Doug Bruns

Out of Ambivalence

In Nature on July 17, 2011 at 9:48 am

I swam the Peaks to Portland yesterday. At 55 I was encouraged that the race was won by a 47 year-old, James Yeomans of Bethlehem, Pa. I understand that when he finished–43 and half minutes after entering the frigid water–a roar went up in the crowd. It was the first time in years that a twenty-something year-old didn’t win, an encouraging sign for the (more) mature Mainers and visitors on the beach.  (I finished in an hour and six minutes, better than I anticipated, and smack in the middle of my demographic spectrum, 50-59 year olds.)

What I find remarkable about this event is what awaits the emerging swimmers: a beach-full of screaming, encouraging, cheering, shouting and yelping fellow community members, family and friends. This year, experiencing it for the first time from the water-side, it felt as if all of northern New England had turned out to support the intrepid swimmers. I’ve competed in road races, triathlons and sporting events all my life. I have never experienced anything quite like the crowd at the Peaks to Portland. Community is alive and well in Portland, Maine.

On the other end of the experience register: Two weeks ago, Carole, Lucy and I went north to Moosehead Lake for a few days of North woods camping and canoeing. At one point, as the sun set and the stars emerged, I stood on the shore and looked across the lake. I was peering perhaps two miles across the water. I then studied the landscape up the lake, another couple of miles, then down the lake, to the south, maybe three miles. There was not a light to be seen on any shore, in any direction. It was complete and utter remoteness.

The filling aspect of these experiences–the swim across the bay, the remote waterway–is found, for me, in supplementing experience with an element of the wild.   That is to say, nature, and the compliment to a singular experience it affords. (I am encouraged by remembering the zen philosopher Dōgen‘s comment, “Practice is the path.”) I don’t subscribe necessarily to the idea of the transcendent. I don’t wish to transcend. Rather, I strive to enhance, to experience a world that spans wide(r) and forces me out of ambivalence.

  1. Congratulations on a courageous, strong swim, Doug, and welcome back from the wilderness. Getting out of ambivalence seems like a segue to your review of The Pale King ( since you stated you picked the book up with some ambivalence. I enjoyed your review thrice: initially, when I received it; then, when I finished reading the book; mostly, after I spent some hours on the deck, reviewing and putting a title on each chapter of the book. I had a need to develop an aid for myself to make some sense of the overall themes and organization of the book. After the chapter-naming exercise, I really came to appreciate the nuances of your review.

    I appreciated how you tied together Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement ideas to the characters in The Pale King. The idea of the “power to experience a crowded, hot, consumer-hell situation as…..sacred” was more comprehensible in the context of the detailed lives of the various workers at the IRS: Leonard Steyck, Lane Dean, Meredith Rand and Toni (“Do not mess with this girl. This girl is damaged goods.”) Ware…making their way and perhaps finding some relief from their variously tortured lives in the boredom of their job.

    You also made interesting connections to the notes following the book. Shane Drinion’s meditative listening skills did seem to offer him a spiritual contentment, if not “constant bliss.”

    I also agreed with your comment that “there are stretches which are punishing.” I wonder whether Wallace would have spared us those, or was he testing the reader’s ability to appreciate tedium?

    Much to ponder in this book and you highlighted some thoughtful ideas! Thanks!

    • S ~ Once again you impress with your critical skills. And also, once again, thank you for your kind words. Someday you must share with me your chapter titles for PK. What an interesting and fruitful little project that must have been.

      One thing I didn’t connect to my thoughts of PK are my thoughts regarding Nietzsche and many DFW themes. The tough old philosopher, for me, is the fount of much of what we moderns have come to expect of our thinkers, writers and artists. In this case, N warned of the hell created when modern man looses the ability to find meaning in community and in tradition. I find much of what he foresaw in DFW’s fiction. There is too, that aspect of N’s late maddness. For me I have come to accept that he saw the future and knew we were lost (being dramatic here) and could not accept the notion that he could not save humanity. It drove him mad. The romantic imaginer in me, sees DFW’s despair (not to be confused with clinical depression) in a shared context. Have you read Nietzsche? You should. But then you have to finish Gibbons first!


  2. Perhaps Nietzsche in 2012. Good idea!

    Community and tradition. Hmmm….sounds like religion, which is a lively topic in my current reading. Though I imagine a very different perspective.

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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