Monthly Archives: December 2009

Life in the Mountains

A still from the film Robot Stories

“I’ve always been afraid when I heard the foxes barking up in the mountains.”

“One evening, as she passed the Kusuhara Shrine, she began to hear the bark of baby foxes, whereupon she began to say that she had actually been hearing this sound ever since the night when her strange behavior had begun.”

I had the opportunity to read about fox possession in the journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. The article is titled BETWEEN FOLK CONCEPTS OF ILLNESS AND PSYCHIATRIC DIAGNOSIS: KITSUNE-TSUKI (FOX POSSESSION) IN A MOUNTAIN VILLAGE OF WESTERN JAPAN and its written by SHIGEYUKI EGUCHI. Shigeyuki traveled to Kusuhara, and lived amidst the villagers there for years, documenting several cases of what was believed to be fox possession. Here is a description of one case…

“Takao is an 18-year old factory worker… His family reported that he had been involved in a traffic accident about one month previously, and during the subsequent examination at the police station he had started imitating a fox, jumping onto the table and shouting. As he was being driven home by his mother, he suddenly bit her in the arm, and even after he arrived home his state of excitement continued. It was not until he was found some days later walking the narrow streets of the village brandishing a huge sickle and dressed in a work raincoat and helmet with a towel wrapped around his neck, that his family tied him up (hand and foot) and brought him to the hospital.

After he was hospitalized, he remained in a state of excitement and was placed in a padded cell. There for some time he was unapproachable: he tore up the bedding and his own clothing and stuffed it into the toilet, took apart the metal bed-frame and used it to pound the walls, imitated karate kicks and jumped up and down. He was suspicious of hospital personnel, saying, “Someone is controlling the doctors.” He was judged to be in an acute psychotic state, and was prescribed a relatively large dose of a major tranquilizer.”

The rural folks of Kusuhara attribute persistent deviant behavior to fox possession. Here Shigeyuki breaks down the many reasons for this:

“From an examination of this mythopoetic context, it is easy to discover why the fox is the animal by which people of the area are most likely to be possessed. In Japan, foxes are generally believed to be able to assume other forms in order to trick people, and a collection of folk tales from this area includes many which tell of this happening (“The Fox Jizo;” “The Fox in the Vegetable Field,” “The Young Man and the Beautiful Fox Maiden”).

In addition, real foxes are often seen foraging near houses of the village in the snowy depths of winter. Like Takao, every villager remembers having shud­dered during childhood at the cry of foxes carried on the wind from high in the mountains behind the village.

The lead actor in Tsuri-gitsuneAnother important background element is the kyogen play Tsuri-gitsune (The Fox Hunt) enacted at Shorakuji. This temple was the family temple of a famous feudal lord, Sasaki Takauji (1306-1373) who was renowned as a lover of lavish, elegant forms of entertainment. In the play, a fox first transforms himself into a high priest, then later returns to his true form.” Shorakuji was actually the birthplace of Tsuri-gitsune, and in the weed-covered remains of an ancient castle behind the temple can be found a “fox mound” said to be connected to this play. Performances of the play are rare, but one was given soon after the war, and was witnessed by many people, including the temple members from Kusuhara.

This kyogen is enacted only rarely. The lead actor is required to crawl and jump around in imitation of a real fox. This is considered a very difficult role. The technique is kept secret and only transmitted orally. The role is thought to have the potential for inducing insanity: it is said that there have been cases in which the actor, in the midst of an impassioned performance, passed over into a state of psychotic possession. Consequently, to recall the actor to reality, the script has been altered to include a portion where the actor is called by his own name by one of the other performers.”

I found a copy of this play… Tsuri-gitsune or The Fox and The Trapper, and read aloud the role of the Fox. Here is part of the story the Fox tells the Trapper, involving a gargantuan fox whose spirit transforms into a killer asteroid:

“On the hundredth day, a huge fox suddenly appeared. It was enormous – forty feet long from head to tail. The first arrow and the second one both hit their mark. ‘We got him,’ they shouted. Alighting from their mounts, they drew their swords to finish the fox. The fox was presented to the Emperor and he instantly recovered. Order was restored throughout and peace again prevailed.

The vengeful spirit of the fox then transformed itself into a huge rock. The number of lives consumed by the rock was countless. Beasts that roamed the earth and birds that soared the skies fell prey to the rock’s spell. The rock was thus given the name of sesshoseki, because of the toll of lives it took.

There was a priest, Gen-o by name. He challenged the rock in a philosophical debate.

‘You, spirit of the rock, who’s essential nature is to consume lives,’ I ask you; ‘Where does the spirit of life come from and where does it go to?’ The priest struck the rock three times with his staff. The rock cracked, but the spirit of the fox still remained. It continued to rob people of their lives. The vengeful spirit of the fox holds such great power. You must, by all means, stop trapping foxes.”

The transformation from man to fox

Now I have started barking and yipping. I chased Roly Poly under the bed. I feel like I am undergoing a transformation.

Shigeyuki partly concludes that some form of fox possession are self-correcting… “the (mental) breakdown experience contains in itself the seeds of reconstruc­tion (or of making sense of the experience). This process of breakdown and reconstruction is completed when the patient settles down either into his previous reality or into an entirely new one. The entire process is circumscribed in accord with social and cultural influences. I believe that, particularly in the reconstruction phase, portions of numerous alternate realities are brought together, and a new narrative of experience appears to create a new interpretation of the experience.”

The difference between me and the Japanese is that I do not fear foxes. I am content to become a fox myself.

2009 is a Short Warm Moment

The year in ticket stubs

My memory is bad. At Eliot and Christina’s wedding, a friend from NYC and I were talking about documentaries, Werner Herzog in particular. The film about Herzog’s relationship with Klaus Kinski, My Best Fiend, came up. At that moment in the conversation, it didn’t register that I had seen My Best Fiend. My memory stumbled. The truth is, without a paper trail or digital record, most of the information that comes in contact with my brain seeps in and back out like a fog, smoke or a cloud. At the Pinkham Notch lodge at the base of Mt. Washington, my sister and I ate a family style dinner with the other guests. A father and son from Cambridge asked about my hiking experience. Despite the many trails and state parks I have visited in 2009, I was barely able to recall one or two… When they got up from the table, the father spoke to my anxiety about facing the mountain the next day with a very dry sense of humor. “You are going to die,” he said.

The man working at Hollywood Express was unable to provide me with a list of all the films I rented this year. Their database only reaches back thirty days. I retained many of the ticket stubs from the films, musical performances and sporting events I attended, but not as many as I’d thought. The first film I saw in the theaters in 2009 was Man On Wire. I have my DC metro card from the Inauguration. I stood in the cold on the mall surrounded by people like me, about to lose it, as President Obama took the oath of office. Eliot and Christina and I saw Somalian – Canadian artist K’Naan on the last day of February. The performance, at a sweaty college bar in Allston, along with a YouTube video of K’Naan speaking out against drugs, pushed me to reach full sobriety. Brenda and Christa and I went to the musical Grey Gardens at the Lyric Stage in May; they cried but I did not. I remember being on the field at Fenway during batting practice, in the late spring. It was mentoring night, and I was there with my friend Ace. I don’t remember being at the Celtics playoff game as well. I know they won the game, against the Magic, but lost the series.

In the summer of 2009 my confidence rose and I started to go out by myself a lot. I rode my bike to many late night films at Fresh Pond and Kendall Square Cinema, or walked in to the Harvard Square Loews. I remember watching Up on a Sunday in a showing full of families. Outside it rained during the film but stopped as it ended and when I left the movie house the sky had the beautiful glow of the sunset and departing clouds. The streets, and my eyes, were still wet. My grandmother Happy passed away, and I think about her all the time. I ran my first half and full marathons in 2009, restarted my relationship with my father, and I got a cat. I remember art as much or more than life, maybe because I saved all those tickets.

Among The Clouds

To the summit

I have returned from the Home of the Great Spirit. Agiocochook, represented in the large form of the mountain, and in the small form of a fox, blessed us with good weather. Many thanks are in order. I couldn’t have done it without Margo Chisolm’s book, “To The Summit,” which I picked up in the library of the Joe Dodge Lodge. I was so scared / excited that I could barely sleep the night before the climb. Reading this book helped calm my nerves and made me laugh. Thank you to my sister, for having the dream and making it real.

To get a feel for the journey with text and photos, please check out “Agiocochook” on Facebook. Now since it is Christmas Eve as I write this, I think a legend involving a sled flying through the air is called for. This story relates to my time on the mountain and how I felt looking down into the clouds, the void… scared to die. Its taken from “Tales Told in the Shadows of the White Mountains,” by Charles J. Jordan.

The great spirit

The sachem

“Legend has it that there was but one Indian chief who dared to scale these mountains. He was Passaconaway and he ventured the feat in order to hold a conference with the spirits above. Budding writers of the late 1800s were guaranteed sales to the monthly journals merely by serving up a captivating retelling of the story of Passaconaway. His tale dates all the way back to Plymouth Rock. As the story goes, his fame as a magician and sorcerer dates to 1620, when upon the landing of the Mayflower he and a couple others in his tribe spent the better part of three days in a dismal swamp invoking the wrath of Manitou on the white settlers. Unable to wipe out the burgeoning settlement by the aid of calling the gods of lightning from above to strike down upon them, he resolved that the Europeans’ magic must be, at the very least, equal to his own. Consequently, he cut a deal with them over land. But things soured and soon the great chief was facing arrest. Finally, as Ernest E. Bisbee noted in his popular collection The White Mountain Scrap Book (1938), “Passaconaway retreated into the dim fastnesses of the White Hills.” There he summoned up greater gods. A very early English writer took note of Passaconaway’s abilities when he wrote, “He can make the water burne, the rocks move, the trees dance, metamorphise himself into a flaming man. He will do more; for in winter, when there are no green leaves to be got, he will burne an old one to ashes, and putting these into water, produce a new green leaf.” As an added trick, Passaconaway could also “make of a dead snake’s skin a living snake, both to be seen, felt and heard.”

Passaconaway made one of the most dramatic exits in White Mountains legends and lore. Having lived to the reputed age of 120, he retired to a lonely wigwam on the outskirts of Penacook tribe’s domain, where one winter night a pack of wolves pulling a sled covered with furs came racing into the village and stopped at the tent of Passaconaway. According to the story, the old fellow came out and climbed into his fur-laden throne on the sled. Villagers watched as the sled carrying Passaconaway whisked out over the frozen Winnipesaukee amid a chorus of yelps and snarls from the team. As he raced across Winnipesaukee’s frozen surface, those behind could hear the old chief’s death chant. The team raced into the direction of the White Hills of the north, the story is told, and finally climbed the slopes of Agiocochook (the native name for Mount Washington). Once the highest summit was reached, the sled burst into flames and the wolves went howling off into the night. Passaconaway, wrapped in what were called “leaping tongues of flame,” flew off into the night sky “and vanished amidst the very stars themselves.”

The Trials of Vernalization

Els and C doing fondue

Its the solstice… Winter begins today. I have a shovel which I’ve already used to dig out twice from yesterday’s blizzard. I was walking into Harvard Square and felt elated, despite it being the darkest day of the year. I think it was the combination of rice cakes, string cheese, Diet Coke and twelve hours of sleep. Plus my sister is incoming fast; she will be here in a few minutes. We will eat something more substantial than rice cakes, pack up the car, and drive off into the night towards the White Mountains.

Happy birthday to Eliot, whose mother calls him the bringer of light because he was born the day after the solstice.

Sunday morning Inman Square

Winter is hard, but it is good. Bears hibernate. Trees go dormant. Lizards enter brumation. Certain flowers need to go through prolonged periods of low temperature in order to flower in the spring. This process is called vernalization. Humans stick together.

Even NBA players need more sleep.


Roly Poly and Me

I have been listening to the all-woman a cappella African group Zap Mama as a kind of holiday music. Also just discovered Shuggie Otis (pictured above) who wrote and performed Strawberry Letter 23 at the age of fifteen. The 1967 new wave film “2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle” is taking me multiple nights to regarde. Ostensibly the action follows a Parisian woman in her day to day routine. She prostitutes herself for extra money. The attitudes of the city towards the Vietnam War (and America) and the uncertain future (in an age of atomic weapons) provide the backdrop as do Paris’ highways, cranes, wreckers, and apartment buildings. The director Jean-Luc Godard lurks beneath the surface of the glimmering pond, whispering…

“What is art? Form becoming style; but the style is the man; therefore art is the humanizing of forms,” and, “There is increasing interaction between images and language. One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip,” and, “If you can’t afford LSD, try colour TV.” Several decades removed, I suggest you try internet.

The woman, Juliette Janson, and her son, Christophe, have conversations like this:

Juliette Janson: “In my dreams I used to feel that I was being sucked into a huge hole. Now I feel I’m being scattered in a thousand pieces. Before, even if it was a slow process, I would wake up all at once. Now I’m afraid there’ll be pieces missing.”

Christophe: “I had a dream last night, you know. I was walking all alone at the edge of a cliff. The path was only wide enough for one person. Suddenly I saw two twins walking toward me. I wondered how they would get past. Suddenly one of the twins went towards the other and they became one person. And then I realized that these two people were North and South Vietnam being united.”

This is the kind of film that I watch with one eye elsewhere, at the ceiling, tracking the meta data as it floats by in the technicolor stream. Its not a warm swimming pool. The only way in is to jump. In the disorientating frigidity one sees a city licking its fur, rebuilding, and the form of the water freezes into ice.

“All I remember is it happened. Maybe it’s not important. Maybe it was when I was with the guy from the metro going to the hotel. I had a funny feeling. I thought about it all day. The feeling of my ties to the world. Suddenly I felt I was the world and the world was me. It would take pages and pages to describe it. Volumes and volumes. A landscape is like a face. We’re tempted to say, ‘I just see a face with a certain expression.’ But that doesn’t mean its an extraordinary expression nor that you’ll try to describe it. We may feel like saying that its this or that. ‘She looks like Chekhov’s Natasha.’ ‘Or the sister of Flaherty’s Nanook.’ But you’d be right to say that you can’t describe that with words. Still, it seems to me that the expression on my face must mean something. Something that stands out from the general design. I mean from the sort of form outlined. Its as if you could say that this face has a certain expression. And then… And then? Actually, its this one. For instance… exhaustion.”

A landscape is like a face

In a few days my sister and I will brave the new winter and the highest recorded wind speeds on Earth, to visit Agiocochook, the “home of the Great Spirit.”

Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat

And this is free

I recommend Mike Shea’s stellar documentary, “And This Is Free,” to anyone who is interested in Chicago blues and a good old fashioned American sales pitch. It chronicles a Sunday market on Maxwell Street in the sixties. I used to go there for cheap hot dogs in the early zeroes, when I lived in Chicago. The chicken man is from this film. This man plays accordion with his pet chicken on his head. When he finishes the song, he picks the chicken up off his head and places it on the ground and lays a blanket over it saying, “Go to sleep like a little baby.” The chicken obliges and a bottle of clear alcohol, moonshine perhaps, emerges from the man’s back pocket. He drinks several shots in front of concerned onlookers, including scared children, makes animal noises and babbles incoherently. The chicken is woken up and gathered, and they are on their way.

This is similar to the relationship between myself and Roly-Poly, my new cat. Metaphorically speaking, the man is me, the chicken is Roly-Poly, Maxwell Street market is my den, the accordion is my I-Mac, the moonshine is Coke Zero, the incoherent babbling is this blog post and you are the concerned onlooker and/or scared child.

Wildcat rowr

Roly-Poly arrived in a cat carrier on a dark December afternoon. He had an upper respiratory infection (kennel cough) and was snuffling and sneezing. I carried the carrier into my apartment and placed it in the center of my living room and opened the cage door, expecting him to bolt out and hide beneath my bed. Roly-Poly instead stepped out confidently, looked me in the eye, and approached to be pet. Roly-Poly purred. After this weird and wonderful greeting, he explored the new territories, ate some food, and laid down beside his food and water bowls. He seemed conscious of being rescued.

Interacting with 3rdarm

I defied the odds and got a good cat. The cat has not done anything bad except drink out of the toilet, paw his dry food out of the bowl, and lick his neutering wound. I’m actually cool with him drinking some water out of the toilet because it shows me he’s got survival skills, moxie. Roly-Poly is a very good fox-cat, and a junk licker. I don’t think the junk licking warrants him wearing a cone on his head. That would only make him depressed. He does like to be pet; he does not like to play. The guy at the MSPCA lied. Roly-Poly does not care much for catnip or lasers.

Every day I squirt him in the mouth with a syringe full of antibiotics. Every night he sleeps in a cave deep in my dresser, blocked by a pillow.

He’s my little brother.


Sleepover time

The cat craze has entered the second phase. Phase one… thinking about cats. Phase two… living with cats. My apartment has become mecca for all things feline. I am rocking two litter boxes, three bowls, mice on fishing poles. The fridge is stocked with dozens of cans of Diet Coke and Coke Zero and dozens of cans of skipjack tuna, chicken filets in gravy, and country style turkey giblets as well. The cat schedule has been confusing to half of my readers (my sister) so let me clear that up. Els and C’s cat Petunia is spending the weekend here. Monday afternoon she goes home, and I pick up Roly-Poly at the shelter.

Petunia and I have been getting along really well. I only seem to interest her when I am eating or on the toilet. Today I got out of the shower and she was nowhere to be found. My apartment is small. I looked under the bed, the couch, in the kitchen, behind doors. I found her inside my dresser, rolling in my clothes. Petunia likes to play. I use the fishing rod with the mouse as lure, like I’m fly fishing. She chases the laser too. At night she snuggles right up.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Finally someone let me outta my cage

How do I name this small beast? Timothy Treadwell named his little fox after himself… “Tim.” Shall I title el zorrito rojo “Arthur the Fourth”?

No way. I will call him, “Roly-Poly,” after the bird who saved the muggle-wumps from the bastardly twits.

Gloryislove left this comment on the youtube video (see “his little fox” link)… “that fox loved him, if you watch the whole documentary. nobody made the fox stick around. look at it rolling around like a cat! clearly, it enjoyed timothy’s attention.”

La Bête Humaine

Laying in corpse pose

I like to put on Swamp Dogg or This American Life and watch the birds fly.

Don’t Let My Furry Little Monster Bother You

Robinson Crusoe and monkey

The other day it was snowing. I left work and rented movies. One of them was Robinson Crusoe On Mars, Byron Haskin’s 1964 science fiction story about a U.S. astronaut stranded on the red planet with only a monkey for companionship. I thought it would help me conceptualize life with the cat. Marooned on Mars, the main character Kit Draper struggles to survive. Kit lives in a cave, lights rocks on fire for warmth, and stores up the oxygen they release to breathe. The monkey Mona plays a crucial role. Mona finds water to drink. There is seaweed growing in the water, and the two use these pods as their primary food source. Kit commits his experiences to tape for future humans to learn from.

“All right, here’s another note for you boys in Survival, for you geniuses in Human Factors: A guy can lick the problems of heat, water, shelter, food — I know, I’ve done it. But here’s the hairiest problem of all: Isolation, being alone. Boy, here’s where he’ll crack; here’s where he’ll go under.”

In the scene captured above, Kit transforms his oxygen tank into bagpipes, and leads the monkey on a leash through the harsh landscape playing “Dixie.” Shortly after that, alien ships appear shooting ray-guns, and an alien slave escapes. Kit gives him shelter in his cave and names him Friday. The monkey screeches at the alien. “Mona, shut up. First visitor we’ve ever had, and you act like a gorilla.” Kit tells Friday, “Don’t let my furry little monster both you… But I’m the boss, you remember that. Get out of line one iota and I’ll bring your enemies right into this cave.” Kit and Friday form a mutual trust, and work to escape from the ray-gun ships. The two eat oxygen pills and travel along underground canals to the polar ice cap with the monkey.

The symbolism and semantics of the film are best explored in Walter Rankin’s essay, “Patriotism, Politics, and Propaganda – The Naturalization of Friday’s Man, Robinson.”

The empty cage