If I win a lottery, it won’t be because I deserve it. The knowledge that lotteries are not a prize for the deserving is probably part of what keeps me playing. I have as good (or as lousy) a chance as anyone, saint or sinner.
I have always figured that I won the lottery when I was born in the U.S.A. just as the post war economic boom met the baby boom. I won by being born male, white, on-time, in a hospital, to parents who would remain married. With four living grandparents, 16 aunts and uncles and eventually about 26 cousins, all of whom I got to know, some of whom I grew up with.
Being white I had the win of being majority, but more than that, being the status quo. Generally discovering that the person in charge was … like me. Whatever battles lay ahead, I wouldn’t have to fight that one.
Not everyone would agree that I won the lottery being raised Catholic, but everyone I knew at the time would say so, especially after JFK broke that barrier. I didn’t know until much later that we were a group hated in some households. (In case we forget, the KKK despised us as Papists, and the John Birch Society was pretty much aligned with that.)
I grew up with a library card, in a home with some books, with the World Book Encyclopedia, with some records to listen to, a piano, and a TV that delivered the westerns, the comedies, the variety shows, the late-late-shows and the news shows. Magazines that inspired my need to make art, my love of buildings, my infatuation with cars. Morning and evening newspapers delivered daily.
We weren’t rich and we weren’t poor, and if we had been poor an effort would have been made to see that we kids wouldn’t know it – and that we didn’t look it. And definitely that we didn’t announce it. Not that we were pretending to be MORE than we were or had, never that – although it became a game for me later, when I was just old enough to wander into a place like the Waldorf Astoria lobby and act like I belonged there, until I believed that I did.
When I was born we lived in a tiny and rather shabby house, but 5 years later moved into a new house my folks had built. We had the same used furniture as before, but new carpet, and slipcovers made from Grandma’s curtains, and 6 of us would share one bathroom – as in most of the houses we visited.
The first time I remember looking at the earliest “studio” photo of me, my mother shared two comments: it was not a baby picture (I was about four years old) because we couldn’t afford to have it done sooner. (Finally Grandma ordered it done.) Mom also said that she always was a little embarrassed by the picture because I was wearing worn out tennis shoes. (To this day I look at that photo and can’t tell.) Apparently we couldn’t afford a new pair of shoes for me right then, and after all the waiting for the photo, I guess Mom felt guilty. But they had their priorities straight, saving up for the down payment on the new house that was then just a plan.
I was already a repeat lottery winner. One night in the year or so before that photo I had fallen out of the car on a busy road – at dusk, a chancy time to be a small person lying in the middle of the street. Because Mom happened to be driving, and thanks to my brother yelling, “There goes Tommy!”, Dad was able to jump out of the car before it even stopped, flagging down traffic and averting what In my personal opinion would have been disaster. I spent the night in the same hospital where I was born, and possess the bill to show for it: eleven bucks, and Blue Cross paid nine of it.
I won again at eleven or twelve. After I contracted rheumatic fever, thanks to antibiotics and our good family doctor, I spent much less than the average time out of school with a disease that less than a century earlier was near certain death. And I escaped any permanent effects to heart and lungs.
I didn’t quite win on teeth. I was cavity prone. But they grew in more or less in a straight line, and l did always have dental care. A few years ago my hygienist told me I inherited very good gums. So there, cavities.
I won the teacher lottery, that’s for sure, and still remember the names of all my teachers, K-12, and most who came later, from Sister Irene in kindergarten to Simona Volpi, my beautiful Torinese Italian tutor of 16 years ago. I had wonderfully nice friends through all those years, even after changing schools twice in one year, and changing towns, too. Thanks to FaceBook and reunions I regularly get to touch base with some of my earliest friends – the very first children I played with.
I was a kid attracted to cities, but happily growing up in small towns, in an era when all summer we ran free, once the morning chores were done, and where we knew it might be reported to our parents if anyone saw us get out of line. We got out of line anyway, of course, but we were lottery winners, and we escaped alive and intact, uncorrupted by our associations.
Despite my intention in high school to go to college a long way from home, I ended up an hour’s drive away and ended up happy about that. Thanks to my parents’ sacrifices and some scholarship help I also ended up debt free at graduation, whereupon I began making up for the matter. (My folks did their best to get us all through school without debts – I didn’t know how lucky I was.)
In the middle of that, the draft lottery drew some lines and let millions of young men know who could expect to go to Vietnam, and who could likely expect not to. At number 221 I was on the “not” side; like some of my friends, and unlike others. Many waited with resignation for the yellow envelope to arrive. Many others rushed to enlist in order to give their service a measure of self-determination. A few of the young men I knew then did not come back; some others, who I would meet later, had returned not always whole.
I wrote that among my chance winnings was being born a male. True then and still true for those born today, around the world and in the US. This implies that females are on the losing side, which is both far too simple to be a rule and, by numbers, also true. For reasons ranging from the traditional to the pseudo-logical to the preposterous, women of all ages are systematically put on the margins. We’ve seen steady if hard-won improvement for women in the “first world,” but the numbers say it is still a plus to be male on this planet, and in many places a life (or death) sentence to be female.
These propositions are loaded with exceptions. Because life itself is a game of chance, and advantage occurs on a broad spectrum, not all males feel or are privileged, or blessed with choice and freedom and advantage, and not all women are or feel held back and denied justice. Poverty/wealth, illness/health, love/neglect, all can make or strip away the sense of rightfulness that comes with the birth lottery. Wealth, talent, intelligence, looks, drive, supportive adults – are all distributed unevenly. But that combination of numbers on my first ticket: American, male, 20th century, hard-working and generous parents, strong early education, opportunity, freedom of expression, good health … these were such strokes of great fortune that to think today that I have anything else “coming to me” that does not involve very hard work would be greedy to the nth.
My lottery has continued. I’ve been able to pursue dreams, even if I’ve fallen short. I’ve been loved and have given love. I’ve laughed, and been disappointed, and learned, and made things. Making things is the big deal for me, to write something, make a painting, design, build. I’ve seen a lot of the country, a little of the world, and had all the good books anyone could hope to read, with no one telling me I couldn’t. I’ve had the ballot in my hands for almost 50 years; when my vote was for the winner and when it was not, I’ve always believed in it and the power it gave me.
I was young and gay in an era when that meant steady change and progress, and I was lucky enough never to hate myself for it. I was also gay in the age of a plague. I won the HIV lottery, whether because I was lucky in birth again, and have something that defies it, or because I was in some way more moderate, or because I was, actually, just plain lucky, and I’ve felt the unreasonable responsibility to live well for those who died young. Because I lost on the other side of that ticket: friends and acquaintances gone too soon, quite knocked down in the prime of life, and in the beginning under a cloud of mystery and suspicion, and no recourse to fight it.
“Winning” isn’t all rewards. In any field of play, it carries the burden of “what next?” (Losing has that factor, too, but we know the difference of the meaning in each situation.) And though I believe that life is hugely influenced by habit (much more than by luck), winning is accompanied by loss. Anyone who has loved and lost – which is, face it, everyone – can tell you that. Winning has responsibilities, if you’re made of anything but selfishness. It also provides opportunities, whether to share the money-wealth outright, or to share your intangible wealth: exchanging knowledge, creating opportunities, bringing joy, saving or sparing lives, inspiring the dispirited. Share spendable riches but also share the wealth of skill, experience, time, listening. These things are nothing less than “affirmative action”, or as otherwise named, the Beatitudes.
The humorist Fran Liebowitz told David Letterman, “I don’t consider the lottery gambling: when you gamble there’s a chance you might win.” By that wise measure, gambling includes investing in or starting a business, writing or producing a play, making a new product, expressing a new thought, sticking your neck out for somebody, putting your time into someone else’s growth. You are quite likely to lose those gambles. But when you win, it is extra rewarding, because it is so much more than chance. There’s minor satisfaction in betting and winning on a sure thing. Bet and win on a long shot if you want to know elation.
So, though no doubt some “deserving” people win the lottery, it’s not BECAUSE they deserve it. God isn’t handing out the winning numbers as a reward any more than He is handing out hurricanes or diseases or football losses as punishment. In fact, if only truly deserving people won the lottery, the rest of us would never play, and the jackpots would be modest indeed. We KNOW we don’t have to be deserving. It is the ultimate egalitarian roll of dice, on the billions-to-one scale of solar systems.
As in life, whether you “deserve” to win is probably something you demonstrate afterwards. Few of us have been prepared to live in a “worthy” manner if landed on by extreme, sudden wealth. We imagine we could handle it – I for one have better answers for “what would you do if you won millions?” than I do for the more likely question, “what do you plan to do since you won’t be winning millions?” It would be a tremendous challenge, but I think the only way not to be ruined by a super prize would be to give a whole lot of it away very fast, then keep giving more away slowly, always with the steadfast conviction that you didn’t deserve it in the first place.
Knowing that, what I’d try to do, just as I hope to do with my lifetime lottery winnings, which are so intangible that no one can take them away, is not deserve it, but serve it. So there’s the plan, whatever the bankroll I’m working with. ~ Tom Crisp NY NY 8/24/17