Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Captain Douglas

In Family, Memoir on February 9, 2013 at 6:33 am
Shoulder patch of the 99th Infantry Division

Shoulder patch of the 99th Infantry Division

We’re having a hell of a snow storm here in Maine. It made me think of this post I put up several years ago. (It’s a bookend to the post put up a couple of weeks ago, Foxhole Stoicism) :

______________________________

December, 1944: My father, and much of the 99th Infantry Division, is trapped behind lines–the Battle of the Bulge.  After sunset, snow knee-deep and falling in the black of the Ardennes Forest, he puts his hand on the shoulder of the solider in front of him, as does the man in front of him, and the man in front of him, and so on. The snake of trapped men silently move through the snow and the woods to the safety of morning light across the river. They do not completely escape detection. As the sun rises, the enemy awakes to discover their trail; rifles secured they follow in pursuit. The line breaks as some of the men are shot. The Germans close in. Dad crosses the river and survives.

My father does not like to talk about it.

I am named after the Captain who led the men out of the darkness, a man who stood at the sharp-end with compass and pen light and confidence. It was the highest honor my father could bestow the man who had saved his life, the gift of naming his son. We are escapees, shuffling through the winter night terrorized. As I have said elsewhere, I am given to metaphor and this is a strong one. As best I know, the human species has no call to origins, to a place of conception. We lack the comfort of a natal stream. There is longing, however. Who does not long for a pen light in the darkness, a leading shoulder or a compass? How can we resist the clearing across the river?

The storm rages and we cannot be ambivalent about being surrounded.

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

A Father’s Toast.

In Family, Happiness, Life, Memoir on October 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

To the marriage of Allie and Geo.

Daughter Allison got married last weekend. She was beautiful. The groom was handsome. The venue perfect. It was a good day to be a father.

I gave a toast, preluded with a story, a father’s reminiscence, a bit of advice, and only then a raising of the glass.

A few in attendance have asked for a transcript. I didn’t write it out, and though I’d practiced the outline of what I wanted to say, it wasn’t until I began speaking that I knew what was going to come of out of my mouth. My toast was made immediately following the ceremony, while the audience was still in their chairs. I watched a video of the ceremony (to glean the toast) and share the (slightly edited) transcript below.

October 6, 2012

On behalf of the long-suffering Mrs. Bruns, my bride of thirty-four years, and myself I’d like to thank you all for being here.

As the champagne is going around, we’re going to break from tradition a bit. I’m going to offer a toast, but before I do, I’m going to make you listen to a story.

As Allie and I walked down the stairs just now, I turned to her and said, ‘On belay.’ She breathed deeply and responded, ‘belay on.’

Not too many years ago, Allie and I started rock climbing together. In typical Bruns fashion, we became obsessive about the sport; such that every night after dinner, we’d gather our gear and rush to the climbing gym. We climbed three or four nights a week. We did it for years and we thought we got pretty good at it. Eventually, we decided to see how good we were and went to Joshua Tree, California, a national park, a mecca for rock climbers, to test ourselves.

First morning of the first day, as Allie and I hiked into the park, we experienced butterflies and nerves, all the things you would anticipate. I knew at that moment, standing at the base of the first route, that she was filled with trepidation and nerves. And I turned to you [pointing to Allie] and said, ‘you’re going to climb first.’ She had a wild-eyed expression. I continued. ‘You’re going to be nervous and your palms are going to sweat. You’re going to get halfway up this crag and you’re going to wonder, What the hell am I doing?’ But, I said, ‘You can climb this. And when you get to the top, look over your shoulder and enjoy that view–we climb for lots of reasons, you know, not the least of which is the view.’

Allie, you climbed the first route that first morning and experienced all of the symptoms I’d anticipated. But you climbed through them and afterward you said that, indeed, the view from the top was beautiful.

[To the audience.] So why am I telling you this story? Because I cannot resist the metaphor of climbing and marriage.

For example, at the beginning of every climb, the two climbers start a communication and it’s very important that it continue through the entire climb. It starts with a request: ‘On belay.’ And the response is, ‘Belay on.’ The job of the belayer is to keep the climber safe. In my case, to keep my eye on her. Allie and I exchanged this command, then she turned to the rock and said to me, ‘Climbing.’ And my response was, ‘Climb on.’ And so it began.

As you climbed [gesturing to Allie], you got to the crux of that climb. Every route has its most difficult section. Using the metaphor, life will deliver us a challenge. As you got to the crux, Allie, you shouted down that you needed rope slack. I gave you slack, and responded with encouragement. ‘Allie you can do this. You look strong.’ And you climbed through the crux.

Before you started your climb, Allie, we put on our harnesses and we roped in. The climber puts on her equipment and her partner checks it. Are the buckles properly cinched? Did I put on my harness correctly? Another set of eyes to look over the other, to protect, to keep safe. It’s a duel responsibility, a team effort. Then you run the rope. You take the rope and ensure there are no knots in it, that it’s not frayed. Allie, you tied in, I tied in. Then I checked your knot and you checked mine.

[To the newlyweds.] To use a cliché, today you guys tied the knot. [The audience chuckles.] And today you guys start your climb. Your job is to communicate, to keep each other safe, to send words of encouragement, to protect, to ensure that if one comes off the rock, the fall is arrested.

Most importantly, when you get to the top, you wait for the other. The view from the top is best shared with your partner.

So Allie, you’ve got a new climbing partner. [I sigh.] And I have observed him closely. In Geo you have a man diligent and hard-working. He’s got great attention to detail–which, Allie, is going to be helpful for you. [Laughs from the audience.] He’s prudent and he’s thoughtful, both in the sense that he is thinking about you and others, but also that he’s thoughtful about the process he’s in. He thinks through things. He’s a man with a lot of ideas.

And, Geo, in Allie you’ve got a young lady. [Long pause] Let me edit that. [Sigh] You’ve got a wife. [At this point, Allie, standing at the back of the venue, starts to unravel. I point to her and command, ‘Stop it, Allison.’ The crowd laughs. My voice begins to break. ‘I was doing so well,’ I say. I collect myself.] Geo, you’ve got a wife with a heart which knows no horizon and a sense of adventure that knows no bounds. As she’s matured, I’ve observed that her capacity for risk has been tempered and that comes with wisdom.

[To them both.] Together, in front of me, I see a great team.

I would like to now propose a toast. If everyone could please stand, raise your glass, and repeat after me. The four commands climbers use when they begin their adventure:

On belay. ‘ON BELAY.’

Belay on. ‘BELAY ON.’

Climbing. ‘CLIMBING.’

Climb on. ‘CLIMB ON.’

Enter Stage Left.

In Creativity, Family, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writing on September 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Scene: Bruns kitchen, about 6:45pm. Pandora station streaming (Mumford and Sons in the background).

Characters: Doug and Carole

Action: Doug prepping dinner, sipping a cocktail. Carole in a chair reading.

____________

Doug: “I’m feeling a particular depth of emptiness.”

Carole (incredulously): “Depth of emptiness?”

D: “Yeah. You know, the ennui of modern existence and all that…”

C: “Did you just use the word ennui?”

D: “Yes. It means boredom.”

C: “I know what it means. I just can’t believe you used it. Nobody uses that word.”

D: “Fine.”

C: “But I know what you mean, I think.”

D: “Pound referred to the ‘domination of modern life.'”

C: “First you use ennui, then you quote Pound. I can’t believe you quoted Pound.”

D: “I’m a cliché. What can I say? Anyway, I think moderns have a tough time of it. Maybe the species was always troubled this way, but it’s more acute in modern existence, I think.”

C: “And your thesis, professor? Why do you think it’s more acute?”

D: “For two millennium the species had distractions. There were predator beasts to escape. Food to find. Weather to survive. Tribal warfare–all that stuff. For a lot of us, at least those of us in the rich Western countries, those things are no longer factors. Lack of distraction equals too much time facing the void.”

C: “How much have you had to drink?”

D: “No really. It’s the plague of modernity.”

C: “And what do we do about it?”

D: “We have to create a way out of the wilderness.”

C: “Too dramatic.”

D: “Yeah, I get that way, you know. But, really, Camus said we have to create meaning. No one’s gonna hand it to you.”

C: “Lots of people try.”

D: “Indeed. But we’re independent thinkers.”

C: “Maybe we’re just cynical.”

D: “That too. I embrace the cynical, gateway to fresh horizons…”

C: “Okay, you’re officially cutoff.”

D: “Fine. Dinner in ten.”

What a man should know.

In Family, Life on August 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

My daughter is getting married in less than two months.

Today is the anniversary of my marriage of thirty-four years. I believe in marriage and am happy for Allison. The journey her mother and I have enjoyed these years has been most excellent.

I will be giving a toast. I am okay with that; indeed, I am honored. I will also be dancing with my daughter, the new bride, in front of everyone. I am less than okay with that. A slow dance, arms draped, feet shuffling, is one thing in high school. But grown ups should know better. I should know better–I should know how to dance. This set me to pondering other things a man should know. I’ve made a short list below.

Ten things a man should know how to do:

  • Tie a bow tie.
  • Drive a stick shift.
  • Make a martini.
  • Build a fire.
  • Laundry.
  • Change a tire.
  • Cook a fancy dinner.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Discuss one important book

-and-

  • Dance with his daughter.

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am
20120730-192930.jpg

Breakfast

We have been toting around Carole’s grandmother’s cast-iron skillet, unused, for over thirty years. A few weeks ago, inexplicably, I took it on a camping trip to New Brunswick. I liked cooking on it over the fire. Once home, I cleaned it up and put it on the stove. Then I did a little research.

It is stamped a Wagner Ware skillet. Amazingly, the Wagner company, started in 1865, is still in business. My wife’s people come from Oklahoma. They were homesteaders. We don’t know the history of this skillet, but I picture it strapped to the side of a canvas-covered wagon toiling its way across the sunsetting American plains. And now it rests on my cook-top range. The history of my imagination.

I’ve done a bit of research and the argument for cooking with cast-iron is convincing. The heat radiates evenly, there are no non-stick chemicals that fleck off, the food tastes better, and one gets a wee bit of iron added to one’s diet. You don’t even need soap to clean it. But that’s not what interests me, really.

As readers here, you know of my mission to build meaning into existence, brick by brick, atom by atom. As I’ve confessed, I subscribe to Camus’s observation that life is absurd and meaning is not something inherent in our existence. We are left to create it. Hence the skillet.

When I cook with this skillet I am linked to a fragile thread that stretches over my shoulder and disappears into a murky history. What hands that have worked this utensil? What foods have simmered here? Mystery is satisfying in its emptiness–an emptiness you can heave yourself into.

There is significance in tradition, and meaning might well reside there. Modern existence is so very bereft of tradition. There is no tradition to a silicon chip, to an e-book, to a digital image. Apprenticeship is dead. Are we not daily, purposefully, yet unwittingly, severing ourselves from that which has delivered us to this very place, rendering us orphans in the process? Is that not a method of madness, severing the tenuous link tethering us to the fog from which we arose, where the heart beats?

I grow dramatic. Sorry. We are, after-all, talking about a skillet.

Yet, you must understand me, yes?

I resist the pull forward and peer back at that which is disappearing…that which fades into the void…and attempt to find a handhold.