all weird things

Many people suffer from body image issues—either thinking themselves fat when they’re not or perceiving flaws in themselves that others don’t see. There are a number of ways in which we fool ourselves. But I used to have a very strange perception when I was a kid. I’m sure there’s a scientific name for it but I’ve never ferreted it out. (If anyone can help me there I’d appreciate it).

From a very young age I would occasionally find myself in the body of a giant. That is, I’d be going about my daily business usually relaxing doing things—watching TV, reading, playing with my army or my Cowboys and Indians plastic figurines—and suddenly my perception would shift radically. I would feel as if I was a tiny flame of consciousness moving around inside an impossibly large flesh machine, not only massively tall but massively dense. I thought I might burst through the roof of the house at any moment; that the chair I sat upon would collapse under my massive weight at any moment. I was frozen in shock, unable and unwilling to move. When I looked at other people and kids nearby they didn’t seem to notice that anything had changed. It was frightening, startling, but fortunately it only lasted a short while (maybe thirty seconds or so) before my perception went back to normal.

You have to understand that I was a big kid. I got my growth spurt early. By second grade I was five-foot-three and solidly built—not fat, not yet, but solid. Everyone always thought me older than my chronological age. I towered over classmates and was even taller than many of the 6th graders. This had both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage, of course, was that bullies only came after me verbally. When a kid is a foot taller than your badass self you tend not to want to risk physical altercations. But sticks and stones aren’t the only things that hurt. Words sting, no matter what the proverbs tell you. The bullies referred to me as the Jolly Red Giant (I had flaming red hair), a corruption of the frozen food product, and Babe the Red Ox, a corruption of Paul Bunyan’s blue pet. But I got really, really good at verbal takedowns (a habit I had to carefully wind back down as I aged). So the bullies didn’t taunt me too much unless they wanted my mouth to strip them of flesh in front of their hangers on. I was also able to plant myself between the bullies and some of the smaller kids. “If you want to take on Orlinda, you’ve got to come through me.” They usually declined that offer.

My growth spurt continued so that by the time I finished junior high I was just shy of five foot seven. Thankfully I stopped growing soon after and my classmates caught up with me or surpassed me. But that odd body perception persisted until I was maybe sixteen or so. Once I stopped growing, it went away never to return. I have wondered since if it might have been some subconscious acknowledgement of those growth spurts, or some weird neural spasm. My body changed so rapidly, growing faster than my self-image could process, and my brain (or whatever) would have to periodically recalibrate the new image.

If you think about it, we all of us really are tiny flames of consciousness riding around in massive flesh machines. Maybe not giants who might sink into the earth at any moment, but the ratio of brain to body is disproportionate, and the growth spurts of youth reverse as we age, making us smaller and smaller. The ghost in the machine, that indefinable spark of This-Is-Me that we carry forward through space and time, is always forced to recalibrate and reconfigure just who the heck we are.

When I was four or five I woke one night in my big girl bed in my bedroom at the end of the hall in my funky old house in Venice, California. I looked to the end of my bed and there stood a tall man in a fedora wearing a trench coat. If that wasn’t frightening enough, he was composed of the darkest, densest shadow I have ever seen. He absorbed all light, including the pale street lighting filtering in from the large bedroom window behind him. I could see no features, just that intense darkness, but got the distinct feeling he was regarding me, hands in coat pockets, as if I were some lower form of life—an insect, a nothing. An overwhelming feeling of malevolence came off him, directed at me. I started screaming but he didn’t disappear, so I jumped from my big girl bed and ran screaming down the hall through the living room to be met by my mother at her bedroom door.

It took me a long time before I could tell her what I’d seen. I received the usual assurances that it was not real, just a nightmare, but I knew it wasn’t, insisted it wasn’t. Finally, my mother urged me back towards my bedroom, but I was so panicked I wouldn’t go until she reassured me that she’d sleep with me. When we returned to my bed the evil man was gone, of course. Eventually, I got back to sleep, sheltered in my mother’s arms.

My mother slept with me in my bed every night after until I was eight or nine. You may say to yourself, “That’s even weirder than the shadow, man,” and you’d be right. What I couldn’t know back then was that my mother had been looking for a rescue as surely as I had. All I knew at the time was that it was comforting to have her there protecting me from the monsters. I’m spilling the tea here, but everyone involved except me is dead so they’re beyond caring, and I spill it with intent. It explains much of the turmoil of my formative years.

Eventually, my father built a small one room bungalow in the backyard, moved in a bed, a TV, and other furniture, and began sleeping there. Once he did, my mother moved back into the bedroom they once shared. I slept with a nightlight for several more years after Mom left. My terror of darkness lasted well into my teens.

All during the time Mom and I shared the room my parents engaged in horrible fights. My father was an alcoholic, not physically abusive to either my mother or myself, but verbally nasty—an accuser of terrible crimes with no proof except his own paranoia and deeply wounded spirit. Dad was near retirement age when I was born, and Mom was much younger. I was thrown in the middle. Mom would lay next to me at night, making fun of him behind his back, turning me from a Daddy’s Girl to an I Hate Dad Girl. (This was terribly wrong of her but child me knew no better and went along.) As my attitude towards him changed, Dad turned his verbal vitriol on me. Things really ramped up when I hit puberty. I didn’t have any more malignant presences in my bedroom because I was living with one. I was in survival mode and nothing paranormal could ever compete. Dad had never provided a stable income, so Mom finally got a job with the phone company. Dad’s aggrieved male pride added fuel to the fire. He never worked another day in his life, drawing social security and not sharing any with us. My mother was for all intents a single working mom.

I’ve often wondered if that malignance in my bedroom was some kind of harbinger. Kids aren’t stupid and I was probably picking up on the strains in my parents’ marriage on a subconscious level even though before that night they’d made some attempt to shield me. But it was an old house with thin walls and small, very small.

An interesting thing to note is that although as far as I know my father never wore a trench coat, he did wear fedoras until the day he died. I’m not a big fan of the theory of retrocausality but I allow as it could be a factor. (I understand Eric Wargo makes a good case for it.)

I also learned something about five or six years ago that creeped me out as much or more than that initial sighting of Mr. Fedora. Shadow men are a commonly reported phenomenon. I knew that much, but what I didn’t know until recently is that shadow men wearing trench coats and fedoras are also a commonly reported thing. It’s also reported that he often appears to people in turmoil. (There are also shadow women, but males seem to predominate.)

So what did I see? I have (gratefully) spent most of my life free of nightmares. There was a notable period in my thirties when that was not the case but that’s a weird story for another time. I am personally familiar with sleep paralysis syndrome but I don’t think this was that. Firstly, I sat up in bed at the sight of him and had no sense of being frozen as often happens with sleep paralysis, and the whole time I was screaming he remained where he was. I don’t know what happened to him when I got out of bed because I turned my back and ran. Whatever, whoever I saw seemed very solid and very real.

Projection from the future to the past? An embodiment of the tension in the household created by my subconscious? A malignant leak through from some other dimension? I can’t possibly say.

Oh, and yes, time can heal some things. Time—and later therapy—helped me deal with the trauma of those times. I was able with a lot of work to forgive and accept and even reclaim some of the love I had for my father, so I guess that’s something of an ambivalent happy ending. He was dead by the time that happened. It’s much easier to forgive a dead person than a living one. And I don’t think everything can be forgiven by everyone—or should be. I won’t suggest for a minute that people are required to forgive but for me I just grew weary of carrying all that forward through time. I had to let it go to save myself, a different kind of survival mode. I’ve felt much lighter since I let it go. The shadows have eased up considerably.

I grew up as an only child. When I was very young, before starting kindergarten, I spent a great deal of time playing by myself. I was either a natural born introvert or I adapted to that circumstance early on (there weren’t a lot of playmates around) and was perfectly happy amusing myself. Current science on introverts

says it’s probably in our DNA. My mother was a real extrovert, but my dad was a solitary brooder. He could fake extroversion if he had to and I appear to have inherited that ability—but I am unquestionably an introvert. However, I only brood some of the time.

We lived in a strange little house on a vast lot. It consisted of four beach cabins (those turn of the nineteenth century changing/camping cabins that sat on the sand) which had been strung together to make the core of a small house: two bedrooms, one bath. Add-ons on the back gave it a kitchen, a laundry room, and later a den. Because of its origin as beach cabins the front porch sported four front doors which confused the heck out of salespeople and first-time visitors. The backyard was enormous, taken up by a huge vegetable garden on the northwest side and on the southwest side by a tumble-down pair of shacks referred to as “the garage,” though no vehicles ever parked there. Mostly it held my father’s vast collection of tools and whatever odds and ends of junk he decided to hold on to.

On the front of the lot sat a giant California bungalow style house where our landlady lived. Sandwiched between these two houses was a smallish “front yard” which I loved to play in, especially in a tight little corner (maybe ten feet square) on the northeast side where the two houses were closest to each other. This alcove had a fence on the north holding a massive cascade of yellow climbing roses and against the west side a thick growth of calla lilies underneath my bedroom window. My alcove was shaded by the proximity of the two houses and the fence, always cool in the summertime, and protected in winter. The grass seemed softer there, somehow, and hugged by the houses it was a cool, quiet, secluded place for my imagination to run free.

It was during these solitary play dates with myself that I developed a strange “ability.” I was maybe three or four at the time. I came to believe—though what magical thinking led me to this conclusion is lost to time—that if I jumped into the air with a certain attitude, a kind of unqualified belief mindset (though I could hardly have categorized it that way to myself at the time), I could float in the air until I chose to come back to earth. I used to “do” this frequently. I clearly remember this feeling of my feet leaving the ground and me hovering—usually a few feet above the ground—floating but still me, still in my body. But one day I jumped into the air and felt lighter, more insubstantial, and I just kept going up. I remember floating past the roof line, up, up until I was maybe fifteen to twenty feet above it. I looked down on the shingles in shock. Then I looked up. I could see my father in the backyard working in the garden and that made me scared. I dropped back into my body with a thud. It was the only time I’d felt like I’d been out of my body, and I stood in shock for a minute then ran inside the house to hide in my bedroom. I don’t remember doing my floating trick again after that. In fact, I forgot all about it, as young children often do. Years later when I was eight or nine I suddenly remembered that I used to do that trick and tried to recapture the mindset but I never could. I jumped and jumped but inevitably came right back down to earth.

I’ve wondered, looking back as an adult, if during that extraordinary high air float I was actually astral projecting or having an out of body experience (OBE), but who knows?

The only other time I’ve felt something like that was when I was nineteen or twenty. I was going to college during the day and working night shifts (about thirty hours a week) in West LA at an answering service. I usually got off between 9:00 and 10:00 but this night due to a cock up in scheduling I didn’t get off until 11 or 11:30. I was exhausted. While driving home along a very familiar route that I could do in my sleep I guess I literally did it in my sleep. I was stopped at a light and realized my head and shoulders had floated through the roof of my VW Bug and was staring out at the street from a couple of feet above it. When I realized this the shock sent me plummeting back into myself with another thud. I was wide awake and adrenaline fueled after that.

Waking dreams? Astral projection? Overactive imagination? A Mystic mumbo jumbo combo? I can’t say, but those “memories” are so vivid. According to science,

one in ten people experience OBEs in their life. Some people even try to induce these experiences on purpose. But not me. Whatever I experienced was so deeply unsettling I’ve never sought to repeat it.

I’ve started an ambitious and decidedly strange project. I’ve had a lot of weird things happen in my life. Some are really crazy, most more mundane, but a steady accumulation of odd things that sometimes make for interesting stories. And I am, above all, a storyteller. I’m also of an age where if I don’t tell these stories now my personal library will burn down without them ever being shared. So, I’m going to attempt to recount all the weird things that have ever happened to me, told in roughly chronological order—or as close to that as I can remember.

Some of these stories have been told before in other venues, some have not. Some are funny, some are not. We’ll see if they’re as interesting to others as they are to me and my friends. Where possible I’ll relate them to a larger cultural context, using research into psychology, the paranormal, science, history or whatever else seems relevant. That means, thankfully, this will not be exclusively about me—because I am far from endlessly fascinating. I may invite others to tell their own weird stories, either directly or (if they’re too shy) through me. That is, of course, dependent on whether others are as willing as I to make public confessions. I’m relatively sure others have similar stories, many of them much more interesting. If anyone reading this would like to share, please contact me.

Will anyone read this series? I haven’t got a clue. It’s just something I feel the need to do even if I’m speaking in an echo chamber. Because, as I’ve said before, time is not infinite.

So, to begin.

The first odd thing I mean to share is not such a strangeness in and of itself except in context. It’s about my earliest memory and more broadly about what science has to say about memory itself:

I floated on a raft on a scorching hot day. The sun insisted on brightness in a frighteningly enormous sky, and there was not a breath of air, but I was cool near the water. And happy. The water smelled fresh, my wet clothes insulated me from the heat, and I floated at the center of the universe.

The raft bob-bob-bobbed and my father’s elbow rested on its edge near where I lay, everything from his shoulders down hidden by dark water. His voice was gentle as he talked to me, but his words have been swept away by the unrelenting tide of time.

I don’t know where my mother was. She had to have been there, but she doesn’t exist in this memory, one of the few times she didn’t loom like God Herself in the background.

My father plucked me from the raft and held me in the water. It felt right, my natural element, and I loved the wet embrace of the river. I may have purled with laughter. Or that may be something I made up later.

My mother told me I couldn’t remember any of this, not really. She said I wasn’t even one yet because they hadn’t swum at Ballona Creek past that time.

It was Ballona Creek, right?

I believe there is a picture of that raft, that river, my dad in swimming trunks, and my mother and I, but I don’t know where it is. The science of memory

says I may have used that picture to conjure up the whole confabulation of floating because I couldn’t possibly remember anything from such an early age. Certainly, my next earliest memory skips forward a few years in time, but this earliest memory is insistent, and I may have to beg to differ with my mother and the science of memory. And didn’t Jung say part of the psyche exists outside of us? This is a memory of the psyche, a pearl hidden in the tight embrace of my brain. I’m keeping it. Because I found my element that day, the water, and because it’s one of the few uncontaminated memories I have of my father.

Oh hell, that’s not true. I have a lot of good memories of my father. Memory is the trickiest son of a bitch there is and insists on presenting itself as a respectable, churchgoing truthsayer. It’s true, however, that the bad memories of Dad, coming later in the timeline, do somewhat overbalance the good. I have to root out the good memories, pull them from the muck and hose them off to recapture their likeness. But they do exist. Even in abundance.

My mother was the same way about memories. If stupid things like facts contradicted the way she remembered, they had to be wrong, and the memories of others? Not even to be considered. My mother’s version of events was the official story.

And so say all of us.

In discussing this with my friend, L., she relayed her earliest memory:

She was lying in her crib, or maybe her first “big girl” bed, and looking up at the mobile that hung over it. It was a lovely thing, a bunch of Pegasus figures flying round and round in the air currents. Later, when she mentioned this as an adult to her mother, Mom said, “We never had anything like that in your room.”

So who was misremembering?

The default prejudice is that the child must be mistaken. But where did that memory come from? Or did that dancing mobile of Pegasus figures exist—but only L. could see them? Children, they say, are able to see things adults no longer can…

But that gets into a whole other weird territory that is beyond the scope of this entry. Let’s put it down to the gossamer of memory and leave it at that.