Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

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There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”

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) :

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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.

Thursday Theme day is Postponed.

In Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

It is Thursday and “theme day” here at “…the house….” I have a topic–the examined life. The post is written, but cracky dry. If it were to have texture I’d propose sandpaper, grade: fine. It’s an important topic, perhaps the most important topic, but I’m not in the mood to get all philosophical and academic today. I trust you understand. If you wish to file a complaint, so be it. You know where the office is. Regardless, Thursday Theme day is officially postponed.

It’s not as if something came along to recast my imagination, to de-rail theme day. I have no excuse, especially with the heavy lifting completed. I’ll lay it on you soon enough, maybe next Thursday, if that day finds me less cantankerous. Simply put, I think being cantankerous is a thing to run with when it hits you, especially if it hits on a day you feel a compulsion to break the rules–which is being coy, really, since the only rules here are the ones I’ve created. Yes, that would be, if not a degree of coyness, then disingenuousness.

And speaking of: Disingenuous–it is word I used to like. (See yesterday’s post for another favored word.) It is a word I tossed accusingly at a person when I was feeling aggressive and lacking in grace, a verbal grenade lobbed over the barricade. I did this once to a young man, branding him as disingenuous, and sadly he didn’t know what the word meant, and, though I did not ridicule him, I made him feel less about himself in a way that brought him close to tears. I look back at this incident and place it solidly in the category of being a jerk, a complete and utter asshole. It brings me no pleasure to think I behaved this way. I was a man competing in the world of business, a combatant, and unfortunately that world occasionally solicited a side of me that I now, upon reflection, find troubling. As I said, it’s a word I used to like.

That is the way of life, isn’t it? Trying on different clothes, going for a new look, you stand in front of the mirror, studying, preening. You turn to the side, trim and expectant, taking high measure of your appearance, only to realize later what the fool you must have looked, what a jerk you were. Yes, Lordy, grant me basic grace.

I’ve given myself free rein here (today is different from any other day how?) and could ramble like this too long but for my temperance with respect to your patience. I’ve already violated my unspoken (unconscious?) rule–yet more rules!–related to transgression and propriety and even the hoped for trust between reader and writer. If this were theater we would consider the forth-wall penetrated. So be it, I stand satisfyingly rambled. A high degree of the cantankerous has been exercised. Too, a bit of examined life revealed. Perhaps we didn’t stray that far from the syllabus, after all.

Thanks for reading–and indulging me. You are most gracious and for that I am grateful.

d

Birth of a Pilgrim

In Adventure, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

Mountain Man, Jeremiah Johnson. (No Robert Redford.)

I am fond of the word pilgrim. For instance, I used it here just yesterday: “Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read.” Recently I closed a correspondence with: “I’m not sure if any of what I’ve said is true or even accurate–I’m just a pilgrim.” The first time I recall hearing the word used not in conjunction with Thanksgiving was in the Sydney Pollack movie, Jeremiah Johnson. That was 1972 and I was seventeen years old. It is meaningful that I remember. The movie had a profound impact on me. In it a grizzled old mountain man named Bear Claw Chris Lapp (played perfectly by Will Geer), upon first meeting Johnson (Robert Redford) says, “You’re the same dumb pilgrim that I been hearin’ for twenty days, and smellin’ for three!” And later, toward the end of the movie: “You’ve come far pilgrim.” To which Johnson replies: “Feels like far.” Bear Claw asks, “Where it worth the trouble?” “What trouble?” Johnson replies. (The movie is based on the life of mountain man, John Garrison Johnston–or, as he was better known, Liver-Eating Johnston.*)

I was so captivated by the landscape portrayed in the movie that I sat through the credits to note where it had been filmed. I had to go there, wherever there was. The Unita Mountains of Utah. The following summer I took my first plane trip, leaving home in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and landing in Salt Lake City, where I made my way into the mountains. Consequently everything changed for this pilgrim. Everything. A life of curiosity pursued was hatched.

As an aside, the word pilgrim is related to the word peregrine, from the Medieval Latin, peregrinus, meaning wanderer, or migratory. It is the word we attach to our fastest falcon and is, in my imagination, a visage of feathered purpose and ability.

George Santayana said, “The mind of the Renaissance was not a pilgrim mind, but a sedentary city mind, like that of the ancients.”  This captures the spirit and intent of the word for me. The “sedentary city mind,”  it would seem, is a mind that knows it’s place, recognizes the task at hand, and moves toward accomplishment. That is how things get done. The mind of the pilgrim, however, is restless and its profile is one of longing, of motion, perhaps aimless motion, advancing toward a grail of the imagination. To the kid  in the theater in Ft. Wayne, the message was clear: You are not a Renaissance man, you are a pilgrim, and it is time to cast off the fetters of suburbia and its expectation of confinement.

My worldwide perambulations have tapered off, but the mind remains unfettered and still roams widely. There is no rest for the pilgrim. Perhaps, I hope, you understand this?

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* Johnston as scout led a party through Crow sacred territory. (Some accounts say it was Sioux territory.) Consequently, the Crow Nation declared war on him and sent its best warriors to kill him. Despite repeated attempts, year after year, the Crow braves failed in their mission. Johnston killed them all. The legend holds that he would slit open the dead warrior, remove the liver and take a bite out of it, leaving the organ behind, his intimidating calling card. The movie depicts the transgression, depicts the attacks, but fails in complete veracity by leaving out this business of liver snacking. That’s too bad. I would have liked Redford to show a bit more belly fire in his roll. If this sounds too Hollywood, it well may be. The very nature of mountain-man Johnston’s life is such that pinning down the truth is near impossible–a fitting end to a pilgram’s tale.

The Road from Machu Picchu

In Adventure, Memoir, Travel on February 5, 2013 at 6:00 am
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Travel, for a pilgrim on the road to the examined life, can be as important as the books you’ll read. For some, travel trumps everything. I understand that, and for many years practiced it accordingly.

My daughter, Allie, a kindred spirit, lived in Peru for six months in 2006. At the end of her job there I flew down to visit and travel with her. I hired a guide and we made the pilgrimage through the Sacred Valley, stopped in Cusco, then took the train to Rio Urubamba, the village at the foot of Machu Picchu. I thought you might be interested in this little vignette from that adventure. I found it in a journal of that period, a recovered memory.

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba

Allie, the train to Rio Urubamba

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The bus back to Rio Urubamba from the summit of Machu Picchu carries about thirty people. It is a precipitous journey from the summit. The road switches back along the dusty 8km route maybe 15 times, plunging here, leveling there before dropping again. The trip down takes approximately thirty minutes.

We–Allie and I–arrived at Machu Picchu for sunrise. Our guide ushered us through the ruins and, four hours later, after

Huayna Picchu

Huayna Picchu

the tour and Allie´s summit of Huayna Picchu, we took the bus down the mountain. I looked over my shoulder at the receding ruin and could not help but think that I would never see it again. Dark mood.

At the first switchback a group of young boys waved at the bus and hollered. We waved from our seats. They were dressed in bright orange capes, traditional-looking outfits, and shook their arms in the air. They were animated. The bus trudged on leaving them in a cloud of dust. They closed their eyes and covered their mouths. At the next switchback one of the boys reappeared, again shouting and waving his arms. I thought it curious. The bus continued down the mountain. Then again he materialized, seven or eight minutes later at the next switchback–and again, appearing out of the forest, waving, shouting, then rushing downhill into the jungle, an orange blur. After maybe a dozen turns and untold vertical feet we came upon the bridge across the Urubamba. He darted out from the left racing against our flank and rushed in front of the bus, charging across the single-lane wooden bridge, arm extended as the bus roared on. Alas, on the other side, the driver stopped, the young boy jumped aboard, not even breathing hard, and shouted into the bus. He extended his purse. We bus passengers, amazed at his feat of running down the mountain, chasing and beating the bus, dug into our pockets and dropped our coins into his hand. I held out a candy as well. He looked at me and smiled. His eyes were big and brown and he snatched the candy and moved past us down the aisle. He sang goodbye and disappeared into the crowd at the station to a round of cheers and applause. This is the stuff of travel, I thought.

From a letter to a friend

In Books, Death, Life, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 6, 2013 at 6:00 am

This is a repost. I put it up starting a Sunday tradition of reposting a favorite past entry. This particular post was brought to my attention by a close reader of …the house…. After yesterday’s post, Gravity Probe B, the wisdom of dogs, and other notions, this reader–paying extraordinary attention!–suggested I go back and read this piece, posted in August, 2010. It was particularly interesting to see the parallel between the two posts, spanning more than twenty-four months.  (Thanks, Kevin, for bringing it to my attention. You get an A!)

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“…it’s because we live too long, was, I think, what I said exactly. We live too long and thus have these artificial parts of which you speak and this scree (now there is a word I have not encountered since on the side of a mountain in Ecuador, the name of which escapes me, just remembering ropes and snow and a field of said scree), this scree, as I was saying, that inhabits our aging body–and mind, scree of the mind is, in particular, that of which I spoke to my beloved, commenting exactly, if memory serves, that one reason the practice of therapy is exercised is due to living long enough so as to grow concerned about what is happening between our ears. Our ancestors running full-bore across the savanna plains, just a foot-step in front of some hunger-dripping monster, never would think such a thing necessary; all that was necessary being a tall tree or a field of hidden peers with chiseled spear tips awaiting a fine meal of monster served up raw, or at least medium and pink in the center. Ero vero me minus diu senem esse mallem, quam esse senem antequarm essem. Or, before you go find your latin grammar: For my part, in truth, I would rather be old less long that be old before I am old. Ancient wisdom compliments of my man Montaigne, quoting Brutus. As I was about to say, we are terminal, it’s just a matter of degrees, or so I was reminded this afternoon while taking a stress test because I was experiencing stress of the cardiac nature, only to now better understand, I am/was experiencing stress of the stress nature. So, the pipes are clean and the stress is environmental and thus I am even better positioned to consider the nature of the immortals.

The way I see it, the only way to accomplish such a feat–immortality, the fruit of your low hanging branch–should one be inclined, is to put time in its rightful place, to stop the right-ward nature of that continuum and take notice of such a thing when it happens. The cliché of the Heraclitian river–a cliché becoming a cliché through the test of history and earning the degree–still holds. And that seems to be the nature of reality. Chaos is evident at the quantum level, but who really wants to go there? –particularly when young ladies full of blossom walk the streets of Portland, tan and lightly dressed, and of interest to the gods above who swoop down on them in slumber? What does it mean to say it is a good time to be mortal? When is it a bad time? Germany 1941? They didn’t think so, I suspect. When would it be a good time to be immortal? Oh, to be a god and swoop on young maidens!

There is only a finite amount of matter–carbon–in the universe. When you die you will continue in some fashion, albeit, one you won’t necessarily appreciate. Yet you will carry on, at least your atoms will, chaotic as they are, as you point out. And then, at some time when the river has flowed downstream and around the rock in the right bend, your parts will flow to some other place and you will continue. Little satisfaction in that, indeed.

Just because we have self-reflection and think we’re special because of it, we deem we should be bestowed with a soul, or some other medieval notion and that as a result, surely we are going to continue on somehow. Fertilize an acorn with my remains and I will carry on as an oak. And then perhaps I will be felled and made into pulp, from which I will be processed and pressed and used to absorb ink and bound with others of my ilk and will go into the world as a fashion of wisdom distribution. But then, I write like Dan Brown, so alas wisdom is not my venue, but entertainment. So, that’s settled. Let’s be entertained everyone. Cheers, and many happy returns,
Immortality, indeed.”