• Christopher Church
  • trash talk about LA, mysteries, the paranormal, and paranormal LA mysteries

Olympic Chutzpah

Monday, February 19 • Los Angeles

Deadspin commentator Patrick Redford made me laugh yesterday when he blew the lid off the story of Elizabeth Swaney, competing in the halfpipe for Hungary at the winter Olympics this week in South Korea. As Redford explains, “The Winter Olympics feature 2,951 of the world’s greatest athletes, and also this woman.” Rather than denigrating her performance, we should be lauding her ingenuity: she’s an American but through her ancestry managed to get on the Hungarian team—and she’s in the Olympics, baby. Read Redford’s original story here.

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Men in Black

February 8, 2018 • Los Angeles

The Knew Too Much about Flying SaucersIn 1953, Albert K. Bender, head of the International Flying Saucer Bureau and publisher of Space Review, got so freaked out by harassment he was receiving that he shut down the magazine and stopped talking about saucers. These were the early heady days of the saucer phenomenon in this country, and it sent shockwaves through the network of researchers and witnesses.

Bender had been told by “a higher source” to stop writing about UFOs. The harassers he encountered, which he called the “silencers,” would later came to be known as the men in black, after Gray Barker’s 1956 book They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers. Bender said the men in black were supernatural, sometimes hovering above the floor, and Barker said they were extraterrestrial. Despite Bender dropping out of the research field, Barker continued to write about it.

Mason runs across “silencer” figures a couple of times, most recently in Penstock Canyon, when they show up at his door. To paraphrase the great Giorgio A. Tsoukalos, sage of late-night History Channel documentaries, “I’m not sure if it’s aliens … but it’s aliens.”

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Delta Red

January 26, 2018 • Los Angeles

Delta RedCheck out Delta Red, a highly suspenseful new mystery from best-selling author David Osborn. Kasie Sanders’s police career is on the rocks when she gets seconded by the FBI to infiltrate a corrupt old Southern family, uncovering vicious racism and serious crime at their antebellum estate.

Osborn has written for the screen, big and small, and his novels have won critical acclaim; check out his other work from his Amazon page.

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True Vermilion

January 14, 2018 • Los Angeles

True VermilionNew this week from my publisher, Dagmar Miura, is a book I blurbed, a rollicking tale from LA’s own George Bixley, titled True Vermilion. Slater Ibáñez has a nose for trouble, with the detective battling lowlifes in high fashion. The book is a fun read, and personally I envy Slater’s libido levels.

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A New Mason Blunt

January 3, 2018 • Los Angeles

Penstock CanyonComing out on Friday, the next book in the Mason series. Check it out! From the back cover:

Helping out Gilbert, a friend who’s suffering from late-night visitations, psychic investigator Mason is confronted with aliens on the roof, and soon finds himself caught in a whirlwind of paranormal events. Liminal beings contract him to stop a very real land development project in Los Angeles, pitting him against ruthless and powerful forces. With help from his boyfriend, Ned, and their roommate, Peggy, Mason manages to con his way into obtaining documents that might upend the whole project, but is it worth his own safety? A threatening visit from a shadowy figure and an alien abduction therapist from Texas have Mason questioning his career, his motivations, and the very nature of reality.

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Cover Art

December 22, 2017 • Los Angeles

Penstock CanyonCheck out the cover art for Mason’s next adventure, coming out in January. In case the thematic elements are unclear, it’s aliens—Mason finally tangles with Gilbert’s nocturnal visitors.

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Rainbow Awards

December 9, 2017 • Los Angeles

Rainbow AwardsSome great news this week: The Invisible Arrow won an honorable mention from the Rainbow Awards, an annual LGBT book awards series that recognizes the best stuff coming out of our community, run by the Elisa Reviews blog. Check out the blog, the awards, and of course, Mason’s trippy adventures in The Invisible Arrow.

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Haunted Toaster

November 27, 2017 • Los Angeles

toastOn the Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak recently reported on a woman name June whose toaster burned satanic messages into her toast. June’s toaster sparks and shoots flames, and for some reason she refuses to stop using it or even unplug it. In 1984 she got some media attention, and like the news media today, the focus was on the entertainment value. I don’t know how June got her toaster to spark, but it’s a dramatic effect. June’s spin seems to be religious rather than paranormal (I know, there are overlaps), as her toaster informed her that “Satan Lives.” A possessed toaster is no stranger than a lot of other paranormal claims, but bringing Christianity into it demands greater proof. Many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy didn’t buy the story of Bernadette meeting an apparition of Mary, even though an industry has grown up around it at Lourdes.

Check out the haunted toaster video and decide for yourself whether it’s satanic, or just a run-of-the-mill ghost, or perhaps just a coincidence that the toaster element burned “Satan Lives” into June’s toast—like cutting open an eggplant and finding words, or a gorilla-shaped Cheeto.

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Cowboy Coffee

November 15, 2017 • Los Angeles

coffee cupWhen I watch old movies, people who are out late at night, sometimes after they’ve been drinking, sometimes stone sober, turn to coffee to steel themselves after an emotional shock. Sitting around the kitchen table when things need to be discussed, processed, or decided, one of the characters will inevitably say, “I’ll put on the coffee,” even though it’s the middle of the night.

If I drank coffee after 6 p.m. I wouldn’t get any sleep, and I’d have a migraine the next day. At first I thought their reckless caffeine habits might be attributed to poor screenwriting, or perhaps that there was nothing else to drink besides booze in the 1940s. But people who remember that era will tell you, however, that coffee wasn’t nearly as potent as it is today.

Wartime shortages and rationing meant you needed to stretch your ingredients farther, so people made cowboy coffee—essentially mixing the ground beans into hot water, something like Greek coffee but with a lot less beans and a lot more water. Even if they ran it through a percolator for half an hour, a spoonful of ground beans in a quart of water will only stretch so far.

This leads me to assume people in old movies could drink coffee at night because in terms of potency, it was somewhere between herbal tea and decaf. My protagonist, Mason, drinks a lot of coffee, and also time-travels regularly to the mid-twentieth century, so in upcoming books he’s definitely going to be complaining about cowboy coffee.

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The Shiny Penny

November 3, 2017 • Los Angeles

cover of The Shiny PennyCheck out a fun children’s book, new from Dagmar Miura. Author Bob Gold is a friend, and he wrote The Shiny Penny to teach his kids the value of money. The art is delightful, illustrated by his wife, Marcia Gold. I know it was a lot of work, because it all rhymes!

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Skid Row Art Exhibit

October 16, 2017 • Los Angeles

A fun event is happening this week on Skid Row: an art exhibit by Skid Row artists from the art classes run by Art for Animals Sake, a nonprofit with the broader goal of spreading compassion through art skills, and since 2014 has been teaching art to people transitioning from homelessness as a way to develop coping skills. Come and check out the artwork 6 to 9 p.m. on Thursday the 19th, at the Skid Row Housing Trust, 510 S. Main Street. In addition to the wonderful art, which will be on sale at very reasonable prices, there will be vegan snacks provided by Quick Vegan Travel Guides, which are published by the same house as my books.

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Perry Mason Lucid Dreaming

October 9, 2017 • Los Angeles

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason, 1959A local TV channel has been playing reruns of Perry Mason from the 1950s, late at night, and I find the plot lines are melting into my dream life.

If you’ve never seen Perry Mason or read the books, he’s a sharp-as-a-razor Los Angeles lawyer who defends a lot of innocent people from murder charges. He always gets them off, usually by tricking the real murderer into a spontaneous confession on the witness stand. His staff are Paul Drake, a private investigator who’s a little coarse but still quite moral, and Della Street, his extraordinarily competent private secretary. She’s so with it that she picks up the phone, waiting, and then Perry says, “Della, call Paul.” There’s a fine line between anticipating your boss’s thought process and totally being psychic, and Della seems to stray back and forth across that line with pendular regularity. I love that Perry’s office is in a fictional office tower in the Civic Center, with a view of City Hall and the Hall of Justice. As a side note, the TV version of the famous lawyer was played by Raymond Burr, who seems to have been closeted back then, but maybe kinda came out later in life, after his TV career.

The protagonist in my series, Mason, uses lucid dreaming as one of his paranormal tools, and he sometimes gets insights that help him figure things out. I’ve been experimenting with it too, and I found Perry Mason bleeding into them, or maybe the lucid dreaming was bleeding into Perry Mason. Della comes into Perry’s office one evening, when he’s burning the midnight oil—he’s even loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar, so we know it’s hard work. He says to her, “I thought you were going to the beauty parlor.” Della looks ever so slightly offended, and replies, “I just got back.” Sick burn, right, but then it gets weird:

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” Della says, “so I’m just going to out and say it. I eat dryer sheets.” Perry stares at her blankly for a minute, his expensive-looking lawyer pen still poised over his pile of legal paperwork. “Della, what are you saying?” he manages finally. She says it again: “I eat dryer sheets.”

In Signs Point to Yes, Mason’s first mystery, Mason and his boyfriend, Ned, watch a cringe-inducing TV series on the Learning Network called Pica Confessions, where people confess their pica behavior to loved ones, including someone who ate dryer sheets.

The takeaway here, I think, is that powerful tools demand great responsibility—and watching television before bed comes at great risk. Science tells us dryer sheets didn’t exist in the 1950s, and we know that Perry Mason wouldn’t have touched a case with pica in it with a bargepole. It’s possible that there’s something meaningful buried in the mashup, but more likely it’s just a case of too much television.

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Stranger than Fiction

September 28, 2017 • Los Angeles

Chameleo by Robert GuffeyIt’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction, and most fiction works best when it’s rooted in real experience. And sometimes nonfiction is so far-out and loopy that it feels like it couldn’t have been made up. Such is the case with Chameleo, a book that recounts the experiences of Dion Fuller, a Marine who seems to have tangled with the wrong people within the U.S. military when he worked at Camp Pendleton. They start monitoring and following Fuller all the time with large numbers of individuals. Using some futuristic stealth technology, they cloak themselves, even hiding within his apartment, but he manages to detect them anyway. At one point they even rearrange the layout of the apartment, somehow moving the walls around while he’s out. Admittedly the guy is a heroin addict, and such bizarre claims can easily be dismissed as impossible; why would the military invest so much in harassing one person? But he has some compelling evidence, and if you were running surveillance on someone and wanted no one else to believe it, the loopier you did things, the more effective it would be.

This inexplicable motivation and eeriness seem to be a common theme in paranormal activity. Gray Barker’s descriptions of the men in black in 1956’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers paints a similar picture, of entities almost too strange to be real. The late Anne Strieber had a simple BS detector for evaluating UFO reports; she said that if it’s not weird, she didn’t trust it.

Chameleo gets weirder as you get farther into it, and the author, Robert Guffey, is candid about how it all impacted him. By the end of it I was mystified but none the wiser as to whether the U.S. military really is capable of generating paranormal weirdness. Either way, it’s an engaging read.

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Entities Posing as People

September 15, 2017 • Los Angeles

In Carlos Castaneda’s books about his excursions in Mexico, there are several instances where he runs across people, even cars, that aren’t what they seem. Don Juan tells him that some of the people Castaneda has met and who acted strangely weren’t really people. He doesn’t actually explain what they were, however, beyond generalizing about how Castaneda needed to look harder. Writing for Mysterious Universe, Brent Swancer talks about a similar experience, encountering entities who tried to get into his car at an isolated rest stop in the middle of the night, and then managed to pace the car at 40 mph as he drove away to escape them.

Terrifying as such experiences would be, it evokes a couple of things for me. One is the phenomenon of the black-eyed children, who try to get into cars or houses and act aggressively, but—they’re not really children. The whole zombie phenomenon might be psychologically related to this too: people who aren’t people. Zombies seem to take things one step farther; not only are they not human, it’s OK—in fact, it’s a requirement of one’s own survival—to destroy them.

What does this nonhuman-people thing mean? Castaneda and Swancer experienced a paranormal phenomenon about entities from somewhere else, but the whole zombie trope in fiction seems like a psychological construct to assuage our guilt about dehumanizing others.

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Olympic Misery

September 3, 2017 • Los Angeles

flameAccording to the LA Times, City officials have agreed to take responsibility for cost overruns associated with the 2028 Olympics. While most people seem to be on board with hosting the world spectacle yet again, there is an undercurrent of dissent. City government struggles to meet its existing obligations, and the vast majority of Angelenos aren’t wealthy people.

Who will the games benefit? Analysts seem to think the winners will be developers and large corporations, and losers will be low-wage workers. The city’s Olympic Coliseum, recently given away to USC in all but the deed to the land, is surrounded by some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. With any luck the impoverished locals will be able to rent out their homes and driveways during the spectacle and profit in some small way.

The Romans knew that ale and circuses were needed to keep the masses entertained enough to keep them from revolting against authority; the Olympic games, the planet’s premiere celebration of mindless nationalism, definitely fits in the “circuses” category.

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August 24, 2017 • Los Angeles

travelThe protagonist of the Mason Braithwaite series is an Angeleno, but I’ve sent him out of town a couple of times—usually not much farther than the Mojave Desert, but to Vermont in the most recent book, The Invisible Arrow, and to Nevada in an upcoming story.

Travel is incredibly valuable in so many ways, for me especially in changing my perspective. Writing is inherently a solitary and introspective pursuit, so going somewhere new is a way to get recharged. I never leave a place without getting some inspiration.

In the next Mason joint, he doesn’t really leave town, although he does stumble into a parallel version of Los Angeles. But after that, watch for Mason getting out of town more often.

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The Cape Cod Blue

August 11, 2017 • Los Angeles

cover of The Cape Cod BlueCheck out a great new book by a storied author, David Osborn, who has worked as a screenwriter, written best-selling mysteries, and has put out a fun new thriller about the world of art auctions.

Some of the characters remind me of people I know, those chasing success at all costs. It’s also fun to read about Osborn’s part of the world—the story is set in New York and Martha’s Vineyard.

Osborn knows how to build the tension, and reading this novel, I literally could not put it down.

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Art Crimes

July 29, 2017 • Los Angeles

This week Liz Ohanesian wrote in LA Weekly about the city’s most interesting art crimes. Some are mundane—are cels from the Peanuts TV show really art? Others are more compelling, like artworks “stolen” in insurance scams, and even an inside job to relieve UCLA of some of their art collection.

Reading about art crimes reminded me of the story of Stephanie Lazarus, who murdered her romantic rival in Van Nuys in 1986 but didn’t get caught until 2009 when homicide cops matched her DNA to the a bite mark on the victim. Until her case came into the news, I’d never heard of an art crimes police, but Lazarus was an art crimes detective. If the LAPD has an art crimes section, other police forces probably do too, but it was news to me.

Art is highly personal, I think, and not something that is necessarily universal or even shared. How does one define an art crime in the broader sense, then, beyond the thefts and frauds Stephanie Lazarus investigated? The collection at the newish Broad Museum on Grand Avenue is certainly valuable, at least in financial terms, as it was assembled based on resale value and appreciation, like real estate or stocks. You’ll know the names of the artists as you walk around, and the pieces will all seem vaguely familiar. Do the resources committed to this collection constitute an art crime if the artworks are of dubious artistic value? I’m no art critic, but the Broad is what you’re going to get when the bean counters and actuaries are the ones running the museums.

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Skinwalker Ranch

July 17, 2017 • Los Angeles

Hunt for the SkinwalkerParanormal activity seems to concentrate in specific places. Well-known UFO hot spots include the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles, the San Luis Valley in Colorado, and Dulce, New Mexico. A place where weird things happen beyond mere lights in the sky is the Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. Industrialist Robert Bigelow owned the ranch for a time and funded research into the paranormal events there. Colm Kelleher and journalist George Knapp wrote a book about it, and though officially Bigelow has moved on, some researchers believe he still owns the ranch and wants to continue the research with less public scrutiny.

The book outlines phenomena that range from annoying to terrifying, even violent. Most fascinating for me were the locals who reported a portal opening the sky over the ranch, with ships coming and going. The hole wasn’t visible from the side, as if it were two-dimensional, or from behind.

Whatever the case, the phenomenon at the ranch seems to be intelligent and intent on evading any kind of instrumental measurement. Camera batteries are instantly drained, sensors get disconnected. Perhaps part of the message is about the phenomenon only being accessible by the unaided human senses.

The website Hunt for the Skinwalker has some updates since the book came out, and even though the phenomenon may not be in public focus these days, it shows no signs of abating.

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A New Mason Book

July 5, 2017 • Los Angeles

The Invisible ArrowA new Mason book comes out this week, The Invisible Arrow. From the book jacket:

“When an old client sends psychic investigator Mason on a ghost hunt, he stumbles onto a research lab populated by strangely passive scientists with some remarkably advanced tech. Ingratiating himself with Annette, the director, by participating in the local town’s folk festival as the Hunter, Mason scores a gig—to find Qualtrough, a scientist gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Equipped by the researchers with a new suit and a fat wad of cash, and using his burgeoning psychic powers, Mason sets out on his own to hunt for Qualtrough in the shadowy underworld of Los Angeles nightlife, tangling with drag queens, cops, and con artists and finding his voice in an unfamiliar world.”

Check out the book, and let me know what you think.

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June 23, 2017 • Los Angeles

Pop philosopher Alain de Botton talks about the classical philosopher Seneca and Stoicism in The Consolations of Philosophy, which was later adapted into a TV series. De Botton’s whole thing is that the thinking of classical philosophers, including the Stoics, has insight and utility for us today. Seneca worked as a tutor to the murderous Roman emperor Nero, who kept him on a short leash, and in his writing Seneca uses the image of a dog on a short leash. It’s a reasonable analogy for human life in general and the limitations on our free will.

The useful part of it comes in the question de Botton asks of people who drive every day and get upset at the traffic: if you know it’s going to be the same each time you get in the car, why get upset? If you know you’re on a short leash, why not just go along with it?

Whether that helps people stressing out over traffic or not—complaining about it is certainly a favorite pastime in this town—it is a useful way to conceptualize the world, and embodies the Stoics’ understanding of the human condition: you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it. There are echoes of this idea in the ever-popular twelve-step programs, expressed in the idea that we should “accept the things we can’t change.”

It’s an approach that requires a bit of forethought, but the promise is definitely more contentment with life. Lots of video from de Botton is on YouTube if you want to hear more of his ideas.

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New Perspectives Grant Inspiring New Perspectives

June 11, 2017 • Los Angeles

south pole view of JupiterIn the last decade or so there have been several mind-bending images published of Jupiter and Saturn from unfamiliar perspectives. The Cassini probe has been at Saturn for a while, in 2006 showing us photos of the planet and its rings in silhouette with the sun behind—a perspective no human in history had ever seen. On its way to Saturn, Cassini flew by Jupiter, in 2000 producing a mesmerizing photo of that planet’s south pole.

In 2014 the plucky little probe found a structural hexagon at Saturn’s north pole, and more recently Juno, which arrived at Jupiter in mid-2016, produced an image of Jupiter’s south pole in stunning shades of blue with dramatic roiling cyclones.

These views are significant for more than just their novelty. We’re seeing these giant planets in ways no one in history ever has. Much like the nineteenth-century thinking about Mars and its canals has evolved to our current clearer understanding, we’re getting a better look at Jupiter and Saturn.

For me it’s always inspiring to see something familiar from a new perspective. It’s part of why repertory theater is meaningful; an old classic reinterpreted for today sheds new light on the original story, lets us obtain glimpses of the core truths therein. I’m lucky to live in a city with a lot, a lot of actors and other entertainment-industry luminaries, and because there’s so much downtime in film and TV production, there are some very talented people honing their skills on local stages. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be inspired by a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or Hedda Gabler, or George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. But ten years ago I hadn’t seen photos of storms brewing at Jupiter’s south pole either. The experience is similar: an opportunity to transcend the ordinary and the familiar, which for me fuels my own creative drive.

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Parking and the Third LA

May 30, 2017 • Los Angeles

parkingWriting in the LA Times this week, Ethan Elkind and Mott Smith cite the statistics that 14 percent of the land area of LA County is dedicated to parking, which is 40 percent more than the land covered by streets and freeways. Their solution to the looming crisis of the shortage of housing is to remove parking requirements from new developments. Critics argue that if there isn’t anywhere to park at a new development, the already scarce parking resources will just see more competition and more congestion. Good examples are the development on Hollywood Boulevard around the Vine Street Red Line station, and similar developments at Vermont and Wilshire, where the city relaxed the number of parking spaces required for the hotel, residential, and commercial complex because, theoretically, positioned over a metro line, fewer people would drive. In practice all the people who live in the new buildings still own cars, and at certain times of day the neighborhoods are gridlocked traffic nightmares where drivers circle endlessly in the quest for parking.

On KCET, architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne talked about the “third LA,” the idea that we’re past the car era (the second LA) and its limitations. These have traditionally been understood as urban sprawl and the blight of high-speed roads, but as Elkin and Smith rightly point out, car culture and parking requirements have an especially deleterious effect on low-income residents. Hawthorne’s future, in terms of urban planning, means greater density rather than more sprawl and more roads, along with more public transit. Voters may be on board with this, having soundly rejected a ballot measure this March, sponsored by NIMBY groups, that would have essentially frozen new development.

Perhaps abandoning parking requirements for new construction will make driving to some neighborhoods so difficult that people won’t even try and will ride transit instead. That doesn’t ring true to me; not many Angelenos will willingly stop driving unless there are really good alternative options. Rather than the stick, the carrot might work better—build more trains and build them faster.

Voters seem to support this idea as well, voting twice in the last decade to tax ourselves more to build more public transit infrastructure. The third LA may already be underway, as the Expo Line from downtown to Santa Monica has proven enormously popular. The Crenshaw Line will be completed in a couple of years, and the Purple Line extension from Koreatown to Beverly Hills and eventually to Westwood has been accelerated with the new voter-condoned tax revenue.

I’m down with the third LA, and look forward to a denser, more walkable city where we might finally live without suffering if we choose to abandon our cars.

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UFO Conferences Everywhere

May 18, 2017 • Los Angeles

UFOThe most storied of the UFO conferences happens in February every year in Phoenix, and there are always lots of mind-bending and illuminating speakers but little levity. The funniest thing I’ve seen at the event, formally called the International UFO Congress, was researcher Stanton Friedman’s mike check: “Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, she saw a UFO.”

A newer conference, Contact in the Desert, seems to be growing exponentially and quickly, with an equally impressive roster of speakers. It’s happening this weekend in Joshua Tree, California, and includes paranormal-world celebrities like George Noory and Jimmy Church.

Among the smaller conferences is the McMenamins UFO Festival in McMinnville, Oregon, also happening this weekend. I haven’t been, but the event seems to be more about celebrating the phenomenon rather than diving into its esoterica and undertaking analysis. The organizers were canny in using the McMinnville sighting to attract visitors, and it’s all the more remarkable considering the event happened long ago, in 1950, when a local resident photographed a saucer. Other towns that have cashed in on their UFO notoriety with fun events are Roswell, New Mexico, and Kecksburg, Pennsylvania.

Regardless of whether the incidents in these towns have been reported accurately, or whether the McMinnville photos have been explained, debunked, or otherwise, what could be more fun than a UFO festival? See you next May in McMinnville.

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Vision Zero

May 6, 2017 • Los Angeles

traffic mayhemIn January the city announced its participation in Vision Zero, a plan to “end all traffic deaths,” although my understanding of it is that it’s about reducing the number of pedestrian hit-and-runs. I also can’t figure out (read: am unwilling to dedicate the research time) to determining whether Vision Zero is an initiative of the city, as the city claims on its website, or if it’s a partnership or hijacking of a previously existing nonprofit. City politicians don’t usually initiate anything that doesn’t benefit their constituency, meaning property developers, and it’s hard to see how reducing hit-and-runs would benefit them.

Regardless, the idea is laudable, although eliminating all traffic deaths in a car-based city of four million people by 2025 sounds like a pipe dream. Some of the ideas proposed are unenforceable—reducing speed limits on some streets, for example; drivers blissfully ignore speed limits now, and there just aren’t the resources to strong-arm drivers into slowing down.

I suspect Vision Zero is essentially another underfunded wish-list project to divert the outrage and efforts of city residents who’ve lost loved ones to automobile carnage. There’s a militant and vocal coalition of bicyclists in town too, and so far they seem to be onboard with Vision Zero. Whatever the real goals are, preventing even a few hit-and-run deaths may be worth the lip service.

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Fregoli Syndrome

April 24, 2017 • Los Angeles

Leopoldo Fregoli in about 1900It’s probably not kosher to talk about mental disorders as fun, but as plot devices for fiction, there are some really fun ways the human mind can go off the rails. Capgras syndrome is when someone thinks their confidantes and family have been replaced by impostors. Fregoli syndrome is similar, but the person thinks one individual is disguised as several people in their orbit. Even places can be involved; individuals sometimes believe their hospital room is actually their own home subjected to elaborate renovations to disguise it. The gangstalking phenomenon seems to be related: people with this condition believe they’re being surveilled and followed throughout the day by a large group of spies working as a team. After reading Robert Guffey’s Chameleo, however, I can’t say I’m convinced that gangstalking is always a delusion.

Writing in Fortean Times, Mark Greener lays out Fregoli, Capgras, and other delusional misidentification syndromes. His thesis is that they might explain certain paranormal phenomena, but for me the fun part is the disorders themselves. Fregoli syndrome was named after Leopoldo Fregoli, an early-20th-century quick-change artist and impressionist. He worked hard to sustain all the characters he created, and he played to acclaim in many countries. Imagine the effort it would take anyone to impersonate multiple people, never mind doing it in rapid succession. And what spy agency would commit the resources required for dozens of people to follow an ordinary person? With any luck Mason will run across someone with Fregoli syndrome in an upcoming tale.

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April 12, 2017 • Los Angeles

doppelgangerI’m working on a plot line where Mason meets his own doppelgänger and interacts with him. The concept is fascinating, and features in a lot of folklore. Unlike many paranormal phenomena, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus in popular culture about how doppelgängers function and what they represent.

My own interest stems from when I saw my own doppelgänger when I was about ten years old. He was performing in a school concert in a neighboring community, and I was dumbfounded at the resemblance. It was like watching myself for half an hour. No one else seemed to think anything unusual was going on, so I didn’t pursue it.

Most people seem to respond to the phenomenon with revulsion and avoidance. A friend of mine ran into her doppelgänger on a dance floor, and said she spun around and headed for the other side of the room. Another person I know stepped off the BART in Oakland and saw himself stepping out of another door; he reacted with anger, saying the feeling was like someone was stealing his style, something akin to identity theft.

Look forward to Mason’s doppelgänger in an upcoming book, and in the meantime, check out some real-life stories of doppelgängers on Reddit.

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Norwegian Paranormal Research

March 31, 2017 • Los Angeles

the Hessdalen LightsIn the Hessdalen Valley in rural Norway, weird lights in the sky have been seen for generations, and 25 years ago the academic Erling Strand set up Project Hessdalen to study the phenomenon. Strand spoke at the 2017 International UFO Congress about his work. The stark difference in his work compared to many U.S.-based researchers is the distinct lack of drama. No men in black tried to shut down the work as he set up cameras and spectrometers in the Hessdalen Valley, and his work doesn’t seem to be marginalized. Every summer Project Hessdalen takes groups of schoolchildren to camp at the site and watch for the lights. The goal is to get them interested in research and in unexplained phenomena.

It’s such a calm and placid project, so different from the experiences of Albert Bender, who got bullied into shutting down his saucer group in the 1950s. Bender got freaked out by visits from men in black and dropped out of the field. His experiences are recounted in They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers. More recently radio host Art Bell has been intimidated by shadowy figures seemingly bent on scaring him off the topic. If only UFO research went as smoothly as Project Hessdalen seems to.

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The FREE Experiencer Survey

March 19, 2017 • Los Angeles

The FREE experiencer surveyOne of the speakers at the 2017 International UFO Congress who seemed to get a lot of mainstream media coverage was Bob Davis, who presented research findings from a study of 2,300 people who had experiences with nonhuman entities. The most striking thing that came out of it for me was that the stereotypical alien abduction encounter as promoted in popular culture is far from accurate. For most people, encountering nonhuman entities has had a positive effect on their lives, making them more worldly and altruistic. Stereotypically the encounters are terrifying, and some experiencers do have negative experiences, but a wide majority of those who completed the survey that the results are based on considered it a positive experience. Most of the respondents had never been abducted at all, encountering the entities without being transported anywhere or boarding a craft.

To me this is a really good lesson about not generalizing, and not accepting the mainstream narrative about what’s going on and what’s important. To gain an understanding of what’s happening to contactees, we have to look at what they’re saying is happening to them.

FREE was founded by the late astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of only a dozen people to walk on the moon. Their work involves research into human consciousness, and it’s fascinating stuff, done from a scientific perspective; check it out here.

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UFO Research

March 7, 2017 • Los Angeles

Captured! by Kathleen Marden and Stanton T. FriedmanAbduction researcher Kathleen Marden spoke at the 2017 International UFO Congress about several cases she has investigated and continues to look into. A fascinating case she described involved a contactee in Texas who eventually shot at an entity, which bled onto his floor. Although Marden didn’t say this, it seems to me that abduction experiences might affect individuals based on their outlook going into it. This guy thought he was being attacked, and eventually his contact experiences started to take a toll on his health. Other contactees have more positive experiences that enrich their lives and expand their minds, even heal them of illnesses. Perhaps what we put into it is what we get out of it.

Marden’s aunt, Betty Hill, was involved in the first widely reported abduction incident in 1961, and Marden’s book about the incident, Captured!, makes a good read. It quickly becomes clear from the book that the high strangeness in Betty Hill’s life wasn’t limited to one night on a dark New Hampshire highway. Through her life Hill had firm ideas about what had happened, and even discounted contactees who said they’d been abducted from inside their bedrooms.

Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that there’s a lot more work to be done. Marden’s research is especially valuable because she approaches it as scientifically as is possible in this field. She isn’t starting out with predetermined answers, which would instantly skew the results. Keeping an open mind and following the data is the only reasonable way to move the work forward. I encourage you to check out her research and publications.

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The Battle of Los Angeles

February 23, 2017 • Los Angeles

The Battle of Los AngelesEvery few years the local media regurgitates the story of the Battle of Los Angeles, and with the 75th anniversary happening this week, we were bound to be informed once again by the mainstream media. The incident happened February 26, 1942, when silent ships were seen drifting southeast over the basin. The war had just begun, and a Japanese submarine actually had shelled an oil facility in Santa Barbara not long before, so the assumption was that Los Angeles was under air attack by the Japanese. Reaction was extreme, with air-raid sirens blaring and anti-aircraft shelling through the night. No planes or blimps were brought down, but cars and garages were blown up by artillery shells that fell back to earth. So if it wasn’t Japanese aircraft, what was it that was seen in the sky, floating over at a stately pace and impervious to World War II munitions?

At the 2017 International UFO Congress, David Marler gave an in-depth talk about what happened that night, and outlined how he and other researchers had tracked down the unretouched original of the famous photo, and how they’d figured out who the photographer likely was. Of course the self-congratulatory LA Times has their own alternative facts about the photo’s provenance and retouching when they dredged up the story yet again this year.

More interesting is an event happening this weekend at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro celebrating the Battle of Los Angeles, titled The Great Los Angeles Air Raid. Fort MacArthur was home to some of the defenses set up to protect the West Coast, and it participated in the battle. Saturday promises to be a fun commemoration.

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Book Giveaway

February 11, 2017 • Los Angeles

Goodreads book giveawayDagmar Miura is giving away copies of Mason's latest adventure this month. Enter to win a copy of Rubber Band Ball on Goodreads.

About Rubber-Band Ball: A metallurgist's desire for Mason to locate the earth energy points running under Los Angeles seems straightforward enough, but what is he planning to do with them once he knows where they are? A shady real estate transaction and a bizarre machine hidden in the backyard might reveal some answers. Mason's research leads him to Julia, a waitress and part-time banker who draws him into a quest of her own, plumbing the depths of the radio era when she uncovers a cache of forgotten artifacts. And what does Meg, descendant of a long forgotten radio star, know about it, hiding from the world in her townhouse? From digging up the yard to tracking down clues on the other side of the country, and with the begrudging support of his boyfriend, Ned, and help from their roommate, Peggy, the intrepid bicycle-riding psychic investigator uses his paranormal skills and real-world insights to get to the bottom of the twisted mystery.

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The Missing Room

January 30, 2017 • Los Angeles

A user on Reddit’s “Glitch in the Matrix” describes how a room in his house would sometimes exist and sometimes not exist, and as a child he would forget about it “for long periods of time. ” Add to that a twin brother and some friends complicit in exploring the room, and the story gets even more compelling.

Sometimes the best fiction is based on people’s real-world paranormal experience. In the upcoming Ahead of His Time, I use a paranormal experience of a similar nature that I came across in the 1990s, essentially a portal appearing in an abandoned building that Mason is compelled to step through.

Reddit users chalk the missing room up to vivid dreams or the misperceptions of the mind, but perhaps there’s more going on. I’m curious as to how common disappearing rooms are. Is reality being rewritten without the child’s memory being updated? Or is the house somehow reconfiguring itself?

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Population Pressure

January 19, 2017 • Death Valley, Calif.

Death ValleyAfter a couple of high-profile acts of vandalism in Death Valley National Park over the last few months, in which knuckleheads in cars went off-roading on sensitive terrain at the Racetrack Playa and Badwater Basin, the National Park Service announced increased measures to limit access to these areas. It seems sad that there’s insufficient awareness of the value of preserving land within national parks; there are dozens of places in Southern California to go off-roading legally and inflict all the damage your heart desires.

Joshua Tree National Park, even closer to Los Angeles, has suffered several acts of vandalism that have made news over the last year, with rangers even closing areas with ancient rock art after it was spray-painted. A young European painted murals advertising her Web presence, and one guy even hauled in construction materials and built his own tower.

Part of the problem may lie in our zeitgeist, where ignorance and belligerence are treasured and cultivated as valuable assets. Part of it also has to do with population pressure. Located near one of the biggest cities in the world, it’s no wonder there are more and more people in the Joshua Tree and Death Valley. Sadly not everyone has a sense of the value of preserving nature in these few miniscule tracts that remain.

I had a personal confrontation with the power of new media on my favorite backcountry hiking route. For fifteen years I never saw anyone else on it, save the odd ranger on patrol, but a few years ago things suddenly changed: every time I go, there are half a dozen or more hikers, usually in boisterous small groups, often not prepared for the desert backcountry, hiking in hot pants and flip-flops without water. I finally asked one of them why they’d chosen this route, and was informed that it's on a travel website, complete with a trail name that someone invented. Slowly the route is filling up with the detritus of humanity and the markings that our species seems insistent on leaving: toilet paper, unnecessary stacks of stone and cairns to mark trails that are already self-evident, used tampons, inukshuks, empty water bottles.

Even complaining about it feels like shouting at the wind. For now the most reasonable solution for me personally seems to be to find routes farther away from the road, and accept that popular places are going to be spray-painted, trammeled, cairned, and otherwise marked. Hopefully the National Park Service’s efforts will contain the damage of population pressure to limited areas.

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A New Mason Adventure

January 6, 2017 • Los Angeles

Rubber-Band BallReleased today, Rubber-Band Ball is Mason’s latest caper. A metallurgist’s desire for Mason to locate the earth energy points running under Los Angeles seems straightforward enough, but what is he planning to do with them once he knows where they are? A shady real estate transaction and a bizarre machine hidden in the backyard might reveal some answers. Mason’s research leads him to Julia, a waitress and part-time banker who draws him into a quest of her own, plumbing the depths of the radio era when she uncovers a cache of forgotten artifacts. And what does Meg, descendant of a long forgotten radio star, know about it, hiding from the world in her townhouse? From digging up the yard to tracking down clues on the other side of the country, and with the begrudging support of his boyfriend, Ned, and help from their roommate, Peggy, the intrepid bicycle-riding psychic investigator uses his paranormal skills and real-world insights to get to the bottom of the twisted mystery. Check the book’s page for where to get it.

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Truman Bethurum and George van Tassel

December 29, 2016 • Landers, Calif.

Giant Rock in Landers, Calif.One of the early Southern California saucer contactees, along with George van Tassel and George Adamski, Truman Bethurum first met Aura Rhanes, flying-saucer captain from the planet Clarion, in the early 1950s. He related his experiences with the saucer people in newspaper reports and in the 1954 book Aboard a Flying Saucer. He describes Rhanes as “tops in shapeliness and beauty” and met her a dozen times, until one day he saw her drinking orange juice in a diner, and she completely ignored him. It seems like a heartless burn, but perhaps there was more going on with her than Bethurum was aware of. Do a web search for Aura Rhanes and Bethurum’s sketch of her will come up; he portrays her wearing an adorable beret. His experiences were something of a jumping-off point for The Desert Rats, and I’m grateful to Bethurum for bravely sharing his truth in the face of so much skepticism.

How much fun would it have been to attend the Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention with these guys in the 1950s? Photos reveal it to be cutting-edge pre-sixties pure counterculture. Bethurum even married his second wife at one of the conventions. The event was held yearly at Giant Rock near the Mojave Desert town of Landers, organized by Van Tassel. In February 2000, a massive chunk of Giant Rock split off, perhaps symbolic of the end of the 1950s contactee era; people’s experiences with extraterrestrials have evolved significantly since then.

Van Tassel also built the Integratron, near Giant Rock in Landers, in the 1960s, about which much was written in the 2000s during the building’s revival as a New Age center for sound baths, which are supposed to be extremely calming. I’ll definitely report on that once I get a chance to try it out.

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2016 Rainbow Award Finalist

December 17, 2016 • Los Angeles

Rainbow Award FinalistSome great news this week: Billy Blood is a Rainbow Award finalist for 2016. According to the Rainbow Awards website, “The community prides itself in the support given to new and aspiring authors from many sources and in many ways, with the ultimate aim always being to not only give something back to the community but also to enable all of us to have the pleasure of more good quality books available.” Hear, hear.

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Prophecy and the Sibylline Books

December 5, 2016 • Los Angeles

RomeOne of the fundamental stories of Roman history is about the Sibylline Books, sold to the king of Rome before it became a republic by an oracle, the Cumaean Sibyl. The nine volumes, written by the sibyl and her cohorts, contained the entire future of Rome. The story has tantalizing themes so common in mythology. The king refused to pay the price demanded for the books, so the oracle burned three of them; eventually only three were left, and he agreed to pay her initial ask. It seems that the books really did exist, despite the fantastical origin story, and were closely guarded by the Senate and eventually deliberately destroyed. The books were consulted for guidance at times of crisis.

The same story is echoed in the myth of the Marian prophecies, where the Virgin Mary entrusted 19th-century saint-to-be Bernadette with predictions about the future of Europe so shocking that only the pope himself could be entrusted with the secret.

It’s an intriguing idea, that a physical account of future events could exist on paper somewhere. In the real world, would it be a closely guarded secret? Of course it would give any banker or government a huge competitive advantage, but what if the material was of a more personal nature. Would you look? I can tell you this: Mason has no trepidation about time-traveling, but he’s not going to be reading his own version of the Sibylline Books any time soon.

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Reading Minds

November 23, 2016 • Los Angeles

fax machineAccording to MSN News, David Bowie thought Laurie Anderson could read minds. They exchanged drawings made at the same time by fax, and Anderson said they had some interesting results, creating very similar images. Their experience reflects a typical experience with psychic phenomena: it’s so compelling, but there’s no way to verify or test it using the scientific method, so we’re left with belief.

My protagonist has similar successes with his psychic powers, and crafting his experiences has me walking the same path, making them psychically realistic while leaving room for doubt. Mason is convinced that his powers are real, while Ned can shrug them off as delusional. I think they have a good relationship, but I’m sure Mason would envy the amity between Bowie and Anderson, experimenting with mind-reading.

If you haven’t experienced Anderson’s art, she is wildly talented and worth investing some time in—she has made audio recordings and a film recently. She explains succinctly to MSN how Bowie embraced his death in his last album in a short video interview.

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Ley Lines

November 11, 2016 • Los Angeles

religious sitesI’m happy to report that Mason’s next adventure is in production and should come out in January. One of the themes of the story is earth energy and ley lines, a concept first elucidated in the 1920s by a British archeologist, Alfred Watkins. He realized that ancient religious sites in England seemed to be aligned on the map. The concept ports well into Mason’s psychic adventures, and of course he finds them in Los Angeles.

The name ley came from the fact that a few place-name components seemed to appear frequently, along with tod and tot. Mason grapples with the idea of whether the lines were there first and attracted ancient sites, or if the sites somehow generated the energy line.

In any case, check back in January for Mason’s next adventure.

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Meow Wolf

October 27, 2016 • Santa Fe, NM

Meow Wolf One definition of true art is that it gives us a glimpse or a feeling of the raw nature of reality. I’m not sure if I saw a shard of that or not, but at Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, I definitely got the sense of being immersed in art—a story, or a situation, clearly fictional but at made real, three-dimensional. Meow Wolf is an experience that’s difficult to categorize. I fear that describing it with words will somehow cheapen it or limit the experience; from a writer I’m sure that sounds like a clear admission of my limitations. I have the mental image of that thing in quantum physics, when you observe a particle, you cause the superposition of its states of reality to collapse into just one. If I choose descriptors for Meow Wolf, somehow I’ll limit the experience for the next person.

An attempt at an overall objective description, perhaps, is to say that artists built immersive structures in an old bowling alley. The experience begins as you wander into a house that has been teleported from Mendocino, California, altered and distorted in the process. Other parts of the house lead into alternate dimensions that you can walk through, crawl through, and absorb. Sit at the kitchen table and browse through the local Mendo alt weeklies, dig through the mail in the mailbox, see what’s in the bedroom drawers.

So what’s going on here? Is it a mystery to be solved, or a gigantic artwork that needs to be experienced rather than described?

If you find yourself anywhere near Santa Fe, don’t miss Meow Wolf.

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Serpents on a Carriage

October 13, 2016 • Los Angeles

carriageThe 2006 film Snakes on a Plane has been called an instant cult classic. I knew there was something special about it when I saw it in a theater near UCLA, and half the audience were hissing at the screen before the curtain even went up. But there might be more to the magic than meets the eye. Recently I came across a little-known story by Jane Austen, written in 1816, titled “Serpents on a Carriage.” The plucky heroine and her protégé from a crummier family are passengers on a stagecoach racing across the moors late at night. There are some other passengers but of primary interest to our protagonist is the swarthy, brooding, yet totally hot coachman. Somehow a crate of dangerous snakes in the cargo compartment breaks open, and the creatures infiltrate the passenger cabin; high drama ensues. Much like the airliner in the beloved film, the carriage can’t just stop in the middle of the moors because—bandits!

It’s an inspirational story, and I’m glad someone made it into a film. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s famous line saw its genesis in the words of Austen’s heroine: “One tires of these vexing snakes on this irksome carriage.”

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Inspired by Live Music

October 3, 2016 • Los Angeles

I rarely get excited about live music, but I’ve seen two artists recently who are seriously worth checking out. Jill Freeman just put out an album titled A Handmade Life, inspired by folk tales and somehow simultaneously dark (“Letters from Murdertown”) and upbeat. The requisite categorization by the online music vendors labels her work as folk music, but it’s more nuanced than that. The album is worth a listen, and Freeman live is even more worthwhile. Happily there are an upcoming series of live performances that provide that opportunity. Go if you can; she’s an exquisitely talented songwriter and performer.

Another mind-blowingly fun performance this week was Tammy/Lisa, a one-woman show by Lauren Weedman, essentially Tammy’s retro TV variety show, complete with country music and all its cultural constituent elements: adultery, divorce, heartbreak, even being forced to deal with the other woman. It rarely happens that I can’t stop laughing, but Weedman playing Loretta Lynn talking up handguns induced just that experience. Tammy/Lisa was only on for a brief run Downtown, but hopefully we’ll get another chance to see Weedman’s energetic work again soon. It’s possible to see her live doing other stuff: she’s telling a story for The Moth at a Moth event in Anaheim in October.

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Stranger Than Fiction

September 19, 2016 • Los Angeles

Central Station in 1918Hadley Meares, writing in LA Weekly in August, laid out the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, who arrived at Central Station from Phoenix in 1931 with two dismembered bodies in her luggage. She disappeared when officials wanted to look in her trunks, and her exploits before she was apprehended four days later make for a great read.

Central Station was Union Pacific’s terminal before it was replaced by Union Station in 1939. The land where it stood, at Fifth and Central Avenue, is fuggly and industrial today, but it’s surrounded by the tony Arts District. Unless the economy collapses yet again, watch this space for more “mixed-use” upscale housing.

To me the most compelling character in Winnie Ruth’s sad story was her brother Burton, a college student, whom she roped him into accompanying her to pick up the trunks at the station. Burton gradually figured out something was amiss, as the trunks were leaking blood. She refused to open them for inspection, so the baggage agents wouldn’t release them. She promised to come back with a key, and she and Burton drove away in a Ford roadster. He dropped his sister at the corner of Seventh and Broadway, giving her $5, which would have been a lot of dough for a student during the Depression, worth about $80 today, and telling her “I wish you all the luck in the world, kid.” Meares explains that Burton lived in a “bachelor shack” in Beverly Glen, which the police surveilled closely for the four days Winnie Ruth was on the run. What went through Burton’s mind that week? How easy was it to go back to classes when there was a statewide dragnet on for your sister? It’s an engaging tale that highlights how true stories can be stranger than fiction.

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Characters in Charge

September 7, 2016 • Los Angeles

Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of LightPondering the question of our bottomless ability to sustain contradictions, Alan Murdie, writing in Fortean Times 323 (August 2016), ponders how Arthur Conan Doyle could have created such a rational detective in Sherlock Holmes but still vehemently support something as irrational as Spiritualism, writing dozens of articles for the main Spiritualist journal and serving as their premier propagandist. Murdie notes that Doyle wasn’t Holmes any more than Edgar Rice Burroughs was Tarzan.

I’ve heard other writers share the experience of working for their characters: the characters feel like independent entities rather than mere creations. They push their way into the world, leading the narrative, forming it in ways the writer hadn’t expected or planned. I can honestly say this experience is transcendent, even though it doesn’t transcend the bounds of rational thinking; most likely it speaks to the boundless capacity of the human mind for creative endeavor. Ray Bradbury, describing this phenomenon in 1998, told Book Magazine that he woke up every day and listened to the voices of his characters. He would then write it all down hurriedly, “hoping to find out what will happen next. ” Perhaps there are metaphysical cultural forces that transcend individual writers; that would certainly make Spiritualism seem a lot less irrational.

Murdie was reviewing Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light and gave it a 9 out of 10; worthy reading for Doyle fans.

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Impossible Dreamers

August 25, 2016 • Los Angeles

rush hourLots of what has come out of Silicon Valley in the last twenty-five years has changed the world, in dramatic ways, but much of the blue-sky dreaming has never come to pass. IT hasn’t make the world more democratic and egalitarian, and we haven’t been liberated from wage labor; in fact there’s more income inequality now than before IT was a thing. So when we hear from the tech industry that self-driving cars are going to make the world more egalitarian and empower us all personally, take that with a grain of salt.

Reducing road deaths is a laudable and achievable outcome, but self-driving cars will never replace public transit, argues Brent White on Seattle Transit Blog. The shift from city streets being the domain of pedestrians to the cars-only mayhem we see today took decades to happen, so it only makes sense that shifting to autonomous vehicles won’t happen overnight, and positive changes will be tempered by unexpected negative outcomes.

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Addicted to the Characters

August 11, 2016 • Los Angeles

charactersOriginally planned as a six-book series, The Mason Braithwaite Paranormal Mystery Series is definitely going to be more than that—I’m addicted to the characters. Plans are in the works at this point for a sixth and seventh book, and the fifth is already with my editor. She admonishes me not to protect my characters, but the goal is to indulge them without doing that. They can still be compelling even if I indulge them, I argue.

The fifth book deals with themes of earth energy, while the sixth is a time-travel story, and the seventh has Mason wrangling aliens. He’s doing things I couldn’t have dreamed of when I set out on this journey in 2012, and I watch with interest as his story unfolds.

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Floating on a Pool of Oil

July 27, 2016 • Los Angeles

oil pumpDoing research for an upcoming Mason Braithwaite adventure, I did some reading about the oilfields of the Los Angeles basin. Dair Massey sets out an engaging overview in “The Fiery Underground Oil Pit Eating L.A.,” outlining some of the incidents over the years where oil and gas have surfaced in dramatic ways. A methane vent burned for days in the middle of Fairfax Avenue in the 1980s, for example, and a Ross store blew up when methane filled the building.

I’ve often seen crude seeping up through cracks in the sidewalk, into underground parking garages, onto lawns. Like the earthquakes that rattle the state, it’s a reminder of the power of nature and, as Joan Didion put it in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, “how close to the edge we are.”

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Positive Feedback on Billy Blood

July 12, 2016 • Los Angeles

Billy BloodI’ve seen a couple reviews of Billy Blood, which has been out for a month or so, and I’m happy to get the feedback. One reviewer called it a “truly suspenseful page turner,” nice to hear, and another reader said it was “vivid and believable,” despite the paranormal subject matter.

A reader from the East said it was interesting to read about what was happening in Los Angeles. I don’t see the world from any other vantage point, but I’m glad that element of the novel was painted clearly enough to make it significant.

Keep an eye peeled for Mason’s next jaunt, coming out this winter, and let me know what you think about Billy Blood.

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Book Giveaway

June 17, 2016 • Los Angeles

Billy Blood coverCopies of Billy Blood are available in a giveaway on Goodreads. Check out the website, a great place to find out about all sorts of books and share ideas.

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A New Book in the Series

June 10, 2016 • Los Angeles

Billy BloodMason is back, and he manages to tangle with a spy from Washington as well as an entitled CEO. How mortifying is it to see your own image unexpectedly appear on local TV news? Grab the book and dive in with Mason on another psychic adventure in the City of Angels.

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Reach for the Sky

January 15, 2016 • Los Angeles

Reach for the SkyMason’s next adventure is out! Reach for the Sky has a slightly different tone than The Desert Rats—Mason is back in Los Angeles, where he digs into a mystery in a corrupt local government office and tangles with some desperate characters. He investigates the history of an odd building and hunts for a missing fortune, sharpening his psychic skills on the way. I hope it’s a good read; let me know what you think.

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Rainbow Award

December 4, 2015 • Los Angeles

Honorable MentionMy latest book, The Desert Rats, picked up an Honorable Mention from the Rainbow Award. Read all about it at the Rainbow Award site.

Read more about The Desert Rats.

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Great Questions

November 18, 2015 • Los Angeles

Magic 8-BallI was invited to an ESL class at a college in Los Angeles that was using Signs Point to Yes as a class text this term. Despite the fact that it’s pure fiction, the story and the characters are Los Angeles–based, and Mason’s daily life is representative of living in this metropolis, which makes it a reasonable ESL teaching text, I think.

The best part of visiting the class was answering questions from the students; they wanted to know about things I wouldn’t have expected. “Are you psychic?” came up, and more fundamentally, “Do you believe in psychic power?” I had to answer “no” and “not sure,” respectively. “What does the title mean?” came up, and I had come prepared with a Magic 8-Ball. No one in the class had ever seen one—most are from Asian countries and Eastern Europe—with the exception of the professor, who had vague memories of it. They loved asking the ball to foretell the future, and eventually it told someone, “Signs point to yes.”

Questions also went places I hadn’t even considered: “How does Peggy play the guitar when she’s nine months’ pregnant?” I had to say, “I have no idea. But she does.” All in all, it was energizing to meet a group of engaged readers, even though they didn’t have much say in the choice of the book.

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I Sorta Hate Gilbert

July 3, 2015 • Los Angeles

The Desert Rats coverThe second book in the Mason Braithwaite Paranormal Mystery Series came out this week, and readers will find that Gilbert, who played a small part in Signs Point to Yes, has a much larger role in The Desert Rats. Gilbert has the qualities of a lot of people I’ve known over the years who act irrationally, and that part of him rubs me the wrong way. It’s part of our nature to act irrationally, and we all do it, but Gilbert’s behavior involves that unique and carefree attitude that insists it’s right, and everyone else just doesn’t quite seem to get it.

Over the course of the story, Mason develops some degree of respect for Gilbert, and I have had to do that too. With any luck he will appear again in Mason’s life to challenge his assumptions. What do you think of Gilbert? When you read The Desert Rats, let me know your insights into his unique personality.

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Income Inequality on Display

June 16, 2015 • Los Angeles

Ming House Chinese Food and International Ship Supply, 5584 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, Calif.This month, Long Beach hosted an open-streets event, where three miles of Atlantic Avenue were closed for a few hours to motorized vehicles for the enjoyment of cyclists and pedestrians. Long Beach Beach Streets was much less crowded than CicLAvia, especially the one that strayed near the Westside, and it was an eye-opening event in ways the organizers probably didn’t anticipate.

Cycling on a street without cars provides an unprecedented opportunity to see things close up. There’s an odd dilation effect, where things seem closer together than when you’re in a car despite the fact that you’re moving much slower. Crossing one street, Del Amo Boulevard, leads from tony Bixby Knolls to have-not North Long Beach, and the differences are breathtaking. North Long Beach is understandably less desirable real estate because it’s directly under the flight path of Long Beach Airport, and Bixby Knolls has lovely hilly areas. But the differences between the two neighborhoods is also based on race and the quagmire that that entails.

Compared to other megacities, Los Angeles is more segregated than New York, but less than Chicago. By any objective measure, though, it’s still far too segregated. There are very few reasonably integrated neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where the ethnic balance is stable. That means most neighborhoods are destined for either gentrification or a slide in the opposite direction. If resources continue to be concentrated in fewer hands, it seems like the only possible outcome.

Atlantic Avenue and the Beach Streets event put both the problem of the evaporating middle class and segregation on display for all comers, and they seem to be linked. A lesson in income inequality was the last thing I expected on a feel-good day of cycling, but in this new gilded age, it seems inevitable that these problems will only be more visible.

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Pie in the Sky

March 20, 2015 • Los Angeles

pie in the skyHanging out with one of my in-laws recently, the subject of religious belief came up, and she sang a line from the song “The Preacher and the Slave”: “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” She said it had been her father’s favorite song in the 1940s. He had been a strong lefty, and her parents had met at a union meeting. I couldn’t get the lyric out of my head, and looked it up online. The song is associated with the Wobblies, a lefty labor union formally known as the IWW, and dates to 1911. The author, Joe Hill, wrote it when he was working the docks in San Pedro to satirize the strong-arm tactics of the Salvation Army in working-class communities, and it is full of antireligious sentiment.

Sadly McCarthyism and subsequent anti-union trends have mostly assigned the Wobblies to history. But the song lives on, and it’s the source of the idiom “pie in the sky,” if Hill’s biographer is to be believed. Best of all, the song ends with the Wobbly solution to going hungry: learn to cook and chop wood—work for yourself—and you can solve your own problems, no belief in the afterlife required. You can hear a version of the song on YouTube.

Several of the reader reviews for Signs Point to Yes have expressed relief that the “psychic thing” was not heavy-handed or too central to the story. It got me to wondering whether there are a lot of nonbelievers out there, or whether psychic power is somehow a threat to other existing beliefs. Given that less than two percent of the population are willing to admit that they are nontheists, the only conclusion has to be that the idea of a psychic detective threatens religiosity itself.

Ned, one of the main characters in the Mason Braithwaite Paranormal Mystery series, is an avowed and in-your-face nontheist. In the second book in the series (forthcoming), he reacts to other people’s assumptions about religion, and lumps Mason’s psychic powers in with religious beliefs. Mason, of course, doesn’t think it’s that simple.

Perhaps we’re lucky to live in a time when we have more choices than the Sally Ann or the IWW. Lots of people still don’t have choices about the beliefs and assumptions in their communities, but lots of us do have the option to figure it out ourselves, and base our beliefs on scientific evidence or on personal inspirations. I think the whole evolution of New Age spirituality parallels our liberation from the heyday of the Sally Ann, and what’s can be more optimal than free choice?

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Stratification and the End of the World

December 31, 2014 • Los Angeles

doomsdayNew Year’s Eve seems like a perfect day to write about millenarian drama. I recently talked with a friend who firmly believes that “things are gonna blow”—meaning the economy is going to crash again in a more spectacular fashion even than the recession and ongoing downturn that started in 2008. She’s not a doomsday prepper, but she did accurately predict the 2008 recession and was able to liquidate her investments and protect her assets, so she is confident that she’s tuned in enough to accurately predict a collapse once again. I’m not sure if she’s right this time around, but it did lead to an interesting discussion about the way we’ve structured our civilization.

She’s the kind of person who knows how to grow her own food, lives in the countryside, and wouldn’t be too harshly affected by the kind of collapse she envisions. Most of us, however, have no chance of surviving for long after a root-level collapse like a zombie apocalypse. There are 10 million people in this county, and a major disruption in the food supply chain, for example, would be very bad news for most of us. It’s terrifying enough to know that such a disruption could be caused by natural forces; worrying about Wall Street doing it is too much for me.

I’ve never been especially susceptible to dire predictions about the end of the world. On this day in 1999, I boarded a plane at LAX and headed to New Orleans to party for the New Year. It’s the only time I ever remember having a row of seats to myself—many people were avoiding technology and had headed into unheated cabins in the mountains in fear of the Y2K disaster, which, of course, never happened. Before I left for the airport that day I watched the New Year celebration in Sydney, and read about ATMs in New Zealand that had started malfunctioning, just as the cognoscenti had predicted. Still, I didn’t expect the sky to fall that day.

Today I’m similarly optimistic that despite the breathtaking greed of stock market–driven big business, a massive economic collapse isn’t really likely. Annalee Newitz, writing in io9, talks about the collapse of societies around the time of the agricultural revolution in the Middle East, five thousand years ago. It seems that large-scale villages grew in agricultural areas, but a repeated pattern was that despite producing enough food for everyone, the civilization collapsed and the communities were abandoned. Traditional wisdom contends that these towns were abandoned by necessity when climate change led to famine and made them unviable—a scenario that must strike fear into the heart of any doomsday prepper today.

Newer research has shown that climate change didn’t correlate to the abandonments. Newitz cites a researcher, Ian Kuijt, writing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, who posits that the real reason for the collapses was the social structure and religious beliefs of nomads and hunters. Hunter-gatherers were highly egalitarian, and people were individually capable of performing all the roles in the society—but that didn’t work in the structure of a city. Only when people differentiated their work and roles in society was it possible for a large community to exist and sustain itself.

The implication that modern society requires social stratification makes me bristle, and I don’t think we need any more fuel for the idea that the omnipresent grinding poverty and obscene wealth that we see in this city are morally justifiable. But those interpretations are political uses of scientific ideas, and I’m not a scientist; the theorizing makes sense in its broad outlines regardless of what a political mind can extrapolate from it.

Whether we need vertical stratification in addition to differentiated work is an issue for those political minds, but for now I’m content with the differentiated work part of it, and the many advantages of living in a city with 10 million other people. I have no intention of learning how to grow my own food; if things really are about to blow, or if the zombie apocalypse is immanent, I will take my chances—there are worse things than winding up as zombie chow.

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CicLAvia in South LA

December 7, 2014 • Los Angeles

CicLAviaIf you ride a bicycle and haven’t been to CicLAvia, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience. I’m excited that for the first time in the event’s five-year history, the route today runs through South LA, right into the heart of Leimert Park. Cars are banned from major thoroughfares for six hours so that cyclists and pedestrians can enjoy the streets. Personally I love the opportunity to check out the architecture at a leisurely pace. Cycling down the middle of a boulevard with no cars has the unusual effect of making everything seem closer together, like there’s a spatial dilation effect going on. The CicLAvia concept was borrowed from a similar project in Bogotá. With a lot of luck, the nonprofit that runs our event might secure enough funding to run the event every weekend, like they do in Bogotá, scaling it up from its current three or four times of year.

The route this time is mostly along MLK Boulevard and Central Avenue. Before legal segregation was ended by the courts in the late 1940s, Central Avenue was the center of African American cultural life; the CicLAvia route runs past the historic Dunbar Hotel, where jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday stayed. The Dunbar was preserved as an affordable housing building under the stewardship of Jan Perry, once the city council rep for that area and a 2013 mayoral candidate. Jan isn’t in an elected position these days, but I was happy to see her speak at an event a few months ago with Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre using the dramatic lobby and courtyard as a performance space.

Since 1948 the cultural heart of African American LA has shifted to Leimert Park, and the plaza in the neighborhood is the focal point for parades, marches, and peaceful protest. Rowdier and violent protests seem to happen elsewhere, most recently downtown and on the freeways. The LA Times contribution to promoting CicLAvia this time around is a lone article about whether the event will bring any attention to Leimert Park, which they claim often feels overlooked. I wondered if the Times had robots writing its news items this weekend, because the story was almost identical to the Times piece about CicLAvia in Boyle Heights in October. Most of the paper’s earthquake reports are written and posted by software without human intervention, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if there were no humans at all there on Saturday.

Ah, you have to love the LA Times. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it. For at least a week this fall, the calendar section of the electronic version of the Times was labeled “Calender.” Who could blame them for recycling the story about yet another neglected neighborhood? Their reporting about Leimert Park and South LA generally is only about murder, which is admittedly more common here than in whiter neighborhoods, along with things that happen at USC, which is decidedly not part of South LA in any way except geography. But we can’t live without the Times because it’s the only media outlet in town with the resources and the occasional interest in exposing corruption in local government.

But today is a happy day, when we can forget about the newspaper for a while and enjoy the streets without fear of death by automobile. I hope people who have never been to Leimert Park and Central Avenue will take the opportunity to visit these lovely neighborhoods.

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Some Reviews for Signs Point to Yes

November 26, 2014 • Los Angeles

Signs Point to YesA couple of reviews have been posted for Signs Point to Yes, which came out this month. First, from Amos Lassen, a power reviewer; this is a snippet, but you can also read the full review.

“I am so glad to see that new authors have picked up the gauntlet and are taking our literature to new places. Christopher Church is a writer that I know we will be hearing more from and about.”  —Amos Lassen, ReviewsByAmosLassen.com

Screenwriter and author David Osborn also posted a flattering review; it means a lot coming from such a storied master of the genre:

Signs Point To Yes features a whole new exciting slant on private eye-ing and is the book for you. May we see more of Mason, his unabashedly psychic detective and a lot more of Church’s no-nonsense plotting. I loved it—couldn’t put it down.”  —David Osborn, best-selling author of Open Season, Murder On Martha’s Vineyard, and The French Decision

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Cycling: Fight Back or Give Up

November 14, 2014 • Los Angeles

I-80 by Wikipedia user MinesweeperPeople get defensive when their root assumptions are challenged, as evidenced by writer Stephen Corwin taking flak for not having a car in Los Angeles. Corwin attracted some attention recently when he wrote an extensive piece about living without a car, suggesting that drivers could be car-shamed the way we shame smokers and drunk drivers. He advocates for cycling, despite his girlfriend’s stress levels cycling on city streets. I’m with her.

I lived without a car in LA for many years and didn’t find it especially difficult. I was never confronted with defensiveness from car owners, but I was often pitied for being somehow hobbled. Using Metro does require a bit of advance planning, but it isn’t limiting. The only time I had to get help from a car owner was to make an Ikea run, which most people don’t have to do very often anyway. Often Metro was just as fast as driving, once hunting for parking was factored in to an evening out, and riding the rails any time between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., especially anywhere near Hollywood, was much faster than driving.

Like Corwin my main mode of transportation was cycling. I commuted by bicycle in Hollywood and West Hollywood for a couple of years, but after the third or fourth near-death experience, I gave it up, except for very short neighborhood trips. Part of quitting is getting older and more risk-averse, but it’s also a reaction to a lot of stress. I can understand completely why the Wolf Pack and other committed cyclists are so militant and aggressive on the streets; constantly feeling threatened and endangered produces that reaction—or alternately my reaction, which was to stop doing it. The last street trip I made in West Hollywood was the day I was making a (completely legal) left turn from Fountain, and a teenager driving a convertible decided I shouldn’t be doing that. She pulled up alongside me, aiming her pepper spray at my face. Luckily I escaped before any of it got in my eyes. At that point it was either get militant and fight back, or give up; I decided to give it up.

Metro is very bicycle-friendly, and to a lesser extent so is Metrolink. After I quit street riding, depending on what neighborhood I was living in, I would use buses and trains to get to recreational cycling routes like the LA River path around Griffith Park or the Rio Hondo path near El Monte. Recently having moved to a less dense neighborhood, I decided to try street cycling once again. It had been a few years since I’d ridden on city streets, but even with more people out cycling and bicycle lanes striped on the streets, a few near-death experiences convinced me to quit. On a bicycle it only takes one angry or distracted motorist to end your life, and there are so many of those around.

These days I load my bicycle onto my car and drive 30 minutes out to the “countryside” of Whittier Narrows or the San Gabriel River to cycle on stress-free, car-free paths. It seems so obtuse to drive so that I can cycle, but that’s the way it works. Our previous mayor was a cyclist, so one of the legacies of his tenure is the restriping of streets to include bicycle lanes, a project that is still ongoing. It’s still not safe enough, in my experience, and none of the new bike lanes are protected by curbs like they are in more bicycle-oriented cities like New York and Montreal. With such amazing weather, I’m certain a lot more people would commute by bicycle if it were safe, but there isn’t even adequate city financial planning to trim our trees and fix our sidewalks, so we’re probably about 150 years from seeing protected bike lanes in this town.

Predicting the future is impossible, so maybe I’m wrong about that—after all, it only took 52 years from conceptualization to the start of work on the Purple Line subway to Santa Monica. The ceremonial shovels were out last week in a ceremony on the Miracle Mile. It was galling to see several historically transit-obstructionist politicians sitting up there on the podium looking like the cat that ate the canary, but the electorate has a short memory, and perhaps by definition in politics it’s effective to reverse your position by 180 degrees and smile about it. More likely it was just too tempting a photo op to pass up, regardless of the politics. The best part about that groundbreaking ground-breaking event? Senator Feinstein wore purple, coordinating masterfully with the Purple Line.

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Enough with the Murder

November 9, 2014 • Los Angeles

Murder seems to be something we’re desensitized to, and it’s part of the plotline of a lot of fiction and nonfiction alike. There are so many reality TV murder documentary series that they can be categorized by the social class and race of the victims. It makes sense that we’re interested in it; we all face death eventually, making it an extremely engaging topic. But by seeing it and reading about it so much, are we trivializing it by becoming desensitized? A woman who’d been affected by murder, talking to Ira Glass on This American Life last year, wondered how people would react to a rape mystery evening, as an alternative to a murder mystery evening. Imagine a fun social event where someone has been raped, and then we all have to work on figuring out who the rapist is. I wouldn’t touch that with a bargepole. So why is that distasteful, and yet a murder mystery evening sounds like a lot of fun? I suspect most people have no experience with that kind of loss, and that murder is trivial because it only happens on television and in books.

When I was thinking about the plot and the characters for Signs Point to Yes, I wanted to tell an engaging story that didn’t involve murder. I know that murder is a great vehicle for a mystery story, and I’ve enjoyed many page-turners based on murders. Some of the greatest popular literature is about hard-ass detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe embroiled in death. But in developing a plot, murder seemed almost too easy, and I think I had to work harder to tell a story without it. The feedback I’ve been getting about the book has involved questions and commentary about the characters and the locations in the story; so far no one has said it was unengaging because it didn’t start with a murder. So perhaps I’ve achieved my goal.

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Quitting and Adapting

November 3, 2014 • Los Angeles

Twenty years ago, Evan Harris wrote a book called The Quit. In light of what’s happened to the economy since then, it’s a prescient guidebook for individuals as the job market makes its race to the bottom. Some industries seem to be hit harder; almost no one that I worked with in journalism a decade ago is still working in that field. There was some astonishment earlier this year among surviving journalists that the LA Times was publishing news items generated completely by software. Given that the stories are breaking news about earthquakes in California, it’s really not that surprising that computers with sensors provide data for other computers to generate text for the Times’s website. Still, the fact that journalists are reporting on software as news about news reveals our uniquely human inability to keep up with what other people have done to change things. It’s natural that we’re resistant to change our circumstances when we get comfortable, but we ignore change at our peril. Whether it’s right or wrong, and whether change is happening fairly or unfairly, the truth is that it’s happening regardless of how we react as individuals. The German government can ban ride-sharing services like Uber to protect their taxi industry and the structure of the labor market, and the French government can refuse to let Google add its books to the digitized world brain, but in the long run the restructuring is going to happen anyway, and rather than protecting the status quo, the effects will be things like French scholarship becoming less known and less relevant.

People graduating high school today are being told to prepare for at least five career changes during their work lifetimes, and to be happy about it. The often cited example to remind us that this kind of change has always been part of our culture is that “no one churns butter anymore.” True, but the difference now is that it seems to be happening at a breathtaking pace. Large corporations seem intent on reforming the labor market so that all of us, white collar and blue collar alike, will be day laborers working on contracts when they need labor, kind of a high-tech version of the guys hanging around the Home Depot parking lot waiting for work. Harris’s book outlines strategies for disengaging from a job, a partner, or a city and making it a positive change. Twenty years ago I think the intended meaning was about personal transformation, but today these strategies seem more relevant to coping with accelerated technological change and unavoidable labor market upheaval. “Learn how to do something new; get out ahead of the layoffs” might be a more timely interpretation.

Sometimes the instinct to resist change pays off. Maybe Germany will be a full-employment, chauffeur driven paradise in the future. At other times, accepting new things head-on has enormous benefit, and it feels like we have no choice. Who would voluntarily quit their cell phone? I’ve offloaded knowing how to get around SoCal to Google Maps and Waze on my phone, freeing up a lot of room in my brain to think about other things. The downside is that if I don’t have my phone, I’m completely lost even three blocks from my house—but overall the benefits feel like they far outweigh that kind of loss. The software takes me around traffic congestion on streets I’ve never seen before, and most peak-hours car trips have become adventures of exploration. As much as it galls me to admit it, software is much better at finding my way around than I am. And I’m startled at how quickly the ability to navigate and remember routes faded from my mind, the same way higher math does when you don’t use it.

Nothing is ever free, of course, so the payment for even owning a cell phone is that we provide oodles of data to companies like Verizon, whether we want to or not, and it is resold and sliced and diced in multitudinous ways. Most people I know would consider not having a cell phone to be impossible, and the big-data trade-off seems worth the benefits. But we should also be prepared for a future where our health insurance premiums are tied to data points like how many times you’ve gone to the drive-through at that fast-food joint, and how long you spent inside that bar or at the gym. But could I quit my cell phone to keep my life more private? I doubt it.

In career terms, my favorite quitter-adapter is the journalist Ray Suarez, who explained in Utne Reader in 1996 how he left NBC for NPR because he wanted to do better journalism. More recently Suarez has adapted again, hosting Inside Story on Al Jazeera America, where he is doing the best form of journalism possible, unfettered by market demands and the vapid requirements of infotainment. May we all be so skilled at navigating change.

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Sorry, Traffic

October 30, 2014 • Los Angeles

Beverly Hills worst NIMBY nightmareWriting in the LA Weekly, Hillel Aron says that Angelenos make small talk about traffic rather than the weather, because there’s rarely anything to say about the weather. It does provide the perfect explanation for being a little late, easily explained with a single word, “Traffic,” and usually accepted without comment. It’s even a viable excuse when I ride the Expo Line; all the light-rail trains run through and across vehicle lanes when they’re above ground, and unlike freight trains, light rail trains don’t get priority over cars, waiting at red lights just like everybody else. It makes sense, if you consider how much vehicular traffic there is; if a boulevard was closed every time a train went by, traffic congestion would reach gridlock proportions in minutes. Ideally all these light-rail lines would have been buried, but if the funding options selected by the political class are no train or a slow train subject to red lights at cross streets, I’ll take the slow train.

The Blue Line and the Expo Line are also struck by vehicles on an alarmingly regular basis. This doesn’t seem to happen as often on the Gold Line, perhaps because it runs along quieter streets. But it will continue to happen as long as our cars can’t drive themselves. Personally, it seems pretty obvious how not to drive into a train, and it’s not like the crossings along Exposition and Washington Boulevard are especially exotic or misleading or somehow booby-trapped. It has to be about percentages, and with zillions of cars crossing the tracks every day, some percentage of them are obliged to plow into the train.

It’s also fairly annoying to read news reports that start out with “Train hits car,” implying that the train was somehow in the wrong. They never are; it’s always the motorist. It reflects the deep-rooted resentment and bias against public transportation that still lingers in this town, even with all the train-building that’s happening. NIMBY activists in Beverly Hills have effectively resisted extending the subway through their rarified earth for decades, culminating recently in a lovely manipulated video of Beverly Hills High School exploding in a giant fireball (see the image), somehow caused by subway trains running nearby. Even some beloved Westside politicians, who now style themselves as champions of public transit, resisted transit funding for decades. Voters seem to have a short memory, or maybe it’s because of the confusing political dance of terming out of one office and taking up another, because one of the most effective anti-transit politicians now might just get a subway station named after him, while he’s still in office. I’m not going to cite his name; like the authorities who banned mention of the name of the idiot who burned down the Temple of Artemis in 356 BCE, I suspect it would be better if his legacy was obscurity.

I asked a friend of a friend in New York one time why the 7 train, which runs from the depths of Queens into Midtown, ran so late into the night when the other lines had stopped; he said, “How else are people in Manhattan going to have their drivers and maids at work on time?” It’s kind of like traffic on the Westside; people in wealthy neighborhoods finally started to get on board with building public transportation infrastructure when the average speed of traffic on their streets sank to something 3 mph between 3 and 7 p.m., which happened in about 2006. Since the recession it’s almost certainly the same or worse, but it will be interesting to see how the opening of the Expo Line extension to Santa Monica, slated for early 2016, impacts traffic congestion. There has been much hand-wringing on the Westside about the widening of the 405, and finally, now that it’s completed, there has been little or no improvement in traffic speeds. So it seems expanding rail travel really is one of our only viable options for sensible growth in this town.

The delightful quote from Aron: “Most people talk about the weather. We can’t, because our weather is always perfect. Our traffic is our weather, a force of nature unto its own; she cannot be conquered, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.” (LA Weekly, August 19th)

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The Black Dahlia: Not Such a Mystery

October 22, 2014 • Los Angeles

John Gilmore's SeveredOne of Los Angeles’s perpetual favorite noir mysteries is the 1947 Black Dahlia murder. I had a six-degrees connection to the story through my former mother-in-law’s partner, who used to work in a movie-theater box office on Hollywood Boulevard. She remembered running across Elizabeth Short in the 1940s in Hollywood, and would see her walking by the theater on Hollywood Boulevard. LA was a much smaller town in those days, so it’s not all that surprising that people who were around then would have known her.

The body was discovered just north of Leimert Park, on the west side of Norton Avenue, halfway between Coliseum Street and 39th Street. Today, that neighborhood is called Leimert Park too, but originally that neighborhood was only south of Santa Barbara Avenue, now called Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. I’m not sure if a body-dump site is worth an excursion, but if you haven’t been in the neighborhood before, it’s a unique part of the city that’s worth a look. Coliseum Street is a short walk from the Crenshaw Expo Line Metro station, and there’s a lively Starbucks at Coliseum and Crenshaw in a preserved Googie-style building. The area had a large Japanese American population at one time, and you can still see Japanese-style horticulture in the front yards along some of the streets parallel to Norton. Walk another mile south along Degnan and you’ll find Leimert Park Plaza, a little patch of green that locals like to call the heart of black LA. The parallel stretch of Crenshaw is under construction for the foreseeable future, with the payoff being a light-rail Metro line from the Expo line almost to LAX, but Degnan and other streets east of Crenshaw are great for walking.

Take a look at a map of the neighborhood and you’ll notice that Norton Avenue and Degnan Boulevard curve together in a V shape near King Boulevard; in his definitive book on the Black Dahlia murder, Severed, John Gilmore implies that the killer dumped the body here because of the street layout’s resemblance to the female form. Reading Gilmore’s book, there doesn’t seem to be much mystery left to the Black Dahlia story, despite the fact that it comes up every few years when someone has a new theory about who the killer was. The police may call the case unsolved, but that’s really only because there wasn’t an arrest or a trial, and they never had a chance to nab the killer. Gilmore did the work in the 1980s of tracking down the likely suspect and even interviewing him; his book is a thorough examination of the case and makes intense reading.

So, in my opinion, based on reading Gilmore’s book, the mystery has been solved. I don’t think there will ever be more compelling evidence pointing at anyone but the guy that he identified. The fact that the case keeps coming back as an “unsolved mystery” says a lot more about our culture and human nature than it does about the Black Dahlia crime—the mystery is more valuable and enduring than the gritty prosaic truth. As the story recedes farther into the past, expect more fiction and wild speculation presented as solutions to the case.

As an aside, the nickname Black Dahlia came from a film that was popular at the time, The Blue Dahlia, written by the king of LA noir, Raymond Chandler. It’s a great film, sometimes running on TCM but not available on streaming services, as far as I can tell. The hard-ass protagonist is played by hottie Alan Ladd, who seems so gay from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, although there doesn’t seem to be any definitive evidence, only rumors and speculation, that he was a friend of Dorothy.

If you’re curious at all about the Black Dahlia, don’t believe the wild accusations hurled around every few years; read Gilmore’s book and decide for yourself. It’s called Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder, and it’s pretty graphic and gruesome, but as Raymond Chandler knew, the truth is rarely neat and pretty.

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Archaeology and EDM at the Cornfield

October 15, 2014 • North Chinatown

The Cornfield, looking south. (image from Wikimedia user Downtowngal)This week LA Downtown News reported about an archaeological find in the Cornfield, technically Los Angeles State Historic Park, a sliver of land happily saved from becoming luxury condos in the 1990s. It has been an empty field for decades, and unless you lived nearby, you might only know about it because it’s used as a venue for EDM concerts and Cirque Berzerk. If you ride the Gold Line north from Union Station, you zip right along the side of the Cornfield. I’ve seen Downtown and Chinatown residents out there getting their jog on, and the park is currently undergoing a renovation into a more developed space, which is why they were digging it up this summer.

A few years ago I was in the park at dusk and asked one of the rangers if they’d been gassing the ground squirrels that seemed to have burrows all over the park. “Oh, no, we don’t do that,” he said. It might not have been him personally, or it might not have been intended for the public record, but somebody was gassing them, because there were empty gas cartridges on the ground. Presumably the critters don’t fit with the new plans for the space.

The archaeological find included ruins of a Southern Pacific railroad building and a trash pit. Before the Spanish arrived, the site was a low spot where the LA River flooded into from time to time; early nonindigenous settlers used it for agriculture, and the Zanja Madre, the aqueduct that brought water from the river to the Pueblo, ran right through the Cornfield. A chunk of the Zanja Madre was uncovered in 2001 in the Cornfield, and another chunk was found earlier this year in nearby Chinatown; you could see it for a while from the Chinatown Metro station in the luxury-condo construction site just north of the station. Apparently the Cornfield was also where a lot of early migrants first arrived in Los Angeles, as it was the end-of-the-line train station as well as the Union Pacific rail yard.

It would be fun to see some of the 19th-century trash recently unearthed at the Cornfield. Unintentional time capsules are much more interesting than the planned ones, which usually contain Bibles, coins, photos, and newspapers—all things that readily travel through time without need of being sealed in a canister in the ground. Last year a contractor in San Marino found a 66-year-old wallet lost or hidden inside the wall of a house, and it was full of fascinating things that don’t typically survive through time, including the owner’s pay stubs and a 1940s driver’s license with a thumbprint instead of a photo.

Now isn’t the time to visit the Cornfield, as it’s essentially a construction site. Let’s hope the renovations improve the space and make it user-friendly; the worst-case scenario would be a disaster like Pershing Square after its most recently renovation in the 1980s. With any luck they’ve hired better planners for the Cornfield, and it’ll become a public space worthy of more than pop-up concerts and circuses.

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Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre

October 7, 2014 • Los Angeles

Linda Vista Hospital in Boyle HeightsI was happy to hear that Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre is doing a performance at the Hale Solar Observatory in Pasadena in November. What better way to see historic and significant building than with modern dance? I’ve managed to see several HDDT performances over the years, including one in the abandoned Ambassador Hotel before it was demolished. The piece was called Sleeping with the Ambassador. The audience arrived at the empty swimming pool to be serenaded by a woman with a megaphone standing in the bottom. Performances proceeded through the hotel’s shops, eerie and unchanged since the place closed in the 1980s, into the café, through the lobby, and eventually into the storied Cocoanut Grove. It was a long evening of passionate dance, and for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Ambassador.

Last year HDDT took over the Linda Vista Hospital in Boyle Heights (see image), closed for twenty-odd years, for The Groundskeepers, a series of dance performances on the fire escape, in the chapel, and most dramatically, all over the pipes in the boiler room, the dancers performing sometimes 20 feet above the floor. Linda Vista has been renovated since then and serves as senior housing, but again, by using it as a backdrop, HDDT provided a unique opportunity to admire the building up close.

This year one HDDT performance was in the historic Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, recently repurposed as affordable housing. The residents mostly seemed happy that a crowd of people from other parts of town were there to admire their home. Jan Perry, who used to represent the area on city council, was there, and spoke to welcome the audience; she was instrumental in the conversion to affordable housing, and has done a lot of good work for South LA, including efforts to get better food options in this “food desert.”

A friend of a friend was upset when he found out we’d been at a performance down the block from his house in Boyle Heights. “That's in my neighborhood, man, why didn't you call me?” Don’t let that happen—if you can, see HDDT; it’s a great night out with great architecture. You won’t disappointed.

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Certainty about Alien Contact

September 28, 2014 • Los Angeles

Whitley Strieber's best-selling CommunionIn his book TechGnosis, which is an examination of how mystical thinking still pervades the world in the Internet age, Erik Davis says that “metaphysical certainty is a dire trap.” When confronted with weird unexplained phenomena, especially when they haven’t experienced them, most people I know fall into this trap—they are quite certain that alien contact, saucer sightings, and related phenomena are either fiction or misperceptions of something rational and explainable. But people who have these experiences see things differently. Some have similarly fallen into the certainty trap and have clear explanations for their experiences, while others find themselves with only questions. Alien abductions, probably more accurately called something like “contact experiences” because of the broad range of experiences that contactees have, is a great example. Experiencers themselves have all sorts of explanations, ranging from dark (“The entities are demons here to destroy us”) to light (“The entities are extraterrestrial space brothers who have come to help us.”) John Lear, pilot and scion of the Learjet family, is definitely on the dark side, claiming that human beings are being traded to extraterrestrials against our will by our government. On the other end of the spectrum, in the 1950s George Adamski, among others, met friendly and helpful aliens and photographed their ships; to this day his descendants work to promote the space brothers and the potential for our species to benefit from their altruism.

The contact phenomenon seems to be so personal and subjective that it must be an uphill battle not to label it with a simple explanation; our minds are hardwired to solve problems and make decisions. But once something nebulous has a label, I don’t think it’s possible to see it any other way. Through his life Adamski believed he was connecting with benevolent aliens; John Lear isn’t going to be speaking at any “alien love and light” conferences any time soon. I can’t speak from experience, but for me the most compelling research into the phenomenon is being done by people who don’t have simple explanations.

One of the best-known abduction experiencers, Whitley Strieber, has written about the contact experience for decades. He has said that “the question is the answer.” My take on this is that Strieber’s view is far from the certainty trap. His approach is intellectual, and his experiences have shown him that the phenomenon overall is meaningful, rather than explainable in simplistic terms. While Strieber’s statement might sound like a Zen koan or a thought exercise, it really makes the excellent point that it’s possible to understand more, to learn more, if we don’t already believe we have the answers. It’s frustrating, of course, to have a mystery with no solution in the offing, but as soon as we decide that we know what the solution is and attach labels, we’re not going to learn anything else.

Another worthwhile writer on the contact experience who hasn’t fallen into the certainty trap is Richard Dolan. His 2000 UFOs and the National Security State presents a reasonable and well researched explanation of how government handles the whole phenomenon. He also has a couple of newer books on the topic that I haven’t read.

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September 19, 2014 • Los Angeles

leafy Leimert ParkWalking around Leimert Park with my dog, I’m met with two kinds of greetings: the friendly “How ya doing?” and the more suspicious “Do you live around here?” This is a reflection of the way our society is increasingly being stratified into haves and have-nots. The neighborhood is a mix of working-class and middle-class people, but more significantly it’s a mix of property owners and renters. People who own houses are the friendlier ones, and they think of the neighborhood’s diversification and the appearance of new faces as potentially improving their property values and thus their net worth. Renters are suspicious of any change in the neighborhood, because that might impact their rent and potentially price them out of the neighborhood. Most of my encounters have been positive, even if people are suspicious about why I’m walking around, but the undercurrent is the fear or embrace of gentrification.

With the opening of new public transit rail stations along Crenshaw Boulevard, some kind of change seems inevitable. It’s possible that things will get worse; the Blue Line runs through some neighborhoods that never improved. But Leimert Park’s proximity to moneyed neighborhoods implies that the change will be for the better. In a perfect world there would be room for everybody, and the worst displacements of gentrification are indeed ugly, as we’re seeing in San Francisco, but things getting better still seems preferable to things getting worse. More centralized or top-down attempts at improving the economy of South LA are no solution. There have been some success stories, but there is a much longer list of broken promises, from retailers like Tesco who talk a big game and then skulk away, never even breaking ground, all the way to Sacramento, when the state clawed back community redevelopment funds during the recession.

I worked at an art gallery Downtown in the late nineties, when the zoning rules were about to change to allow conversions of historic buildings into lofts. Artists and other people in the neighborhood were frantic about gentrification; where would the homeless go? Where would poor people go shopping? A decade later I moved into one of those newly converted lofts, and the Downtown neighborhood has a vibrancy and vitality that it never had before the conversions. The early gentrifiers are now complaining that things have gone too far, that the neighborhood has been diluted by the mainstream, but there are more places to eat and more retail businesses there than ever. I was caught up in the fear of change in 1999, but the end result of all the development is that the neighborhood is a much better place. Skid Row is still there, just shifted a little east, and even the feared upscaling of the Grand Central Market hasn’t driven out the traditional vendors.

Our embrace of capitalism means we can’t really put limits on development. Landowners in wealthier areas can sometimes modify zoning rules or slap a historic designation on a building to limit development and dampen real estate appreciation, but that’s not an option for a broad and diverse neighborhood like Leimert Park. Clybourne Park, a play that was put on at Mark Taper a few years ago, opened my mind on the subject more than anything else has; it’s worth a read.

In summary, suck it up, people; gentrification is a bulldozer, and it’s going to plow through no matter what any of us want to happen as individuals; the best we can do is be prepared for it.

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