My family always called the lottery the "idiot tax." My life had been easy;
we didn't have
excessive money, but always had money enough. The odds against winning the lottery are
staggeringly high -- to my family and I anyone who would risk a dollar
on a chance that small was proving that P.T. Barnum was right. I thought
people played the lottery because they expected to win. I was wrong.
It's hard to think of it as such, but this is "the turn of the
century." This is the early 2000's. In some later time, there'll be a
name for this period. People will talk about it as a time of financial
hardship, but it will just be words. Like my mother's description of
growing up in The Great Depression. History saves us from living it
day-by-day with children to care for, a mortgage and bills to pay. This
isn't like my mother's stories of the depression -- buying
automobile-sized candy bars for a nickel, this is what her
parents went through.
I've been out of work for a year now. I'm a highly skilled software
engineer, but there's no work. There are advertisements, but there is no
work. The advertisements say things like, "Entry level programmer --
Master's degree required." or "Must speak fluent Mandarin." Sometimes
they demand five years experience at a technology that's only been
around for two years. These are cynical ads. Placed with no intent to
hire. Placed so a company can say to its investors, "Yes, the economy is
sour, but look, we're growing! We're advertising for people."
Things started going bad in 2000. There were lay-offs, but there had
been lay-offs before. Starting in the early 1990's my jobs had all ended in lay-off.
was a game. They'd give you a "package" -- money and benefits that
lasted some number of months and during that time you found a new job and pocketed the
difference. I took a summer off once, but had never been out of work
without wanting to be for more than a couple of weeks. In 2000, I started hearing stories of people getting laid off and not
finding work for months. Then years. When it wasn't me, I assumed they
must not be very good programmers. It was an industry shake-out. Of
others. Not me.
Then in 2003 it was my turn. It was the day before I moved into my
new house. My boss walked in on me at the end of the day and asked if I
had a minute. And I knew. He said it in his usual tone of voice. But I
knew. And we went into a conference room and he gave me the news. The
package was two months. I wasn't scared. I could find a job in two
months. I was one of the good ones. I was serious. I had a career.
When I first hit the streets, I was encouraged by all the job
postings. "There are jobs out there," I told myself, "if you aren't
working, you aren't trying." and I started sending off resumes. Every
day more resumes and nothing in response. As the two months went by I
started noticing a cycle to the job postings. The same jobs came up over
and over. I found one that I was perfect for and pursued it following up
aggressively and they stopped posting the job. But never an answer. Not
from a human being.
There were innumerable automatic responses. The resume sites follow
up with an e-mail, "We have sent your resume...." The companies generated
an automatic response, "We have received your resume...." At one point
I got a message from a company that didn't mention their name -- the
"Due to the enormous volume of resumes we receive, we cannot respond
individually..." and I realized that due to the enormous volume of
resumes I was submitting, I had no idea who they were.
With the two month package gone, I went on unemployment. I had never been on
unemployment and it was the bitterest day of my life when I had to cash
that first unemployment check. Yet how much sweeter was that day than
the day 30 weeks later that I cashed my last unemployment check. And
that day seems verdant compared to now when there are no checks coming
But one day, after the bitter pill of that first unemployment check,
feeling the deep personal rejection of unanswered resumes, I was in a
convenience store and saw a lottery board that predicted a 58 million
dollar pay-out. And I put a buck down and bought a ticket. I thought to
myself, "I'm a deserving fellow. This must be The Great Plan. I'll win
the lottery and never have to work again." The drawing was in three days
and for those three days I smiled as I went through the motions of
sending out resumes and writing cover letters. I knew that I had my ace
in the hole. I would win that 58 million and the kids and I would be
set. I could start a small business of my own and never get laid off
In three days time the drawing happened. I didn't look at my ticket
that night. I looked at the winning number and imagined the thrill when
I took that ticket out of my wallet and matched the numbers one by one.
It was my salvation coming. I savored it. The next morning I took the
ticket out of my wallet and checked it against the winning number. I didn't win the jackpot. I didn't win the smaller prizes. I
didn't even win my buck back. I had nothing.
Of course, I felt pretty bad and sulked most of the day. But
gradually it dawned on me that I had three days of hope and it only cost
me a buck. It had been years since I felt that much hope. Then I
realized that when you buy a lottery ticket, you're not buying a chance
to win. You're buying hope. And at only a buck, it's a bargain.
And yet, a steady diet of false hope is as addicting as heroin.
Months later I wandered into the same store on a Friday afternoon. I
watched as people in line ahead of me bought their hope-fix. A
quick-pick on the lottery, scratch tickets from three different games -
$4. Tickets on two different lotteries and scratch tickets from two
different games - $5. And I walked up and laid my dollar down. I made a
remark to the clerk that it seemed to be lottery day. He told me it was
like that every day at lunchtime. Everyone bought lottery tickets or
game tickets. Most people bought several dollars worth. I realized I was
seeing a giant B.F. Skinner experiment and the rats were pushing the
little lever that was supposed to dispense a food pellet.
It made me a little sad, but I decided false hope is not better than
no hope. If no hope is all there is, it's better to know it.
I think of it as "The Parakeet Syndrome."
When I was a very young child in parochial school, I went to a carnival
that had a coin-toss game. There were shallow glass plates placed on top
of prizes and if you could pitch a nickel so it would stop on a plate,
you'd get the prize under the plate. Under one plate was a green
parakeet, and I decided I had to have him. My mother had given me two
dollars to spend at the fair and at first I broke a dollar into five
nickels and three quarters. Then, one after another, I turned each
quarter into five nickels. Then the next dollar went the same way.
(These were the days when even school carnivals had no conscience about
fleecing a child.) And suddenly I was out of money and still had no
I was stunned. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. I was a
deserving young man. I deserved that parakeet. God had a plan that
included me having that parakeet. From the beginning of time, the
parakeet and I were destined to be together. Somehow,
something would happen to get us together. So I hung around looking sad,
expecting someone to give me that parakeet to save my little heart from
breaking. It didn't happen. I started to cry -- surely someone would see
how deserving I was and they would give me the parakeet. That didn't
Eventually, my Mom came along and found me crying. I tried to explain
how sad the bird was going to be if it didn't go home with me. She said
I was over-tired and it was time to go. I screamed and cried and carried
on, but Mom just picked me up and walked out of the carnival. I never
saw that bird again.
It was inconceivable at that time that my deserving nature shouldn't
have been rewarded. That there was not a God who would influence events
so I would have this bird. And I recognize the flavor of that experience
every time I buy a lottery ticket. God will make me win. I am deserving.
And I suspect I'm not alone in feeling that way. Yet, buying that ticket
bought me three days of hope at a time I needed hope, but it was false