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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

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Frosting on the Cake

I have been losing a fight against cold/flu symptoms for four days, and the last thing on my mind was a bike ride. But about thirty minutes ago, I stepped out to close the garage door and saw my bike begging in the corner, and the bright blue sky and sunshine begging to put my shadow on the bike path that passes our development. It’s a perfect fall evening, about 60 degrees, the autumn colors are just beginning to show. A bike ride would be the icing on the cake--especially since the forecast calls for freezing temperatures and rain starting tonight. So in spite of my cold, I hopped on my bike for a quick ride down to bridge that overlooks Spring Lake.

The road leading to that bridge has been torn up for resurfacing since Labor Day, but the bike path has been open.

So I’m peddling my 27-speed road bike at a leisurely pace (maybe ten miles an hour) like I’ve done a hundred times before. I see road closed signs ahead, the cement truck spinning in the distance, and a dozen workers still pouring even though it’s almost 6:00PM. I’m watching the bike trail ahead and there is no oncoming bikers. A quarter mile and I'm at the bridge.

Suddenly my bike drops about a foot below me and stops cold. My momentum takes my body well over the handlebars but I manage to regain my balance. For some strange reason, my bike is still standing in place below me, not leaning to left or right. I plop back on the seat, look down at my feet, and see that I have ridden about six feet into wet cement eight inches deep. I use my arms to do a pummel-horse dismount over the bike to the grass beside the path and look around to see if anyone has witnessed my brief exposition of cycling skills and acrobatics. Then I look back at my bike still standing perfectly straight in the cement like a small plastic toy pressed into the frosting of a birthday cake.

Behind the bike was a deep tire-groove in the fresh cement going all the way back to the intersection. I leaned over the cement, grasped the bike by the seat and handle bars, and wiggled it back and forth and upward against the suction sound at each wheel.

The light aluminum bike was only slightly heavier with the clumps of cement still clinging to my gears, chain, and tires. I looked around again to see anybody saw my blunder. A pick-up truck pulled up beside me. It was the road crew foreman. “Great!” I thought, “I am in deep…cement.” Yeah…that’s sort of what I thought. Fifty-three years old and I felt like a kid about to get yelled at.

I smiled at the man in the hard hat who to my surprise was overflowing with apologies. They had just paved the path and left to get the signs to block the path so no bikers would do exactly what I had done. I just happened to come along in the minute before they roped it off. He was not upset and seemed more concerned that I would be. True they should have had the wet cement blocked, but hey, it could have been much worse. A little more momentum and I would have been sprawled out face down in the wet cement like a scene in some Three Stooges movie.

"All's well that ends well," I thought to myself, and I peddled back home wincing at the gritty sound in my gears, rinsed off the bike with the garden hose, went back to the couch, and blew my nose. So much for the sunshine. My cold is still winning.

Chapter 32 coming Friday. I think I'll call it "Six Toilets in a Row"

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Unsettled chapter 31: Counting Needful Things

I knew full well that paper routes could be a pain in the neck. It had only been a year since Paul and Dave got rid of their Detroit News route, the one I delivered on Saturdays during the digging of the well, but this was different. It was the Macomb Daily. And by “daily” this publication meant: no weekend editions. That was the best part.

Another benefit of the Macomb Daily was that it was dropped off in bundles at my house. No riding my bike all the way to the 11 Mile Road paper station with cigar-smoking Joe. No having to stuff the inside sections and special ads myself. All that was done before the papers were tossed on my lawn from a passing pick-up truck.

The customers in our neighborhood had been so badly neglected by the previous paperboy that only 15 houses still subscribed. What was left of the route was mine for the asking—no purchase involved—and better yet the Daily had just launched a contest for the top 25 "salesmen" giving cash bonuses for new customers and a trip to Cedar Pointe [about two hours south in Sandusky, Ohio]. I was a winsome kid, not afraid to knock on doors, and in two-week’s time I had 52 customers, a huge bonus and a trip to Cedar Pointe. It seemed I chose the right time to get back into the paper route business.

Mom and Dad were so pleased with my gumption they supported the cause and subscribed the Daily. (They showed similar support years later during my one-month stint as a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman, but that is another story.)

Sometimes my paper route got in the way of other things, but Mom and the Pam (the girl-next-door--more about her later) would deliver my papers for me in a pinch or during the weeks of wrestling practice. [The school had dropped the official wrestling program, but Dave had gotten permission from the school to organize a wrestling club that ran about six weeks. It wasn’t the same.]

Christmas came and went. Both Paul and Kathy went back down south for second semester of college. The house was quiet. Life was slow. Wrestling Club had ended. Church basketball League season was over. It was March, and Dad was sitting on the couch in the living room behind that night's Macomb Daily. And that's where our story picks up after this brief aside:

It may seem odd that I included this rabbit trail about the Macomb Daily. It's true that my writing is prone to wander toward tangential details, but there is usually a purpose behind my associative divergence. In this case, it is simply to demonstrate that life itself seems at times to be pleasantly serendipitous when actually I believe it is divinely orchestrated in ways we may never fully understand--like Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.” Daily decisions and actions--sometimes seemingly insignificant--help determine our path as “way leads onto way” and ages and ages hence we are telling it with a sigh.

In this case, had I not taken that Macomb Daily route, my father would not have subscribed to it. He would have been sitting on the couch after supper on a cold night in March behind that open paper when he suddenly said:

“Salvage Building Open Bid”

He read aloud a short classified ad that told of a wood-frame building on Dickinson Road in Mt. Clemens. Dad was interested and called the number. A few minutes later he told us of a man named Mr. Solomon who was going to build apartments on the site. Most of the lot was an open field, but along the sidewalk on Dickinson, across from the little Miller Brother's Dairy store, was a long white clapboard building that was originally a two-room school house. It was later purchased by the YMCA but had been vacant for several years. The owner needed it razed by mid-spring. Rather than pay to have it demolished, he put an ad in the paper to see if someone would pay him to clear the lot in exchange for the building's salvageable materials.
“So we’re going raise the building? How high?” I asked.

“Not raise as in lift. RAZE as in razor,” Dad explained. “We need to get it below ground level the way a razor shaves off whiskers.”
I had never heard that word before, but I’ve never forgotten it since.

We met Mr. Solomon at the building the next night. A dark woolen overcoat draped over his tall frame. A reticent smile made up for his lack of conversation during our brief introductions, and his handshake felt as if he'd never done the kind of work he was soliciting.

We stepped up three cement steps of a small stoop porch. Mr. Solomon unlocked the double door, and we stepped into a small vestibule. Straight ahead, were two doors, one marked “Girls” and the other “Boys.” There were small white porcelain drinking fountains on the wall beside them, and I immediately imagined how cool it would be to have a drinking fountain in our house.

To the left was an open door through which the dull warn varnished floorboards stretched to the far end of the building. A wall of windows faced the street. The opposite wall was covered by a twenty-foot chalkboard made of true slate. Through the door to the right was an identical empty classroom. The only light in either room came through the dirty windows, but that was enough to see that the floor was worn in the pattern left by decades of foot traffic between rows of desks but the desks themselves were gone.

Near the door-jamb of the second room, I saw a two-button light switch like the one in the stairway at my Grandma Spencer’s house (not a modern toggle that flips up and down). I pushed top button “on” and the “off” button below pop out with a snap, but nothing else happened.

“The power’s been shut off since before I bought the land,” said Mr. Solomon.

I nodded slightly, embarrassed that the popping noise of the button had made him look and caused my dad to shake his head so slightly only Dave and I noticed. It was the same subtle cue Dad gave when we were kids in a store and not to touch things. I was nearly sixteen and still Dad’s “don’t touch” twitch came instinctively to him, and still my nod in response came with only the slightest sense of being scolded.

It did seem ironic, though, to have gotten Dad’s subtle look for touching the switch when in a few days, if Dad got the bid, we would be tearing the whole place down.

What I didn’t know was that Dad wasn’t thinking when Mr. Solomon said “There’s no power” was that all of work would need to be done without his power tools. Dad had a half-dozen heavy silver die-cast Black & Decker and Craftsman electric tools that through the years had become extensions of his arms. None of them would be used on this project.

His thoughts, however, quickly turned to taking inventory of the materials hidden all around us. A hole in the ceiling revealed that the rafters were 2-by-8s, and a craw-space showed him that the floor joists were 2-by-12s. Both the rafters and joists were standard 16”-on-center apart, and he quickly calculated how many there were in the building. Using the same formula he estimated the number of 2-by-4’s in the walls. All of these calculations were written down in a little pad of paper from the shirt pocket under his coat.

Mr. Solomon watched dad’s eyes thinking in every direction of the building and then the two of them stepped outside. For the first time, Dave and I felt free to walk around and talk. Our whispered tones echoed in the emptiness.

“So we’re going to tear this whole thing down?” I asked. “Seems like a waste.”

“Seems like a lot of work if you asked me,” Dave sighed.

“But it will be kind of fun, too—smashing everything and knockin’ it down.”

“Fun? Are you kidding? We’re not smashing it. We’re salvaging it. Just think. Everything you see—piece by piece, brick by brick—we’ve gotta take it apart and haul it to the property.

“Even these windows?” I asked. “We can’t use these windows in a house. I’ll bet we get to smash ‘em.”

For just a moment, we drifted off in thoughts of being able to smash windows without getting in trouble. I’m not sure what it is that makes boys take pleasure in the thought of breaking things made of glass. Perhaps it’s because glass is the forbidden fruit of modernity. All our lives we’re told to be careful of it. Don’t touch it. Don’t drop it. Careful! Careful! It’s delicate you know! The goblet in our grip; the pane beyond the chair. Fragile stuff glass. I remembered the night Dad got fed up with an old television he could not repair. He put it in the middle of our back yard and called his three sons out to watch as from twenty feet away he hurled his three-pound mallet in the air to see it smash through the gray-green tube of the TV screen. I thought it would be like a bomb, but being a vacuum tube, it simply imploded in a brief muted shatter with the mallet handle poking through a hole. We boys were disappointed, but Dad found it exhilarating. “You know how many times I’ve wanted to do that?” he laughed. “It felt good.”

So even Dad would understand the thrill of breaking windows, and just as I was about to remind Dave of the night he smashed the TV, Dad’s silhouette walked past the pane I was looking through, and I jumped.

“What’s he doing?” I asked.

“Looks like he’s pacing out how big the building is. Each step is three feet give or take.”

Dad walked back the other way, writing on his little pad. He counted how many rows of cement block were between the ground and the floor, then added the three rows buried down to the frost line, multiplied that total by the perimeter dimensions, and wrote down how many cement blocks would be his for the hauling.

Mr. Solomon had given Dad space during this hasty appraisal, but he looked at his watch and said something to Dad that made him laugh. They came together and talked for a minute or two. Dad ran his hand backward across his crew cut--a gesture he did not so much when he was thinking but negotiating. He looked at the building. His head tilted and his face and mouth skewed into a sort of wink. Then he nodded, and they shook hands. A few minutes later, we were in the car, pulling slowly away.

“Take a good look at ‘er, boys. She’s all ours.”

“You mean we bought it?” I said.


“Do you mean it’s ours to keep or to tear down?” I asked.

“To tear down, of course. What else would we do with it?"
I could think of all sorts of cool things to do with the building, and there was something in the way he said 'she's all ours' that made me think our plans had changed, but I shared none of these boyish thoughts.
"I knew that," I said, and looked at the building as we drove away.
"The paper said 'Open to bids'. Were there other bids?" Dave asked.
"He tried to act like it at first, but he wouldn't close the bidding if I didn't offer something. So I looked at the building and told him we could have it down in six weeks for fifty bucks and he said 'She's all yours' so I'm thinking there weren't any other bids. So what do you think, Fellas. Can we get it done in six weekends? I may need to take some vacation days, too."
A brief silence was followed by some mumbled, unenthused agreement, and just like that our next six weeks were spoken for. Dad was hoping we'd take the bait... get excited...accept the challenge of getting some unpleasant task done "against the odds" the same way we used to do to our three-year-old brother:
"Here, Jimmy, take this box out to the trash can. I'll time you. On your mark; get set' go." And Jimmy would run the item out behind the garage and run back beaming. "Wow! You set a new record, Jimmy!"
That works on little kids, but I was almost sixteen and Dave was almost eighteen. We had no idea how much work was involved in salvaging a building. We'd soon find out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Great Coaches Know It's Far More Than a Game

I have written twice here at POI about a place near our Iowa home of eighteen years. The town is Parkersburg (the high school is called Aplington-Parkersburg). The first story was of one the math teachers at my previous school whose house was blown away by a tornado in 2007. She was in the basement at the time.

The second came a full year later this past June, when a different kind of storm of far greater impact hit that town. The video link below was sent to me by friend Stehpen who taught with me in Waterloo, Iowa, and was in a coaching class taught by Ed Thomas, the subject of the short film essay. The film also mentions Jared Devries of the Detroit Lions. I was the videographer at his wedding back in 1999. The groomsmen consisted of the defensive line of the Iowa football team. You can imagine how different that day was than the one that brought Jared back to his hometown this past summer. He is just one of four NFL players who began their careers under Coach Thomas. In June, he had this to say, "Aside from my own father and mother, no one had a more profound impact on my life than Coach Thomas. He truly was like a second father to me and to the hundreds of players from our community he coached over the years."

This ESPN video is probably better than anything on TV tonight so get out a Kleenex and watch this unfinished story.

Double-click here: In Parkersburg, the game must go on
Text of story here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Finding Providence

We’d asked for help
to find the way
and a still small voice replied.
It seemed at first to emanate
from the glair that shone
beyond our shielded eyes.
So confident each utterance,
so clarion the call
we followed blindly on
to see the writing on the wall.

Even when the light no longer led the way,
the voice kept speaking from above
whenever it was needed
in almost-human tones,
lacking only the inflection
born of thought or doubt
or the slightest hint of shared mortality.
It told of things to come,
predicted both the straight
and winding ways ahead.
We did each thing it said
until with certitude the voice proclaimed,
“Arriving at destination.”

And coming to a stop
we looked around,
the blinding light now setting in the west,
the voice now silent.
All was well except...
this was not Providence.
The writing on the wall
said this was another place
with no familiar face in sight.

Ours was the blame.
We’d asked for help
but entered in the wrong address.
The voice of Garmin
granted our request
but left us lost
and driving aimlessly around
until a man who knew the town
stopped what he was doing
to offer new direction.
He spoke with confidence
equal to the voice that brought us there--
except it was in human tones
with the welcome inflections
of shared mortality that were missing
from the voice inside the box
fixed high upon the windshield of our car.

"You've gone too far.
Go to the light; go right.
then keep going straight to the end."
He smiled and pointed t’ward Providence
with little else to say
except “You can’t miss it!”
And we were on our way.

It was later that it hit me:
in the truest sense of the word
our helper was right. You can't miss it.
Whether searching for it or not
Providence is always there
even while man wanders after voices
prone to human error.
© Copyright September, 2009

NOTE: Written this week by way of explanation to my daughter for why we were 20 minutes late to her away volleyball game at Providence Christian School near Freemont, Michigan. It happened nearly word for word as told above. Julie loves her Garmin, but like all computers, it is subject to the GIGO principle: garbage in garbage out. We had typed in the address of a different school. After driving around for a while, we stopped at the hardware store and the owner (?) pointed us in the right direction. Providence was a couple miles away at the end of the road he told us to take. (By the way, Nat's team won all of their games.)
The morning after posting this, the words of an old hymn came to mind. Though it's been a while since I've heard it sung, and my shared-use of the word "prone" was not deliberate, I do see some common threads in my feeble lines and those below.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.
[Verse 3 also pertains]


Friday, September 11, 2009

Chapter 30-B "The Tree Fort"

We made the tree fort from a small pile of lumber we had in the barn. Our church had built a large new wing and auditorium about the same time we purchased the land, and the construction company had left all the unused building materials behind the church where the busses were parked.

Dad was a deacon, and at one of the monthly meetings, the topic of hiring someone to come haul all that stuff away came up. It wasn't Dad who brought up the topic, but with some interest he said, “Why pay someone? Just tell them they can keep the lumber if they haul all of the other stuff away, too.” The chairman, Mr. Miller, shook his head, and in his deep voice replied, “Who would want to do all that work just for some lumber?”. Do I even have to finish this paragraph?

Dad borrowed his brother Bob’s flat-bed trailer and pick-up, and in two trips we had all that stuff from behind the church out at the property. The stuff of no use went to the land fill, but all the odds and ends of lumber went to the barn (along with two heavy “I” beams that lay for years along the outside north wall, but Dad knew he would need them for the house).
Most of the lumber for the fort came from those scraps in the barn.

[I found these pictures a while back. That is me with Jimmy and some of his friends up in the unfinished tree house. You can't see the rope, but the little kid in front of me is holding it and about to swing sixty feet out and back. Then I'd catch the rope and switch kids.]

In hind sight, we should have used “treated” wood to build the platform since it would be exposed to the elements for many years, but that would have cost money, and ideally, a tree house doesn’t cost anything but time and work. Nothing takes the fun out of a Saturday whim faster than the step from "free" to unforeseen expense. Think of all the tree houses you’ve seen in real life or the movies [not ones made by adults ]. Their design and dimensions were probably determined by the materials at hand, held together with a sort of pragmatic charm.

Dad understood this, but at the same time, he wanted to make sure that the frame and platform of our tree fort were level and plumb and solid as a rock so it could serve as the launch pad for the rope swing he had in mind. It looked like a small house frame that held the floor ten feet in the air without any support posts from below. Near the trunk of the tree was a trap door for the wooden ladder from the barn,

The one thing none of us anticipated was that once the fun of the rope swing started, we lost interest in actually closing-in the tree fort or even putting a roof on it. The work of the real house began, and the tree house looked like the picture above as long as it remained in the tree. It was still there long after I was married, but by that time, it had been years since a ladder had breached the trap door. We never spent the night in it as Dave and I thought we would when we first got the idea at the Trinity Oak. It became a platform for the swing and that was enough fun to justify its presence through the years.

Years later, when only Jimmy still lived at home, lightening struck the oak that held the 70-foot rope swing. Dad had to fell what was left of the tree. By then the tree house was nearly ten years old. The swing had not been used for years and the exposed floor boards were black and mossy and, in some places, rotting through.
Only Jim and my brother-in-law Jack were with Dad the day Dad the old oak came down. It is not how I remember the tree house or the swing, but I can see the mixed emotions in father's face as he leans against that oak. It was an image I recalled in 1996, the year after he passed away in the spring, when I scribbled the lines of "Only the Roots Remain," which uses the tree as a metaphor.
Sometimes the shadow of grief is kind
like the shade of a tree
that still stands tallin the back of my mind
though in reality…
it’s gone—
struck by a bolt that rent its wood
in an early spring rain.
Grass hides the spot
where the oak once stood…
only the roots remain.
© Copyright April, 1996
Today I am in Bad Axe, Michigan, to pay respects to my Dad's older brother who passed away last Monday.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

It's a Girl!

A few weeks back I posted an ultrasound picture and announced the big news. Well, today that news became even more real. Julie and I are with our high school students at a three-day retreat at Spring Hill, but this image was sent to Julie's Ipod.

Through the magic of 4-D ultrasound, Keith and Em were told today that the miracle within her womb is a girl! I am a speechless "Papa-to-be."

Here is our first glimpse of the face we are waiting to see in January.Though the technology that gave us this picture from a hundred miles away is amazing, it is no where near the miracle of life itself.... speechless....

Friday, September 04, 2009

And Now a Word From Our Sponsors...

I know... I know... already I'm distracted from writing Chapter 31. Think of it as a short commercial break.

Something happened in the archives that I missed until this week and it triggered these thoughts

Back in December of 2006, I wrote a post called "Toys of Christmas Past." In that post I talked about a back yard "toy" called a Hump-a-Jump. About the time of these "Unsettled" chapters, my brother Dave and I wanted a Hump-a-Jump for Christmas.

While writing that post, I googled "Hump-a-Jump," but there was simply no internet proof that the large toy had ever existed. I did my best to describe it, and moved on to other posts returning only once in two years.

But lo and behold, a while ago a dialogue started in the comment section of that post and I missed it until this week. Wow! Lots of Detroit-area Boomers remember Hump-a-Jumps. I reattempted a search and found a recent Youtube clip that substantiates our collective memory. (Though I must admit... in my mind, the Hump-a-Jump was bigger and threw kids much higher in the air.) Anyway, our first sponsor is Hump-a-Jump, a product that probably got yanked off the market due to a law suit.

And now a word from our second sponsor: Jarts, a toy that was likewise banned from production and sale in the U.S. in the mid 1980's. Remember this fun back-yard missile game? We had it--millions of American families played it for years. It was sort of like horse shoes...a cold-war, intercontinental ballistic missile version of horseshoes.

Imagine taking all the danger of real, poke-you-in-the-eye darts and making them ten-times bigger and heavier, capable of soaring high in the air and coming straight down to harpoon the earth. Imagine putting them in an attractive package with rules and safety precautions that no child bothered to read for ten years. Imagine leaving these colorful, inviting toys on beaches, picnic tables and front porches all across America. [Imagine John Lennon singing this paragraph.]

Do you see the thoughtful boy in the "banned" image above.? Well, I suppose my brothers and I looked like that sometimes, but typically we were not playing the game by the rules printed on the inside of the box. We played "Three-yard Jarts" (a version of the game where the rings are set up in front of two different houses with a "no fly zone" yard in between), We also played "Over-the-house Jarts" (needs no explanation but sometimes required a ladder), and last and most dangerous… we played "Deep Dirt Darts" where the Jart was hurled with a full-circle underhand swing high into the air only to see how deep the Jart would go into the lawn when it came back down.

My brothers and I were living proof of Fig Newton's Third Law: For every proper use of a toy there is an equal and opposite improper use.

Even more than the Hump-a-Jump, Jarts were the kind of toy that now makes grown Boomers scream, "What were they thinking when they invented that?" Libertarians would say, "Why didn't they ban the game of horse shoes. Throw a three pound Clydesdale cleat into the air and it could kill someone, too." But horseshoes is a "throw-back" (no pun intended) to frontier days and Amish ways. No kid was ever tempted to see how high he could throw a horse shoe.

Jarts, on the other hand, hit the market at the peak of the "jet age" and lunar landings. The same societal urge that prompted engineers to put fins on car fenders twenty years before had now replaced the old-man Coke-sipping game of tossing cast iron shoes with the Pepsi generation game of launching plastic rockets! The front end of a Jart was heavy; the fins guided it like a rocket; Jarts begged to be thrown high in the air. I for one could not resist (any more than I can resist tapping the top of a kettle drum when I pass one on an empty stage).

A month ago, we had an estate sale at my Mom's house on the other side of the state. When I saw our old set of Jarts on table in the garage, we pulled them from the sale since the official ban still reads: "Consumers who find Lawn Jarts still being sold, should contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission on the toll free hotline: 1-800-638-CPSC (2772)."

I brought the Jarts home and hid them, but someday when total anarchy breaks out in these politically divided times, at the peak of the civil unrest...I'm going to whip out my Jarts and start playing right in broad daylight. Try and stop me. I'll wear a photoshopped T-shirt of Charlton Heston holding a Jart overhead and saying "From my cold, dead hands."

This sort of civil disobedience has already begun. There are still tournaments held annually by rebels brandishing these banished missiles

But in all seriousness, I won't be joining any Jarts tournaments. I'm keeping these yard darts only as an example of "What were they thinking." Here is a news story about one of the deaths that helped bring about the ban of lawn darts. There is nothing funny about this topic when you consider how fortunate our generation was not to have caused even more sad stories about Jarts.

I need to wrap up this post. My wife and some friends are having a garage sale here today and she just asked me to come haul some of the heavy items closer to the street. Ah, garage sales...that's a topic I'll have to explore in a future post, but the next post will be Chapter 31.

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