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HOW GOOD CAN IT GET?
What I Learned from the Richest Man in the World
By Alan H. Cohen
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Alan H. Cohen
All rights reserved.
STARS BEYOND THE TELESCOPE
Some people say that before we are born we make a date to meet everyone in our life who will affect our destiny. If I knew how much one odd man would change my world, I would have found my way to him when I was younger. But, then again, he taught me that there's a timing to life. Still, there are so many things I wish I had said to him. Maybe if I tell you my story, he will somehow hear....
I showed up for my interview at the wheelbarrow factory twenty minutes late. Bert Everit emerged from his little office wearing a new pair of Wranglers and a plaid flannel shirt just big enought to contain his modest Buddha belly. He greeted me warmly and shook my hand for a long time. I worried for a moment that he was going to hug me, but he didn't.
"I've been waiting for you," he told me right off.
Had I blown the job before I even got hired? I couldn't afford that; my credit report was getting uglier by the day. "Sorry I'm late ... There was traffic on—"
"No, no, don't worry about that," he laughed. "I was just looking forward to meeting you."
Did this guy greet every job applicant like this? Before I could make sense of his welcome, he whisked me off and introduced me to all the department heads as if I was a long-lost family member. Along the way he rested a comforting hand on my shoulder, looked me squarely in the eye, and asked me more questions about my life than my skills. In the hour I spent with him, he gave me more undivided attention than my therapist.
I wasn't surprised when Mr. Everit invited me to stay for dinner. He escorted me to his studio apartment at the back of the factory, an oddball Hobbit hut strewn with a turtle shell from the Galapagos, overdue Anthony Robbins videos, and a rare collection of Yoda action figures. I had met people like him before. They were either nuts or geniuses. Maybe both.
He donned a chef's hat personally autographed by Wolfgang Puck, cooked us up a tasty Cajun halibut, and then unlocked his private stash of cognac. I was astounded to watch this strange duck move with disarming simplicity, a homespun blend of mastery and humility.
After dinner he took me out on his little patio overlooking a lush valley, where I could hear critters rustling in the night. "How good is this?" he uttered with eyes aglow as he inhaled a deep breath of country air. The moon had not yet risen, and in the dark of the night sky I was awestruck by a shimmering splash of stars across the heavens.
"Can you believe all those stars?" I asked him.
"I can believe them—that's why I see them," he answered. "Dominic didn't skimp on anything."
Dominic? I turned to him and squinted, "Who the heck is Dominic?"
"Dominic is my name for God."
"Then why don't you just say, 'God?'"
"The word's gotten too beat up over the years. I like 'Dominic.'"
Okay, Dominic it is.
"Dominic created the universe in fantastic abundance. Extravagant, even. Niagara Falls was His idea—not those silly little contraptions you put on your shower to save water. Jeez, you have to stand there twice as long to get wet. So what's the point? Ecologists should take a hint."
I just sat there taking it all in, wondering if Bert Everit was an incognito sage or one fry short of a Happy Meal.
"Right where you're looking now, there are millions of stars," he went on, losing himself in a gaze. "And billions more beyond them." He clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back so far I was afraid he would fall over. "You could build a telescope bigger than Mt. Everest, and there would still be countless stars past its range. The universe is a bean counter's nightmare, but a mystic's delight."
I never really thought of the universe as endlessly rich. I spent more time trying to figure out how to time my coming and going from my apartment so my landlord wouldn't corner me.
"Have you ever been to Hawaii?" he asked abruptly.
Hawaii? Are you kidding? "Only seen it on TV and the movies."
"I went there on my honeymoon with Marlene. It's quite a place. Everything is gigantic! Palm leaves so big it takes two guys to load one in a truck. I asked a couple who live there, 'Do you have seasons in Hawaii?' The lady snickered, 'Yes—every fall we argue over who is going to rake the leaf!'"
Was that really true, or was he just making this up as he went along?
"Ever been to Australia?"
"I was there on business once. Saw a statue of a 12-foot prehistoric kangaroo. Momma! Can you imagine driving around a corner and running into one of those suckers?" He slapped his thigh and laughed; he obviously got a kick out of himself.
"Ever been to prehistoric times?"
Did he, like, take me for a complete geek? "Uh ... not that I remember."
"Once, in a museum, I saw a replica of a prehistoric armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle."
Okay, already. "And your point?"
He had toyed with me long enough. "Life was intended to be big and a lot. Everything, everywhere, in infinite supply, capable of reproducing itself in immeasurable quantities forever. Enough of everything for everyone. Always."
Well, that might be, I thought, but then why do I have to go to the gas station to fill up my saggy left rear tire with air before I can drive anywhere? If I could afford a new tire, I would just buy one. Meanwhile, people are starving, trees are disappearing faster than Burger King sells Whoppers, and tap water tastes like transmission fluid. "So what happened, Mr. Everit?" I asked him up front. "If the universe is so abundant, why have good things gotten so scarce and why doesn't everybody have everything they want?"
He stood there silently for a while. Maybe I stumped him, I thought. Finally he turned to me and asked, "Do you need to get anywhere soon?"
"I guess not. No dates with Britney Spears tonight."
"Then let's take a ride." Mr. Everit grabbed his keys and motioned for me to follow him.CHAPTER 2
We drove about ten minutes along an old country road dotted with speed limit signs pockmarked with bullet holes by local yahoos. Stupid people with guns seemed to poke a big hole in Mr. Everit's "life is good" theory. Yet as I watched the full moon rising over a rolling meadow, I felt a sense of peace. Living in the city for so long, I don't remember the last time I paid much attention to the moon. Was there life beyond the flashing time and temperature sign?
Without a word, Mr. Everit pulled his silver 4-Runner (he named it "Big Buck") off to the side of the road and parked next to a corral of weathered gray rough-cut logs. For a moment I grew leery; I hardly knew this dude, and here I was alone with him in the middle of nowhere. He was definitely a little quirky. What if he had a chainsaw in the back of his truck? Or if he was a terrorist, or a member of some weird cult that needed a full moon sacrifice? Or, or, or ...? My mind spun out for a while, but reason reassured me my fears were unfounded. Eccentric as he was, he seemed very kind; if I was safe with anyone, it was him.
Bert Everit stepped out of Big Buck with a John Wayne-like half poise, ambled to the corral fence, and leaned over it. I took the hint and followed. Suddenly I heard the stirring of hooves in the pasture; within a few moments several tiny horses approached us. They were so small that at first, in the ambiguous moonlight, I thought they were large dogs, about the size of a big German Shepherd. As they came closer, I could see they were horses for sure.
"Are those Shetland Ponies?" I asked.
"Nope. They're Pygmy Horses."
I'd never seen such strange creatures before. "How do they get so small?"
"Breeding," he replied with a forced little smile. "Way back when, someone mated the two smallest horses they could find. Then they took the offspring and bred them with the other smallest horses they could find. And on and on, like that. Every generation, the horses got smaller and smaller, until they ended up the tiny specimens you see before you."
"Yes, isn't it? When you put two small things together, the results get only smaller."
Mr. Everit deftly boosted himself onto the fence and sat facing the Pygmy Horses. Again I followed. My move, however, was clumsier. I nearly fell over into the corral, until he caught me and steadied me. I felt like a dweeb.
Finally I got settled, and we sat in the stillness for a while. I figured that him bringing me here was his way of fielding my question. "What does this have to do with how things got scarce in our world?" I asked him.
"Everything," he answered, straightening his John Deere cap. "Over many, many generations, people have cultivated pygmy thoughts. Not purposely, mind you—but that doesn't matter. Habits affect you whether you mean them or not. Every time you assume, 'there's not enough' or 'I'm not enough' and you get together with someone who agrees, you just bred a pygmy thought. You just made your world smaller."
As if on cue, a little dappled mare approached us. Mr. Everit leaned down and stroked her forehead. The moon shadows accented deep wrinkles at the side of his eyes, the kind that spoke of traveling many trails. "When millions of people keep thinking 'not enough' and fueling their belief with fear, the world shrinks daily."
I tried to shift my position on the fence. My butt hurt. Maybe I was uncomfortable with the subject.
"I don't know, Mr. Everit," I challenged him, "Do you really think everyone is that stupid?"
"I didn't say 'stupid,'" he answered soberly. "Just asleep ... They don't realize they shape their destiny with every thought and word."
The mare ambled over to me and began to nuzzle my leg.
"Then what if some big thinker wrote a book or went on television or got elected President," I suggested, "and told people they could have a lot more than they've been settling for? You know, like the kid who shocked everyone into admitting that the Emperor wasn't wearing clothes ... Wouldn't people figure out how to be rich if they didn't believe they had to be poor?"
Mr. Everit shook his head. "Only those ready to hear it. Most people feel safe in their familiar little world—even if it stinks. It's like that movie The Truman Show, where the guy grows up on a life-size TV set and thinks it's real. When he figures out the plot and struggles to escape, someone asks the show's producer if Truman can break free. The producer explains, 'He can get out anytime he wants. The truth is, he prefers his world.'"
I started to feel agitated. A few of the horses let out a whinny. The wind, which had been still, whipped up, and I began to feel a chill.
"Back in medieval times people believed the sun revolved around the earth," Mr. Everit went on. "When Galileo suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, the church prosecuted him for heresy and sentenced him to life imprisonment."
"I know, I know," I snapped. "Tenth grade science."
"Ignorance still rules," he shot back. "A hundred years from now, people will look back on a lot of stuff we do, and ask, 'What were they thinking, anyway?'"
One of the horses nodded his head vigorously. My rear end was numb. Everit had a lot of nerve to imply that my financial predicament was my own doing.
"People cling to their little fishbowl lives and resist change like the plague," he insisted. "Meanwhile they are starving at a dinner in their honor."
"Okay, since you brought up starving, if life is so rich, why, with all our technology, do children still starve to death?"
"War, usually," he answered curtly. Then, like a magician, he pulled a small apple out of his pocket, broke it into pieces, and gently fed them to a few little horses.
"During the war in Bangladesh, for example, people from all over the world sent boatloads of food to alleviate the famine. But fighting blocked the provisions from getting to the hungry people. The rations sat and rotted in the bellies of the boats at the dock ... best-fed rats in the world. Dominic didn't create the shortage. People did."
"Oh, come on now!" I protested. "Plenty of people are hungry because they can't afford to eat."
"And what keeps money from circulating? Not Dominic. People. Take September 11th, for example. A bunch of idiots crashed airplanes into big buildings and killed thousands of people. That's tragic. The only thing sadder was what happened afterward. Millions of people got scared and shriveled up. Fear immobilized them, and for a long time they quit flying and spending money. Marlene's sister is an optometrist in Pennsylvania. She told me that for a year after September 11th, people stopped buying eyeglasses. Now if you can explain to me how a bunch of fanatic whackos in Afghanistan can keep little old ladies in Pennsylvania from buying spectacles...."
"The economy got depressed...."
"No!—People got depressed!" he nearly shouted. "That made the economy depress. The economy has no mind of its own. Your car doesn't drive itself anywhere. You drive it. People drive the economy. Osama bin Ladin and his cronies did not cause the recession. Frightened people did. On September 12 there was just as much money to go around as there was on September 10. People just stopped circulating it. Pygmy thoughts, fertilized by terror, bred rapidly overnight."
Mr. Everit looked me in the eye with almost frightening intensity and told me, "The cause of poverty is not scarcity. It is fear and small thinking."
After a moment he took a long deep breath, relaxed, and asked, "Ready to head back now?"
"Okay," I answered. But I wasn't okay. Bert Everit was beginning to rock my world.CHAPTER 3
THE HUNGRY FISHERMAN
That night I lay awake for a long time, thinking about those Pygmy Horses. I had lots of people and conditions to blame for the things I lacked. A father who never came home; anal-retentive bosses; kamikaze terrorists; forked-tongued politicians; irrational women; a fickle stock market; hypocritical religion; greedy gasoline gougers; refineries that turned the air yellow; sexual- and computer-transmitted viruses; idiots who drive like they got their license at K-Mart; and on and on. In therapy I had traced my pain back to an overbearing mother angry at having to raise me by herself. An astrologer told me that money would always be a problem for me, and a psychic explained that I had been a debtor in a past life and I was still trying to undo that karma. My list of ways life had beaten me down was longer than Rush Limbaugh's criticisms of Democrats, and a lot more people would have sympathy for my problems than his. But if there was any truth to what Mr. Everit was saying, those people and things didn't really have power over me. And if that was so, how could I get my power back?
The next afternoon I drove back to the factory, where I found Mr. Everit in his apartment popping Goobers and watching a "Leave It to Beaver" rerun. He claimed that a few minutes of good belly laughs in the middle of the day freed his mind to figure out stuff he couldn't solve in the thick of work. I sat down and watched the second half of the show with him; I have to admit that by end of the program my financial situation didn't feel so impossible.
"What brings you back here?" he asked as he flicked off the TV.
"Well, first off, I was wondering if I got the job."
"Do you want the job?"
He obviously had no idea how much I needed the job. "Yes, I do."
"Then you have the job."
Cool. "But don't you have to run it by a committee, or board, or something?"
He laughed. "I am the board. If I like you, you're in ... I like you. You're in." He shook my hand and then studied my face for a long moment, as if he was reading my mind. "There's more, isn't there?"
There was. "I've been pretty confused about what you told me last night," I confessed.
"Good? What's so good about being confused?"
He stood up, walked toward his little refrigerator, and took out a bag of ground coffee. "Confusion is the last stop on the train to clarity," he told me. "The part of your mind that thinks it knows how it all is, is butting up against a bigger idea. It's only a matter of time until the smaller thought gives way to the greater. Don't fight it. Just try to enjoy the ride."
Did he really know all this stuff, or was he just a smooth talker?
"If I'm headed for such a good place, why do I still owe $27,421.57 in credit card bills?"
Excerpted from HOW GOOD CAN IT GET? by Alan H. Cohen. Copyright © 2011 Alan H. Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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