Doug Bruns

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

From a letter to a friend

In Books, Death, Life, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is a repost. I put it up starting a Sunday tradition of reposting a favorite past entry. This particular post was brought to my attention by a close reader of …the house…. After yesterday’s post, Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions, this reader–paying extraordinary attention!–suggested I go back and read this piece, posted in August, 2010. It was particularly interesting to see the parallel between the two posts, spanning more than twenty-four months.  (Thanks, Kevin, for bringing it to my attention. You get an A!)

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“…it’s because we live too long, was, I think, what I said exactly. We live too long and thus have these artificial parts of which you speak and this scree (now there is a word I have not encountered since on the side of a mountain in Ecuador, the name of which escapes me, just remembering ropes and snow and a field of said scree), this scree, as I was saying, that inhabits our aging body–and mind, scree of the mind is, in particular, that of which I spoke to my beloved, commenting exactly, if memory serves, that one reason the practice of therapy is exercised is due to living long enough so as to grow concerned about what is happening between our ears. Our ancestors running full-bore across the savanna plains, just a foot-step in front of some hunger-dripping monster, never would think such a thing necessary; all that was necessary being a tall tree or a field of hidden peers with chiseled spear tips awaiting a fine meal of monster served up raw, or at least medium and pink in the center. Ero vero me minus diu senem esse mallem, quam esse senem antequarm essem. Or, before you go find your latin grammar: For my part, in truth, I would rather be old less long that be old before I am old. Ancient wisdom compliments of my man Montaigne, quoting Brutus. As I was about to say, we are terminal, it’s just a matter of degrees, or so I was reminded this afternoon while taking a stress test because I was experiencing stress of the cardiac nature, only to now better understand, I am/was experiencing stress of the stress nature. So, the pipes are clean and the stress is environmental and thus I am even better positioned to consider the nature of the immortals.

The way I see it, the only way to accomplish such a feat–immortality, the fruit of your low hanging branch–should one be inclined, is to put time in its rightful place, to stop the right-ward nature of that continuum and take notice of such a thing when it happens. The cliché of the Heraclitian river–a cliché becoming a cliché through the test of history and earning the degree–still holds. And that seems to be the nature of reality. Chaos is evident at the quantum level, but who really wants to go there? –particularly when young ladies full of blossom walk the streets of Portland, tan and lightly dressed, and of interest to the gods above who swoop down on them in slumber? What does it mean to say it is a good time to be mortal? When is it a bad time? Germany 1941? They didn’t think so, I suspect. When would it be a good time to be immortal? Oh, to be a god and swoop on young maidens!

There is only a finite amount of matter–carbon–in the universe. When you die you will continue in some fashion, albeit, one you won’t necessarily appreciate. Yet you will carry on, at least your atoms will, chaotic as they are, as you point out. And then, at some time when the river has flowed downstream and around the rock in the right bend, your parts will flow to some other place and you will continue. Little satisfaction in that, indeed.

Just because we have self-reflection and think we’re special because of it, we deem we should be bestowed with a soul, or some other medieval notion and that as a result, surely we are going to continue on somehow. Fertilize an acorn with my remains and I will carry on as an oak. And then perhaps I will be felled and made into pulp, from which I will be processed and pressed and used to absorb ink and bound with others of my ilk and will go into the world as a fashion of wisdom distribution. But then, I write like Dan Brown, so alas wisdom is not my venue, but entertainment. So, that’s settled. Let’s be entertained everyone. Cheers, and many happy returns,
Immortality, indeed.”

Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions.

In Dogs, Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Gravity Probe B

Einstein (1879-1955) was vindicated about seven years ago. That was when Gravity Probe B, one of Nasa’s satellites, confirmed “to a precision of better than 1 per cent the assertion Einstein made 90 years ago – that an object such as the Earth does indeed distort the fabric of space and time.” (NASA) Imagine a tarp stretched tight, suspended with bungee cords; then imagine dropping a basketball on the tarp. The tarp will sag under the ball and eventually it will come to rest in the middle of the tarp. Drop a marble on the tarp and it will speed to the basketball. This is called the Geodetic Effect and is what Einstein predicted happens with space and time. The basketball represents gravity, as a planet might manifest; the sagging tarp the fabric of space-time. Indeed, time and space bend.

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Despite the assertion fronted by certain family members (you know who you are), I do not believe (entirely) that the gravity of my existence bends my environmental reality. But…

As my parents warned, life (read: time) appears to be accelerating. Years come and go–flash, bang, and suddenly another day has passed, a year escaped, a decade expired before I can blink my eyes. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535 – c. 475 BCE) famously said, “No man [or woman, presumably] ever steps in the same river twice.” His work, On Nature, does not survive, and everything we know about him we glean from fragments mentioned by other philosophers, principally Diogenes and Plato (who gives us the “river” metaphor). We must be thankful for that, at least.

The flow of existence feels (to me) to be bending time. The older I get the more the bend. The basketball seems to rest deeper into the tarp. Have you ever stood in a river when upstream water is released from a dam? I have. You don’t realize the water flow is increasing until the rush of it is hard upon you. That is aging–we are clueless until it’s mid-thigh and rising, our feet searching for traction. (I realize I’m mixing metaphors here, but hang with me a moment more.)

How does one broach this rushing tide? I turn to the lessons of my dogs. The best of them, those most seemingly, most excitedly alive, existed nose to the ground, curiosity aroused, a trot along the line, working the margins of the harvest. A dog lives a life without shadow; it is a being fully aware, running in the brilliant high-noon sun. Humans cast a shadow and we call it consciousness. Like biography it cannot be escaped. It is the ransom that cannot be paid.

The gist: It seems that the less I am aware of things, the faster the flow. Contrariwise, my dogs appear aware of most everything and completely and totally ignorant of  the bending basketball-gravity of existence.

Here are the things I’m not talking about: transcendence, enlightenment, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, immortality, and all the other limp and ill-fitting clothes we’ve donned over the ages. And what I am talking about? I’ll let you know as soon as Lucy wakes from her nap. We’ll discuss it on our walk.

“Oh, the vision thing.”

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am
Report on the annual slate cleaning.

Report on the annual slate cleaning.

I used to joke that my only New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a tired little ditty now and I don’t bother with it. (I’m sure my old logic professor would smile then discourse on the inherent irony in all things tautological.) No resolutions for this hard-bitten curmudgeon. But that does not stop me from exercising my annual habit of purging my space of annoying and distracting artifacts of the previous twelve month’s existence. I like the slate clean. Indeed, I should clean it every day but repeatedly fail to muster the necessary discipline for that. There is probably a correlation to the amount of Maker’s consumed at day’s end and the lack of late post meridiem discipline, alas the occasional surrender of the cerebral cortex to dissipation–but that is altogether another conversation.

Yesterday I wiped the white board clean. Almost.

I installed it a couple of years ago after a young friend, a documentary film maker, convinced me of the benefits of “brain-storming.” I confess that I never fully grasped this brain-storming business. My natural inclination is to seek cover during a storm and my experience with the board proved no different. Who wants a storm, really? Give me a nice sunrise. In other words, the board didn’t get much use after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

So, as I said, I wiped it clean yesterday.

–But for one scribbling. Here is what I kept:

  • Stay true to your vision.
  • Nurture your talent.
  • Do what you love.
  • Wake Up!

I don’t know where I stumbled across these four–for lack of a better word–rules. But they are important enough to keep them on the board. (For perhaps another year?)

I think I like them because they, upon reflection, are surprisingly oblique, and I am naturally drawn to things that are difficult, a weird and annoying personal quirk I figured out in my youth. Though pithy and resounding of feel-good truth, these are not easy admonitions. Here’s the thing:

“Always look to the language,” said Christopher Hitchens (appropriately penned in his wonderful little book, a rif on Rilke, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)). The language that jumps out at me: vision, talent, love–and of course Wake up!–these are words that challenge. (“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Consider: What is my vision? How do I best exercise my talent, assuming I’ve figured out what that is? What do I love? And for god’s sake, how does one wake up? To honestly wrestle with these notions is no small matter. Sure, there are easy and pat answers, but the easy path most frequently lacks insight. (Case in point: a former US president quipping, “Oh, the vision thing.”) I’d rather be dismissive then settle–but I can’t dismiss this stuff. I can’t because even at 57 years of experience I can’t answer the questions with the depth of understanding I believe warranted.

So, as you are likely used to if you’re a long-time reader here at …the house… I leave you without answers, only more questions. (“I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.) I hope they are new questions: what is your vision/what is your talent/what do you love/how do we wake up? It’s a new year and if nothing else, a set of new questions gives us something to work on.

Best,

D