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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

Monday, September 29, 2008

Unsettled, Chapter 7: "The Virtue of Reality"

In the spring of 1993, Julie and I took a group of high school seniors to St. Louis. [Venue for Thursday night's V.P. debate, but this is not a political post.] One of the highlights of the trip was shopping at Union Station. At the turn of the 20th Century, it was the busiest passenger train station in the world. It was in Union Station that the famous picture of newly-elected Harry Truman was taken, holding up the Chicago Tribune that got it wrong. [A picture that somehow reminds me of John McCain, but this is not a political post.] As I was saying... the last train pulled out of Union Station in 1978, and seven years later it reopened as a huge mall. In fact, at the time it was “the largest adaptive re-use project in the United States.”

This rich history of St. Louis Union Station was lost to the students with us that year. All the buzz of the day was about a store specializing in “virtual reality” equipment. Everyone including me spent quite a while in the little shop. I had never heard of virtual reality, and was amazed at how this new technology made users feel as if they were virtually a part of the computer-generated "reality."
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Before that day in St. Louis, I'd seen a few video games. Pong and Pac-Man had been out for a decade, but this was different. Virtual reality attempted to draw the player's body and mind into an alternate world. Since then, of course, interactive video games have become even more realistic, and the games have gone from malls and arcades to the living rooms and bedrooms of the American home. “It has been estimated that 82% of children aged 8 to 18 live in households that have video games and that the average playing session exceeds an hour.” Ask any teacher, and they can name many children who spend more than three hours a day in “virtual reality” games.

Virtual reality is big business. The "world-wide market [is] expected to grow to $46.5 billion by 2010." The effects of time spent in front of video games--isolation, poor grades, lack of exercise, violence, etc.-- have been the subject of endless studies too numerous to discuss here. My only point in bringing up the subject is to say that long before “virtual reality” came along, my father was an advocate of the virtue of reality. By that I mean he encouraged us to really work when we worked and to really play when we played.

Whenever we went to the bowling alley, for instance, some of the kids would start playing pin-ball at the machines lined up between the ball racks. We’d look at Dad to see if maybe he’d spring a quarter to let us play. He didn’t shake his head "no," because he didn’t want to cast judgment on the other parents who were letting their kids play. He’d just flash a subtle frown, narrow his eyes, and draw his head back ever so slightly as if to say, “You don’t want to waste money on that.” Which was true. We wanted to waste his money on it. "Pick out a ball and let's bowl," he's say. Through these quiet cues, Dad convinced us that arcade games were (A) not as much fun as playing in "real life" and (B) a waste of money.
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"Get outside and play!" was the mantra of most parents in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. So we did just that. On Saturdays and nearly every day in the summer, we played from sunrise to sunset. We did REAL things, like get up early on "junk day" to ride our bikes up and down the streets in search of treasures by the curb. We we're not into "recycling" (a word we'd not yet heard of), we were simply into junk!

On a good day, we could find enough stuff to put together two go-carts. These were not true go-carts with motors. Oh, no, these were the kind your friend pushed from behind until he was exhausted and begged for his turn to drive. Ka-dump-bumb, ka-dump-bump, ka-dump-bump" went the wheels in a rhythm with the cracks of the sidewalk. A week or two of of such reality, and the go-carts began to fall apart, and eventually they ended up beside our own trash cans on "junk day," when kids from some other neighborhood, rising early, would take the parts and give them new life. [Photo above: That's Dave and Paul at the far left and me in "#12" wearing cowboy boots. Second photo: I'm in the cart and goggles. Circa 1965, 3 years prior to the land.].
The virtue of reality is that it requires true imagination and energetic play. When night fell and the street lights came on, we played a game called C-A-R, which we made up. [I wrote about it a few years ago.] Much of the imagination of those days I credit to my brother Dave.
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When Dad bought the land to build our "someday home," our spare time took us more and more out to the property where Dad kept us busy, but there was always plenty of free time to play, too. What boy doesn‘t dream of having his own “forest“ to run wild in? And whenever we had “stand around” time, Dad didn’t mind that we disappeared into the woods for hours.
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Sometimes Dad would come home from his Bell job in Detroit and want to go out to the property on a weeknight. We'd be downstairs lifting weights (the Sears Ted Williams set we'd gotten for Christmas), and Dad would say, "You know, boys, you can get just as much exercise digging out stumps as you can lifting weights." [This was when we were harvesting trees for the barn. The tractor was often lifted off the ground as we wrestled a stump.]

Real work, Dad always said, was better than working out with weights in the basement. If the firewood needed splitting, he'd say, "You know, you can get just as strong by chopping wood and splitting logs as you can lifting those weights." We did a lot of ax work. This was Dad's version of the virtue of reality.
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When asked on a Monday at school “Wudja do this weekend?” I was always proud to say, “We felled some trees to make some logs to build our barn”? This kind of work was so cool that most of our friends began coming out to work with us. Between all the hours of hard work with Dad there was always time for play. Dad made sure of that, for watching us boys from his perch on the tractor seat or high in the log rafters of the barn reminded him that his dream was real.
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In winter, he'd take a break from his work and join us on the sledding hill or skating on the frozen creek, but after a while it would be time to go back to work. Finding the balance between hard work and vigorous play is one of the greatest gifts parents can pass on to their children.
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And just in case, you're wondering if the virtue of reality made us lose our imaginations as we grew older, I'll close with this scene from "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." My sister had fostered in her brothers a love for classic musicals, and because this scene contains a soothing song that my brothers and I knew by heart and because we sometimes sang this song while chopping our own wood, I just had to include it in this post.

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I've heard it said that "If you remember the Seventies, you did not live them," implying that most of my generation was into drugs and doing things they'd just as soon forget about. The statement is either an hyperbole or over-generalization, because I'm hear to tell you two things: (A) My brothers and friends and I remember those days vividly, and (B) the virtue of reality is far better than any altered state of mind man has ever conceived of.
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Yes, I just ended a sentence, paragraph, and post with a preposition.
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The last three links in this post take you to posts that could rightly be rewritten as chapters in this series, but I decided to just link to them instead. Otherwise, I'll never get to the part about digging the well which is my favorite chapter. But if you read only one of the links, please make it this one which crystallizes everything I've said here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Denouement

There is a connectedness
of all things in life’s mix
as invisible and inexplicable
as the hidden helix
that dictates
pug or Roman nose
and tells flesh
where a freckle goes.
But some oracles decree
the mix is wholly man’s,
the product of unholy chance
with no design or plans,
that the meaning of it all
(if it's there to be) depends
on their unraveling for us
the knotted odds and ends
of life as if we're cosmic play things--
a tangled mess of Slinky springs
wrapped in time and yo-yo strings
'round marionettes and rubber slings
and long-forgotten building blocks,
connected, yes, but hopelessly alone
in some celestial toy-box.
© Copyright -2008, TK, Patterns of Ink

The French word Denouement is pronounced "dā-nü-mäⁿ." It literally means the "unraveling" or untying, but as a literary term it means "the final outcome of a story," what everyone finds out is true in the end.

When I was a kid, the four of us kept most of our toys in a toy-box that my father made. He'd designed it to look like a treasure box, complete with skull and crossbones. [Seen here.] As my older brothers moved on to other things, the box was opened less and less. But when I was twelve, my little brother Jim was born, and since I was closest to him in age, my interest in toys quickly returned, and the toy-box became important again. In those years of neglect, however, part of it became a tangled mess not unlike the toys depicted in these lines. I pulled out a Slinky and with it came my sling shot, yo-yo, paddle ball, a jump rope and string puppet all wadded up in a snag of toys. Last week, I brought the old toy-box home from Mom's house, and this morning as I was putting it and other things away, I remembered that wad of toys and I wanted to write some lines about how things in life are "connected" and work together in time according to God's plan. Many people believe instead that the world and all the life upon it is the result of random chance. What better way to illustrate these conflicting worldviews than by contrasting the design of DNA with a tangled mess of neglected toys. It's a stretch, I know, but if the poem doesn't make sense, just come back for Chapter 7: "The Virtue of Reality," which I'll try to post by Monday.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Note to Chronicle Readers:

Welcome to Patterns of Ink. This post was inserted Wednesday when I learned that a story many months in the making was on the front page of today's Muskegon Chronicle. It's about the medical mission documentary we made:."The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand: A Timeless Mission."





The above videos and several others may be viewed in sequence at the Patterns of Ink Youtube Channel. (For newspaper readers who may be new to blogs, I'll explain that if you click on highlighted words, they'll take you to a new page.) Navigating blog archives can be tricky. Posts appear in reverse-chronological order. Scroll "down" to the earliest post and then read "up" toward the more recent posts. Various entries about Calvary's Medical Missions Trip to Northern Thailand are in the January Archives, but here is the post with the most pictures of the Hill Tribe people.

The article mentioned that I came home early when my mother's long bout with cancer came to an end. I made it home just in time to speak. She wanted to know about the trip,and talked about it for an hour or so. The next day she slipped into that long indefinite farewell when holding hands is the final form of letting go.

Thank you for stopping by. Thailand is not the typical topic here at Patterns of Ink, but if you like personal essays, poems, and stories... feel free to drop by and read whenever you like.
Also feel free to call the school if you have any questions about enrollment in an outstanding K-12 program fully accredited through Northcentral Accreditation and ACSI.

NOTE: I'd like to thank Theresa Taylor Williams of the Chronicle for initiating the article and for her hours of genuine interest in our interviews. I'd also like to thank Chronicle photographer Cory Morse who took equal interest in the story while in our school building last week. Back in the 80s and 90s when I was a classroom teacher working weekends and summers as a videographer, I tried hard to remain unnoticed and in the background. Because of that, it felt a little strange to be the focus of this story, but I do thank the Chronicle for helping to spread the good news about this medical outreach to the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Last Day of Summer

In case you missed it, today was the last full day of Summer. My siblings and I were talking about this as we said good-bye in the driveway last night. The work-day in Mom's house went very well. We got a lot done, and set a date for another day to pick up where we left off. It was a wonderful day. My brother-in-law, Jack, is an excellent cook, and he made a pot roast with onions and carrots. Mmmmmm...... My sister-in-law Jayne brought home-made bread and pies for dessert. It was delicious and we ate there at Mom's dining room table. It was great. Then we got back to work and continued well into the night. Thanks for organizing it, Kathy!

Because I live 3.5 hours away and everyone else lives within a half hour, and since I had no passengars along with me, we loaded up some larger odds-and-end things in my van. I brought home the old toy box that Dad made 55 years ago. We divvied up the tools that he used to keep on the tool board in the picture. I plan to hang it in the garage and between my own tools and some I brought home, I should be able to cover most of the red outlines. This will be the perfect "organizational tool" for me. I tend to be very visual, and this will help me keep tools where I can find them. Then in the left of the picture is the long-lost Duncan Phyfe. The wooden banana-peel pedestal is long gone. It's "ruined" by all standards of furniture and "antiques," but the story about it, and the thread it provided for Mom and I as I wrote those many chapters last fall is what gives the old table with the 2-by-8 legs its value to me. Hefting it in and out of the van brought back vivid memories of Dad's horrifying experience that night in 1951.

After Julie and Natalie and I unloaded these items and some boxes from the van in the heat of the late afternoon, it felt so warm I got the urge to go for a swim in Lake Michigan. It's been about a month since we've been to the beach, and what with fall coming tomorrow, I begged everyone to join me for just a quick dip. No takers, but hey, it's only four miles away, so I jumped in my trunks, grabbed a towel and before you know it I was swimming in the refreshingly cool waters. There were no waves at all and only about three other people in the water where hundreds were just a couple weeks ago.

That swim reminded me of the way Dad and us boys often finished a day of work in the summer. We'd be working hard and he'd say, "Tell you what, boys, let's say we sweat it out two more hours and then go up to the river." [It was the St. Clair river, there beneath the Blue Water Bridge where 20 years before he'd swim across to Canada on his lunch break and Mom picked up down stream.] We, of course, loved the idea and worked all the harder in anticipation of the cold blue water.

This picture was taken circa summer of 1979 on just such a day, but by then Mom, Dad, Jim, and I were living in the house (with portions still unfinished and the garage and breezeway yet started). Kathy, Paul, and Dave were married. I'm on the left, then Paul, Dave, Dad, and Jim. Dad was around 50, and could still out-swim all of us.

I know I said the next chapter would be here tonight or tomorrow night, but I had a choice between writing and swimming on the last day of summer... I went swimming. (I did not look like the kid in the picture, but I felt like him.) Believe it or not, my choice ties in perfectly with what Dad taught us in the next chapter: "The Virtue of Reality."

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Silence in Mom's House

I look around Mom’s living room and eight Emily Dickinson lines I taught for fifteen years in my American Literature class come to mind from memory.

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.
The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.
.....Emily Dickinson

This is not the morning after death--unless I were to spell it m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g, and even then I only sense the solemness not the sadness I have some days. I’m sitting to write from Mom's davenport for perhaps the last time. Tomorrow, bright and early, all of my siblings are meeting here at Mom’s house to work--sorting, cleaning, hauling. You know... "the bustle in the house."
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My sister and sisters-in-law have already done a great deal of the work, and the house looks somewhat like an estate sale in progress. Most of the horizontal surfaces are full of knick-knacks, framed pictures, and what not. But for the moment, we’re not planning an estate sale. We’re just sorting and organizing so family members can pick keepsakes, donate to charities, etc. When that's done there may still be so much left that we will decide to have a sale. The five of us will talk it over as we work tomorrow.

I missed Picture Day at scnool today to travel here from west Michigan. Maybe I'll just slip last year's picture in the yearbook. Don't you wish not aging was that simple?

My sister Kathy and I worked up in the walk-up attic all afternoon. Our final job was going through Mom’s cedar chest. It was packed to the top, but the strata had no particular chronological order. In a random sort of way, each layer revealed the history of the 20th Century according to Mom. Things in the mix dated from before her birth to the mid ‘90’s. There did not seem to be anything inside from recent years. Maybe she stopped gathering momentos for the cedar chest after Dad died in '95. Or maybe it's because the attic steps became harder for her to climb. Or maybe it's because the chest was buried in seasonal decorations, making it hard to open the lid.

Though neither of us had been in the cedar chest for many years, we remembered what most of the items were and why they meant something to Mom. There were tons of cards and letters from us kids when we were away at college. We sorted items into five piles, according to who they were most connected to. There was a faded envelope with a lock of Jimmy’s hair from his first haircut. The string of tiny pearls Dad gave Mom for their wedding. Mom’s wedding dress (and left-over printed napkins from the reception). An old Bible of Dad's (six others are on the bed downstairs). Paul’s Cub Scout neckerchief. All of our report cards. [I got a D in English in 7th grade! Yikes. Don’t tell anyone.]

The two most surprising treasures I found were: A United States Savings Bond for $25 in my name from July 1974. It was a graduation gift from my Uncle Roy in Pennsylvania. I will scan it, photograph it for nostalgia sake, and take it to the bank. I wonder how much it’s worth. Oh, I forgot… I can probably Google it. I‘ll do that tonight at my sister‘s house. [So I Googled it after writing this and found these two facts. “E Bonds issued December 1965 - June 1980 earn interest for 30 years.” And better yet the semi-annually accrued APR varies from 3.98% to 6%. That means it didn't quit earning interest until 2004. So that $25 graduation gift should be worth .... hmmm... let me think. Did I mention I also got a D in 7th grade math ?]

The other treasure was far more valuable to me: a handwritten scrap of paper that I knew existed because Mom told me about it when we wrote the Duncan Phyfe story last year, but I FOUND IT IN THE CEDAR CHEST. You can't see me, but I'm smiling. What could make me smile that big? Dad’s handwritten expense log of their honeymoon. Do you remember the chapter called “The Hotel’s Name is Long Forgotten.” Well guess what? It was called the Greystone Hotel. Remember how Dad asked Mom to stand back as he “checked in” so he could try to get a deal and then the room was a dump but then the desk clerk gave them the “honeymoon suite” for the same price? Well guess how much the room was… $6.25 in 1951. So just in case any of you thought I was making this stuff up--now you know. I can prove it. Dad kept records of everything. By the way, I'll be bringing home the Duncan Phyfe myself for real this weekend.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to get away from school today so only Kathy knew I might be coming. As it turns out all of my siblings have other engagements tonight. Even Julie and Natalie had engagements that kept them back in west Michigan. So I'm sitting in Mom's living room alone. I’d hoped to spend some personal quiet time here in the house. Not working, or sorting… we do that in pairs, but just writing for a few hours. So this worked out perfectly. I’m sitting at the same davenport where I wrote that piece about the wedding cake two years ago.

The main difference between that morning and this evening is obvious: the house is quiet. The coffee pot is not sputtering. I cannot hear Mom praying through the bedroom door. Funny that I can write about it without feeling sad. There are days, even now seven months since her death, that grief seems to come from nowhere. Yet here I sit, alone in the house we built with Dad all those years ago, the house I came home to in college, the house I left when I married in 1980, the house my children came to visit Grandma and Grandpa for countless Christmas Breaks and summer vacations... here I sit. My eyes are clear, and the only emotion I sense at the moment is a faint but lingering sense of “home.”
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I hope to post "Unsettled" Chapter Seven: "The Virtue of Reality" Sunday or Monday night.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Unsettled" Chapter six: Looking Down the Road

It has been over three weeks since I’ve written a chapter in the “Unsettled” series. Worse yet, it’s been nearly that long since I’ve been able to put two coherent thoughts together about this story which is all too close to me at this time. Sometimes the writing process reflects life itself in that the story is lost in the turning pages.
.As mentioned in Chapter five... My brothers and I felt like Noah’s sons that first year. Our free days moved to the rhythm of axes chopping notches and Dad's mallet driving eight-inch spikes into timbers.
By winter, Dad bought a tractor with a front loader. It was a twenty-year-old Ford with a new coat of blue paint, which hid all the hints of its hard use, but it was up to the task of clearing a road that wound down the center of the land to an open patch above the creek. In time there would be other roads, trails really, just wide enough for a car: one that went around the upper ridge to the sledding hill and another that followed the creek bed to the base of the same hill. ...........................This photo was actually taken after we finished the barn.
These roads were yet to come, but Dad had envisioned where they’d someday be, and it was only in those paths that he harvested trees for the logs that would become the barn.
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Through late fall and winter we felled more than forty trees, and with the help of the front loader, we pulled as many stumps. On days when all went well, we could cut and haul three or four logs from dawn to dark. There in the clearing at the end of Dad‘s road, stacked by length, was a pile of giant “Lincoln Logs.” Dad knew where each one would go in the frame, which were posts and cross pieces and rafters, and he’d built the barn in his mind many times before the day we set the posts.

To be honest, until those posts were dropped with a thud into the holes we'd dug, these puzzle pieces were just long, heavy logs to my brothers and me. And though we'd never say it aloud, we were tired of logs and splinters and chain-saw flecks in the corner of our eyes, tired of the chain-saw's growl in the air and its oily smell on our clothes. The day we set the posts, however, Dad's chain saw was quiet, and our eyes were clear as this incredible thing began to take shape from a scribbled drawing in Dad’s pocket.
.With the help of our car’s headlights, we worked well into the night, and stood the last post in place between what would eventually be two double-doors. The last ritual of work was covering the tractor with a heavy sheet of Visqueen weighted down with fence posts. This final task always brought a smile because it meant we'd be home at Mom's supper table within a half hour.

Picking up our tools, the four of us headed toward the glare of the lights. Walking backwards to study the day's work, I saw our shadows growing larger on the posts and dancing like ghosts in the dark woods beyond. It was then I noticed something for the first time: the wrapped tractor was in the very same spot we'd been parking it from the start four months before... except now it was perfectly situated within the posts of the barn.
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“Look, Dad." I said, slipping into the back seat. "The tractor's right where we've always put it but now it looks like it goes there. Did you plan that or did it just happen?”

“Did I plan that?" he laughed, "Tom, the first night we parked it, way back in the fall, I put it in the spot I knew would be its stall.”

It was too dark to see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, but I could tell he was smiling, proud that an unstated accomplishment so many months in the making had not gone unnoticed. Through the many years ahead, my brothers and I learned that this was the way Dad worked; it was such thoughts that passed the hours when we were too tired to talk. He was always thinking down the road--including the roads we’d yet to build.

One of the most remarkable things about those years is not so much the many things we did with Dad, but that we did them week after week for no pay and with little complaint. I say “no pay” because we were never given money for our labor--no more than is exchanged on a family farm. That is not to say there was no reward, for there is great pride in having a part in such work. Great satisfaction in seeing a dream take shape. Like Noah's sons, it was just something we knew we had to do.
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By early summer the barn was done. The tractor and all our tools were safe inside, waiting for the sound of a key in the lock, the creak of the door, and the clank on cement of the cast-iron stop that held it open. Sounds that came before Saturday's sun had risen... and heard again long after it set as we locked up the barn to go home. ......................That's me on the left; Dave's holding Jim (not yet one year old).

A few years later, long after the barn was finished, the township building inspector paid us a visit. With the help of aerial photographs, authorities had discovered that our property had a large structure on it for which a building permit had never been filed. (Dad was a die-hard Republican, but when it came to things like the government telling a man what he can or cannot build on his own land, he was a bit of a Libertarian.) The inspector told Dad there would be a hefty fine at least and, at worst, they'd make him tear it down. After all, even deep in a woods where no one sees, a man can't just go around putting up un-inspected buildings. But when Dad opened both sets of big double doors revealing the sturdy log structure, the man stepped back gum-smacked and scratched his head.

"A building is a building," he said, trying to sound stern, "but they do give me some latitude on these things." He looked closely at each weight-bearing post and the general craftsmanship of Dad's work. "Tell you what... If I call this a building, there will be all sorts of paperwork. Let's keep it simple. Whatdoyasay we don't call this a building at all? Let's say I call it a 'work of art. No permits needed for works of art.'"

He winked and walked away.
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I wrote of our dog who was named after these experiences in this related post.Next week Chapter Seven: "The Virtue of Reality"
Followed by Eight: "Dig a Little Deeper in the Well, Boys"

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