Doug Bruns

Archive for 2010|Yearly archive page

“I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe.”

In Books, Dogs, Writers, Writing on December 28, 2010 at 8:21 pm

“…Oregon, and not toward Europe.” That is Henry David Thoreau in his famous “Walking” essay. He is, of course, speaking metaphorically and thinking like an American in America. It is my mantra for the new year. I am with a single exception, going to regulate my reading to American writers only. The single exception? Montaigne. I told a friend at dinner last night, “Some people read the Bible every day. I read Montaigne.” So, 2011 will bring me more Thoreau, Emerson, Mencken and so on and so on. And one Frenchman.


I am retiring my blog indefinitely. I am retiring indefinitely. I am retiring. I am. I….


My energies go into my book effort, working title: Notes of an Autodidact, a memoir of ideas.


It has been two weeks since Maggie died. I am lost still…


In memory of Maggie

In Death, Dogs on December 17, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I re-post this in loving memory of my Maggster:

How is it that Maggie, my ten-year old vizsla, is so excited every morning upon waking up? She’s not a puppy any more, but you wouldn’t know it at 6:00 am, with the sun streaming in and the gulls screeching. As soon as I move, she leaps from her bed and throws herself on the floor at my bedside. (My wife is certain that she hears my eyes opening.) She rolls over and arches her back, twisting. Then she rights herself, stretches, squeals, and rolls over again, crashing to the floor. I struggle to get out of bed amidst her bounding and cavorting. Lastly, she rises, braces her legs in support and flaps her ears. I’ve tried to count. It’s either six or seven rotations of her head, ears slapping accordingly. Lately, she has taken to letting out a deep resounding howl, as if to announce to the world that she has risen. She is like the German grandmother, wagging her finger, “Morgen Stund hat Gold im Mund,” or “The mourning hour has gold in its mouth.” It is all, frankly, annoying. But learning by repetition can be annoying. Yet, for some such as myself, that is, individuals for whom the previous day’s lessons are likely forgotten with each new dawn, repetition is the only way. That is the stuff of habits and I have always believed in them–at least the good ones. The bad habits require belief in something opposing. That is the only way to break their backs. Good habits are practices of self-sustaining discipline. Yet, I have much to learn, even as I’m subjected to the habitual morning training at the hands, dare I say paws, of my dog.

Every dawn, rain or shine, Maggie performs her routine at my feet. All that excitement and enthusiasm and joy. Every morning that lesson gets drilled into me. You must see where I’m going here. I have never met a soul who musters, at the prospect of each day, such happiness as Maggie. Life should be so simply learned as to watch our dogs and emulate them. Unconditional love, curiosity, loyalty, boundless joy. (I choose to ignore the chewed shoes, the ruined carpet, the surprise in the closet. Learning to ignore the troublesome aspects of existence is sometimes a lesson too. ) And the current lesson: a canine reminder, carpe diem. I’m a slow learner. Maggie is a good teacher. Her work is not yet done.


In Books, Life, Literature, Memoir, Writers on December 2, 2010 at 10:12 am
The Young Rimbaud

The Young Rimbaud

It probably sounds deathly esoteric, but I’ve been reading I promise to be good, The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud. A French poet, Rimbaud (1851-1891), at the age of twenty-one, abandoned poetry and disappeared into the African desert. Of the book, a Modern Library edition,the publisher writes:

A moving document of decline, Rimbaud’s letters begin with the enthusiastic artistic pronouncements of a fifteen-year-old genius, and end with the bitter what-ifs of a man whose life has slipped disastrously away. But whether soapboxing on the essence of art, or struggling under the yoke of self-imposed exile in the desert of his later years, Rimbaud was incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence.

I don’t read much poetry, unfortunately. (It is a personal shortcoming of which I am fully aware. As they say, “no culture exits until the poets arrive.”) Rimbaud came to my attention through the great American writer, Jim Harrison, who someplace wrote of Rimbaud’s lasting influence. I respect Harrison a great deal, so I followed his lead and started reading the poet. I found the book of his letters on the discount used book rack at Longfellow Books. I have the collected letters of V. Woolf and Joyce and a couple of others; but letters, as a literary form, never deliver on the promise I hold for them. Not so here. These are different. In his letters Rimbaud paints a compelling notion of a life I find equal parts exciting and tragic.

Writing from Cyprus, the young Rimbaud asks his parents to send two books: The Illustrated Book of Agricultural and Forestry Sawmills (3 francs, with 128 pictures), and The Pocket Book of Carpentry. They are tools, these books, resources for a world that knows no poetry. Indeed, by this date, Rimbaud the poet is no more. His poet self is dead. And a new man, in search of a new life, has taken his place in full. Several months later, in another letter to his family, he writes, sadly, “The books never came, because (I’m certain) someone took them in my absence, as soon as I had left for Troodos. I still need them…”

Another year later still, in a letter to his family, Rimbaud states, “I am living a really stupid, tiresome existence.” Not long after, Rimbaud disappears into the North African desert.

The phrase, “The books never came…” breaks my heart.


I have a couple new pieces at The Nervous Breakdown:
“The First-Person Singular”

“A Man Gets into a Cage With a Tiger…”

And another at The Millions:

“Who Will There Be to Talk To?”

My New Library Card

In Books, Reading, Technology, Writing on November 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

There are books I want to read and own. And there are books I want to just read. So, there being a “read only” book currently in my purview, I marched up to the newly renovated Portland public library and got a library card. I am embarrassed to admit that it is the first library card I’ve had in, maybe, twenty years.

I live in a small place now, already filled with enough books, such that book overflow is beginning to occur in my man-cave office-study in town. Too, there are hundreds of books still back in Maryland, books which presumably will never make their way north to Maine. Also, libraries are green. It is a benchmark recycling notion, this business of taking a book, reading it, and returning it for someone else to enjoy.

I have been thinking a great bit about the impact of technology on modern life. The theme has been explored in a number of posts here. There is a book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, by William Powers which explores this question. Here’s the jacket blurb:

At a time when we’re all trying to make sense of our relentlessly connected lives, this revelatory book presents a bold new approach to the digital age. Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.

Using his own life as laboratory and object lesson, and drawing on such great thinkers as Plato, Shakespeare and Thoreau, Powers shows that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.

Exactly! Powers has been interviewed on PBS & NPR, the book has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal, by Diane Rehm and Katie Couraic. It’s been on the Time’s Best Seller List. Where am I going with this? The library doesn’t have a copy! Nor can they get me one! (I do not use exclamation marks arbitrarily, I want to point out.) I suddenly am feeling as if I live in a remote backwater outpost. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, granted. It’s just a disappointing first library experience. When I pointed out to the librarian, a congenial woman with a terrible hacking cough, all of the above, the press notices, the interviews and so forth, she as much as challenged me, wondering out loud if it really was on the best seller’s list.

I know my reading tends to the esoteric, but this is mainstream, for god’s sake.

Enough ranting. In a follow-up visit I picked up Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Chatiwin’s The Songlines–both books I need to refresh myself with for a piece I’m working on. They had the books. No surprise there. I should point out: both books were likely purchased long before the library budget started to get directed to DVDs and audio books, movies and CDs, which were the articles everyone was checking out at the front desk. It would be ironic if libraries were, in the fashion of my experience, to contribute to the death of the written word, being presumably the last bastion of orderliness in the messy digital war of ideas (or lack thereof).


This just in: “Nearly 2,000 volunteers lined up on the Akoni Pule Highway on Saturday to form a human chain, so they could pass the thousands of books – or huki puke, in Hawaiian – over a mile and a third down the road to the new library.” Check out: Good library news.

Review of Miscellany

In Books, Reading, Technology, Wisdom on November 5, 2010 at 8:17 am

In a piece called Generation Why? one of my favorite contemporary writers, Zadie Smith, reviews The Social Network in The New York Review of Books. I mentioned it because I found the movie an unlikely favorite, a sort of Melvillian study in obsession, à la Moby Dick, but with a computer replacing the whale.

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There is a terrific article in the current The New Yorker on Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s collection of correspondence and letters. I confess to infrequently investing in a full reading of a New Yorker article, but this one was different. I knew of Moynihan, of course, but didn’t really know why I knew of him.  Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The piece is a nice introduction. Where are the Moynihans of today?

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My favorite local beer–local or not, always a favorite–is Allagash White. But there is a contender, though not local, but close. Three Philosophers beer from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown. I mention it because of the label description, which reads: “cultured yet wild, curious yet wise.” If one were so inclined, there is an apt and wonderful epitaph.

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In the category: Not yet read but going to read: Hamlet’s Blackberry. As you may know from reading my occasional rants here, I am conflicted over the import of technology on our lives. This book takes up the question. One reviewer, quoted on the author’s homepage, states: “To those dithering over whether to close down Facebook accounts, resign from the Twitterati, and resume a more contemplative and more properly connected life, this remarkable book presents the answers and the validations for which you have been hoping.  William Powers, brave in intent and wise in argument, offers in these pages an oasis of serenity and sanity, a sanctuary from a world fast turning into a limitless digital Sahara.

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There are three blogs I read regularly. I thought I should link them here. There is The Millions, a site for readers. It was here I started my David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest journey. There is The Rumpus, a terrific site for all things cultural (popular). And then, The Nervous Breakdown, an energetic blog of ideas and notions, leaning in the writerly direction. I contribute regularly to The Nervous Breakdown (TNB). To wit, a new essay, “I have no natural capacity for anything.”

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I leave you with a quote: “Doubting pleases me no less than knowing.” ~ Dante

False Starts and Other Notions.

In Writing on October 30, 2010 at 12:29 pm

A friend visited last night, a writer friend. He was telling me about the work practice of a well-known American man of letters, a novelist and poet, with whom my friend is particularly close. “He has everything thought out before he even starts,” he told me. I was green with envy. The little bit of fiction I have written began with an opening sentence and what followed was the anthesis of the well-conceived plot line. The opening sentence is the kick-off to the game and I never made it to half-time.

Here are a few samples, opening lines to a few of my failed stories:

“Elder Stone and Elder Harris visited Dave Burns and asked if he had a relationship with God.”

“He packed as light as he ever had packed.”

“He lay looking skyward.”

“He wondered about what Julie said, that he lived large, and how it fed his appetite to live larger still.”

“Anymore it took work to get into a good mood.”

That Anne came to live in Chile after reading Chatwin is not unusual.”

“I have been photographing seriously for several years and find it to be a convenient way to avoid writing.”

“A woman sat alone.”

Probably, upon reflection, it’s just as well they died the quiet death they did. It’s not only fiction that fails to construct itself properly. My non-fiction, the workshop where I spend most of my time, is also a meandering and stitching together of notions and themes. I was asked recently about this, about what I write about specifically. I’ve spent a little time thinking about this question and put together a proper and meandering response. You can read the essay, What Am I Doing Here? at The Nervous Breakdown.

Thanks for stopping in!