A Journal of Life Pursued

Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros*

In Creativity, Death, Happiness, Life, Music, The Examined Life on February 1, 2014 at 11:00 am

It is late in the evening and I am especially missing my youth. This is probably why I don’t stay up late. Why subject yourself to such a thing? It isn’t so much missing the days of youth as it is creeping closer to the remove of those day altogether, the permanent remove of everything, frankly. What else would explain why, after so many months absent, I write these notes. It is late at night when we need one another most.

I haven’t been here, …the house, for some time and looking at the statistics I see that a couple days ago I had a spike in site visitors. Yes, even with endless months of no participation there is still a struggling readership. A few days past was the one-year mark of my friend Michael Dingle’s death and maybe that explains the spike. I wrote about Michael a few times. Perhaps friends visited to refresh his memory. A year later I still miss him and miss more the magic potential of not growing old that he somehow represented. We would run our ropes and I would belay him, or him me, and we would climb strong as if there were nothing else. Such is the course of climbing–and the course of friendship. Those moments were singular, or at least seem so, presented by that old trickster, memory. But eventually his luck ran out. And, now on a lonely evening, I think on that and wonder at it all.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” wrote Fitzgerald. Despite training and wishful thinking I lose grip on the present and drift away, receding from the present. Agreeing with Sandburg, there are too many of me and they all are incomprehensible tonight, all of them in the past tense seemingly, waving goodbye.

But that is the stuff of navel gazing and that never really gets a person anyplace but thinking of their belly and that is never good. Fat or skinny, belly pondering is a dead-end, I suspect. Instead, tonight I listen to music for joy, Edward Sharpe and the merry band of music makers. I am grinning to this music like an idiot and perhaps that is the key. Good music and a smile on one’s face. It is enough to be satisfied with that. But it is late and I get silly in the late hours. “Come dance with me,” sing the band, “over heartache and rage.” Okay then. Tonight I will dance on, over heartache and rage, to the sunny fields of morning. Thank you for listening. Good night.

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*  Yes, I lifted the title. Sort of. For a real writer-thinker, you’d be well served to read Lewis Thomas’s Late Night Thoughts On Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. 141634

Since we’re on the subject: there comes along occasionally a personality that fills my heart with joy and aspiration, such are the emotions when I watch Alexander Michael Tahquitz “Alex” Ebert, lead-man for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. I can understand why he is held in almost cult-like status by his fans. Here, listen to the band’s best known tune. Turn up the volume and decide for yourself.

(I’m sorry if you’ve received multiple copies of this post. My tools are rusty and I sent things out before they were ready.)

Sunday Repost: Happiness

In Family, Happiness, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness--Bhutan.

Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness–Bhutan.

A repost from May, 2010.

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There are lots of things I didn’t teach my kids. I didn’t teach them how to manage money or change the oil in their car or even how to cook an egg. I am hesitatingly interested in someday sitting down with them and finding out what I did, indeed, teach them.  I think their mother and I did a good job of instilling in them a thirst for life, that is, a way of looking at the world so as to render it exciting and if not exciting, at least interesting. That is, it seems to me, important. I know I failed in teaching them how to think about their life in some meaningful context, which is, I intuitively feel, part of being happy. It would have been good to teach them how to be happy. I’m not sure it’s correct to call that a “meaningful context,” as I refer to it above. But it doesn’t feel wrong either.

We live in a country that embraces the pursuit of this effervescent, ineffable thing called happiness. It is important–I guess–to have an unalienable right to chase it.* But it seems there are a lot of people who aren’t, happy that is, or even pursing it directly, there being too many other pressing issues. That is nothing more than my generalization, but I am, as I have said before, comfortable with generalizations (in general). I see a lot of people on the streets here who are struggling, a good many of them living hand to mouth. I don’t think they are happy, at least not the ones I talk to. At the other end of the spectrum, I see people on nice boats who seem happy, especially on pleasant summer days. But when I talk to boat owners they almost all express a degree of frustration about owning a boat. I am surprised how consistently the phrase, “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into,” is used. If there is a creed for boat owners this seems to be it. People with money are worried, particularly as the markets are roiling, that they will lose it. People without money are worried that they will never get it, and the relief it grants. Don’t get me wrong, having money is better than not having it. Studies have shown that people with it, are likely happier as a result. But it’s not a sure-fire recipe for a hearty belly-filling meal of happiness.

There is a great deal of interest in happiness in physiology at present. At Harvard, in 2009, the class “Positive Psychology” by professor Tal D. Ben-Shahar was the most popular class on campus. In a phone interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Ben-Shahar said,

“When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that’s what positive psychology is about.”

It is time someone got to the bottom of this quest for happiness. One thing that troubles me, is how to go about understanding it. This is one reason I could never teach my kids anything much about it. I don’t really understand it, can’t put my finger just on it. I think we–their mother and I–showed it to them. They were raised in a household by loving parents, two adults succeeding at making a marriage work. That is a level of, a degree of happiness: a home, solid and unshifting. Such an environment is a garden in which happiness can grow. It is rich soil. Happiness doesn’t necessarily flourish as a result, but the odds are better. Perhaps it’s so simple as attending to your garden properly.

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* It is no less than ironic, that in this time of Tea Parties and faith-based political initiatives, that “the pursuit of happiness” is an idea born of eighteenth century notions of European enlightenment. “I believe that humanism, at least on the levels of politics, might be defined as every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness.” (M. Foucault, 1967)

Boredom

In Creativity, Happiness, Life, The Examined Life on February 11, 2013 at 6:00 am
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“C’est la vie”

A few lines from the poem, Bored, by Margaret Atwood:

Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.

Big question: What I am doing here?

I used to proudly declare that, “I’ve never been bored.” It was a statement delivered with much the same self-serving gusto one hears when over-achieving middle-class poseurs declare, “We don’t own an TV” or “I only watch PBS.” It makes my eyes roll and my gut contract. “I’ve never been bored” now has the same effect on me. Agghh, what pretentiousness! (I also used to pontificate, in a similar vein, that boredom, like guilt, was a manufactured emotion.) I now understand that boredom is the foundation of everything. It is the pearl-constructing grit in the oyster’s shell, the red phosphorous that makes the match explode. Avoiding boredom is the motivation of modern life. I say modern life because I’m not sure this–boredom–has always been the case. The word boredom didn’t even appear in the language until 1852, when it showed up six times in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House. Given that the English language has been around in a form we (might) recognize since Chaucer (c1340-1400), it strikes me as dead-on that this notion is rather recent, that boredom is a symptom of modern existence.

It’s not an original thought. Heidegger (1889-1976), as have others, spent a lot of time on the subject. “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference,” he wrote. “This boredom reveals being as a whole.” I don’t want to get up on a soap box, nor do I wish to write a thesis on the existential significance of boredom on modern life. That would be boring, would it not? And that is precisely the point.* Let’s not do something that is boring. To the opening question: What am I doing here? I now have an answer: I’m trying to out-sprint boredom.  Does my life have meaning? I submit: Only to the degree I can appreciate Heidegger’s “remarkable indifference.”

Boredom is, paradoxically, the disease and the antidote. We might be challenged by the thought that nothing remains that is new, a thought which prompts (some of) us to attempt the new. I have long held that creativity is key to the profound in existence. What I never really appreciated is that creativity is, to one degree, the response, should one be inclined to respond, to the threat of remarkable indifference. Creativity is the fear of the same styled into the unsame. What am I doing here?–both the practical and the highfalutin metaphysical answer is: wrestling against the threat of boredom–with my notion of creativity. And you?

* Perhaps you might be interested in a more modern–more creative–take on the subject: Consider David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King. (Can we long for the nostalgia of boredom?)

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And of course there is a Ted Talk on the subject, as there appears to be a Ted Talk on every subject:

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A long(er) version of this mini-essay appeared a few years ago over at The Nervous Breakdown. My essays at TNB can be found here. (Was boredom the motivation to lifting this essay…?)

Ray Bradbury, Nietzsche, a New Year, and How to Live. Whew!

In Books, Creativity, Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers, Writing on December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am

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Did you read the Sunday Time’s magazine last Sunday? It is the annual “The Lives They Lived” issue. As you might imagine, for a guy who’s spent a lot of time working on the project How Best To Live, this issue is always and annually most welcome. I don’t think one has to lead a life of pronounced accomplishment to live the best life, but for a lot of people, people far more motivated than I am, accomplishment is often the gauge of their existence.

There is one life in particular I want to share with you. Ray Bradbury (b. 1920). Here is the piece in full:

Shortly before his 90th birthday, when asked which moment of his life he’d return to were time travel possible, Ray Bradbury told his interviewer: “Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible. I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful–because I’ve remained a boy” Bradbury was a rare and necessary antidote to the tortured-genius myth–that toxic cultural narrative that requires great creators to suffer lest their work have no depth, no gravitas, no legacy.

Bradbury left high school with plans of going to college, but no money. So he set out to educate himself by going to the library three days a week, a regimen he continued for 10 years, never romanticizing poverty or the so-called writer’s life. Instead, he celebrated the joy of writing itself. In 1951, living in Los Angels with his wife and two infant daughters, he got a bag of dimes and rented a typewriter in the U.C.L.A. basement for 10 cents an hour. He wrote “Fahrenheit 451″ for $9.80.

His secret? “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past–you just explode.”

Two and half years ago I posted a note about the biography I’d read of Nietzsche by Julian Young. In that post I quoted the opening paragraph. I’m posting it again–the paragraph–because I think it the perfect end piece to the Bradbury life we’re considering.

Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s fee, shout “Da capo!–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!–to “the whole play and performance.” In perfect health one would “crave nothing more fervently” than the “eternal return” of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.

So the process continues, this business of how best to live. Why should a new year be any different?

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What is going on here? A couple of posts since shuttering …the house… Are we back together, the first breakup never lasting? I don’t know quite honestly. I have missed sharing my thoughts and observations, that is true. And something is nagging me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it brought me back here.

I’m not going to analyze it. Going forward (with life, the big picture, that is) I wish to make fewer plans, establish fewer goals, make fewer commitments. In summary, I just want to live as best I am able in this moment. I’ll never be the boy Bradbury claimed to be. Nor can I say with Nietzsche that I would do it all again without editing. But those are lessons and I value them–lessons I wish to better incorporate.

I do hope our paths cross again, you, dear reader, and me. I so enjoy your company.

Happy New Year.

In closing…

In Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Writing on October 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Behold the dangerous beauty of obsession!

My life can be easily reduced to phases, measured by degrees of obsession. These phases link to interests, which are sparked by curiosity. I do not know how to be interested in something without being obsessed by it. Obsession and it’s odd opposite twin, Discipline, have been my brightest marching outposts. My capacity to sustain pace is, however, inelastic and, pushed to the limit, fails me. Then, just like that, everything stops. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I became interested in the classical guitar. I took lessons, went to workshops, sat in on master classes at a world-reknown conservatory. I studied music theory, took classes in composition. I played in recitals, practiced for hours. A guitarist grows long nails on the right hand to pluck the nylon strings of the guitar. One day, out of the blue, I cut my nails and put away the guitar and never played it again.

This pattern has repeated itself for years. Some passions–for that is what they are–last years, some only months. Some are still born and buried the next day.

That, friends, is the position in which I now find myself. I sense the nascent hankering to move on and redirect my laser-view of life. The blog, this house I live in, is on the wan. I trust you understand. You must know me by now, you know I can’t help myself. I figured I owed you a head’s up.

But before I go, please allow me to do something I have tried to not do. I don’t like to give advice. As a writer, I try to practice the old dictum, show, don’t tell. But let me tell you something now that we are going to be seeing less of one another. (“Parting ways” is such a strong and definite phrase–I just can’t go there.)

Let me tell you that life is the adventure–or lack thereof–that you make of it, as trite as that sounds. My flitting from obsession to obsession might appear random and ultimately meaningless; but the reality is that I encourage life to tickle my curiosity. I have trained myself to conform to the nature of my curiosity. There is a great natural harmony to be experienced in such a practice. If I am curious about the classical guitar, I will throw myself into it. I become a musician. If I am curious about the literature of David Foster Wallace, I throw myself into his work. I become a critic. Want to know what sunrise looks like in Nepal? Me too, let’s go, let’s become adventurers! Reinvent yourself over and over. Pursue the contrary, avoid the ruts. Stay interested–and interesting. Nurture curiosity. Allow yourself the freedom to embrace wholly, as well as relinquish freely.

Let us consider how to live, to paraphrase Thoreau. The terms of my consideration are different from yours. But consider we must! There is no greater challenge, no richer reward, than to carve from the marble of life a vision specific to one’s nature. A life well-lived is the greatest art. Become an artist.

A Father’s Toast.

In Family, Happiness, Life, Memoir on October 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

To the marriage of Allie and Geo.

Daughter Allison got married last weekend. She was beautiful. The groom was handsome. The venue perfect. It was a good day to be a father.

I gave a toast, preluded with a story, a father’s reminiscence, a bit of advice, and only then a raising of the glass.

A few in attendance have asked for a transcript. I didn’t write it out, and though I’d practiced the outline of what I wanted to say, it wasn’t until I began speaking that I knew what was going to come of out of my mouth. My toast was made immediately following the ceremony, while the audience was still in their chairs. I watched a video of the ceremony (to glean the toast) and share the (slightly edited) transcript below.

October 6, 2012

On behalf of the long-suffering Mrs. Bruns, my bride of thirty-four years, and myself I’d like to thank you all for being here.

As the champagne is going around, we’re going to break from tradition a bit. I’m going to offer a toast, but before I do, I’m going to make you listen to a story.

As Allie and I walked down the stairs just now, I turned to her and said, ‘On belay.’ She breathed deeply and responded, ‘belay on.’

Not too many years ago, Allie and I started rock climbing together. In typical Bruns fashion, we became obsessive about the sport; such that every night after dinner, we’d gather our gear and rush to the climbing gym. We climbed three or four nights a week. We did it for years and we thought we got pretty good at it. Eventually, we decided to see how good we were and went to Joshua Tree, California, a national park, a mecca for rock climbers, to test ourselves.

First morning of the first day, as Allie and I hiked into the park, we experienced butterflies and nerves, all the things you would anticipate. I knew at that moment, standing at the base of the first route, that she was filled with trepidation and nerves. And I turned to you [pointing to Allie] and said, ‘you’re going to climb first.’ She had a wild-eyed expression. I continued. ‘You’re going to be nervous and your palms are going to sweat. You’re going to get halfway up this crag and you’re going to wonder, What the hell am I doing?’ But, I said, ‘You can climb this. And when you get to the top, look over your shoulder and enjoy that view–we climb for lots of reasons, you know, not the least of which is the view.’

Allie, you climbed the first route that first morning and experienced all of the symptoms I’d anticipated. But you climbed through them and afterward you said that, indeed, the view from the top was beautiful.

[To the audience.] So why am I telling you this story? Because I cannot resist the metaphor of climbing and marriage.

For example, at the beginning of every climb, the two climbers start a communication and it’s very important that it continue through the entire climb. It starts with a request: ‘On belay.’ And the response is, ‘Belay on.’ The job of the belayer is to keep the climber safe. In my case, to keep my eye on her. Allie and I exchanged this command, then she turned to the rock and said to me, ‘Climbing.’ And my response was, ‘Climb on.’ And so it began.

As you climbed [gesturing to Allie], you got to the crux of that climb. Every route has its most difficult section. Using the metaphor, life will deliver us a challenge. As you got to the crux, Allie, you shouted down that you needed rope slack. I gave you slack, and responded with encouragement. ‘Allie you can do this. You look strong.’ And you climbed through the crux.

Before you started your climb, Allie, we put on our harnesses and we roped in. The climber puts on her equipment and her partner checks it. Are the buckles properly cinched? Did I put on my harness correctly? Another set of eyes to look over the other, to protect, to keep safe. It’s a duel responsibility, a team effort. Then you run the rope. You take the rope and ensure there are no knots in it, that it’s not frayed. Allie, you tied in, I tied in. Then I checked your knot and you checked mine.

[To the newlyweds.] To use a cliché, today you guys tied the knot. [The audience chuckles.] And today you guys start your climb. Your job is to communicate, to keep each other safe, to send words of encouragement, to protect, to ensure that if one comes off the rock, the fall is arrested.

Most importantly, when you get to the top, you wait for the other. The view from the top is best shared with your partner.

So Allie, you’ve got a new climbing partner. [I sigh.] And I have observed him closely. In Geo you have a man diligent and hard-working. He’s got great attention to detail–which, Allie, is going to be helpful for you. [Laughs from the audience.] He’s prudent and he’s thoughtful, both in the sense that he is thinking about you and others, but also that he’s thoughtful about the process he’s in. He thinks through things. He’s a man with a lot of ideas.

And, Geo, in Allie you’ve got a young lady. [Long pause] Let me edit that. [Sigh] You’ve got a wife. [At this point, Allie, standing at the back of the venue, starts to unravel. I point to her and command, ‘Stop it, Allison.’ The crowd laughs. My voice begins to break. ‘I was doing so well,’ I say. I collect myself.] Geo, you’ve got a wife with a heart which knows no horizon and a sense of adventure that knows no bounds. As she’s matured, I’ve observed that her capacity for risk has been tempered and that comes with wisdom.

[To them both.] Together, in front of me, I see a great team.

I would like to now propose a toast. If everyone could please stand, raise your glass, and repeat after me. The four commands climbers use when they begin their adventure:

On belay. ‘ON BELAY.’

Belay on. ‘BELAY ON.’

Climbing. ‘CLIMBING.’

Climb on. ‘CLIMB ON.’