The Lukewarm Butterknife

Fireaxe Newsletter - edition 14.2.1

Apr. 1, 2011

"Here was a man with all the duties of seeking large money.
He concocted a scheme which, on his counsel's admission,
did defraud men and women. It will not do to have the world
understand that such a scheme as that can be carried out ...
without receiving substantial punishment."

- Judge Clarence Hale before sentencing Charles Ponzi

"Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap
at that price. Without malice aforethought I had given
them the best show that was ever staged in their territory
since the landing of the Pilgrims! It was easily worth
fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over."

- Charles Ponzi in his final interview

There I was again, another internet crank, the modern-day equivalent of the street preacher, shouting my brand of elitist, self-aggrandizing, psycho-babble nonsense to the world, just like everybody else. I'd become just another shrill voice in a cacophony of disinformation, idiocy, and good old-fashioned hatred which has polluted the public discourse, a dialog that was rapidly deteriorating into a "let's all talk at the same time, and as loud as we possibly can" miasma of egotistical jackassery. Loudness, of course, is the free speech equivalent of "might makes right", and loudness on the internet means getting as large a number reading your misinformed, one-sided, fallacy-strewn, derivative, mental vomit as you can. My loudness, as it has been for over a decade, is virtually zero, so of course I'm going to criticize the system, being as how I am a massive failure in using it to meet my own ends. The winners gloat and the losers whine about it. Get used to it kid, that's just the way it is.

I'd just posted my latest installment of the 'Blade, another massive pseudo-intellectual diatribe aimed at tearing down everyone who dared read it and everything that they held dear. My primary goal, of course, was to destroy the world one reader at a time, bringing them in perilously close contact with the absurdities that form the basis of their sense of self and laughing as their psyches self destruct in an ideological conflagration of spontaneous philosophical combustion. Incendiary guerilla promulgation of deconstructive disseminations, that's what I was doing, putting blood on the monitor. And if it wasn't obvious, my secondary goal was to use big words to make me sound more correct than I actually am. Look ma, no thesaurus! But no, I've been known to use one now and then. Writing lyrics that both get across your meaning and rhyme at the same time isn't easy.

Not that I'd written any lyrics for years, or sung them with any conviction, my body dragged into the infernal endless quagmire that is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The poison had eaten away at everything that made me who I was: my creativity, my motivation, and my modest physical abilities; turning me into just another has been, or rather, a pathetic never was. And if the polluted public discourse wasn't bad enough, the music world had become like one gigantic battle of the bands. Imagine a stadium, filled with people, only in every section of the stands there's a band complete with its own stage, a stack of amplifiers, and a bunch of weird-looking dudes rocking their heads off as hard as they can. And all the bands are playing at the same time, but playing different songs, and every one of them with their amps all cranked up to eleven. Imagine the madness, the pure, unadulterated noise coming at you from every direction. And in the middle of the stadium where the fans would be there's no one, because everyone is either in one of the bands or wants to be on stage. It's true. How many people in a music forum are there pushing their own projects? How many people think they're going to be the next American Idol? And I've been to concerts where the sum total of the members of the musical acts was in serious danger of outnumbering the people who'd come there just to listen. It's insanity. In the music business you're not just swimming upstream these days, there's no stream left anymore, its just rocks and mud.

A few lucky bastards hit the big time, but recording contracts aren't what they used to be. These days you're pretty much working on commission, responsible for covering the label's costs for recording and promoting your act before you make a dime, and you're going to need to sell a lot of tickets and CDs or else you'll end up losing money on the deal. Some contract, but you sign it anyway because you know that you're going to be a success. Good luck kid, you're going to need it. It's like everything is completely backward today. Being on stage is now the entertainment and you pay others to be your promoters, your reviewers, and your fans. You shell out princely sums for your gear and recordings, you give away CDs and merchandise trying to make a name for yourself, you work your tail off self-promoting and get paid zero dollars an hour for it, and then you get to pretend that you're a rock star. Who knows, maybe one day you'll become one, but the whole thing is more like one of those fantasy camps where ordinary people pay through the nose to live out their dreams. Catering to bloated egos is surely the growth industry of the twenty-first century.

Not that blogging is any different. For the small monthly fee of an internet connection you too can pretend to be a political analyst, a partisan pundit, an art critic, an expert on economics, an ideological champion, a martyred truth-teller, or, horror or horrors, an author. Ever since J. K. Rowling's clever little books snowballed into a billion dollar franchise the author has become the new rock star, chased after by everyone with a dream and an old Dungeons and Dragons character whom they want to transform into the next Harry Potter. And the internet is there to turn that profession into fantasy writer's camp, allowing you to self-publish and self-promote your own novels or pay too much to have someone do it for you. Of course, if you don't have the time or the motivation to write a whole novel there's always blogging, where you can spout off about anything at any length and consider your opinion duly registered. Who knows, maybe someone will read it. And if blogging is too demanding there's always Myface, where you can spread juicy little dollops of your personal life and political opinions around in smaller, more digestible doses. And of course, if that's still too much effort you can just stand up and show everyone your twits.

Mind you I'm different. I'm awesome while everyone else stinks. But seriously, I have fallen so far. Look at me now, writing in that same self-deprecating yet still arrogant style that every other self-absorbed asshole narcissist who thinks that they're an author spews ad nauseum. Yeah, it sucks to be me. Perhaps I should just write a book and get it over with.

And so there I was, drowning in self-righteous self-pity, suffering through another Chronic Fatigue relapse, and looking through my old character sheets trying to figure out which one would make the best action hero, when I received a Skrype call that would change the course of my life.

"Well, you're never going to get any readers that way," he began, that sinister seller of snake oil.

"Look, spare me the fancy speeches about giving the people what they want," I fired back, already tired of the conversation. "This is the Burning Blade. I go for the throat, mine, yours, everyone's. Listen to 'I Am the Destroyer of Dreams' and you'll get the picture. I don't sell out, not to myself, not to you, not to anyone."

"No, but you do sell out to your high ideals."

I had to admit that he had me there, and being that I am not a narcissist I admitted it. "Okay, you got me there," I admitted, thereby proving that I was not a narcissist. But then, isn't dramatically pointing out the instances that make you *not* a narcissist in itself a sign of narcissism? Damn, he'd got me again, the second time without even trying.

"But let's skip to the point," I continued, wanting to get him back as easily as he'd got me. "What are you selling?"

"Bullshit," was the reply, and for a moment I thought that he was calling my admission that he'd got me bullshit, which made me feel good for a moment, but then he clarified himself, and that made me realize that I'd gotten my hopes up for no good reason, and that made me end up feeling even worse than before.

"I sell bullshit. And I'm good at it. And you are exactly the kind of person who I need to carry on my glorious work."

Well, this had to be a joke. So I looked up at the calendar and saw that it was April first, April Fool's Day, and thus I knew that this was all just another elaborate construction conjured up by the wannabe author of these newsletters in order to make a few lame jokes at other people's expense, but mostly at his own. Wasn't this just another edition of the Lukewarm Butterknife and all the goofiness that it entails? So I played along. What was the worst that could happen?

"Tell me more," I answered.

And he did.

"Selling out is a losing proposition, unless you are one of the first in line to sell out. Then, instead of being an imitator, you're considered an innovator." Right, tell me something that I don't already know, I thought to myself. "The trick is to be the first seller, the guy at the top of the pyramid, the Ponzi if you will, the founding CEO who pays himself in stock and cashes out a billionaire when he's forty-five."

"Look, this is all overconsumptionist capitalist boilerplate that everyone's heard a million times. 'Build a better mousetrap' and all that. It's a con. The real money is in loaning out money to suckers with their heads full of dreams and then charging interest rates so high that they would make Donald Trump choke to death on his own comb-over." It seemed that getting him back was going to be easy, too easy. "So are you selling some new style of music that's going to be bigger than rap, or an internet portal that's going to be the next Google, or are you hawking a new herbal remedy that cures everything from lycanthropy to A.I.D.S?"

"I'm not selling any thing, I'm selling bullshit, and bullshit is what everyone wants. My role is simply to mold that bullshit into a form which makes it irresistible to the masses. The medium doesn't matter, the key is the bullshit. With the right recipe you can sell anything, from music to business to religion. But what you need is master chef who can whip up that bullshit to just the right consistency, let it simmer until the texture feels smooth against the mind's palette, and then bake it into a irresistible transcendent gourmet delight." He was on a roll now, and the mental image was making me too nauseous to talk, so I let him continue.

"You're thinking in old world terms, that you have to come up with something revolutionary in order to make a million dollars. Do you know how hard it is to make a Wii Needalife or an iGottaHaveIt? If you want to go up against a thousand Indian and Chinese PhDs trying to invent the next time-wasting indulgence, be my guest. But you'll fail."

"You see, people don't want the gadget. What they really want how it makes them feel. They want that rush that comes with buying it, the wonder they experience trying out all the new apps, the attention and even jealousy of their friends as they show off their new toy. In less than a month all of that excitement will be gone. Their toy will still be in their hands but it will no longer give them the same thrill. So they move on to the next thing that makes them feel good."

He was starting to make sense now, and the hopes of me getting him back were starting to fade. "What you want to be invested in isn't the stock of the business that's selling gadgets, but in the business of giving people that wonderful feeling inside."

"That sounds like everything that I stand against," I answered, firmly, but he persisted in peddling his peculiar pitch.

"Against making people feel good?" he countered.

"Against lying to them, selling them false dreams, letting them eyeball that big present with the golden wrapping sitting behind the tree for weeks and weeks only to have them open it up on Christmas morning and discover that instead of the most fantastic toy ever invented being inside there's an ugly, itchy, woolen sweater that even the dog won't wear." And just to make this point perfectly clear, that whole image with the present in the golden wrapping paper is something that I made up entirely on the spot and is not an actual incident from my life. As a wannabe author I need to work on my storytelling ability as well as master the pregnant metaphor. Yeah, I don't know what that is either. Like I said, I needed to work on it. "I give them the truth, or at least the truth how I see it, thought out with cold, hard analysis."

"And how has that worked out for you?" Not well, but he already knew that, so the question was purely rhetorical. "People will not accept the truth if it makes them feel bad. That is a fact. If you want to sell your truth to the masses you need to sex it up with a few feel good fabrications. The Fireaxe Theory is dry, insulting, and ultimately hopeless, but if you throw in a little bullshit here and there you can have it flying off of the shelves."

And then he said something that stopped me dead in my tracks. "You have to lie to people; it's the only way to get them to trust you."

And I thought that I was cynical.

"Okay, I get it. I just need to work up a few good lies, like, 'by using the Fireaxe Theory we can create a utopia,' and then I can sell millions of books, right?" To be honest I was just agreeing with him to set him up for my next line. "So why do I need you?" Yes, I was still trying to get him back for those two earlier things. What was I, obsessed with revenge? That sounded like narcissism to me and that only made me hate myself more, which, unfortunately, is another sign of narcissism. I was having a bad day.

"You need me because you are a nerd. That means that while you may know a whole lot about things you know absolutely nothing about people. You don't know what they want, you don't know what they need, and you don't know what makes them tick. So you're going to be no good at lying to them." Ouch, that one hurt, and I was down three to nothing now. "And while you might think that you at least know other nerds, I can tell you that I can sell bullshit to nerds far better than you."

That, I had to contest, "You're wrong about that. Nerds are too analytical to fall for anyone's bullshit. They're engineers and scientists. You tell them the truth and even if they don't like it they'll see it for what it is and accept it."

"I know my people," I smugly replied. "You think that you can sell them a load of crap? No way. Prove it."

And the bastard did.

"Alright, take Einstein's Theory of General Relativity for instance which states that time is dependent on velocity and vice-versa. That means that the faster you go, the more that time slows down. Right?" What? He was attacking Albert Einstein, one of nerdkind's most celebrated heroes? For the sake of argument I let it slide, but if he went after Steven Jobs or said anything bad about Star Trek we were going to have words.

"Well it's bullshit. Think about it. You keep going faster and faster; and time keeps going slower and slower, until finally you end up going so fast that you stop. See, it makes absolutely no sense. It's bullshit." Well, when he explained it like that it certainly sounded ridiculous. "But if you're pushing a theory of the universe that allows for black holes, time travel, and warp drive you're going to have every nerd who ever picked up a copy of 'I, Robot' flocking to your side and shouting down anyone who would even suggest that co-dependent basic units, mathematical singularities, and twin paradoxes prove that there's something seriously wrong with it."

"Don't say that, I'm going to get a lot of angry e-mails." To be honest, I didn't expect to get any e-mails. "Besides, it's settled science."

"Science is never settled. That is its nature. There might well be another explanation for the observed phenomena without needing to tie the space-time continuum into knots." He was right about that at least. "But have you ever seen scientists arguing with each other? Is it all about citing clinical studies and engaging in calm discussions of the facts or do they also stoop to shrill shouting, personal attacks, and expressing unproven theories with intense passions and undeserved certitude? Nerds are people too and they are just as prone to be bullshat as anyone else, and some are even more vulnerable, believing as they do that they are too smart to fall for a ruse."

"And the reason that they are so vulnerable is that nerds, like everyone else in our society, have become Ponzified."

"Ponzified?"

"Ponzified."

"What's Ponzified?" I had to ask after repeating the word enough times so that it had a chance to go viral, potentially driving the curious internet hordes to my website and boosting Fireaxe's flagging CD sales. Hey, life's a scam, scheme hard.

"Ponzification is a disease that affects the temporal lobes of the brain, a region often referred to as the 'Faith Cortex' or 'God spot'. It comes about when an impressionable youth's head is filled with hopes and dreams and fantasies of every stripe and ends up believing that life, or at least their life, will somehow turn out much better than reality can ever permit. How it happens is quite simple. We are all bombarded by glowing images of our idealized selves and of what greatness we can achieve every day of our lives. It's natural for us to internalize it. Advertising tells us that we are just one credit card swipe away from being a smarter, sexier, more dynamic person with an exciting and satisfying life. Books and movies spin tales of action heroes and epic romances that make us wish that we lived in a world that is so much more appealing than our real one. Politicians and religious icons sell us visions of utopias and eternal life and warn of terrible consequences if we don't follow their advice. And one should not forget the role that our parents play in placing unrealistic expectations upon us and stoking our desires to succeed and make them proud." He was on a roll so I didn't bother to point out that the "Faith Cortex" didn't really exist. It sounded good though, but then he was a bullshit artist, and a good one.

"So we dream big, imagine that we are destined for greatness, and expect to achieve our most fantastical hope-filled goals, or at least we hold out such hope in some small part of our lives, clinging to those beliefs regardless of how our lives are actually turning out. Dreams give us hope. They stave off the day when we have to accept our own mediocrity, and we've come to believe that mediocrity is failure. Second place is the first loser didn't you know? And our dreams paper over the reality that we are not at all who we want to be and keep us safe in a cocoon-like a fantasy world where we will one day put all of our troubles behind us and realize a glorious future." Well, that sounded awfully familiar to me. Hmm.

"In the early stages, victims of Ponzification embrace nearly impossible dreams, such as becoming president, winning the World Series, or becoming a famous movie star. These dreams are usually not firmly held, and end up being dashed during adolescence, a time when more realistic yet equally unattainable dreams are embraced. However, the trauma of a broken dream can often leave a person feeling insecure and inadequate, sometimes desperately so, and causes them to cling even more tightly to the next dream that captures their imagination. And when someone experiences this trauma over and over, they often seek out an all-powerful, all-consuming dream that cannot be broken, and cling to it like grim death."

"Like a belief in a god and an afterlife: things that can't be disproved yet promise the greatest rewards imaginable." Yeah, that one was right in my wheelhouse.

"Precisely."

"But what you're telling me is nothing new. It's what I've been trying to point out to people for years, that dreams make us vulnerable and irrational, and prone to surrendering our better interests to our ideologies." Had I finally got him? Nah, the bastard always had a smooth answer.

"Which is why it amazes me that you've never realized just how pointless it is to try to convince people of something that they obviously are not able to believe. Your own theory explains why you are bound to fail. You should simply accept it, or do you truly believe what you write?" Ouch, burn. This guy had my number and it was really getting on my nerves.

"Brian, your audience is Ponzified. Their heads are stuffed to the rafters with unrealistic self-concepts and unattainable dreams. Then you come along with this hideous, painful version of reality and try to burst their bubbles. No wonder your stuff gets shot out of their skulls like it has a rocket shoved up its backside."

Right. And Einstein, the Grand Poobah of all nerdkind, said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That's what I'd been doing for years and hadn't realized it until he pointed it out to me in painful detail. But then, Einstein was wrong about relativity wasn't he? So maybe I wasn't crazy, not that the fact that I wrote this ludicrous faux newsletter seemed to prove otherwise.

"Okay, there you go with that word again." Ponzified, that is. Have I written it enough times to get it permanently stuck to the gooey underside your consciousness yet? "I understand all the stuff with dreams, insecurity, and ideology. But where does the whole Ponzi scheme thing fit in? And how is my audience is Ponzified?"

"We are all Ponzified. Like an overindulged teenager with two-hundred channels of content on television, nearly infinite options awaiting him on the internet, and a computer in his lap capable of wonders utterly unimaginable a mere thirty years ago, yet who still complains that he is bored with his life. Ponzified, like the attractive young woman with no end of suitors trying to win her heart but who pulls each and every one of them apart piece by piece, shows them all of their flaws no matter how small, and casts all them out of her life with nary a care, yet who still complains about how there are no good men left out there. Ponzified, like the Wall Street executive with a massive salary, million dollar bonuses, and every luxury a person could ever want, yet who still complains that the government is taking too much from him in taxes and how it wants to cut into his profit margin with regulations and red tape." I had to admit, those were great examples of perverse human behavior. Who doesn't despise those archetypes? But what about my audience? I figured that he was getting around to that so I let him continue.

"Over and over they've been sold sensational dreams and have truly unrealistic expectations regarding what must come next. Either they have an image in their mind of some ultimate experience, of some perfect soul mate, of some grand status symbol that fulfills them completely, or they simply don't know what they want: they only know that it must be better than everything that came before. The problem is that it is impossible for anything to meet their expectations for long, like getting a 20% return on an investment, but a Ponzi Scheme can deliver all that and more, or at least appear to do so for long enough to get people sold on it. And so, for anything to be successful, it must be a Ponzi Scheme. There's no two ways about it."

"Oh, come on, how can everything be a Ponzi Scheme?" I mean, seriously. This was sounding even less believable than anything which included the term "Illuminati", or mentioned the Rothschilds for that matter.

"Let us take the music industry." Oh yes, let's. "Becoming a professional musician, like a violinist in an orchestra, requires a lot of hard work and costs plenty. You need to study music theory, buy a fine instrument, practice it for hours a day year after year, be mentored by an instructor who is a virtuoso in their own right, and also have that special something that puts you head and shoulders above the rest. But even then you have to fight and claw your way through a ridiculous amount of competition for any open seat in the orchestra, let alone first chair, and work even harder to keep your spot if you get there. And then you have to play some of the most difficult music ever written for a crowd of hypersensitive critics who all have their own ideas about how the pieces should be played and impress them enough so that they don't write bad things about you and cost you your standing. You also need to play so gloriously that the concert hall sells out night after night. After all, it may be art, but it is still a business."

"So the aspiring eight year old, bowstring in hand, in awe of an image of Hilary Hahn delivering a truly stirring rendition of 'The Lark Ascending' before an adoring crowd on a grand stage, will end up making a huge investment of her life in time and money towards achieving that dream and most likely will fall far short and never see even a dime in return for it. There's the Ponzi aspect: most of those who invest get very little in return. And the crowd, witnessing that same inspirational performance, becomes entranced, because for many of them it's better than anything that they've ever heard before; and thus they become Ponzified, because now hearing anything less will no longer move the same emotions inside of them. They will demand more the next time around. And for the artist it becomes Sisyphean. No matter how good they are the crowd will always want more.

So think of the effort involved, so many lives spent toiling, practicing, and composing, so much money spent on instruments, instruction, and concert halls, so many dreams ending up getting shattered along the way, and all of it spent so that people with outrageously raised standards of appreciation can feel good about themselves for a few minutes of their lives."

"I see." And I did see. But I felt compelled to say something intelligent to prove that I truly understood and that I wasn't just saying 'I see' to pretend that I saw, or was actually surfing the internet when I should have been paying attention. "So in metal terms, if I may, for the last three decades or so we've had all these bands going to ridiculous extremes trying to one-up each other, which has served only to Ponzify our audience and make them want bands that are even more ridiculous and extreme. It's like a competition: which band is the loudest, or which guitarist can play the fastest, or who can down tune the farthest, or who's the most brutal, or which Prog band can play the most technical stuff, or who can be the most Satanic, or who can be the most graphic, or who's got the most unreadable logo, or who can put on the most outrageous stage show, or who can sell the most CDs, or who's got the most intense sound that digital studios can conjure. And all that just so that some kid can hold up a CD and say, 'This band rules!!!'"

"Exactly, and do you see where Fireaxe fits in to all that?"

I hesitated, thought, and cursed him, for he was right. "Yeah, piles of cash spent, years of work invested, and though I never went in for any gimmicks I always wrote with my passion aflame and a grim determination to utterly destroy every ideological tenet in the world and smash down any rationale that anyone could use to cling to them. Psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally it's extremely violent music, and I worked as hard as I could to make it that way, pushing myself to the limit and reaching beyond more often than not."

"But yeah, the music industry is an easy example. Tell me how something mundane gets Ponzified."

"Ah, mundane, like a basic need, a staple, like food perhaps?" Hearing the tone in his voice told me that I'd just handed him some red meat, and that a bloody feeding was about to commence. "Yes, food, nutrition, sustenance, what our bodies are made of, how do we decide what it is we consume? Do we eat what's most nutritious or do we eat what tastes the best? Do we ask what is best for our bodies or do we ask what we feel like eating? Brian, we are awash in junk food: sugars and starches and cheesy, gooey goodness; the makers of meals all catering to our progressively rising standards of what food should taste like and how it should make us feel. We eat for pleasure and are a demanding audience, wanting the most out of every meal, in quantity if not in quality. Look at how cooking shows and chef schools are proliferating and there's even a television channel dedicated entirely to food. And food suppliers give us gimmicks galore: pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni stuffed into the crust, burgers piled high with bacon, peppers, and three types of cheeses, fish tacos, Foie Gras, Turducken, fondue; it's as much about coming up with something new and extreme for a demanding palette as the music industry. And while some of us eat healthy, or rather healthy-ish, labels like "low fat" or "low carb" are just gimmicks like any other, designed to make us feel good regardless of any health benefit. And what is the result? An overweight, overindulgent, disease ridden population that has to get their stomach stapled because they can't control their appetite for more. Victims they are, of food-based Ponzification." And he was just getting started.

"What other staples are there, well, how about sex?" Sex? A basic need? Oh yeah, we do it to procreate, although these days we mostly do it to recreate. "You can't just have sex anymore; you have to be good at it. You have to thrill your partner. You have to perform all sorts of kinky sex acts that most people had never even heard about twenty years ago. Internet pornography has raised the bar on everyone, challenging them to be bigger, wilder, and more awesome in bed, and some men even prefer watching exotic sex online to performing it in real life with their partners. Now that's Ponzification. And it's so competitive too. People are looking for more intense experiences, for more partners, for sexier partners, and for anything new and interesting because what came before is no longer satisfying. Stir into the mix that science has discovered aphrodisiacs that actually work and advertise them on television and now we have 'sex on steroids'. Want a four hour erection? Give Cialgra a try. And sex is used everywhere to sell products and spice up bland stories, and the depictions of it are becoming more and more explicit to keep pace with everyone's rising expectations."

"Convinced yet? How about sleep then?" Surely that had remained sacred. "Have you seen how many different types of beds and mattresses there are out there? Have you seen all the gimmicks they use to sell them? There's space age foam, waterbeds, mattresses with independent coils, reclining beds, beds with adjustable stiffness that can be set differently for either side, and all manner of pillows and cushions to cradle your body and make your night's sleep the best that it can be. And how about the many pharmaceutical sleep aids that are on the market? Ponzification has struck the witching hour too. We even expect a lot out of our night's rest."

"And how about our humble abodes? They didn't remain so humble did they? Over the last ten years everyone it seemed was remodeling their home, adding a new room, or buying a bigger place. We had to have more: granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and home theater systems with sixty-inch plasma televisions. And with every dollar we invested in our houses we imagined two dollars coming back to us in pure profit when we finally sold. Where is that money now? The housing bubble wasn't just a credit market Ponzi Scheme, it revealed how easily we can become dissatisfied with what we have and allow our desires lead us into certain doom." Now I was convinced, but he pressed on anyway.

"But how about our cars? They're larger than we need, more powerful than we need, more expensive than we need, and more luxurious than we need, but we want bigger, sleeker, faster, safer, more stylish, and with more features than ever before so that we can feel better about ourselves when we drive to work or the grocery store. Do parents with newborns really need an SUV or minivan to haul their kids around? Of course not, but they buy one because they want to drive the big truck."

"Now shall we talk about the pressure on athletes to succeed that drives them to take steroids and engage in all manner of bizarre training methods? But let's not focus just on them. Students and chess players take drugs like modafinil in order to help them focus, musicians take beta blockers to calm their nerves before a performance, Air Force pilots are all but required to take "go" pills to keep them alert during missions, artists have been known to take all manner of drugs to enhance their creativity, and how many people use meth, cocaine, or other stimulants to do twice as much work as they could if they played it straight? The competition is fierce, the crowds are demanding, and the rewards are seductive. We are all Ponzified, and in so many ways."

"Yes, you are right, I see it now," I answered, unwittingly quoting lyrics from days gone by. "The Ponzi Schemes sell the unrealistic fantasy; we embrace it and go to extremes to turn reality into our dreams. If we fail we feel inadequate and become Ponzified, needing the promise of a new Ponzi Scheme to give us a sense of purpose again. If we succeed we raise the bar on everyone else, Ponzifying our competition so that everyone needs to work even harder to match us. But we get Ponzified too because after people drink in our success and appreciate our accomplishments, they get bored and want more. So we bust our humps for what turns out to be fleeting success only to end up back where we started, just like the victims of a Ponzi Scheme."

"The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain."

"I think I've got it." Still it was a little bewildering, the magnitude of it all. So much of our lives have become competitive arenas where we are unable or unwilling to compromise. Icons of the past are no longer satisfying: old movies are unwatchable, old music is unlistenable, old games are unplayable; all of them paling in comparison to the more vivid, more intense, more over-the-top creations of today. At work the pressure is always on to make this year's product better than last year's. In relationships you're always looking over your shoulder, wondering if your better half is going to find a better better half and leave you standing in the road. Even when you try to relax it's too easy to become bored, needing something to do. It made me long for the days when I used to go down into my father's basement and just play my guitar for fun, getting carried away by the music and unconcerned about anything needing to come of it. Whatever happened to just enjoying the simple things in life? Where's the sun?

"So, how do we stop the Ponzification of the world?"

"Now there you go with that idealism again, trying to save the world from itself, as if there was some grand reward at the end if everyone could be shone the light. Do you not see that you've Ponzified yourself?" This was getting tiresome, having this guy burn me over and over, and I had yet to get him back even once. "Look, you've embraced the idea. You push the envelope to make things better than what came before and that's rewarded you with a strenuous but comfortable life. But you're doing things the hard way and that's taken its toll." No kidding. Physically I'm a wreck, and my mind seems to be relentlessly working on a half dozen projects at once, even when I sleep. I don't stop and smell the roses; I pedal past them at full speed doing interval training.

"Be the Ponzi. Sell the dream. The image is what matters, not so much the content. You're killing yourself trying to outdo the best in the world. It's unnecessary. The content is just a vehicle for the dream. Master the dream and it will make you life so much easier."

It was tempting, and he was right. As my own boss I'm a slave driver.

"So how does this whole thing work anyway?"

"Ah let's start with the big hole in your life: no companion. How do you normally go about winning a woman's affection?"

Hole? Was that a double entendre? I let it go. Hole? But I was fine with being alone. I let that go too. "Simple, I try to be myself. I've been told that women value honesty and so I always present myself as is. I don't try to put the moves on them right away because I want to see if we get along well first. Infatuation is short lived and I want to find someone I can be together with for a long time. Women say they want a man who is responsible, caring, sensitive, and polite, and so I try to be all those things too."

"Now, I know what you're going to say, that women don't know what they want so I should ignore them and be brutish, insensitive, possessive, and self-absorbed; that's the way to get laid. You gotta be a player, right? And it's all just a game. Well, I don't want any woman that I could get that way and it would make me sick to treat one like that even if they did respond to it. It's perverse."

"You have me quite wrong, Brian." Well, of course I was wrong. I just couldn't score anything on this guy. "Women do want all those things that you spoke of, very much so, but those traits are secondary to what they really want, and they don't want to be treated like garbage either, though they will put up with it for a surprisingly long time. Women are Ponzified. They want everything in a man. They want the responsible, caring, sensitive guy, who can be their best friend, and they want the roguish, charming bad boy, who makes their heart go pitter-patter, and they want the testosterone charged hulk, who makes them feel safe, secure, and, dare we say in this day and age, feminine? And they do want a man who is honest, but only if he's honestly everything that they ever wanted a man to be and not just pretending to be that way so that he can get laid. But mostly what they want is passion, to be desired, strongly, to be lusted after, to know that a man would do anything for them, because it makes them feel special and truly loved. Unless of course they don't like the man who is passionately pursuing them, in which case he isn't a heart-throb, he's a stalker. So know when to stop."

"Now, do you see how your strategy of stowing your lustful emotions and trying to be a woman's friend first is completely backfiring on you? There's no passion there. They feel nothing. Instead, going out on a date with you is more like a job interview with them as your future boss. You present yourself and they evaluate you: coldly, dispassionately, and intellectually; and you simply aren't going to measure up against anyone who's swept them off of their feet and made them swoon. Face it, you're toast."

Toast? Nah, I wasn't toast. I was the burnt crumbs that come out of the toaster when you turned it over and gave it a good, hard shake. "Sure, but I don't feel passion when I first meet them. How can I be so in love with them when I don't even know them yet? I'm not a superficial person. I don't go nuts over a woman just because she's got a great rack."

"I'm not telling you that life is fair or that it makes sense, I'm telling you how to become all that you desire to be." That line set off my bullshit detector: Danger, cult leader speaking, watch out or you'll be wearing blue and white Nikes and trying to hitch a ride on a comet. "Women today want everything. And with a few exceptions, no one can measure up to their expectations. When they are young they have unrealistic dreams and a fierce determination to make them all come true. Their standards are high, too high in fact, so high that not even Prince Charming could measure up, and so they find only disappointment in their lovers. But, and this is important, these disappointments don't make them lower their standards, they make them raise them. They end up trying to find a man with all of the good qualities of their former lovers but with none of the bad, entertaining the absurd notion that somewhere out there is the perfect man for them. Do you understand now why your 'job interview' approach is doomed? You have flaws and she will find them, and when she does: game over."

I couldn't deny it. I'd been cast away by so many women after saying just one little thing that they didn't like, been humiliated and rejected by women who were 'beneath' me, been denied even consideration by some women after merely a glance. Meeting impossible standards was futile, so how did anyone succeed?

"You need to use bullshit."

"What, just lie to them?"

"Lie with passion." His confidence was seductive. "Women have impossible standards, but the secret is that you don't have to meet them. A woman will happily overlook any failings that you have if you can sell them a dream. Remember, people don't want the gadget; they want the way that it makes them feel when they buy it. You are the gadget. You are unimportant. How she feels about you is the important part, and passion makes women feel desired. Selling the dream will arouse her passions, like saying that you're in a band. You don't have to be any good; it's the dream that counts. Sell it well and the next thing you know she'll be imagining herself living the rock star lifestyle, touring the world at your side, and flaunting her womanly wares on the hood of your car in your band's videos. Say that you're an author or a poet and she'll have visions in her head about you becoming the next J.D. Salinger, seducing her with romantic prose and catching her in the rye. Say that you're trying out for the baseball team and all of the sudden you're like her Derek Jeter and she's one of Maxim's 100 sexiest women alive. You don't actually have to win the World Series, just put the idea in her head that you might get there one day and let her imagination do the rest. Tell her your dreams and she'll make them hers too, if she likes the sound of them."

"But always remember to sell the dream with passion. Soften her heart with emotions. Tell her how hard you're working to accomplish something. That works better than just saying that you achieved it. That's why guys who are complete failures can score easier than guys who are successful but modest about it. Women fall in love with their hearts, not their heads, and they'll fall all over themselves for a lost little puppy. And while being rich, muscular, and good looking can help, without passion and the dream women will pick them all to pieces. You see, when you sell the dream, it shuts off that part of a woman's brain that finds all of your flaws and turns on the part of their brain that rationalizes them all away. That's how you sneak past their defenses. That's how you beat the system."

"Okay, I get it. But a woman would have to be pretty dumb to fall for stuff like that. And I want a smart woman." Honestly, I do.

"Of course, a smart woman requires a smartly spun dream, but it works just the same for anyone, just like scientific dreams work on nerds. Smart women, dumb women, young women, old women, innocent women, jaded women, moral women, loose women, they are all vulnerable to the dream, they just require different dreams to get their juices flowing. Learn what makes your woman tick and then craft your dream around her. Some women are more difficult to woo than others but once you've sold the dream you're in. When a smart woman embraces the dream all that intelligence is going to be on your side explaining to her friends and family how everything will work out great between you two despite glaring appearances to the contrary. When a moral woman embraces the dream you'd be surprised how suddenly you become an exception to her ever so virtuous rules. It's like magic."

"Ah, but what do you do when the dream wears off? Or when they find out you were lying to them? Or when they hear your band play and find out that you stink?" Surely I had him now, right?

"If you've slept with them by then, it doesn't matter." I was stunned. How sexist! Yet, it was true, something that deeply offended my feminist-influenced sensibilities. "Confess if you like. Get mad at her if you want. Dump her if you don't like how she's acting. She'll come back to you. She'll forgive you. She'll put up with anything. The truth is that once you bone them, you own them. For women, the sex act is like a catalyst for feelings of love and devotion. It's probably something to do with the inherent sense of surrender involved, but whatever it is it doesn't matter. Once they've bought the dream and committed themselves to it, they're yours to do with as you will. They've got their self esteem tied up in your dream and their relationship with you. Breaking up would be like admitting that they were wrong, that they got used, and that their dream of what the two of you will one day become will never come true. That hurts too much to accept, so they will resist doing it for as long as they can."

"Well, I'm glad that I'm a man and am thus immune to getting played like that."

"Right, men get played in a completely different way."

"Oh?" I was starting to get a very bad feeling about where this was headed.

"And played like a drum," he pronounced, confirming my suspicions. "Men are like spoiled children with huge egos. Stroke them and they are like putty in your hands."

I tried very hard not to visualize that.

"While passion is the key for women, control is the key for men. Men want to feel like they are in charge; like they have power; like they can do whatever they want. When they do something nice for a woman they're trying to make her happy. When they sleep with a woman they're trying to make her feel better than she's ever felt with anyone else. When they tell a woman what to do they're trying to make her obey. And when they succeed in doing those things it's all very empowering and makes them feel like men. When they fail they get angry or depressed, and feel like lost little boys. The dream that works on men is to make them feel dominant and successful, so women learn to act submissive around a man they want to attract. They laugh at his jokes, smile when he gives them gifts, give in when he gets angry, and tell him that he is the greatest lover that they've ever had. It's all bullshit, but it works. The man is being sold this dream that he is a success, that he has conquered, that he is a dominant but loving ruler of his kingdom, and it seems that way as long as he has his queen by his side." Now, I could have jumped in and pointed out that if a woman tried that stuff on me that it wouldn't work, but since it's never actually been tried my claim would have been purely hypothetical. Yes, I'm a loser.

"Men are just as bad as women about the expectations they place on future mates. They want a woman with a beautiful face and a sexy body, and she needs to have strong morals when it comes to other men but be really loose and kinky when it comes to them, and she needs to be a good cook and a good mother and pull in extra money with her career and do the laundry and do the dishes and be supportive of everything he does and not embarrass him in front of his friends and the list goes on and on and on. Every flaw that a past girlfriend had becomes a new requirement for the next until his standards are as equally unattainable as any prima donna. So women have no choice, they have to sell the dream. It's the only way."

"Yeah, that makes sense. But there's one flaw in that whole logic." Yes, this time I had him for sure. "The whole sex thing doesn't work on guys. When a woman sleeps with a man he doesn't fall head over heels for her. So eventually her deception will be exposed and then it's all over, right?"

"You are correct in that sex is psychologically different for men than women." Yes! I had him! Yes! Yes!

"But women have something even more powerful that they can use to ensnare a man." No! I didn't have him! No! No!

"It's called a wedding ring, and it puts the full power of the law in their hands. If a woman can keep her act up long enough to get that ring on her finger then she owns her man. It's like something out of a Tolkien novel: one ring to rule them all and in the matrimony bind them. With the ring she has all the power and she can stop being obedient, stop acting like he's the king of his castle, stop going to the gym, stop watching what she eats, stop looking nice for him, stop agreeing with him, and stop doing all those things she used to do to when she was reeling him in. If he doesn't like it and divorces her then she'll end up getting a nice settlement and perhaps alimony payments too. And if she really wants to score then she can have his children before she shuts down her act. Then if a divorce happens she not only gets half his estate and alimony, but she gets a child support check in the mail every month for eighteen years. So there is a man's choice, become divorced and pay the high price of freedom or cling to the dream that he is a great husband and father and that he's making a great sacrifice on behalf of his children and family by staying with his disobedient wife."

"That's incredibly disturbing." It was. It was.

"But the treachery goes deeper. Women who want to get married but whose foot-dragging boyfriends with unrealistic standards aren't committing will sometimes get pregnant intentionally, conveniently forgetting to use their birth control and then saying that it was all an accident. And married women have been known to pull the same trick on their reluctant husbands. One night of unsheathed pleasure can turn into eighteen years of financial obligations. It gives new meaning to the term 'safe sex'." It did. It did.

"It's all part of the same scandal, lying about your intentions to land the man or woman that you want because we've all become Ponzified and won't accept anyone of less than unachievable standards. And even when we do land someone who we think is good enough for us, we soon realize that they are not satisfactory. Then we try to nag or badger them into becoming our ideal mate, or we look for someone better, whether or not we've formally left our current relationship."

"Right." He was. He was.

"And it's led to sickness and subterfuge and lies and scheming and people sleeping around on each other because they want more or they want revenge. And some people just give up looking for that special someone. They know that they can't find anyone who meets their standards so they sleep around on a whim or become incidentally celibate. You know, abstaining from sex because it's just too much of a hassle."

"So they find other dreams to chase, such as religion, or a really popular one these days: politics." No kidding. Everyone, it seemed, had strong opinions about political issues, and one-sided punditry programs on television and radio had escalated to extremes in both number and content. And the internet was awash in people arguing or wanting to argue about political issues. Just drop into any chat room and mention some hot issue and everyone will soon chime in with their opinions. Then you can sit back and watch the arguments erupt. It's like one big tinderbox.

"Ponzification has taken root in politics, making it just like any other industry. It's all full of lies and gimmicks and people going to extremes to get attention, and whether you like it or not, that is what works. People are being sold a dream and a dream needs to be fresh and new and exciting. No one is going to get excited about a new moderate party whose candidates proclaim that if elected they will negotiate between rival sides and come to a workable compromise. But they will get excited about a new extremist party whose candidates promise to do outrageous, ill-advised, and unworkable things which they claim will turn the country around. Realists can't make those promises, but idealists can, so they look like the ones who have all the answers, even if they're crazy."

"And all that they have to do is get elected, or reelected. That is the political equivalent of a man getting a woman into bed, or a woman getting a man to marry her: once they do that they own you for the next two or four or six years. So it is all an image game: controlling the message, building yourself up while tearing the others down, promising everything to everyone, and selling a new dream to an increasingly jaded public. This is necessary because the public is Ponzified. Voters demand far more than what any government could possibly deliver and many of their demands are simply contradictory, such as demands for increased spending and lower taxes; and a middle of the road position just makes everyone unsatisfied. That is why politicians don't discuss the issues, at least the important ones, and why they don't discuss them in much detail when they do. Anything they say will get analyzed, picked apart, and thrown back in their face as being either too ambitious or not ambitious enough, and oftentimes they are accused of being both at the same time. A critical part of governing is telling people that they can't have everything they want, but you can't say that and get elected, so you have to sell the dream. Watch a politician work some time. They divert attention to small issues that sell well, build them up until they seem hugely important, and then speak forcefully about how they will solve this 'major' issue and how it will solve everyone's problems. Then they repeat as necessary until elected."

"I see. And since they are Ponzified too they don't want to compromise, they want total victory for their side, and if they don't get it they'll drag their feet and throw a tantrum and threaten to shut everything down." I had to admit, I was starting to see things his way.

"They have been sold an ideological dream and their egos are hopelessly entangled in its teachings. They have become fanatics." Darn. He said it so much more poetically than I did. Of course he did, he was a bullshit artist.

"So, what does this all mean for Fireaxe?" Finally we get to the point.

"You have to sell the dream. Who better than you after all? You know dreams so well. Surely if you put your mind to it you would be able to conjure up any number of wild, beautiful, and provocative dreams that could break the masses out of their Ponzified states and have them embracing a new world of limitless possibilities."

"Still, that's everything that I stand against."

"But trying to measure up to everyone's expectations is killing you, perhaps even literally. If it helps, think about it in Darwinian terms. It's all about survival. You're not lying or cheating, you're competing in a hostile world. You're saving your strength for when you need it. You're doing what you need to do and no one can fault you for that."

"But I've been the victim of so many dreams in my life, dreams that have cost me too much and made me look and feel like a fool. To do that to other people would make me feel terrible about myself. I'd be becoming everything that I despise."

"Look at it this way: the people you would be fooling deserve to be victims, just like you deserved to be a victim when you fell for someone else's bullshit. No one forced you to believe the dream; you chose to embrace it voluntarily. You were foolish and na´ve to believe what you did and now that you know better you are a better person for it. In essence you were done a favor. Someone showed you the weaknesses in your mental defenses. Now you are stronger. Someone showed you that your expectations of the world were too high. Now you are more practical. The world is full of fools who need to be shown their foolishness and you can be the one who leads them to wisdom."

I had to admit, that sounded pretty good to me.

"Thatů could work. I could conjure up a glorious dream and really sell it using everything that I've learned about psychology, sociology, and ideology. I'd draw people into my realm of ultimate fantasy and infinite empowerment, promise them everything, or at least promise them something extraordinary, and get them so wound up and excited about what I had planned that they would be willing to do almost anything to make it happen. Then after years of anticipation and sacrifice on their parts, I'd draw back the curtain to let them see the wondrous promise that they had worked so hard to build up; and there would be nothing but bullshit on the other side, just a big itchy, ugly, woolen sweater that they'd have to wear, a big joke on them for being so gullible."

"You know, like a big April Fool's prank."

"Exactly."

Ending Comments

"One last question," I began. My worldview had been turned completely upside down, and I thanked the bullshit artist for that, but there was still one thing that I felt I had to know. "Since you're the expert, is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?"

"Brian, Social Security would only be a Ponzi Scheme if no one ever died. But they do, so it is simple math. Take ten percent of everyone's earnings and evenly distribute it to all of the retirees. With that system there are no promises, no returns, no runaway costs, no deficits, just a conscientious society taking care of those who contributed to it when they were younger. In the current system the amounts taken from workers and the amounts given out to retirees are adjusted according to formulas to make them more consistent and predictable but since people are living longer and the baby boomer generation is beginning to retire the system is running a deficit. But all that is needed is to make a few adjustments, such as raising the retirement age or reducing benefits paid, and all is well again."

"Thanks."

"But the debate over Social Security, now that has become completely Ponzified."

Brian Voth - Creator of Fireaxe

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