Tag Archives: pandemic

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. https://amgreader.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/memories-of-high-school-english-with-mrs-gerhardt-1964-65/ 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.




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.

“Comedy Loses a Home: The Shuttering of the Upright Citizens Brigade” by Emma Allen, The New Yorker, April 22, 2020 – Covid19 #6

Comedy comes in many flavors. My Chicago based comedian son practices “stand up”, which is solo comedy performance. Improvisation (a team effort) ranks very high among aficionados!

The Upright Citizens Brigade was/is a “laugh factory” in the grand tradition of Second City and Comedy Central. The UCB “brand” grew to include a comedy performance group, theaters (in NYC and Los Angeles), a school, a television series, movies and a book, The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. It was the closing of the theatres, on March 12 in the face of the pandemic, that inspired this wistful New Yorker article.

UCB provided training and community to many aspiring comedians and produced some highly successful performers.  Amy Poehler, one of the original UCB partners, said

“We all think we’re in control of our lives, and that the ground is solid beneath our feet, but we are so wrong. Improvising reminds you of that over and over again.”

In 2016, author/editor Emma Allen took an eight week introductory course at UCB and wrote about it, also in The New Yorker (Sept 5, 2016). The title was “You had to be there”. UCB has been described as resembling a cult or twelve-step program or even a pyramid scheme. Initially uncomfortable and embarrassed, Allen ended up enjoying her classmates and their activities. She said it was like going to summer camp, but you didn’t have to sleep in the same room with your buddies.

Her final comment, “I felt that the class had made me a more careful listener, and that I recovered better after doing something embarrassing in public, like falling on an icy sidewalk.”

I enjoyed these articles so much I looked up Emma Allen and learned that (at the young age of 30) she is the cartoon and humor editor of The New Yorker! On a site called The Gentlewoman’s Club, I found this from an interview:

Q: What’s it like to have a job in the humour business during perhaps the least funny moment in modern American history? 

Emma Allen: Well, first, you have to satirise power in order to chip away at it, and we’ve never had greater goons in charge, so you can either hide under the covers and despair or go after them with the funniest and most scathing lines you’ve got. And then, when every single second seems to bring even more depressing news, humour is a great source of relief.

This was written well before our present calamitous situation. Long live humor! The Upright Citizen’s Brigade will survive. Comedy is making a comeback!

Rumor reached me that a club in Kansas City plans to open TONIGHT. Activity will be scaled down. It’s an experiment. But live comedians will perform in front of a live audience! Good news!

“Here for It – or, how to save your soul in America” by R. Eric Thomas – Covid19 #4

Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America; Essays Kindle Edition

Ballantine Books, 264 pages, 2020. (That’s EARLY 2020, before the pandemic.)

In the text, R. Eric Thomas tells us he wanted this book to be called Casual Nigger but EVERYBODY (editor, agent, who?) went nuts. Hence, the less controversial Here for It. Here for what? Life, actually. Thomas battled depression and struggled mightily to “find himself”. In these essays, he lets us in on his battles, small and large.

The title, of course, is on the cover, and I find the cover image alarming. On a pink background, a “black” man’s hand is tossing confetti. Fine! But the hand is deformed. I know hands. The thumb joint is WAY out of line. Injury? Age? Is it painful? Does Thomas know the hand is damaged? Was the choice intentional? My hands (both, regrettably) are less obviously deformed, but cause pain daily. But I digress…

R E Thomas is funny. Goodness knows, a funny sociopolitical commentator is a real find! He’s a wise guy. Sociologically, he’s “intersectional”, expressing African American, LGBTQ and Christian identities. Here for It is autobiographical. He was born in Baltimore and spent decades in Philadelphia.

I was particularly interested Thomas’s college years at Columbia University and University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus).

Toward the end of the book, in a Chapter entitled “The Past Smelled Terrible”, Thomas waxes both prophetic and patriotic. HOW DID HE KNOW WHAT WAS COMING??

“I can’t help but think constantly about the end of the world…Listen. Here’s my living will, okay? I have no desire to survive the apocalypse…if the post-apocalypse comes about because of a massive plague or something, I have no useful medical or scientific skills…I would like to be Patient 15. Maybe Patient 20. No higher than 50. I don’t want to be Patient Zero, because then everyone would blame me, which is rude…I just want to go early, while they’re still doing nice tributes to the victims on television and I can get my own grave plot.”

WTF? Did Thomas know something? Where is he now? I hope he’s riding out the pandemic someplace comfortable. (I started to say “safe and comfortable”. No place is “safe”.) I grabbed this book from my public library on March 11, just before the big shutdown. I knew enough to grab extra books, maybe a dozen. Good luck, Eric!

“Real Simple” magazine, before and after. Covid19 #3

Real Simple | Women's Lifestyle Magazine Subscription from Magazine.Store

About 10 days into my voluntary “quarantine”, a magazine arrived in my mailbox. I take only a few print magazines… I like “Real Simple” for its recipes and it’s crisp, colorful layout. Often I feel like the lifestyle it portrays isn’t “mine”, too stark… But what I pondered this month is that this “April” issue clearly comes from “before”. Full of cheerful, friendly articles about spring cleaning and freezer organization.

You know, before “all this”. Before the pandemic and shutdown. Before “social distancing” and “shelter in place”. How will we refer to “before”?

  • The Age of Innocence?
  • Back then?
  • The old normal?
  • The bad or good old days?

Some writers refer to our current status as “The Pause”. They hope something good will come out of it.

I remember, in 2001, the arrival of my first piece of mail that reflected the post 9/11 reality, the “Nation” magazine cover showing a very simple, stylized graphic of the two burning towers. I felt a dark sense of finality. I’m never going to get away from this…

News cycles spin faster now, and are far more internet dependent. There wasn’t one image to jar me into a new reality, although the cascade of events late on March 11 came close – NBA season suspended, Presidential travel ban, press conference… March 11 was my personal turning point. I wrote in my personal journal “This is an emergency.”

The next time “Real Simple” arrives in my mailbox, it will be different. (In fact, it will never be the same. The website has already morphed.) All of us are “coping”, dealing with changes we never expected. The dangers of an epidemic have caused anxiety to skyrocket, and maybe depression, too. There are plenty of sages who remind us to look for the advantages in our situation. Sometimes I can find them… sometimes not.

Literature and the pandemic – COVID19 #2

The COVID pandemic has so penetrated my consciousness that I find myself applying social distancing standards to fictional interactions in the books with which I distract myself! This is absolutely ridiculous! Oh, no, a crowd scene! Who’s going to get sick? Get a grip – it happened in Melbourne, Australia in 1927. And, anyway, it’s FICTION! No real people involved.

Aside from this type of nonsense, literature remains a great escape. Haven’t we all used it? As far as I can tell, book groups are going great guns. Most are using Zoom, which has taken over the media/internet extensively. People who never expected to use videoconferencing are deciding it is fantastic. I admit to joining three virtual conferences in eight days, one with my extended family and two with my Quaker meeting. And I sat in on two telemedicine consultations. “Mediated communication” is the new normal. What next?!