Taking Chances

The day after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I entered my first sweepstake. I fell into it without much foresight: while sorting through the dense muck of promotions in my inbox, I came across a mailing from Ballard Designs, a furniture company that specialized in animal print chairs. The marketeers of Ballard offered me the opportunity of a lifetime—to win a 2018 Volkswagen Beetle, bedecked in a leopard print, with plush maroon seats. I saw my chance—and I took it. When I opened my email later that afternoon, I discovered that my daily entry had won me the opportunity to have the promotions tab in my Gmail tinseled with brightly-colored newsletters from five other furniture retailers.

Ballard soon let me know I could enter the following day for another shot at glory. And the next day, and on and on. And I did, letting the possibility of winning something so bizarre overwhelm me for the fifteen minutes or so after I hit “Enter Now.” I entered a hazy cloud of fantasy: driving through my neighborhood in a leopard print beetle, shrugging off confused glances from passing cars and pedestrians. I could cruise by the grocery store, wave to my local synagogue, then pick up friends for a jaunt through rural Pennsylvania to pick late-fall apples. I could pose with my foster cat beside my new Bug and use it on my Tinder profile. Sure, it only had a quarter of the storage space of my Subaru Outback, but the engine wouldn’t sputter when the temperature dropped below 30 degrees. Instead, it would purr to life, the plumpest mechanical big cat in the West Philly jungle.

This vision was so, well, silly. But the playfulness of it, the nonsensical possibility of winning the car was a welcome distraction from the seriousness of the weekend’s news. There was safety in the chance to “Catch the Ballard Bug,” as the sweepstakes so generously announced. At different points during the weeks following the Pittsburgh shooting, I was overwhelmed by the sudden urge to lose control of of my carefully crafted stoicism, to make my pain visible, to release my anguish in some form that I still could not fathom, for fear of impacting my work, my relationships, my sense of self-preservation. But for fifteen minutes each day, I was eased away from swirling, anxious thoughts of America’s hot-blooded anti-Semitism and shameless white supremacy, its embrace of police violence and fetishization of gun ownership. The slew of opinion pieces defending Israel as the only safe Jewish home in the wake of the shooting slipped from my mind as I swam through $1,500 Visa giveaways and drawings.

The more I entered the Ballard sweepstakes, the more curious I grew about what else I could win. Most online sweepstakes are predictable: fill out your contact information and have the chance to win a Visa gift card, a vacation for two to Aruba, or a state-of-the-art grill. But did you know you can also win a year’s supply of Cabot cheese? A collection of mystery novels? VIP passes to Mariah Carey’s Christmas show? A tour of the best barbeque spots in Nashville? For one contest sponsor, I had to write 100 words on who my biggest inspiration was; for another, I needed to submit an image that highlighted the intersection of “summer” and “fresh berries.”

I explored online forums, discussion boards, and “how-to” lists devoted to winning online sweepstakes. One site recommended allocating 2 hours a day—minimum—to entering. I cursed my initial rookie mistake as I quickly realized that I should have created a “sweepstakes only” email address or find my inbox inundated with promotional newsletters. I reviewed and then implemented these guidelines to sweepstakes success: enter contests that are limited to one entry per person, feature odd products, and are region-specific or limited to certain states. I discovered that I had a better chance of winning if I entered sweepstakes targeted to men, so I filled out every custom suit and “Men’s Grooming Giveaway” I could find. I used Robo-Fill to quicken the pace and conceded to filling my Twitter feed with corporations in order to receive more entries. For a short time, I was a “sweeper,” and I caught a glimpse of myself in another era, a 1970s housewife filling out stacks of magazine sweepstakes by hand as she drank par-boiled coffee.

Sweepstakes accompanied me on bus rides, morning sips of tea, binge-watched TV shows, the intermission between brushing my teeth and falling asleep. I drowned out headlines with a new digital vista of bookmarked go-to websites, which listed new sweepstakes and instant wins daily. Between vigils and community healing circles, I entered to win Starbucks gift cards, fast cash, food processors, and a lifetime supply of pork rinds. When I informed my therapist about my new “hobby,” she told me that as addictions go, this seemed a relatively non-threatening pursuit.

I was enticed by the chance at a chance. Each time I entered a new contest or giveaway, a window of change slid open for a moment and, win or lose—mostly lose—nothing bad would happen when it shut again. The only thing I lost was space in my inbox. The questions sweepers ask themselves before bed, after long hours hunting through Sweepon for an overlooked giveaway, resemble the questions I tried to muffle in the lingering weeks following the shooting. Why not me? Why not my family, my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors?

But what if it could be me? Tomorrow? Or a week from Friday? A month from today? Maybe in the next five years? A short time from now—or never?