Different Kinds of Heaven

Sports, lotteries, and earthly paradise
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GPOY in the style of Northern Renaissance

By the standards of a medieval peasant, the exurban town of Dearborn, Missouri is an earthly paradise. In Dearborn—and many other places—residences are efficiently heated and weatherproofed. In comparison to medieval Europe, Dearborn has fewer plagues. Food is generally plentiful, expected life spans are basically eternal. Special enchanted panels mounted on the walls deliver premium entertainments at reasonable monthly rates. Everyday modern life for the non-poor is basically a spectacular, borderline-magic experience (cf. Louis CK). Many of us live in such an earthly paradise, more or less.

Without the benefit of seeing Missouri, medieval peasants had their own ideas about paradise. Not exactly Heaven, but a land of plenty. Their happy place was called Cockaigne. What were then understood to be rad occurences happened constantly in Cockaigne. Delicious fowls, already roasted, flew into your mouth. Rivers of wine and beer flowed. Men had their way with beautiful ladies. Temporal and moral authorities were flouted. Houses were made of candy. There are lots of poems and drinking songs about Cockaigne. A verse from this one adequately explains the general vibe:

There no one suffers shortages,
The walls are there made of sausages.
There are the windows and the doors
Made of salmon and of sturgeon.

Things were either simpler or weirder back then that fantastical luxury was expressed by replacing traditional building materials with fish meat, but get it like you live, always. Cockaigne wasn't an entirely new idea—it has a lot of names. Schlaraffenland, Shangri La, California, Elysium, America, the Land of Chocolate. They're variations on the theme of Heaven. These hedonic utopias might even be better than regular Heaven, in fact, because you don't have to walk any straight and narrow path to get in. Even though our world is infinitely more pleasant than the reality that gave birth to Cockaigne, we still dream about lands of plenty.

***

I try to stay grateful for my own world-historical mise-en-scène. My own apartment is full of amazing, nearly-miraculous shit, just like Dearborn, Missouri. I have a TV and a computer and a vacuum and a couch. I exchange my salary for food, clothes, sandwich makings, continued access to the apartment and the subway. The rest of my money I spend on Mexican food and movie tickets and Diet Coke. Every so often, I feel a small gnawing at my insides: if I had way more money, I would be even happier than I am now. The small gnawing means that it is time to purchase instant lotto tickets.

The most I have ever won on a scratch-off ticket is $25, two separate times. The first time I won $25 I was so broke that I used it to pay a utility bill. I bought the second $25 winner at a semi-far-away bodega (I still occasionally make pilgrimages there, solely to procure lotto tickets).  I had bought five $1 tickets. I kept winning $2, $1, FREE TICKET, so I kept going into the bodega and getting more tickets. Eventually I got a $25 winner, and I felt immortal. I bought myself a Greek salad at the diner across the street to celebrate, which soaked up about $15 of the $25, not even counting the original $5 overhead. I definitely wasted any remaining net winnings within hours, but I still felt like a fucking wizard of life. I got something—salad and Diet Coke and the bread basket that came with the salad and triumph—for nothing.

I estimate that my lifetime +/-, across the Ohio, Illinois, and New York state lottos to be somewhere around negative $300. I view these negative dollars as a justifiable expenditure. Every time I buy a ticket, just before I set about scratching off that weird gray crap with a nickel (best coin for scratching—flat edge), I indulge in knothole visions of an earthly paradise. I dream minutely of liberation from life within my means. I dream of a river of Diet Coke and a tree that grows Greek salads. I sleep on a new mattress in a much bigger apartment, wearing many new pairs of sneakers, subscribing to cable just in case I feel like watching MLB Network for a few minutes one morning.

***

Life in Dearborn, Missouri is not perfect—it is tolerably comfortable, but not yet enough to preclude two of Dearborn's 496 residents to feel that small gnawing, to need to play the lottery. They won, as a matter of fact. I really wanted the story about Dearborn's Powerball winners using the jersey numbers of beloved Kansas City Royals to be true. A friend of mine cast doubt on its veracity on Sunday afternoon—why would somebody like Mark Gubicza more than Bret Saberhagen? By Monday, the story had been properly debunked as a mere coincidence. But the intersection of the lottery—a passive kind of seeking Cockaigne—with sports, another kind of heaven, was just too rich to let it go unremarked.

Present-day consumer sports are whittled into something between merchandise and experience—much like the lottery. You monitor the narratives beaming out of the magic screen. They give you stuff to talk about, think about, dream about. The people inside sports are rich, healthy, attractive, talented, with nice teeth. They're much better versions of us. They used to distract us from factory work; they have evolved with us into a blend of morality play and soap opera, with semi-scripted outcomes. Sports also have not a little bit of that orgasmic release of hitting the lottery—when your team wins, you win (they better win!). Our mostly couchbound watching of sports (or celebrities, or Real Housewives) is a kind of raffle ticket, a seated reach for some kind of satisfaction, be it victory or entertainment or understanding. The lottery too is a kind of inert wishcasting: instead of the older version of the American dream, striking out for the main chance, we can instead throw a few bucks at a microscopic hope of free, giant sacks of cash. While we're not really that afraid of God anymore, we can't yet afford to discard our different kinds of Heaven.


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