Doug Bruns

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Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.

My window

In Nature, Philosophy, Thinkers on February 10, 2011 at 4:00 pm

From my kitchen window I look out over the Fore River, or, rather, where the Fore empties into Casco Bay. You wouldn’t know it was a river at this confluence, unless it was brought to your attention. Regardless, there is water and sometimes, morning in particular, I look out over it in wonderment. For instance, just now a loon, who is wintering below my window, surfaced with something–it looked like a little crab–in her bill. She tilted her head, jerking back and forward, and swallowed twice. Then she shook her head, looked over her shoulder, and–flip!–disappeared below the surface, looking for desert, no doubt. Besides the loons, we’ve also had mergansers and exquisite long-tailed ducks as winter guests. My neighbor has spotted golden-eyes and buffleleheads, but I haven’t seen them yet.

I’ve been noticing birds for several years, on land and water. I’m not a birder, truth be told. I aspire to being a birder, but I’m not there yet. Birds, like much of what I enjoy about the outdoors, are a vehicle by which I connect to nature. In nature, I find enriching wonderment. I guess it could be called transcendence, as Emerson and especially Thoreau, found it. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the word transcendence. I’m not sure transcendence is something I long for. Wonderment, yes. Transcendence, not so much. It implies leaving something behind or rising above something, I think, and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Wonderment–like clarity–seems the antithesis of transcendence. It seems more like being in the thick of things. Perhaps the fine philosophical points are lost on me. Regardless, there are water fowl below my window and I nurture the wonder they prompt in me.

There is an important word in ancient Greek thought, that relates to this experience: arete. Arete has for centuries been translated as virtue. But, as I’ve just discovered, that is likely incorrect. In the new book, All Things Shining, the authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly point out that a better notion of the word arete is human excellence. “Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life,” they write, “that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.” Related to birds below my kitchen window: “…excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.” That rings personally true. It is while in a sense of wonder that I am most reminded of my humanness. I have, among other things, loons to thank for that.

Infinite Jest, Longfellow Books

In Literature, Reading, The Examined Life, Writers on April 26, 2010 at 8:33 pm

I am a swimmer. Every morning, weather permitting, I get on my bike, peddle across the peninsula, and swim at the Portland  Y.  I always assumed I’d end up in a pool, having torn, twisted and generally f”-ed up everything a guy can f-up: shoulders, hip, back, hands. (The knees are in good shape, surprise.) The pool is the refuge of the aged-maimed athlete. My swim is good. I can’t hurt myself. It’s also good for my head. It can be a meditation or a lesson in tedium, both of which are beneficial and have intrinsic value. Today was different. I wanted it over. I wanted to return home, to my chair,  and finish a book, specifically, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I’ve been working on this book for two and half months. It’s a three-pound book, three pounds and two ounces precisely. One thousand twenty-seven pages, including footnotes. It’s a monster and I had only twenty pages left. The sprint to the finish. Get the swim over. Finish it. But more. I love this book. Two and half months living with it, studying it, reading the footnotes and the on-line commentary. It was in my blood, under my fingernails,  and with only an hour or so left with it, like it was a lover going off to war, I wanted its company–its company until the last. Period. In fact, finishing it was the most remote of my motives. Make it last. That’s the ticket.

Tonight: I am ten pages from the end as I write this. I don’t want to finish it. It’s like sex and holding off until the very end ’cause that’s when it’s best. But really, it’s more like losing a friend, and knowing DFW is no longer with us, well, not yet closing the book is not yet accepting that salient sad fact–so the friend is still with us-me. In a bit, an hour or so, I will complete it, close it and then it will be over. (I will write about it, a review or more properly, the experience, in the next week or two. Check Mostly Fiction dot com where I write about reading books.)

So, my head is spinning with all things Infinite Jest. But this isn’t about the book. Rather, I want to discourse on reading. More specifically, reading in the nature and manner of dead-trees reading. I read Infinite Jest in the dead-wood, sit-it-in-my-lap version, not on a Kindle, an iPad or any other device. I’m not a Luddite. To the contrary. I have a Kindle. It is in a drawer,  uncharged. I used to read on it. Now, however, I have seen the light–and that light is shining from a window that is

Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son

local. When I buy a book on my Kindle I am taking money out of Chris and Stewart’s pockets and giving it to Amazon. Chris and Stewart? They’re the guys who own my local bookstore, Longfellow Books. Longfellow is the dead-center of Portland, figuratively, literally and spiritually. Every dollar I send to Amazon is a dollar my community looses, a dollar less for the heart-dead-center of my town. If that happens frequently enough, my community goes away, replaced by the insipid one-size-fits-all wash-and-wear culture we seem so unwittingly fond of. (How does that happen?)

This so-called culture is a theme and subject of Infinite Jest. (There are ever so many themes to IJ.) Culture has been sold off. Corporate America bought it and ate it for lunch between two pieces of Wonderbread. It has an appetite that knows no satiation. See this picture? It’s Saturn Devouring His son by Goya: Corporate America consuming the individual–that’s how I read it. It is the apex of irony (should irony be a bell curve) that a country founded, built, and realized on/of individualism–a political and historical anomaly–is and has been rushing hellbent to a state of homogenization. Reading a physical book, procured at your local establishment of reading pleasure, shifts the universe homeward, back to you. Go local.  The less inviting option is to be devoured like Saturn’s son.

Read. It transports. And so much more. It makes one think.