Doug Bruns

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Living as long as you should.

In Books, Death, Life, Literature, The Examined Life on May 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

There was a birder at the park this morning. I spotted him as Lucy and I rounded the path. He was walking a bike. He occasionally stopped and lifted his binoculars and peered into a tree. He was wearing bike shorts and a helmet and was sporting large rubber band-like straps below his kneecaps. “Red tail?” I asked, sauntering past, a bird disappearing over the trees. “Kestrel,” he corrected. I moved on. He lingered. Lucy darted ahead. There is an unmatched quality to a Sunday early morning.

* * *

I returned two books to shelves this week, actually, to be precise, one book to the shelf, one to the library. I have tried to read Angle of Repose Wallace Stenger’s 1971 Pulitzer-winning novel three times. I advanced almost two hundred pages this go ’round (out of 600) but decided to retrace my steps. It lacked a certain deeper context. Or rather, it–this context–escaped me. A book has to appeal on multiple levels. Angle of Repose seemed lacking in dimension. No doubt my problem, not the book’s. The other book, The Second Book of Tao, was poor timing. Some books, like some foods, require the necessary appetite. Bailing on a book no longer troubles me.

The last novel I devoured was the second book in the six book series, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Like many other readers of this series (3000 pages!), I cannot get enough, but cannot explain exactly why. Zadie Smith says she needs his books “like crack.” James Woods, writing in The New Yorker, says, [Knausgaard] wants us to inhabit the ordinariness of life, which is sometimes visionary…, sometimes banal…and sometimes momentous…but all of it perforce ordinary because it happens in the course of a life, and happens, in different forms, to everyone. He notices everything—too much, no doubt—but often lingers beautifully.” It feels time to get book three. I have the appetite.

                                   * * *

I cleaned out dad’s room the day after he died. All of his belongings packed into three grocery-store banana boxes and four trash bags. I took the bags of clothes to Good Will. The boxes remain in the back of my truck. Dad never read Thoreau, but he understood living simply. The sage lives as long as he should, not as long as he can, says Montaigne.  Dad, unknowingly, was a great philosopher.

   * * *

I return from my morning walk with Lucy and declare to Carole that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. This is a revelation after years of fruitlessly attempting to cultivate a phantom desire, as if living up to a responsibility. “Do you mean religious bone in your body?” she asked. “No, I know I don’t have that,” I say. She nods and says it’s the same with her. We leave it at that. Know thyself, counseled the Greeks.

I Have Great Slack.

In Dogs, Wisdom, Writing on March 13, 2013 at 6:15 am

I’m suffering from what Susan Sontag called slack mental condition. I have great slack.

Every morning holds promise–and with it, usually momentum. I got up at 5:30 as I always do, which, by the way, is a hell of a thing, up so early every day. I don’t set an alarm, I just wake up–even with daylight savings time and darkness again in the morning. Tangent: How does Daylight Savings save anything if the day begins in darkness? My day is front-loaded, mornings making the difference. With DST, I’ve saved nothing, indeed, by this man-made intrusion on my cicada rhythm I have lost dawn to darkness. I can’t blame the shortage of morning light on my slack condition, but it does not help.

I don’t believe in forcing a thing, be it a nut rusted on a screw thread or a word on a page. There is that wonderful Taoist metaphor, inviting one to be the river flowing downstream. Encountering a boulder, the river does not attempt to move it, but simply flows around it, continuing. That is my philosophy. I’m done moving rocks. Flow is my current state.

So, I won’t force the words. Instead, dear reader, you are being subjected to flow. It’s not a writing exercise so much as a state of being. There are natural limitations, Montaigne reminds us, that not even wisdom can overcome. Wisdom is in shortage around here, but even if I had enough to employ I would not waste it on words, as I know words are the least efficient method of exercising it. Anyway, wisdom’s a thing more akin to active verbs, and by definition slack lacks the active.

Lucy–now there is wisdom, curled up on a bed. No force. No slack. Pure intention: a good nap. As you are aware, I turn to dogs for guidance. You must see where I am headed, yes? Of course you do…

Pinsky, Hegel, Nietzsche, Chatwin, & Faulkner

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Writers on March 5, 2013 at 6:00 am

The poet Robert Pinsky made a comment I noted in my journal: “Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?” What a plague is this question! It burrows to the core of the most tender insecurity I harbor, being forgotten. It is not death, nor dying, that troubles me so much as this. I am at my most alert to cosmic inconsequence when dealing with darkest concerns. In some twisted logic, this state brings a satisfaction.

* * *

The great philosopher Friedrich Hegel‘s (1770-1831) last words are reported to be: “Only one man has ever understood me, and he didn’t understand me.” It has been debated who Hegel had in mind, but most scholars think he was referring to Karl Marx. It is recorded that Marx contended that he was, indeed, the one person who understood Hegel, claiming that the philosopher did not even understand himself.

* * *

Nietzsche‘s thought experiment of eternal recurrence compels one to ask: If my life is to be lived over and over am I troubled or delighted? If I am troubled then it follows that life has been something other than what I wish it’d been. According to Nietzsche, consequently, I have yet to be that which I should become. This has been instilled deep and uprooting the thought of “becoming” is a challenge. Yet, I am learning to release this notion (of becoming), and settling with the subtle comfort of being. It is, at this stage of life, a big deal.

* * *

Bruce Chatwin, in his essay Anatomy of Restlessness, paraphrases Montaigne: “I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.” I used to flee. But no longer. I am, however, still looking.

* * *

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

Faulkner, Library of America Edition

What’s on the nightstand: Faulkner.

Backstory: I was visiting with my friend, the poet, Megan Grumbling, recently. We were discussing our literary preferences and confessed, each, that we’d never read Faulkner, at least read no more than The Bear, his famous short story. One of us observed that a reader is either a Hemingway reader or a Faulkner reader, like a person is either a cat person or a dog person. (I say “one of us observed” because I don’t recall who said it. We both like bourbon and were sitting at a well-stocked bar…’nough said.) I came away from that conversation with the need to rectify my literary shortcoming, hence the Faulkner. Such is life for those hell-bent on self-improvement.

Sunday Repost: A Call From the Fog

In Technology, Thinkers on March 3, 2013 at 6:00 am

A repost from three years ago:

The Sirens--Who Can Resist Them?

The Sirens–Who Can Resist Them?

We’ve had a couple of days of snow. And more falling–with fog. Maggie and I, as always, walked the Eastern Prom this morning, post-holing our way. There came a call of the fog-horn from the bay, the sound rolling in from the South. I thought perhaps it was Bug Light, but I’m given to understand Bug is only an optical warning. Regardless, it was haunting. The water, the fog, snow, and the warning call.

I find it refreshing that technology hundreds of years old–the harbor bell, the fog horn, the light house–is still used in the age of satellite navigation and GPS. I stood in the snow and listened quietly. It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. Famously, Odysseus was curious as to the call of the Sirens. He had his sailors plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast. He wisely ordered his men to leave him there, no matter how much he begged. And beg he did. But that isn’t the fatalism I’m suggesting. This wasn’t a siren’s death call.

It seemed more a beckoning than a warning. (History is filled with such confusion. Philosophy is doubt, said Montaigne.) But that’s not where I’m heading. Two things. Small things. One: Old technology can still work. Perhaps in the long run we will discover it works best. Secondly, more importantly, stand in the snow, stop and listen. You might be beckoned. Or perhaps warned. Either way, you will miss it with ear buds in.

Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

A Little Recompense.

In Death, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on February 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

The loss of my friend Michael is proving difficult. I observe that I cannot fully discern the undercurrents of emotion in the immediate. The deepest current is revealed slowly, a bit at a time. To paraphrase Tolstoy, we are joyous in the collective, but can only realize sorrow alone.

I am reminded of a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, who upon learning of the death of one of his monk disciples, broke down and wept. His students were shocked, expecting that the Lama would be above such stark emotionalism. He was, after all, living a life of purposeful un-attachment. “But I miss him,” replied the tearful Lama with beautiful simplicity. Perhaps a part of us thinks that others more enlightened, more wise, have learned a fashion of dealing with grief that will guide us. But I don’t think so. We can seek and find comfort, certainly, however ultimately we sit as the Lama sat and can only say, “I miss him.”

The Stoics devised mind games and mental tricks to jog our thoughts out of grief, but acknowledged that, in the main, we are impotent in our efforts to control our emotions. This lack, they held, as well as the human tendency to ignore the present moment, is what thwarts consistent human happiness. A Stoic behaves like the strong man who tenses his stomach muscles and invites a punch. But grief sneaks up and throws a fist before we have a chance of bracing for it. Despite that, I like Seneca‘s approach to dealing with matters out of his control. He was asthmatic, and attacks brought him close to death on several occasions. But he learned to treat each attack philosophically. While gasping for breath, he would release himself into the attack, saying yes to it. He would think himself dying from it, giving himself up to it, almost willing it. And when it receded he enjoyed the strength of winning the battle. He had defeated fear. This, I acknowledge, is little recompense in the face of grief. But it is something.

Likewise, Montaigne, upon losing his dear friend, La Boétie, creatively embraced his grief, declaring that when “a painful notion takes hold of me; I find it quicker to change it than to subdue it.” Thus he spun the dross of grief into threads of gold. It is not an overstatement to say that his great literary contribution, The Essays, resulted directly from the loss of La Boétie. In his great essay, Of Friendship, Montaigne famously writes

If you press me to tell why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed, except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.

And though history is grateful at the monumental effort that is The Essays, such a creative response did not assuage fully Montaigne’s grief. Indeed, eighteen years later, while traveling abroad, he wrote in his diary, “This same morning, writing to Monsier d’Ossat, I was overcome by such painful thoughts about Monsieur de La Boétie, and I was in this mood so long, without recovering, that it did me much harm.”

The difficulty of my philosophy is that I shall not choose when to be present and when to run. How can one fully realize what human existence holds, if when it deals you a blow, you turn away? When I sat down at breakfast with Michael two weeks ago, the first words out of his mouth were, “I’m leading the examined life!” It was in this fashion he declared himself a member of our tribe. He would, I know, be the first to reprimand me if I turned away.