Monthly Archives: February 2021

Shirley Jackson, are you laughing? Lotteries in American life – a RANT

The Lottery and Other Stories (FSG Classics)

I’ve entered the NJ Covid vaccination lottery six times over the past five weeks. Three times, I wanted to schedule my husband and myself for vaccination. We started out using two devices, and worked up to five. No luck. 

An unexpected excess of doses at a local non-profit enabled us to get our first shots early in February. 

Three times since them, I’ve used a now standard “hack” to try to help friends get appointments. ONCE it worked, to my intense gratification and my friend’s very great relief. She got her first shot two days after the lottery.

Another effort came close, but the appointment scheduling site shut down prematurely, without explanation. Not a computer crash or site freeze-up, just an announcement that no more appointments were available, an instantaneous drop from 40 to zero. One time all the numbers we got (ten devices in use) were too high. Our best (lowest) number was 4350, with about 3190 appointments available. We all closed out and returned to our day’s activities.

We’re getting better at this, nerves not so badly shredded… We give ourselves credit for a good try. Those still unvaccinated return to the on-line vigil, checking on drugstores, clinics, supermarkets, doctors offices and every friend they have. Three days to wait for the next LOTTERY. Just to be clear, my friends and I are age 65 and above.

WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD IS WRONG WITH THE United States? Why are life-saving drugs being allocated by chance, by lottery? My heart breaks as one Covid death after another is announced, often on Facebook with pictures of the lost loved ones. These are people who received good medical care, not like at the start of the pandemic. The medical community has learned so much, but sometimes the disease wins. These are people who, had they been vaccinated six weeks ago, might not now be dead. I feel sad and tired. 

So, Shirley Jackson, are you laughing? Jackson was born in 1916, hence she survived the 1918 influenza pandemic. I doubt that’s what she was thinking about when she wrote her controversial short story, “The Lottery”, which was originally published in The New Yorker.  Have you read it? I wrote about it in this blog. See post dated November 11, 2018. The story’s publication generated hate mail. The plot? In a small town, one person is ritually stoned to death each year. We aren’t told why, aside from that it has long been customary, but is now questioned.

Why were people so upset by the story? (Jackson was taken by surprise.) I guess no one wants to believe a community could do something so awful. Wikipedia offers explanations in its article about the story, under the heading “Themes”. The discussions of “Reception” and “Critical Interpretations” are also interesting. The town in the author’s mind was her then residence, Bennington, Vermont. Riddle that!

The Wikipedia article is well worth reading.

Moving on to another American lottery… To determine which young men would serve in the Vietnam era military, the Selective Service System (aka the Draft, aka conscription) conducted a lottery, first drawing numbers on December 1, 1969. Men born from January 1, 1944 to December 31, 1950 were subject to that lottery. My generation. The idea of the lottery was to abolish the complex system of classifications and deferments and establish a more fair and universal system to provide soldiers for the increasingly unpopular Vietnam conflict. The first date selected was September 14. Men born on that date were #1, at the top of the list. The lottery had unexpected consequences. Unwilling soldiers can be fractious.

I remember an argument I had with a friend. I referred to the Lottery as a way to “pick people to die”. She pointed out that most draftees would come home alive. I said that if you die, you’re 100% dead. 

I don’t like the “all volunteer” military better than the Lottery. The Lottery forced every man, even the rich and well connected (some of whom ultimately found loopholes), to face up to the consequences of war. Conscription is still with us. Every American male must register with Selective Service at age 18. 

So here we are again, using chance to allocate a valuable resource. As far as I know, the AtlantiCare Lottery for appointments at the Atlantic City vaccination megasite is the only such mechanism in the State of New Jersey. Should we be happy that it provides a chance for a person to act on this or her own behalf? We know it adds new meaning to the concept of the “digital divide”. 

We could have, should have done better. 

Shirley Jackson died rather young, in 1965, so I can’t ask if she foresaw either of these lotteries that have impacted me.


“Passing” by Nella Larsen


This book surprised and intrigued me! I’d never heard of Nella Larsen (1891-1964). The title Passing refers to racial identity and presentation. Some people with African blood look “white”, and hence can choose to “pass” and live as white in America.

Larsen was a multiracial child raised in a Danish immigrant family in Chicago. Her mother was born in Denmark and emigrated to the US. Larsen’s father was a mixed race immigrant from the Danish West Indies (now US Virgin Islands) who died (or disappeared) soon after his daughter’s birth. Her mother then married another Danish immigrant and had a second daughter. From 1895 to 1898, the family lived in Denmark, then they returned to Chicago. 

Nella Larsen had no conventional “place” in American society. White people considered her a Negro (hence of low class), but she had little in common with the African Americans (mostly descendants of the formerly enslaved) who began moving North around 1915. Larsen attended Fisk University briefly. At age 23, she took up nursing. Later, she participated in the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Negro Awakening) which emerged in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to working as a nurse and a librarian, Larsen published two novels. The first, Quicksand, was largely autobiographical. 

Passing features three African American women who look white, who can “pass” as white if they choose. Irene marries a successful (but discontented) Black medical doctor. In contemporary terms, Irene identifies as African American. (Larsen says Negro.) Clare hides her racial background, opportunistically marries a (racist) white man and lives simultaneously in material splendor, fear and ambivalence. Gertrude, a minor character, marries a white man who knew her from childhood, and accepted her background without question. 

For these women, “passing” is a freighted decision. Children are a big issue. Who will a child resemble? Clare has one daughter, who looks white. She declares she could not possibly risk another pregnancy. Irene calmly announces to her friends that one of her two sons is “dark”. The ideas of “tainted” blood and genetic unpredictability are strong. Gertrude has twins, but refuses to consider the idea of conceiving another child, despite her husband’s total acceptance of her identity. 

What about the men? Irene’s husband wants to move to Brazil, to get away from American racism. Irene wants “security” above all and argues against leaving New York. Clare’s husband is a sketchily drawn stereotype, hateful and extremely angry. We don’t meet Gertrude’s husband. He is described as the successful owner of a grocery store.

Another big issue for these three women is the idea of “going back”. If you pass as white, must you surrender all ties to your black family and friends and culture?

Clare is savagely ambivalent, repeatedly asking Irene and her husband to take her with them to Harlem when her husband is out of town. Irene considers this incredibly reckless and dangerous, and, indeed, Clare’s bigoted husband learns of her background and tragedy ensues. I did not foresee the ending. 

Much more is explored in this book. Highly recommended!

“Porch Lights” by Dorothea Benton Frank

Porch Lights: A Novel

Genre: cozy southern chick lit. What else do I need to say?

This book takes place on a coastal island near Charleston, South Carolina. It’s narrated alternately by a mother and daughter. I found the daughter, Jackie, to be the more sympathetic character. Jackie and her (deceased) husband were professional risk takers – she as an Army nurse (several times deployed to Afghanistan) and he as a New York city firefighter. His tragic death causes Jackie to end her military career in order to care for their ten year old son Charlie.

Jackie takes Charlie to her childhood home on in South Carolina. Her relationship with her (estranged) parents is tense. But all is resolved, Jackie finds a new relationship, and the family lives happily ever after. A bit sentimental, but pleasant. Just the book you want for a rainy afternoon or a pandemic. 

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke


This book delighted me! It’s set (mostly) in an alternative world, an unpeopled place of large halls, statues, birds and the ocean. It starts out so austerely – one character, living almost entirely alone.

Bit by bit, other pieces are added. Another character. More hints, and many unanswered questions. Who built the “House”? What happened to Piranesi’s memories? Who is the “Other”, and how did he get the consumer goods he brings, like tennis shoes and vitamins? Why does Piranesi consider the house benevolent? Is this really a story about seeking meaning?

A few more people (living and dead) are added to the cast of characters, and the plot speeds up. Clarke kept me guessing!

This book is lean. Clarke could easily have made it as long as her earlier novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’m glad she resisted this temptation. Piranesi is an elegant story and a pure pleasure for the reader.

“The Politics of Truth – A Diplomat’s Memoir” by Joseph Wilson (2004)

The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity

This book has another, much longer, subtitle, “Inside the Lies That Put the White House on Trial and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity”. It is a solid contribution to my project of understanding the history I lived through. I was born the same year as the author, who died in 2019.

The US Foreign Service hired Wilson because he was fluent in French, and possibly because he was “handy”, having worked as a carpenter. They initially assigned him to administer aid in Niger, which suffered from drought. 

Wilson was gregarious, in the best sense, forming friendships readily. He grew to love Africa, and wished Americans understood it better.

Wilson’s diplomatic career spanned service in six different sub-Saharan countries, two of which he served as ambassador. He later worked in Iraq as leading US government representative during the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait, risking his life to get Americans safely away before the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) exploded in 1991. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1998. 

Given his breadth of experience and his political visibility after retirement, a memoir was certainly to be expected. But Wilson is one of those men best known for the person he married. He was “Mr. Valerie Plame”. Why did the administration of President George W Bush “blow the cover” of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative (spy) whose specialty was weapons of mass destruction (WMD)? I reviewed Ms. Plame’s memoir at the link below.

Long story… Bush wanted to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. He told the American people that Hussein had WMDs, and we went to war (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in 2003. THE WEAPONS WERE NEVER FOUND. Wilson was very public about the fact that President Bush knew they didn’t exist. Bush allowed Plame to be “outed” as a way to discredit Wilson, an unethical and destructive action.

Wilson was convinced that action short of war (diplomacy, sanctions, airspace interdictions, UN pressure, etc) could have led to regime change in Iraq without invasion and occupation. After all, two major “revolutions” of immense global importance had taken place in the preceding decade. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and South Africa ended apartheid and embraced democracy in 1994. During each of these radical changes, war was avoided. 

Wilson was not a pacifist. He said he was opposed to “stupid war”. He approved of Desert Storm because it was conducted by an international coalition, supported by the American public and had a clear, limited goal – to get Iraq out of Kuwait. Operation Iraqi Freedom was preemptive (against an unconfirmed threat), unilateral and without a clear goal. Only once in the book does he use the “Q-word”, quagmire.

Contemporary note… Wilson points out that a major red flag in the run-up to the second Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) was lack of an occupation PLAN. Sound familiar? 

Wilson would be furious about our current struggles with the Covid pandemic and the recent insurrection. Certainly he would not be silent. 



I used to complain about careless language…nothing happens “between” January and February. But pandemic time is distorted… I don’t know how to use it.

I used to walk freely. Now I’m careful. I carefully try to walk two miles each day.

One mile south takes me across one dangerous road, to the corner of a large blueberry field.

One mile north takes me past a cemetery, across one dangerous road, to the corner of a vineyard. If I enter the cemetery, I can walk 2 miles without crossing a dangerous road.

In the cemetery, I see an open grave. With today’s cold, rain and sleet, the burial is probably postponed. I see plywood, slush, mud. There’s nothing to tell me who died.

I stop at a familiar gravesite, where a neighbor’s family rests. It looks unkempt, but I don’t attempt to tidy it. I speak, passing along news. Why? No one is there to listen.

I nod to my favorite statue, a graceful angel. She looks her best in the snow. Her extended hand offers a candle holder, but there’s no candle. What is she seeking?

My parents are buried far away. I don’t visit graves, don’t sense presence in cemeteries. I don’t feel certain that well-tended graves reflect more love than those left alone.

Most of my living loved ones are far away, too. Fear and danger fill the distance between us. I feel cold.

I walk home, carefully. 

Alice Gitchell – February 3, 2021 – May be reproduced with proper credit.