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A Really Strange Interlude

with 3 comments

So, yesterday, after writing the blog, I went in to school.  I stopped in at the division office to check up on some paperwork, and the secretaries took one look at me, turned me around, and sent me back to my car. 

Which was how I managed to be lying on my couch at three o’clock yesterday afternoon with the remote all the way across the room and the television somehow stuck on E!  You know  I’m sick when the TV is on E! and I’m too tired to do anything about it.

At any rate, what E! was showing was something the channel info bar called a ‘documentary,” which I suppose it actually was, technically.  The name of this thing was Curse of the Lottery, and its supposed premise was that people who win the lottery are worse off because of it, terrible things happen to them that wouldn’t have happened if they’d never won the money.  I say this was the “supposed” premise because, like a student paper, the damned thing changed its subject about three quarters of the way through.

About the first three quarters, though, a couple of notes.  First,  I’ve got nothing against people playing the lottery if that’s what they want to do.  I tend not to bother unless we get into one of those things where it’s the biggest news at six and the jackpot is in the ridiculous range, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it if you’re not getting stupid about it.  This means, however, that I also don’t know anybody who plays regularly, and the only time I did was in the first stages of my mother’s dementia, when she became for a while a Powerball fanatic.   Then she forgot about it, the way she forgot about most things.

I make these points to provide a caution–I have no way of knowing, or judging, whether the stories presented in this program are typical of people who play the lottery.  In fact, there was an interesting difference in the people profiled in the last quarter of this thing that makes me think that the people in the first three quarters were not necessarily typical at all.   That said, a number of observations:

1) It was remarkable how many of the people who won big and then got into enormous amounts of trouble seem to have spent most of their lives before the win being close cousins to my most passive students.  Some of them were drifters literally, living on disability checks or not much at all.   Some of them were convenience store clerks and factory workers and janitors.  It didn’t matter.  All of them, from the testimony of their friends, had been floating for years.

2) I found it really surprising how many of these people seem to have had “substance abuse” problems long before they won money.  Is it just me, or does everybody have trouble figuring out where people like this get the money to indulge their tastes in chemicals?  So-and-so has “a five hundred dollar a day habit”? If you’re working behind the counter at the local  Dairy Queen and can come up with five hundred dollars a day to buy God knows what, you should be able to put aside money for a house.  Where do people like this get all their cash?

3) It’s really, really remarkable how many of these people don’t seem to be able to add and subtract.  To be fair, I notice this same thing when MTV or somebody highlights the lifestyles of various pop and movie stars.  If you’re Paris Hilton, you probably have a trust fund and lawyers who restrict what kind of cash you can lay out, and they’re probably very careful to make sure you only spend income, not capital.  But a lot of the lottery winners were like a lot of the pop stars–as soon as they got a few million, they went out and spent five times that and then, of course, in no time at all, most of the money was gone. 

4) The craziest thing about the money spent as above, was the amount of it that was spent on complete silliness–collectable plates, six cars (why does anybody want six cars?  why?),  whatever.  And, of course, lots of it was spent on houses, which would be all right except that the houses were then tricked up in ways that I found it hard to take in–plasma TVs as big as movie theater screens hung on bedroom walls, for instance.  The houses were all absolutely huge, and they all looked incredibly uncomfortable to live in.  They also got foreclosedon at a really impressive rate.

5) A fair amount of the trouble these people got into involved violence.   Not spectacular violence, mind you, mostly the same penny-ante stuff that shows up every week in the Police Blotter section of my town’s (weekly) newspaper, but violence even so.   There were the usual round of domestic violence calls, but one woman was involved in a DUI that killed her passenger, walked away from it and ended up in jail for hit and run.   Another man’s granddaughter died of a drug overdose just before he himself was mugged for half a million dollars he was for some reason carrying around in his pockets.

6) The press attention never seemed to go away.  There were clips from press conferences several years after the lottery win, as if once these guys won money the local newspapers and television stations were watching their every move.  I have no idea if this is typical.  I admit to never having seen a story about a local lottery winner on the local news, or to have heard of any of these people except one, who was rather a flamboyant sort to start with.   Maybe I’m just not paying attention, but I don’t know the name of a single lottery winner, not even the flamboyant one.  There did seem to be lots of attention, though, with plenty of headlines reading things like “Lottery  Winner Jailed for  DUI” and “Lottery Winner In Divorce Shocker.” 

I said at the start that the last quarter of this thing changed subject, and it did–to highlighting people who had done well with the money they won and giving advice on how, if you won, you could be lucky with it instead of unlucky.  And there were a few things the doing-well people had in common.  One was that they were all culturally middle class–they had decent jobs, they already owned houses, they had functional educations, they had no histories of run-ins with the law or substance abuse.  The other thing was that they could add and substract.   Instead of buying million dollar houses and stuffing them full of the products of the Franklin Mint, they paid off their own mortgages and those of their children, put grandchildren through college, and did all the things most people would do if they go a bit ahead.   In one case or two cases, the win having been very big indeed, they bought “nice” houses that were nowhere near the kind of MTV cribs things the “tragic” lottery winners couldn’t stay away from.

The last thing they had in common was this:  there didn’t seem to be anything in the way of headlines about them.  Obviously, people knew who they were–otherwise, they couldn’t have been profiled for this program–but they didn’t seem to generate the kind of interest the disasters did.

I don’t actually know if I’m going anywhere with all of this.  Part of me wishes I understood the dynamic of the publicity.  Why would people be interested not just in hearing that so and so won the lottery, but in what such a person was doing afterwards, often for years afterwards?  Why would such a person be a continuing object of interest  for total strangers?  And why is what people want to hear about most the disasters and the failures and the general bad news?

There was something else that was only alluded to once or twice that I found fascinating, but that I see no way to research:  apparently, once your name has been in the paper as winning a lot of money, people not only approach you looking for handouts, they go on approaching you, for years.   The begging requests never stop.

All of this makes me wonder about the entire phenomenon–the people who play, the people who win, and the problems a certain segment of the population seems to have with good news. 

And it’s just possible that I may have had to have a decent fever to be interested in this at all.

Written by janeh

February 10th, 2009 at 6:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'A Really Strange Interlude'

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  1. I hope you’re feeling better soon. Watching E!

    OK, my disclaimer. I tend to claim that I don’t buy any lottery tickets unless you count the tickets sold to support local sports teams, charities, schools, etc etc. This is mainly because any form of gambling bores me. I daydream during bingo, can’t remember to the rules to any card game other than patience, and mostly have so little interest in lotteries that if I did buy or was given a ticket, I’d forget to check the numbers. However, I do, more as a social activity than anything else, toss a few dollars into the office pot every payday, and sometimes dream (or joke) about what I’d do with my 1/12 (I think it is now) of the big jackpot if we ever won. I’m a gambler in spite of myself!

    We don’t have much news about lottery winners (or if we do, I don’t see it). We certainly don’t have follow-ups years later.

    There have been three types of lottery stories I can recall, and two of them fit your observations quite well. They are ‘Workplace group wins big and start suing each other over the money’; ‘Winners declare ‘We’ll pay off our bills and help out the kids and our favourite charity, but we aren’t changing anything else’ (often not even quitting their job)’ and finally, ‘lottery winner dies penniless’. Actually, the poster child for that last category was a local young man who allegedly drank himself to death less than a year after a big lottery win.

    So, yes, people who lead more or less blameless lives seem better able to handle sudden wealth than those who think of the big prize in terms of how much alcohol (and presumably other substances) it will buy. Or at least, they start out with quite sensible plans for the money.

    I wouldn’t say you had to be middle-class, though. Middle-aged, maybe. We’ve had winners who spent a lifetime working at the kinds of jobs that enable you to just get by who went the ‘pay off bills, help others, put the rest in a nest egg’ route, at least according to the media. And this is a small population place, so what the media misses, gossip fills in.

    People seem to like reading about big winners. It makes them think it might happen to them. They particularly like reading about others’ misfortunes and mistakes, in the same way people slow down or stop to gawk at a big traffic accident. They can thank God it wasn’t them, or feel superior because they didn’t have the accident, or they would (they are positive) make far better use of the big prize than that loser did!


    10 Feb 09 at 7:48 am

  2. To me, lottery tickets are purchased for the 30 seconds of entertainment it takes to read the numbers and realize you lost, again.

    I read an article once that proposed that many younger people (the ones most likely to get in trouble after sudden wealth) see themselves as stars of their own reality show. They are distanced from life because everyone else is a player who doesn’t quite follow their script, and the most horrific things can happen without truly affecting them because it’s not real, after all, it’s like TV.

    I suspect the “buy the horrible bad taste overdone house” types have just had underfunded shows all their lives. This is what they think life, and their personal reality show *should* be like. They now have the money to try to make life correspond to their dreams. As has been noted many times, money can’t buy taste. Often, it seems to make it worse. Or just make it real.

    These people, as you note, have always had a trainwreck for a life. Money just makes the trainwreck wider reaching, more public, and somehow ironic. They’ve never had to discipline themselves…circumstances and poverty have done that for them. Remove the poverty and there is no experience in denying themselves anything they can afford at the moment. And the example they follow in what they should want and should buy are those horrible “gansta crib” shows where no excess is too much. Or Las Vegas casino decor, this being the fanciest place they’ve ever been for real.

    Where do minimum wage workers get $500 a day for a drug habit? Crime, petty and otherwise. They steal from family, friends and the rest of us, all the time. Many of the women prostitute themselves. This is one reason cited by those who advocate legalizing drugs. It would cut down dramatically on muggings, employee theft, convenience store robberies, car theft, etc.

    Once someone wins the lottery, however, the limits are off. They don’t have to spend any time working or committing crimes. They aren’t braked by lack of money. They can just buy and ingest drugs/drink. The spiral down to disaster is accelerated, the body collapses that much sooner.

    What I find really schizophrenic is our attitude to the winners. Many of these folks as you note are working class people. But once they’re rich they’re the target for all the envy and resentment we always have toward the wealthy. “Give me money!” No.”You bastard!” We (as a society) both want what they have and resent them for having it. Few seem to recognize the illogic of wanting to be rich and hating those who are. They don’t seem to realize that if they achieved their dream, they’d join the ranks of the hated.

    All that said, my husband the mathemetician tells me that your odds of winning the lottery are the same whether you buy tickets or not, mathematically speaking.


    10 Feb 09 at 2:04 pm

  3. Two things came to mind, and strangely enough they both were from C. Northcote Parkinson. In EAST AND WEST, he mentions superstition and gambling as signs of societal stasis or decay. Hard work and savings are not regarded as productive: the way to the top is through lucky numbers. In this sense, it’s not the man down at the 7-11 buying $100 worth of lottery tickets who is discouraging, but the wider societal interest. I notice “Astrology” is one of those frequent links on Yahoo’s home page, right along with mail and weather.

    But on the fiction side, Parkinson wrote a number of novels of “fighting sail”–imitation Hornblower stories, though not pastiches in the strict sense. In one, our hero, a frigate captain, spends several chapters ensuring that his vessel, stationed in India, has a full crew adequate sail and cordage and ammunition plentiful enough for practice prior to leaving station to return to Britain. The inevitable random encounter with a French frigate ensues, and our hero’s lieutenant remarks how “lucky” they were to have been ready for the fight. The hero is nearly speechless, and clearly the lieutenant is not destined for greater things.
    Good and bad fortune happen to all of us, but the right habits of mind make it possible to make use of the good fortune. Otherwise, you’re “filling a leaky bucket.” Discouraging, but unsurprising, that the documentary didn’t pick up on this.


    10 Feb 09 at 5:38 pm

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