Doug Bruns

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Sunday repost: “Two truths approach each other…”

In Creativity, Life, Reading, The Examined Life, Wisdom, Writing on January 13, 2013 at 6:00 am

Books at Tempo De Lari, Peru, D. Bruns, 2006

I recently read of a woman who spends her entire waking hours reading. Apparently she is a woman of means, or perhaps a woman of no means, like my homeless friend Lonnie. Her’s is a case of the extreme in one direction or the other. Regardless, she apparently indulges her singular obsession to the fullest. I am reminded of Einstein who said, “Any man [or woman] who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

* * *

I’ve been gripped by obsessions all my life. I seek them out. It’s not worth doing a thing if not to do it obsessively–that is a tag line hung on my life by an observant friend. Yet this woman’s reading obsession troubles me.

A passage from a Tomas Tranströmer poem might illuminate my concern:

Two truths approach each other / One comes from without–and where they meet you have the chance / To catch a look at yourself.

Reading is the richest supplement to life I know. Yet it does not replace life. It can be the truth which “comes from without” but the magic of catching that “look at yourself” comes at the intersection with the second truth, life. That is, of course, the trouble with obsession. It crowds life. I know this to be true.

* * *

Yet, how is a worthy thing to be accomplished without it?

Habits of a blogger

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 12, 2013 at 6:00 am

I am a rigid and determined creature of habit. I wish it were otherwise. It would be nice to go dancing through life on a whim, bending to curiosity, twisting to spontaneity. I admire the carefree force, that personality moving through existence on the juice of life alone. (Undoubtedly the French have a name for it.) But no, my ancestors were too Germanic for that. I have habits, routines to keep. This is stuff of my twisted double helix. Too, I am a mid-westerner by up-bringing. Mid-westerners are notorious for stoic productivity. As I’ve said, you cannot escape your biography.

When I retired a few years ago the form of my existence became fluid, like water, filling the shape of any containing vessel. It didn’t take me long to construct a new vessel, filling the hours with projects and schedules. So, to finish off our three-part conversation about habit, here is how I filled the vessel specific to my so-called creative thinking life.

It begins with a short walk at sunrise–and the hope that my muse is out and about. Wrestling your muse to the deck is a bit like catching trout: you can trick her or seduce her, but if you go straight for the kiss, she’ll slip away, a watery sprite at once beautiful yet invisible. If I’ve been successful, the walk ends with a notion of what the day’s creative output is going to look like. That is a thing akin to grace, I suspect.

The production side of the creative ledger finds me at my desk every afternoon. The routine is 1:00 to 4:00, three hours of pecking away. But often, like now, it starts at the breakfast table, trying to tie down a thought or two before the sun vaporizes them. Two years ago I stopped writing …the house… in an effort to collect my thoughts on a larger canvas. I thought I’d write a book, the working title of which was, appropriately, Notes of an Autodidact. Sounds like a yawner, doesn’t it? That did not work out but in the attempt, I discovered my daily rule of 500. That is, write five hundred words a day, minimum. Three hours, five hundred words–whichever comes first. That is the writer-blogger at work.

On the intake side of the creative ledger is the reading. Books are the oxygen by which we fill our lungs. Reading is counting pages for me. Fifty pages a day is the minimum tempo, the metronome of my reading day. That is, fifty pages of the current book. Periodical reading, though entertaining, is too often a time-consuming distraction (much like computer time, a sin factored slightly less grave than tv watching (though I commit that sin, guiltily, too frequently)). The New Yorker, The Paris Review (a quarterly, read for the interviews!) and The New York Review of Books are the extent of the periodicals. The morning paper too and a handful of blogs on my RSS reader round out my reading day.

That’s it. Reading and writing, putting in the time, day after day. Breath in, breath out.

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…and, in the news flash department, philosopher Gary Gutting takes a look at Zadie Smith’s thoughts on Joy over at the New York Times’ Opinionator page. Gutting’s piece, The Joy of Zadie Smith and Thomas Aquinas, is artless, but well structured and precise–exactly what one would expect, sadly, of a philosopher. It is, however, thought provoking. It makes for chewy reading.

Here we have a nice, serendipitous, wrinkle demonstrating how a well-articulated notion, Zadie’s essay, starts a thinking process, the birth of an idea’s history–like a Big Bang of  thought it expands and washes over spectator and participant alike. In this instance, as a bonus, because it is rendered artistically, there is pleasure involved (to walk the edge of Smith’s arguement). I read it and send it to you; you absorb it; Gutting writes about it; we visit and entertain his thoughts, her thoughts, and so forth; layered, and inclusive, all of us suddenly part of a larger conversation. That is a function of art, indeed.

Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend.

d

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

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I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

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Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d

Joy at The New York Review of Books

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on January 10, 2013 at 5:18 pm

Sorry to intrude on your afternoon, but I just read an essay by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books and am compelled to share. Zadie Smith is one of the best writers working currently–you know this, I know–and this essay is masterful. This is the art of non-fiction, folks, as practiced by a master. I’ve copied and pasted the first few of paragraphs then linked to the full essay where you can finish if inclined.

(Notice the journey she takes as she explores the concept of Joy, the by-ways she travels, the secrets she shares with us. You begin to notice, indeed, feel, as the narrative picks up, that she is displaying as well as describing Joy–telling and showing. So dexterous!)

Okay, here you go.

Joy, by Zadie Smith

It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track. That has not been my experience. And if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.

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Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
George Bellows: Geraldine Lee, No. 2, 1914; on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ‘George Bellows’ exhibition until February 18, 2013

Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It wasthe same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way. I seem to get more than the ordinary satisfaction out of food, for example—any old food. An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.
You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.” “But it was delicious.” It drives him crazy. All day long I can look forward to a popsicle. The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavor of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavor is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.

 

As you were…

Habits of Reader-Writers

In Books, Creativity, Life, Literature, Philosophy, Technology, Writing on January 10, 2013 at 6:00 am

We’ve been talking a good bit recently about reading and books. I thought you might be interested in the habits of a few famous reader-writer-thinkers. (In no particular order.)

John Updike (1932-2009), Academy of Achievement, June 12, 2004

Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life. There’s a letter. And most people have junk in their lives but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it along steadily that you’re going to forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ’57. It’s a long time to be doing one thing. I don’t know how to retire. I don’t know how to get off the horse, though. I still like to do it. I still love books coming out. I love the smell of glue and the shiny look of the jacket and the type, and to see your own scribbles turned into more or less impeccable type. It’s still a great thrill for me, so I will probably persevere a little longer, but I do think maybe the time has come for me to be a little less compulsive, and maybe the book-a-year technique which has been basically the way I’ve operated.

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Truman Capote (1924-1984), from The Paris Review, 1957, issue #16

INTERVIEWER: What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?

CAPOTE:  I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

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According to his son, Francis, here is Charles Darwin‘s (1809 – 1892) routine:

7 am ~ Rose and took a short walk.

7:45 am ~ Breakfast alone.

8-9:30 am ~ Worked in his study; he considered this his best working time.

9:30 – 10:30 am ~ Went to drawing-room and read his letters, followed by reading aloud of family letters.

10:30 am – 12 or 12:15pm ~ Returned to study, which period he considered the end of his working day.

12 noon ~ Walk, starting with visit to greenhouse, then round the sand-walk, a number of times depending on his health, usually alone or with a dog.

12:45 pm ~ Lunch with the whole family, which was his main meal of the day. After lunch read The Times, and answered his letters.

3 pm ~ Rested in his bedroom on the sofa and smoked a cigarette, listened to a novel or other light literature read by ED [Emma, his wife].

4 pm ~ Walked, usually round the sand-walk, sometimes farther afield and sometimes in company.

4:30 – 5:30 pm ~ Worked in study and cleaned up matters of the day.

6 pm ~ Rested again in bedroom, with ED reading aloud.

7:30 pm ~ Light high tea while the family dined. In late years never stayed in the dining room with the men, but retired to the drawing-room with the ladies. If no guests were present, he played two games of backgammon with ED, usually followed by reading to himself, then ED played the piano, followed by reading aloud.

10:00 pm ~ Left the drawing-room and usually in bed by 10:30, but slept badly.

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Emily Dickerson (1830-1886), from the letters of

I will tell you my order of time for the day, as you were so kind as to give me your’s. At 6. oclock, we all rise. We breakfast at 7. Our study hours begin at 8. At 9. we all meet in Seminary Hall, for devotions. At 10¼. I recite a review of Ancient History, in connection with which we read Goldsmith & Grimshaw.  At .11. I recite a lesson in “Pope’s Essay on Man” which is merely transposition. At .12. I practice Calisthenics & at 12¼ read until dinner, which is at 12½ & after dinner, from 1½ until 2 I sing in Seminary Hall. From 2¾ until 3¾. I practise upon the Piano. At 3¾ I go to Sections, where we give in all our accounts of the day, including, Absence – Tardiness – Communications – Breaking Silent Study hours – Receiving Company in our rooms & ten thousand other things, which I will not take time or place to mention. At 4½, we go into Seminary Hall, & receive advice from Miss. Lyon in the form of lecture. We have Supper at 6. & silent-study hours from then until retiring bell, which rings at 8¾, but the tardy bell does not ring untl 9¾, so that we dont often obey the first warning to retire.

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Toni Morrison (b. 1931), Nobel Prize, Literature, 1993, from The Paris Review, 1993, issue #128

INTERVIEWER: What about your writing routine?

MORRISON: I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space–a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out–life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that–mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.

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Karl Marx (1818-1883) from the biography by (the great) Sir Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, His Life and Environment 

His mode of living consisted of daily visits to the British Museum reading-room, where he normally remained from nine in the morning until it closed at seven; this was followed by long hours of work at night, accompanied by ceaseless smoking, which from a luxury had become an indispensable anodyne; this affected his health permanently and he became liable to frequent attacks of a disease of the liver sometimes accompanied by boils and an inflammation of the eyes, which interfered with his work, exhausted and irritated him, and interrupted his never certain means of livelihood. “I am plagued like Job, though not so God-fearing,” he wrote in 1858.

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Gunter Grass, (b. 1927), Nobel Prize, Literature, 1999, from The Paris Review, summer, 1991, #124

INTERVIEWER: What is your daily schedule when you work?

GRASS: When I’m working on the first version, I write between five and seven pages a day. For the third version, three pages a day. It’s very slow.

INTERVIEWER:

You do this in the morning or in the afternoon or at night?
GRASS:

Never, never at night. I don’t believe in writing at night because it comes too easily. When I read it in the morning it’s not good. I need daylight to begin. Between nine and ten o’clock I have a long breakfast with reading and music. After breakfast I work, and then take a break for coffee in the afternoon. I start again and finish at seven o’clock in the evening.

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

05a4782b0942d4b907ce8aff37a251fa

The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

File:Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D