THE TRUE COST OF DELUSION


Tito and Amanda Watts were arrested over the weekend for selling “golden tickets to heaven” to hundreds of people. The couple, who sold the tickets on the street for $99.99 per ticket, told buyers the tickets were made from solid gold and each ticket reserved the buyer a spot in heaven — simply present the ticket at the pearly gates and you’re in.

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“People can sell tickets to heaven,” a Jacksonville police spokesman said. “But the Watts misrepresented their product. The tickets were just wood spray painted gold with ‘Ticket To Heaven – Admit One’ written in marker. You can’t sell something as gold when it’s not. That’s where the Watts crossed the line into doing something illegal.”

Tito Watts said in his police statement:

I don’t care what the police say. The tickets are solid gold… it ain’t cut up two by fours I spray painted gold. And it was Jesus who give them to me behind the KFC and said to sell them so I could get me some money to go to outer space. I met an alien named Stevie who said if I got the cash together he’d take me and my wife on his flying saucer to his planet that’s made entirely of crack cocaine. You can smoke all the crack cocaine there you want… totally free. So, try to send an innocent man to jail and see what happens. You should arrest Jesus because he’s the one that gave me the golden tickets and said to sell them. I’m willing to wear a wire and set Jesus up…

Amanda Watts said in her police statement:

We just wanted to leave earth and go to space and smoke rock cocaine. I didn’t do nothing. Tito sold the golden tickets to heaven. I just watched.

Police said they confiscated over $10,000 in cash, five crack pipes and a baby alligator.

This story has made its rounds on the Internet and produced a chuckle and much head-shaking from readers who enjoy laughing at the antics of the stupid and deranged.  But apart from their lack of sophistication, crack addiction and poverty, how are their delusions fundamentally different from those of wealthy super-church pastors?  And now does one get to this point, anyway?

One step at a time.  Most people lose their way in increments.  Smoking cocaine will get you where you want to go faster, but it’s still a process of one bad decision following another.  You get an idea, you entertain that idea until you forget that it was once just an idea you had and not a fact, and then you start making erroneous assumptions, some of which seem to pan out.  If you’re lost in the woods and you find that the path you’ve been walking down for the last few hours was the wrong one, there in only one way to remedy that situation.  You have to admit that this is the wrong path, retrace your steps and start over again. Sometimes that choice seems too difficult to entertain, so you apply almost the same amount of energy to convincing yourself that this is the right path despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary.

If you accept one preposterous assumption, it’s much easier to embrace the next one.  If you live next to the dumpster behind the KFC, and talk to people who hang out in that neighborhood, you’ve pre-selected the people who might be able to give you an objective overview of your universe. And if you all smoke crack together, then anything is possible.

But if you work on Wall Street and sell derivatives, is that a whole lot different than selling tickets to heaven?  Remember, the derivative market in 2008 was responsible for the greatest “legal” transfer of the wealth in the history of the world. People all over  he world are still paying the price for that one.

Even though in our most liberal moments we  might like to believe that all ideas have some validity, it’s simply not the case.  Some notions are more grounded in reality than others.  Delusion has a cost, and followed to its logical end, it ends up costing everything.  The concepts of truth and falsehood are only interchangeable in the short run.

THROUGH THE WINDOW (a short story)


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What I write is of no importance, nor will it have any in the future. But still, I write. I cannot stop myself, and I can only watch YouTube videos for so long without wanting to jump out the window. The ground is a long way down.

For the past few years, the stock market and especially hedge funds have been good to me, and so I live a long way up. The 72nd floor is so high that it feels like I’m in an airplane coming in for a landing. This feeling does not mix well with the nesting instinct. In fact, simply looking out the window makes me want to take a tranqulizer. When I come home from a hard day at work (OK, it’s not actually work, it’s mostly playing with my computer and making arrangements about lunch) I half expect to hear an announcement advising me to fasten my safety belt and that the contents of the overhead bins may have shifted.

So these are the circumstances of my life, yet when I write, I have nothing to say, no advice to give, no counsel to offer. In fact, my life may best serve as a caution to others: live as simply as possible and try to appreciate the moments of peace when they occur. It is peaceful sitting here at my dining room table, my laptop open in front of me, watching the clouds that float below casting shadows on the tiny buildings.

Sometimes I become aware of all the people who labor daily to provide the ease and comfort I enjoy. When I imagine their lives I briefly become sad, and then frightened. I think they resent my ease and comfort, and if they could, they would get even with me. They would enjoy throwing me out of the windows I now look through. Then I want to take a pill, to calm me down and stop the obsessive thoughts that are my constant companion once I try to enjoy a simple moment of peace, like the one I am now doing my damndest to experience.

The cook has brought me my dinner, but I have a hard time relaxing and enjoying my meal, or even swallowing my food, knowing that she wants to clean up and return home as soon as possible. So even though at this moment she is hiding in the kitchen, I feel as if she is standing next to me, glaring at my plate, waiting for me to finish my meal so she can whisk it away. Surely she is well-paid, at above the normal rates for cooks in these parts, but knowing that doesn’t make it any easier for me to swallow my food.

What I’m writing here is the truth, so my confessions may have value simply because they are an accurate record of what it is like to be me, a moderately wealthy, mostly law-abiding middle-aged man at the beginning of the twenty-first century, living in the most expensive neighborhood in the capital city of an emerging economy, which is a polite way of saying I am surrounded by tens of millions of extremely poor people who would gladly throw me out my window if they could.

Is this the thanks I’ll get for fearlessly telling the truth? I feel like William Wordsworth at Tintern Abbey, grieving the lost innocence of his youth. I am like Milton mourning his blindness, consoled only by the fact that God no longer needs his services. Through an accident of birth and education, a convergence of circumstances that I had no part in, I enjoy high status. What I call “work,” others would call “play.” Essentially, I earn a handsome living gambling with other people’s money. If they win, I win. If they lose, I win.

A few yards to the side of our building’s entrance, I saw a group of fifteen or so men with shovels, digging a ditch in which to lay some sort of pipe. It was, as it typically is, horribly hot and humid. One of the men was my age and build, and the sight of sweat pouring off him as he gripped the shovel with muddy hands almost made me swoon in sympathy. “There but for the Grace of God go I!” I muttered as I walked the few steps to my BMW.

Yesterday was a real scorcher, and as I was walking a few blocks in an unfamiliar neighborhood I came across a small sewage pond with a few boys swimming in it. Actually, they didn’t know how to swim, but they weren’t drowning. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves! Looked like a lot of good, not-so-clean fun. One of the things I appreciate most about the locals is their ability to enjoy the direst of circumstances. Absolute horror seems not to faze them in the least.

Far be it from me to judge how they run this country. There are a lot of locals who are far richer than I, and they seem untroubled by the great discrepancy of wealth. Maybe they’re hoping they will set an example to which others can aspire, and serve as role models. As a foreigner, I am thought of as an entirely different species altogether, so I can’t help inspire or motivate the locals to do as I have done. Besides, their path to the top would probably involve hard work and talent, while mine certainly did not.

No, it behooves me to keep my mouth shut, smile in an insipid and unfocused manner as I go through my day, and keep as much of my inner life as secret as possible. The Internet invites all sorts of fools and show-offs, voyeurs and exhibitionists to contribute to their own undoing, but I am not tempted to follow them on this road to ruin. My real name, my personal photo and e-mail address do not exist anywhere except in the most formal and appropriate of settings. No matter how diligently you search, you will not find a photo of me with a beer bong in my mouth, or posing in my underwear, nor do I comment on such postings by others. Discretion is in short supply nowadays.

Lately, the newspapers have been full of warnings of local unrest. The thin truce that has held for so long seems to be fraying. The military warns that they will not tolerate any nonsense from the communists, and the communists claim that the military is only interested in protecting the interests of the elite. A few public demonstrations are quickly crushed. Then, one night when I have come home from work I am sitting at my table, looking out over the city, I notice there are fires in several places, down along the river. Even though at this distance and through the thick plate glass of my windows I cannot hear sirens, I can see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. I am listening to a recording of Miles Davis’ Kinda Blue on my excellent sound system when the power fails. Fortunately, the Internet still works for a while, and my laptop battery is new, but the official news sources say little more than repeating a stern warning from the military that nothing will be tolerated.

With the power off, even more than the lack of artificial light, I notice the absence of moving, cool air. How long until the power comes back on? How will this place feel in a few hours without air-conditioning? Only one window opens, and I open it, to let in some muggy air. Now I can hear the sirens and what sounds to me like gunfire, punctuated by larger explosions.

The housekeeper brings me my dinner because the cook, she explains, has gone home. I ask about the fires, but she only shakes her head sadly and returns the kitchen.

This is not how I had planned my evening. Fortunately, the last time I was back in the States, I bought a wing suit, a flying costume of the sort popular with dare-devil extreme sports types in Switzerland. I keep it in the original box in my closet, near my diving gear. I’ve never bothered to read the instruction book that came with it, and in this light it will be difficult to do so, but I am urged to do my best by hearing shouting and angry voices coming from the stairwell. They still sound very a long way off, but surely a motivated mob could climb seventy-two stories in half an hour.

Getting into the suit proves no small task. It turns out I have neglected to purchase the small parachute that actually allows you to come to a stop. I remember seeing a National Geographic television documentary about flying squirrels, which contained a montage of their rough landings. Even though the wing suit stops the user from plummeting like a stone, you are still zooming along at over one hundred miles per hour. My only hope is to fly through the canyon of tall buildings until I reach the river, and then glide in for a landing over water. A surface dive. I was always good at surface diving back on the swim team. And, as swimmers go, I am still nearly at the top of my form.

Provided I am not knocked unconscious by the water landing, I’ll ditch the suit and holding my breath, swim underwater, undetected until I’ve put some distance between myself and the sinking suit. That way, if anyone has been following my egress, they’ll mistake the suit for me. Yes, this just might work.

The voices are getting louder. I hear cries of pain from my lower neighbors, breaking glass, laughter and cheers as something or someone tumbles downward from the windows below. As I put one leg through the open window I look back and see my housekeeper standing frozen in the kitchen doorway.

Like Errol Flynn in a pirate movie, I wave jauntily to her, and then sitting momentary on the edge of the sill, push off, spreading my arms and legs as I saw them do on YouTube, and hoping for the best.

A BRAND-NEW SLIM (short story)


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A BRAND NEW SLIM

Slim´s big problem was that he thought only in terms of black and white. He didn´t allow for gradations of any kind: hue, density, or intensity. Either he was for you or against you.
With that sort of lens, the world seemed like a rapidly drawn pencil sketch, and nobody or nothing in it could earn his admiration for long. That´s why, at forty-six, he was still a virgin. No real woman had proved herself good enough.

He enjoyed pornography because in the videos and pictures he was never allowed to learn much about the women involved, so they couldn´t disappoint him by being flawed human beings. The same went for food. He enjoyed the anticipation of eating more than the act itself. All meals were more or less disappointing. They were just enough to keep him going until the next letdown.

It was his greatest hope that someday all this would change, though he hadn´t the faintest idea how this might come about. Then, one day when he least expected it, the idea came to him that incremental change might be the missing concept he had never before seriously entertained much less valued. It occurred to him that slow progress might be better than no progress at all, and that the amount of time it took to accomplish something might not prove terribly important in the long run.

Why this idea took hold one day, seemingly out of the blue, didn´t seem as important as the ramifications of the idea itself. Why, if this were true, then he had had his priorities screwed up for a long, long time.

He decided to test it, and began to study playing a musical instrument he knew nothing about, as well as learning a new language. The first few days showed rapid progress, but then he hit a wall, first with the clarinet and then with Russian. It all seemed too much. Where was the pleasure that came with doing something you were already fairly good at? He felt clumsy and stupid. Where was the fun in that?

After a few weeks of daily practice, he could play a simple melody on the clarinet and knew a dozen short phrases in Russian. After a month, he could play three songs and count to twenty.
What had at first seemed hopeless at last felt possible. His practice sessions rarely exceeded an hour per day, split evenly between the instrument and the words. Sometimes his progress was rapid, sometimes it was non-existent, but he continued anyway, for the sake of the experiment.

Slim began to look for other half-hour activities that he could practice on a daily basis. Jogging and figure drawing soon joined the regimen. Now, two solid hours of the day were spoken for. After six months, nothing substantial had really changed yet everything felt better. He was proud of himself. His own behavior had shown he was a man of his word.
He also found that when he spoke to others, he was far less negative than he had been before. He had always been quick to point out what was wrong with any circumstance. Now, such fault-finding no longer interested him. His few companions noticed the change and thought perhaps he was on anti-depressants. One female friend of a friend was convinced he had fallen in love, probably with a younger woman.

“He’ll be back to his old self as soon as the floozy leaves him,” she assured the group the moment he left the room.

The cynical female was named Crystal, and her secret was that she wanted Slim badly. She knew there was no young floozy vying for his affections, but it made a good story, and motivated her romantic ambitions. The fact that he had shown no prior interest in women only heightened her passion. She was the huntress and he was the prey.

“You know what´s wrong with you?”she told Slim when she found him sitting alone in booth at a café. Even though Slim hadn´t known anything much was wrong with him before she spoke, he had been trained to be polite to strange women.

“No, what´s wrong with me?”he replied.

“You think you´re better than the rest of us. But you´re not. You´re just a garden-variety human bean.”

Slim took time to imagine himself as a bean plant entwined on a bean pole. He nodded, thoughtfully, and wondered how long he could hold his breath around this woman, and if such behavior would cause her to leave him alone. He had been practicing holding his breath for increasing periods of time, and was now up to almost two minutes.

She had him pinned into the booth, having suddenly slid in beside him. Unless one looked very closely one would not be able to tell he was holding his breath, for his cheeks were not billowed out ala Dizzy Gillespie. But his face was growing slowly red. He was starting to sweat.

“You don´t strike me as a person who has a lot of secrets. Am I right?”she continued.
Slim shook his head “no.” The sounds in the restaurant took on a heightened quality, as if somebody had just turned up the volume. His ears began to ring.

“You do, however, seem like someone with blood pressure problems. Like somebody who´s about the have a stroke. My father had a stroke at fifty-five, but he lived for twenty more years in a nursing home. Every morning they would wheel him out into the day room and plant him in front of the television, but he couldn’t get them to understand that he hated TV, especially the programs the other residents and nurse’s aides liked to watch. So one night he managed to get himself over to the side exit and threw himself out the door and into the snow. He crawled a few feet before stopping. They found him frozen stiff the next morning, only five or six feet from the…”

Slim let out his remaining air and gasped for breath. No one else in the restaurant seemed to notice, but Crystal stopped talking.

“You are a strange one,” she finally said. He nodded.

They were married just a few days before his forty-seventh birthday. They honeymooned in Arkansas, spending most of the weekend in a motel just outside of Eureka Springs. He found out by looking at their wedding certificate that she was fifty-one.

“I’m glad you don’t have a thing about older women,” she cooed their first night in bed. He hadn’t thought about it one way or the other, but he guessed she was right. Separated from his clarinet, he practiced scales on a broom handle. He had packed his Russian textbook in his overnight bag, and was able to sneak in a half-hour of verb conjugations in between sight-seeing trips. Just before bed, he jogged in circles around the motel until he feared he might be taken for a prowler, and then up and down the dusty rock road that led to the main highway. Finally, he drew her as she reclined in bed, watching TV. She was flattered by his attention.

If they did little on their honeymoon, they did even less when they got back home. It took Crystal a week to organize their small apartment, and after a trip to Goodwill for second-hand drapes and K-mart for towels and cleaning supplies, they were domestically set. Then she began to watch television full-time. He still had a part-time job as a church janitor, and did some seasonal painting work when a friend of his who make a living painting needed a hand, but mostly they had few demands on their time.

She loved the daytime talk shows, especially the ones where the poor, uneducated women fought over men. Such programs confirmed all her prior beliefs about gender and race. She would hoot with pleasure when a melee of hair-pulling erupted while the unfaithful male in question snickered from the green room. Slim found it hard to be in the same room with her at these times, and spent a lot of time taking long walks trying to calm his nerves. Marriage wasn’t what he had hoped for, and pretty much what he had expected.

He decided to up his regimen of self-discipline. He added model-airplane building and calisthenics to his daily regimen. Within a few weeks Crystal noticed a difference in his muscle tone, and assumed he was doing it for her benefit. He let her assume what she wanted, and constructed a little space between the water heater and the basement stairs in which to construct and store his balsa wood model airplanes.

One night a week she would invite a few friends over for something akin to Bible study, though they weren’t actually reading the good book itself, but rather a guide to it that had been channeled by a blue-haired, self-proclaimed astral being who lived in New Mexico and had a cult following on the Internet.

Her fellow devotees were a mixed bunch, and the only thing they apparently shared was a deep distrust in organized religion and the government. Conspiracy theories of any kind were quickly accepted as Gospel Truth.

One evening, just after supper, he was doing push ups in the back-yard when he saw what appeared to be a pair of Mormon missionaries heading down the sidewalk toward their house. Even though he still had one more set of forty push-ups scheduled, Slim decided this would be a good time to head to the basement and begin gluing the tail wing assembly. He didn’t enjoy making polite small talk to salesmen of any kind, and the screen afforded by a few lilac bushes was not enough to ensure his backyard privacy, especially from those driven to save his immortal soul.

As he descended the basement stairs, he heard Crystal open the door and invite the young men in. She always welcomed anyone who might add to the day’s diversions. “What part of Utah are you from?” she cried loud enough to penetrate the floor boards.

It turned out that Crystal had quite a history of joining religious cults. When she was sixteen she had married a strict Seventh Day Adventist, who kept her pregnant and home-bound for almost a decade. When she escaped, leaving the children behind, she moved to the scrubby plains of Eastern Oregon, where she joined a large group of people who wore purple and jumped up and down, saying “hoo!” They were polygamous. Fortunately, they believed in and used birth control, which made her exit from there comparatively easy, and other than Monday night league bowling and her Internet dabblings, she had remained a spiritual free agent for a few years now.

That’s why Slim was surprised one night when she proposed that they join a church.
“Hon, statistics prove that couples that pray together stay together,” she had offered one night while he was brushing his teeth.

“That doesn’t seem a good enough reason to worship a false god,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and find the Real McCoy.”

As he spat into the sink he closed his eyes and was greeted by the image of Walter Brennan in overalls waving at the camera.

Slim tuned out the chatter from upstairs and concentrated on his model-building. He couldn’t tell what they were saying, but it seemed that he could hear the sincerity in their voices. Then, after maybe an hour, he heard the door close.

He finished what he had been doing, which involved an especially delicate operation of attaching a small metal hook to the rudder, and then lacing a control string through several other hooks and eyes. When he was done, he laid the model aside and went upstairs to see what there was for lunch.

The house was empty. There was a note on the dining room table in what he guessed was Crystal’s handwriting. “Gone to be baptized. I’m gonna be a Saint!”

He made himself a sandwich out of what he found in the frig, and then walked downtown to visit Glenn, who he knew would be home no matter what time of day it was. Sure enough, Glenn was in his room at the residence hotel, preparing some beans on a hot plate he kept in his room. It seemed like every time he visited Glenn, he had found him at his hot plate, cooking beans or making Kraft macaroni and cheese.

“How’s the wife?” Glenn asked when Slim sat down on the magazine-covered couch.

“Dunno. She left.”

“Already? That’s even quicker than I would’ve guessed. Think she’ll be back?”

“Maybe. Took off with a couple-a Mormon missionaries.”

“She’ll be back when she finds out what it’s really like.”

“You hear anything from the Feds?” Slim asked. Glenn had been waiting years for an answer to his request for a disability claim that he’d made when he heard that all you needed was to have a psychiatrist pronounce you unfit to work and you’d be taken care of for life. A lot of guys the age of Glenn’s older brother had taken that route, and had never worried about earning money again, as long as they maintained a minimal lifestyle, the kind to which Glenn had already become accustomed.

Glenn shook his head ruefully. “No justice in this world,” he sighed.

“Trouble is, you don’t have the right connections,” Slim explained, as if he knew what those connections were.

“You can say that again,” Glenn mumbled.

Even though he felt Glenn was a notch or two lower than the friends he could aspire to, Slim enjoyed visiting Glenn. He could relax around him. Together, the two of them could stare out Glenn’s window and watch car and pedestrian traffic cross the intersection in front of Glenn’s building. Looking up, over the paint store across the street, they could see a patch of sky above, bound by taller brick buildings on the next block, and that small frame of blue made puffy clouds seem precious. Minutes could pass without either of them saying anything.

Glenn’s furnished room had the Buddha nature.

Slim stayed most of the afternoon at Glenn’s, and then walked home, not knowing what he expected to find. Sure enough, Crystal was there, preparing dinner.

“I hope you haven’t eaten,” she said as he entered the kitchen.

“Nah. Just made myself a sandwich for lunch. Figured I’d have to order a pizza for dinner.”

“So is that your way of saying your glad to see me?” she asked.

“I guess. What was it like?”

“They’re nice people, and they talk a good line, but I couldn’t stand the music. It’s the corny stuff my parents used to listen to. And their temple feels like a Holiday Inn. Even when they try to be fancy, they’re plain and old-fashioned. Painted woodwork. Like a funeral home parlor. Gave me the willies.”

Slim decided maybe his new wife wasn’t so bad after all. He sat at the kitchen table and watched her cook, thinking that he had Glenn’s life beat by a country mile.