Doug Bruns

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Sunday Repost: Five Islands

In Travel on February 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Portland, Maine. Home, Sweet Home

Portland, Maine. Home, Sweet Home

Gulls wake early. And they sound hungry, very hungry, screeching complaints of empty belly. Our bedroom is on a wharf overlooking a working lobster dock and the lobstermen head out early, between 4 and 5 am, and in doing so, they get the gulls riled up and being riled up, being scavengers, they set out screaming like a small rodent being crushed under heel; all the more violent it seems at 4am. But really, one should not complain about waking up on the water in Maine.
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I walked into town early this morning to get the Sunday Times and coffee. I poked around the fish market though no one sets up on Sunday; but found a man pushing a grocery basket down Commercial Street. It was a third high with collected cans and bottles, residue of a Friday night downtown. There is a 5 cent bottle return in Maine.

“Can you spare me any change,” he asked.

His face was tan. He was short and wore a clean white tee-shirt. I had a dollar or so in change I gave him. I asked if he was from Portland. “Massachusetts,” he replied. “But I worked with the Coast Guard here. He motioned to the harbor. “Fifteen years and see where it got me. How this country takes care of its own. It’s a crime.” I thanked him for his service to the country and noted that the bottle return was a sound environmental policy. He said he makes up to five dollars a day returning cans and bottles.

House on Peak’s Island, Casco Bay, Maine

“I saw my girlfriend back there,” he offered, nodding down the street. “She won’t stay with him long.”
“Your ex?” I asked.
He nodded. I asked when they broke up.
“Yesterday. But she’ll come back. I’ve got a fifteen hundred dollar check coming. It’s overdue now…”

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It was suggested to me two or three years ago to visit Five Islands if I wanted a true taste of Maine. The suggestion came from my friend, Franz Hanson. I met Franz in 2000 while fishing in Chile where he guides Patagonia rivers during the North American winters and Maine rivers during South American winters. We’ve fished together in both hemispheres. He said Five Islands was the real deal. So yesterday we headed out in search of true Maine, south on Route 127.

It was not until we got into the village of Five Islands that the cars started to back up, drivers searching for places to park. Two portly women were leaving the gravel lot, wearing large sun-shielding hats, brims bending back from the ocean breeze; their peddle-pushers, as my mother calls them, creaping up with each advance of their ample thighs. Across the way a carload of kids from Pennsylvania spilled out of an SUV. When I saw all this I thought that perhaps Five Islands is no longer the secret it once was–or maybe living in the wilds of Patagonia poor Franz’s perception of unspoiled civilization was twisted. Nonetheless, asphalt is for me the rubicon of touristy interest. If a venue is paved all is lost. The parking lot at Five Islands is gravel. On we marched.

The lobstermen were oblivious to the tourists. The lobster boats were dirty and smelled of fish. The woman behind the window taking orders was pleasant and sun tanned and had the thick working forearms of a farmer or a gymnast or an oyster shucker. Good signs all. We ordered, sat at picnic tables and ate. The claims were large with sweet bellies and the onion rings were world-class. Visit Five Islands if you get a chance. Turn back if they’ve paved the parking lot.

Prague

In Photography on February 16, 2013 at 6:00 am

Much of my travel has been an excuse to take pictures–or perhaps, I used photography as an excuse to travel. No matter. Prague is one of my favorite cities. I thought I’d break the verbal monotony a bit and share a few shots:

Old Town Bridge Tower, Charles Bridge

Old Town Bridge Tower, Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge Stature

Charles Bridge Stature

Charles Bridge, Night

Charles Bridge, Night

Gulls Above Prague

Gulls Above Prague

Building facade of man holding fish, Prague

Building facade of man holding fish, Prague

Swan in Prague

Swan in Prague

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For you technophiles out there. These shots were made with either a Leica MP or a Maymia 7, medium format camera. All images on Fuji Velvia.

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

* * *

There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

Valentine’s Day

In Writers on February 14, 2013 at 6:00 am
Antique Valentine's Day Card (1909)

,  Antique Valentine’s Day Card (1909)

I am by nature dismissive toward the artifacts of mass consumption, no matter the form. This means, among other things, that I have a low tolerance for holidays, national celebrations, observances, and mass ritual. It is not only the big stuff. I also shun birthdays, anniversaries, and those annoying “holidays” manufactured solely to extract money from one’s wallet. Valentine’s Day is no different, but falling as it does on a day when the micro-essay (read: blog post) is a hard time in coming, I think, with this little preamble (hoping I’ve not cast too dark a shadow on your day of cupidic celebration), I’ll move over and let the big guns do the talking. Have a nice day.

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Compliments of The Writer’s Almanac here are three literary Valentine’s Day missives:

Nathaniel Hawthorn to his wife, Sophia, on the first anniversary of their marriage:

“We were never so happy as now — never such wide capacity for happiness, yet overflowing with all that the day and every moment brings to us. Methinks this birth-day of our married life is like a cape, which we have now doubled and find a more infinite ocean of love stretching out before us.”

And this, especially tender love letter from James Joyce to his beloved Nora:

“You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening to the doors of your heart. … I love you deeply and truly, Nora. … There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. … If you would only let me I would speak to you of everything in my mind but sometimes I fancy from your look that you would only be bored by me. Anyhow, Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is) any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.”

Here is Zelda Fitzgerald, writing her husband:

“I look down the tracks and see you coming — and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trouser are hurrying to me — Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think — or live — I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you.

Lover, Lover, Darling — Your Wife”

Thanks for reading.

d

The Examined Life

In Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers on February 13, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Okay, fine. It took only two weeks to fall off the theme-day thing. As two tribe members noted, Thursday Theme Day flew in the face of the spontaneity that defines “…the house…” Regardless, in short order it became a chore, self-imposed at that, and there is little reason to accept such discipline.

With that bit of housekeeping completed, let’s talk about the death of Socrates and the examined life. The examined life is a frequent theme  here: “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. It occurs to me that perhaps you are not aware of the tradition behind this ancient saying. Please allow me to tell you the story (a bit editorialized, thank you very much.) (And in that spirit, this is a long post. I understand if you aren’t interested in spending the time on it. Frankly, if I were you, I doubt I would spend that much time with me. If that’s the case, I invite you to scroll to the bottom for a brief summary, as well as some reading recommendations.)

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Ruins of the Agora

Ruins of the Agora

Socrates held truth a thing to be pursued, not discovered, an idea that takes it off the mount and puts it in the streets. (Oliver Wendall Holmes, a pragmatist, echoed the notion when he remarked to a friend, “All I mean by truth is the path I have to travel.”) And that is where he spent his time, in the streets, talking to anyone who would listen. Xenophon wrote that he “was always on public view.” He continues, “Socrates used to go to the walkways and gymnasia, to appear in the agora as it filled up, and to be present wherever he would meet with the most people.” * His student, Plato, recorded him referring to himself, fittingly, as a gadfly. (It is important to know that Socrates left no written record. Most of what we know of him was recorded by his student and younger friend, Plato. Plato, by the way, was the teacher of Aristotle, who, in case you are not aware, was the teacher of Alexander the Great, Alex making a cameo here at “…the house…” just a couple of weeks ago.)

He was well known in Athens for years prior to his trial. Aristophanes mentions him in his comedy The Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portraying Socrates as a sophist. There is no historical evidence that Socrates was associated with the sophists, His recorded sayings do not support this account. The sophists had a dicey reputation in Athens at the time. The historian G.B. Kerferd described the sophists of this period as : “…a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”

The climate at the time was tense. The year was 399 B.C. The city (Athens) guardians were being pressed for reform and the youth were restless. So it came to be that Socrates, a pain in the backside to those holding to the status quo, was arrested on charges of “corruption of youth” and “impiety.” Specifically, the impious acts were: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities.”  (“Could Socrates have been the corrupter of youth after all?” asks Nietzsche. “And did he deserve his hemlock?”)

He was brought to trial. The law in Athens dictated that such cases not exceed a day’s length and the old philosopher knew that he could not make his case in just a day. Instead he began to challenge the jurors.

“Some will say: Yes, Socrates, but you cannot you hold your tongue….Now, I have great difficulty in making you understand my

Socrates on trial.

Socrates on trial.

answer to this. For if I tell you that to do as you say would be a disobedience to the God, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true….”

In essence, he claimed that the jurors (citizens of Athens selected by lottery) could hardly be expected to be sympathetic, as they had little appreciation for philosophy. His tone, as recorded in Plato’s Apologia, was reprimanding and unapologetic. If Plato and Xenophon are to be believed, Socrates sought not to persuade, but to lecture and provoke.

“And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and in the hour of death men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers, that immediately after my departure punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give account of your lives But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more inconsiderate with you, and you will be more offended at them. If you think that by killing men you can prevent some one from censuring lives your evil lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honourable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be disabling others, but to be improving yourselves.”

The law held that the guilty party had to kill himself, hence the hemlock. It was expected, and suggested by his followers, that he would flee.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Socrates takes the hemlock.

Most hold that he did not flee on moral grounds, that seeing the sentence through to completion was his moral obligation. And so it was, indeed.

* Fittingly, my first trip abroad, over thirty years ago, found me in Athens. Surprisingly, my travel journal from that trip has survived the years. The young man (me) wrote: “The Agora left little impression upon me; it once housed such great thoughts as those proclaimed by Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, yet one feels no inclination to think more profoundly because of common ground crossed.”  (I was painfully ponderous even then.)

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Editorial Manifesto:

Socrates stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. I disagree with the fundamental premiss, the notion of a life not worth living; but that’s not the point. Inverted to the positive, Socrates’s admonition might be understood to read: The examined life is (more) worth(y of) living. He did not say, What is the meaning of life?; rather he made a value statement on existence. He did not suggest developing a flow chart, or creating a matrix. There are no three-ring binders with tabs in this project. No Powerpoint. No life coach. He exhorted, in my shorthand, simply: Examine. Accept nothing less than an adequate accounting. It is an open and expansive thought. Conversely, drilled into us from childhood: seek and find, question and answer, open and close. Those are closed equations, for lack of a better phrase. For me, the power of Socrates is the open equation: examine.

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Although I’ve not read it, I understand that I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates, is an excellent read if you’re interested in the history.

9781250002327If you are curious to read the thoughts of a working philosopher on the matter of living fully the examined life, I suggest the late Robert Nozick‘s (1938-2002),  The Examined Life, Philosophical Meditations. Along similar lines, but more historical, you might enjoy James Miller’s Examined Lives, From Socrates to Nietzsche. It was a 2011 New York Times Notable Book and is imminently readable.  Lastly, if you wish to urlwade deep into these waters, consider Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, specifically the last chapter, “Philosophy and the Meaning of Life.”

Thanks for reading. I hope you found it interesting.

d

Lies We Tell Ourselves

In Philosophy on February 12, 2013 at 6:00 am
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO

Under the heading: “Lies we tell ourselves” –this quote:

“Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.”

That’s Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft. He’s a super smart guy, so we chuckle in that superior and satisfied way  (as I type on my Apple Air Notebook). I came across this quote recently, did a bit of research and believe he really said it. (“The problem with internet quotes is you don’t know if they’re true.” ~ Abraham Lincoln) I can’t find an attribution date, but will give Big Steve the benefit of the doubt and assume he made this observation when Google was still a nascent upstart, not the monolithic giant we now recognize. But still, Big Steve should, I think, know better what is lurking in the shrubs, waiting to steal his Power Rangers lunch pail.

So, what lies are we telling ourselves? In business we might, à la Steve Ballmer, proclaim some notion of invincibility–and believe it to be so. That didn’t work out so well for Steve. The same might apply to any and all aspects of life. I don’t want to belabor this notion, but the quote brought me up short.

What, I wonder, have I told myself and “believe” that will, at some future date, prove to be ridiculously wrongheaded? Do you ever ask yourself this question? You should–I’m just say’n. I’ve tried to divest myself of cherished notions and beliefs, attempt to take everything at face value as much as possible, try not to infuse experience with notions preconceived. But in a twisted way, even these exemplary motives seem qualified as “lies I tell myself.”

I cannot escape the recursiveness of such thinking. “I am lying.” That is one of the word-games philosophers sometime play. If I say I am lying, then am I lying in saying I am lying, which would mean I am telling the truth? But I said I was lying. Get it?

Word games. So painfully frustrating. But words are all we have. Really? “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” said Wittgenstein.

Okay, time to move on. I’ve always wished to be an old philosopher and sometimes I can’t help myself. At least I’ve accomplished one out of two.