Monday, January 19, 2009

My Birthday Camping Trip

Now that I am back home, I can reflect back on the drama of the past two days with some perspective. Three hours ago, all I could do was stare vacantly into space on the drive home, every now and then flipping down the mirror to gaze in morbid fascination at the red, puffy face staring back at me. But let me start at the beginning…

It was my idea to go camping for my birthday. I wanted to do something different and “get away,” even if only to Belton Lake. The company comprised me, Richie, the dogs, my cousin Matthew, and my brother Bryan who would join us later. Richie went to the store and stocked us with everything from the typical hot dogs and beer to not-so-typical milk, cereal, eggs, and even snack foods from cheetohs to a cheese ball and crackers. We had four huge containers of food and drinks. We even took our lap top, as the campsite had electricity and I envisioned nights of sitting round the campfire watching some good sci-fi under the stars.

And that’s exactly how the first night went: Richie, Matthew and I sat round the campfire with our drinks and watched a Roswell episode. I had a Corona, the guys had Scotch and cigars, and even the dogs got an extra “Beggin Strip.” My allergies were starting to kick up a little (cedar is in bloom) but I had brought Zyrtec and even Afrin, if I got desperate.

Soon after Matthew retired to the tent, the park ranger drove up and ordered us to put out our fire. Apparently, there is a burn ban in effect and the only fire allowed must be off the ground. We had somehow missed the “signs everywhere,” but we apologized and complied, and soon went to bed ourselves.

As soon as we entered the tent, Salem scrambled under the covers with Matthew, the person whom she loves, and I had to dig her out twice before she finally gave up and resigned to sleeping with us. (Matthew isn’t used to sleeping with a small dog and I was afraid he might roll over on her.) I lay there sneezing and blowing my nose for a good spell before finally getting to sleep, then awoke in the middle of the night to feel the hard, bumpy ground beneath me: our air mattress had deflated. We pumped it back up, took the opportunity to let the dogs use the bathroom so we could sleep in.

I took the opportunity to use the bathroom as well. It was dark enough to allow for squatting on the ground, and before I was even halfway through, I heard the distant jingle of a dog tags. I knew, with a sinking heart, that Tiberius had slipped out of the tent. I could hear him running aimlessly around the grounds, and there was nothing I could do at this moment. As soon as I was finished, I somehow managed to round him up in the dark. When I returned to the tent, we couldn’t find Salem. We searched until we finally found she had sneaked back under the covers with Matthew, whom she loves. This time I gave up.

I slept in the next morning while Matthew went to mass and Richie went to teach Sunday school. (I had thought we might all pretend we really were on a far away camping trip, but apparently I was pretending by myself.) Minutes after I emerged with the dogs from the tent, the park ranger drove by, and Salem tore off after his truck. He would have hit her if he hadn’t seen me running up the hill, draped in an army blanket, waving my arms frantically. Tiberius had come along too, of course, and as I awkwardly bent down to pick them both up, still trying to keep my blanket on, the ranger rolled down his window. “They need to be on a leash,” he said gruffly. I hastily apologized and agreed, slinking with self-loathing back to the campsite. I was now one of those irresponsible dog owners whose dog had nearly been killed because of my failure to either train her or confine her. I tied both dogs, with a liberal lead, to a post with their food and water.

Since I could not make a fire, and taking the dogs to the showers would be too much trouble, and my cell phone was nearly dead so I couldn’t call anyone, I decided to read until the guys returned. But my allergies were getting worse, the Texas sun was now beaming mercilessly into my eyes, and I had lost my sunglasses. I thought I should at least make coffee, but after reading the absurdly complicated instructions on the Coleman stove, I abandoned that idea. So now I sat, just feeling sorry for myself. It was my birthday proper, and I was alone, increasingly ill, and the park ranger hated me and my undisciplined dogs.

Having nothing better to do, I decided to go ahead and brave the showers with the dogs. I managed to tie them up at the one end of the long shower, where they were well out of reach of the water. They sat very tensely, pulling their leashes taut, while they waited. Well into the shampooing of my hair, I happened to glance at the floor and found I was not alone: several spiders and a couple other crawling somethings were in there with me, one very close to my feet. While I certainly don’t have a phobia of bugs, I don’t enjoy showering with them. By the time I found a clear spot to stand, I was arched sideways just to keep my head under the stream. I thought of my friends with phobias and felt very brave, like the Crocodile Hunter.

When I returned to the campsite, several crows and two squirrels hurried away from where they had been eating the dog food. Richie returned soon after to find me sneezing and crying and sniffling from now one of the worst onset of allergies I’ve ever had. We walked around the campground and discovered that numerous cedar trees had been cut and shredded, the pieces covering the ground like carpet. We could only assume the pollen had spread far and wide from all that activity.

I knew that I should go home, but I was determined to ignore my body and have a good time. I thought if I just put up with it long enough, my body would adjust. I took another Zyrtec, because obviously the one I had taken earlier that morning hadn’t worked. Well, this second one succeeded in stopping me up so completely that there was not even room left in my ears to allow me to swallow. Since we had no Liquid Plumber, I used Afrin. That worked for about six hours, and I had to use it again at dinner. By this time the congestion was moving into my chest. My face was swelling from inflamed sinuses and turning red with irritation from my constant tears and nose blowing. I was starting to itch on the outside of my throat, and my jaw line. It was like my body was running out of allergy symptoms to display and was making up new ones.

By now I was staying at the campsite only because I had no energy to pack up and go home. I thought it could not possibly get worse. Besides, our friends Paul and Jillian and their kids had joined us and brought pizza! And I thought between a good social time and maybe enough beer, I wouldn’t notice how I felt. Plus, my brother had brought his fire bowl on a stand, so we now had a legal fire going. We had a good evening, but I remained ever aware of my physical condition. (Paul, who is a pharmacist, could only stare in shocked silence when I told him of my Zyrtec/Afrin cycle. He, however, later left the campsite in an allergy fit as well.)

Between our (again) deflated mattress and being entirely unable to breathe (I refused to abuse the Afrin again), I barely slept that night. I lay listening to the raccoons rifle through our things. The previous night, they had enjoyed the Pistachios and Trail Mix we had forgotten to put away. This night, I would later discover, they or something else would climb the pole of the shelter to the hanging tote bag and tear open the zip-loc bag of dog food.

By the next morning, I was forced to hold a tissue to my nose while I tried to help pack up for home. My tongue even burned. I don’t know if I had burnt it the day before with coffee or pizza, but whatever the case it greatly compounded my misery.

Within minutes of being in the truck, my symptoms began to subside. We stopped at Walmart so I could get some 120 mg Sudafed to counter the effects of the overlapping Zyrtec (what’s one more medicine?), and then we went home.

Since then, I have soaked in a hot tub while listening to Vivaldi, and now I am in my study sipping hot tea. I am still swollen and dazed, but I am recovering. I am not saying I will never camp again, but it will probably be in my living room.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review of Whitley Strieber's Communion

Communion: A True Story
I have always shied away from this book, largely, I think, due to my very Orthodox Christian background. I always knew it was an in-depth account of alien visitation that might confuse me a little, challenge some dearly-held beliefs. (Not that it isn’t healthy for a faith to be challenged.) But as unexplained phenomena is one of my passions, and I had slowly, through other media, been broken into the world of abduction stories with my faith still intact, I finally read it. Besides, I have long had the impression that Communion is canon for any UFO enthusiast – much like Enders Game or Dune might be for a Sci-fi fan – and I didn’t want to be caught not having read it.

Communion is the story of Whitley Strieber’s experiences as a possible abductee of otherworldly visitors. I say “possible” because he never boldly answers the question of what his experiences are; he only believes they are real, whatever they are. His experiences are bizarre, to say the least. From childhood to present, they are spattered with seemingly unrelated images: a skeleton on a motorcyle, small figures in blue jumpsuits, a blurry “white thing.” Likewise, the sum of his experiences resists any theme or cohesive pattern: missing time, a exploding seltzer bottle, a mysterious voice in the speakers, and abductions resulting in everything from a cut on the finger to unexplained implants.

Strieber first suspected that he had been a recipient of some strange activity in 1985, but hypnosis regression therapy suggested prior anomalous events. As he explored his memories – both conscious and unconscious – he began to piece together a pattern of strange experiences starting as early as age two. His stories would evoke incredulity at best if certain elements were not corroborated by credible witnesses, medical proof, and similar stories from experiencers ignorant of Strieber’s own. Just a few reoccurring reports among experiencers include some type of implant, sexual procedures, disappearing pregnancy, and the ability to affect electronic equipment. The reported entities look the same as well, with the now familiar large, black eyes and nearly non-existent mouth.

Because Strieber recounts his experiences in the order that he remembered them in his regression therapy (or otherwise), and due to regressions that unpredictably interrupted other regressions, any sense of chronology becomes extremely convoluted, walking the reader along Strieber’s own mental labyrinth. To get a better sense of the timeline of Strieber’s experiences, I have logged the events by order of occurrence. (See below.)

In his theorizing about the exact nature of these entities -- during which he charges down long paths of speculation about ancient mythological figures and religious conventions – Strieber takes broad leaps, and I found myself wishing for more narrative and less conjecture. He seems to lean toward a positive view of the entities, but relays no experience to justify this feeling. He admittedly feels a certain affinity for the consistent female visitor, but the terror and sense of invasion which accompanies most of his experiences overshadows anything positive for the reader.

As for reading this from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, I can see how one might conclude the entities are demonic. However, regardless of what they are, I read this book with the respect I would give anyone who wanted me to hear him out. I was moved more than once to empathy and compassion. I did not approach the book with any preconceived notions about what he experienced or about his motives. I was disappointed to read, in the new preface, how Strieber was treated with such contempt by “the religious right and the intellectual left.” I believe it take guts for a man like Strieber, an intellectual and professional, to write such a book. He presents his case with the vulnerability of a child, and one would be remiss to exploit that trust by ridiculing or condemning him.

I am glad I read this book. If nothing else, it gave me insight into the very real trauma of one who has encountered something inconceivable and unacceptable to much of society. By default, such a person – who needs more than anything to be heard – is alienated. Books like Communion help overcome that alienation, if only for the moment that we are listening.

Timeline of Whitley Strieber’s Experiences

1947 – age two – at Grandmother’s: memory of “a terrifying, round object” in the sky and “a crowd of big, gray monkeys” breasting the hill.

[1954] -age 9 - sleeping outside with a boyhood friend. Some noise wakes them up and they explore around the yard in the dark for awhile, then they hear someone approaching and they run. He runs right behind his friend, but then finds his friend fast asleep as if he’d never been awake. Same friend also saw, with Whitley, a “huge object” in sky one night along with a black car with no lights on that raced by.

July 1957 – age 12 – train trip from Madison, Wisconsin to see aunt and uncle: on the Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio. During trip he becomes violently ill. Someone shoves a bladder thing down his throat. A “nurse” puts a drop on his tongue to keep him from throwing it up. Father is crouched, looking in agony. Later remembers soldiers in fatigues lying unconscious in craft. He is excited, then sees father (who is standing by his sister) look at something in terror and he himself becomes terrified. He tells his father it is alright and his father says not it is not alright.

1958: announces to friend that he has built an anti-gravity machine under the tutelage of “spacemen.” Friend recounts that when Whitley plugged it in, “there was a great buzzing, the electromagnet in the core of the thing whirled madly, and the lights in the house began to pulsate.” Lots of noise, sparks, house lights go haywire and some burn out… He pulls plug. Parents exclaimed in alarm initially, but he never told them what had caused it.

1967 – college age - Austin: Has just moved to Austin from San Antonio. He experiences, over a period of twenty four hours, several consecutive chunks of missing time. Weeks later, visits grandmother in San Antonio, is lying in bed reading Time, then suddenly transported back in time to a few weeks earlier. He hurries into his car and tries to drive away, but a demonic face peers in the window and speaks to him in a high squeaky voice. He tells entity that they cannot leave the car in the street. Keeps trying to drive away, but has an overpowering urge to go back into his apartment. (In real life, is lying in bed at grandmother’s during flashback, fighting the urge to get out of bed and rush outside.) Comes to as if from a nightmare and is still at Grandmother’s. (Afterward this incident, becomes obsessed with getting out of Texas and out of the U.S. This started his lifelong “running.” Desires a big city with lots of people and lights.)

Jan, 1968: Moves to London to attend London School of Film. One night, goes to sleep at a friend’s flat and, after a blurry memory of what he has always called a “raid” during which he crossed rooftops (looking down into chimneys), he wakes up in his own flat with no idea of how he got there. (He never says if his flat was able to be reached from his friend’s flats via rooftops.) The next day, he desires to leave England for another continent. He goes to Italy, and meets a woman on the train. Then his memory gets fuzzy and he recalls going to Rome, hitting Florence on the way, and has always reported that he stayed in Florence for six weeks. (However, when he went to Florence in 1984, he realized he had never been there. ) He left the female friend in Rome, hopping from city to city, eventually going broke and remembers “nights of terror,” being afraid to turn out the light and wanting to keep the door and window locked. He sought comfort in large crowds. He lost weeks of time. He remembers a “noisy, smelly airplane with someone who called himself a coach, and something about taking a course at an ancient university.” He saw “little adobe huts,” and mentioned to someone how simple they were. He returned to London “weeks later than..planned” and his aggravated landlord, having not heard from him nor received any rent, had rented out his apartment, packing all his things up and putting them in the basement. He had originally told his landlord he would only be gone two weeks. He “simply accepted all this” and stayed with a friend until he found his own place.

1972 or 73: He and wife in San Antonio visiting his family, sleeping in sister’s old bedroom on second floor. In middle of night, suddenly awakens and feels he had heard a loud noise, leaves to get a glass of water, smells something like smoldering cardboard. On way to bathroom, sees a small, dark figure w/ a red light in it hand burst out of his old bedroom and run down the stairs. Despite its very short stature, he dismisses it as a family member.

April 1977: he and wife are sitting in LR listening to the stereo, when right after a record is finished playing, a voice begins speaking to them through the speakers. It holds a conversation with them. He can only remember the last words “I know something else about you.” They report the experience to Federal Comunications Commission. A man explains that what he reported was impossible, as they had no microphone nor cassette deck. He and Anne move.

June 1978: Something “terrible” occurs in the middle of the night but the memory is of nothing more than a “phone call followed by a menacing visit” and “a series of menacing phone calls.” The police are called and they check the premises but find nothing. He and Anne move again.

Early 1979: He is awakened by the “bizarre impression” that people are “pouring into the house through the windows.” Some nights later they hear screams. He and Anne call the cops but they cops never show. They move again.

Jan 1980: sees strange streak of light in sky, son wakes up screaming as if from a nightmare, then a small, dark figure rushes out onto their balcony, then there is an explosion in the pantry, which was a seltzer bottle. “the glass was reduced to beads, to dust” with no “trace of the water that had been inside.” They move again the next January.

About a year after they have moved (which would make it two years from the Jan 1980 incident), Anne wakes up hollering that she has been “poked in the stomach” by a white thing. This thing strikes him on the arm the next night and a few nights later his son reports that “a little white thing” poked him repeatedly. The following Sunday the babysitter calls them reporting a “child in a white sheet” has startled her by peaking into the kitchen from the fire escape. He and Anne move again, this time to the Upper West Side.

March 1983: he goes outside for a breath of fresh air and ends up losing 3 hours.

Oct. 4th, 1985 – “explosion” in house; Jacque Sandulescu sees light and Annie Gottlieb hears explosion and hears little feet scurrying. A small hooded being enters Whitley’s rooms and touches his head with a silver wand, making images appears in his head. He sees his father dying and mother just looking on, an image of the world blowing up…

Dec. 26th 1985 – taken from bed naked into woods, then up into craft, probed, finger cut, he asks to smell entities. Entities in blue coveralls.

Feb. 7, 1986 – he is frantic, can feel entities’ presence, he and his wife could smell them (smoldering cardboard, cheese, cinnamon). Loses four hours of time, finds self naked. Next morning, finds two little triangles inscribed on left forearm. Remembers that the odors he and his wife had smelled night before were odors he had smelled in 1972 or 1973.

March 1, 1986 – First hypnosis - w/ Dr. Klein. Regresses to Oct. 4 incident.

March 5, 1986 – second hypnosis – w/ Dr. Klein – Regresses to Dec. 26th incident. (During this session, he regresses to being abducted with father and sister from train at age 12.)

March 10, 1986 – hypnosis with Dr. Klein – they explore incident that took place in Oct. or Nov. of 1984: W. encounters two entities in a fogbank while driving his truck on the highway. He sees a white truck with a black windshield. Finds himself in a “long, gray room.” He is sitting on floor, dressed, being watched by someone with “big, black eyes.” Sees this female being who shows him pictures in his mind that calm him. Pics are of triangles, circles, etc.

March 11, 1986: begins to see female being – the one that has continually visited him – in his mind’s eye. So clear it is living. It moves so he can see whatever part of it he needs to describe when he discusses it with Hopkins and Klein later.

March. 14, 1986 – hypnosis - regresses to night at grandmother’s house in 1967 when he had been lying in bed: suddenly there is an entity there that slaps him in the side of the head with a ‘big, flat-headed silver nail.” He changes “into something else…heavy and big.” He is scared to death. Entity has a face like a giant fly. He walks out of room, then is suddenly back in the bed again looking at the same page of his magazine. During this hypnosis session, he regresses to age 12 incident: he and sister see a fireball, then he sees a “skeleton” like being that grabs his shoulders. He is terrified, then finds himself calm on the grass, while the being works something into his hair. They go inside and report fireball to parents. He then regresses – at doctor’s suggestion to Jan. 1980, age 36: sees a meteor, then there are six figures at bedside and they get closer every time he closes his eyes. He can’t wake up Anne, and the dog won’t wake up. Andrew screams and when they run to him, his diaper is pulled down around his knees. They discover the Seltzer explosion. W. returns to description of beings around the bed: “dark blue uniforms…gray [skin]……mushroomy-gray. Smell funny, too…Two big round eyes and a round mouth…” and possibly no noses.