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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."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
Yes, I just ended a sentence, paragraph, and post with a preposition.
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.


Blogger Nancy said...

Another great post, Tom! Playing outdoors, making up games, creating masterpieces and architecture from scratch, this is how I too spent my growing up years. A lot of lessons were learned through experimentation outdoors... no teachers, no alcohol or drugs, just your creativity and your imagination to guide you. We never used the word bored because it didn't exist in our house. I raised my kids somewhat like this but they had more "stuff" and were involved in more organized activities but there is little that I would change.

I loved your poem from 2006 and envy growing up with brothers. I always wanted them. I also envy your junk days. We didn't have that. What a great idea... I wish we had one now! Forget that idea, my basement is already full of junk!

I can see why you and your family have such a loving, lasting relationship. Those growing up, formative years are so important and your parents were wise indeed; role models that generations to come should follow... and now they can because you have it written down! Tom, you are a blessing indeed.

29/9/08 10:58 AM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

My dad also believe in the virtue of reality. I lived on a farm. I fed chickens, dug potaroes, chopped wood for the Sauna and hundreds of other things that needed doing. But I also played hard in a great neighborhood.

29/9/08 6:23 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

"...but they had more stuff..." this is true of my kids, too, and in fact, of most kids everywhere but I think this is a classic case of "less is more" in the end. Thanks for reading the link to the lines about Dave. He was two years older than me but the next in line in our "stair step" and he sort of set the pace for all I looked up to.

Dr. John,
Ah, chopping wood for the sauna you are a true Yooper, Finnish? Both of my other Yooper freinds are Finnish. The only "true sauna" I've ever been in was up near Copper Harbor in winter, 1972. We did the whole jump in the pile of snow thing, too. I loved it!
Chores are a good thing. At the end of this series, there will be a poem that states "hard work alone gives hands their worth."

29/9/08 7:34 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

My pops let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not cut out for schooling at his level. So I learned to work.

When I finally settled in to raise my own family it was work that pretty much separated me from them while they grew up. I, to this day can't combine, nor see the sense in trying to combine work and play.

I know I'm bent, but the jobs always have to get done first.

It's good to have it re-confirmed that my father was brilliantly wrong.

1/10/08 4:49 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

It's good to be able to smile about the good and bad of life in looking back on it. Maybe it would help if I reminded us that when Dad was "gone to work" 40 hours a week plus 10 hours or traffic time in Detroit on I-94, we never saw him either. It was when he came home some nights and then every Saturday that we did this stuff, so I think he felt like he was taking what would be our "time" and wanted to make sure we had some fun mixed in to the hard work he had waiting.

One other thing I should mention... this approach probably added a few years to the overall project. As you will see in the latter chapters, it was at least six years between the raising of the barn and our moving into the unfinished house.

But you are right: the fondness of these memories is a direct result of Dad's ability to mix hard work with earned play.

1/10/08 5:37 AM  
Blogger Donnetta Lee said...

Tom: My mom had a way of making work fun. Even when we had the cafe'. It was all WORK but we managed to have a care free attitude most of the time. Not all, of course, or the "reality" wouldn't be "really" true. But much of the time. My brother worked with my grandpa out on the farm, lifting hay, pulling calves, cleaning, feeding, and so on. He says some of his best times were spent on the farm. And, I too remember the seventies. I was a "plastic" hippy in college which meant I looked the part, but didn't live it! Well, I thought I was cool even though I was clean! And writing was my past time. That was my fun. Donnetta

4/10/08 10:38 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Donnetta Lee,
In looking back on it, Dad was in no hurry. He was pacing himself and sometimes figuring out projects while he worked on them. That was when the "stand around" time came. He'd say, "Why don't you guys play 'til Mom gets here with lunch." And we'd take off into the woods. In winter, the creek created a skating path that took us all the way out to the Salt River and then on out to Lake St.Clair.

"Plastic hippie." I hadn't heard of that. I smile thinking of it, but Dad was conservative and he was also our barber. Our hair never covered our ears, etc. We were also involved in a large "youth group" at church so we didn't feel alone.

4/10/08 8:03 PM  
Blogger heiresschild said...

always enjoy your stories Tom.

4/10/08 8:29 PM  

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