Tuesday, October 17, 2017

North Richmond: A Dangerous Magonia

When I ride my bicycle to work in the morning, it’s dark. The last leg of the journey is along Wildcat Creek, on a path that has intermittent overhead lighting. I depend on the fact that I know where I’m going and even enjoy passing underneath branches that occasionally blot out the light and leave things in mystery. It may be a paved public trail just a few yards away from the road, but it makes me feel as if it may lead to Magonia.

I had an extra-long lunch break and thought I'd use it to take a bike ride around the neighborhood where I work in North Richmond. There's creeks and trails and stuff like that. I like creeks and trails. The air was thick with smoke from the wildfires. The roadsides were lined with scattered garbage. Every so often there was a mound of garbage 10 or 15 feet high. Most of the trails turned out to exist only on Google Maps: they were County-owned land, but fenced off - at least to people who pay attention to fences.

Where a trail did run along a creek, it was obvious the creek beds were routinely used to dispose of more garbage. Wildcat Creek near Verde Elementary School is apparently the go-to place for illegally dumping tires (outside of West Oakland, that is). Three or four massive piles of tires stood along the public creekside trail, in plain sight of the school playground.

I suddenly realized I had grown up in paradise. I had a creek and an elementary school, but those were different.

Still in explorer mode, I looked for a way to get down to Wildcat Creek itself. Then I noticed a guy walking along the trees lining the creek. He was definitely not a birder. He wasn’t obviously homeless, but what the hell was he doing? Another guy emerged from the trees and started following him at a distance. I rode by on the path above the floodplain, clearly visible. They both disappeared back into the trees. I thought, "This is a dangerous place. I need to start thinking about bike safety in a whole new way" and didn't try to find the creek bed.

Thinking back on it, could it have been a couple of gay guys hooking up? Both of them definitely looked much better than your average guy who suddenly appears out of nowhere in North Richmond. I want to think they were gay and enjoyed a steamy, satisfying sexual encounter along the barely flowing creek as flycatchers flitted overhead snatching bugs out of the air.

I want to think that, because I’ve never NOT enjoyed riding my bike in my life until I spent half an hour riding around North Richmond. All I could see there was garbage, environmental degradation and suffering. I should never have started to read “To Place Our Deeds,” about the history of the African American community in Richmond, and then gone for a ride around North Richmond. I should never have started to learn about North Richmond and its history at all. I should never had cared. It’s tears all around.

Riding home, I passed the park along San Pablo Creek where people who use drugs like to hang out and socialize. They were whooping it up, and then I realized I couldn't actually tell if they were having a good time, were fighting with each other, or just didn’t know the difference.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Oz Factor and the Freeze Response

 There are certain tropes that come up again and again in personal accounts of paranormal and/or alien encounters. A major one is that the person having the encounter has been rendered docile and/or mysteriously numbed, presumably by some advanced technology or extraordinary power wielded by the Other they are encountering.

You can find examples of this by listening to almost any Art Bell show that focuses on UFO encounters, but it was British ufologist Jenny Randles who noticed and coined a term for it: the Oz factor. Randles carries some weight as a writer and thinker on anomalous topics, so if she says she perceived a pattern in accounts of experiences, I’ll take her word for it. Although, not actually having any of her own books at hand, I’ll quote Lewis (2017) quoting Randles’ explanation of the Oz Factor: “a sort of inner tuning, as the percipient’s mind blocks out attention to all external sounds in order to note the message that is about to bombard his or her consciousness.”

Lewis goes on to say that in other writings Randles extends this into putting “forth this idea of Synchronistic Reality Mode and the ability for the human mind to take in this anomalous information in a parapsychological way and create a virtual reality telepresence experience.” I don’t really understand what that means and I don’t know if it’s a fair reflection of Randles’ own thought, but I do want to point out this: the Oz factor seems to involve a special mental mode which allows communication and contact with undefined, anomalistic Others.

People have bizarre, traumatic encounters they can’t understand and struggle to explain to others. But people also have completely mundane traumatic encounters they can’t understand and struggle to explain to others. A lot of peoples’ stories about UFOs focus on how they can’t get any one to believe in what happened or take them seriously. The same is true, though, about a lot of people’s stories about experiencing sexual assault or domestic violence. I’ve always wondered how ‘special’ the experiences of UFO experiencers are compared to normal human reactions in other extremely taxing, liminal or transgressive situations.

At this point I’d like to introduce Rory Miller, a veteran corrections officer and martial arts teacher who has written several books about the sociology and psychology of real-time violent encounters. In Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected, Miller describes something close to the Oz Factor as one of several types of freeze responses a person may experience when faced with a sudden threat. Miller calls it the hard-wired freeze response and writes, “Know that the hard-wired freeze response is triggered by fear, but it usually doesn’t feel that unpleasant, kind of warm and floaty with a sound in your ears like the ocean. People who have been so terrified they couldn’t move have described this state and decided that they weren’t really afraid so they weren’t really frozen. It just seemed like a good idea at the time not to move.” Which is pretty much exactly how the Oz Factor is described on all those Art Bell programs.

I found Miller’s books after I experienced threat-induced altered sensory functioning during a community “Force Options” training held by my local police department. After classroom time studying use of force policies, hearing real-life stories from officers and discussing events unfolding nationwide, community members had to go alone into a staged scenario with a fake weapons belt and decide how to respond to a call. For real officers in Richmond, if they fail their scenario test, they lose their job.

Before I entered the scenario, a detective prepped me by telling me exactly what would happen and what I should do. “Distance is time. Remember that! You will get tunnel vision and not be able to see. You will stop hearing anything. To break out of that, move your eyes right and left. Then you will be able to hear.” I thought to myself, “That’s bullshit. I know how my mind works under stress. I’ve never lost hearing before.”

The detective pushed the door open and I went into the scenario. All I saw were two guys fighting. I told them to stop and advanced on them. One charged me. I fumbled over the weapons on my belt – OC spray, Taser, gun, baton. By then the guy attacking had come in too close for anything other than baton which, as a student of Filipino martial arts, made me very happy. I was now in my comfort zone - except for someone kept tapping me on my shoulder and another guy was in my face repeating, “It’s over. The scenario is over!” The guy yelling in my face was my role-playing attacker, and the guy tapping on my shoulder was the detective. He had walked beside me and I hadn’t even seen him.

Afterwards, the detective debriefed me. He told me what I had failed to hear. One guy was attacking the other, yelling his intention to kill him. The guy being attacked was yelling for help. I hadn’t heard any of it, although I had heard yelling. My hearing and vision had been restricted and I would have been completely unaware of what I was missing without the post-scenario feedback I got. It was a fascinating and sobering experience.

Is the Oz Factor the same as the what Miller calls the hard-wired freeze response? Possibly. Miller is not the first to write about the psychological and physiological effects of confronting violence and dealing with the Survival Stress Response. USAF Col. John Boyd, by observing thinking and response to combat conditions, pioneered the OODA loop model, showing how physiological response happens and where thinking can get hung up. UFO writers tend to think in silos where the experiences they report on are so special that there can only be one explanation. I submit to your consideration that the Oz Factor is in fact the Freeze Factor and that traumatic encounters with the paranormal work by the same rules as do life-threatening encounters with the normal.

Which brings me to a point made by Jack Brewer in his chapter of the book Robbie Graham edited. Reframing the discourse around UFOs to make it of greater general relevance would require addressing and taking seriously the trauma that experiencers undergo. “Demonstrating a willingness to acknowledge the relevance of trauma shows commitment to accuracy, concern for witnesses, and helps create an atmosphere more conducive to authenticity and good quality of discussion.” (p. 45)

UFOs: Reframing the Debate (2017) Robbie Graham, ed.

Facing Violence: Preparing for the unexpected (2011) Rory Miller

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Crimes & Dog Whistles

Like so many others, I've been swept up in the true crime craze and immersed myself in books, podcasts and documentaries. Along with doing martial arts and the sheer fact of having survived until now, that's one of things that have made me reflect back on what I learned about crime and deviance in grad school.

My thinking has changed in significant ways since then. For instance, I'm reading Samenow's "Inside the Criminal Mind". He's a psychologist who works directly with offenders and describes their world view. At one time I would have felt his approach too essentialist, whereas now I find his observation-based conclusions valuable. (He also explicitly warns readers against putting an essentialist interpretation on his work.)

So the other day when a headline about "what criminologists get wrong and why" or somesuch popped up in my news feed, I read the article. Hoping for, I don't know, a thoughtful reappraisal of the field, some lessons learned, and possibilities for the future? I know, I know! That's not the stuff news feeds are made of.

The article started off reasonably enough and had me nodding my head at first. There was a misfire of logic here and a bit of a sweeping generalization there, but it cited academic literature, which is always good for seeming legit. It's true there's bias, fashion and fad in academia; social factors shape what counts as knowledge, which is something I've always found fascinating.

About half way through the article, though, it became clear that the author's analysis was very simple. Liberal research was biased and therefore wrong; it had largely silenced conservative research - which is unbiased and therefore right - for political reasons. So much for nuanced, thoughtful, or for that matter even informed reappraisal!

But there was more. Now that conservative voices were coming to the fore once more (Hi there, alt right!), there was hope for returning criminology to where it should have been all along in terms of theory and research. For instance, looking at factors like intelligence –

I'm going to stop right there. The mention of intelligence is classic racist dog whistle dressed up in cap and gown. A very old and tattered cap and gown in this case, because the scientific battle whether intelligence can be linked to race was settled a long time ago, and actual science has long since moved on (spoiler: race is a social construct). To mention intelligence as an important variable in studying crime is not just to highlight the fact that you're probably not conversant with the contemporary academic scene; it is to specifically reference a period in history when race, intelligence and criminality were all linked together by eugenic "science." Hence: dog whistle.

I finished the article, but came away with a distinct sense of having contracted a case of morgellons by reading it. The sad thing is that anyone who didn’t have my knowledge of that particular field might be taken in by the use of citations, miss the dog whistle and take the article as legit - while those who hear the dog whistle will see all those cool citations and think their opinions are now based in science.

There is still a valid question to explore in how the assumptions and biases of academe have shaped the field of criminology. (What I find most thought-provoking in this regard is what I see as the emerging field of the sociology of violence – which covers everything from the true crime craze to stuff like Rory Miller’s books to the course on Understanding Terrorism running on Coursera right now.) In the meantime, I like to think that persuasive arguments based on

~ Rejection of science
~ Disavowal of history of scientific discoveries up until now
~ Obvious promotion of a political agenda
~ Hope that no one will notice any of the above/counting on stupidity

are ultimately doomed to fail, and hopefully doomed to fail before they destroy the United States.

Former EPA head Christie Whitman in the NYT:
"The red team begins with his politically preferred conclusion that climate change isn’t a problem, and it will seek evidence to justify that position. That’s the opposite of how science works. True science follows the evidence. The critical tests of peer review and replication ensure that the consensus is sound. Government bases policy on those results. This applies to liberals and conservatives alike."

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dudley Patterson & the Trail of Wisdom (Apache)

One day Dudley Patterson, a Cibecue (Western Apache) horseman, was talking to his anthropologist sidekick, Keith Basso. Basso had been hanging around him asking dumb questions for a long time, which is what anthropologists do. Basso had been asking “What is wisdom?” for a few days and finally Patterson said:

The trail of wisdom – that is what I’m going to talk about.

I’m going to speak as the old people do, as my grandmother spoke to me when I was still a boy. We were living then at Tak’eh Godzige (Rotten Field).

“Do you want a long life?” she said. “Well, you will need to have wisdom. You will need to think about your own mind. You will need to work on it. You should start doing this now. You must make your mind smooth. You must make your mind steady. You must make your mind resilient.

“Your life is like a trail. You must be watchful as you go. Wherever you go there is some kind of danger waiting to happen. You must be able to see it before it happens. You must always be watchful and alert. You must see danger in your mind before it happens. If your mind is not smooth, you will fail to see danger. You will trust your eyes but they will deceive you. You will be easily tricked and fooled. Then there will be nothing but trouble for you. You must make your mind smooth.

“If your mind is not resilient, you will easily be startled. You will be easily frightened. You will try to think quickly, but you won’t think clearly. You yourself will stand in the way of your own mind. You yourself with block it. Then there will be trouble for you. You must make your mind resilient.

“If your mind is not steady, you will be easily angered and upset. You will be arrogant and proud. You will look down on other people. You will envy them and desire their possessions. You will speak about them without thinking. You will complain about them, gossip about them, criticize them. You will lust after their women. People will come to despise you. They will pay someone to use his power on you. They will want to kill you. Then there will be nothing but trouble for you. You must make your mind steady. You must learn to forget about yourself.

“If you make your mind smooth, you will have a long life. Your trail will extend a long way. You will be prepared for danger wherever you go. You will see it in your mind before it happens.

“How will you walk along this trail of wisdom? Well, you will go to many places. You must look at them closely. You must remember all of them. Your relatives will talk to you about them. You must remember everything they tell you. You must think about it, and keep on thinking about it. You must do this because no one can help you but yourself. If you do this, your mind will become smooth. It will become steady and resilient. You will stay away from trouble. You will walk a long way and live a long time.

“Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dried up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.”

Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (1996) University of New Mexico Press, pp 126-127

Monday, October 31, 2016

Everything You Know About Tibetan Buddhism Is Wrong

But you'll go on believing it anyway.
I just came across Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West by Donald Lopez, Jr, which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1998. This is not the first book I've read about how Western intellectuals got aspects of Asian culture wrong. It is, however, a decisive take down, with detailed notes and references, of the basic image that Westerners have of Tibetan Buddhism. Including me. Ouch.
Lopez traces the historical and ideological record of the term lamaism, a derogatory label for Tibetan Buddhism, and shows how Western labels came to be used even by Tibetans. He shows how the West came by its translations of the Book of the Dead, which turns out (surprise!) to involve the exploitation of a native culture bearer to serve the ideological agenda of Westerners.
Lopez also reviews the fascinating case of a British ne'er-do-well who pulled off a publishing coup in which he described his life as an especially gifted Tibetan sage. He goes on to excavate the philological history of the famous mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" and in doing so once again proves the point that Westerners were more than happy to make up definitions when language or cultural barriers threatened Western thought boundaries.
I feel so lucky to live at a time when, even being poor, I have a collection of some of the world's best English translations of Chinese classics and Buddhist literature on my shelf. These were translations that simply were not available until 20 or 30 years ago. In that regard, we can't blame all these progenitors for seeing things their own way. We're just the same - and all better, I think, for the continuing efforts of the translators.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How Creepy is Woody Allen?

So today there was another story in the news about Woody Allen denying he was a child molester. I happened to have time for a good long read, so I clicked through to some of the linked articles.

I never went to see a Woody Allen picture in the first place because his humor, based on what I knew of it, struck me as somewhat trite and obvious. After the abuse allegations surfaced, I forswore his movies on principle. (Well, to be honest, it probably wasn’t until after he married his step-daughter — which happened like almost immediately.)

The situation was very similar to events that were unfolding at the time with a family member of mine who had married someone with more money and status that had turned out to be an abusive, controlling psycho. In that instance, I was stunned and devastated to hear that psychospouse had actually tried to kill the family member and, having failed, was working hard to make them homeless and take their child away.

There was no doubt in my mind that if such incredible events were unfolding in my life (Ha, ha! back then I was so na├»ve!) there was no way in hell anyone who said the least little thing against someone like Woody Allen would have a snowball’s chance of being heard. There just wasn’t any question in my mind that this guy was getting away with molesting kids because he was a rich, well-connected celebrity.

Now, for the record I would like to say that, like everyone else, I have made a lot of assumptions throughout my life and have learned from experience that my assumptions are generally wrong. That is, if I am lucky. If I am unlucky, they are generally wrong, wrong, WRONG. I should have been wrong about Woody Allen. For decades, this guy has gone around shrugging off accusations of child sexual abuse; for decades, journalists have been asking him about it almost as if the question was pro-forma.

In my head, it was obvious this guy was guilty of probably much worse than had ever hit the news and was using his white boy privileges to buy his way out of accountability. In the news, it was just, like, “Hey, how about those child sexual abuse allegations!” like they're the Mets or something. I, on the other hand, with my powers of assumption (and not unlike people who have never been abducted by aliens yet can make up a believable story about that time they were abducted by aliens) could have told you exactly what happened in that weird celebrity family I actually knew nothing about.

Like I said up top, this morning I had time to indulge in a long read. I clicked a link in one of the pro forma questionings of Allen at some film festival somewhere and landed at one of Maureen Orth’s profiles of the Farrow family in Vanity Fair.

I fucking hate it when I’m right.

After reading a short while, I couldn’t leave the story alone, if only out of the sense that someone must stand as witness when this kind of thing goes on, even if that someone is a nobody. The full story, as reported, matched every single assumption I had ever made about the case, except my picture of Mia Farrow as a person. I’m not into movies and assumed she was just some rando starlet with one of those celebrity things for adopting enough kids for a rainbow. Mia Farrow actually comes across as a fucking hero.

And Woody Allen? How creepy is Woody Allen? Serial killer creepy?

“You can’t say his own therapy failed,” quips Mia’s lawyer Eleanor Alter. “He might have become a serial killer without it.” (from Orth’s 1992 Vanity Fair article)

And people say therapy doesn’t work! Assuming there is no one missing and no bodies waiting to be found, how creepy is Woody Allen? Pedophile sex cult creepy?

If you look at a pedophile ring like The Finders, after emptying the contents of your stomach you will undoubtedly notice that THEY TRIED VERY HARD TO HID WHAT THEY WERE DOING (and apparently succeeded, for the most part).

Allen didn't. Instead, he bought as much credibility as his wealth would allow in the courts of law and public opinion.  He has, I assume (!), bought people in his chosen profession by the bushel. What he has not tried to do is hide his actions, apart from a few see-through lies.

There are any number of ways you can get out of being punished for child sexual abuse if you are rich and famous. Adopt a disguise, move to another country, buy a fake passport, I don't know. It's not really my area of expertise. Or you pull an Allen and not even care enough to hide it, counting on your money and prestige to buy you the way out.

That's some kind of cold shit. It goes past creepy and into the land of actually dangerous. Dangerous as in, I don't care what effect my actions have on others and I don't have to because I'm rich. Said another way, I'm highly delusional and my wizarding powers are so great I can make my delusions real. So how creepy is Woody Allen? Is he Donald Trump creepy? Why or why not?

I leave it for you to consider.
Edit 9/6/2016: I remembered that my relative had said the lawyer hired by their spouse (named Alan) was also Woody Allen's lawyer. Which would explain why the issue  comes up on my emotional radar long after.

In terms of the How Creepy contest, though, I have to admit that Warren Jeffs and the whole FLDS (and Mormonism as well?) far, far outrank Allen. Which is not a good thing. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Acariya Mun’s UFO Experience

Acariya Mun (1870 – 1949) is a famous Theravadan monk who lived in Thailand and is credited with reviving the Forest Monk or dhutanga tradition. He is widely held to have had considerable what we would call psychic powers; specifically, the ability to know exactly what was going through anyone’s head and the ability to converse with nagas, devas and others.

The Forest Monk or dhutanga tradition is a rigorous, ascetic and only loosely institutionalized form of Buddhist practice that focuses on training one’s awareness. This is a form of Buddhism perhaps most closely mirroring Buddhist practice as it was during the Buddha’s lifetime and shortly thereafter.

It just so happens that there’s a very readable biography of Acariya Mun available for free in English. The book is fascinating from perspectives anthropological, mystical, historical, Buddhist, and so on. The author, Acariya Nanasampanno (‘Acariya’ is an honorific), one of Acariya Mun’s disciples, has a very natural, direct, engaging way of telling a moving and incredible story. I especially appreciate that he always mentions where he got his information – if it was from Acariya Mun himself, another disciple, local villagers, or what.

In the first chapter of the book, Acariya Mun is still a young man experimenting with and striving to perfect his technique of meditative practice. This is when he had what a Westerner might interpret as a UFO experience.
“Acariya Mun’s citta [roughly, attention] converged into a state of calm and a vision arose spontaneously. The mental image was of a dead body laid out before him, bloated, oozing pus, and seeping with bodily fluids. Vultures and dogs were fighting over the corpse, tearing into the rotting flash and flinging it around, until what remained was all scattered about. The whole scene was unimaginably disgusting, and he was appalled. 
From then on, Acariya Mun constantly used this image as a mental object to contemplate at all times … he continued in this manner until, one day, the image of the corpse changed into a translucent disk that appeared suspended before him. The more he focused intensely on the disk, the more it changed its appearance without pause. The more he tried to follow, the more it altered its form so that he found it impossible to tell where the series of images would end. The more he investigated the visions, the more they continued to change in character – ad infinitum. 
For example, the disk became a tall mountain range where Acariya Mun found himself walking, brandishing a sharp sword and wearing shoes. Then, a massive wall with a gate appeared. He opened the gate to look inside and saw a monastery where several monks were sitting in meditation. Near the wall he saw a steep cliff with a cave where a hermit was living. He noticed a conveyance, shaped like a cradle and hanging down the face of the cliff by a rope. Climbing into the cradle-like conveyance, he was drawn up to the mountain peak. At the summit, he found a large Chinese junk with a square table inside, and a hanging lantern that cast a luminescent glow upon the whole mountain terrain. He found himself eating a meal on the mountain peak and … and so on, and so forth, until it was impossible to see an end to it all. Acariya Mun said that all the images he experienced in this manner were far too numerous to recall. 
For a full three months, Acariya Mun continued to meditate in this way. Each time when he dropped into samadhi [meditative absorption] he withdrew from it to continue his investigation of the translucent disk which just kept giving him a seemingly endless series of images. However, he did not receive enough beneficial results from this to be convinced that this was the correct method. For after practicing in this manner, he was over-sensitive to the common sights and sounds around him. Pleased by this and disappointed by that, he liked some things and hated others. It seemed he could never find a stable sense of balance. 
Because of this sensitivity, he came to believe that the samadhi which he practiced was definitely the wrong path to follow. If it were really correct, why did he fail to experience peace and calm consistently in his practice? On the contrary, his mind felt distracted and unsettled, influenced by many sense objects that it encountered – much like a person who had never undergone any meditation training at all.”
Acariya Nansampanno (2003), Biography of Acariya Mun, pp. 8-9

Acariya Mun concluded that directing his attention to external phenomena like the translucent disk is a flawed method and from then on centered his investigations on his own body.

I’ve read fairly widely in English translations of various Eastern mythological and esoteric traditions and this is one of the more stand-out accounts of something that might count as a Western UFO. Translucent, hovering disk that shape shifts (or reality warps) and can float you off in a basket? Check, check, and check. Acariya Mun doesn’t exactly call the phenomenon self-negating, but it is described as an endless series of images which even as you chase after them keep changing. Maybe I’m projecting, but by the end of the story it sounds to me as if he decided the whole hovering translucent disk thing is just a waste of time.

Anyway, if you are up for a taste of something new, check out Acariya Mun’s biography. Bhikkhu Dick Silaratano’s English translation is very accessible to non-Buddhists and there’s some good stories in there (like The Hypercritical Naga).

One of many ways to read the book