Douglas Coupland: a lot o’ Lotto
Thirty years ago I was staying over with my parents on my birthday, December 30. Around nine in the morning, I heard my dad cursing from down the hallway. On inquiry, I learnt that my mother’s Aunt Constance had phoned from Victoria on Vancouver Island and had not only woken my father from a deep sleep but also told him that the lottery ticket he’d put in her Christmas stocking was a big winner.
Well, that’s life.
But apparently there was a complication: Aunt Con had lost the ticket. My father was not thrilled. You what?!?!??!?!
Suddenly I was rallied into duty as my family’s “finder” and was instructed to get dressed and take the ferry over to help Aunt Con find her ticket.
I arrived maybe six hours later and Aunt Con’s face was beet red and her facial muscles were contorted like a well-wrung dishcloth. Inside, furniture was upended, the contents of all drawers and cupboards emptied and I asked Aunt Con to sit down and take a quick breather. You can imagine the sort of day she’d had in her head.
So we inhaled and exhaled, and then I looked down at the coffee table and saw a runner on top of it. I lifted it up and there sat the ticket: ta-da!
Except the thing was, Aunt Con had made a mistake. A few days earlier she’d seen the winning numbers in the newspaper and written them down on a sheet of paper that she stuck on to her fridge door; later she looked at the numbers, forgetting where they’d come from, thinking they were the numbers on a ticket she’d bought . . .
If you ever wonder what it looks like to see someone lose several million dollars, let me tell you, it is a dreadful thing to witness, and I hope you never have to do so. I hightailed it out of Victoria very quickly, and the Day of the Ticket entered family lore.
Fifteen years later I wrote a small indie movie, Everything’s Gone Green, which used the story of Aunt Con’s ticket almost verbatim. Along with it, I created a minor mathematical theory called “Birthday People”. A birthday person is someone who uses calendar dates as a means of generating lucky numbers — a very common tendency. But people who win the big lottery jackpots are people who pity birthday people.
Big winners use the numbers from 32 to 49 (most lotteries use 49 as their numerical endpoint), thus lowering the chance of having to share a big win with other people who chose the same numbers — birthday people. And it turns out there’s a small but genuine mathematical basis for this. My birthday theory may not be the Fibonacci sequence but I’ll happily take credit for it.
I think there’s something inherently cruel about lottery tickets. They’re like a surtax on desperation. A friend of a friend used to work a ticket booth at a local mall. I asked him when they sold the most tickets and he said: “That’s easy — immediately after last week’s winning number is drawn. That way they can hold on to their ticket all week and get the maximum amount of hope out of it.”
I don’t buy lottery tickets because they spook me. If you buy a one-in-50-million chance to win a cash jackpot, you’re simultaneously tempting fate and adding all sorts of other bonus probabilities to your plane of existence: car crashes; random shootings; being struck by a meteorite. Why open a door that didn’t need opening?
Gambling is apparently the hardest of all addictions to shake. When you quit smoking or oxycodone, you know whether or not you’ve stopped but, with gambling, former gamblers are still always gambling in their minds, even if they’re not at the racetrack, or buying lotto tickets, or (to be honest) playing the stock market online in the family den.
I like Las Vegas but I don’t get the gambling part of it. Let me see: I have $200, which I then incrementally set fire to over the course of an hour or so, and at the end of it the money I once had is now gone. Who thought this was a good idea? I’ve noticed over the years that every single person who goes to Vegas lies about how much they allegedly won there. It’s always $100 to $200 and they always won it along the lines of, “I never gamble much, but I thought I’d give it a shot and I came out ahead $150.” It’s uncanny how common this highly specific lie is. Watch for it in the future. Everybody does it.
I read something last week and it made sense: people want other people to do well in life but not too well. I’ve never won a raffle or a prize or a lottery draw and I can’t help but wonder how it must feel. One moment you were just plain old you, and then the next, whaam! you’re a winner and now everyone hates you and wants your money. It must be bittersweet. You hear all those stories about how big lottery winners’ lives are ruined by winning but they’re not urban legends. It’s pretty much the norm. Be careful what you wish for and while you’re doing so, be sure to use the numbers between 32 and 49.
Douglas Coupland is artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris. He also has works in the exhibition ‘Electronic Superhighway’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London.
Photograph: Ken Mayer Studios © Douglas Coupland