Monday, May 30, 2011

Mono no aware and the role-player

Any game only lives in our memory.

This last week I watched Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, a documentary on the role of insects in the Japanese cultural landscape. Primarily it focused on collections and the keeping of bugs as pets. I wasn’t aware of the extent of that practice. It also looked at how they figured in culture, in poetry, in art and in Japanese memory in general. It has some really lovely bits following the people who actually go out and find them for the pet industry (including a shot of a Japanese hornet which will lodge firmly in my nightmares for years).

My first reaction was- well that makes sense, they have smaller living spaces- I’m not sure how accurate that is. But then I thought about the fragility of these things- how long would these kinds of pets live? There was a sequence with a collector who had accumulated many varieties of crickets. His house was filled with the sound of them, many different sound patterns interlacing and making a whole new experience. I thought about my own irritation when I had to hunt down a single chirping cricket in the basement.

Then they interview a cultural/art historian who talked about the idea of mono no aware, which Wikipedia describes as:

Mono no aware (物の哀れ mono no aware?, literally "the pathos of things"), also translated as "an empathy toward things", or "a sensitivity to ephemera", is a Japanese term used to describe the awareness of impermanence (Jap. 無常 mujō), or the transience of things, and a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing.

We had thunderstorms this weekend. Bad ones that nearly rained out our yearly gathering at Kenny’s house. Today we have a wash of humidity. I remember nights back in the late 80’s in high school when we would play out in my garage. After the divorce my mom offered that space to me if I cleaned it up. Garbage had piled up and festered out there for at least a year. It took several days to clean it out, to purge the muck, to remove the bale of hay which had been there since my parents had moved in. We cleared slugs, mice, centipedes, wasps…it was awful. But when it was done, we had a still filthy garage we could set up a ping pong table in and play.

The earwigs writhed out in a horror for that first summer. Finally we managed to supersaturate the wood with enough bug bombs to drive them out- provided you left nothing for them to hide in. It would get insanely humid out there in the summer. We had a fan in the window, but we’d be dripping sweat, playing with the garage door open and watching the moisture condense on the tall, sixteen ounce bottles of pop we’d bought out of the cooler at 7-11. We played AD&D, Rolemaster, DC Heroes and some homebrews out there. Scott Hamlin brought a buddy over one day and rebuilt the tables to make them solid and not the teetering and swaying deck they began as. I remember talking about Crisis on Infinite Earths with the group, I remember giant free-for-fall superhero battles using the room “as is” for the figures with characters lifting and hurling giant dice cups and the like, I remember Art Lyon raiding my fridge without asking and boiling up all the hot dogs I had, I remember coming out after a rainstorm and feeling just absolutely damp out there.

I remember some of the stories from those games. Some we still tell. A couple of people in the group remain from those days. Some remain from the later days when we played in the basement- we’d done that in the winters for a time, but eventually we migrated down there full time.

I’ve played a lot of games- some pretty bad, some only worth it for the people, but some that were great, some that changed my life, some sublime in their execution. They won’t happen again, but when I think on them I can take a bit of that joy and happiness and bring it forward into my memory. I’ve been depressed and in bad places in the past- and often I’ve rewritten those memories to be worse than they were. That’s what depressives do, that’s what I’ve done. I’d forgotten how much I’ve enjoyed those things- until later when I actually remember the little things, the tiny and transient details that made those experiences great. The mist from the river when Gene and I played Bushido down by Century Center, the blessed heat from the furnace every time it kicked in the basement, walking through downtown Cairo at 6 am after an all-night amazing campaign wrapping session.

Embrace the mono no aware of rpg play.


  1. That was pretty epic and by far one of the best things I've read on a blog in a long, long time.

  2. Mono no aware is a great concept (just like the Japanese to come up with it or at least put it into words).

    On the subject of bug pets: I've ben keeping insects and other invertebrates as pets for almost 20 years now. Some die quickly, some live surprisingly long - I've had a pair of assassin bugs that reached an age of almost 3 years and I have land hermit crabs that are older than me. What fascinates me is the variety and the uniqueness of each species. Every time I think I have seen the most weird insect, something even more strange comes along. Wetas, peripatus, stalk-eyed flies, bookscorpions, whip spiders - the list goes on.
    I need to get a copy of the documentary.

  3. I'm with Christian here. Thank you for sharing this, Lowell.

  4. Thanks everyone, kind words. I have to say that a significant portion of what made me think about this came from Christian's own reflective attitude towards gaming and surfing- those things as experiences and sensations. That was in the back of my mind when I was watching the film and the two things clicked.

    @Jedediah: I was wondering how much of place collecting and keeping insects as pet had in the West. My initial reaction when I saw the amazing level of articulation, accessories and commercialization was that this kind of thing certainly wouldn't fly in the US. I'm not sure if it would, other than as a fringe hobby- we have such an odd relation to nature, especially non-cuddly nature.

    The beetles I saw in the documentary were amazing and lovely- and I say that as a truly non-bug guy.

  5. Sorry about the hot dogs. I'm sure they were delicious.

  6. I think it's a hobby that more people have that you'd think, but it's still fairly "underground". I've been a member of an invertebrate breeder/keeper club for a while and I've met a lot of people who owned an amazing variety of insects/invertebrates. But in Germany at least (I can't speak for the US) there's a great deal of scientific interest involved rather than just collecting or keeping them a pets, like people keep cats or birds. It certainly is not very commercialised, any products you can buy are pretty much by-products of herp keeping.

    Land hermit crabs keeping is fairly commercialised in the US, although most of the products offered will only help with killing the crabs (although that's true for a depressing amount of pet products in general). Most people don't even know that they are supposed to live for decades and not a few months and don't care enough to find out.

    Beetles are a great example of mono no aware, I think, especially the big ones. You wait months or even for the grub to develop into that magnificent beetle, which will often die in a matter of weeks. I wonder if there are people who keep those 13 year-cicadas.

  7. @Art! I think the thing which freaked me out the most about the hot dog thing was that you boiled them. That just wasn't done in my house. We fried hot dogs or grilled them.