed to their "prophet.") I'm just wondering. Look for yourself. If you find similar values there, what is the ratio of such teachings to the numerous calls for jihad and death to those who believe otherwise? It would be encouraging to hear influential non-radical Muslims explain the compatibility of our beliefs in a pluralistic society.

Make no mistake, the war in Iraq is a clash of values. Ironically, it is primarily between the non-geographic strain of radical Islam that would force its "church" on the State and a nation whose "separation of Church and State" has made it forget the source of its high ideals. Only time will tell how well "self government" in Iraq (or here for that matter) can function without a foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics.

I'll not presume to say either side is fighting for God, but I will say that a better life or a bitter life hangs in the balance of victory. If you doubt it, click here, but to fully understand a differing view you may also which to click here.
(TFFABL also have a billboard campaign that includes this reminder from WWII.)
This post generated many thoughtfully expressed questions and comments and agreement from readers, but due to the nature of the internet, I have chosen to close them for the time being. Thank you. T.K.

Stick to Your Guns

The day after Goldwater got trounced in 1964, the boys went back to the normal routine in the bathroom at school. I took some ribbing but never once thought, “I guess their parents were right and mine were wrong since they voted for the loser.” Dad never told me he was picking the winner. He listened to the speeches (including Reagan’s) and told me his choice.

It wasn’t about winning; it was a case of “sticking to your guns.” Dad used to say that whenever our conviction or choice was out of step with those around us. “Stick to your guns” was his four-word version of “What’s popular is not always right; and what’s right is not always popular.” His eyes smiled with resolve whenever he said those four words.

After a brief sabbatical, Goldwater reclaimed his Senate seat for Arizona. He served a total of 30 years and retired in 1987. His vacated seat was filled by a man named John McCain. Like Goldwater, McCain is a maverick and has enjoyed media doting for several years, but he is also a hawk in support of a strong finish to the ugly business of war in Iraq. Because of that he'd better begin preparing for slings and arrows from all sides, which will in turn make him even more cantankerous (like his predecessor). I have flat-out disagreed with both Goldwater (now deceased since 1997) and McCain many times through the years, but I would say that both men’s careers reflect what it means to “stick to your guns.” For that they will be remembered with or without a presidency.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year!

We had a great time celebrating with our extended family last night. My 95-year-old Grandmother was with us. My Mom and Bob were there, all of my siblings, and all but two of my nieces and nephews were there-- 27 of us on hand to bring in 2007. It was great!

While we were passing the evening, the late President Ford's weekend ceremonies came up. It's been interesting watching the coverage and historic "rewind" of his public life. He is the last living member of the Warren Commission (that investigated the Kennedy assassination), and he helped close the lid on Watergate. In that sense, he sort of has a behind-the-scenes role in the years I've been studying and writing about of late. At the end of these paid respects he will be laid to rest here in Grand Rapids (just thirty minutes away).

Speaking of Boys' Life

The previous post included some aspects of boys' life we generally don’t discuss. The theme played on the title of the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. President Ford was the only "Eagle Scout" to ever serve as president. I remember he used to do a commercial when their campaign slogan was "Scouting Rounds a Guy Out." That was back in the common-sense days when the Boy Scouts didn't have to worry about law suits from the ACLU for mentioning God or maintaining decent lifestyle expectations for those who would choose to join or work with the boys in their organization. Enough said about that...

My brothers were Cub Scouts when I was too young to officially join, but since Mom was a den-mother, I got to hang around. My cousin Mike stayed in the Boy Scouts through high school and, like President Ford, earned Eagle Scout rank (less than 5% of all scouts do so). We went up to Bad Axe for the ceremony. Years earlier, our two families often went camping and SCUBA diving together up in Canada. Years later, after a day of diving, Mike was killed by a drunk driver. He had just finished his freshman year of college. My brothers and I and our male cousins were pallbearers. I've often thought of him and missed him through the years…and did again today. [Some links updated on 1-2-07.]

Offshore Jones Act
Offshore Jones Act Counter