Doug Bruns

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What are the odds?

In Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas on January 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
Ah, "the yoke of inauspicious stars."

Ah, “the yoke of inauspicious stars.”

What are the odds of your existence? Never wondered? Neither have I. But then I read this, which I am about to share with you, and now I must wonder why I never wondered!

This is a long quote, so please excuse me that. It is from Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt , the book I’ve been referring to recently— please excuse that as well. Here we go:

As a member of the human species, I have a particular genetic identity. There are about 30,000 active genes in the human genome. Each of these genes has a least two variants, or “alleles.” So the number of genetically distinct identifies the genome can encode is at least 2 raised to the thirty-thousandth power–which roughly equals the number 1 followed by 10,000 zeros. That’s the number of potential people allowed by the structure of our DNA. And how many of those potential people have actually existed? It is estimated that about 40 billion humans have been born since the emergence of our species. Let’s round the number up to 100 billion, just to be on the conservative side. This means that the fraction of genetically possible humans who have been born is less than 0.00000…0001 (insert about 9,979 extra zeros in the gap.) The overwhelming majority of these genetically possible humans are unborn specters. Such is the fantastic lottery that I–and you–had to win in order to shimmer on the scene.

Reading this reminded me of a paragraph from Lewis Thomas, from his book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Here’s Lewis:

Every once in a while the reasons for discouragement about the human prospect pile up so high that it becomes difficult to see the way ahead, and it is then a great blessing to have one conspicuous and irrefutable good thing to think about ourselves something solid enough to step onto and look beyond the pile.

Friends, if you should ever feel this way, ever entertain this degree of “discouragement about the human prospect,” I invite you to read the paragraph above from Jim Holt. We won the lottery. For this we must step up and rejoice.

Thanks for reading,

d

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.

__________

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,

d

We, the readers.

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

A lot of us at the community of …the house… are readers. Consider, for instance, Susan, a faithful and communicative fellow “house” member. She posted a comment (two actually) after my reading list 2012 post sharing her list for 2012. It’s very impressive, and from her brief and concise notes you can tell she is a close reader. Then there is Pete Denton. Pete is a …house… reader who keeps pace with his own blog, Pete Denton. Pete caught my reading list a couple of years ago (2011 here, and 2010 here–you get the idea.) and this year challenged himself to reading a book in every genre. He called it The Eclectic Reading Challenge. His list for 2012 is here. I applaud his discipline.

My reading isn’t so organized as Pete’s. I’m not good at forcing myself to read a book. I used to be good at it. My shelves are full of books I read because I believed a well-read individual should read that book, or this one, or perhaps the one this one refers to, and so on. I still believe that, and I’m glad I plowed through those books. But, as a more mature reader, most of my reading follows the notion that it is best to read the right book at the right time. That is, read the book that finds you, not necessarily the other way around.

Many years ago while browsing a bookstore in London I picked up Christopher Hitchen‘s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I started it and despite its brevity and marvelous writing, I set it aside. l8agyardok205260521I usually know within fifty pages if the book is going to work for me. Last week, maybe ten years after putting it back on the shelf, I plowed through it in two days. I can’t explain where I am as a reader this year verses ten years past, but the book “worked” for me this time.

Over at The New Psalmanazar, another blog I follow, “bibliophile and scribbler [writing] under the alias Ian Wolcott,” claims to have read over seventy books last year. From following his blog, I do not doubt it. He says “If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more.” Obviously a lot of books found Ian last year. Let’s hope he can get to more thinking this year, if that’s what he wishes.

File:ReadinglikeawriterFrancine Prose, in her wonderful book, Reading like a Writer, writes that:

“The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been  combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.”

If for no other reason, you must pick up Prose’s book to see her reading list of “Books to Read Immediately” (page 269).

So that settles it. We will read in 2013 and at the end of the year we get together and share notes. Right now, the next book is Why Does The World Exist? an Existential Dectecitive Story by Jim Holt. I think it is interesting that The New York Review of Books titles their essay about this book, What Can You Really Know?Untitled-5

And if you are not a reader? Change that right now. There is nothing you do, lose weight, be a better spouse, drive a hybrid, stop drinking, start drinking, that will be more important and significant. What to read? There are plenty of lists floating around. I’ve given you a couple. Prose’s list is a great one if fiction is your thing. Drop me a note and I’ll do what I can to steer you in the right direction. But most importantly, get a book on your lap. It makes your brain better and that makes existence better in a fashion faster, and more satisfyingly, than another other method.

By the way, side note, the cover to Why Does the World Exist, sports a most excellent photo by Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock. We love those Magnum folks.

Thanks for reading,

D

Of poets.

In Books, Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 10, 2012 at 7:00 am

I have one poem memorized, W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming. I thank Joan Didion for this singular accomplishment. Her book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) brought the poem directly to my attention. It is a famous poem and I suspect I read it in high school and perhaps college, but am not sure. For a guy who has lived with books center to existence, poetry has been ill represented.

Yeats ends his great poem with this line:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I wanted to memorize the poem because I loved it. (David Orr, in his book, Beautiful and Pointless, a Guide to Modern Poetry, writes “…people who read poetry have a tendency not simply to say that they ‘like’ it or ‘enjoy’ the art form, but rather that they ‘love’ it.”) It was to be the first of many poems I planned to discover and commit to memory. Imagine the magic of carrying all that around in your head. In a wonderful piece, Got Poetry? (2009), New York Times essayist Jim Holt argues convincingly the benefits of memorizing poetry. He says he has hundreds of poems memorized. “I recite them to myself while jogging along the Hudson River, quite loudly if no other joggers are within earshot. I do the same, but more quietly, while walking around Manhattan on errands — just another guy on an invisible cellphone.” He ends his essay on a light note: “Everyone needs an iPod. You do not need an iPod. Memorize poetry instead.”

My project never got past Yeats, sadly.

_________________________

Last summer poetry introduced itself properly. It snuck up and rattled me by the shoulders. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, and still don’t. I can’t explain things like that but accept them as they happen. It seems to happen to me a lot.

I took a workshop for poets. I’m not a poet. That’s a title one has to earn, in my opinion. My friend Gibson Fay-LeBlanc told me that he does not subscribe to the school of the born poet; that becoming a poet is the result of “putting in the work.” Gibson has put in the work. His new book of poetry Death of the Ventriloquist was released last month.

I’ve been working with Robert Frost Award-winner, Megan Grumbling. Megan is a wonderful teacher and has been encouraging my effort to put poetry pen to poetry paper. I’ve published a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. And as a life-long reader, I’ve read a little bit of everything over the years, except poetry. Discovering poetry has been like finding a secret door in a house I’ve lived in all my life.

Another poet-friend, Ken Rosen, told me to write a poem every day for a month, “Pluck it out of nothing,” he said. “Create somewhere out of nowhere, mercilessly. Force yourself to do it for 30 days and see if that changes your brain chemistry.” I don’t know about the resulting chemistry, but it was excellent discipline. Ken’s lastest book is The Origins of Tragedy and other poems.

I’ll leave you with a few lines from another poem I love, “Bars,” by Jim Harrison:

Once in the driveway

a female wolf stood in my headlights and nodded,

obviously the reincarnation of a girl I knew

who drowned in Key West where I first discovered

that one drink can break the gray egg that sometimes

encloses you, two drinks help you see this world.

Three drinks and you’re back inside the gray egg.