Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Halloween Ghost Story

This past weekend, we went up to Prescott again (maybe I should just move there). My husband wanted to check out their annual Ghost Walk. I didn’t quite know what to expect because I’ve been to some really cool ghost tours in different cities (Boston and Santa Barbara) and some fairly hokey ones (San Diego). I have to recommend Prescott’s because it featured reenacted scenes from Arizona’s ghostly past. The walk is led by guides who take you to different locations. At each location you meet a ghost who tells you his or her story and the circumstances of his/her death. It was very entertaining and you got free hot cider and cookies at the end of the walk. I was scalded by an imbecile who couldn’t hang on to her cider, but that’s another story.

Someone just wrote in asking whether I’ve ever had any paranormal experiences and I have to confess that I have had some eerie experiences. I hesitate to label them as paranormal because I’m not really sure I understand what was happening. I’ve had many of these experiences throughout my life. Most of the time it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that there is unusual energy present in a place - for example, check out San Diego’s Hotel Del Coronado. It feels like someone else’s emotions are being superimposed on yours and for no good reason you can be walking along in a perfectly good mood and suddenly feel a wave of overwhelming sadness or rage engulf you. I find the feeling oppressive and I try to avoid places with really negative energy - for example, the Jerome Grand Hotel in Jerome, AZ. At least, that is how my eerie feelings work.

Another “paranormal” experience has less to do with feelings and more to do with unexplained occurrences. When my family and I first moved into our old house in L.A., weird things kept happening. Lights would turn on or off as you were walking away from them; footsteps could be heard upstairs when nobody was up there. Anyway, I started to write about my experiences when I realized that my husband had already written about them several years ago. Below is his account of our old home in Los Angeles. The names have been changed out of respect for the dearly departed.

We moved into the tidy, two-story house in the hills overlooking downtown Los Angeles in June. Drawn to the rustic canyon neighborhood by one of the best schools in the area, we purchased the thirty year old wooden structure from a German couple who were supposedly the original owners. They had raised their two sons in the home and now that the youngest was in college, they no longer needed the extra space.

We were amazed and delighted at the immaculate condition of the house, with its freshly painted walls and cream carpets. In truth, the house was so spotless and white that it felt a bit sterile and uncomfortable and we were afraid to make any changes that might disturb the fragile equilibrium of the space. Our furniture and belongings were duly placed in the rooms, but they had the appearance of objects which had been temporarily dropped off by some errant mover who would momentarily return to pick them up and take them on to their proper home. The house took on an air of intransigence and seemed to regard us as squatters who had somehow managed to steal a set of keys.

We heard the footsteps the first night.

As we sat downstairs in the living room watching television, the distinct sound of someone walking across the master bedroom upstairs was accompanied by what could only be described as a change in air pressure, like a large volume of air had been sucked out of the room. My wife and I exchanged nervous glances, silent affirmation that we had both heard the footfalls, though neither of us wanted to think that our brand new home might be haunted.

As I said before, the house was impeccably maintained with what could best be described as a peculiarly German sense of cleanliness and order. It had been designed and outfitted over the years, ostensibly guided by the maxim, “A place for everything, everything in its place.” This way of thinking was completely foreign to us, as we had been living in a much smaller house, too small for a growing family with a small child and her attendant closet full of toys. Our previous house had been cramped and cluttered with stacks of books, CDs and unopened mail. This new house seemed to have little tolerance for such sloppiness and loudly expressed its disapproval.

Things began to move of their own accord. Items disappeared from their last known location and reappeared later in an entirely different part of the house. One afternoon, as my wife passed by the downstairs bathroom, she observed a hand towel flop back down into the hanging position, as if some unseen guest had just finished drying their hands. Stopping and backing up to verify what she had only glimpsed out of the corner of her eye, she observed the towel still slightly swaying back and forth. The downstairs bedroom, which doubled as the office, was also the scene of inexplicable occurrences. In particular, the slide out mouse tray on the computer table seemed to appeal to the spirit, as it would mysteriously pull itself out during the night while we slept.

About a month after moving in, we decided to hang a large painting on one of the living room walls in an attempt to add color to the lifeless room. My wife called me at work the following afternoon to ask me why I had taken the painting down and left it laying face down in the middle of the living room floor, a full ten feet from the wall where it had been hanging that morning. Since I had not touched the painting and no windows were left open to provide a gust a wind that might have knocked the canvas down, we were at a loss to explain it.

“Do you think the house is trying to tell us that we have bad taste in art?” my wife gamely suggested. It was at this point we began to imagine that a presence somehow connected with the house was causing these phenomena in an effort to assert its ownership. This presence could be felt as a pair of watchful eyes whenever one of us alone in some isolated part of the house, particularly in the upstairs master bedroom or below the house in the laundry room. A small, hinged door led from this laundry room to the crawlspace underneath the house, from which the packed earth had been sufficiently excavated to enable a hunched over adult to move about, aided by a light fixture which had been efficiently wired from an outlet in the laundry room. This crawlspace was ingeniously equipped with wooden shelves which we quickly filled with boxes, awaiting unpacking.

Each new guest to our house who happened to visit at night would invariably ask, “You know your house is haunted, don’t you?” Shadowy figures darted around corners, appeared as reflections in mirrors, teased and provoked our peripheral vision. It became increasingly difficult to find a babysitter willing to stay late at night.

One evening, my wife and I were in bed and had just turned off the reading lamps when suddenly, the television in our bedroom turned on. “I thought you were sleepy,” she said, somewhat perturbed.

“I didn’t turn it on.” I replied.

We searched the room in the flickering light emanating from the television set and saw that the remote control was sitting, untouched, on my wife’s bedside table.

“Give me that remote!” I snapped and flicked the TV set off. Darkness cloaked the room for a moment or two, then out of the darkness, a sound of the TV being turned on and the whining rush of electricity as the screen glowed back to life. The sound on the television set began to get louder and louder; the green volume bars on the screen flashed higher and higher, measuring our increasing terror. Throwing on the light, I leapt out of bed and unplugged the TV from the wall.

“There. If it comes on again, we’re getting the hell out of here.”

I reasoned that the television must have had a short in the power board, affecting the volume control and, since it remained quiet, we were able get some sleep.

The next afternoon, my wife called me from her cell phone, her voice crackling with anger and anxiety. “Did you leave the upstairs television on before you left the house this morning?” she demanded.

I assured her that I had not. In fact, the set should still have been unplugged from the night before. She said that she had just come home to find the television blaring away at full volume and she was not going to set foot in “that house” until I got home and when was I leaving work anyway?

One night in late July, my wife and daughter had gone out to the grocery store and I was alone, reading in bed, while the downstairs portion of the house was dark and quiet. I suddenly became conscious of another presence in the house, the way a person knows when someone else is looking at them without actually seeing their eyes. I also felt that I could pinpoint this presence’s location as somewhere on the staircase leading from the entryway up to the master bedroom, where I lay. From the bed, I could only see the top landing of the stairs. At any second, I fully expected to see the head of someone I did not know appear above the half-wall as they climbed the stairs.

Then the entryway light came on. This could only be accomplished by flicking the single switch found on the inside wall, next to the entry door, and is typically the first switch one would throw upon entering the house. Yet no one had come through the front door.
“Hellooo?” I said in a nervous, joking voice, knowing full well that no living person was downstairs. The entry way light turned off in response. Now, I was truly shaken and I decided it would be best not to venture downstairs until my wife and daughter arrived as reinforcements.

The next day, I floated the possibility of trying to communicate with this spirit via a Ouija board or a seance. To this suggestion, my wife simply replied, “Are you out of your mind?”

We discussed what we knew of the history of the house, but were unable to come to grips with the identity of the ghost, since we knew that the couple from whom we had bought the house, the Linders, had moved into the house in 1970, a year after it was built. They had raised their boys and then decided to move away after almost thirty years in the hills of Los Angeles. Clearly, they had loved the house. But was the affection and sense of attachment that a living person held for their home strong enough to break off a piece of that person’s soul and leave it behind? Or could there have been another, someone as yet unknown to us? If the Linders hadn’t moved in until 1970, who had lived in the house the previous year?

I tried to drive these thoughts from my mind by whistling aloud as I opened the half door to the crawlspace later that night. I dreaded going down there now, but found it unavoidable whenever we needed some seldom used item that had been packed away. Stooping over to avoid hitting my head on the wooden beams which bore the weight of the house, I squinted in the semi-darkness as I scanned the labels on the boxes. Something moved in the shadows underneath the front part of the house, where the light could not reach - a skunk or perhaps a rat? The air grew thick and musty with the smell of unsettled earth. Looking down at the packed dirt floor, I silently wondered, “What secrets are buried here, beneath the floorboards of this house? Who are you and what do want to tell us?” Dust swirled and formed shapes, then quickly dissolved into thousands of shimmering motes fading in the light.

My answer came in the mail that same week. A bill from the county tax assessor’s office, addressed to the Estate of Mrs. Effie Goldman, who had once lived at our address and who owed the County of Los Angeles a significant amount of taxes due to a recent reassessment of her property value. “This is it! This must be her!” My wife said excitedly. “I can’t believe the county is sending a deceased person a tax bill. They must be getting desperate.” We now had a name for the unseen presence, but no explanation as to why she remained in the house.

Every summer, our neighborhood throws a block party, a chance for the newcomers to meet and talk with the old timers who remember what the area was like many years ago. As discreetly as possible, we asked the few neighbors we already knew about the Linders and whether anything strange had ever happened in their house. Most of the people were close to our own ages and knew little beyond the fact that the Linders were considered old-timers, having lived in the same house for thirty years and were the most normal family you could imagine. We were eventually directed to the table of a graying, kindly looking man named Bill, who smiled warmly at us as we approached.

“Well, hello! You’re the nice couple who moved into the Linders’ place, right?” Bill motioned for us to have a seat. “So, how are you liking your new home?”

“It’s great, they sure kept the place up.”

“Oh yes, they were always out working on the yard or fixing some part of the house. Very hard-working people, the Linders.”

“Bill,” I said, “this is going to sound like a strange question, but...did anyone ever die in that house while the Linders were there?”

“My heavens, no!” Bill chuckled. “Why, do you have yourselves a ghost?”

My wife and I smiled wanly at each other.

“Well, there’s more than a few of them up here, I should think. Folks up here have gotten a little passionate, you might say, from time to time.” Bill smiled to himself and seemed to be looking off towards some distant memory.

I asked him if he was living in the area when the house was built.

“Yes, I’ve been living here for nearly sixty years now, came here after the war. The neighborhood’s changed quite a bit over the years, you know. It’s nice to see so many young families, such as yourselves, moving in again. You know, they used to call this hillside the “Swish Alps” because there were so many of us living up here at one time,” Bill mused.

He continued, “The house you’re living in was built by a young man who was an engineer, he also wanted to be an architect. He designed and built that house himself in 1968, as a gift to his wife. They were newlyweds and this was going to be their first home together. Goldman was their name, I think. Anyway, they lived there only a short time, maybe a year. After what happened, he couldn’t live there anymore and he sold it to the Linders. We never heard what became of him after he moved away. Some say he moved out of the state, but he never built another house after that one.”

We pressed Bill for more details about Mrs. Goldman and the architect’s story, but he politely refused to say anymore. And so we pieced together the rest of the story for ourselves. The house had been built as a gift for a new bride, but a tragic, untimely death kept her from enjoying it. No wonder her spirit felt entitled to stay on and keep an eye on things. It was her house, after all.

Gradually, we felt comfortable enough to make changes in the house. A fresh coat of vibrant color on one wall of the living room, a minor kitchen remodel, and over time the strange manifestations seemed to occur less frequently, or perhaps it was just that we became accustomed to them. Visitors to our home still remark about the sounds of footsteps upstairs or mention feeling a woman’s presence in the upstairs bathroom, but we reply that it is just Effie keeping an eye on things. She shares her home with us, this house which belongs to her.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Annie Get Your Glue Gun

I drove my friend Angie to the airport today. I had been anticipating and preparing for her arrival for weeks and now here I was, saying goodbye to her. As soon as she had her time off from work secured we started discussing the many crafty projects that we would tackle together.

Angie is a postal worker, a bassist, a photographer and she knows her way around a sewing machine so we started the week off armed with one pattern and some vintage fabric. Angie and I bravely tried to decipher the confusing directions for the trendy Duro Dress.

What a nightmare! Neither of us had any luck with the pattern. Angie’s dress made her look like a Russian peasant ready to go out drinking with Rasputin and my dress landed in the trash can after I somehow ended up with a quilted waistband which made me look like the Michelin Man.

Since my husband was out of town, Angie, my daughter and I watched some girly themed movies. We started with the sappy, but oh-so-beautiful and entertaining Memoirs of a Geisha, followed by our old favorite Kamikaze Girls and climaxing with the classic Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill.

We took a little break from sewing to do some touristy stuff and shake off the bad experience. A visit to Prescott was in order and we hit my favorite thrift store and had lunch and some Liquid Amber at the Prescott Brewing Company. A young artist at a nearby table found us ravishing and sketched our portraits on a Magna-Doodle. Then we meandered around the town, searching for the Holy Grail - Angie needed to buy a Native American coffee mug for one of her friends but couldn’t seem to find the right one, so we went into every little shop in town but the perfect mug was not to be found.

The little day trip refreshed us and we were ready to start a new project. Next on the launch pad was a trouser skirt that Angie wanted to try to reconstruct. We hit the local Goodwill on 50% off day and got some men’s trousers. We ripped the seams out and I let Angie start her skirt first, since she seemed to have a clearer idea of what the finished product would look like. She ended up with the crotch jutting out in the back of her skirt like a tail.

Frustrated, I decided that what we needed to do was offer some libations to the Sewing Gods, who were obviously none too pleased with us. I suggested Pina Coladas but Angie, who is diabetic, said they were too sweet and countered with Melon Balls. I responded that earlier in the evening she’d already gone into a Zombie-like trance better known as an insulin reaction. She had to keep her blood sugar up. So we got the fixin's for both drinks. Dang if that wasn’t all we needed! I pulled out my duct tape and started tearing away furiously. But Angie was still feeling a little despondent. The Russian peasant dress and the trouser tail skirt had just about taken the wind out of her sails and she was all but ready to pull out her Balalaika and sing the blues.

After the first Pina Colada and a glimpse of how my purse was shaping up she decided to go for it. Never one to copy someone else’s project, Angie reached for a pie plate and made a circular duct tape purse. By the time the blender was empty, we were well on our way to success.

Later that night, while sipping Melon Balls and crank calling friends, we posed our one and only completed project for a photo. Angie would be going home the next day and we had only finished one of our many ambitious projects. We made plans to get together again on a regular basis with projects to share. We thought of starting a crafting group (or a band) called Annie Get Your Glue Gun (it’s funny after some Melon Balls). We talked about including some of our other talented friends and learning from and teaching each other. We dreamed about a retreat where a small group of artists, musicians, crafters, and bartenders go off on a vacation together to create and collaborate. We talked and laughed and felt renewed. Friendship, it’s a good thing : )

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Confessions Of An Ex-Cutter

Recently, a good friend confided to me that she was worried about her daughter. The young girl had started cutting herself and my friend was worried that she was suicidal. I wondered why my friend had chosen me to give her advice. How could she know that I’d once been a cutter myself? It’s been years since my cutting days, but the feelings of shame and embarrassment that coincided with slicing up my arms quickly resurfaced, like a secret that hadn’t been buried quite deep enough.

I quickly did an inventory of my feelings at the time of those events and I told my friend that her daughter was probably not suicidal, but I decided against giving her any advice because I was afraid of suggesting the wrong thing and perhaps causing harm instead of helping. I guess I also found it difficult to believe that someone else could have motives that were similar to mine. I must have a pretty big ego because I really thought that my feelings and my circumstances were unique. I had no idea that cutting had become such a popular activity.

For me, it started back when I was still a teenage punk, living at the Canterbury. I remember those times as good times. I was in a popular band and I was living in a crazy, fun, exciting place. I was far away from my mother and father and the domestic violence that I’d wanted to escape for so long, but for some reason, I felt numb and insignificant. I was drinking on a regular basis in those days and occasionally ingested whatever recreational drug was offered to me. I didn’t buy the drugs, so I never felt like I had a drug problem. I did have a drinking habit. I hesitate to call it an addiction, because I could go without drinking for days at a time, but I found it much more appealing to stay drunk.

I kept myself in check. I did not want to be drug or alcohol dependent. I’d grown up in East L.A. and I had my first “7&7” when I was still in elementary school, so I was no innocent. At Stevenson Jr. High and Garfield HS, I’d been around more drugs than were ever present at the Canterbury or at the Masque. In Jr. High, I’d chosen service as an elective and I’d worked in the nurse’s office and seen kids who OD’d and were taken by ambulance to the hospital. After their suspensions, they’d usually have to stop by the nurse’s office before being readmitted to school. I’d talked to some of these girls while they were waiting to see the nurse. I’d listen to their stories of how they’d had their stomachs pumped. Imagining a plastic tube being forced down my esophagus helped to keep me in line. The point I’m trying to make is that my self inflicted injuries had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol.

I remember Craig Lee pulling me aside one night after seeing my arms. He was like a caring older brother. He was worried that my hurting myself was a prelude to suicide. I assured him that suicide was not what I was after. In fact, I never used razors to cut myself. I always cut with sharp objects which could cause abrasions or lacerations but not deep incisions. Things with jagged edges, broken bottles, scissors, needles, pins, metal can tops, anything that could draw blood was attractive. What I was after was pain.

Pain helped me stay in touch with my own humanity. I was going through a period in my life when I felt connected to everything in a cold, almost sterile way that’s difficult for me to put into words. At the same time, I felt disconnected from humanity. I felt emotionally and spiritually numb. It’s difficult to express this feeling of belonging and yet feeling that you are in a void, a feeling of being everything and nothing at the same time. The overwhelming numbness I felt was terrifying. It made me feel detached, cold, and not human. The more I felt part of something larger, the more I felt as if I was in danger of losing myself as an individual. The only way I can describe the sensation of cutting my arms and watching the warm blood trickle from the wounds is that it made me feel alive because the pain I felt was singularly mine.

For me, cutting was not a cry for help. I did not want others to interfere, to feel sorry for me or to wrongly assume that I wanted to kill myself. It may seem strange, but one of the reasons I was feeling insignificant and detached was because my understanding of my place in the universe was changing. My beliefs, my values, all the things I thought I knew for certain were being challenged. I was on my own, doing whatever I wanted, reading whatever I wanted, talking to people from different backgrounds with different ideas, actively seeking answers and passively allowing answers to reveal themselves to me.

I rigorously questioned everything I believed. I even had a strange experience which I hesitate to tell you, for fear that you’ll think me completely crazy, but which I must tell you because it scared me so badly. I was talking to Shannon, my old Canterbury roommate. She was seated across from me and I was lying on the sofa. As I watched and listened to her, I started to feel as though her voice was just a hum. I felt my body become rigid and then I felt myself floating up to the ceiling. I looked down and had an overhead view of Shannon talking to me (or my body), lying there on the sofa and I was so scared that I don’t know how I did it, but I wished or willed myself back into the body on the sofa. Maybe I fell asleep and dreamed the whole thing, but it was like no dream I’d ever had and whether it was a dream or not doesn’t really matter, because it changed me forever.

I had left my little cocoon far behind. I was flying, yet part of me wanted to remain anchored firmly to earth, to self, to the familiar. It’s much easier to change gears intellectually than spiritually. Deep spiritual change shakes you to the core. If the particles of matter that make up this thing I call “me” are the same as those that make up everything else, then the personal sensation of pain which only I feel, the drawing of my blood somehow helped make that reality personal. I was in touch with my corporeal self through pain and it grounded me.

I think that the so-called experts who study this sort of thing would probably denigrate my experience by saying that I was suffering from depression and didn’t know how to express it, or that my cutting was a cry for help. After all these years, I think I have a pretty clear perspective on what I was going through. My cutting was personal and private. It was not a cry for help and not indicative of a desire to commit suicide. I was not depressed, although there was a sense of loss that accompanied growth and change.

I eventually stopped cutting my arms. The scars faded after a few years. Had the subject not been brought up by my friend, I would have been quite content to keep the whole thing to myself but they say confession is good for the soul (there’s my old Catholic upbringing.) Having said all of this, I must tell you that I know nothing about why other people cut; I only know why I did it. I write this now in hopes that sharing what I went through may help someone out there who is cutting or who has a loved one who is cutting.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Summer Reading List

Well, summer is all but over and I feel like I got a nice bit of recreational reading done.

I used to be a regular visitor at the Books Are Good Food MySpace page. It was about as close as I’ve ever been to joining a book club. I love reading and discussing books but I think I’m a pretty whimsical book selector and I find it difficult to rely on the recommendations of others. I usually judge a book by its cover; the art, the title, the author, the quotes by reviewers, celebrities or members of the author’s immediate family give me a little taste of what’s in store behind the covers. Sometimes, I get my book home from the bookstore or library and I start devouring it only to be interrupted by real life. If real life’s interruption extends beyond a day or two, I tend to lose interest in the book. If I haven’t finished it in a week, I probably won’t finish it at all. Anyway, I’m just not good book club material.

This summer I was lucky. I found some good stuff on my own and I had some friends send me some good stuff too. Some of it is old and available at the local library, some new and may require a bit of effort to locate. Here’s the stuff I enjoyed:

The Devil Of Nanking

Mo Hayder. Heart-wrenching history wrapped up in a really good story.

Prisoner of X.

Written by Allan MacDonell, punk rock alumnus who used to write for Slash. Fun to read and packed with salacious details. Allan's writing has that seedy Bukowski charm.

Punk Rock Los Angeles

This book was recently sent to me by the author, Louis Jacinto, who kindly agreed to allow me to share a few photos from it. I especially enjoyed this book because it has pictures of Nervous Gender, the Alleycats and the early Go-Go’s with Margot. Here are a few shots.

Conversations with the Fat Girl

Liza Palmer. This story takes place in Pasadena and it made me miss the Eastside.

Cat’s Eye

Margaret Atwood delivers another great book.


Sandra Cisneros. This one was an interrupted read. I cheated on this one and listened to the author’s audiobook version of it and I’m glad I did because her delivery made me enjoy it even more.

Running with Scissors

Augusten Burroughs. I looked for this one in the fiction section, only to discover that it was a biography. Shock. Life really is weirder than fiction.

Pre-summer and noteworthy:

Hardcore Zen

Brad Warner. Who knew punk rock could be spiritually enlightening?

Girl Trouble

Christopher McDougall. This is just a breathless, juicy, tabloid style account of the Gloria Trevi scandal. Fun reading!

Other Recommendations:

Buddha – Graphic Novel series by Osamu Tezuka

This multi-volume series retelling of the life of Buddha is beautifully written and drawn by the Godfather of Manga.

Hino Horror Series by Hideshi Hino

Arguably at the opposite end of the spectrum from Tezuka, but no less beautiful in their tales of the grotesque and macabre.