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:
Stats for the game in question can be found here:
The CAHL rulebook can be found here:

[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





Report from Roswell, NM

I wasn’t sure how Roswell would feel about it’s UFO legacy – is it an annoying rumor that just won’t die? Does it distract from the other cool things Roswell has to offer? A sign in front of a Valero as you enter the city answered my question: “Official UFO stop!” Roswell is totally UFO’d out, from the more than a dozen kitschy alien-themed shops to the furniture store that has aliens in bridal gear in the window to the offices of the visitor’s center, which have UFOs on them. (That the courthouse has a big stone Ten Commandments out front indicates a different presence as well.) It’s not like I’m opposed to the UFO worship, as I’m here in Roswell in a crusty motel waiting to visit the International UFO Museum and Research Center, possibly the world’s foremost ufology library. I got there too late yesterday to warrant a visit but I was able to check out its impressive library. After that I wandered around and looked in a handful of the aforementioned alien shops, since the only places that are open past five or six are alien places. Later I found myself at a cemetery on the edge of town, where I got covered in flies. Covered in cemetery flies – yikes.


May or may not have eaten at this buffet, somewhere on 40W in Oklahoma

The drive out of Oklahoma a few days ago took me past the birthplaces of Troy Aikman, Carrie Underwood, and Woodie Guthrie. My next destination was in the northern part of Texas. And for hundreds and hundreds of miles it was one of the most desolate areas I’ve ever encountered. You truly do have an unbroken view all the way to the horizon. There are small towns here and there, but most of the evidence of habitation is in the form of oil refineries or large-scale cattle operations, or at the very least, a field full of oil derricks that look like horse skeletons bobbing in the breeze. The miles of piping and tanks and outbuildings of the oil refineries coupled with the general desolation makes these outposts seem like the first attempts at colonization on a new planet. Indeed, a historical marker on the side of the road (of which there are many) explained that a town used to be settled there but after a while the entire town picked up and left, including loading the buildings and houses wholesale onto trains.



Skellytown, TX

I visited Skellytown and Borger in Texas. I had an address for something in Skellytown, but I don’t really know what it was for – it led me to one of the many possibly abandoned houses that make up the town. The Christian bookstore in Borger was kind of a bust (depending on how you look at it), since the bookstore was in fact some shelves in the corner of a beauty salon. I was hoping to at least talk to somebody, but I was totally ignored. There were books for sale like The Bait of Satan, Nuclear Prayers for the Secret Place, and a book by the “ordained prophetess” who wrote Breaking the Threefold Demonic Code. (They also had the “autobiography” of one of those clowns from Duck Dynasty.) There was nowhere to stay in Borger, so I decided to take my chances in nearby Amarillo. As it happened, there was a death metal show going on that night, and I made my way to the far outskirts of town to check it out. I stopped at a restaurant to get something to eat first – when I peeked my head in the door, I saw upturned tables covered in dust and two women sitting on the ground talking, totally surprised when I looked in. The show was nearby, so I went there instead. A little while in, I suddenly get punched in the stomach. I look down and see a little mohawk running away from me – an eight year old was trying to start a mosh pit.

Texas Horizon

Unending north Texas isolation!

The next morning I stopped for breakfast in Texico, NM at a diner in a building that looked like it used to be a municipal building from the 70s. A few groups of people came in for breakfast wearing sweat-stained hats, deeply tanned, and covered in mud/dirt/shit. You could tell they could work. One group had a little kid with them who himself was wearing muddy clothes and boots. He was sitting between two older guys in a miniature imitation of their posture, devouring his meal like the adults were theirs. He answered the waitress with his version of the older guys’ “Yu-up,” though a similar kid behind me was still a kid, ordering as he did a corndog and baked beans.

Speaking of food, that is where I’m headed now. Every day has been totally different from the one that preceded it, and that variety is amazing. I don’t know what I’ll find myself doing, but I like that a lot. Another update in a few days!

Blackwater Draw

Blackwater Draw archaeological site – found this site by chance in NM. It is of inestimable importance for the study of early humans in North America. You are free to walk around the site, though there weren’t any active excavations when I was there. This is a preserved (and covered) site so visitors can see the different layers of soil and their respective artifacts and bones.

Trip Update, part 1

Report from hotel room, Sallisaw, OK:

Despite being glared at really hard by some elderly couples at the continental breakfast, the trip so far has been a resounding success. Every day has brought so many new opportunities to learn and observe. Today will be my visit to Sequoyah’s Cabin, the home of the man responsible for developing the written Cherokee language despite being functionally illiterate. Sallisaw is kind of a bleak environment (already saw one guy being arrested and heard the N word repeatedly yelled by a gang of teens) but it could be the weather that colors my perception, as it has been grey and rainy the whole time I’ve been here. But my host did take me out to the middle of the woods to look at this dam at night; the weather made the sky a little lighter (and scarier), and I was glad to be somewhere so quiet and eerie.

On my way from Bowling Green, KY to Little Rock, AR, I encountered more rain than I’ve ever driven through or have possibly ever seen. A lightning blast stuck no more than two hundred feet away, hitting the middle of a muddy field and illuminating a pack of running cows. The scene was primal and quite terrifying, for it’s not often you see cows prompted to run. Later on, a half a mile of powerlines were downed alongside the highway. (And not just downed; pulled in half.) Traffic was brought to a standstill and I saw an accident happen as drivers couldn’t help but look at the surreal, disaster-caliber damage.

Threatening Skies

THREAT-NING SKIES! I always hear that Obituary song when I see intense stormclouds

Little Rock was action-packed. Mount Holly Cemetery is apparently the “Westminster Abbey of Arkansas” because a lot of statesmen and writers and Arkansans generally of note are buried there. It was a remarkably beautiful and calm place, even more so than the normal cemetery whose peace and quiet I didn’t fully appreciate/respect until recently. The visit was prompted by the guy I was researching, Charles Fenton Mercer Noland, who is buried there. The caretaker told me that the fence around Noland’s grave is as old as the grave itself, designed to keep out cows and wild pigs since the cemetery was fairly rural when Noland was buried in 1858. Noland was a Southern humorist, politician, and duelist who was also tasked with riding the Arkansas Constitution to Washington (though upon arrival he found out it had already arrived via other means.) He wrote a series of humorous letters for a magazine in New York detailing the exploits of his alter-ego Pete Whetstone, and some say he probably would have been canonized in Southern literature had he not died so early.

Mount Holly Cemetery

Mount Holly Cemetery, Little Rock, AR

I visited two bookstores in Little Rock, one very neat and the other boasting bags and bags of books on the ground between rows. In the latter, a place simply called The Book Store, the owner told me that she takes but immediately recycles any books about “witchcraft.” But I was able to get a trashy book about the Unabomber there, so that’s good. I ambled around downtown for a while and later went to the Bill Clinton Presidential Center (and giftshop). It is a fascinating place, and not only for its replica of the Oval Office. My hosts were all involved in the sustainable agriculture community; their house smelled earthy and full of vegetables and slow cooking, a smell I appreciate because it’s one of the smells of the left-wing. A few of them went to a town hall meeting, where one guy called for nothing less than the mayor’s resignation because the city wasn’t doing anything to stop the creosote factory the guy’s neighbor had going in his backyard.

The Book Store

The Book Store, on JFK Blvd. in Little Rock. Don’t worry, no books on witchcraft.

Clinton Demin

Denim jacket for sale in the Clinton Center giftshop – the letters and image are raised.

Anyway, off to the cabin now!


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