Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Own Personal Ghost Story

The other night, I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone, or something, was in my room with me.  I sat on the edge of my bed, head in my hand, looking into all the shadows to see if I could spot something.  “I’m a grown man,” I was telling myself.  “There’s nothing there.  I’ve got work tomorrow.  I need to sleep.”  

I could feel my body flush and the hairs all over my skin stand up and I knew sleep just wasn’t going to happen.  I ended up turning on the light in my bathroom and closing the door enough to block out most of the light but keep my bedroom illuminated.  I think I finally dozed off early in the morning and got a couple of hour of sleep.  

What was it that gave me this feeling?  It was a list of things...

Lights Out
This is a short film I saw on Facebook.  It was part of some short horror film contest called “Who’s There?”  Here’s the link if you’re curious.  Don’t watch it before you turn out the lights to go to sleep.

For weeks after seeing this film I found myself pausing before turning out the light.  I would glance at shadows to see what was there.  Every time I thought of the ending this chill would go through me.  I was just getting over its impact when, the night my Japanese group had a scary movie night for Halloween, we uploaded to someone’s laptop and showed it.  This is how I learned the title and reminded myself how creeped out it made me feel.  

I think the film also altered my perceptions.  It was after watching it that I noticed the Tree-Man waiting at the end of the walkway from where I parked my car.  

When I first saw it, I jumped back waiting to see what it would do.  Coming home late at night, I turned the corner from the garage where I parked my car to walk down the path to the front of the complex to where the stairs to my apartment are.  

There it was, standing at the end of the walkway.  It looked like this big bearish guy, twice the size of any pro football linebacker, arms held out from his side like someone ready for action.  

Then I noticed that this guy had no head.  He was a mass egg-shaped body and twisted  gnarly arms on two thick legs, planted in his position.  

I crept forward, one, two three cautious steps.  By the fourth step my perspective had shifted enough that I could tell what it was.  Two trees planted near the front of the property were combining their outlines to form this giant apparition.  I relaxed and walked forward, watching as Tree-Man morphed from its threatening self to something more like, though not completely like, the two trees it was formed from.  

Each night, I turned away just before this transformation to normalcy was complete at a side path that cut across the driveway.  I would look over my shoulder, watching Tree-Man become two trees in the dark, but not quite becoming those two trees before being blocked out by the edge of one of the units.  

Every night, turning the corner and seeing Tree-Man I would come to a halt.  I’d watch it.  I pick out the small discrepancies that told me it was just the shadows of two trees.  I’d walk up the pathway and turn right away from it.  

This week, I decided to defy Tree-Man.  When I came home, after feeling the impetus to pause and check it out, I squared my shoulders and walked straight ahead.  I passed the side walkway I normally took.  I kept heading straight toward Tree-Man at the front of the property until it completed dissolved, pulled apart by my closeness and a determination to see this thing that was startling me rendered back into its actual form.  
“Showed you,” I thought as I walked past the second tree right before the sideway.  I turned right and headed toward the front of my building to go up the stairs.  

That night, just as I was about to fall asleep, someone blew on my face.  

I jumped out of bed, now fully awake.  Heart pounding, I looked around.  There was no one there.  Then who...?  What...?  

My window was opening and the head of my bed is right underneath it.  It must have been a sudden breeze.  But that window faces a building across a walkway and there are never any breezes.  Only when someone walks past my window on the second floor walkway do the blinds move.  

It was my fan then.  I had it on.  I felt a gust from the fan.  But the fan doesn’t oscillate and it’s pointing toward my feet.  How could a gust from the fan hit my face?  

It took me a long time to get back to sleep that night.  I kept trying to convince myself that it was nothing.  My imagination.  Some normal cause that I didn’t notice being half asleep.  It worked well enough to get to sleep that night, but only barely.  

Because I knew from experience that strange things with no explanation can happen.  

From the time I was thirteen years old to the time I was in my first year in college, I was haunted by a poltergeist.  Or some demon or devil was plaguing me.  Or my puberty inflamed brain was emitting psychic energy that was causing objects in my room (specifically my bed) to move, to which I was ascribing some outside source.  

It all depends on what you believe as to which explanation you like best.  Here are the facts as I experienced them.

Starting sometime after my thirteenth birthday my bed would move at night.  At first it was a shaking.  The frame would flex and bounce as if we were experiencing a small earthquake.  Think around three on the Richter scale.  The first time it happened that’s what I thought it was until I noticed that nothing else in my bedroom was moving.  

I jumped out of bed and watched it.  My bedroom at the time face the streetlamp on our corner so my room was well lit.  The mattress strained this way and that, like it was trying to get up.  It shuddered.  Then it finally lay still. 

I slept on the living room sofa that night.  And many nights after that.  

It eventually added another sort of movement to its dance.  Laying in bed, I would start to feel something pressing against me.  It was as if someone was inside the mattress was pushing against me with their hands.  

The worst incident was this one night, early on, when I was trying ignore it.  This was after my dad, coming home from work late one night, found me on the sofa and asked me what I was doing there.   What I told him, he screwed up his face with annoyance.  

“You’re just dreamin’.  Get back to your room.”  

I was keeping my eyes closed, telling myself over and over again that it was just a dream.  Nothing was happening.  I needed to get to sleep.  It was my imagination.  Repeating these things like a mantra, I rolled on to my back and opened my eyes.  Above me I saw...  Nothing.  

And I mean nothing.  It was completely black.  Remember, this room was always well lit because of the street lamp.  But look above me, all I could see was darkness.  

I was just starting to resolve what it was I was looking at when it descended on me.  I was engulfed.  I was bound.  I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t get out.  I tried to pull my hand up to pull down whatever it was, but they were bound to my side.  I was blindfolded, wrapped like a mummy and buried in darkness.  

Then, I wasn’t.  I fell out of bed and crawled to the door.  By the time I turned around the bed was not moving any more.  The covers were thrown back as if inviting me to return.  

I slept on the sofa.  

I know this was a true experience because I have a witness.  One night, jumping out of bed I knocked over something and made a racket.  While I was still on the floor my mom opened the door to my room.  

“What is going on--?”  She looked past me.  Her eyes went wide.  She looked surprised but not afraid.  

“It does move.”  That was all she said.  She stepped aside and let me leave my room, grab a blanket from the closet and sleep on the sofa.  Dad never told me to go back to my room after that.  

I guess I show relay how it ended.  I was in college.  I was working on my second official girlfriend at the time.  I had moved into my own apartment with a friend from school, but the poltergeist followed me.  It would do that.  I would change my furniture, change rooms, rearrange where everything was.  It was stop for a time and then start up.  

My girlfriend was religious with a strong streak of unconventional spirituality.  I decided to tell her about my situation.  She looked at me with a thoughtful expression.  She was silent, thinking about what I told her.  I waited to see if she’d call me a nut-job.  

“Have you ever asked it what it wanted?”  

“Huh?  No...  I just want it gone.”  

“Ok, but what about what it wants?”  She looked at me like it was as obvious as the nose on someone’s face.  “Maybe it needs something from you and needs you to do it.”  

I shook my head at the idea.  What could it want that I could give it?  But as a concept it certainly had the advantage of not having been considered before.  

A couple of nights later, it started shaking again.  I lay there, now more annoyed that scared after five years of experiencing it.  I remembered what my girlfriend said.  With a, “why not?” shrug, I got out of bed, got on my knees and put my hands together to pray.

“Dear God...”  I was a devout Catholic boy back then, but this was a new one.  Was there a patron saint of poltergeist banishment?  “I don’t know what this is.  I don’t know what it wants.  I don’t if it’s good or evil.  But...  If there is something that can be done for it or given to it that won’t harm me or anyone else, please do so or show me how I can do it.  Amen.”  

It stopped.  Right then and there.  It was almost as scary a moment as when it first started, five years earlier.  I remember spreading my hands and arms over the surface of the mattress, feeling nothing but perfectly normal stillness.  

The next night, it moved again, but it was different.  Instead of shaking and twisting, it was a softer, smoother motion.  Like being on a boat in gentle waters or laying in a hammock being rocked by a summer breeze.  

I got out of bed, got on my knees and said my prayer again.  It stopped again, right away.  My bed hasn’t moved on its own since.  

I’ve become very much the skeptic in the thirty-five years since then.  I’ve been told all sorts of stories by other people, co-workers and friends, strangers and mere acquaintances.  One person I worked with years ago was captured for a time by a UFO.  She remembers the object in the sky, the white light hitting their car, time slowing down...  And then, they were driving as they were before, except it was hours later.  I always ask questions to see if it was something explainable.  They always assure me that it wasn’t.  

I come away from hearing these stories with doubt, but never outright disbelief.  Because I know what it’s like to have something unknown and unknowable happen to you, with only the smallest scrap of evidence that it isn’t you just being insane.  

I slept on the sofa the night on Friday.  I stayed up let and let myself doze off in front of the television.  I woke up at 3 AM Saturday and crawled into bed then. 

On Saturday, I slept in my bed.  I turned on my porch light, and opened my front blinds to let the light shine into my bedroom.  I slept pretty soundly.  

I tell myself it was...  Just my imagination.  An overdeveloped imagination hyped-up on a scary movie, seeing monsters in what I know are shadows.  

I tell this to myself...  Silently.  And I go my usual way from the garage to the stairs.  No point in walking past those trees way down at the front.  No reason to go there at all.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Community from a Digital Perspective

I spent a month in England this August, three weeks touring England and Wales plus another week in London for WorldCon.  The most often repeated story on the news while I was there was about the upcoming referendum to decide whether Scotland would remain a part of the United Kingdom or return to being an independent state.  
I got an interesting perspective on the issue while I was there.  The coverage was, not surprisingly, far more detailed that what was being presented in the states, not.  I found the the historical perspective very interesting.  About how the United Kingdom was comprised of four regions, three Celtic (Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland) and one Anglo-Saxon (England), how the history of the U.K. was marked by the effort of the Anglo-Saxon region to extend control and domination over the other three Celtic ones.  Over the centuries, England was able to exercise dominion over Wales and over Ireland, at least for a time.  
But not Scotland.  Unlike Ireland and Wales, Scotland was never "taken over" by England.  It was able to maintain its separate identity and independence, even if only tenuously at times.  In the end, the move toward unification that created the United Kingdom came when a Scottish King, James IV, took over the English throne when Elizabeth I died without an heir.  He became James I of England and ruled over both kingdoms.  But even then, both countries had their own parliaments, their own laws and armies and such.  It wasn't until a century later that one parliament was formed, that met in London, to govern what was became the United Kingdoms. 
I used to think of "British" and "English" as being interchangeable terms when it came to the people of the U.K..  But after seeing so many Crosses of St. George slapped on bumper stickers and flying on flags over storefronts, and hearing things like, "They wouldn't even cheer for our soccer team!  I say, 'Let them Go!'"  and "I'm NOT British.  I'm English!" I now recognize the distinction.  
Distinction.  I think that is an important word these days.  It seems to me that a lot of people are seeking to distinguish themselves from those around them.  The Scots, a significant portion of them, tried this summer.  The Catalans in northeastern Spain are seeking a similar referendum.  The Basques to the northwest of them have been trying to separate themselves for years.  The Kurds remain the largest single ethnic group without a sovereign state.  Their desire for one complicated the process of building a unified Iraq and held enable the current crisis with the group known as "The Islamic State," which also wants to separate themselves from everyone else, often by killing those they want to be distinct from.  The protestors in Hong Kong are trying to make a de jure distinction with China more de facto.  
I see same impetus in my own country, the United States, as well.  There was a effort to put on the ballot a proposition to divide California into six separate states.  The state, the backers claimed, was too big to be managed and that by divide the state into smaller units, the resulting governments could do a better job.  It can also be seen in the growing belief in the inefficacy of, and resulting dissatisfaction with, the Federal Government.  Both parties are trying to seek control over the entire mechanism of government by working at smaller levels of state and local government.  This has regionalized their message and given us the "red and blue" distinctions of locality.
This impetus to identify with a smaller, more strictly defined community is an ongoing one, which feels, as defeats are experiences and frustrations mount, like one that will gain strength going forward.  
Why do I think that?  Because we have today much greater opportunities to find an associate with people "like us," even if these people are not in close physical proximity.
The internet is a defining feature of our modern day life and has created phenominal changes in how we relate to each other.  I'll call that last statement the "Duh" moment of this essay.  But it is worth repeating because sometimes the most profound changes often start as the most subtle and are quite often unintended. 
An example of a similar unintended change brought about by technology is my contention that e microwave oven weakened family ties.  With my family, before we bought a microwave, if we wanted a hot meal we had to gather together at a specific place and time and eat together.  My mother was NOT going to cook, or even warm up, five or six meals for each member of the family.  Once we got our first microwave, though, we gained the ability to reheat our meal separately, and so could come to get our food at a time different from the rest of the family.  Over time, my family ate together less and less often.  My mom even started cooking meals and putting everything immediately into the refrigerator for us to pull out and heat up on our own.  
One statements I heard about the internet in its early days that I remember well was that it would tend to emphasize whatever was the prominent aspect of the person using it.  If someone was lonely, going online would make them lonelier, or remind them of how lonely they were.  If someone was social and well-connected, then going online would give them opportunities to achieve even greater connections with others. 
And if someone felt "different," then the internet would help them find other people that shared those differences.  When this was pointed out to me back then, I thought it sounded like a real positive change.  A person who had felt marginalized by society could discover that there were others like them "out there" and discover strategies to embrace and express those hidden aspects of themselves and cope with whatever negative pressure was brought to bear against them where they lived. 
What I didn't see looking forward at the time, the concept I'm trying to express in this essay, is what this could do to political and geographic definitions.  I've always had layers of definitions for "What" I am.  At one level, I'm an American.  Another, a "Native Californian."  Another, an "Angeleno" or more specifically, someone born and raised in Pasadena.  Which of these was strongest would expand or shrink depending on what I was experiencing at any given moment.  Watching the Olympics, my "American-ness" would come out.  At the end of MLB regular season, this self-definition shrank down past my Californian aspect in favor of my association with Los Angeles against San Francisco. 
But these are nested definitions, Angeleno inside of Californian inside of American.  I rarely feel conflicts between one or the other.  Those times I do, I usually try to seek a balance or compromise.  What is good for California might not necessarily be good for the entire United States, but a Good California is a necessity for a Good America.  
With the ability to focus on one definition over another, coupled with the ability to find news and information outlets that support the outlook of one's group in particular, I think such definitions of community have become more particulate and self-contained.  Someone living in Edinburgh might see themselves as a "Scot" and as a "Britain," but as separate associations, the same way I might see being "male" and "American" as separate groupings, without the two having any inherent relationship.  And this separateness, in this case not considering the Scotland community as being a sub-set of the British community, can lead one to decide that one membership is more important that the other, or that memberships in both have contradictions that cannot be maintained.
When such a conflict is reached, in seems reasonable, almost inevitable, that the more specific, perhaps more personal, distinction would be the one chosen. 
The effort to put the measure to divide California before the voters failed this year.  And the referendum to separate Scotland from the U.K., or "devolve the union" as I heard in the British news shows, also failed.  But I am left to wonder if these efforts had taken place some time from now, ten or twenty years, or even as few as five, if they might not be more successful.  How can larger conglomerates of geopolitical power succeed if the constituents regard them as arenas in which they must overcome competing groupings as opposed to the mechanism of managing a shared identity and destiny?  To return to my microwave example, how can we have large families of people if we have no need to sit down at the table together to share a meal? 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

First Place and The Rest

I am a competitive person.  I think that is a good think.  Mostly.  
A few weeks ago I joined a diet group with some colleagues at work.  We wrote down our weight loss goals and what exactly we'd be tracking.  I told them I wasn't so much concerned about losing weight as I was getting back into a healthy lifestyle.  But since we had to put something down I said I only wanted to lose a pound a week and get back under 200 pounds.  I weighed 209 pounds at the start of the group. 
I didn't do so well toward this goal in the beginning.  I gained one pound, then lost it, then stayed the same.  The other people were losing three, seven or so pounds a week.  I shrugged off my results.  I was noting the levels of fat in my diet more.  But my diet had already been pretty good.  
Then my colleagues told me about an app they were using called "Pacer."  It measures your steps on a daily basis, and tracks you trends over the days and weeks.  It also allows you to keep track of your weight and blood pressure if you enter it.  
More importantly, though, it allows you to form groups where you can see each other's steps throughout the day.  It's this feature that has changed things.  
Very quickly, I started checking the group ratings throughout the day.  If someone was ahead of me, I'd get up from my desk and walk around the office.  I stopped taking my twenty minute nap at lunch.  I now take a 20 to 30 minute walk instead.  
My steps went from around nine to ten thousand a day in the beginning to about fifteen thousand a day on average.  
My group-mates laugh at me.  "You can't stand to be in second place, can you?"  This question came from the woman who started the diet group.  
I hemmed and hawed with my answer.  We did this to encourage each other, didn't we?  I'm being encouraged.  She laughed at me.  And that's because she knew she was right.  
I don't like ending up in second place.  I can "stand" it, meaning that, on those rare days when I end up in second I don't throw a fit and brood or lose sleep over it.  But I will admit, here and now, I don't like it.  
Last week, on Friday, when I normally stay in and relax with some wine and indulgent food, I noticed that the group leader had put a four thousand step lead over me.  After eating nearly an entire pepperoni pizza and three glasses of wine, I left my apartment to walk around the entirety of Old Town Pasadena.  I ended up beating her by three hundred steps.  
"You waited until I went to sleep, didn't you?"  We were in our office on Monday before our weigh-in.  "I checked before going to bed and thought, 'Oh, My God, Erick.'"  
"You encouraged me."  I shrugged.  
"Oh, my god...  You just can't stand it, that I can beat you."  
"I can stand the concept that you're capable of beating me.  Whether or not you actually do, that's another story."  
At the weigh-in after that, I ended up losing three pounds from last week.  It brought me to four pounds for the month, right on the average I said I wanted.  
Things are heating up, though.  Last night, I had to do another long walk, an hour and one minute, to push past her.  Six thousand and one steps.  I ended up two hundred and change ahead of her.  
This morning, she went hiking.  Twelve thousand steps before I even woke up.  I took a half hour walk.  Ate breakfast.  Then walked another forty minutes to get to the Starbucks where I'm sitting right now writing this.  I've cut her lead to about seven thousand steps.  
I still have to go to the gym...  I still have to WALK to the gym then walk home.  I'm hoping her hike tired her out enough to stay at home.  Watch TV.  Relax.  I'm sending lazy thoughts to her right now.  
I'm wondering where this will end.  We're probably going to get to twenty thousand steps today.  That's what it took to beat her last week and last night.  Will I need twenty-five thousand next week?  Thirty thousand?  
Will I ask the company for a mobile cart and laptop to replace my desktop?  I'll push it around the office while answering email.  I'll add another ten, fifteen, maybe twenty thousand steps a day doing that.  
Angie, the woman who started the group, is the Office Manager.  She might make up a rule making it against company policy to use a mobile cart like that.  Yeah...  I'm nodding sagely now.  I can see her doing that.  I'll just have get a treadmill moved into my office.  I'll put my computer on a stand before it and walk while I'm reviewing the Work In Progress reports.  She'll never even know.  
And then...  We'll form a bigger group.  With dozens of people.  And all of them will look at the list every morning and think, "Oh, My God...!  Fifty Thousand Steps a Day!  He's amazing!"  They'll text me, telling me how awesome I am and how they can never, ever hope to beat me.  I'll be humble and say...
"Hey...  It's all about encouragement.  You guys encourage me to do this.  I only hope I can encourage you half as much right back."  
And I'll mean it, to a degree.  But inside of me will be this voice saying, "I'm Number One!  I'm Number One!  I am the World Series, Stanley Cup, Super Bowl Champion all rolled into One!  They should call ME the Step-Master, not some inanimate machine that sits there doing NOTHING until someone steps on it."  
I'll start walking to work instead of the hour-long drive to work.  I train myself to sleep walk on purpose.  While I sleep, I'll walk all over town.  All over the state.  I'll walk across the country and still get eight hours of sleep at night.  
Jeez.  I'm getting tired just thinking about it.  This is what I meant about it being "mostly" a good thing, being this competitive, at the start of this entry.  It reminds me of what I see as the difference between rivals and enemies.  Enemies are those people that you have to defeat and destroy to avoid being destroyed yourself.  Rivals are those people that are heading toward the same goal you are, and who push you to do better than you thought you could.  
Yeah.  That's what I need to do.  Remember that we're all walking toward the same goal.  That's what is really important.  We can walk together toward it.  
As long as I get there first.