Reversing the Numbness

Monday, March 17, 2008

Easy Money

All of Morgantown seems to be abuzz about the eight women in the Monongalia County tax office who won last weekend's big Powerball jackpot. The advertised value was $276 million and the lump sum was $138 million. That is truly a lot of bread. (Story)

The receptionist in my office used to work in that tax office. She was the one who organized the Powerball pools when she was there, so of course she was (jokingly) kicking herself and talking about it all day. Five bucks says she's talking about it right now.

I spent a summer in college working temp jobs in Lexington, Kentucky, and every one of them was on an assembly line. This is where I learned to love coffee and Led Zeppelin, and it's also where I started forming my opinion of the lottery and thinking more seriously about my future. Any time there was a big jackpot to be won, it was the center of conversation during every lunch break. Assembly line lifers would talk about the money, what they would do with it, how much they would give their co-workers, friends, and family, how many tickets they were going to buy, etc. It was always clear to me that the chance at easy money was a form of escapism (with perhaps a little real hope mixed in) for people who had been working their asses off for their entire lives, with little chance of moving on to greener professional pastures. I didn't blame them, though. I probably even joined in on the discussions from time to time. But I remember thinking a lot about the reality of getting up and going to work gluing rubber rings on the ends of rubber tubes, for eight hours, the day after losing the jackpot once again. "Yeah, but nobody won. It's a push! It'll definitely get over $200 mil by Saturday!" That's how it was, and it was definitely not for me.

That's when I promised myself I was going to find a career that I loved, something that I'd want to do no matter what, and that's how I'd make my way through life. I was never going to let the practically imaginary lure of instant, "unlimited" wealth cloud what was really possible in life with hard work and a strong belief in myself. Conor Oberst of Rob Zero's favorite band Bright Eyes wrote, "I'd rather be working for a paycheck than waiting to win the lottery." He was using it as an analogy for love, but the literal meaning rings true for me. I'm happy to say that I found the career I was looking for.

Of course, some people do win the lottery. It just happened in my town, and a dude named Jack Whittaker from a small town in WV won even more money a number of years ago. Here's where it gets crazy, though -- Whittaker's life is in shambles. He's constantly been in legal trouble, his granddaughter died of a drug overdose at 17, which was surely facilitated by her ridiculous allowance ... I saw him on TV once saying that he wished he'd never won the money. It just brought trouble. It turns out that all of that easy money wasn't so easy after all.

Maybe Whittaker is just an idiot, and if you or I all of the sudden came into $300 million, we'd be responsible with it, and it would make us happier. But maybe not. Once you get past the most obvious benefit of having that kind of money -- security for your children's financial future -- I think it gets a bit cloudier.

Friends, for example. What happens there? I have some of the best friends a guy could ask for, and I'd want to help them out in a big way with some of that cash dropping out of my pockets. But here's where you have to start making weird decisions about just how close your friends are. Maybe you have one lifelong buddy who you don't hang out with much, but you've always been close and you still talk to occasionally, and you decide to hook his kids up with a $10,000 college fund. Pretty cool, right? Sure, until the next time you see your buddy and he's wearing a "My best friend won $300 million and all he got me was a lousy $10G" T-shirt. I certainly think really deep friendships could withstand the pressures that this sort of thing places on a relationship, hopefully, but I bet these same pressures wreak havoc on less established friendships.

I think I'd feel like a target if I won the lottery. Making that kind of money honestly is one thing, but I bet winning it just makes you an immediate bull's eye. People would drive by your house, knock on the door asking for help (uh oh, gotta live in a gated community now), every relative and person you sorta knew at one point would contact you, hundreds of charities and random strangers ... and watch out for those pesky lawsuits.

Some people like to say they wouldn't change if they won the lottery. I think that's highly unlikely. So you think you'd still be driving your Jetta if your bank account is bulging at the seems? Yeah, right. To a large degree money is power, and I bet $300 mil seems pretty limitless. Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." I totally believe this. (And so did J.R.R. Tolkien; just ask Gollum.) Oh, you'll change alright, and who's to say the change is necessarily for the better?

Who knows what it would really be like? I guess if somebody walked up to me and handed me a check for that kind of bread, I'd take it and hope for the best. But in the meantime, I'm going to focus on the life that I do have and try to enjoy as many moments of contentment as possible. Good family? Check. Good job? Check. Good friends? Check. Who needs the lottery?


Rob Zero said...

I believe in NJ, you can opt to be a private, unnamed winner. I heard that an old friend's family won a couple mill in the lottery, but I never saw it on TV or in the paper.

I'm pretty sure my generosity would be the death of me if I became wealthy. My wife says I am often generous to a fault, and I'd probably be buying friends cars and guitars.

Keith said...

I clicked onto the Whittaker link with the belief that only the poor played and won the lottery, and that's why they have no idea how to handle the money, and I still feel half right. It doesn't sound like he blew it, just like he's had some bad luck because of it.

I watched a show a few months ago that took you into the homes of a few lottery winners and showed the rediculous ways they had blown their money. The guy I shook my head at the most looked like Joe Dirt, and had won over $100 million. He had gold plated elephant tusks as a doorway into the house, Mayan pottery in his bathroom, and wax figurines of the Blues Brothers sitting on a park bench that he paid something like $160,000 for. Everything he pointed to in his house had a 6-figure price tag.

I've always been more of a dreamer than a doer, and I know I've thought about what I'd do if I won. A lot of it would go to family, friends, probably even strangers. I think it'd be awesome to leave a waitress a $1,000 tip, or pay a bill for somebody really in need. There's only so much crap you can buy for yourself.

Eric said...

hi everybody. i'm one of the winners of the lottery. all of a sudden, my wildest dreams have come true.

i've been trying to determine what to do with my winnings. until now, i had no idea. but after reading the post and your responses, it hit me.

so many people in need. so much good to be done.

gold plated elephant tusks it is.

The Dalai Mama said...

Hmmmm.  From your little description there, and the mention of keeping an old car...You're not saying that you think I would change if we won the lottery?!!  Who cares abou the lottery, anyway?  Not me.  I'm happy where I am.  The only thing I want in my life that I truly feel is unattainable without a lottery win is this.

Clash said...

The older I get the more simplified I desire my life to be. Not exactly a Henry David Thoreau existence, but a world that spins slower would be a good start.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Sleek, if you win the hypothetical jackpot, please buy me an island with a lab so that I can commit unspeakable genetic atrocities against the order of nature without fearing persecution of myself or my cronies, erm... I mean research assistants...

Ooh, DM, I want one. And a full set of these. You should never have enticed me with your evil link. I love all kitchen gadgets, and that is the gadget to end all gadgets.

Zee said...

I saw the show that keith is referring to. Mo' money, Mo' problems. And the poorer a background you have, the truer it is. The problems aren;t limites to lotterly winners. Athletes, muscicians, actors...anyone suddenly finds themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams without a stable upbringing is a potential disaster waiting to happen.

I've always said I'd pay off my studnet loans, make invest safe investments and keep my job.

I may buy a big boat, too.

SleekPelt said...

rob: I'd opt to be private for sure.

keith: We've heard all of the news about that guy here in WV, and he seemed to make a lot of horrible decisions. You sound like you'd be a good lottery winner, though.

eric: Ha! Can you imagine?

dm: Maybe we can work one of those out one of these days without the lottery.

clash: I hear you, pal.

teoh: See!? I'll even have to consider which blog friends to give money to! (The DM started her collection of those pans recently.)

zee: How about a tour bus?

*dalyn said...

i think i might move. pack up both sides of the family (maybe some close close friends) and choose a new country to live in. *d

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