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.


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