Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.

A Crisis of Vacuum

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I’m in crisis. It has nothing to do with middle age, though I fit that demographic profile. Simple people would label my crisis that way, I’m afraid, people with little minds, people who have little capacity for probing below the surface. It is easy, particularly for people who don’t really know me, to think: middle-aged crisis at eleven o’clock, and motion in my direction. I wish I could say that I didn’t care. But I kind of do care and have taken measures to keep my crisis to myself. I fear being a cliché. At least that was my intention–keeping it to myself–until I decided that perhaps the best way to confront this challenge is head on and declare it to the world. So, let it be known, throughout the kingdom, there is a crisis going on and it belongs to Doug Bruns.

An Adequate Idea

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I was recently engaged in a conversation that ended with the phrase, “The difference between us, Doug, is that I am a man of faith and you have no faith.” It was delivered with shrugged shoulders, a slightly tilted head and the nervous hint of a smile. It was not mean-spirited, just a declaration, yet it seemed to carry the impress of righteousness. I found it a curious thing, this conversation-stopping declaration. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Question: What do Nietzsche and H.L. Mencken have in common? If you answered “anti-Semetism,” wrong. Actually, Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, while Mencken was an anti-Semite. Correct answer: zoos.

In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche offers the following: “To call the taming of an animal its ‘improvement’ sounds almost like a joke to our ears. Whoever knows what goes on in menageries doubts that the beasts are ‘improved’ there. They are weakened, they are made less harmful, and through the depressive effect of fear, through pain, through wounds, and through hunger they become sickly beasts.”

In case, like me, you’ve no idea, “menageries” are synonymous with “zoos.” I was going to get clever and offer the German translation of “zoo,” but then I remembered Zoo Station.

In his essay Zoos, Mencken writes: “Least of all do zoos produce any new knowledge about animal behavior. Such knowledge must be got, not from animals penned up and tortured, but from animals in a state of nature. A professor studying the habits of the giraffe, for example, and confining his observations to specimens in zoos, would inevitably come to the conclusion that the giraffe is a sedentary and melancholy beast, standing immovable for hours at a time and employing an Italian to feed him hay and cabbages…There remains, then, the only true utility of a zoo: it is a childish and pointless show for the unintelligent, in brief, for children, nurse-maids, visiting yokels and the generality of the defective.”

So, two bastards, plus another, that being me, question the purpose of zoos, to which I’ll add amusement parks, extreme sports and Broadway musicals. I feel my much more highly-esteemed forebears would agree.

A zoo should, to any person of conscience or, lacking that, as I do, emotional reactions, cause depression. Just look at the apes and monkeys. That’s how we treat our uncles? Would you send Uncle Joe to a zoo instead of a nursing home? Wait, scratch that point: a zoo would improve upon “group activity hour.” Nevertheless, Uncle Joe deserves better than both. Even if he desired death, a lion would find him unpalatable.

Next, why do we need amusement parks? Isn’t the entire country an amusement park, except for those who can’t afford amusement parks? To my knowledge, Disneyland has no free admission Ghetto Day. If you want to amuse a youngster, throw him in the car, jump on the freeway, and drive 120 miles per hour. That’s good enough for junior. No use spoiling Johnny rotten.

Extreme sports by definition must be taken further and further or they cease being extreme. Let’s bungee jump ahead to the last extreme sport: suicide. This final proof of “guts” will rid society of fearless sociopaths.

Finally, Broadway musicals. Some years ago, I was forced to attend The Phantom of the Opera. If that were the only music available, I’d slash off one ear so that at least whenever I accidentally heard Broadway music it could only attack in mono. The true story is that I “got lost” during intermission and headed for the nearest bar, a mortal marital sin, but with my bad conscience, it troubled me not. I considered 50% of the intended torture more than enough punishment.

Then again, to each his own. I suggest compressing all of these activities into one. Put the animals in zoos on rollercoasters, throw bodies at the hungriest of them, disguise the screams with the screams of Broadway musical “singers,” and for any thrill-seekers left alive, I already told you what to do.

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1

That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district.  Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.

A man in the the early afternoon of his life (approximately 1:00 to 1:30 pm) hops a plane to the Northwestern corner of his host country, the one he sometimes calls home, and dials a number, speaks a popular foreign language, writes down an address, says thank you, until soon, ends the call, looks at the clock on this cellular phone, opens a map and directs himself toward a hotel.

On his back is a rucksask, which he calls a “blid” because the top part of it has what looks like a big lid that extends higher than his head. He also refers to people like him, the rucksackers, as blids because they walk around with big lids higher than their heads. Blids are walking/living advertisements for people who are overloaded, semi-bewildered and wayworn. They are “not from here” and today, he is one of them. Attached to his chest is a smaller backpack of the same brand (harnessed backwards) that holds his writing device, research for something he is writing, a copy of the first draft of that something that was written, his digital music player, a camera and various cables with which to connect them all to his writing device.

The temperature is 34 degrees, according to a woman he overheard complaining about the heat. He’s been in his host country so long that he doesn’t quite know what that is in his pre-programmed Fahrenheit gauge, but he knows that it is, in fact, hot. Damn hot, or insupportably hot – as the woman had said – the insupportably hottest damn day of the year. If he had to guess, he would say about 95 degrees and with the humidity factor, over 100. He walks around for a 10 minutes and wipes his forehead over 20 times with his palm, a bead of sweat readily forms at the bottom of his chin seconds after he wipes it away. His new black shirt holds a newer shade of darkness, a dampened black, where he is sweating without pause.

At the hotel, he disentangles himself from his blid burden, wipes his forehead with his palm and asks how much a room costs. Thirty-one euros, the cute girl behind the desk says smiling, plus tax. He pauses, looks around the two-star hotel lobby and weighs the possibility of exiting and looking for something cheaper of the same quality of slightly more expensive but of higher quality. Behind the girl behind the desk is a mirror and he sees himself in it, the sweat a relentless rain with which he uses his palms like intermittent wipers to keep it from falling into his eyes and impairing his vision.

I’ll take it, he says.

The room is spartan: there’s a bed big enough to entomb one person, a window, a small desk with a chair and very small TV dangling off the wall in the corner. He is exhausted. He takes off all his clothes and considers a shower but only after he’s lying in bed, at which time he closes his eyes and quickly drifts off to a siesta – or as most Brits call it (and make a point of this whenever they are around this particular foreigner), a kip.

The alarm on his cell phone brings him back to consciousness an hour and half later. He rubs his head and eyes and looks at the time on his cell phone. He is running late for his appointment to see a room in an apartment. He can shower in one minute or skip the shower and just towel down and deodorize heavily. Outside his hotel window, the evening twilight is blanketing and the heat is dropping. He stands up,
staggers for a second at the window, grabs his camera and snaps a photo.

Kiptobin15a

Its a rugged, post-industrial town. Most of the roofs need replacing from the heavy rain and are stained accordingly, he thinks, but if they replaced them, it might not have such an industrial appeal. And who wants to live in an ancient land that’s been refurbished, renovated and redone to look like a retro-ancient one?

Not I, he says and jumps in the shower for one full minute before drying, tossing his clothes on, putting the smaller rucksack on his back and whishing himself out the door and down into the street toward his appointment.

Rua León looked semi-close to his hotel on the map, but maps are always deceptive, even if you take into account the conversion factor in the legend. And this town is full of hills, putting you in a perpetual state of incline or decline. His destination is a definite incline, all the way up, he can see it, and while the small rucksack on his back weighs 1/10th of the colossal blid he had on earlier, this little one still packs a little punch and the incline looks never-ending.

20 minutes later he arrives at Rua León, 12. He looks around the area; adjacent to the flat is a walking area that looks like it was one a street for cars but was turned into a sizable thoroughfare for shopping and café loitering.

Kiptobin15b

Across the street from his flat are two bars and next to it is another; on the other side of the flat is a
gym and he thinks that these could come in handy if decides to take up karate, thai-chi…

Kiptobin15d

or drinking.

Kiptobin15e

Two people arrive and literally say “Hello” as if to impress them with their English. The local says his name and they shake hands. The foreigner asks him to repeat it and without hesitation the woman answers for him, Suso, as in Jesucristo – it’s a diminutive, she says, and then releases her name: Maria. Suso is a brittle man in his fifties with nearly translucent skin, blue eyes and shaved white hair. He speaks with
an  operatic intonation and subtle hesitation that almost makes it seem like he doesn’t speak the same tongue as the foreigner. Maria is a whiz at the language, is slightly overweight, in her late forties and has several severely discolored teeth, the rest of which appear only mildly discolored.

All three enter in the front door into the vestibule. There’s no elevator, Maria says, and its on the second floor. They make their way up and Suso stops in front of the door and points to the light above the door saying its automatic. He fumbles with the key in the lock and turns and looks up at the light. You see,
he says, you don’t have to touch anything, it automatically knows you are there, as if to reiterate the high-tech function of the front door light. The foreigner nods his head.

They walk in and immediately he is gripped by a stale odor. Here’s your room, Suso says motioning him into the room, and your desk which I put in here yesterday. In front of the desk is a small chair, suitable for a child in a playroom. This isn’t the right chair Maria, Suso says, get the other one, which she does and
hands him quickly. Suso pushes down the chair while engaging some lever underneath it and explains how customizable it is. He gets down on one knee and says, look here, this lever right here allows you to move it up and down with no problems. The foreigner nods his head again, thinking about the motion-sensor light
and this man’s preoccupation with these accessories that seem to make life so much easier—or more accurately, the flat so modern. Without them, he would most certainly be roughing it.The room
is even more spartan than the hotel. There’s a lazy chair in the corner with no cushion to sit on
and a wobbly closet door which disengages into his hands when he tries to move it.

Kiptobin15f

Oops, Suso says, this is nothing, I’ll fix this
tomorrow.

Maria stands at the threshold of the door, lights a cigarette and puts her hand outside the room, as if the smoke might bother the foreigner. He doesn’t see it at first but intuits it, feels that it
is there. Upon her next dragging of the cigarette and putting it outside the door, he looks and confirms it – she has a dark patch of hair under her armpit.
Contrary to many European stereotypes, he realizes that this is the first woman he’s seen in this country—besides lesbians and the occasional hardcore hippy—that doesn’t shave her armpits. He is unbothered by this because he should (hopefully) never have to see her in any capacity that will force him to think of this any further.

They show him the rest of the flat. It consists of a kitchen with the most basic of utensils,

Kiptobin15g

the washing machine out on the dust-filled terrace, the bathroom that has no curtain, not even bars with which to hang one if he would want to, a very small neglected living area

Kiptobin15h

and two other bedrooms, the last of which is David’s, who they tell him is the only one living here at the moment and is rarely at home. When he is, they say, he isn’t very social. That’s OK, the foreigner says, it won’t bother me.

So you’re a writer—huh?, Maria asks while covering the beds with a sheet.

He says yes well I’m working on someth—Maria cuts him off, I’m reading Neetzch, do you know
who he is? You mean the German philosopher?, the foreigner replies, I’ve read some of his stuff. Be careful, Maria warns, I’m reading the one he wrote just before he went crazy, at which point she looks to Suso and he guesses –you mean the one with that crazy name – Zarthstru? No, not that one, Maria shakes her head, the one about good and bad and there’s another book that comes published with it. I’ve read some of his stuff, the foreigner repeats. Maria tells him to be careful, that he shouldn’t go crazy trying to write something
like this Neetzch character. Well I’m not a philosopher, the foreigner adds, and Maria shakes her head again and says that all writers are philosophers and subject to same whims and weaknesses. I’ll be careful, the foreigner smiles, thinking about he never would have pegged Maria to be a Nietzsche fan.

They discuss the price, 200 euros, which includes all costs associated with the flat and room including WiFi. There is a lock on the door to his room and he asks where the key is. Suso says that he thinks there’s a key to it somewhere but if he can’t find it, it will be no problem to come over here one day and replace it.
You shouldn’t have anything to worry about here, he continues, David is barely here and this Belgian girl that’s coming will be studying Marine biology at the port, so they won’t be here very much. I know, the foreigner replies, there’s probably nothing to worry about but you never know what might happen and I want
to make sure that I have a writing device with which to write on, if not, that is to say, if it gets stolen, then
my entire purpose for being here will be for nothing. I’ll be by in a few days to replace the lock then, Suso says, finally accepting the condition with which the man will move in.

They shake hands and the foreigner heads back to his two-star hotel, wondering if the place is truly adequate for what he wants. It’s not exactly comfortable, there’s no shower curtain and no lock on the door and while I am here to write, he says aloud descending the hill into downtown, I am on vacation and damn
there are some very fine-looking women in this capital beach town and I can’t imagine writing for eight hours a day straight when I haven’t written for even thirty minutes in the past year with any consistency.

He asks himself the most fundamental of questions: what does a writer really need to write? Sure, creature comforts like small lamps, dictionaries and thesauruses, a nice lazy-boy with which to read and research in and get a quick kip in, those would be nice, he thinks. And maybe a stereo if s/he likes music to write with, a fan if its hot, some wall space with which to write words and notes on and maybe a bookshelf to hold books on for reference. These things are pleasant and probably required for many, but in essence, the only things a writer really needs is what this armpit-of-a-shared-flat has to offer: a chair to sit on and a desk to put the writing device on. All else is superfluous.

He considers the options: getting a cheaper hostel for another night or two, looking at more flats around the same price but hopefully of better quality, some that may not even have a desk in it. And this Suso character really did hook me up with that desk, he admits, it is the finest piece of furniture in the whole forgettable shack, not to mention customizable chair and motion-sensor light at the front door. Hell, It’s 200 euros—everything included—and no one gets hurt, he says, almost whistling down the wind.

The next day comes and he decides to take it. He mounts the blids on his back and chest and walks toward the main street looking for a taxi. The weather is considerably better today, probably about 21 degrees, but still begins to downpour sweat profusely with the heavy blid burden now in full bore.

He gets to the flat, meets Suso to whom he gives 200 euros and gets a set of keys and a quick handshake in return before disappearing. The foreigner immediately sweeps the entire flat and dusts everything, then takes all the possessions out of the blids and puts them in their proper place. Finally, he sets up his writing device, plugs it in and turns it on…

Kiptobin15i

and begins writing:

A man in the the early afternoon of his life (approximately 1:00 to 1:30 pm) hops a plane to the Northwestern corner of his host country, the one he sometimes calls home, and dials a number, speaks a popular foreign language, writes down an address, says thank you, until soon, ends the call, looks at the clock on this cellular phone, opens a map and directs himself toward a hotel.

Andy Johnson introduced me to Dorothy last year.

Dorothy and I have recently become good friends.

She asked me if I wanted to try speed dating and I agreed.