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MEGHAN DAUM

Who's the idiot now?

Whether it's the lottery or a screenplay, the truth is we're all betting on something.

February 25, 2006|MEGHAN DAUM

ON WEDNESDAY morning in Lincoln, Neb., after four days of speculation about who had won the biggest jackpot in Powerball history, eight employees of a ConAgra ham processing plant came forward and identified themselves as the winners of the $365-million purse. As lottery stories go, this is about as heartwarming as it gets. Two of the winners are immigrants from Vietnam and one is a political refugee from the Republic of Congo -- and all worked the second and third shifts, some clocking as many as 70 hours a week. There is probably no jobsite as gruesome as a meatpacking house. If anyone deserves an express ticket to a new life, it's these folks.

Before the winners were announced, I thought a lot about all the people I knew in Lincoln who could use even a sliver of that jackpot. I lived there for four years -- not attending the university, mind you, but in my early 30s after more or less going broke in New York City. The cost of living in Nebraska is low but, as I discovered, so are most people's incomes. I spent part of my time there writing a novel, and one year my net income hit a low of $12,000. I might have felt sorrier for myself were it not for the fact that many of my friends and neighbors weren't making much more. And unlike me, they did backbreaking manual labor, had families to support and concerns far more pressing than whether or not a publisher would buy their book.

One of my more vivid memories of Lincoln was watching people run into the gas station to buy their Powerball tickets. Everyone seemed to play the lottery. In the winter, they kept their cars running while they dashed inside, and the exhaust would collide with the freezing air, creating the smoky effect of a magic trick.

Although all sorts of people play the lottery -- the largest single Powerball winner to date is West Virginia's Jack Whittaker, who had a net worth of $1 million when he won $315 million in 2002 (his life all but collapsed afterward, but that's another story) -- I, like many non-gamblers, always assumed it was a plague of the poor. How can someone who makes minimum wage justify spending those wages on a remoter-than-remote chance of winning millions?

Affluent people -- at least those who don't play the lottery -- tend to see this particular form of gambling as trapping the lower classes. A trip to the U-Stop or 7-Eleven, after all, has none of the sheen of a trip to Vegas. Radio host Tom Leykis, who has made a career of railing against the misguided and self-sabotaging notions of the lower classes, has called the lottery "an idiot tax."

But it's worth recognizing that we're all idiots in one way or another, and we all (if we're honest) pay our taxes accordingly. The concept of waiting for the big score is as ingrained in most of us as the concept of hope itself. We in California should understand that more than anyone. We are Pipedream Central.

The Gold Rush idiots in the north begat the movie studio idiots in the south, who in turn begat all those total idiots who work menial jobs so they can write their screenplays by day and mount their spoken word performances at night. Even though chances are they'll never sell the screenplay, land the movie role, get the record deal or publish the book (well, they might publish the book, but getting anyone to read it is another matter entirely), they march onward, hoping against hope that they'll be the one to beat the odds.

Sounds like the lottery to me. Granted, there's no skill involved in picking a winning Powerball combination. If good fortune exists on a sliding scale of dumb (getting your script picked out of the slush pile) and dumber (getting discovered by a modeling scout in a mall), winning the lottery has the distinction of being the dumbest luck of all.

And that's what makes it so beautiful.

So often, when we think of things that "could happen to anyone," we think of horrors such as plane crashes and cancer. It's human nature to take credit for success and blame misfortune on the whims of the gods. But the eight lottery winners in Nebraska, a few of whom are still showing up to their shifts at the plant because, as one said, their managers "would have been short of help," remind us that ambition takes many forms and that everyone is a gambler in his or her own way.

I'll never forget the freezing winter day I sat in my little house on the rural outskirts of Lincoln and learned that my novel had sold at auction for far more money than 360 manuscript pages could possibly deserve. I've never bought a lottery ticket in my life, but it was then that I realized I'd been betting on the numbers for years. Much of that time I felt like an idiot, but the gambles we make in life are nothing if not the hope that propels us out of bed in the morning. You have to be in it to win it. And all of us are into something.

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