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Monday
Apr212014

Throwing off the Monkey: A Tennis Memoir [Part 1]

The first time I broke a racket was an accident, but the rest were not. The worn tack of my sweat-stained grip slipped out of my hand on a service follow-through, bounced twice, and entangled in the net like a fly trapped in a spider web. All I could detect was a jagged crack in the throat, but by the end of the set I could hear a crunch every time I hit a ball as the fissure widened and shifted; eventually the strings lost tension and the frame was unusable. Unless you’re personally sponsored or have some kind of agreement with a major company like Wilson, Head, or Babolat, individual racket frames (minus string, grips, or other munitions for a tennis player’s arsenal) cost near $200. Once I became an NCAA athlete, it was like I’d been accepted into one of those strange inner circles where there’s always a way to avoid paying face value. It reminded me of when I discovered Expedia after shelling out $500+ for airfare a couple times. Now there were package deals with two frames, stencil ink, over grips, a spool of string, and a bag for only $350. By then I’d probably smashed near one thousand dollars worth of hardware, but, strangely, began to treat my equipment more kindly—I may have thought I could somehow earn back the wasted frames of the past.

From a young age, I sought out contact sports. There was no feeling quite like hitting somebody in football, and even after fifth grade, when I switched to soccer, I quickly earned nicknames like “Polar Bear” (a nod to my half-Norwegian blood). Once I’d been dribbling across midfield and, while looking down at my cleats, a defender ran right into me and fell flat on his back. The ref had motioned at first to give me a yellow card, but soon realized I had no malicious intent and that the poor kid just had too slight a frame to contest the ball. After that, I was “Steamroller.” When I chose tennis as my exclusive varsity sport in ninth grade, the bodily collisions suddenly became purely mental, and the only defenders I ran over were those in my own conscience.

For a brief time after elementary school, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist to “fix” my anger problems. Dr. J had a cluttered office; I remember feeling like the stacked books and papers were closing in around me. There was a comically large poster of a thermometer that he’d use to represent varying levels of rage; I don’t recall any of the descriptions, but I do remember that only the bulb was shaded. He probably didn’t want kids to imagine their day-to-day levels as anything beyond common irritation or annoyance. With Dr. J, I did eventually learn how to set aside most of my adolescent troubles—playground brawls, scuffles with my little brother—but rather than leave me completely, my mental instability instead entered a sort of hibernation, slumbering unseen while I prepared for high school.

Tennis was different from what are often referred to as the four major sports (football, basketball, baseball, and soccer) at my high school. Unlike the vigorous trials athletes had to undergo to be considered for one of those prestigious squads, tennis welcomed all and made no cuts. I liked that absent performance pressure at first—no fear of being called into a coach’s office to sit in an itchy, poorly-padded chair while you were told your “effort was appreciated” or you could “find other ways to help the team,” but that your spot was no longer a spot, or it now belonged to somebody else.

One of the first tennis-specific nicknames I had was given to me by my collection of three tennis instructors—Cody, Elliot, and Ryan. I was only seven or eight years old, and they convinced me, among other things, that they formed the core of the heavy metal band Slipknot and were “tennis teachers in normal life.” I was a chubby kid, and far stockier than the usual gazelle-like breed of tennis player. To put it in perspective, when I started competitive tennis at age 13, I was about four inches shorter and twenty-five pounds heavier than I am now. Running side to side for hours at a time, though it was something I knew I should be able to do, was not a subject my body and brain had agreed upon. It often only took one point in a game that was longer than ten strokes before I was sucking wind as though I’d nearly drowned. Hitting winners seemed easier than winning those points by attrition, and a clean winner just looks beautiful. I have yet to experience a feeling quite like it. Winners are the kind of shots that make commentators say things like “artistry in motion,” and they always send scattered clicks of applause through a cheering section. Pounding serves and rushing the net was a way to either win points quickly or lose them quickly. Either way, I didn’t have to wait long for a result. Combining impatience and fatigue is the best way to lose a match—I always operated on a healthy dose of both.  After they watched me clobber a good number of balls over the back fence and walk enough Nature Hikes to become strangely familiar with the weedy terrain between courts and field, they started to call me “Tank.” And it stuck.

The lenient junior varsity rules meant that every afternoon around 3:30, the Discovery Middle School courts would flood with bodies and pops would start to fill the air. I always wondered how our JV coach could handle so many novice participants at one time. He was a gangly geometry teacher with a nasally voice and a head and neck that, for somebody who taught angles, seemed to jut out bizarrely from his shoulders. One day Coach Thiner announced we’d be practicing our doubles skills and placed us four-to-a-court with assigned partners. I don’t remember who my partner was, but I do remember staring across at Michael Moore and Cory Gillerstein—two high school guys who were still smaller than me.

Some basic rules of doubles play: prior to a point, both server and returner stand diagonally opposite at the baseline while their respective partners stand near the net. A serve is playable if it lands in the opposing service box, or, on rare occasions, if it strikes the net player before touching the ground. And I do mean rare.

When I toed the baseline, I realized how few serves I’d hit before, but I knew the jist of it from TV: toss, swing hard, and hope for the best. What I didn’t expect was the line-drive bullet I sent directly into Mike’s forehead. After a stunned moment for the four of us followed by an examination of the fuzz-ringed blotch on Mike’s face, Coach crowed from his observational roost:

“That’s your point Bryn, but I wouldn’t make a habit of that strategy.”

A couple years later Mike pedaled a bicycle off the theater stage and suffered a severe brain injury. For a long time I wondered if my serve to his head had something to do with that decision . . . (To be continued)

 

Bryn Homuth
In the presence of (and, in sections, dictated to) one, R. Eric Tippin, in our lonely office
February 15, 2014 

Painting:
"The Tennis Party"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Charles March Gere 

Friday
Apr182014

In the Shadow of a Thunderstorm

Two days ago my wife and I ambled (like Sam Snow is accustomed to do on occasion) along a path through a wood and found ourselves at the bend of a river. Now, rivers at shallow bends eddy and whirl, and this particular river’s bend was no exception. It was some time after six o’clock, and, in the rushing water, fish began to jump at regular intervals, feeding, I supposed, as I normally do around the same time. We stood listening to the river move along—two native Kansans entranced by that rare and precious sound of which we were deprived for most of our lives by the circumstance of our births. Then, from the direction of town, we heard another deeper sound. My wife said, “That was thunder!”

“Was it?” I asked, “Thought it was traffic.” I was wrong, as is right and proper. In the minutes following the sky grew blacker behind us as we continued to look out over the river. When we had left the car fifteen minutes earlier the clouds felt distant and manageable. Now they were upon us and rumbling like the cannons at Gettysburg. I suggested we return to the car as quickly as we could; she agreed. Now the thunder was a constant roll, the clouds frothed above, and I expected a deluge of rain at any moment. It didn’t come. We drove back to our house, keeping an eye on the brooding black giant to our north, waiting for him to pour out his wrath on our little section of the Flint Hills. He never did. All that evening and all that night, the storm sat forty miles north of us, building until it could build no longer; then it journeyed slowly north to Nebraska.

It is a terrible thing to walk in the shadow of something ominous and to never be struck by it—washed by it. It is the frustration of the soldier who braces himself for combat and finds the war has ended upon his arrival at the front. It is the anger of the sick man who finds the powerful medication he has been prescribed tastes like candied cherries. It is the first look out a window on the day of a predicted blizzard that has left only a dusting. One feels relief, but one also feels the frustration of being part of a fragment and not a whole—of having existed on the fringes of a great thing and not in its middle. And[1] for all the benefits of fringes (for instance, fringe benefits), they are never great, only somewhat pleasant or relatively painful.  

**********

Yesterday the forecast was, again, thunderstorms, and the morning passed with nary a word from the sky. We went to church. No storm. We drove home. No storm. I was beginning to feel irrationally angry and irritable and mumbled terrible things to myself as we pulled up to the grocery store for a quick errand. I checked the radar—Storms were to left of us and to right of us and before us and behind us but not upon us! I felt like the six hundred riding into the valley of death—only to find the Cossacks refusing to fire.

Then . . . one large, satisfying drop hit the windshield with a slap, and the dry corridor of air shielding Manhattan, Kansas began to crack. Soon we were in a deluge—a glorious downpour washing the city of its accumulated filth and filling my simple heart with joy.

***********

I do not pretend to know exactly what the LORD’s final judgment of this earth will be like, but I suggest a thunderstorm as a type and shadow of it. It will be ominous and terrible, but it will also be cleansing and cosmically satisfying. Like my wife and I walked in the shadow of a Thunderstorm, this earth and all on it are walking in the shadow of God’s reckoning—soiled by ------ thousand years of built-up sin and waiting to be washed. And[2] when the washing comes, there will be no fringe. The shadow will become the storm.

 

R. Eric Tippin
In My Office at Kansas State University
April 14, 2014

Painting:
"A Thunderstorm, Harwich: Submarines Leaving Port"
Oil on Canvas - 1918
Charles Pears 


[1] Yes I placed an “and” at the beginning of a sentence, as did most English prose stylists of the first eight centuries of our language!

[2] Yes I did it again!

Monday
Apr142014

Ambler, No. 7 [On Free-thinking]

For my part, I have ever beleeved, and doe now know, that there are Witches. -- Sir T. Browne

[Written moments after a nightly walk. Apologies in advance for the melodrama.]

There is great thinking in walking. And when I say "great," I do not necessarily refer to it in the sense of quality but in the sense of quantity; though, I do admit that, on occasion, walking does generate a fine thought or two. Whether or not this was the case this evening--as I departed from my crumbling apartment and proceeded away from the bar district which has unfortunately become my home--I will leave you, dear reader, to judge. Feeling antsy, I decided this evening to pick up on a tradition I had started last summer and had, since moving in August, not continued. So I set out this evening under a dark and cloudy sky that featured only a shy moon and what I believe we designate as Venus. Though I strolled under the waxing moon and the goddess of love, I found little love on my walk for I was alone. Yet I thought to myself how odd it is that I find myself feeling more alone in crowds of people than when among a few friends, or even by myself.

I thought about how much more content I was walking by myself in the perfect temperature of the night than I would be had I proceeded toward the bar district.

I thought about how little I allow myself to get away from the world and its troubles.

I thought about how if anyone who happened to know who I was saw me, that they may be surprised to see me undergoing such an activity. And I thought about how few people truly know me. And I thought about how little I know myself.

So I walked with quickened pace to the east, and though the sky was not completely black, its darkness contrasted quite nicely with the glow of the town around it. I thought about how walking in the suburb was so much different. It is ironic that an urban setting can seem more peaceful at night than a rural town. For the suburb has no glow around it, only the lights from the houses and street lights lining the roads. Few cars will be heard and hardly any voices, if any, will be noticed. There is a peace in a suburban neighborhood  in the evening that is hard to match, and my neighborhood differed significantly as I listened to the random house parties begging to be heard. Nevertheless, as I proceeded further away from my house and the bars, the noised dimmed in due proportion, and I began to feel at home.

*****

About a quarter of the way through my walk, I passed by an old stone house, perceiving it at first glance to be a church. I thought to myself how incredibly quaint the house looked and how I wished I lived there.

I thought about how much I despise my current place of residence.

I thought about how I struggle to define where my home really is.

I thought about how badly I longed to settle down and how incredibly restless my heart of stone was at the same time.

Turning eastward again I came upon another quaint house, what will be my new home in a few months. I thought for a second about knocking on the door and asking the residents how they liked living there. I thought again and decided a more productive route, passing and conceding that it could not be worse than my current place. My plan all along had been to walk to this part of town and head back, but I felt somewhat invigorated and decided to head downtown.

*****

The lights seemed to beckon my presence, and I recognized that as I headed toward the lights, I headed toward the silence. A downtown area in a small town dies at dusk. It is, perhaps, similar to the suburb in its uncouth quietness. So I found comfort in its emptiness and descending down a main avenue, I recognized a large, beautiful building, what was the courthouse. I thought to myself how grand the building was. I thought to myself how sad it was that we often reserve the beautiful buildings for secular activities.

I continued through the courtyard of the courthouse and was surprised to see it lit up as if expecting company. The area was filled with benches and tables, inviting young couples to sit and chat under the lights and in the cool breeze. The area filled me with an odd mixture of loneliness and hope, for I perceived it to be such a grand area of town, yet recognized it to be such because it was so quiet. I perceived that if the benches and tables had been full, the area would have lost its romance. This being true in my mind, I decided to make the courtyard my own secret in hopes of sharing it with others someday.

My path that evening led me past a tiny liquor store and a closed supermarket. The supermarket reminded me of past jobs I had worked and how I would have loved closing up shop by this time of night.

As I continued on, I proceeded back in the direction of my apartment and the bar district, and my legs began to explain to me it was nearing closing time for my weary bones. Along the way I came upon a Presbyterian church. It was a beautiful building, even at this time of night with its doors shut and lights off. I thought about how uninviting it looked and thought that ironic.

I thought it ironic how the house parties would seem more inviting to a sinner on a Saturday evening than a church.

I thought it unfortunate that our churches were not open and that I could not go in and pray or talk to someone.

I wondered if I too had closed up my heart to the outer world, if my zeal for holiness caused me to turn people away who needed truth and love and beauty.

*****

The noise of the house parties grew as I neared my apartment. I had a mind to check my phone and see what time it was but then checked myself.

I thought it nice that I had not touched my phone for the entire walk.

I thought it sad that taking walks had been replaced with televisions. I longed to live in a different time period, before the internet had come to destroy the world.

I thought about how the only thing that could have made this walk much better would be another soul to enjoy it with: that although I enjoyed the chance it gave me to reflect on life, it is yet better to share it with others.

Heading north I gazed upon the darkening sky once again and glanced at that shy, waxing moon and the planet which looked like such a lonely star. On cloudless nights during past walks, I remember how gallant that moon would look in comparison to its many children speckled across the blackness. I remember the first time in my life I had experienced the fullness of the sky at night. As I sat with friends in the mountains of Cameroon, we sat on our backs and gazed above us, counting shooting stars. There is a certain majesty which displays itself at night, a majesty which is softer and more silent than the glory of the sun. It is a softness much like the timid thoughts of my mind, which only come out upon a nightly walk. So as I walked this evening, I allowed those thoughts to have their voice for once, to have their freedom to roam.

And I thought about how modern man is anything but a freethinker.

 

 

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
written on a chilly evening,
Manhattan, KS
April 5, 2014

Image:
"Man Thinking"
by Geoffrey Arthur Tibble
Oil on Canvas, N.d. 

Thursday
Apr032014

Ambler, No. 6 [On the Creative Spirit]

The world was made to be inhabited by beasts, but studied and contemplated by man. -- Sir Thomas Browne

 

The oldest of man's distinctions comes in the naming of things. Monkey's do not name things; they scratch themselves. It is man's prerogative to name; to cease doing so would be to give up his dominance over creation. It is a notable characteristic of a fallen world that has no confidence in our ability to define things. But evidence of this is seen often enough in innocent children who seem to intuitively know their rare ability to define their world. A child will tell you that a stick is a stick with more wonder and vigor than a modern man declaring he knows not whether the stick exists at all. The child sees reality and takes joy in his reality; the modern man sees nothing, and is depressed at the logical conclusion. He has devolved from man to monkey, for man alone can declare with vigor that he is picking up a stick.

Stepping out of my house this past week, I held on to the small hand attached to my small nephew as we descended the steps from the front door. The crisp air was complemented with a cool breeze that periodically picked up enough speed to make one cold. But children seem to have an odd ability to endure inclemate weather, and my old bones shivered and cowered at the slightest of breezes.

We reached the end of the driveway and purveyed the eastern and western coasts like two explorers surveying the countryside. I held my nephew's hand a bit harder, and after the obligatory question from me and necessary response of "no cars!" from him, we crossed the dry sea of cement which made the suburban road.

A typical trip to the park from my parent's home takes the average man approximately thirteen minutes. I have ambled that way dozens of times, often at night. But this early morning, it took us about thirteen minutes to reach the end of the block. My nephew would take a few steps, observe a crack, speak his mind, take a few more steps, observe a stick, and speak his mind again. Only a child will tell you with unending joy and vigor that he has found a stick. It is not a mere proclamation of fact; it is a human discovering his ability to name things. As my nephew and I continued our long trek to the park, he defined birds, and cars, and grass, and garages with more confidence than any living English major.

The naming process continued on the way to the park. My nephew discovered acorns; he then discovered the pleasure one gets from stepping on them. In futility, he attempted to smash every acorn in sight, and like two despairing giants we sought to rid the world of their existence fully aware that the multitude of acorns was too much for us to conquer that day. Thus, as we approached the park, we came to another crossing, and upon stopping heard a plane; a plane which my nephew properly identified as such. We also identified trash cans; I learned that the blue ones were possibly purple. We observed that some houses had two garages. Some driveways had trucks, some had cars, others even had what are "caboose cars."

Like the holiest of tombs that was empty the third day, the playground was deserted for us. The day has taught me the depths of a two-year old's excitement for life. It may be a fallacy that children need playgrounds, for my nephew was more concerned with everything but the playground. He picked up pebbles and made what he identified as "snow piles." Eventually, the playground won his attention, and snow piles found there way on the bottom of the slides.

*****

It is true that one must become a child to taste heaven; it is also true that a child is the nearest thing to heaven on earth. It is but all too true that the public education system in our country takes the wonder, joy, and imagination out of children and creates little drones. But that they create drones is no new mystery. The problem with the new education is not merely that the educators stifle creativity; the problem with the new education is that they demand creativity. And in demanding creativity, the one thing they will not get is creativity. If you place ten children in a room with legos, and demand they make something creative, you might get a building or a boat; if you place ten children in a room with legos and leave them alone, you may get a griffon or a god.

The whole farce of it all is that in destroying creativity by taking away boundaries, morality, and God, we have set up new boundaries which do nothing but destroy creativity. It used to be that children were taught morality, and within that morality, a young boy could have an adventure; he could save a princess from a dragon because the dragon is evil; he could save a village from a tyrant or a evil magician; he could save a friend from hell. But the new creative genius is not told to create a story in which there are moral boundaries; he is told he doesn't need boundaries; he is he told he should think outside the box; he is told that the box does not exist. The only boundaries he is to have is to have no boundaries at all whether he likes it or not.

*****

The mid-morning temperature slowly rose as we headed back from the park. My nephew, weary from the earlier quest, climbed atop my shoulders, and like a multi-headed monster, we terrorized the neighborhood -- my nephew pointed and identifying everything which he had previously identified on the way to the park. I concurred with many of his claims, though I questioned other more outlandish. My old, failing eyes could not see the purple trashcans, and I am to this moment unsure what the child meant by "caboose car."

The new education assumes that children need help to be creative. But the only help children need to be creative is for adults to get out of the way, for in the creative process, children will be create their own boundaries and story. All games made up by children have rules. Though many of these rules are made up as they go along, it does not take a genius to discover that breaking one of these rules is liable grounds for the next world war. So as I sat at the park and watched my nephew create snow piles with rocks, I observed how little he needed me to be creative. I watched as he climbed around the playground as if I was not around. He played with vigor and acted as if I was not there, as if the playground were the world he could conquer and claim. I thought to myself, that though I too roam around this world and play, thinking my Father is not around and there are no boundaries, that all the while, He is watching from above.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written over a period of time,
Manhattan, KS

Painting:
"A Group of Children Playing at 'Tug of War' in a Domestic Interior
By Harry Brooker
Oil on Canvas, 1891

Wednesday
Apr022014

On the Killjoy's Achievement of the All-Nighter 

It has recently come to my attention that an emerging sector of aspiring academics have taken to the unthinkable: balancing their workloads with careful allocation of daylight hours so as to free themselves for evenings of leisure, loved ones, and all other variety of foolish endeavors unbecoming of the postmodern scholar. I take it upon myself to pen an essay that attempts to redirect these confused thinkers away from their road to the capitalist pig perdition of the 8 to 5 regimented work day and instead toward the higher haven of those who deal in the business of lofty, legitimate ideas rather than the petty squabble of dollars-and-cents economic meanderings. 

This, friends, is the often sought, yet rarely captured achievement of the all-nighter, when all the hours of the day make themselves available to you as indentured servants in a monarchic, castle-bound existence. Such metaphors of servitude direct the scholarly mind to attentiveness in those subjects worthy of our contemplative energies—the continued servitude of women to men, the unjust servitude of all non-Caucasians to the heavy, patriarchal yolk of white males that forever rests squarely upon the backs of the oppressed, and of course, the servitude of the lower class to fill the slop-troughs of the capitalist swine that march their dirtied hooves across America’s terrain. 

But, no matter, back to the nirvana-like state that awaits those who deny themselves that even more potent opiate of the masses—sleep. For one to properly consider the more significant notions of the world (and daresay pen them into proper reading), one must exhaust the mind to all other possible outlets of stimuli, including technological socializing and television and film entertainment. Once a brain has been properly filled to the brim with the likes of Netflix, Pinterest, Facebook, and other energy-worthy causes that can’t help but give back as much as one invests in them, the scholar is properly prepared to allow academic responsibilities to enter their field of vision. 

Now, there are myriad strategies to implement in order to successfully bring oneself into this state of being. First—take absolute care to NOT write any sort of to-do lists, planner entries, post-it reminders, or any of the other disgraceful memory triggers that litter the offices and workspaces of the scholar. With these meaningless scraps of paper excised from one’s working life, one affords oneself the opportunity to completely forget about any obligations (preferably until the night before they’re due). This simple exercise is a way to recreate the urgency that will necessitate the coveted all-nighter. Next—ensure that any preparatory work is left, similarly, to the last minute. Not only will this preserve the freshness in one’s mind, but the sheer volume of work will cause the coward’s cloak (sleep) to be cast off, leaving only the raw truth only sleeplessness can render.

To the business of editing: anybody who considers himself or herself intellectually capable knows that this coddling practice serves only to distract the scholar from production of the best possible ideas in the moment. Best to eliminate any possibility of fallback onto the despicable crutch that has made far more noteworthy writers of the world than should have ever been allowed to display their meager talents before the masses. No writer should edit, and therefore no writer should be given privilege above any other. It is a disgrace that the ivory tower-encased white male academes be allowed to seek one another’s counsel for enhancement, therefore perpetuating theirs as the pinnacle of written work. In long: editing is despicable, and the all-nighter, in all its untamed glory, yields that which all should aspire to produce—work untainted by the putrid poison that is editing time.

A fantastic reward for pushing oneself to this wondrous brink is, of course, the right to share the story with colleagues the following morning. Not only will each and every colleague, professor, or other individual share your affinity for the all-nighter, but they will also bestow upon you heaping piles of respect for your achievement. Be sure to spread the word as far and as widely as possible, so as to alert those other minds occupying your academic space. In this pursuit, the esteem you incur will be so enormous; your academic reputation will expand beyond comprehension. 

To close, I say: delay, delay, delay! Any time saved for the societal constructs of love, family, or the like will serve only to drive one’s cognitive processes away from enlightenment and instead entrench them in those things you have been told to value. Seek a new path, rest not, and think so deeply that you ascend to a level far beyond the construct of the attainable—for only you control YOUR destiny.

Bryn Homuth
Somewhere in the air between Newark and Kansas City
March 23, 2014

Image:
"Tired"
Oil on Canvas - Unknown Date
Joseph Woodhouse Stubs