Archive for December, 2016

Appreciating Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractalist & Nomad-by-choice

December 21, 2016

I suppose it was fitting that I heard of Benoit Mandelbrot’s death while taking part in a panel discussion about fractals in New York City. The panel was in conjunction with a new opera, “Cracked Orlando,” with music composed by Jonathon Dawes, and libretto (by Terry Marks-Tarlow), a work which was partly structured by fractal patterns. I was invited to the panel because I’d written a book, “Heaven’s Fractal Net,” about fractal patterns in cultures. It was Benoit Mandelbrot who coined the term and introduced the concepts of fractals, a new geometry of self-similar shapes on various scales. It shocked me that day to hear of his death–his mind was ever-youthful and exploratory.

I became interested in fractals gradually. First, in the ‘60s, in the sunshine up in Vermont’s Green Mountains in the autumn, I became fascinated with experiencing the inherent structure of the eyes. I was visiting Vermont after living in the New York slums for a few years. As brilliant leaves fell curlicuing down against a vivid blue sky, I watched the light dancing in the field of my eyesight, making spirals in patterns like square-dancers doing allemande left, or interlocking quilt patches tessellated together. Psychedelic entheogens reveal vision’s wonders structured in our human physiology. And for several years I tried to create art works—collages, drawings and paintings to capture the orderly interplaying swirls of tiny lights pin-wheeling like dancing comets in colors and subtle geometry. I still have some of the collages. M. C. Escher fascinated me with his fields of transforming shapes, like variations on themes of tessellated tiles.

While studying at Harvard on a Danforth grad school fellowship ten years later, I saw in the Harvard newspaper a piece about Mandelbrot’s fractal research and was fascinated by the order and exuberance, the patterns of self-similarities, and the spirals and shapes suggesting infinity. Too busy to follow up on it I stashed the paper in a folder. I earned my PhD degree and a job in Indiana, and worked extremely hard learning to teach and being a new father. I had no time to spare in my busy life teaching courses, researching and publishing, going to conferences and doing committee work to keep my job.

Then on my sabbatical year I rediscovered Mandelbrot’s fractal research, and read more about it in Mandelbrot’s own writings and in books like James Gleick’s “Chaos.” I recalled the mystery of the structure of vision that intrigued me in Vermont, and caught a sense of the excitement in new kinds of research on chaos, fractals, strange attractors, nonlinear systems. I began to get ideas about explored these areas of thinking, examining these dynamics not only in nature, but also in cultures. There were fractals in temple architecture, and archetypes were strange attractors; there were self-similarities in stories.

Mandelbrot developed the first “theory of roughness,” to mathematically describe structures like tree bark, mountains, plants, blood vessels and lungs, clouds and galaxy clusters. Rivers and tree branches. He sought and developed a formula to measure the roughness in nature, geometrically visualizing principles of order, wholeness, infinity.

Fractals are whole shapes made up of different sized versions of the overall shape itself. For example, a large triangle composed of various scaled smaller ones, or a tree branch made of increasingly smaller similar branches. Mandelbrot was my kind of maverick. Not a typical specialist, he contributed original thinking to diverse fields. This made him an interloper, a rebel, someone who broke the usual rules. He explored geography—the coastlines, and economics—Wall Street patterns. He didn’t look at boundaries the way most people do. He wrote, “Science would be ruined if (like sports) it were to put competition above everything else, and if it were to clarify the rules of competition by withdrawing entirely into narrowly defined specialities. The rare scholars who are nomads-by-choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.” A nomad or pioneer has a wide horizon to explore.

Mandelbrot was a refugee in Europe eluding the Nazis during WWII. Stories about him intrigued me. He found a clue to one of his discoveries in a wastebasket. He never learned the alphabet in the usual ABC sequence. In France he had trouble with math as it was being taught there at the time, but was bright and could solve problems no one else could, in his own way. He worked at IBM and explored a variety of interests by experimenting, and taught at Yale. “He used the geometry of fractals to explain how galaxies cluster, how wheat prices change over time and how mammalian brains folds as they grow, among other phenomena,” as Jascha Hoffman wrote in Mandelbrot’s New York Times obituary. He didn’t fit the usual mold of an academic, but influenced many fields. I thought (and still think) he should win the Nobel Prize for his original fractal theory.

Like Benjamin Franklin, Mandelbrot followed his inquisitiveness, and was happy to study as an amateur in areas where he was not an authority, pursuing ideas from sheer interest, curiosity, and the wonderment of exploration. Mandelbrot didn’t confine himself to himself, as the Tao Te Ching describes the character of the sage, but he took an active interest in the work of others, sharing his reflections, and contributing to various fields, consciously playing parts in the vast community of human learning. He was not exactly “re-inventing” himself, but was learning new things, exploring new aspects of the world around him, retooling, seeing the same world the experts see, but with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.

Thanks to Mandelbrot I explored patterns in religious artifacts, from Hindu temple architecture to daily Rangoli patterns—rice-powder designs which housewives in India make on their thresholds each dawn. I explored fractals in poetry and philosophy, mythology and music. I thoroughly enjoyed thinking about fractal patterns and making art works with them, seeing self-similarities in great art works and in nature—clouds, trees, nervous systems, and so on. And I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to get a new idea across, the sacrifices it takes to try something new, when I wrote a book, Heaven’s Fractal Net. (“Heaven” in the title referrs to Lao Tzu’s line in the Tao Te Ching: “The net of heaven (Tao) has large meshes, but nothing escapes from it.” (Chapter 73) Probably a better title for my book would have been Fractals in Cultures.

Some thinkers are painful to encounter. They seem to want to punish you for thinking differently from them. Others are stimulating, encouraging, sharing and liberating. They nourish you and impel you on your path. Mandelbrot, for me, was the second kind. As a Spanish poet wrote, “There are no paths; paths are made by walking.” Mandelbrot made his own path by walking, and his example has been a great inspiration. The term fractals appears all over the world now. The song from the Disney movie “Frozen” won an Oscar in 2014—The words “frozen fractals” are sung in the lyrics to call to mind the shapes of snowflakes. So useful and beautiful, ubiquitous fractals provide many images of natural order and wholeness. My thanks go to Benoit Mandelbrot for providing the means for developing what I call “a fractal sensibility.” That skill is something basic which human beings can develop—identifying and appreciating the beauty of fractals all over the place. It’s an honor to have known Benoit, a privilege to have spoken with him on the phone a couple of times. Did you know that the antennas in cell phones are configured in a fractal structure? That mountains in Hollywood films are created with fractal formulas? That fractals still have many more potential uses and beauties to be discovered?


A Cutie in the Kudzu

December 16, 2016

A Cutie in the Kudzu

Fawna wanted to quit the showgirl life. Fawna was her stage name. Her heart just wasn’t in it.
She kept thinking of vines climbing the tall trees in the rural town where she grew up.

So, she fled one day from dancing in the spotlight at the Dancing Bears Gentlemen’s Club on the outskirts of a rust-belt northern town, hoping to find the gloomy shade under thick-flowing networks of kudzu leaves back in her hometown down south. She had played in that shade in North Carolina in her childhood.

She had threatened so often, “I’m goin’ there to find my way out of life’s disappointments.” And finally she got the chance to seize the opportunity, to run away from the “Gentleman’s Club.”

A bouncer/assistant manager named Wulf at Dancing Bears, was a prime reason she wanted to go. He was a wiseguy, a pushy know-it-all, always harassing her, she couldn’t stand him.

So, one day in late summer, Fawna hitched a ride with a customer, a big hairy bear of a truck driver named Mack Chester (or Chester Mack, she wasn’t sure which), who told her that night in the club he was driving his empty truck South before dawn next day, all the way to New Orleans. He said he’d be glad to drop her off in North Carolina where her folks lived. So, she packed a few things in her backpack, some clothes, a small tent, a hammock, a little food, and escaped before dawn.

On the way, while speeding down a long hill, Mack found he had no brakes and so he steered to the right and rolled his big truck up the runaway truck ramp built there to stop 18-wheelers when all else failed.

Fawna asked Mack, “Did you ever read The Runaway Rabbit?”
He said, “No, why would I read that? I don’t have any children.”
“Well you have a runaway truck, and… I don’t know.”
“Did you read The Runaway Rabbit?”
“Yes. And I was a runaway teenager too. I ran away from home three years ago. And now I feel like a runaway again, except I’m headed back home.”
“So that makes you a ‘run-back-to’ not a runaway.”
“I guess it does.”

Mack called a local garage and a skinny young grease monkey agreed to fix his brakes. All elbows and knees, squinting and scowling, the freckly kid fixed the brakes.
When Mack paid him, and gave him ten dollars extra, he grinned and said, “You’re a gentleman and a scholar, I don’t care what anybody says!” as he climbed back into his pickup truck.

Then they continued on… “Highway Vagabond,” sung by Miranda Lambert came on the radio as they got to the part of North Carolina where the thick kudzu covered the many tall trees lining the highway.

“I can get out anywhere here,” Fawna said, thanking Mack for the ride.
“You ran away from the kudzu, and now you’re going back to it?” Mack asked.
“No, I just want to stop here before I go back to see my sister and the others. Collect my thoughts.”
Mack stopped and she stepped down from the cab, and as she was going toward the kudzu, Mack said, “Fawna, I’m going to park down the road a tad. You’re all alone. I need to rest a while. This Indian summer feels nice. I’ll leave my window open. Holler if you need me.”
“Aw that’s nice of you, Mack!”

Fawna hid inside the gloom of immense kudzu cover near that state highway. The spot was conveniently located near Patel’s Oasis, a gas station and a fastfood franchise. The kudzu was thriving, and covering the various tree shapes it made a spectacular structure, hogging the sunshine and creating thick shade within.

Fawna had feathery platinum blonde hair with pink tips. She set up her little camp in the kudzu, opening up her backpack and changing her clothes. She wore a silk kimono there, sheltered in the kudzu, and when she stretched out her arms the sleeves were like a great bird of paradise’s wings. Her bra felt tight and so Fawna took it off, put it in her backpack. She wore a yellow bikini bottom and skin-tight shiny black boots. She had a firebird tattooed on her right wrist. And she had a sweet old-fashioned smile, a lot like her grandmother’s. Both she and her grandmother were charming generous ladies, graceful and kind. She had sent her grandma postcards every so often. With no return address, her grandmother could not write back.

Fawna unpacked her hammock and tent, both flimsy and easy to put up, and she lit a joint and relaxed.

She played solitaire in the kudzu, and used her cell phone to call Vireo, also a dancer, and other friends.

Fawna’s sister named Shawna lived somewhere in the vicinity. But Fawna didn’t call Shawna just yet.

Fawna was just taking it easy, living in a kudzu palace just off the main highway. If you stopped and gazed a while it seemed like exotic scenery, with pavilions and palaces of jade green kudzu leaves, pleasantly curved archways and turrets, as if designed for daydreamy dramas like Romeo and Juliet.

The long lines of roadside trees thereabouts looked like series of wonderlands where various episodes were being played out. Cinderella. The Beauty and the Beast. Lush green realms, flowing leafy kudzu mansions, walls with windows where faces might appear, all natural, yet architectural, the way vines climbed up and flowed down the majestic trees. It looked like it was built by elves.

In some of her daydreams Fawna was the lost Fairytale Princess who lived there, hoping her prince would find her. She gathered kindling and made a small campfire and cooked the marshmallows she brought in her backpack, making s’mores with graham crackers.

The kudzu realm she had chosen happened also to be a perfect arena for office retreats in which managers and employees used Paintgun Games to foster team spirit. Their wars were played out by personnel divided into two groups, then reshuffled so groupthink animosity would not develop. In the excitement someone who took part in a Paintgun exercise left a loaded paintball gun behind. So Fawna had a paintball gun to defend herself with if need be. She kept it nearby, just in case.

Trees hate kudzu. Kudzu covers and smothers them, spreading like a green shroud. For human beings, kudzu has been the foundation for a number of herbal remedies, a folk panacea for all of America’s ills. Really! Not many know that kudzu can be used for many remedies—for obesity, alcoholism, and prostate troubles, to give a few examples! And kudzu can be harvested for tea, and the root is used for starch, and the vine’s fibres can be used for making those noble time-honored useful containers—baskets. It is also a metaphor for something that came from outside America and took over the land. It was introduced from Japan by farmers, and it got out of hand.

Fawna saw the kudzu-covered landscape reminding her of furniture covered by sheets draped over shapes in a furnished home where no one is living at the moment. Look closely at a nice healthy green-leafed tree, the one nearest you wherever you are. You were likely to discover it is really a dead desiccated tree still standing but covered with wind-shimmying green kudzu leaves or some other vine pretending to be a tree.

Fawna revealed where she was by accident when she called her friend Vireo from her cell phone. Vireo told her coworkers at Dancing Bears: “She said she’s near Patel’s Oasis in North Carolina.”

In the afternoon, Wulf, the obnoxious employee Fawna couldn’t stand ay Dancing Bears, arrived on his motorcycle, looking for Fawna, searching around in the kudzu not far from Patel’s Oasis. He needed a shave and he wore a fedora. He was wearing sunglasses, a crisscross multicolor harlequin shirt and skinny jeans. He had on snakeskin cowboy boots and a smirk he couldn’t control.

Alarmed when she saw him, Fawna dropped the ‘smore she was eating, and picked up the paintball gun.
Wulf saw her and called to her. She fired a few paintballs at Wulf but only hit him once on the shoulder.

“Fawna, haha, wait, listen, honeybunch. You need to go back with me to Dancing Bears. You turn me on. I need you in the worst way. Don’t forget, you owe me a thousand bucks.”
“I’ll pay. But not now. I’m not going back. Won’t happen. Don’t trust you. You lied to me when we met.”
“How so?”
“You said you were the Prince of Wales, and like a fool I believed you.”
“No, I said I was ‘the prince of whales.’ When I said that I had just left a Las Vegas casino I worked in. There, when you say ‘whale’ it means a big spender, a gambler who goes for big stakes impulsively, and my job was to blend in and encourage them to keep spending. They called me ‘prince of whales.’ It’s true. Because I hung out with big spenders, I encouraged the high rollers.” He reached out to grab her.

She stepped away. “Who you voting for?” she asked. “I mean politically.”
“I’m voting for Donald, he’s a businessman and so am I. It would be interesting to watch the world burn and then pick up the pieces and start a whole new world for all I care, build it from the cinders and ashes right up to the mountaintops. If he can drain the swamp, well that’s a job for Hercules. But Trump could do that, with enough deregulations, and so could I. Creative destruction at your service, mam. First off I’d hire illegal workers to clean shit up, and order some huge construction projects to commence.”
“So your fantasy is being a sidekick of Trump?”
“Fawna girl, we live in a capitalist country. Casinos, hotels, beauty salons, beauty pageants, luxury products, fast food joints, cheap stolen goods, carny barkers, dice games… What was I saying? Oh yeah, ties, cowboy boots, beefsteaks and caviar sell themselves up in this capitalist bitch. We’d clean up. Come with me, sit by my side! You be my partner in crime.”

“Thanks but no thanks. I want to get away from everything for a while. I left town because I had a premonition your Donald will be president. A bad dream. He’s a total con man.”
“What are you talking about? He’s going to remodel America.”
“You’ll see. You all take his bait every time. Y’all just cotton to him like he’s a trustworthy good old boy. He’s the most selfish unwise ‘big shot’ ever. It’s scary how tired I am tired of it all. I’m out.”
“But I came all the way here on my motorcycle for you. You look great by the way, all silvery pink and like a bird. We can fly off together.” He reached out to grab for her.
“Sorry but I’ve got previous commitments,” she said, dodging his grab.
“You think you’re smart doncha? Well if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

Fawna took a tiny bottle of bourbon from her backpack, offered it, and Wulf guzzled it down.
In the heat of the afternoon, Wulf grew tired and took a nap. A yellow warbler flew arabesques through the dark recesses of the kudzu palace draped over the bones of the big dead trees.

While Wulf snoozed, Fawna flew the coop. She changed into jeans and T-shirt, quietly left the kudzu.
Wulf woke up and called her name but she didn’t answer. He realized he’d lost her again.
Fawna was running through the kudzu, flustered, trying to get away from Wulf.
Wulf, the harlequin man she owed a thousand of dollars, was hot on her trail.

Mack the truckdriver who’d parked up the road a bit now saw that Fawna was being chased, and he jumped out of his truck. He ran toward the commotion, chasing after Wulf, running deeper into the kudzu to rescue Fawna. They were huffing and puffing through the kudzu palace, along ridges, up into giant tree limbs.
Eventually the truck driver caught up to and tackled the harlequin Wulf, and wrestled with him.
Fawna climbed up a tree and watched from up there.

“What’s the big idea, kid?” Mack asked, pinning down Wulf. (Mack was 40 and Wulf was 30.)
“I heard Fawna came here to North Carolina. Some of her relatives live here. She owes me a thousand dollars, you know that, right, Mack? I wanted to talk with her. She started running. Now let go of me.”

It just so happened that at that time a bus full of “Raging Grannies” got out at Patel’s gas station/fast food joint near the kudzu oasis where Fawna the exotic dancer was lounging.

The bus driver said, “Have a snack, take a walk. Be at this bus in ninety minutes. One and a half hours.”

The Raging Grannies are nonviolent activists, popular in other parts of the world too. It’s a worldwide movement. They do all kinds of events in public, even in China. They agreed to meet him in ninety.

The grannies bought a big basket of hot dogs to go, and took a walk. They saw Fawna up in a tree, and Mack and Wulf wrestling nearby. They opened their hot dogs, ate them and cheered the wrestlers.
And they sang: “Look out! ‘Cause we’re growing bolder! / We’re gaining strength as we grow older! / Our steps they might be slow, / And though our boobs are hanging low, / We are Raging Grannies strong!”

Mack stopped pinning Wulf to the ground. And the raging grannies heard Wulf say, “If you’re driving to New Orleans, Mack, maybe I’ll hitch a ride with you.”
Mack said, “Sure, we can put your motorcycle my truck if you want to go to New Orleans.”
Fawna did not expect the situation to clear up so easily. The Raging Grannies sat and sang a song.

After Mack and Wulf were gone, Fawna and the Raging Grannies all sat around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and eating s’mores. The grannies subtly tried to offer advice to Fawna:
“Living here by the road alone can’t be a good life, honey, these days creeps are out lookin’ for trouble.”
“This is only for a few days,” Fawna said. “Don’t worry about me. I just quit my job. Sick of it.”
“Sweety, tell you a little story,” one of the Raging Grannies said. “I knew a kid when he was ten years old, the grandson of a hardworking farmer. He worked for 10 cents a day. This was long ago of course. And then one day he worked a day for a farmer down the road, who paid him 50 cents. He asked for more from grandpa after that. Grandpa said, ‘OK, but you have to pay for rent and food.’ It’s a hard world. Don’t get cheated.”
“So who are you going home to visit?” one asked Fawna.
“My sister Shawna, my mother and grandmother.”
“Your father’s gone?”
“Right. And my stepfather works on the Peacock Farm.”
“Say what? A literal peacock farm?”
“No, he’s a senator. The in-crowd call the senate the ‘Peacock Farm,’ where election winners preen themselves, proudly showing off their plumage, show-offs up in the fancy capitol building.”
“Haha. And you, you like to hang out in the kudzu! Girl, you’re comical. What a family!”

One granny craned her neck, looking up. “These canopies of kudzu are like free-form circus tents. Or sheikhs’ tents in the Arabian deserts—bulging up and spiring high here and there, with windowy openings for birds to fly through. What a place!”
Her friend said, “Yes, You could get lost inside here easy. Look over there, how some places rise up high, like castle towers with graceful green shapes, leafy surfaces of green leaf and sunshine beams like camouflage. Look how the sun shines through dark cavern kudzu gateways at ground level as bluebirds and yellow warblers fly through.”

“So many vines thrive in America,” a granny who was a botanist said. “Drive most highways and look carefully; you’ll see the climbing weeds. Kudzu, wild grapes. Strangler fig, hanging dangling vines of bittersweet berries, clinging wild ivy vines, beautiful invasive creepers with blossoms. Arboretum climbers, creepers, invasives. So many clingers and climbers, voracious and insatiable, forever taking more space in the sunshine and more water to soak up. The parasite vine, kudzu, is good at pretending it’s a respectable tree, ordinary leaf guy like everyone else.”

“In dire emergencies kudzu can feed animals, keep sheep, goats, cattle strong, help us survive a famine.”
“But do they? No. Not so far, never happened. It just grows and grows, and doesn’t get used.”

When the marshmallows were eaten up and the advice dried up, the bus honked down at Patel’s gas station, all the Raging Grannies scurried off to catch it before it was too late.

Fawna relaxed in her hammock, elegantly strung up between two tree trunks under a canopy of kudzu.
The three-tiered kudzu landscape was like a delirious dream, with mysteriously flowing green-leaf blankets and curtains hanging over the hillside of trees, a larger scale than ordinary blankets and curtains.

A car slowly drove into the kudzu. The automatic window on the driver’s side smoothly opened. The bearded driver looked up and asked Fawna. “Why are you here?”
She explained, “Just having a little picnic.”
The man talked about conspiracies, aliens from space, FBI, CIA—and 9/11 theory websites “if you wanna go down the rabbit hole.”
“Where is this rabbit hole, if I do want to?” Fawna asked. Not laughing, he drove further into the kudzu.

Fawna called Shawna and said, “I’m in the neighborhood. Can you pick me up at Patel’s Oasis?”

“Welcome home!” Fawna’s sister said when she pulled into Patel’s to pick her sister up. They hugged and laughed. “Let me carry that. What are you going to do back here?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I’m leaning in to something more. Maybe we all have some recalibratin’ to do!”
“Fawna, There’s a hot spring we discovered last year, it’s on the way home. If you want to soak a while, wash off the past, we can stop there. It’s the real thing.” Fawna smiled and said yes.

Santa’s Harsh Helper Krampus

December 12, 2016

Krampus is a frightening devil-like figure with horns who shows up each winter. He is always found in association with festivities of St. Nicholas, as part of the folk-imagination and popular Christmas customs of Austria, southern Germany, and some Eastern European countries. Krampus is a shadow alter-ego of St. Nick, an enforcer type whose threats cause fear and can keep people in line. Krampus is like a trait of Nicholas—he keeps strict track of who’s naughty and nice, and punishes the deserving. Just as St. Nick can bring gifts for those who have been good, Krampus can also bring humiliation and pain that is sure to cramp the transgressors’ style.

Santa is all sweetness and light, kindness and generosity, the positive nice old white haired grandfatherly man in a vivid life-red suit. He’s jolly and beneficent, generous to good children. He’s got a swarm of elves to help him accomplish his tasks.
But Santa’s buddy Krampus is a bad trip, dressed in mussed fur, with scary horns, and his long, lolling red tongue makes his face repulsive. Krampus is nasty and grotesque, and he settles old scores. Each Christmastime he trips up those who expect good fortune when they have been acting in a shameful manner, being mean toward others, behaving cruelly or selfishly. He humbles arrogant bullies, bringing justice to reprobates who otherwise get away scot free with horrible offenses.

Grumpy old Krampus is sometimes portrayed in chains to show he is on a leash under Saint Nick’s’s control and would not be able to harm people except for Saint Nick’s command. Just the sight of Krampus can scare the bejesus out of kids, keeping them on their toes. Saint Nick uses the power of Krampus for his purposes of morality – Krampus is Santa’s muscle, his enforcer. He gives teeth to Santa’s demand for good behavior. He has the punitive force to persuade human beings, who are a weak and tempted lot, to be good, better and the best they can be. Thus, Krampus makes Kris Kringle more than a kindly grandpa figure. “You do wrong and I’ll break your leg,” is a serious threat. Krampus is the bummer, a nightmare for those who presume they are beyond the rules, who have forgotten their own conscience. In some places there are very frightening Krampus visits, and the practice of having group runs, stampedes incited by someone dressed up as a frightening horned Krampus striking passersby and onlookers, including children, with long whiplike sticks, completely terrorizing them. Krampus rudely awakens semiconscious people, causing them to duck, dodge, and run away to avoid the pain he inflicts.
The horrific “Krampus run” is like a stampede of cattle. The crowd of kids may panic, chased over terrifying terrain where it is hard to keep balance. The old and young runners are in danger of falling, being trampled in a stampede, and scared to death almost. It is a frightening time that creates conditions for heart attacks. No matter how fast and far the terrified people in the crowd run, they cannot get away. They run on the verge of stumbling, falling and breaking a limb. The horrified people look back, and there is Krampus, still pursuing them, indefatigable, with his long red lolling tongue and scary staring eyes shining red with rage, waving his switch and rattling his chain, relentlessly running after the herd of kids, laughing as they cry.

“When you are running from Santa’s angry helper you know the fear of God in your heart. Isn’t that a wonderful thing?” Krampus asks. On the one hand, to have the taint of sin scared out of you as you run screaming, is a terrible thing because it is so frightening. But on the other hand, well, you really know you’re alive at such times—there’s no question about that, your heart beats fast and you are thrilled and you thank heaven for your good fortune, vowing to avoid doing bad deeds in the future. That is the normal response. But in life things don’t always go that smoothly. Imagine that in one small Austrian town a group of kids get tired of old man Krampus herding them around, running them into a panic on his big day, December 5, each year. He has always seemed so vicious in calling them “bad girls and rotten boys” and he’s gotten so much pleasure from seeing them screaming and running in tears, one year they said “enough is enough.”
“He is so much bigger than us, we can’t help but feel helpless! Don’t you resent his meanness, and silently curse him? You know that old man who plays Krampus here every year is not faultless himself. He was a mean-hearted skinflint. Don’t you resent the old man’s hypocrisy? So, let’s teach him a harsh lesson,” the tallest kid said.

“How shall we get him?” the shortest kid asked, seething with resentment at remembering the rough treatment Krampus dealt him the year before.

“While we’re running from him, once the momentum builds up, let’s lead him into a trap, and trip him up,” the tallest one said. All agreed that would be a good plan.

And so, it was resolved in their minds. They would turn against the Krampus, and turn against the system that shunted them like dumb cattle down a narrow lane on a hurried chase. “We’re just kids, why should we be treated like dumb animals?”

Next Christmastime, the kids were ready. Using a tripwire stretched on the ground across the path, they caused the old man dressed as Krampus to fall when he reached that spot, while he was viciously chasing and harassing them.

Their plan worked. Old Krampus stumbled headlong, fell and skinned his knees and hands, and cracked his skull on a curbstone. Naturally, seeing him lying there, they felt mercy for him, but it was too late.

Krampus lay there dying, and the tallest and shortest of the kids taunted him a while, he spoke his last words to the tallest one: “Here, Stretch, take this switch, and this chain, too. You can have these horns and this furry mask. You are the new Krampus now. Take them. I got them the same way you are getting them—I taunted the old Krampus, made him fall and die. Now it will be your turn. You must keep running the children down this narrow lane on Christmas! Run them ragged and keep them frightened out of their minds, until you find the next Krampus to pass the job on to, at the time of your death. Congratulations. It is your job now, you will find no escape from it.” Then the old man died.

The shortest kid took the switch and chain, horns and furry mask. “Just for fun, I’ll keep these for you,” he told the tall kid. “Who knows, we may have fun with them.”

The tall kid felt sick to his stomach, and after that he kept going back to the doctor because he felt like he had a fever, maybe caused by an infection. But the doctor who examined him and gave him blood tests could find nothing wrong with his health.
Although mean old Krampus was dead, the tallest youth continued to rail against his memory, cursing him, even though his mother always told him, “Forgive and forget.”
Something deep inside him was still irked by the thought of that vindictive old man. “I still hate him! He got what he deserved! Why did he love to punish kids so much? The memory of that horned rat sticks in my craw!”

The shortest kid sometimes fooled around with the switch and the horns. He put the costume on and looked in the mirror and laughed while wagging his tongue and rattling the chain. And he showed the tallest kid how easy it was to scare people with the Krampus costume. Finally the tallest kid gave in and tried it out, too.

It was a big shock. The tallest kid found that by dressing up as horrible old Krampus and tormenting the children at Christmastime festivities, he felt cool, healthy and happy. At those special times he was relieved of all his ills and woes. He felt like a new man, like king, and wished every day was December 5.

Oddly enough, the shortest kid became heavier and heavier and his hair turned white as the years went on. In time he volunteered to take on the role of kind old Saint Nicholas in the annual yuletide celebrations. He liked to give gifts to kids. Being a sought-after accountant in town, he enjoyed keeping exact records, long lists of who was good and who was bad.

Though some say, “Krampus is the worst thing in Austria, a horrible figure for any country to feature in its customs. A scourge, terrifying tender children. Why is he allowed to return each year? He’s a menace! We should outlaw him.” Nevertheless, regardless of public opinion, Krampus is very popular. He re-appears as if by clockwork every December 5, and there is a flurry of excitement every year when he appears. Some hurry toward him and some hurry away.

People anticipate the Christmas season with enthusiasm. When Santa and his shadow reappear, kids are thrilled to see them, eager to receive gifts, excited to try to escape from Krampus’s clutches. And old Krampus enjoys this annual moment of greatness too. He doesn’t want to die, and has no intention of calling the whole thing off. He will not go peacefully. He is there to stay, every year he shows up again on December 5, plays his role, terrorizing people, every generation, every century. He is Austria’s scary shadow of Santa Claus, the ogre everyone runs from and loves to hate. And Krampus is ever on the lookout for the next one to take over the role.

The Snow Man, by Manfred Kyber, translated from German by William J. Jackson

December 9, 2016

Once upon a time there was a snowman who stood in the middle of the deep snow-covered forest, and he was made entirely of snow. He had no legs, and his eyes were made of coal—that’s all he had, and that’s not much. And he was cold, terribly cold. That’s what the grumbling old icicle that hung nearby said too, though he himself was even colder.
“You are cold,” he said reproachfully to the snowman.The snowman was hurt.
“Well, you’re cold too,” he answered.“Yes, but that’s something else again entirely,” said the icicle with a superior tone.The snowman was so offended that he would have gone away if he had had any legs. But he had no legs and so he remained standing there, though he did decide to speak no more with the unfriendly icicle.

Meanwhile, the icicle had discovered something else to be irritated about and to criticize: a weasel ran along the path and with a hurried greeting passed the two of them. “You are long, much too long!” the icicle shouted after him. “And if I were as long as you are I wouldn’t even go out on the street!”
“Look who’s talking!” growled the weasel, surprised and offended.
“That’s something else again entirely. I’m above you and beyond reproach,” said the icicle with impudent smugness, and he crackled too, in the sheer chill of the frosty air.
The snowman was furious to hear this rude manner of treating the folks who passed through the forest, and he turned himself as far as possible from the icicle.
Then someone laughed high above the snowman in the branches of the snow-laden fir tree, and when the snowman looked up, there sat a beautiful, soft, white snow-elf; and she shook her long flowing hair, so that a thousand little snow-stars fell straight downwards onto the poor snowman’s head.
Then the little snow-elf laughed all the more loudly and heartily. The snowman, however, felt a very strange mood coming over him, and he did not know what he should say, and then finally he said: “I do not know what this is.”
“That is something else again entirely,” sneered the nearby icicle.But the snowman was in such a strange mood that he didn’t even hear the icicle. He just looked high above himself into the fir tree, where, up in the crown of the tree the snow-elf swayed, and shook her long flowing hair so that a thousand tiny snow-stars descended.
The snowman wanted very much to say something to that little one up there above him, about whom he knew nothing, and he wanted to say something about the feelings he had, which he didn’t know how to understand or describe, and which the icicle had said were something else again entirely.
The snowman thought for a terribly long time, until his coal eyes were actually almost popping out of his head just from his thinking.
And finally he knew what he wanted to say, and so he said:
“Snow-elf in silver moonlight,
You shall be my heart’s delight!”
Then he said no more, for he had the feeling that the little snow-elf must say something, and to be sure that too was not wrong. The little snow-elf, however, said nothing, but laughed so loudly and heartily that the old fir tree, which was not prepared for such a commotion, was startled and became cross when the branch shook, and even noisily creaked.Then it happened that the poor cold snowman became so burning hot around his heart that he actually began to melt, and that was not good. First his head melted, and that is the most unpleasant part—after that the going gets a little easier.
But the little snow-elf sat silently high above in the white crown of the fir tree, and she rocked and swayed and laughed and shook her long flowing hair, so that a thousand little stars of snow drifted down. The poor snowman melted more and more, and became smaller and more wretched, and all this was happening because of his burning heart. And so it continued, and before long the snowman was barely a snowman anymore, and then Christmas Eve came, and the little angels polished the golden and the silver stars in heaven so that they would shine brilliantly in the holy night.
And then something wonderful happened.
When the little snow-elf saw all the stars on that holy night she got into a strange mood, and she looked to where the snowman stood below, now nearly melted away. Then it was that the snow-elf also began to burn hotly around the heart, and she scurried down from the high treetop and kissed the snowman on the mouth—as much of it as there was left. And as the two burning hearts came together both of them quickly melted, so that even the icicle had to wonder about it— so distasteful and incomprehensible did the whole affair seem to him.
So, only the two burning hearts remained, and the snow queen had them brought to the crystal palace which is so beautiful and everlasting, never melting away. And for those two all the bells rang that holy night.
But as the bells rang, the weasel came out again, because he liked the sound of the bells, and then he saw that the couple was gone. “The couple has indeed vanished,” he said. “That must be Christmas magic.”
“Oh, that’s something else again entirely,” said the icicle thoughtlessly, and the weasel indignantly went back inside his home.
On that spot however, where the two had melted, there fell thousands upon thousands of tiny soft white flakes, so that nothing more could be seen or said about them. Only the icicle remained hanging there just as tightly as it had hung in the first place, and it will never melt from a burning heart; nor will it come into the crystal palace of the snow queen. For it is something else again entirely.

(The German original of this story, “Der Schneemann” was first published in Manfred Kyber’s book, “Märchen,” Stuttgart/Heilbronn: Walter Seifert Verlag, 1922.

Source: The Snow Man, by Manfred Kyber, tr. WmJackson

The Little Fir Tree: a fairy tale by Manfred Kyber (tr. Wm. J. Jackson)

December 6, 2016

Once upon a time, deep in a forest of firs, there was a little fir tree who yearned to be a Christmas tree. But that is not as easy as most things in the community of trees, because Saint Nicholas is very firm in regard to his policies, and allows only those trees which have been duly recorded in his book to go into towns and cities as Christmas trees. The book is frightfully thick, as is proper for a good old saint, and Saint Nicholas takes it with him into the woods on clear cold winter nights and records which trees are to be chosen for the Christmas celebrations. And the trees, thrilled that they have been chosen for Christmas Eve festivities, bow before him in gladness to thank him, and then the saint’s halo glows, and that is very beautiful, and very solemn.

Now this little fir tree deep in the forest of firs yearned to be a Christmas tree. But for many years Saint Nicholas, when passing by the little fir tree in the clear cold winter nights, had said nothing, absolutely nothing. The poor little fir tree had not been noticed, and so he became very, very sad, and began weeping and weeping, and all his branches trickled with tears. When someone weeps so much that he begins trickling, someone is bound to hear it. Indeed, this weeping could be heard by a small gnome. He wore a green moss cloak, had a grey beard, and a flame-red snout, and he lived in a dark hole. This little fellow ate hazel nuts, preferably whole, and read books, preferably thick, and he was quite a curmudgeonly little creature. But he wanted to be nice to the fir tree because it often gave him a pair of green needles for his glass pipe, from which he always blew ringlets of smoke-clouds in the golden sunlight. And for that reason when he heard the fir tree weeping miserably the little creature immediately came out and asked: “Why do you cry so much that you trickle?”

Then the fir tree stopped weeping and told the little fellow his heartache. The creature became quite serious, and his red nose glowed so much that you would have thought that his moss cloak might catch fire, but it was really the fire of sympathy that was glowing, and that is not dangerous.The gnome was inspired by the little fir tree deep in the forest of firs desiring so deeply to become a Christmas tree. The gnome stood upright, gulped importantly several times, and choosing his words carefully said, “My dear little fir tree, it is quite impossible for just anyone to help you. But I am who I am, and so, maybe it is possible for me to help you! I just happen to be acquainted with some candles, one of which is nicely colored, and I shall ask them to come see you. Also, I know a great big gingerbread heart, who certainly is fickle, but anyway, I shall see what might be possible. Before anything else though, please don’t weep so terribly that you trickle!”

Thereupon the little creature took an icicle in his hand as a walking stick and hiked off through the deep white snow-covered forest towards the distant town. He continued on, walking far, vary far, and before long the first stars of the holy night of Christmas Eve looked down from heaven through the wintry grey twilight to the earth below. And the little fir tree was already quite sad again, saying that once more it would not be a Christmas tree.

But then, quite quickly, a small party plodded through the snow—it was the gnome with the icicle in his hand, and behind him seven candles, and a matchstick case was nearby, too, upon which a fancy design was impressed. The matchstick case had such tiny little legs that it could only stagger through the snow with immense difficulty.

Now as they all stood before the little fir tree, the gnome in the moss cloak cleared his throat, noisily gulped several times quite importantly, and then said: “I am who I am, and so all of my acquaintances have come with me. They are seven little candles, all of excellent wax, among whom there is even a colored one; and also this matchstick case, which is from quite a good and distinguished family—for it strikes up warm relationships exclusively by making contact only with the right striking surfaces. And so, now you will be a Christmas tree! But what the big gingerbread heart intends to do I don’t know exactly, even though he has also promised to come. You see, he wants to buy himself a pair of warm felt boots, because it’s quite cold out here in the forest. He’ll be along soon, I expect. He has made a condition though: he must be eaten, for all gingerbread hearts must, and that is the case with this one too. I have already informed a badger whom I know quite well (and once gave advice to in some family affairs). He’s asleep now, hibernating, but he promised me when I woke him up that he would eat the gingerbread heart. I sure do hope he doesn’t sleep his chance away.”

As soon as the little fellow had said all this he cleared his throat again noisily and gulped quite importantly, and then he disappeared into his cave.

The candles hopped up onto the little fir tree. And the matchstick case, which had come from such a good family, pulled one matchstick after another from its stomach, struck them on the brown striking surface, and lit all the candles, one after another.

And as the lights burned and illuminated the deep forest there was a gasping and wheezing that could be heard. Huffing and puffing, breathless from hurrying, the gingerbread heart arrived and attached himself very happily and contentedly halfway up the green fir tree, despite the fact that now his felt boots had been lost along the way and it was terribly cold.

The little fir tree had yearned to be a Christmas tree, but didn’t know how it all had happened that now he actually was a Christmas tree.

On the next day, in the morning, the badger crept out from his hole to fetch the gingerbread heart. But when he got there to eat it, the little angels had already eaten it up. They are permitted to spend time on earth on the holy night of Christmas Eve, and so with great pleasure they had consumed the gingerbread heart. Then the badger became very angry, and he insulted the little fir tree quite meanly. But to the little fir tree it was all one and the same, for someone who has truly celebrated his holy Christmas Eve even once in his life is no more disturbed by insolent badgering.


[The German original of this story, “Der Kleine Tannenbaum”, was published in Märchen, by Manfred Kyber (Stuttgart/Heilbronn: Walter Seifert Verlag, 1922). The painting of Santa is by Thomas C. Jackson.]


Source: The Little Fir Tree: a fairy tale by Manfred Kyber (tr. Wm. J. Jackson)