A Motley Collection of Locals and Mercenary Vacationers: the 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest of Ocracoke Island

Championship match - Fat Jesus vs. the BakerCoauthor credit and special thanks to P. Williams

The crowd and campers

The crowd and campers

It was perhaps the most raucous if not the raunchiest public radio benefit one could imagine. Picture this – a campground behind a Texaco, hidden from the road, aluminum bleachers and a makeshift bar encircling a makeshift fighting ring. Golf carts and cars are parked in equal measure in the dirt parking lot and alongside the road. Spectators are gathered under the evening sun, drinking everything from Coors Light to Bud Light from a makeshift bar made of discarded 6×6 beams. Everything is surrounded by huge camper trailers with accouterments indicating varying degrees of permanence – string lights, laundry lines, lawn furniture. The nexus of excitement is the pod of costumed combatants bouncing giddily next to a golf cart next to the ring. The warriors are bedecked in everything from Dali moustaches to bloodied wedding dresses. A comingled sense of exuberant fun and the tension of impending competition colored the air. The 7th Annual Women’s Armwrestling Contest was held June 18th, 2015 on Ocracoke Island, a semi-sanctioned armwrestling event sponsored by Combat Armsports and benefitting WOVV 90.1, the local public radio station. Combatant sign-ups were still taking place as spectators took their seats – anyone who felt lucky enough could try to best a motley collection of locals and mercenary vacationers.

Ocracoke Island is a small, thin stretch of land in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The island is sixteen miles long and less than a mile at its widest and is accessible only by ferry. It is an old, small sea town whose relative quaintness is maintained by a National Seashore designation and strict building codes. (One builder tried to flaunt these regulations and was required to dismantle the entire top floor of the enormous home he built.) But despite its clapboard homes and the infinite amount of basketed, slowly-pedaled bikes, Ocracoke is also known for its legacy of piracy. It’s the place where Blackbeard the Pirate was not only beheaded but whose headless body swam around his ship seven times before it sank. Ocracokers are hardy just by dint of living there – hurricanes blow through with dispiriting regularity, causing evacuation and a proliferation of stinking muck when floodwaters recede, and the mosquitos are stuff of legend. Armwrestling, then, is not a cultivated hobby but a demonstration of inborn strength.

The island has approximately 970 permanent residents, but given the ever-changing stream of weeklong vacationers, it’s rare that a strong local presence is detected. (The average summer week ratchets the population to seven thousand.) Local flavor wasn’t missing at this event, however. The armwrestling tournament is one of the premier events on the island. At least half of the 2015 competitors were residents of Ocracoke, and this was a lower percentage than most years. Most everyone else in attendance was strongly encouraged to attend, if not sign up, by the waitress or clerk or local working at whatever facility the vacationer was patronizing. The camaraderie of contestants who work and swim and party together and the fun of an event clearly anticipated by the people that live there gave spectators the sense that they were sitting in on the proceedings of a different world.

(Though it’s not just vacationers that get a glimpse of the surreal. Locals are no doubt aware of guests endowed with oversized personalities. One guy in the audience recognized someone making a recent splash – “Hey! The Thong Girl is here!” noting a young woman wearing nigh-invisible bottoms all day every day throughout town. A sight hearkening of the evening’s event was a guy jogging up and down the main road wearing a sweatsuit and weights tied to his hands – a serious boxer doing serious training.)

Clearly it was a different world no matter where you came from. The stage was made of four rickety fold-out stage rectangles with nylon rope running through holes drilled in PVC pipe turnbuckles. Special thanks were given by the announcer to the “guy who spent all day in the sun setting up this fine venue.” A whiteboard sat in the grass, leaning against the announcers booth, the brackets penned with numerous cross-outs and revisions. In the first of many such instances, the PA kicked on with a startling burst of noise. The transitions between music and announcing always featured one of the two being significantly louder than the other, as if to shock you into attention, and a balance was never quite reached during the entirety of the event.

Completed Bracket

Completed Bracket

No matter – attention was grabbed and the contestants were summoned to the ring to learn the rules. Locals came from the ringside party and the brave vacationer-competitors left groups of friends in the bleachers. Incredibly, a professional arm wrestler had been brought into referee the event. He was the Man, the Myth, the 220lb armwrestling champ from Sunbury, North Carolina, a beefy toned and tanned guy with the incongruous name Giles Russell. Everyone gathered in the ring around a professional armwrestling table furnished by Combat Armsports. He imparted how it would all go down.

The ceremony was brief, and Julie, alias So Fresh So Clean Clean in reference to the hotel-white towels wrapped around her torso and her hair, summarized how you play for her friends.

“You have to break the plane of a small cushion,” she said.

A tournament-ready armwrestling table has two cushions on the outside of an open battlefield, where combatants’ elbows rest. There is an open area in the middle, with two strikepads on either side. These are the cushions a wrestler has to touch with her opponent’s hand. Vertical poles with grips are next to the elbow pads. These are held by the non-wrestling hand for leverage. As soon as a hand touches the strikepad (or wrist in the case of combatants with forearm-size disparity), the bout is over.

“Apparently somebody in Vegas broke their hand,” So Fresh said. “Last time I arm wrestled was when I was ten. Maybe I’ll discover a hidden talent!”

So Fresh took a swig from her beer. Approximately 85% of the audience was drinking. So Fresh was with a group of friends from Nashville, New York, and Maryland. They were staying on Cape Hatteras and had planned on a day trip to Ocracoke but when their server at Howard’s Pub was so effusive in her recommendation of the tournament that they decided to stay and throw one of themselves into the fray.

So Fresh was calm, jovial, a little tipsy perhaps. There was the faintest glimmer of intimidation.

“Dalí looks tough. How should I trash talk?”

“Call her ‘Noodle Arms!’”

“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all.”

Her friends also offered coaching tips.

“Let them get ahead a bit then take them out.”

“Swing a folding chair!”

Another squall of feedback made everyone jump. The announcer rattled off a list of the sponsors, which was practically half the businesses on the island. He gave props to WOVV and said that the event would be starting momentarily. In years past, the tournament was a benefit for both the radio station and the fire department. In 2012, $3,200 was raised for the radio station and $1200 for the fire department, but the event now benefits the radio station exclusively. The tournament is held every year on the anniversary of the station’s first broadcast.

Ultimately fifteen contestants had signed up. A few were recurring combatants. This was the third tournament for Fat Jesus, for example. Those who were new were encouraged to make up a nom de guerre and an exciting back story. All contestants could rest a little easier knowing that Karm “the Arm” Laton retired after winning the last four tournaments straight.

The roster for the evening included the following:

Armed and Dangerous Archer – who had machine guns made out of electrical tape on her biceps and a white cape with a machine gun on it and the phrase “come and take it” held around her shoulders with handcuffs. Her “favorite athlete is herself,” according to the announcer.

Salvador Dalía – she had a Dalí moustache on her face made out of electrical tape, blue hair, and stars tattooed on one temple. Two giant melting clocks hung from her chest. “She’s here to melt your clock!” the announcer noted.

The Baker – walked up to the ring throwing bread crumbs into the audience. The puffs of powder were backlit majestically by the spotlights. She was wearing an apron and is a Pisces.

Dorothy the Dominator – wore a St. Paul’s Girl-style dress and drank a lot of Corona. She had an ankle brace but no shoes. She was announced as being from Oz.

So Fresh So Clean Clean – wore towels around her hair and torso. From New York by way of Ohio. She was skeptical of another combatant’s claim of Ohio roots and took this as some kind of obscure taunt. At least six friends were there to cheer her on. “Fresh outta the shower!” yelled one.

Wildcard – had mom jeans, hair bun, and a sleeveless button-up with what seemed to be a hipstery print. She was “raised by wolves in Nepal” and brought a Red Stripe up to the table with her when she wrestled. She is the one who So Fresh thought was lying about her Ohio origins.

Fat Jesus – She had a swimsuit top under one of those shirts whose sides are cut out so profoundly that the bottom of the shirt could tear at any second. The Zach Galifianakis design on her shirt would lead one to believe that her name is a reference to the movie the Hangover. She was wearing high-heeled sandals and “still lives at home.”

Shark Attack – she danced her way up to the stage to tropical pop songs and gnashed her teeth and made intimidating shark fin gestures at her opponents. She was wearing a bloodied dress and was revealed to have two prosthetics legs from the knees down. She occasionally took one off and menaced the crowd with it.

Demolition Dolly – wore pocketless blue jorts and a baseball comprised what someone in the crowd deemed early-2000s fashion. She belatedly donned an appropriately huge and blonde Dolly Parton wig. “She had breast reduction surgery last week!”

Soo Well – was sent up with a bunch of high-fives from her friends. She had billowy hippie pants. “Her father was a pig farmer.”

Hair of the Dog – wore her salt and pepper hair long and windblown. She was bedecked in all white and didn’t talk to anyone.

Crystal the Bone Crusher – looked like a tough older biker, if bikers wore Teva sandals, with an arm tattoo that may or may not have been real. She “idolizes Winnie the Pooh.”

Danger Ranger – is a Sagittarius from the Pennsylvania section of Appalachia. Her hair was a battle-ready ponytail and she wore a Yellowstone Park tee.

Banana Slug – she laughed a lot and fought with a phone in her back pocket. She “used to be a pacifist before the armwrestling tournament and is the captain of both an alien and pirate ship.”

Green Terror – seemingly the youngest of the bunch and a late addition. As such, she had to fight two people back to back in the second round. She is a vegan – “vegetables killed her parents so now she kills vegetables!”

Everyone was thus introduced, and with a classic ‘LET’S GET IT ON!’ the armwrestling was underway.

Round 1

Wildcard's Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Wildcard’s Round 1 victory over Banana Slug

Salvador Dalía trounced Dorothy the Dominator in under a second. Soo Well was so evenly matched with So Fresh that there was a stalemate for minutes until Soo Well finally won. The bout between Shark Attack and Demolition Dolly was restarted after a false start, then Shark Attack won in less than a second. “I’m all arms!” she yelled. Fat Jesus sidled up to the table against Hair of the Dog, whose super, super-serious expression was no help. The losers of the last two rounds looked like they were actually mad. The Baker threw out crumbs as she walked to the ring. She fought Crystal the Bone Crusher and won. The announcer made a brief announcement. “Look into your pockets! Aside from the money should be donating to WOVV, somebody lost an iPod!” Armed and Dangerous Archer beat Danger Ranger fairly quickly and then went back and hugged her sons. After a serious positioning of the arms by Russell, Wilcard beat Banana Slug.

Post-round, Russell was encircled by wrestlers and fans. He was imparting his wisdom to anyone who had questions. The atmosphere was one of revelry and intense concentration, depending on the role for the night. Demolition Dolly and Hair of the Dog listened attentively, having lost their first bouts rather quickly. (Though to be fair they did lose to competitors who made it to the last rounds.) They both had the look of someone really trying to internalize something, as if stalwart concentration insures the ability to put it into practice. They were the most serious competitors; the pained expressions and their stony silence indicated that they were taking this really seriously.

“You can slide your elbow all over the table. You just can’t pick it up,” Russell said. “So when you’re pullin’ and she’s pullin’ and you realize you have all this space behind you, start pullin’ her back. The next move should be a drag. Open her arm up. A subtle drag. Do it subtly or you may open your own arm up. Good arm wrestlin’ is keepin’ ‘em locked nice and tight then start draggin.’ You wanna take everything down together, like this. [Here he showed her a fluid takedown motion, their hands interlocked like they were wrasslin.’] Not doing that is not good armwrestling technique – it’s ‘hurt yourself bad technique.’ I want everyone to have fun and an injury would be a huge buzzkill.

“A lot of people who haven’t seen it professionally think, ‘you’re using your body – that’s cheatin’!’ but no – as long as your elbow doesn’t come up and as long as your shoulder doesn’t go below the tabletop, it’s legal. You don’t want to twist your humerus – ”

A spectator in a flowered button-up shirt interjected, eager to show off his anatomical knowledge: “It’s shoulder blades, right? It’s all shoulder blades and latissimus dorsi, right? And the anterior deltoid?”

Russell sidestepped the question by acknowledging it then answering a slightly different question as to not embarrass the guy’s error and eagerness to name drop some muscles. Russell continued coaching Demolition Dolly, twisting her arm one way then another and pointing out different points of flexion. Any future arm wrestlers should note that reliance on brute strength is a novice’s mistake. It’s just as much about the leverage you can get. Ambitious students should study physics. An image Russell posted on his Facebook page reads: ‘Armwrestling – where gym junky ego is destroyed.’

Admirers with cameras ready

Admirers with cameras ready

Much is thought of Russell’s expertise. It is his fourth time reffing the Ocracoke tournament. Arrangements were made for his family to accompany him. His wife, daughter, and a thinner version of Russell who the announcer kept referring to as Young Giles were there with him.

His wife Tabitha was photographing the event and sat near him as a cadre of women with wine glasses filmed his impromptu lessons, giggling as they asked him to flex again and again. Young Giles looked on in awe. He was a little shy still but was no doubt eagerly awaiting the time he’ll be able to reap the benefits of the family sport. (The women slyly asked Russell the Elder about his leg placement during matches.) Young Giles was there as an assistant, and between rounds he had to take on a seemingly unending line of kid competitors taking up the offer to get on stage and arm wrestle him, including a battle with one of two kids in the audience that night that for some reason looked disturbingly like adults. Papa Giles gave his son a little nudge here and there to tell him he should let a kid win. Even as a teenager Young Giles was gracious in defeat. In one particularly endearing scene, Russell called on his daughter to come on stage and arm wrestle her brother. She leaped with excitement and ran up to the table and after a long struggle beat her brother. She strutted around in victory and then Young Giles held her over the ropes as she flexed for the crowd. The crowd went wild. She was in on the family sport too. She told a nearby spectator “I wrestled him all day in the hotel and I beat him. Don’t mess with me!” The last line was delivered with surprisingly sincere menace.

Round 2

The championship belt

The championship belt, worn for approximately 27 minutes

Green Terror fell like a chomped vegetable to Wildcard. Dorothy took off her flip-flops as she took on So Fresh. Dorothy won and So Fresh pretended to cry. Soo Well lost to Dalía in what was a “live art performance.” “I get really pumped up,” Dalía said. “That’s not to say I train – I’m just naturally this awesome. I’m totally competitive – haven’t you seen me?” The announcer mentioned that the winner would get to wear the belt for “twenty-seven minutes” before giving it back. Despite the advice from Giles, Demolition Dolly was taken down by Hair of the Dog, who apparently did benefit from his lesson. Fat Jesus fought the Baker – it was a match between two of the strongest contestants and the hefty savior won. Crystal the Bone Crusher fought Danger Ranger in a match that featured unchanging expressions and eye-contact broken only after what seemed like minutes of the most extreme strain. Danger Ranger won. The PA played a funny “Fwee!” sound at every loss from now until the end. “We got someone from morning radio here!” said the announcer, even though he was the one in control of sound effects. Armed and Dangerous Archer, whose “guns are banned in twenty-six states,” fought Shark Attack. From this point on Shark Attack made a point of wiggling her behind at the crowd and tucking her dress into her lacy blue underwear. Despite her taunts and fierce expression as her opponent walked up to the stage, Archer won. Banana Slug slimed Green Terror.

After the round, the announcer bid people try their luck against Giles when the tournament was over. “Anyone want to take him? He’s out of shape.” Russell affected a slouch and pulled down on his bicep like it was drooping.

Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Wildcard vs. Salvador Dalia, Round 3

Soo Well lost to Dorothy the Dominator and was eliminated. Wildcard flirted with the ref but still lost to Salvador Dalía. Spectator A: “She does that every time.” B: “What?” A: “Win.” All of the contestants ran up to the ring for the match between Danger Ranger and Hair of the Dog. Hair lost and the FWEE! effect played. She was eliminated. Shark Attack, who “loves foot rubs,” shook her booty, tucked her dress, eliminated Banana Slug, and then grabbed her chest and stuck her chin out at the crowd. A new explosion sound effect played. After noting that she “lost her pet monkey but collects monkeys and giraffes,” Fat Jesus beat Armed and Dangerous Archer. The Baker, an Ocracoke native, eliminated Dorothy. A guy yelled out a taunt that made the crowd laugh. He thought he could do better, apparently, as he said “No, no that wasn’t good” about his own comment.

After the match Shark Attack was seen reclining on a golf cart, throwing back drinks and just sucking down a cigarette. She and Armed and Dangerous then got up and danced with their kids. Giles arm wrestled Young Giles and was coaching him with fatherly affection. A guy from the audience ran up and challenged the older Giles and was quickly – and expectedly – dispatched to hell. A new admirer came up to Giles and was dancing as close as she could to him. He went along with it for a second and then excused himself, saying “I’m an arm wrestler, not a dancer!”

Round 4

Danger Ranger was up against Shark Attack, who did her now-standard dance-and-tuck (the sixth time her dress was tucked into her underwear, according to one observer). Shark Attack won and DQ’d Danger. Then the battle of high hair buns – Wildcard vs. the Baker. The Baker’s bun was stronger. Tacky rock music played the whole time, including “Happy Happy Birthday.” Fat Jesus fought Dalía; both were up to this point undefeated. But it was a quick fight – Fat Jesus won. Shark Attack fought again, this time against Armed and Dangerous Archer. Despite her physical taunts and chest-grabbing, Armed and Dangerous further bloodied her dress and kicked her out of the tournament.

Round 5

“Ocracoke is a community of costume lovers and connoisseurs. We have lots of reasons dress up as much as possible. We take the costume contest more seriously than the actual armwrestling,” explained Salvador Dalía. Easy to say when you are crushing the contest physically and sartorially, perhaps, but it was true that Ocracoke is a lover of costumes. Past costumes included a full-body rabbit costume with huge mask/helmet and a muscle suit with hand-sewn muscles. Before Round 5 started, the winners of the costume contest were announced.

3rd) a now regularly dressed So Fresh So Clean Clean
2nd) Shark Attack, who accepted the honor with trademark shark grimaces and sneers at the audience.
1st) Salvador Dalía!

Winners received a gift bag of indeterminate contents.

The costume winners were shuffled off and the next round started. The Baker roasted Archer, rendering her stale for good. The Baker fought another round right away, flinging flour as she walked up to the stage, and knocked Dalía out for good but granting Dalía a third place finish. Fat Jesus didn’t have to fight this round because she was undefeated. Round 5 determined who would fight her for the title, and the lucky contestant was The Baker.

Title Match

At this point the mosquitos were doing their customary duty and annoying the fat bejeesus out of everyone. Supposedly their role in the ecosystem is critical – food for bats and other creatures and all that – but the constant biting typically leads one to completely ignore this alleged benefit and wish them all an equally annoying death by a thousand bites.

The rented lights illuminated the ring with patterns straight out of a middle school dance. The Baker stayed on stage, her swimmer’s back and toned arms even more menacing under the interplay of shadow and light. Fat Jesus strode up to the stage in her high-heeled sandals, face ruddy with combat fatigue and drink. The crowd was on its feet and increasingly festive if not drunk. Even a kid with a big arm cast tripped over a pole, and another kid somehow tripped and got his body and shirt tangled around the base of a light. The crowd was laughing and buzzing with a mosquito-like thirst for blood. “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” they yelled. “We love you Jesus!” “C’mon Jesus!” “WWJD? WWJD?!” The last comment was yelled by the guy with reliably funny shouts but who wasn’t too sure of his own sense of humor. A friend said, “That was a good one,” indicating a friend group with a surprisingly honest appraisal of their own quips and heckles. The Baker was hailed too: “Bake me a dozen!” “She’s got strong forearms from stirring flour!”

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS

Your 2015 Champion FAT JESUS!

The Baker had to win twice for the title since she had already lost once and Fat Jesus hadn’t lost at all. The Baker stood valiantly, hoping that the Gods of Armwrestling would shine down on her. Would it be one of those classic underdog stories? Would her pure desire be enough to turn the tide? Alas! No! The Baker was dispatched with the power one could expect from the unbeaten maniac known as Fat Jesus!

The belt was presented to the victorious Fat Jesus for photo-ops and to bestow its power to the champion that earned it, at least for twenty-seven minutes. Giles presented her the belt but it fell apart as he handed it to her, clanking loudly onto the ring. Fat Jesus threw her hands up in the classic pose of the victorious, and Giles held the busted belt around her waist. Locals and vacationers celebrated her success. Do we have a new Karm “the Arm” Laton in the making? Perhaps! Only next year will tell, at the 8th Annual Womens Armwrestling extravaganza on the one and only Ocracoke Island!

The Flying Octopus

Dispatch from the Outer Banks –

Meanwhile on Okracoke Island

Meanwhile on Ocracoke Island

Recently on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina, a sixty-foot octopus was flying above a family’s encampment on the first beach outside of town. The family had their towels and umbrellas and fishing supplies as most beachgoers do, but they were also fielding questions of amused passersby. Their octopus was flying halfway between the ground and a geometric craft another thirty feet above, two giant kites perfectly representing the family’s whimsical hobby. The octopus’s eight tentacles fluttered playfully in the breeze, and two googly eyes took it all in as the creature spun on its line.

“My mother-in-law makes them,” the Mom of the troupe said, “in a little room in her house on a little sewing machine.”

The kites are two of over one hundred in the family’s collection. Her mother-in-law has sold a few to those persistent in wanting to buy one, but all are initially made for the fun of it. The family selected the octopus and the box kite carefully before they left Ohio for the Outer Banks, taking a bunch out of storage in their garage and going over which ones hadn’t been flown in a while. Their kites are made of parachute silk and most are larger than life – the family has everything from an eighty-foot frog to a hundred-foot spinner. The frog weighs twenty-five pounds folded and bagged. (Storage demands no special conditions aside from keeping the kites dry.) The end result is tremendously impressive considering the kites can’t be seen in all their glory (or potential mistakes) until they are billowing aloft.

Kite DiagramThe Mom said that circular kites like the octopus are fairly easy to fly as long as there are holes for air to enter and exit. The exact physics of it all evades her, but the octopus essentially flies like a giant cephalopodian windsock. But geometric kites require a little more planning. “Certain angles” have to be calculated and many more strings and outflow holes have to be taken into consideration. The box kite they were flying had at least four compartments. Six cords made up the bridle – the set of strings between the kite – and the line, which is the cord running back down to Earth. (The part where the strings of the bridle meet the line is called the “connecting point,” if you’ll pardon the obscure kite-fan parlance.)

But the real difficultly lies in keeping such a huge kite tethered to Earth.

“See that drag mark there? That’s from the kite pulling the sandbag cause there wasn’t enough sand in it. See that other one? That’s where we dragged it back. I had to sit on it as we filled the bag with more sand.”

The drag marks zigged and zagged for about thirty feet. After the octopus’s near escape, a ditch was dug and the sandbag was filled with five-hundred pounds of sand. A wall was built around the outside of the ditch so the sandbag would have to travel out of the ditch and over the hump if the wind picked up again.

Adelir Antônio de Carli, 1966-2008

Adelir Antônio de Carli, 1966-2008

(The strength of giant kites is nothing to be sneezed at. In November 2010, gale force winds rocketed a kite surfer in France in from the beach, sucked him high into the air, dragged him across at least three rooftops and a pier, and then dropped him fifty feet into a courtyard, killing him instantly. And somewhat relatedly, a priest in Brazil was carried away in 2008 by one thousand balloons. He had successfully completed a balloon stunt before – his nickname was Padre Baloeiro, roughly translating to Father Balloon – and was undertaking his fatal trip to raise money for a spiritual rest stop for truckers. He made it to 19,685 feet and they stopped hearing from him. Pieces of balloons were found soon after contact was lost, and his legs were found floating in the ocean two and a half months later.)

Fortunately everyone was able to enjoy the kite without it escaping or dragging anyone over the dunes. An already incredible day on the beach was made that much more fantastical by the family’s additions. The Mom said that as far as she knew there are no regulations prohibiting the flying of giant kites. She looked a little eager to get back to her family after curious beachgoers interrogated her for minutes on end, but it was no doubt rewarding to inspire so many smiles. “They’re a curiosity, that’s for sure!” she laughed, and then walked back to her umbrella and a waiting fishing pole.

Can Older Brothers Be Trusted? (Probably Not.)

The elder deceiver and his innocent brother, circa 1996

When I was younger, I would try to get my brother to believe outrageous things. I made a game out of seeing what “fact” I could pass off as real. The idea was to tell him something that was plausible enough to sound legit but ridiculous enough that if believed, he would look dumb and I would look hilarious.

I was able to pull this off thanks to my status as the older brother. It wasn’t a matter of adoration or that he thought I was an implicitly trustworthy dude – some worldly knowledge could be assumed simply because I’d been around longer, and I was able to exploit his tentative faith with comical results.

The first thing I remember trying to get him to believe was the existence of a giant map. But it wasn’t just any giant map – I told him a guy in Arizona had a 1:1 scale map of the world. Essentially, some guy out in the desert had a map that if unfolded would be the exact size of the Earth.

I didn’t include many more details than this. Repeatedly insisting one thing was true was more effective than laying out a lot of evidence for it, as the more info you include, the more info you have to account for. Ironically, years later he would get me a book called What Every Body is Saying, a manual of sorts written by a former FBI agent about how to read body language. The discussion of lying talks about how deceivers will employ prolonged eye contact and exaggerated “thinking” gestures to seem more truthful. My intent was pure even if I committed these errors. It may be sociopathic to lie so deliberately at an early age, but I figure the stories I told were different from real deception – it’s not technically dishonest if in service of a joke.

CSX - now owned by Disney. NOT!

CSX – now owned by Disney. NOT!

In any case, the lack of details worked in my favor, and my poor little brother went from refusing to listen to me to believing there was in fact a life-size map.

The next thing I got him to believe was that they were building a bridge to Hawaii.

Later I told him that his favorite train company CSX sold out to a bigger company.

Another strategy I employed was not telling him these things very often. A well-placed story every couple of months was easier to pass off as true. Surprise worked in my favor because an outright lie wouldn’t be expected. Over the course of a few years I also told him:

  • that you could have a number with two decimal points (like 1.456.6548)
  • that our parents were no longer on speaking terms with some of their closest friends
  • that the best way to impress his 9th grade English teacher was to swear at her, because that’s what I did when I was in her class and for some reason she appreciated the boldness and rewarded me instead of punishing me. (He didn’t try it.)

The stories would only go on for few minutes before I couldn’t hold it in any more and I’d crack up with pride about how my genius skunked his gullibility. Or he’d get sick of being strung along and ask my parents if there was any truth to what I was saying. They’d laugh and gently tell him I was an idiot.

To be fair, in most circumstances he wasn’t that aloof. He was always at least 10-25% skeptical of my claims. After a few years of bullshit my trustworthiness was nil and he stopped believing anything I said at all, even if it was something basic, like what we were having for dinner or something funny someone said at school. I ended up having to work just as hard to convince him I was serious as I once did to convince him of something implausible. Now I have to swear up and down how honest I’m being, even about things that wouldn’t ever demand that level of scrutiny.

Much to his credit, however, he has been able to exact his revenge.

Once my family and I were all driving somewhere on vacation. We were talking about animals and my brother told us an interesting fact. “Did you know that a group of flamingos is called a ‘plantikon?’” he asked. “A plantikon of flamingos – like ‘a crash of rhinos’ or ‘a murder of crows’?”

He was interested in animals from an early age. He worked at an open-air nature park at the time and was considering going to vet school. We had no reason to doubt him.

“How interesting,” we all agreed, appreciating this bit of trivia.

He closed his eyes, bit his lip, and looked around at all of us to make sure we fully believed him.

“Yes! YES!” he screamed. “I GOT YOU! ALL OF YOU! AT ONCE!! I totally made that up! A plantikon of flamingos? A plantikon of flamingoes? That’s not even a real word!” He didn’t yell maliciously – it was almost with relief. (There was a healthy – and deserved – amount of gloating too.) He was vindicated. He got me back for years of half-baked factoids and he got my parents back for laughing at my roguish mendacities. His joy was infectious and we all laughed at ourselves.

This girl was cannibalized by her own family - PSYCHE!

This girl was cannibalized by her own family – PSYCHE!

More recently, he got me again.

He was in Omaha, Nebraska for a couple weeks of job training and sent me a picture of a statue he found when he was out exploring. It was a little girl smiling and running and holding a basket of flowers.

He said the city is basically overrun with statues and explained why he sent me a photo of that one in particular: ‘So apparently in Omaha back in the mid-1800s there is a really famous case: a girl was brutally murdered in public, then roasted and eaten by her crazed family.’ He then quoted the plaque: “This statue is a memorial to that horrifying event.”‘

I asked whether the statue was a memorial to the event or the girl, as I thought it odd that the people who built the statue would inscribe it so ambiguously.

“To the girl. My bad, I was paraphrasing.”

Woah, I said. Weird commemoration. You rarely see a statue that so openly discusses an event like that. I told him as much and even started to type “Glad you made it safe!” when he called me.


“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Got you! GOT YOU! Yorrrrrre DUMB!” (The ‘you’re dumb’ was drawn out and exuberant, like an umpire relishing the chance to call someone out.) “Of course that girl wasn’t eaten by her family! That statue commemorates the bravery of pioneers. I can’t believe you would think they would make a statue for the cannibalization of a little girl! HAAAAAH!” Again, his laughter and celebration was infectious and I laughed at my own gullibility.

I’ll have to dust off my lying abilities and get him back soon. (Everyone else can trust me though!) I expect this will go on for a long time. In fact, once when my mom was going to the dentist she saw two eighty year-old men walking across the parking lot. One abruptly cut in front of the other and made him stumble. They laughed and the stumbler pushed the guy who cut him off. One of their wives was with them and rolled her eyes. “They’re brothers – it never stops!”

Counteracted Embarrassment

Woefully underdressed at an office party; situation disarmed by potty humor

Counteracted Embarrassment 1.5

“Forget picturing your audience naked, picture them overflowing toilets and pacing around frantically as they try to figure out what to do.”

The other day after work, my friend invited me to his employer’s holiday party. He works in downtown Columbus as a graphic designer. “Massive amount of free food and booze at my office party,” he texted. “Open to the public now til whenever tonight.” I told him I’d try to take advantage. “Come on! Obnoxious amount of booze and food!”

The company he works for does social media campaigns and graphic design, so I should have been more aware that networking- and client-oriented businesses demand an elevated level of social grace. Thus the note “Dress to impress haha” included in his texts, which was acknowledged but not fully internalized. I didn’t really think about it because I had been running errands since I got off work, and going to the party was something fun to do at the end of my jaunt around town.

As I walked from my car to the party I realized I didn’t actually know whose party I was attending. I asked a couple in the elevator the name of the company. They laughed. I laughed too, like I had made a joke. The elevator opened into a hallway. There were a few other businesses on the floor and a balcony overlooking the front entrance. The firm’s doors opened to a dimly lit office with large windows overlooking a fashionable street in Columbus. Coats were piled on low-sitting furniture in the waiting area, which led to the office proper. The office was very pleasant to look at in the way corporate offices can be, with exposed brick on the walls and the normal mail-order, Communist bloc office furniture traded for sleek Scandinavian desks. About sixty people were milling about, talking, laughing, carrying on as you do at an office party. The only difference was that everyone looked like they had just walked out of the ads in Vogue. I was wearing jeans and hiking boots and a grey sweatshirt. The mental facepalm was audible.

A sense of showing up underdressed to prom came to mind, even though I was never impressed by the minor pomp of those proceedings. It was like a dream where you’re suddenly self-conscious you’re a nudist – you’re embarrassed by something you ordinarily wouldn’t care about. This scene was all new to me, which I appreciated, but I instinctively felt like I didn’t fit in, and that’s a hard feeling to shake no matter how arbitrary you deem the etiquette.

The guests were wearing sharp tailored suits, fancy watches, perfect hairdos, legit sequined dresses… I mean, I was wearing a baseball cap. The lessons I ignored as a kid came back to haunt me. All my life it was instilled that you take your hat off in a restaurant. I am aware of that social dictum at least, which is why it was painfully obvious the same applied ten times over at a party like this. Nobody else was wearing a hat except the one guy with a taxi-driver cap, but that was acceptable because it matched other things he was wearing.

I walked up to the couple from the elevator and mentioned my embarrassment. The woman was eight months pregnant and said I shouldn’t worry because, “Look at me – I’m a balloon!” I wasn’t sure being pregnant and being underdressed were the same thing, but it was a nice gesture.

I did a couple of laps around the party and took it all in. Eventually I fell in with my friend and a group of his coworkers. We were standing around laughing, shooting the breeze, the conversation getting goofier as it went on. It was relaxing to be standing around talking. “They are just regular people in fancy clothes,” the elevator guy said. Very true. In fact, the pressure was defused by discussing a regular side of professional life – that even this besequined crowd has to use the toilet. They are beset by the same bathroom problems as the rest of us, and sometimes they cause them too:

Right around the corner from their office are the floor’s bathrooms. They have to share it with everyone else. The bathrooms are at the end of a little hallway, and the hallway leads to the bathrooms and nothing else. Basically, if you walk down this hallway, everyone knows exactly where you’re going. They know what you’re up to, and probably can’t help but note how long you’re doing it.

If getting to the bathroom embarrasses you, putting up with what goes on inside will likely bother you too. According to a coworker, one of the worst challenges the floor has to face is a father-son-uncle power trio who work in an adjoining office. We were told the family routinely uses the bathroom one after the other. You can imagine how intense three large men in sequence might be. The result is so bad that “you’ll walk in and there’ll be mist!”

More tales of troublesome toilets  followed: one person told us how he was in there once and the water wouldn’t stop filling the bowl, and he stared at his own hand is disbelief as it illustrated the water’s steady climb. Another person related wrapping his hand in toilet paper and punching down the offending clog. (The tactic reportedly worked.) Forget picturing your audience naked, picture them overflowing toilets and pacing around frantically as they try to figure out what to do.

This enlightening discussion coupled with the familiar cast of characters at an office party – a drunk, ruddy pair of party gals and a weirdish guy talking in way more detail than necessary about a mundane topic to the disinterested woman he is trying to impress – made it seem like we had won the battle of temporary in-over-your-headedness.

The final social duty I had to keep in mind was an awareness of the amount of food it was acceptable to eat. A friend of my parents’ was said to be a notorious buffet-hoverer and a sample-dominator. I overheard this quirk being discussed when I was a kid but I couldn’t understand the problem – food was set out to be eaten, so why not eat it? And I don’t really understand this twisted logic now either, but I do understand some restraint is expected in most social gatherings. Hovering around a table of hors d’oeuvres, your hands a blur as you grab prosciutto then pineapple then dates then cheese then crumpets can seem excessive in the right company. This was certainly that company. And my friend does work there, so his reputation had to be considered too. The problem was, of course, that quality increases in proportion to the classiness: this party seemed about a 6.5/7 on the holiday party scale, and thus the food was equally as tempting. A compromise was reached a little while later after the party began dying down. People were trickling out but the sandwich pile was still going strong. Nobody was paying us much attention, so another guy and I calmly grabbed sandwiches for the road. We didn’t embarrass anyone or ourselves, and we did get to eat some more. A harmless success! Social gatherings are fun when you know how to navigate them, and this party was a pretty enlightening lesson in how to make the most out of unfamiliar situations.

The Third Game of the Season


On a Sunday night in late September, Shawn Khemsurov, #5 for the Columbus Yellow Jackets, skated down the ice towards the goal. The Yellow Jackets were playing the Sticky Pucks, and the score was tied at 2-2. With 6:19 left in the third period, Khemsurov snapped up the puck from #93 Marra and scored, putting them ahead, and skated away from the goal with confidence and calm, the levelheaded success of a serious athlete.

His team cheered, the handful of fans cheered, and his mom beamed from up in the bleachers. “That’s my son,” she smiled. But the loudest reaction came via the boisterous explosion that sounded elsewhere in the stands. Martin and Joe, two old friends, were there to see Khemsurov play. They had been running a colorful play-by-play since the game began, and the triumph of their comrade pushed their already obstreperous commentary to new levels of loud. Sound travels faster in cold air, and the temperature inside the arena hovered at around 55 degrees.

When the hubbub died down, Martin matter-of-factly shrugged off any critique of the play.
“That was a clean goal. You can’t say that wasn’t a clean goal.”

There were maybe thirty other people in attendance, all of whom were for some reason glum and quiet. Most of the other noise in the arena came from a little girl and her mom, but they weren’t cheering or even particularly engaged. The game was at the Ice Haus, the practice rink for the Columbus Blue Jackets, a professional hockey team playing elsewhere that night inside Nationwide Arena.

Earlier in the week, Shawn sent out an email inviting friends to the game:

Yo I have an ice hockey game downtown this Sunday at 6:50 pm if anyone is bored. Only game downtown this season and at a reasonable time too.
Last weekend my teammate got kicked out and supposedly exposed himself to an opposing fan, so there’s that too.

Martin responded a few minutes later:

I will be there.
Let’s mob up and burn the place down.

Another friend offered these words of encouragement:

Cut somebody up Shawn.

The game against the Sticky Pucks was the third of the season in the Yellow Jackets’ D South conference. Khemsurov started playing hockey in middle school, played intramural hockey throughout college, and currently plays in two city leagues. (His other team is the Stronghearts.) Martin and assorted other cronies have been attending his games as long as Shawn has been playing. Martin estimates that he has been to at least fifty, and that that figure is probably a low estimate.

The games are also an exercise in indignation. Martin reasons that because people play voluntarily and because the games are open to the public, the Yellow Jackets players should be treated the same as the Blue Jackets. The same levels of approval and dismay apply, and Martin and Joe were there to make sure nothing went unnoticed.

“Red 15! Murphy! Red 15! Murr-PHEE!!” Joe yelled at a Yellow Jackets defensive player.
Neither Martin nor Joe knew Murphy before that night, but they had taken to him after witnessing a few choice maneuvers early in the game.
“Red 15! Red 15! Murrr-ffeeee! Yellow Jackets got the momentum!
“Shawn! Shawn! Yeah! YEAH! Git ’em!”
Not faring as well was a guy named Hess, #14, who accidently lost the puck and let a pass go between his skates.
Martin frowned.
“C’mon Hess!”
He turned to Joe.
“I would bench this guy, this guy Hess.”
Joe nodded. But then the Yellow Jackets regained possession of the puck, and both of them cheered.
“Red 15! Murrrpheee!”

At 11:19 in the second period, #93 Marra picked up an assist from #41 Byg that knocked the score in the Yellow Jackets’ favor, 2-1.
Martin: “I don’t know how you could come to this game – Oooh! Nice little pass! – and be quiet.”

At 9:00, the visiting team attempted a goal.
Joe laughed sarcastically.
“They’re getting hungry!”
A minute or so later, the Yellow Jackets skated down the ice, flanking the guy with the puck.
“Ooh! A pincer formation!” Martin said with mock pomposity, pronouncing ‘pincer’ very deliberately, like ‘pintser.’

“Do I know anything about hockey?” Martin said with a laugh. “No!”
The little girl there with her mom had wandered a few bleachers closer to the rink.
“Please stay away from the railing,” the mom called.
“Red 15! Red 15! Murphy!”

A push by the Sticky Pucks got Martin and Joe riled up.
“Yeah! Yeah! Someone’s getting angry!” they taunted.
They stomped their feet.
The league’s rules prohibit fighting[1] but Martin found other ways to antagonize the visitors.
He aimed a gun-shaped hand at an opposing player.
“Pop pop pop pop pop pop,” he said.

If miming a gun bothered anyone, they didn’t say. No emotion was exhibited either way. But this is an example of Martin and Joe’s touching devotion – no matter the crowd, no matter the type of game or the enormity of the plays, Shawn’s games always inspire the same exuberant approbation. Martin and Joe may not boast portly, painted stomachs but they are ribald cheerleaders whose exclamations are the only other noise in the arena aside from the thwacks of sticks and players grunting. Quiet or not, their presence is unexpected and all the more powerful. When you are the two mouthpieces for the entire facility, you can affect more direct cheers, more direct boos, and much more personal connections, especially when the player you are there to support can hear every comment you make.

The ability to use this proximity to their advantage is why their heckling has a reputation. They are inveterate harassers who unapologetic about bringing heat to otherwise friendly games. These are guys who make a sport out of watching sports. Imagine soccer hooliganism taking over your local rec center. When Khemsurov played intramural hockey at OSU, they were known to show up in packs of twenty, stand in the bleachers, and shout or sing in unison; they were known to bring whistles and blow them to confuse players; they were known to single people out and trash them the whole game. They yelled threats, made hand-across-throat motions, and, when this wasn’t enough, they got players’ attention by waving a BB pistol.

Despite these dubiously legal antics, Martin says they’ve never been kicked out or silenced or confronted post-game, even when they banged incessantly on the glass at the rink of a high-end shopping centre for almost an entire match. Indeed, the only admonition during the game against the Sticky Pucks came from Khemsurov himself. Red 15, Murphy, otherwise the MVP of the game, accidentally scored on himself when the puck bounced off his skate and into the goal.
“Red 15! Murphy!” Joe shouted with the same excitement, as if by reflex.
Khemsurov, ten feet below on the bench, looked up at the noise and shook his head with a grimace.
Martin was unimpressed.
“What, I’m going to stress the kid out? They should feel pressure – they’ve got fans!”

At 3:28 in the third period, the unthinkable happened. The Sticky Pucks scored their third goal. The score was now a precarious 4-3.
Martin was mad. He yelled down at the referee.
“Measure the keeper’s glove – it’s not regulation!”
Here his commentary elicited the first audible chuckle. Incorrect equipment is a lofty accusation. Regulation equipment is mandatory to play, and the team risks a forfeit if anything is amiss.[2]

With 1:15 left in the third period, Sticky Pucks #17 Kennedy got the puck and broke away from the pack, skating down the ice with the clearest aspirations of glory. His lopsided number moved as he handled the puck – his number looked like it was made of electrical tape.[3]

Despite the honest effort and the anticipation that accompanies any run that looks like it might conceivably turn into a goal, #17’s moment of glory didn’t come, as the puck was passed back and forth without success. The arena could sense the renewed hope for a fantastic play, but the run ended as quickly as it began. The remaining minute wound to a close uneventfully. Martin and Joe ended their narration with an equivalent lack of ceremony, standing up, stretching, and walking away as soon as the horn sounded. The teams were shaking hands, Martin yelled down at the rink as he exited, still bitter at some slight from earlier in the game.
Don’t shake that snitch’s hand, Shawn!
The team was still skating off the ice when a Zamboni burst through the gate.

Out in the lobby after the game, Martin and Joe walked over to Shawn’s mom.
“I heard you coaching over there.”
“That’s what they pay me for,” Martin said.
They discussed Khemsurov and the team’s performance, the quick post-game analysis that follows every game. They talked casually, quickly, with an ear for the highlights and lowlights. She has a mother’s interest in the success of her son, pride no matter what but allowing herself an extra thrill when he does well and an incisive analysis when things don’t go as well as they could. The same can be said for Martin, hence the meeting in the lobby. The discussion continued for a minute or two. Both parties finished their overviews and parted, until the next game.

Martin was going to a movie, Joe was heading home.
“That was one of the more exciting games I’ve been to in a while,” said Martin.
“Yeah, cause Shawn scored,” Joe said.

For further information:

Yellow Jackets stats can be found here: http://bit.do/S2fR
Stats for the game in question can be found here: http://bit.do/S2fS
The CAHL rulebook can be found here: http://bit.do/S2fW

[1] From the CAHL (Chiller Adult Hockey League) rulebook: “Any player(s) ejected from a game for fighting will suffer a five weeks automatic suspension for the first occurrence. Any player caught fighting for the second time will be suspended for the rest of the season. There will be no exceptions.”

[2] Registration with USA Hockey is required as well. The “registration is good through August 31st each year and provides accident insurance to players as well as a few other benefits such as USA Hockey magazine and discounts on some of USA Hockey sponsor products.”

[3] #64’s number looked like it was made out of ropes of caulk dripped from a few feet in the air, and a handful of players had applied their names and numbers with whatever heat transfers happened to be left over. Bootleg numbers must have been a problem at one point because the rules strictly prohibit tape numbers: “Before the first game of the session, ALL PLAYERS MUST HAVE A NUMBER. No taped on or duplicate number can be used. Players will be asked to leave the ice immediately by the officials until a proper number is in place. Players are encouraged to notify the officials if they observe a jersey violation. This action must occur at the beginning of a game. Once the game is over no teams will be able to contest the situation. If a team is found guilty of a jersey infraction, the player will be asked to leave the ice until in compliance or the team will forfeit that game.”

Trip update 4

Report from a surprisingly really nice motel in Jetmore, Kansas (Pictures forthcoming; not a good enough internet connection it seems?):

San Diego was a great stop. When I arrived downtown the first person I noticed was dressed head to toe like Spiderman. I laughed knowingly, happy to be back in the big city with all its eccentricities – of course there’d be a guy in costume in broad daylight. But then I realized there were more and more people walking around in costume, more than could be assumed to exist naturally, even in the downtown of a major city. But then I saw the numerous banners welcoming Comic Con to San Diego and saw that most shops and restaurants had comic-themed specials and sales. Even the high-end art gallery and an imported rug store had discounts for attendees. I liked the idea of a Ninja Turtle going in and seeing a hand-woven, $2000 8×10 rug he just couldn’t pass up.

Anyway, I was in town to visit Kathi Diamant, a professor at San Diego State University and Kafka scholar/treasure hunter. She is the author of Kafka’s Last Love, a biography of Kafka’s last love Dora Diamant, who up until DIamant’s book, was known only in the context of Kafka’s life. He basically died in her arms, but her story continued long after she shared the best year of Kafka’s life. It is filled with intrigue and escapes and sorrow and is extremely interesting in its own right. Kathi Diamant is also the founder and head of the Kafka Project, a confederation of Kafka scholars and other researchers searching for a cache of Kafka’s letters and diaries confiscated by the Gestapo in the early thirties. If it still exists, the cache is full of letters and diaries that have never been seen before. Every scrap of paper Kafka ever scribbled or doodled on has been published and studied billions of times – new letters and diaries (and the possibility of new fiction) makes this cache essentially priceless. Diamant is currently working with other scholars and institutions in Germany to gain access to a few recently-discovered bunkers filled floor to ceiling with material confiscated by the Gestapo, as painstakingly slow as it might be to sort out. Kathi Diamant was gracious enough to have me over to talk to her about her work. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her archives of photos and letters and diaries and transcripts, but it was unbelievably fun to talk to somebody about something you both know a lot about but not a lot of other people do. I realized that I heard names from Kafka’s life spoken aloud that I’d never said or heard aloud myself – I’d been reading about them for years but wasn’t ever able to nerd-out to the degree I wanted. I finally got to do so and could have continued to do so all day, but I do have enough tact to recognize I was a guest and so I made sure I didn’t overstay my welcome.

I left San Diego to go to LA and promptly hit the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced. LA traffic is legendary for good reason. It took me no less than four hours to drive 121 miles. It was almost worth the aggravation just to see such horrible traffic firsthand, but this (very minor) appreciation would end as soon as I was abruptly stopped again after driving unhindered for forty-five seconds and thinking that traffic had abated. But I made it to LA without incident and was overjoyed at seeing two friends I hadn’t seen in what we realized was seven years. The reunion was a long time coming, and we picked up right where we left off. A couple days later, I saw another friend I had seen in equally as long. A reunion with a third friend who I hadn’t seen in five years didn’t come together, but I’m happy to come back. (Plus my secret desire to see a celebrity was fulfilled – what up William H. Macy!)

After a few days of catching up and hiking and eating, I visited the LA84 Foundation. Despite the usual economic disaster that seems to afflict every city that hosts the Olympics, LA made off with huge profits and used them to start the LA84 Foundation, a group that provides sports equipment and opportunities to kids and coaching seminars, etc. to adults. They also have the biggest library of sports books in the country, ranging from Mankind’s autobiography to tens of thousands of volumes on golf to books that were in turn written using the resources in LA84’s library. One of these latter books is a compendium of California high school track meet statistics from the beginning of the twentieth century through 2006. One of the authors/researchers is Bill Peck, and he happened to be in the library when I was there. We sat and talked for what turned into a couple of hours. He was at work gathering stats for another volume. He had a legal pad filled with tiny but incredibly neat sets of numbers, and said that he and his friends wrote these books as a labor of love for themselves and other fans of track and field. I told him I was from Ohio, and he told me about a runner from Baldwin Wallace that was a personal hero of his. So personal was the runner’s dedication to the sport that Mr. Peck started crying as he told me how the runner trained in a city that didn’t even have any paved roads. This particular story aside, it was very touching to see why this book task was undertaken – track was an immensely important part of Mr. Peck’s life, spiritually and physically, and he wanted to transmit this transcendental love not just for future historians but in honor of the work and dedication shown by thousands of unsung high school students.

Las Vegas was next. I drove through the desert and saw the city on the horizon. Bizarre oasis! But I realized as I got closer that merely two buildings does not a Las Vegas make – it was a town called Primm with its own casinos and the sudden appearance of tall buildings made me think I’d arrived. It did seem remarkably less flashy than I expected (can’t you see it from space?) and a second city tricked me a second time for the same reason. Finally I saw the actual, inimitable, real Las Vegas and I raced to my hotel eager to see what all the fuss was about. As soon as I walked outside I was in the thick of it, staying as I was at the Riviera (huge hotel rooms are only like $20 a night!), on the north end of the strip. It was much less sleazy than I had been imagining (at least at first glance) but it was hard to wrap my mind around a place in which almost everything is open 24/7/365 and is full-speed ahead for most of it to boot. The atmosphere of the strip is that of an exaggerated mall – people go to Vegas to get wealthy, and what is the best thing anyone with money can do with it? Spend it on expensive shit to prove how much money you have. (The 24/7 party atmosphere is less obnoxious to me than the overwhelming, gale-force message that you are better if you are richer.) Accordingly, hotels house casinos and high-end shops, which is in fact why I was there. Bauman Rare Books is a bookseller specializing in rare and first edition books. Bauman’s is in the mall in the Palazzo casino, and almost nothing in the store is less than a couple thousand dollars. I actually saw the single most expensive object I’ve ever seen in my life (barring a house or the errant sports care) – a first edition of the Federalist priced at a modest $260,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, I went to old Las Vegas. The contrast is like Disneyworld vs. a state fair – you go for the same reason but with much different results. Old Vegas seems a little less focused on manifestations of wealth and more the fun of just being there and being able to gamble and drink on the street. Once I conquered a buffet (not quite as classy as the buffets on the Strip – 11 different food stations vs. 8) I really wanted to see that pyramid building (the Luxor), so I went back to the Strip. It turned out that it was on the opposite end from where I was staying, so I got the full Vegas experience, walking from one end of the strip to the other and back at midnight. So many people, the brightest lights you’ll ever see, every building an immense spectacle, every place and everyone immune to the hours and routines kept by the rest of the world – there is nowhere else in the world that looks and feels like this, and certainly not all day of every day. So strange. I also went to a gambler’s superstore – a bookstore carrying nothing but books on gambling and gaming bought a store selling cards and tables and chips and combined the two. One end of the store is all books – books about the mafia and “myths that CONTINUE to destroy a player’s bankroll” and books on the psychology of tells, BINGO strategies, and my personal favorite, ancient numerology and how it can be applied for success at the horse track.)

And finally, I was most recently in Durango, Colorado after Las Vegas. I stopped by the Strater Hotel to check out room 222, aka the Louis L’Amour room. The famous western author used to hole up there because the music coming from the saloon downstairs kept him inspired. The Strater touts its history as a speakeasy and a brothel and it struck me how much we seem to romanticize old school Madams and brothels, especially during Prohibition. It’s like we collectively join the fight to outwit the Man – everyone loves a good circumvention of irrational laws and Madams/brothels symbolize when this was a national pastime. I can’t tell how I feel about this – it’s a strange sort of respect, but that doesn’t change how everybody treats prostitutes today like they are garbage. In any case, the Louis L’Amour room was booked (and cost $217/night anyway) so I wasn’t able to even peek my head in. I did see some amorous housekeepers, though, and I tiptoed away and let them gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss in peace.

Durango is one of those nice vacation towns catering to tourists who like to buy nylon hiking pants and expensive local art and patronize restaurants serving ‘libations.’ As such, it can be expected that in a town with surfeit antique shops and coffee shops there will be a used book store as well. I found at least two, and Southwest Booktrader had the most amount of books I’ve ever seen in a single room, bookstore or not. I’ve seen some pretty packed bookstores – it’s almost a point of pride to clutter the aisles with dusty books – but I’d never seen any where with floor-to-ceiling stacks going at least three rows deep. A sign asked visitors to ‘please leave the stacks in the condition you found them’ and I couldn’t tell if it was because there was some obscure system of organization I hadn’t noticed or if it was for a patron’s own safety. There was obviously something for everyone if you could find it – one guy yelled “Hey! They got books on crystals!” outside to his waiting girlfriend and I found a signed, first-edition copy of the Happy Isles of Oceana by Paul Theroux. The books were irritatingly a little expensive for used books so I didn’t grab that copy, though I’ll probably regret it later if only because it would be kind of cool to have that personal connection to one of my favorite authors.

My host in Durango took me to hang out with her friends, one of whom was a fire-dancer and the other a musician with whom she played flute and accordion and guitar. I was privy to one of their practices, and the eerie, beautiful folk they played made a lot of sense as the sonic counterpart of their many occult tattoos. My first night, I found myself in the deep woods at night with strangers. It was late and pitch black and nobody knew I was there, but I could sense that nothing malevolent was afoot. My new friends disavowed the ignorant perception that they were “hippies” just because they talked about the vibrating harmony of the earth and stars and life – I was not to be a sacrifice in the forest but another person, another lifeforce with whom this harmony and these celestial connections could be celebrated.

Trip update part 3

This update has been a while coming, but going from two weeks of solitude to more than a week of straight hanging out with people threw off my work game. So this is a little out of date, but here is what has been going on since I left off arriving in Roswell:

Roswell Mural

Mural in UFO Center library

My last couple of hours in Roswell were spent interviewing Mark Briscoe, the director of the International UFO Museum and Research Center. He used to be a college professor but took the executive director position a few years ago. He told me that he loves the job and the people who visit the museum are always a pleasure to talk to, but one thing he doesn’t like is reality TV. As can be imagined, there have been a number of “America is weird”-type shows filmed at the Research Center, and more recently the Center was the focus of an episode of Shipping Wars. According to Mr. Briscoe, he will never do reality TV again after dealing with the contract-breaking, disrespectful, unprofessional idiots that are the Shipping Wars crew. And moreover the whole show is a sham – the object being shipped to the Center in the show wasn’t actually for the Center; the thing the Center actually needed to have shipped was deemed too unexciting for TV and so a monument was commissioned by the show’s producers that they pretended to ship to the museum. ‘They made us look like idiots,’ Mr. Briscoe complained. ‘Don’t believe anything you see on that show! They recut dialogue! They didn’t portray the museum correctly! Some little punk called me up, yelling at me, and I said ‘Wait – who do you think you are? I don’t fucking work for you!’ Shipping Wars is trash, and we’ll never do reality TV again!’

Acrimonious relationship with reality TV aside, the museum is a great resource on the 1947 Roswell incident. In fact, it is so document-heavy that a woman at the Roswell visitor’s center said that the museum might not be what I was expecting, hesitating for a moment before telling me that it might not be that much fun at all. It is a lot of text, she said, with not many interactive exhibits or models. There are some animatronic aliens but not enough to sustain the interest of kids. But I liked this aspect because walking through the museum was like reading a top secret file instead of being walked through a ride at an amusement park.

Just outside of Roswell is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, a state park called Bottomless Lakes. The picture below barely does it justice. I went swimming and then ran to the top of one of these rims in only shorts and shoes – the sun, the solitude, the expansive view, the incredible cliffs right below made me literally gasp in appreciation. Being up there in the quiet felt like the sensation that I understand is conveyed by poetry; this sudden insight made me realize my lifelong scoff at poetry might have to be reevaluated, if only for poetry about nature.

Bottomless Lakes

Inside one of the many lakes at Bottomless Lakes

Heat Can

Heat-induced swelling. The bottom done blowed out too!

After the longest drive so far (nine hours), I was in Phoenix and staying with an old friend. The heat exploded a can of seltzer water in my car, but at least it dried quickly. We did a bit of sight-seeing but were also free to lounge around for a couple days. My appointment in Phoenix was a tour of the PHX6 Amazon Distribution Center, one of five in the city. A handful of Amazon warehouses across the country have opened their doors to bimonthly public tours, and m y tour consisted of a group of paunchy middle-management types and a coterie of state representatives. We were walked around and shown the various stations – the picking station, the packing station, the return-to-vendor station, etc. There are conveyor belts running all through the warehouse, which is 1.5 million square feet. For people like me who don’t understand what figures like that mean in real life, it is equivalent to 28 football fields, all of it under one roof. The tour guide said Amazon’s goal is to have one of everything on earth. The PHX6 facility ships only small and medium-size objects. They have over a million individual items in the warehouse, on three stories of shelves that take up what looked like a few city blocks. We were able to reap the benefits of this incredible stockpile of stuff, as we had the choice of a pair of binoculars or a car phone charger as a parting gift at the end of the tour.


Parking lot of the Amazon PHX6 facility. No photos were allowed to be taken inside.

Driving from Phoenix to San Diego took me through some landscapes that I imagine are similar to those on Venus. Some of the mountains looked like enormous piles of boulders while others angled out of the ground and showed their many layers, making me appreciate anew the earth’s geological history. The temperature rose to 119, and signs advised that your car AC be turned off lest it overheat in the middle of these strange mountains. Feeling heat like that is unusual and even good – I drove through the desert with my windows down and my shirt off and felt hugged by it. I saw one person changing a tire and gripped my wheel in hopes that it wouldn’t be me next, but I cruised safely through the desert to San Diego (and then through the infinitely more unpleasant and aggravating traffic to LA).

Boulder Mtn

Desert mountains on the way to California from Arizona






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