Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Don Bruns

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



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.



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

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.

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.

* * *

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….”

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.


Will advise for cash.

In Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on June 13, 2012 at 6:00 am

“Yes, coach. Okay, coach.”

A person followed my Twitter feed recently whose profile stated that she was a “life coach” with over ten-thousand followers. Ten thousand! I went to Google and searched the term life coach. In .26 seconds Google responded that it found “about 43,400,000 results.” Forty-three million! (Two exclamation marks might be a record for me.)

Does anyone else find this curious? All these people coached–or coaching–on life? One popular life coaching site advertises: “As more people recognize the need for inspiration and guidance, the more they see coaching as a method of gaining self-confidence and moving towards a higher aspiration. Imagine, finally being in the right place at the right time.”  I’m not sure what they mean by “finally being in the right place at the right time.” Are they suggesting that previous generations were full of self confidence and brimming with aspiration, didn’t need coaching on how to live. Perhaps it’s only the present generation so vacuously lacking? Lucky us. The introduction includes a pop-up quiz the inquirer should take to see if they’ve got the goods or need the goods.

I am (hardly) resisting the temptation to be cynical. Forty-three million hits can’t be wrong. Ten-thousand people in search of a coach. That’s a lot of folks in need. I have to respect that.

The site I quote includes a photograph, in sepia (interesting choice), of a lovely looking not-too-young, not-too-old woman whose title is “Mentor coach, and admission adviser.” I didn’t bother to discover if one applies for coaching needed or, rather, applies for coaching offered. Perhaps that is where the mentor coach comes in: “Sorry, you failed the quiz. You need life coaching. We’re here for you. Please submit your application.” Or maybe, conversely: “Congratulations. You passed. You exhibited knowledge of how to live and we think you’d make a great coach for those who don’t get it.”

Oh, I wasn’t going to be cynical. Sorry.

I have nothing against any of this. Nor do I have anything for it. I suspect in prior generations “the need for inspiration and guidance” was filled by: a) parents, b) school, c) super heroes, d) books (there’s a concept), e) teachers (formal and informal), f) extended family, g) churches, h) friends, and so forth–all old school stuff. Stuff that obviously doesn’t work any more. That is just conjecture on my part.

As best I can reckon, I have been on a similar quest for forty-four years, since my eighth birthday (that story here). Informally, I have been trying to understand how best to live–I guess formally too, if one considers academic study. (An undergraduate concentration in philosophy; a failed attempt at an advanced degree in the highfalutin History of Ideas.)

Regardless, I wish all those folks in pursuit of a good coach the best of luck. Your life depends on it. And to the coaches, I ask that you be gentle and spread your wisdom widely. There are a lot of us–over forty million, I’m told–in need of assistance.

Too much pizza. Too much beer.

In Books, Memoir, Writers, Writing on May 24, 2012 at 6:00 am

I wrote this a month ago, saved it as a draft, thinking it best not to post it, for reasons which will be soon apparent. But I’m nursing a brainwave flatline and like its shallow mellowness. So, rather than get the synaptic camshaft cranking, I’m going to swallow my pride and roll with the post. What the hell.


Carole is out of town and so tonight I eat out. BBQ chicken pizza at Portland Pie Co. Carole does not care for their pizza so this is my place when she’s gone. And beer. I drink beer here too. Copious amounts.

I divide the pizza: eat this half tonight, this half tomorrow lunch. I eat. And drink beer and eat more. The first half is gone and I peel off a piece from the second. I hate myself for doing this. I order another beer. The hate increases.

I eat and drink and read. I read when I eat alone. Often, I read with company for that matter. Once I left a party we were hosting and went upstairs to read, the party being so very something other than what I thought it’d be. I was rude, of course. Just writing that makes me feel like a jerk. But that is a different story. I eat the whole thing. Drink more beer even. I leave loathing myself. My discipline has abondanded me. I am lost.

Tonight I read Joyce Maynard‘s At Home in the World. It is one of the finest, if the finest, memoir I’ve ever read. Maynard was a child literary prodigy–she writes like an angel– and came to the attention of old man J.D. Salinger living as a recluse in Cornish, New Hampshire. She moved in with him. She was nineteen. He was thirty-five years her senior. I was reading the part where he teaches her how to induce vomiting after eating food he deems toxic. There is a reason Salinger was as he was.

Things begin to turn ugly.

I leave, paying the tab, in a state of gastro distress. As I walk home I think about Salinger, two years younger than me, puking. I think about life imitating art. I rush home, miserable more so now that it all has settled and capped off my GI tract. Into the bathroom I go, kneeling in front of the toilet. I look at my middle finger. Is the nail clipped? I think of Brando in Last Tango.

I plunge the finger down my throat, curious at what’s down there. Interesting. I wretch. But no pizza, no beer. Just a little phlegm. Lucy is sitting to my left, looking at me. I reach out and scratch her ear, tell her it’s alright, then plunge the finger down my throat again. Again, nothing. My eyes watering I give in. This is obviously not a solution. I’m not made this way. I must pay my dues, suffer for my sins. I must digest. I ask Lucy if she wants to go for a walk and she tells me that yes, indeed, let’s go for a walk. I get the impression she thinks that to be a better solution to my current trouble than whatever it is I’m doing.

After our walk I come home and recline, the only position that offers up any comfort, and continue reading how a nineteen year old woman came to live with J.D. Salinger.