Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Just Trying to Get By.

In Life, Memoir on August 15, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Growing up an only child in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and going to bed at night and certain that all the really cool kids were still up and doing really cool things, I came to the opinion that most cool people–and I remember thinking, oddly, in this instance of Mick Jagger–that most cool people didn’t even sleep. I thought that the less cool a person was, like, for example, me, the more sleep they needed, and that the ultra cool people probably didn’t have to sleep at all, that somehow or another they’d figured out, because of their innate coolness, how to get past that which was necessary for the rest of us. Such was the nature of my insecurity that even the necessity of sleep was evidence of my removed state.

Now of course I know better and have (over) compensated for the insecurities. Sleep is a pleasure and not a practice in self-loathing. Too, as harsh as it sounds, I’m glad to see Mick Jagger growing old, and certain that he needs sleep like I need sleep, and even the knowledge that he will die someday, as off-putting as it sounds, gives me a sense of belonging to the rest of the species and on the same level as Mick Jagger, a human being just trying to get by. Just saying.

Don Bruns

In Death, Family, Life, Memoir on May 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm
Dad

Dad

 

My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.

I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.

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My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.

That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.

My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.

From  what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.

I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.

A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.

I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.

My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.

                                                                                                Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991

Things Loved

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 14, 2013 at 6:00 am
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My Maryland Woods

I spent some time over the weekend thinking about my best self as in, when have I realized my best self? I was in Maryland where I am selling some property, much of which consists of several acres of raw old woods, with trees bigger than I can get my arms around. I love these woods.

I do not use the word love lightly.

It was Mother’s Day evening and I was standing in a patch of woods where, four years ago, I scattered my mother’s ashes. The sun was setting. That’s when I started to reflect on those times when I experienced what I call my best self. My mother motivated me in a deep and profound way to seek such things of myself.

Also in these woods I roamed and meditated and worked with my beloved Maggie, a dog that meant more to me than I can talk about. Maggie died three years ago and walking the woods I could see her beautiful sleek athlete’s body fly like an arrow through the undergrowth. And over there, by the brook, is where I buried poor little Oscar, a rust-colored rescue cat that one night had a stroke. When I found him in the morning he did not resist my touch and his eyes no longer held life, though his heart was still beating.

These memories had the capacity to crush me as I walked my woods a last time. I was spared that, fortunately, though my heart was indeed heavy. Rather, I was grateful, a soaring and rare emotion. The animals of my life, my mother, the trees, the capacity for memory, these are things woven together by my aspiration for a better self, a best self. These are things loved and love will, by its very nature, guide a person to such heights.

My Freak Flag

In Life, Memoir, Popular Culture on March 11, 2013 at 5:00 am

I haven’t cut my hair in a year and a half. I’ve had a couple of trims, like before my daughter’s wedding, but not a cut as in, “I got a haircut today.”

At fifty-seven this might appear immature and I admit to taking satisfaction in that. I take satisfaction in being a somewhat respectable pillar of the community and looking less respectable each day. It’s a good way to jigger with people’s expectations and that’s, frankly, fun, particularly if you’ve got nothing to lose. I was neat and orderly and filled the general conception of respectability long enough. I subscribe to the great American tradition of re-inventing yourself. Not cutting your hair, though so very superficial, is as easy a reinvention as a guy could hope for.

A few weeks ago I visited the business my wife and I founded twenty years ago and one of the company officers, a guy who’d not seen me in a long time, declared that I was, indeed, letting my freak flag fly. If you’re too young to appreciate the reference, you might want to check out Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

I missed Woodstock and the culture it ushered in by just a few years. The midwest, where I was raised, is slow on the uptake, which is probably not a bad thing, unless you’re a kid in Indiana assuming all the cool kids on the coasts are having a lot more fun than you are. But that seems a general state of adolescence no matter the geography. Regardless, I still long for that state of self-righteousness over a cause that I observed being exercised in the sixties and early seventies. God, what enthusiasm they had! Despite there being amble opportunity for cause–financial malfeasance, government malfeasance, Wall Street malfeasance, fill-in-the-blank malfeasance–despite everywhere you look, there seems little indignation. I am as guilty of lack in this department as the next person–a general malaise of indifference. But you expect that of a 57 year-old–we count on our kids to blaze the path of self-righteousness. That’s a poor excuse, now that I think on it. Maybe it is resignation, not just resignation of the mid-lifers, but abject and complete societal resignation. We have mostly rolled over.

Regardless of the cause, or lack thereof, I’m letting my freak flag fly high. Peace. Love. Hippie Beads forever.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash:

A Fashion of Discomfort

In Memoir, The Examined Life on March 1, 2013 at 6:00 am

I read in the blogosphere of a writer celebrating five years turning the wheel of his effort. With a few caveats, he comments that he is comfortable toiling in obscurity. I commend him. I am not, honestly, comfortable doing anything in obscurity. I simply harbor too much hunger, which is not necessarily a good thing. I wonder if this blogger truly is so comfortable or rather is attempting to convince himself of a comfort? Obscurity seems such a very cold corner of the universe.

I try to write a few days ahead of a post, always leap-frogging forward. This affords me a bit of space to revise and brush up my prose before hitting the Publish button. That is not the case today. Today I am up against it, having squandered my wiggle room with false starts, bringing me a tad closer to despair.  Maybe if obscurity were less intimidating I would be more comfortable in this situation. But then, upon reflection, I know that being comfortable is too often a trap.

Most of what I have grown to value in my experience was born in some fashion of discomfort. This holds true of the physical certainly, the mountains climbed, trails hiked, horizons pursued. Intellectually, it remains more challenging. There is nothing seemingly so quick to obstruction as the neural pathways. Those synaptic gaps require constant bridge building. If the universe lurches to complexity, as we’ve discussed, then the mind in its quality seems to move contrary-wise, inching a smidgen closer to the simple with each hour, a nudge toward obscurity. This is a rising tide against which we cannot afford a breaking levee. Toil on we must.

I used to play the classical guitar and every evening I would take my instrument and my sheet music and practice–in obscurity, I assumed. My goals were modest. I didn’t wish to play in public, nor aspired to anything but self-satisfaction. There seems a desperate purity to that, I think. Years later I learned that my young children came to count on falling asleep to their father’s music making. There is nothing desperate or obscure about that. Indeed, obscurity might be harder to come by than we imagine.

Most of the time we function under the impression of a self-possessed singularity, blind to the overlaps and connections in which we truly exist. A fellow blogger writes of obscurity; then I pick the theme up and now, here, you read my reflections on the subject; and quite easily we come to understand the reaching nature of each effort and expression and gesture. I might go so far as to suggest that obscurity, in the web of totality, is simply a false concept. This thought charges me with responsibility and a modicum of comfort.

Thanks for reading. You refute the premise of obscurity. Have a terrific weekend.

d

Sunday Repost: Happiness

In Family, Happiness, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness--Bhutan.

Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness–Bhutan.

A repost from May, 2010.

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There are lots of things I didn’t teach my kids. I didn’t teach them how to manage money or change the oil in their car or even how to cook an egg. I am hesitatingly interested in someday sitting down with them and finding out what I did, indeed, teach them.  I think their mother and I did a good job of instilling in them a thirst for life, that is, a way of looking at the world so as to render it exciting and if not exciting, at least interesting. That is, it seems to me, important. I know I failed in teaching them how to think about their life in some meaningful context, which is, I intuitively feel, part of being happy. It would have been good to teach them how to be happy. I’m not sure it’s correct to call that a “meaningful context,” as I refer to it above. But it doesn’t feel wrong either.

We live in a country that embraces the pursuit of this effervescent, ineffable thing called happiness. It is important–I guess–to have an unalienable right to chase it.* But it seems there are a lot of people who aren’t, happy that is, or even pursing it directly, there being too many other pressing issues. That is nothing more than my generalization, but I am, as I have said before, comfortable with generalizations (in general). I see a lot of people on the streets here who are struggling, a good many of them living hand to mouth. I don’t think they are happy, at least not the ones I talk to. At the other end of the spectrum, I see people on nice boats who seem happy, especially on pleasant summer days. But when I talk to boat owners they almost all express a degree of frustration about owning a boat. I am surprised how consistently the phrase, “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into,” is used. If there is a creed for boat owners this seems to be it. People with money are worried, particularly as the markets are roiling, that they will lose it. People without money are worried that they will never get it, and the relief it grants. Don’t get me wrong, having money is better than not having it. Studies have shown that people with it, are likely happier as a result. But it’s not a sure-fire recipe for a hearty belly-filling meal of happiness.

There is a great deal of interest in happiness in physiology at present. At Harvard, in 2009, the class “Positive Psychology” by professor Tal D. Ben-Shahar was the most popular class on campus. In a phone interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Ben-Shahar said,

“When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that’s what positive psychology is about.”

It is time someone got to the bottom of this quest for happiness. One thing that troubles me, is how to go about understanding it. This is one reason I could never teach my kids anything much about it. I don’t really understand it, can’t put my finger just on it. I think we–their mother and I–showed it to them. They were raised in a household by loving parents, two adults succeeding at making a marriage work. That is a level of, a degree of happiness: a home, solid and unshifting. Such an environment is a garden in which happiness can grow. It is rich soil. Happiness doesn’t necessarily flourish as a result, but the odds are better. Perhaps it’s so simple as attending to your garden properly.

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* It is no less than ironic, that in this time of Tea Parties and faith-based political initiatives, that “the pursuit of happiness” is an idea born of eighteenth century notions of European enlightenment. “I believe that humanism, at least on the levels of politics, might be defined as every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness.” (M. Foucault, 1967)