Doug Bruns

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Naive moose and other worries.

In Nature, The Examined Life, Writers on April 7, 2012 at 7:00 am

Repost from June 2009

Some cultures practice that a photograph steals part of the soul. The Sioux believed that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life. I have a friend—he does not own a television—who says that T.V. robs us of our intelligence. That, I believe to be not far from the truth. A vital layer of life slips away in front of the T.V., a shard of life-force gone to rest. Another friend went off-line after finding herself aimlessly staring into her computer at night. She said she had “to get a life,” that the internet was stealing it. I sometimes wonder if we are losing bits and pieces of ourselves as we are given over to the subtleties of modern existence, not only its technology, but also its conveniences and entertainments?

There is a phenomenon in animals where they become “naive” if natural predators are removed. After a generation or so they forget their enemies. Wolves re-introduced into the wilds of Yellowstone had easy pickings until the moose realized they were going to be eaten by them. This is what I mean by the subtleties of modern existence. Predation and consumption are related and I fear that one easily morphs into the other. They become the beast that pursues and devours. I know. We were once intimate.

In 1965 Joan Didion wrote:

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

She closes by saying, “And I suspect we are already there.” She was writing on morality and consumerism and of course the grand era of the ‘60s. But on a larger canvas, as it relates to our possessions, I think that we are close to trouble–as recent events, the crash and burn of consumerism, suggest. It seems to be the nature of things that the stuff we own will soon enough own us. I live in a world devoid of natural predators, yet fear being the moose in Yellowstone, growing forgetful and waxing naive.

I resist.

The Year in Reading – 2011

In Books, Literature, Writers, Writing on December 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Two years ago I wrote a piece for The Millions called Literature is a Manner of Completing Ourselves–A Reader’s Year. The title is a quote from Susan Sontag. (If you’re a reader you should bookmark The Millions. It’s perhaps the best of the general lit blogs out there.) I came to write that essay because I had for the first time taken note of the books I’d read that year. It–the reading list–was nothing more than a simple spreadsheet, a record, the transcript of a twelve month journey turning pages. (Yes, all the reading was analogue, real paper pages.)

I have below pasted the reading list for 2012. It is interesting to compare the years. This year I read twenty-seven books, not counting the current book which I will finish before year’s end. In comparison to last year, 27 is less by a full 16%. And last year included one thousand page beast, Infinite Jest. No thousand pagers this year.  The really interesting comparison is to 2009, the list I wrote about in The Millions. This year by comparison is less 2009 by 27%. That is to say that in three years my reading pace has dropped by 25%. (Too, that year included two books over a thousand pages, Bolaño’s 2666 and Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen.) A quick calculation brings me to the conclusion that at this pace in about five years I will have stopped reading altogether.

Speaking of reading lists. Are you aware of Art Garfunkle’s? He’s a serious reader who has been keeping tally of books read since the 1960s. Here’s a link. To really drive it home, he goes another step to list his favorite books. Browsing through his list is almost as good as studying the library of a dinner host. (Which beats looking into their medicine cabinet any day.)

Here’s my list of books read in 2011. (I’ve linked the books I reviewed.)

  • Jan 7    Bound to Last, 30 Writers on their Most Cherished Book — Sean Manning, Ed.
  • Jan 8   The Maine Woods — H.D. Thoreau
  • Jan 24   A Widow’s Tale — Joyce Carol Oats
  • Feb 19   Portrait of a Marriage — Sándor Márai
  • Feb 28   The Foremost Good Fortune — Susan Conley
  • Mar 5    Moby Dick — Herman Melville (This was a third reading.)
  • Mar 21   The Sweet Relief of Missing Children — Sarah Braunstein
  • Mar 28   Tinkers — Paul Harding
  •  Apr 5    Seeds — Richard Horan
  • Apr 25   Fire Season — Phillip Connors
  • Apr 30   The Pale King — David Foster Wallace
  • May 7    The Mind’s Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers — H. Cartier-Bresson
  • May 15   The Ongoing Moment — Geoff Dyer
  • May 30  The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore — Benjamin Hale
  • Jun 15    Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself — David Lipsky
  • Jun 21    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas  — Gertrude Stein
  • Jul 10     The Tao of Travel — Paul Theroux
  • Aug 3     Feathers — Thor Hanson
  • Aug 15   The Surf Guru — Doug Dorst
  • Aug 20  The Story of Charlotte’s Web — Michael Sims
  • Oct 1      Disaster was my God — Bruce Duffy
  • Oct 20   The Great Leader — Jim Harrison
  • Nov 3     Blue Nights — Joan Didion
  • Nov 9     Beautiful & Pointless — David Orr
  • Nov 19   Swimming to Antarctica — Lynne Cox
  • Nov 29  The Triggering Town — Richard Hugo

Two last notes, should lists be your thing. Here are two that I’ve studied for years. The first is the reading list of St. Johns College in Annapolis, MD. St. Johns is better known as the Great Books School. The entire college education at St. Johns is based on the readings of original texts. Here is the undergrad reading list. It’s heavy duty. A little lighter and less intimidating is the Modern Library list of 100 best: Nonfiction & Fiction. One could do worse than read a few of these.

First sentences…

In Books, Literature, Reading, Thinkers, Writers on June 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

…from a few of my favorite books:

“He awoke, opened his eyes.” The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

“The difference between the Parthenon and the World Trade Center, between a French wine glass and a German beer mug, between Bach and John Philip Sousa, between Sophocles and Shakespeare, between a bicycle and a horse, though explicable by historical moment, necessity, and destiny, is before all a difference of imagination.” The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport

“Life changes fast.” The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

“They sometimes met on country roads when there were flowers or snow.” Dubin’s Lives, Bernard Malamud

“Standing amid the tan, excited post-Christmas crowd at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, Rabbit Angstrom has a funny sudden feeling that what he has come to meet, what’s floating in unseen about to land, is not his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Pru and their two children but something more ominous and intimately his: his own death, shaped vaguely like an airplane.”  Rabbit at Rest, John Updike

“The amber light came on.” Blindness, José Saramago

“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest.” Essays of E.B. White

“I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

“When you write, you lay out a line of words.” The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….” Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

…and perhaps the best opening sentence in all of literature:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Moleskin Notes

In Creativity, Life, Literature, Memoir, Photography, Writing on March 17, 2010 at 8:27 pm
Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

A survey of things I’ve noted:

“I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” ~ Joan Didion, The White Album

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.” ~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

“I honestly think it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate.” ~ George Burns

“Maybe at last, being but a broken man/I must be satisfied with my heart, although/Winter and summer till old age began/My circus animals were all on show./ ~ W.B. Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion (about waning powers)

Robert Frank: he preferred “things that moved.” 767 rolls of film, 27,000 exposures. “The humanity of the moment.”

Waitress: “Pasta, fries, potato salad with your burger?” “Chips?” I ask. “Fries,” she states. “Chips?” I ask again. “FRIES,” she barks. “Fries, it is,” I say.

“It is the only thing we can do, Klauss. I see no alternative. Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.” ~ Etty Hilleson (on her way to her death, at 29, in Auschwitz.)

“There is more to life than increasing it’s speed.” ~ Gandhi

“It’s such a complicated thing to understand what you’re trying to bring out of your own imagination, your own life.” ~ William Kennedy, The Writer’s Chapbook

“Altman never gave up creating his cinematic portraits of people on the margins…if only to shed light on the falsity behind his country’s seemingly indefatigable desperate pursuit of success.” Hilton Als, writing in the The New Yorker (December 2009) of Robert Altman.

“You cannot live when you are untouchable. Life is vulnerability.” ~ Edouard Boubat, 1989

A long way from home.

In Adventure, Travel, Writers on January 29, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Can there possibly be a greater American juxtaposition: Portland, Maine to Las Vegas, Nevada? But then Las Vegas (I feel weird calling it Vegas, we’re not that close) makes for a stark comparison to most any other place.

I had to go, yes, had to go, to Las Vegas to attend to some last-minute–and unexpected–business. This is my third time in that city. The first, I guess six or seven years ago, was particularly weird. My daughter Allie and I had been climbing in Joshua Tree, dirt-bagging it, tearing up our knuckles on those famous cracks, getting sunburned and thriving a pitch off the deck. Good stuff. Camp fire at night. Great stuff.

Carole and Jeff (I think Tim was in Michigan, at camp) flew out and met us in Sin City. Allie and I drove out of the desert, still dirty and thrilled at the great climbing, and into the evening glow of Las Vegas. As we pulled into town she looked at me like we’d just landed on a moon of Jupiter. Las Vegas is weird, she said.

In 1968 Joan Didion wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem. In an essay called Marrying Absurd she wrote:

“Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification…”

That was a long time ago. But it still rings true. Las Vegas is an event seeking participants.

This time, a few years older and knowing what to expect, it is, well, still weird. There are some places that feel right. And some that don’t. There are, I think, more people to whom Las Vegas feels right than not. Not me. But I revel in contrariness. Coming to Maine was arriving at my destination. Every place else seems a little weird from home. Some places more than a little.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”

In Technology, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writers on June 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I spoke recently with a young acquaintance who had, as she called it, “gone off- line.” Worried about obsession, she had exercised a discipline unique in modern life. She had logged off and then simply and purposefully disconnected her internet cable. I found this particularly interesting, in that I too am concerned about obsession. “For good,” she says, with emphasis. She is young, as I said. And the young are drawn to absolutes.

“I was getting compulsive,” she confessed. She related that she normally started her session by checking her email. Then she would browse the web. But as the on-line hours ensued, she found herself surfing the net aimlessly, casting about with no apparent focus. “It was worse than channel surfing,” she said. “I hated it, but I couldn’t stop.” I asked if it was difficult going cold turkey. She said yes, that it was hard. “But more disturbing,” she continued, “now I feel out of touch. I even deleted my Facebook account. I’m a pariah.” She looked disconsolately across the room. She had hit upon another cherished theme. Fortunately, the world is rich with opportunity for reflection.

Pariah. The word comes into English from Tamil paraiyar, the plural of paraiyan, a caste name, meaning literally “hereditary drummer.” It is derived from the name of a drum used at certain festivals, and later evolved to capture the essence of the Indian caste system, the untouchables. Thoreau picked up the theme in Walden, the pariah’s manifesto: If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. My acquaintance was a social outcast. It was a course she had guided and could blame no one. But now she was troubled. She was no longer connected. She had checked out, gone off-line. She consciously set herself apart from her on-line peers. She had declared her independence, and in do so, had declared herself an untouchable.

I have thought about going off-line, about disconnecting, moving to my personal Walden and picking up my drum. It is an inviting idea to anyone remotely self obsessed, like myself. I gather there are some who have not at one time or another wished for a life of self-involved quiet and contemplation? Yes, of course there are. Many more, I suspect, than those feeling cramped and wanting to break away from it all. In general, though, Americans, I believe, trust in a singular independence, our pariahness, collectively and independently. I think we fancy ourselves each different and independent, yet similar, sharing common goals and aspirations. Are we not, after-all, collective practitioners in pursuit of happiness? Our pursuit has forced upon us a homogeneity that is at times comforting, then again repugnant. Too, I think it is a tendency of Americans to think of ourselves as different from all the rest of the world, as if we were One Nation (of pariahs) Under God. But these matters were far from my youthful friend’s concerns.Going off-line is not a passive statement of individualism. It is a bold step in today’s terms, particularly and uncomfortably bold.

I have friends, Franz and Anna, who live a remote area of South America, the lake region of Patagonia specifically. They had but one connection to the world from their island lodge, a satellite phone. Several weeks after visiting them, I read that Iridium, the satellite telephone company, had gone out of business. Its orbiting satellites were rendered silent, as were Franz and Anna. A few months later Franz was traveling in the states and I caught up him. I asked him how Iridium’s demise had affected him in Patagonia. “It put us in a real jam,” he said. “Any time we wanted to call someone I had to take the boat across the lake and drive into town.” This was no trip to the Seven-Eleven. The journey to town took two hours, crossing the Yelcho, then four-wheeling a gravel road. Town consisted of a handful of small buildings with corrugated metal roofs, one of which had a phone line. Now there is someone off-line.

There is no groundswell of primitivism afoot today, no Luddism. To the contrary, technology pariahs are few and far between. I know a fellow, an early adapter, who a couple of years ago retired his PDA  (do you remember those?), claiming that he missed the tactile pleasure of holding a traditional writing instrument. “I even missed the scratching sound of writing on paper.” However, last year he stood in line for eight hours to get an iPhone. Someone recently gave my son a beautiful calf-skin leather journal. He likes the feel of it in his hand, which is not something you hear usually said about a laptop. But he does not use it.

Ned Luddan English laborer, fearful of jobs lost to technology, destroyed weaving machinery around 1779. He garnered followers who were dubbed Luddites. But there is no Luddism in going off-line, no yearning for turning back the clock. Fear of technology is not at root here. I don’t think my young friend is afraid of a technological future. Rather, there is something deeper, more akin to the spiritual, at work in her misgivings.

Some cultures practice that a photograph steals part of the soul. The Sioux Indians, for example, believed that each exposure dissolved some vital layer of life. I have a friend—he does not own a television—who says that T.V. robs us of our intelligence. That, I believe to be not far from the truth. A vital layer of life goes to rest in front of the T.V.. My off-line acquaintance found herself aimlessly staring into her computer at night. She said she had “to get a life,” that the internet was stealing it. I have to wonder if we are losing bits and pieces of ourselves as we are given over to the subtleties of modern existence, not only its technology, but also its conveniences and entertainments? I suspect after a fashion that we are being blindsided. For example, there is a phenomenon in animals where they become “naive” if natural predators are removed. After a generation or so they forget their enemies. Wolves recently re-introduced into the wilds of Yellowstone had easy pickings until the moose realized they were going to be eaten by them. This is what I mean by the subtleties of modern existence. Consumption and predation are related and I have a fear that one can too easily morph into the other. To repeat an axiom, nature is balanced.

In 1965 Joan Didion wrote:

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble.

She closes by saying, “And I suspect we are already there.” She was writing on morality and consumerism and of course the grand era of the ‘60s, but on a larger canvas, as it relates to our possessions, I agree, we are in bad trouble–as recent events, the crash and burn of consumerism, suggests. It seems to be the nature of things human that stuff we own will soon enough own us. I live in a world devoid of natural predators. I fear being like the moose in Yellowstone, growing forgetful and waxing naive. I resist.

I harbor an odd hankering to be a technology pariah, independent of cables, connections, satellites and modems. I respect my friend’s decision. There is a stubborn romanticism to the contrariness of the idea, and all fashion of contrariness holds an innate appeal for me. But truth be known, I am connected and will stay connected. One year I did all the Christmas shopping online. My wife couldn’t face another year of it and I relieved her. It was no small annoyance to her that I never left my desk and that the children’s presents arrived already gift wrapped, including cards. That was reward enough. The razor’s edge of technology is to ask where it stops helping and becomes a thing obnoxious. “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” begins the Unabomber Manifesto. Would Thoreau be Kaczanski today–presumably without the violence–if he was around? He did, after all, spend that famous night in jail.

I often drive without the car radio on. I like the unhurried quiet of Sunday afternoons. I avoid the mall. I prefer cross-country skiing to downhill. My life is a balance of avoidance and seeking. Avoid noise, crowds and rushing around; seek quiet, stay calm, be stable. Being on-line helps. There is a great deal one can accomplish in the quite nether realm of technology, whereby one avoids much of modern annoyances, such as traffic, surly clerks, pollution and canned music. To my friend’s point, however, I am conscious of the slithery Faustian tendrils of technology. I don’t look too hard into the computer. I’ve made an observation: The Sioux were right. A computer screen does not reflect your image. It absorbs it.