Category Archives: Psychology

The Birdman of Aberdare

In which The Author sees the weirdness continue to build

On Monday I needed to make a phone call, so I took my mobile into the back garden. The reception in my house is unreliable at best, and it was a bright and mild autumn morning to stand outside.
I left the kitchen door open while I was on the phone. My back ‘garden’ isn’t really the grand vista the name might lead you to imagine, by the way. It’s more of a yard, with some very overgrown shrubs, a small pile of stuff which I keep meaning to sort out, and a shed with the door hanging off. It’s also a favourite rendezvous for the neighbourhood cats – which is why I very rarely get any visiting birds. They’re usually limited to the odd jackdaw dancing on my kitchen roof, and the occasional sparrow or thrush passing through.
It’s a total contrast to my mother’s garden, which is a haven for wildlife. Mine’s more of a concrete desert, really
That’s why I was amazed to walk back into the kitchen and find a robin cheekily perched on top of my stacking saucepans. It didn’t give me a second look, but just carried on swooping from perch to perch while I was watching it. I had to go out shortly afterwards, and I didn’t fancy chasing a bird around my house for a while. Instead I left the kitchen window open, guessing (correctly) that it would make its own way out when it had finished exploring.
I made a comment about the fact on Facebook, and Kristy M. replied immediately. She’s been interested in spiritual matters for as long as I can remember. She told me that the robin is a symbol of growth and development – exactly what I hope my proofreading business will experience in the future.
Janette L. also commented on it. She said that a visiting robin was often the spirit of a departed loved one. I’ve got a long list of possible candidates for that one.
Anyway, on Monday evening I was finishing off the proofreading of my first big project (not counting The Men Who Marched Away, of course). It was already dark outside. I heard a loud thud from the front of the house and went to investigate.
It sounded as though someone had thrown something heavy at (or possibly fallen against) my front window. There was no sign of anyone in the street, so I returned to the pages, a little bit baffled.
When I eventually decided to turn in, I discovered what the noise had been. An owl had flown into my bedroom window, and left a ghostly outline of its face and wings on the glass. (I tried photographing it last night, but it was a waste of time.) I’ve heard of such things happening, but I never imagined it would happen at my house. I assume that it must have been making its way from Aberdare Park, a short flight over the houses opposite mine, and been confused by the darkness through the glass.
I’ve only ever seen owls a handful of times, and I’ve always been very excited when I catch sight of one in flight. A tawny owl became our lucky mascot when I was playing for The Blossoms quiz team back in the day. We were making our way into the Brynffynnon pub (Llanwynno) when an owl hooted from a tree in the churchyard.
‘The owls are not what they seem,’ Liz P. said, referring to a famous line from Twin Peaks. Owls are traditionally associated with wisdom, so we decided that it must have been a good omen. We were right – we notched up our biggest win of the season that night.
It’s strange that a robin (change, growth) and an owl (wisdom) should choose to invade my house on the very same day that I completed my first full-scale commercial proofreading assignment.
In spite of my scientific background, after a sequence of strange events over the last decade or so I tend to keep an open mind on things these days. Six months ago I was ready to throw in the towel. Now, I’ve just embarked on the most exciting thing that’s happened to me since Brain of Britain, and that in turn was the most exciting thing that happened since I returned to university. Growth and development indeed!
Today would have been Dad’s 87th birthday. I’ll never be able to tell him about my successful foray into the real world of proofreading to his face, of course. The same goes for all the other family members I’ve lost in the last fifteen years. All the same, did Dad (or one of the others) suddenly look in on me on Monday morning, just as I was coming to the end of my first big job?
I hope Kristy is right, and Monday’s avian visitors were the signs of a change in my life. I hope Janette is right too, and Dad (and the rest of the family) are keeping an eye on me. Who knows, eh …?

To Dream or Not to Dream

In which The Author wonders what is going on

I always know we’re heading into winter when my shoulder starts playing up in the evenings. While I’ve never been able to pin down the exact cause, I think I’ve narrowed it down to a prime suspect. I was a bearer at Uncle Tony’s funeral in March 2001. I’m convinced that the downward force of his coffin on my right shoulder gave rise to a long-standing problem, as I’ve mentioned several times previously.
Although it’s continued to give me trouble, the pain has never been been as bad it was during its absolute peak, some time between March 2001 and May 2008. I still remember the night immediately following surgery at Llandough Hospital. The expected soreness aside, it was the first pain-free night I’d had for over seven years.
Even so, these autumnal twinges are enough to cost me precious sleep. After the operation Mr Graham warned me that, because I was relatively young, I might have to expect further problems as time went on. It’s never come close to matching its previous best (or worst!), but every so often it flares up, just for the hell of it. Last night I decided to take pre-emptive action. Before finishing my book (John Gribbin’s In Search of the Edge of Time) and switching the lamp off, I popped a 30/500 mg Co-codamol out of the foil and swallowed it with a mouthful of water.
Dr Davies (perhaps wisely) has taken this particular medication off my repeat form. I’m down to my last batch, so I’m having to eke them out for now. That’s why I only took the one last night. It was good to find to myself in a weird codeine-fired dreamworld again.
Except that it wasn’t exactly last night – and it wasn’t exactly a dreamworld.
It’s very difficult to describe what was going on in my mind at about 7 a.m. (I checked my clock at about 7.30, so I had a vague idea of what time it was.)
I certainly wasn’t asleep, because I could hear my neighbours setting off in their car. I wasn’t even half-asleep, because when I opened my eyes I was obviously in my bed, in real time, fully aware of what was going on outside. Nevertheless, as soon as I closed my eyes again I returned to an altered state which seemed to have started some hours earlier.
Conventional psychology tells us that we dream only during REM Sleep, which sets in some time after we enter Deep Sleep. This has been the received opinion since Aserinsky and Kleitman published their work on sleep and dreams back in the 1950s.
The textbooks also tell us that Lucid Dreaming (the awareness that you’re dreaming, and the ability to ‘steer’ events in the dream) occurs only rarely. It’s also supposed to be a difficult state to achieve voluntarily.
So much for the received wisdom.
How, then, can I try to describe my strange state of mind this morning? I’m no stranger to the phenomenon of Lucid Dreaming. (That’s whay I was able to relate so strongly to last year’s Doctor Who Xmas Special.) Contrary to the experts’ opinions, I do it involuntarily quite often, as I’ve outlined during previous entries.
This morning’s outing seemed to be an especially lucid example. I could enter and leave it at will without breaking the continuity (much). I was able to literally switch between full wakefulness and the dream, almost as if I was changing TV channels.
Every so often I was tempted to start making notes. On the other hand, I knew that if I did, I’d miss out on what was happening. That’s the only drawback of keeping a dream diary when I’m in this bizarre half-lucid state of mind.
Hours have passed since I got up, so I can’t remember how the whole weird dream began, and I can only remember sketchy parts of it now.
  • I was shown some banknotes which had E. H Shepard’s illustrations for Winnie the Pooh on the reverse.
  • Dad found an envelope containing a letter from Uncle Pat. When he unfolded the letter, a £50 note fell out. Apparently Dad was meant to share it between me and my brother.
  • I was in a second-hand bookshop in an American city. I discovered an old collection of photos by Andy Warhol in a box of neglected and damaged books. A girl standing next to me looked at it, said, ‘Oh, Wendy A’Hole,’ and laughed.
  • The same girl pointed out some books by William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. She said something about Portland, Oregon, being a good place to visit – even though it’s not actually on the coast (despite the name). Then she pointed out that ‘Oregon’ is an anagram of ‘orgone’.
Most of the events in the dream were fairly straightforward and logical, with none of the disorientation I often experience upon waking. Neither did the ideas I’d absorbed from Dr Gribbin’s book feature in any way. That’s probably a good thing, because a mixture of theoretical physics (involving black holes, wormholes and time travel) and codeine sounds like a recipe for disaster.
Instead, there was a lot of wordplay involved while I was dipping in and out. I was left with the distinct feeling that I’d somehow tuned in to the odd mental state where some of the twentieth century’s bravest prose experimentalists found their inspiration: James Joyce (in particular Finnegans Wake); William Burroughs (most of his early books, but notably The Naked Lunch); Philip José Farmer (especially his short stories ‘Riders on the Purple Wage’ and ‘The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod’); Robert Anton Wilson (the dream sequences in Masks of the Illuminati, for instance), and some other writers in that psychedelic/SF style.
I think film-makers like Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) also tap into that strange half-waking dream world, where language and meaning break down in the face of irrational exploration.
Maybe I should start keeping a voice recorder next to my bed. Then I can get my impressions down as soon as I wake up, rather than to chasing fading fragments down increasingly dim neural pathways while I’m writing down my notes.