Letter from the Editor

Monday, January 9, 2006

Lottery and the fickle finger of fate

The front page headline in all caps on the biggest paper in Iowa trumpets, "$132 million prize made him giggle."

"Him," is Hugh Hawkins, a real estate developer who attended three different colleges without graduating from any, has passed through a string of jobs and professions without seemingly making much of a dent in any. He has a documented history of getting thousands behind in child support payments to a previous wife, running up tens of thousands of dollars in debts on multiple credit cards, and taking bankruptcy just last July to escape a mountain of debts when he was down to his last $250. Somehow, luckily, he still had the itch to blow a few bucks of the family grocery money on Powerball tickets.

Voila! He now has a team of public relations, finance and legal gurus at his disposal, and is savvy enough to put off claiming the money until after the New Year to sidestep '05 taxes.

"I spent the better part of the week scratching my head and giggling," he said. "And now today we have a big pile of money."

And so the worm turns.

You can't really be jealous of the guy. Much. You have to be happy for him. Don't you?

Yet honestly, I don't know if I'd want to change places with him.

First of all, I doubt that I could spend $132 million. It would be hard work, and if I wanted hard work, friends, I wouldn't be in this job.

So I'd buy a newer truck that has a radio that works. Fix the drain in the bathtub that's been broken for 12 years. Get some socks without holes. Consider buying a comb. Pay off my daughter's braces and the heat bill. Get tickets to a Cyclone game for my son. Get the large $4 Diet Coke at the theater and Hamburger Helper that actually could have hamburger in it. Let's see, that splurge leaves me with $131,976,967.98 still to go and all of my basic needs realized. Whew, now what??

Give it to charity, I imagine. But that's a lot of change. Suddenly Mr. Goodfellow's needy children would be outfitted in mink stolls, diamond ankle bracelettes and ostrich boots? Nah. That won't work. Gotta create a foundation, and get a team of lawyers and accountants to handle things, and skim liberally off the top. And a PR firm so you can grab credit and come off as more than a giggling, head-scratching nouveau riche goofball.

The new lottery winner has already had to flee from his nice little Iowa house and disconnect his phone. He's had to slip out the side doors to escape prying TV cameras and had to see his dirty financial laundry shared with the world on the front page. If he goes out in public, people are going to point. For the rest of his life, every distant relative, shady cause, con man, kook and golddigger may be hot on his trail with their palms outstretched. No matter how much he gives, it probably won't be seen as generous enough. He'll never be sure if his friends are friends, or just guys hoping for a handout. He may, but won't need to, climb out of bed and achieve something productive each day. His kids will never need to learn to be responsible with what they spend. And ultimately, he'll find that he really couldn't take it with him.

Money doesn't buy happiness, but darn it, it sure can rent some, and he sure looks happy to me.

He plans to take lavish vacations, pamper relatives and get involved in business start-ups. More power to him. But I'm not sure if there would be the same satisfaction in such things as if you had earned the resources.

Let's not get crazy here. I'm not suggesting that anyone would not dream of being handed millions of dollars out of the clear blue sky. I, for one, would sure not hand it back.

Yet upon reflection, there is something to be said for life in the middle of the middle class. There is something noble in the act of making a budget stretch implausibly to cover the bills every month, cutting out coupons, having to wait to fulfill your wants, scratching off Subway gamecards hoping for a free bag of chips, and yelling at your kids to turn the lights off if they aren't in their rooms and to save their birthday money for college.

There is something to be said for simply not buying what you can't pay for, for knowing that whatever you do have, you earned. For doing your level best to pay everyone you owe, and for scratching your head and giggling for a week only when someone has told a very, very funny joke about your dandruff.

Nobody who sees the way I dress bothers me for money, luckily, except an occasional girl scout, who rolls her eyes when I inquire whether there is a lay-away plan for a can of peanuts.

People who think like this don't win lotteries, or if they do, they don't know what to do with it. They are probably too busy earning a living to be concocting intricate formulas to use in buying tickets by the handful, anyhow.

I've bought a Powerball ticket here and there, and gotten a couple more as gifts. Never matched a thing. Not once. If there were an award for being as far off the winning numbers as mathematically possible, I'm your man.

My Norwegian immigrant grandfather would roll in his grave at the very thought of spending hard-earned dollars to buy tickets with odds of return being only slightly less than my odds of being appointed as the King of England.

So chances are, you and I will never be seen on the front of the biggest paper, scratching and/or giggling. We're not likely to gamble when we can't afford it, and even less likely to succeed at it if we did. We don't expect that we'll ever have millions, or be celebrated a fortunate winners.

I guess we're not lucky.

Or then again, as we consider what is behind the lottery jackpot champion, and what may be ahead, maybe we are.