Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Philosophy and a cast-iron skillet

In Curiosity, Family, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writing on August 1, 2012 at 6:00 am


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.

I don’t think I gave her the credit she was due.

In Family, Life, Memoir on May 13, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m traveling. This is a repost. I hope you have a nice mother’s day.


It’s mother’s day and I regret not being a better son. I wasn’t a bad son, but something held me back from being a really good, home-run good, son to my mom. I can’t explain it any other way, other than I was reserved and didn’t give her everything she probably wanted from her only child.

I’ve been thinking about this since I found a journal entry from thirty years ago, when my mother was a couple of years younger than I am now. I made a note then of a conversation we, my mother and I, had. In a rare moment of candor between mother and son she told me that, sadly, life had passed her by and that she regretted letting it happen. But she had no idea how she would have lived in any other manner or what to do about it going forward. I don’t recall the conversation, which bothers me. I just have the record of it, and that is part of the problem. Why don’t I remember such a confession?

I think I should remember a loved one being so upset and forthcoming. But I don’t. She didn’t do it often, open up like that–too much mid-western stoicism in her veins. I think she was asking something of me and I’m not sure what precisely. Nor did I try to find out. I suspect I was comforting, but I can’t be sure. I let her revelation slip away, receding behind us, and neither of us ever brought it up again. That was that.

I don’t think I gave her the credit she was due, all the attention she likely thirsted after. I don’t know exactly that to be the case, but I suspect it. I fear she wanted more and in telling me of her disappointments she thought I might somehow help. But I had a family to raise and distractions and it was my shortcoming to do nothing.

I fear wrestling with my shortcomings too late in life to do anything about them. But more, I fear missing another opportunity to be present when my presence is needed by someone I care about. It is said we cannot escape the sins of our fathers. Perhaps, conversely, we inherit the lessons of our mothers.

The sign that something is wrong with you.

In Adventure, Family, Life, Memoir, Travel on April 25, 2012 at 6:00 am

Perhaps you recall a week or so ago my frustration over my collection of notebooks and journals (The Whirlwind About my Head), and that I was going to transcribe them into Evernote. That project is underway and I’ve recovered more than a few old memories and ideas. As you know from reading my postings, I also collect quotes. Emerson disdained this habit, called it lazy and inferred that it is cheap practice. He didn’t want a quote, he wanted original thinking. (Note my restraint from quoting him.) Montaigne, on the other hand, larded his writing with quotations and took pleasure in doing so.

I know I should admire Emerson–and I do. But I can’t read him. I find his writing insufferable, but that is beside the point and is just an excuse to continue my habit of dropping the occasional quote into these pages. Montaigne is my man.

I relate all this as a set-up to a quote and a recovered journal entry.

The quote is from Thornton Wilder. I stumbled across it just last week:

“The test of an adventure is that when you’re in the middle of it, you say to yourself, ‘Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.’ And the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure.”

And the journal entry is from November, 2000. I had just returned from an off-the-grid adventure in the Seychelles.

Returning from the Seychelles has found me mixed up and confused. There, I could not think of anything but returning, anything but home and comfort and Carole. Now home all of three weeks and I am growing fitful to set out again. This wanderlust is an awful thing, filling me with thoughts of adventure while home and of home while adventuring.


This time next week I will be in the midst of twenty-four hours of air time, en route to Nepal. Long live the adventure!


In Family, Happiness, Life, Nature on September 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

Son Tim finished hiking the Appalachian Trail two weeks ago, all 2181 miles of it, Georgia to Maine. Four and half months of mountain trail life. It took only three or four days of city living before he grew itchy, quietly prickling at life off the trail. So, as an antidote to civilization, we set out for remote waters, canoe roof-strapped, leaving civilization behind. V.S. Pritchett wrote of a young traveler “stamping out his anxieties with his heavy boots.” Tim had had enough of heavy boots. We took up paddles.

There is much to be said about the quiet of remote waters, the call of the loon, the slip of a paddle into the mercury of morning water. There is a contemplative mediation to moving a boat with one’s own power. It is a fashion of being on the water unlike any other. Sailing comes closest, I suspect, but that is an obvious harnessing of power beyond shoulder and back. At the end of a day paddling there is nothing left but reflection.

I asked Tim what stood out most about his hiking adventure on the AT. “Freedom,” he responded without hesitation. “Every day I had the freedom to walk as far as I wanted, the freedom to camp by a brook I liked, the freedom to stop when and where I chose.” It was a simple as that. He continued, “I had everything I needed, nothing more nothing less. And every morning I got up and put on my pack and set out, completely free.”

Sunset, Aziscoho Lake

Nothing More Satisfying, Indeed.

In Family on October 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm
Young Mr. Bruns, Sunset

Young Mr. Bruns, Sunset

There is nothing more rewarding than sitting by a fire at treeline with one’s son, the night settled in and the temps dropping by tens of degrees behind the night sitters, the day of hiking receding behind the mountain silhouette, the whiskey warm at the back of the throat, and the next day holding promise beyond knowledge.  Nothing more satisfying, indeed.

To this flat-lander, going from sea level–no, from six feet above sea level–to 13,500 in twenty-four hours, was a feat of major accomplishment. Add to the equation the loss of oxygen absorption inherent in lungs used (and abused) for fifty-four years and–now–this soft chair six feet above sea level is a most welcome abstraction. But it is an abstraction, this chair and place, and the night in the mountains retains a transcendent lasting reality.


Speaking of transcendence, I have given some consideration to that famous night spent in jail by American Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. Please consider my thoughts: That Famous Night in Jail at The Nervous Breakdown.

To Transform Awareness…

In Creativity, Family, Memoir, Photography, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Travel, Writers on August 12, 2010 at 3:46 pm

“I recently asked some friends what they would grab from their house if it was on fire and they had only three minutes to escape. This question has intrigued me for some time. I can’t remember when I first thought of it—or maybe it was put to me at a dinner party by a host desperate to get things rolling. Regardless, I am curious about what people find important, and this question speaks directly to the issue. It is, too, I confess, a self-serving question, as I am trying to figure out what is important to me and am hoping someone will help me down that path. Anyway, my friends on this afternoon answered typically. Of the four, three said they would grab the family photographs. The holdout said he’d reach for his guitar. Guitars aside, in my unscientific poll, most people say they would most miss their photographs if all their belongings were irretrievably lost.”

To read the rest of my meditation on photography (among–too?–many other things) and why we take pictures please go to Obscura Press.