Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

What the Hell?

In Books, Reading, Travel on June 22, 2012 at 6:00 am

Another repost, as I’m traveling. This one from summer, 2006. (My god, I’ve been doing this a long time…)

Paris, Under the Tower, D. Bruns

When I die does this blog die with me? Or, rather, does a bit of it, like a clipped toe nail forgotten on the tile floor, remain indefinitely until someone comes along and cleans it up? “Yep, he’s good and gone. Better clean this mess.” I was in Paris only five days and am wading into such depths. Philosophy is in the water there–that is, at least, what they might have you think, as they might think stupid is in American water.
        By “What the hell?” I mean: what the hell have I been doing since February when I last posted to this sorry excuse for a blog. As I said, I’ve been to Paris, also Maine, where I fulfilled a life-long dream to get a little place on the coast, at least until the ice cap melts it gone under, which might be any damn hour. It was E.B. White that set me on this path years ago, writing: “Once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”
        Reading too, since I last posted–figuring first I am a reader, then everything else–and getting hooked on a Penguin Editor’s list of Modern Classics, being a big fan of lists and an advocate of self-improvement. [In 2006 I was naive enough to believe that literature could accomplish such a thing–ed.] Twenty books total, only four of which I’d read previously: Heart of Darkness (Conrad), Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez), A Portrait of…Young Man (Joyce), Women in Love (Lawrence)

        I’ve also knocked off Dellio’s White Noise, which though wonderful and brilliant, seems debatably great, but time will tell. And current?– to the west coast and back again: On the Road, with Jack Kerouac. Also filling the hours at Allie’s graduation with Roth’s new novel, Everyman. Thank god for college book stores open on graduation day.

Also, since February, grinding through 100 Gentlemen of Baltimore, the book project I have set upon, a collection of 100 portraits and interviews with men living on the streets of Baltimore–where it is estimated the homeless population is between 3000 and 5000–a project which keeps a camera at my side and sharpens the tools of this Bodhisattva wanna-be.

And next? Next is this afternoon, sitting quietly with books at my elbow and faithful Maggie snoring as her sun-ray shifts, and working hard to remember that next is now.

On writing

In Creativity, Reading, Writers, Writing on June 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

Writing, old school.

There are some very popular–and quite good–blogs out there for writers. Dispensing advice to writers is one of those popular themes that help make a blog successful. I mentioned the advantage of this approach recently (see Blog as metaphore), the value of being an expert and sticking close to your expertise.

On writing specifically, I gather from the popularity of these blogs that there are a lot of aspiring writers seeking help and advice. I would probably be well served to better study some of this stuff. But, truth is, I don’t much like reading about writing. I like to read good writing, but don’t have patience to read about the craft of it. I suspect at work is the same distrust I hold toward the MFA degree. There too, I know I would benefit, but am more inclined to go it alone. That should come as no surprise.

A couple of years ago, with time on my hands, I considered taking the MFA. I went to a well-known school and attended a graduate seminar. Within minutes I knew I would not be able to sit the next two years listening to students read their works in progress. It was not a bad experience, and was likely quite beneficial for those participating. I simply would rather be home reading Nabokov or Cheever.

Reading about writing is like reading about sex rather than having sex. It’s okay, I guess, but why bother?

Yet, here I am writing about writing…

I recognize good writing when I see it. And when I see it I long to be a better writer. That is my school of writing.

A writer I greatly respect, Jim Harrison, said to a writer friend not long ago, “Just concentrate on the writing. That’s all that matters.” I admire the elegance of that advice and keep it noted on a card at my desk.

Sometimes, as happened just yesterday, I pick up a book, read a word or two, realize inspiration, put the book down and start writing. This does not happen frequently, but when its does I recognize it and take advantage of it. It’s a cosmic gift. Most of the time, however, I simply sit down and go to work.

About four or five months ago, I upped the ante here at “…house…” and started posting everyday, six days a week. It is a yeoman’s task I set for myself and we will see how it turns out. I decided that since this blog has evolved into my major writing project, I would work at it everyday hard and with discipline. That is how one approaches the important things.

Carole has noted that this discipline carries with it a weight. I occasionally exhibit evidence of this burden. Somedays I worry and fret that I won’t have anything to write about tomorrow. She admonishes me. She reminds me that I’ve grown a nice little audience of readers here at “…the house….” Further, she points out that I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. What more could I want? I know all this to be true. Yet, still…

There is value in being worried enough that you won’t be good enough to do the job well enough. And therein lies motivation.

I believe that summarizes my thoughts on writing.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate your support.

Coffee or Tea?

In Books, Happiness, Life, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life on April 23, 2012 at 6:00 am

I need to shake things up. I am contemplating a switch from morning coffee to tea. Don’t laugh. This might not seem significant, but trust me, it has subtle philosophical implications.

I have a deeply nurtured routine. Until now it was not subject to alteration. Upon getting up I light a fire under the tea-pot to boil water. I take the espresso beans I ground the previous evening and pour them into the french press. When the water boils it goes into the press. I set the timer for four minutes, and so forth. Making coffee to my taste is a skill I have developed and I believe that to have a skill, no matter how small or seemingly irrelevant, is to know what counts as meaning in a certain domain.

William James observed that the individual “who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention…will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him.” It’s in that concentrated attention I find the occasional burst of meaning. Mindfully making coffee is the way I begin that daily practice. The rutted path leads to the comfort of the barn. I shy from the word spiritual. Making coffee is as close as I get.

There is a tradition that tea plants grew from the eye lashes of the Buddha. Siddhartha, in an effort to stay awake while meditating, plucked his eye lashes. As they fell to the ground, plants blossomed and from the leaves of those plants tea was discovered. It is no coincidence that the tea ceremony is at the heart of the zen tradition, where focus is centered upon the paying of attention.

I was raised with the idea that life has intrinsic meaning; however, I abandoned that notion as a young man. I drifted in the direction of Camus, where meaning is a thing to be developed, not discovered–an idea I still embrace. To that end, I experience glimpses of meaningfulness in simple life activities. Last summer I read a book that shed light on my coffee routine specifically.

The book is All Things Shining, Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (I mentioned this book in a post earlier this year, My Window.) It’s written by two philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (The subtitle to their blog is: Luring back the gods.) There is one idea Kelly and Dreyfus explore that pertains to my meanderings here: making coffee. Imagine my surprise to discover this sentence, “…the coffee-drinking routine that recognizes no distinctions of worth is a routine in which the coffee drinker becomes exchangeable: assimilable to all of the millions of others who are sleepwalking through the same generic routine.”

My daily challenge is to resist the condition of becoming exchangeable, to avoid slipping into the sleepwalking state. I do not wish to live generically and have built habits and cultivated stimulus to mitigate this. Making morning coffee is one such example. But now my instincts are to step it up and challenge even that routine.

And that is why switching from coffee to tea is such a big deal.

Thanks for reading.

The last best place.

In Books, Curiosity, Reading, Travel on March 27, 2012 at 7:00 am

I mentioned in a previous post, Leaning into Wisdom, the three major influences in my life: books, nature, and travel. I read a lot books and write about many of them here. I write less about my forays in nature; and least about travel. Today, I wish to focus on travel.

I recently discovered a travel blog, Fabulous 50’s, by Sherry Lachelle. Sherry is clear-eyed and writes with verve. Her posts reminded me of the adventures I’ve enjoyed (well, most were enjoyed). She got me thinking.

I embrace phases, wild crazy enthusiasms and reckless occasional diversions of direction. One of the longest lasting of these phases–for lack of a better term–has been travel. During my travel years I nurtured an insatiable urge to see the world, whereby I was planning one adventure while on another. I traveled to fish. I traveled to climb mountains. I traveled to take photographs, to find writing subjects. I traveled as an excuse to travel. I was restless and thought of myself as a proto-Bruce Chatwin nomad. I saw a lot of the world, including some of the most beautiful and exciting places you can imagine. Patagonia, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, the Seychelles and so on. Then I moved to Maine in the spring of 2009 and put away my passport.

The travel phase, after thirty years, came to a self-defined stop. It was, as a friend observed, as if I’d reached my destination. Indeed, over my travel years I was often asked where in the world I would drop my “favorite place” pin. Always, and without hesitation, I responded, Maine. Now I reside in my favorite place and I do not take that for granted.

There are places that resonate. And there are places that don’t, places that seem dead of vibration. Maine resonates with me. It is a profound lesson: place matters. I am a baby-boomer raised in post-war America. The notion was that one can pick up and go, put down roots, then simply pick up again without repercussion. But I’ve discovered, contrariwise, that place matters. And when you find your place, take note. You’ve made an important discovery.

Now the restlessness is gone, but curiosity remains. The value of travel, whether to far-off locations or weekend getaways, is a thing I understand first hand. It’s hard knowledge realized of action. The best travel effects me as a journey of a hyper-aware self in accelerated space and time, an experience where the senses are fed and the energy is loaded. It is a profound way of building experience and sparking curiosity. At times there is even wisdom to be realized.

Among travel writers, Paul Theroux, is, to my taste, our best. He is a master of the genre. Writing of his youthful travels, he says, “I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith.” We are remiss when we ignore the importance of elsewhere.(Theroux’s last travel book, from which this quote is taken, is  The Tao of Travel. I reviewed it for MostlyFiction last year.)

Three years after retiring the passport, I am gearing up to set out again. I’m planning a big trip, an adventure into the world’s biggest mountains and the juices are starting to flow. Place is settled, but remnants of wanderlust fortunately remain. Stay tuned.

Got a favorite place? I’d like to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.

Robert Pinsky and aspiring to a “new soul”

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers on March 8, 2011 at 8:51 am

I went to the annual Bernard A. Osher Lecture at the Portland Museum of Art last night. The lecture was given by U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Pinksy. I aspire to appreciate poetry, like I wish I had command of a second language, or play a musical instrument. I recall once walking into a bookstore in Spain and seeing the racks of books, all in Spanish, all inaccessible. A closed universe. “Will not every language we learn give us a new soul?” asked Goethe. Poetry appeals to me in that fashion–as if it’s the key to opening a closed universe, or a dormant soul waiting to be awakened.

Pinksy was a wonderful speaker. His lecture was laced with thought-provoking notions and insights. (The idea that America is a young place and as such is still creating its culture fueled the after-lecture conversation of our little group.) And of course there was the poetry, read by a master and illuminated with brilliant explication. It was not highfalutin, not boring–to the contrary

Pinksy founded the Favorite Poem Project. The project description reads: “During the one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans wrote to the project volunteering to share their favorite poems — Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, of diverse occupations, kinds of education and backgrounds.” Brilliantly, many of the submissions were recorded. Here is John Doherty, a construction worker, reading a portion of his favorite poem, Whitman’s Song of Myself:

If, like me, you wish to better appreciate poetry, I recommend the project and the videos.

My New Library Card

In Books, Reading, Technology, Writing on November 12, 2010 at 2:59 pm

There are books I want to read and own. And there are books I want to just read. So, there being a “read only” book currently in my purview, I marched up to the newly renovated Portland public library and got a library card. I am embarrassed to admit that it is the first library card I’ve had in, maybe, twenty years.

I live in a small place now, already filled with enough books, such that book overflow is beginning to occur in my man-cave office-study in town. Too, there are hundreds of books still back in Maryland, books which presumably will never make their way north to Maine. Also, libraries are green. It is a benchmark recycling notion, this business of taking a book, reading it, and returning it for someone else to enjoy.

I have been thinking a great bit about the impact of technology on modern life. The theme has been explored in a number of posts here. There is a book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, by William Powers which explores this question. Here’s the jacket blurb:

At a time when we’re all trying to make sense of our relentlessly connected lives, this revelatory book presents a bold new approach to the digital age. Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave.

Using his own life as laboratory and object lesson, and drawing on such great thinkers as Plato, Shakespeare and Thoreau, Powers shows that digital connectedness serves us best when it’s balanced by its opposite, disconnectedness.

Exactly! Powers has been interviewed on PBS & NPR, the book has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal, by Diane Rehm and Katie Couraic. It’s been on the Time’s Best Seller List. Where am I going with this? The library doesn’t have a copy! Nor can they get me one! (I do not use exclamation marks arbitrarily, I want to point out.) I suddenly am feeling as if I live in a remote backwater outpost. Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, granted. It’s just a disappointing first library experience. When I pointed out to the librarian, a congenial woman with a terrible hacking cough, all of the above, the press notices, the interviews and so forth, she as much as challenged me, wondering out loud if it really was on the best seller’s list.

I know my reading tends to the esoteric, but this is mainstream, for god’s sake.

Enough ranting. In a follow-up visit I picked up Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Chatiwin’s The Songlines–both books I need to refresh myself with for a piece I’m working on. They had the books. No surprise there. I should point out: both books were likely purchased long before the library budget started to get directed to DVDs and audio books, movies and CDs, which were the articles everyone was checking out at the front desk. It would be ironic if libraries were, in the fashion of my experience, to contribute to the death of the written word, being presumably the last bastion of orderliness in the messy digital war of ideas (or lack thereof).


This just in: “Nearly 2,000 volunteers lined up on the Akoni Pule Highway on Saturday to form a human chain, so they could pass the thousands of books – or huki puke, in Hawaiian – over a mile and a third down the road to the new library.” Check out: Good library news.