Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 6

There are a dozen reasons I’m glad I didn’t go on the show fifteen years ago instead of this year, but one of them is this: I wasn’t remotely ready to risk the embarrassment.  Pretty much nobody gets out of Jeopardy! without:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)

It was #1 that bothered me more than #2. It’s actually also embarrassing to admit it–that I was afraid to make a mistake where people could see.  Because a) I make mistakes all the time, and b) I am a teacher, for goodness’ sake–part of my mission in life is to make people feel that it’s safe to make a mistake, to write something incoherent, to say something that doesn’t make any sense, to totally misunderstand a concept–because if you are afraid of these things, you can’t learn very well.

I remember how immediately and permanently I adored my college German teacher–a woman who would leap onto the table to illustrate jumping auf den Tisch, and stand there and stamp her foot to show that now she was auf dem Tisch–when she announced the first day of class that we would all make ridiculous mistakes, and we would laugh at them, because you cannot learn a language without looking ridiculous!

And yet.  Going on Jeopardy!, I felt, would be tantamount to announcing to the world, Hey, I’m good at this!  I know the answers to all these questions!  Which is a perfect setup for falling on your face.  You don’t know the capital of Montenegro*? Guess you didn’t know as much as you thought you did, smartypants!

Jeopardy! is particularly scary this way because, again, the pool of knowledge is wide but shallow.  Of course, no one knows everything.  But you really should study world capitals.  And state capitals–probably more important than world capitals.  And American presidents–Jeopardy! loves American presidents.  And Canadian provinces–don’t get the Maritimes mixed up! And this year’s and last year’s Oscar winners.  And Grammy and Emmy and Tony winners.  Oh, and definitely study up on your Latin and Greek roots; those come up a lot.

There is no stopping place.  There’s always something else you could learn.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography.  (They were students at Bowdoin College together.)  While that’s a well-known fact among those who study 19th-century American literature, I didn’t learn it until the second or third time I taught The Scarlet Letter.  And I didn’t know that Hawthorne died while on a trip with Pierce, at an inn in Plymouth, New Hampshire, and that Pierce found Hawthorne dead in bed, until just now, when I went to fact-check this entry.

One of the great things about Jeopardy! is that having multiple paths to the answer, and potentially learning something new from the question, makes the game far more interesting than a simple quizzing of facts would be.  They’d never give the clue: “He was the author of Franklin Pierce’s campaign biography”–unless, perhaps, the category was “Initials N.H.” or something similarly clue-providing, and even then, there would probably be more paths to access.  A search of the J-Archive turns up several iterations, actually:

(1986) AMERICAN LITERATURE, $200: He penned a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce and pinned “The Scarlet Letter” on Hester Prynne

(1990) HAIL TO THE CHIEF, $600: Nicknamed “Handsome Frank,” he had college chum Nathaniel Hawthorne write his campaign bio

(2000) AUTHORS, $100: In 1852 this “Scarlet Letter” author wrote a campaign biography for his friend Franklin Pierce

(2016) FRIENDS, $1600: Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a campaign biography of this college pal, later the 14th U.S. president

(Note: Clue values have risen over the course of the show.  The current values–in which the first-round board clues range from $200-$1000, and the Double Jeopardy! round from $400-2000–started in 2000.)

They could just as easily have used COLLEGE FRIENDS: Nathaniel Hawthorne met Franklin Pierce at this college in Brunswick, ME (What is Bowdoin?).  Actually, that would be a fun category**:

In Dunster House: Future VP Al Gore and actor Tommy Lee Jones

Thanks to Mike Dupee (

This question (which has also come up in a few different iterations) is actually pretty low on the embarrassment scale.  If you don’t get it, you don’t recognize the name of the residential house (whatever) or you don’t read People magazine (who cares).  It would be embarrassing if you were known among your friends as a Tommy Lee Jones fan, or if you’d claimed to have known Al Gore in college, but otherwise, no.  So let’s add to the list of ways to embarrass yourself on Jeopardy!:

  1. answering a question wrong (on national TV)
  2. making an unflattering face (also on national TV)
  3. answering a question wrong that you “should” have gotten right
  4. mispronouncing an answer that you “should” have known how to pronounce
  5. misspeaking–the correct answer is in your head and something different comes out of your mouth
  6. answering a question so spectacularly wrongly as to show everyone that your ignorance is even broader and deeper than anyone imagined
  7. answering a question wrong that you REALLY “should” have gotten right, as in something about which you are an insufferable know-it-all, or something people actually pay you a salary to know something about
  8. struggling to ring in and jerking about like a marionette with an incompetent puppeteer on the other end of the strings
  9. getting flustered, guessing wildly, and driving your score deep into the red
  10. looking and sounding like an utter tool when having the “chat” with Alex after the first commercial break
  11. betting high and losing on a Daily Double
  12. not betting enough and failing to take proper advantage of a Daily Double
  13. going into Final Jeopardy behind someone who has a runaway (i.e., more than double anyone else’s score and can’t be caught)
  14. betting badly in Final Jeopardy
  15. writing the wrong answer in Final Jeopardy and standing there on national TV with your wrong answer displayed below you in a tipsy scrawl that looks nothing like your real handwriting
  16. #15, but in a category that is 100% in your wheelhouse
  17. #15-16, but with a question that you actually DO know the answer to, you just couldn’t find your way to it through the clue (which happens all the time in FJ)
  18. losing by a dollar
  19. losing by many, many, many dollars
  20. losing

(Don’t forget to add “on national TV” to #3-20!)

And guess what!  At least half of these things did happen to me on the show!  But by the time I actually went on, I had made my peace in advance with nearly all of them.  Looking back, I was far more conflicted when I first auditioned.  I’m not even sure I 100% wanted to go on Jeopardy! then.  So I’m glad I didn’t.

*Podgorica, known from 1946-1992 as Titograd. What, you didn’t know that?


Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 5: The 21st Century

Where was I? Oh, right, high school.  Let’s move along, shall we?  My episode airs May 11 and it’s not as if I get to write in this thing every day.

I first auditioned for the show in 2002 or 2003, when the process began with a written test instead of the online one it currently uses.  My husband, daughter, and I had recently moved back to Los Angeles from the Bay Area; I didn’t have a job yet, and auditioning for Jeopardy! seemed like a fun thing to do that might eventually lead to some cash. I went to a meeting room in a hotel in Culver City with a lot of other people and took a pen-and-paper test that might have been 50 questions, which is the length of the online test now.  The only thing I remember about that test is that there was an opera question that I got even though I knew (and know) very little about opera–an example of the oft-noted truth that the pool of knowledge for Jeopardy! is wide but shallow.  More on that later, though.

As we waited while the staff scored the test by hand, I noticed that my throat felt a little scratchy and my ears a little stuffy.  Oh great, a cold coming on, or maybe allergies?  Well, the test was over, and I tried not to breathe in anyone’s direction as we listened to the staff call out the names of those who had scored well enough to stay for the audition.  Through increasingly plugged-up ears, I heard my own.

Then as now, the audition featured a mock show set-up, with questions (“clues,” in Jeopardy! parlance) projected onto a screen and a buzzer (“signaling device”) array.  The staff began calling people up three at a time to play the game and talk about themselves, including the perennial audition question–What would you do with the money if you won?

By the time I went up, I was feeling distinctly infectious.  I apologize from the distance of fifteen years to anyone I managed to give my nascent cold that day.  I was hearing through fluid, my voice sounded thin and scratchy, and instead of being all excited about auditioning, I wanted to lie down on the gaudy hotel-meeting-room carpet and take a nap.

I now know that the audition is where the staff sizes you up for energy and effervescence.  And if you’re thinking that you’ve seen many Jeopardy! contestants who evince neither of these things, you’re not wrong.  The pressure of the situation–the actual game, the TV set, Alex Trebek peering at you from his podium–squeezes the juice out of the average person.  I assume that what they’re trying to do in the audition is to eliminate the people who don’t have much juice to begin with, the ones who, however brilliant, might look so flat and unhappy on TV that they make viewers change the channel so as not to witness their discomfort.

And, by now robustly infected with an upper respiratory virus, I did a terrific job of being one of those flat and unhappy people.  When asked what I did, I lamely replied that I was looking for a job, maybe teaching again. (I had just won a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.) When asked what I’d do with the money if I won, I said um, I don’t know, maybe a college fund for my daughter? (She was three.)  Then I buzzed in on a clue about the French word pamplemousse (which I knew from the Monsieur Pamplemousse mystery series written by the creator of Paddington Bear*) and, instead of saying “What is grapefruit?” said “Grapefruit?” and was gently mocked by one of the contestant coordinators**: “We’re not playing Trivial Pursuit here, this is Jeopardy!

They said they’d keep me in the contestant pool for a year, but I’m pretty sure they say that even if they’re marking a large red X over your audition form.  Which I’m pretty sure they did.  I didn’t get what is referred to in the Jeopardy! community as The Call.  I went home, went to bed, got over the cold and got on with the next twelve years or so.

*Michael Bond.

**Almost certainly Glenn Kagan, although I had no idea at the time.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 4:

I don’t have any memory of watching Jeopardy! before the current version, which began in the fall of my senior year of high school.  Then again, I also don’t have a memory of a time before Jeopardy!; it feels as if the show has always been there.  I do remember being young enough to only know an answer now and then.  (My youngest nephew, who is 8, typically gets a few answers right when we watch together, usually sports and Americana.  He’s always delighted to get one that I don’t know, which happens often because sports are not my strength.)

In my last two years of high school in Maryland, I played on our It’s Academic team.  I think that both years we won our first game and lost our second.  Here’s our team’s yearbook photo in my senior year: Ceres (whom I speak about here), me, and Tom, with host Mac McGarry; a Giant Food representative presenting us with our winnings; and Mr. Dave Harley, who taught us European history and advised the team.

B&W yearbook photo of our high school It's Academic team.

The 1984-85 season.

(Yes, I was Nancy then.  Here’s how I decided to go back to Nan, if you are interested.)

The previous year, our episode taped too late to be in the yearbook, I guess, because the photo seems to be of a practice session–look, we had a buzzer system of some sort!  I’d forgotten.  I’m still in touch with a couple of these guys (yes, they were all guys. I guess Ceres didn’t join until she was a junior).  Also, I still have that squint in most photos.  I think the players ended up being Will (in the foreground, with glasses), Paul (gazing soulfully into the camera in sweater and blazer), and me.

The 1983-84 season.

Both seasons, we won our first game, then lost the second and were eliminated. Meanwhile, out in California (September 10, 1984):

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 3

I assumed you would take it for granted that in addition to being a scavenger of books, I was also a fairly obsessive and indiscriminate reader.  In these days of concern about fake news, I look ruefully upon my younger self, and even my not-so-young self, for her willingness to learn about How Life Works by reading.  I mean, reading is a great way to get information, of course.  But I’m talking about reading for information to the point of getting life advice from comic strips.  Seriously, I can’t tell you how often, in the throes of some grown-up predicament, I flash back to a comic strip.  I’m pretty sure I learned about income taxes, driver’s tests, and mortgages from comic strips.

comic strip about getting a mortgage

“Jump Start” by Robb Armstrong

Reading indiscriminately, though, you sure do pick up a lot of information, quite a lot of which is not obviously useful and some of which isn’t even particularly interesting.  Meanwhile, the rest of life goes on, and you probably miss some of it because you’ve got your nose stuck in a book, probably a fairly irrelevant book like a 1978 travel guide to Eastern Europe or an Erma Bombeck collection–I read her entire oeuvre up to about 1980 at my grandmother’s house.

Whenever my sister remembers something from our childhood that I don’t, I say, “Where was I?” and she says, “In your room, reading.”



Posted in Jeopardy!

A Newborn Girl at Passover

When Yael, the daughter of my friends Lisa and Aaron, was born, I wrote this poem for her.  She celebrates her twentieth birthday at the end of Passover this year.

“A Newborn Girl at Passover” at the Academy of American Poets

To those who celebrate, chag sameach Pesach!

Posted in Uncategorized

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 2

cover of the Bobbsey Twins' Search for the Green Rooster

Featuring some useful facts about Portugal.

Whenever I read applications for poetry-related things–fellowships, residencies, academic programs–there are personal statements that begin by invoking the childhood roots of the writer’s connection to books, literature, reading or writing, e.g., “Ever since I learned to read at age three…” or “I have loved books my entire life.”  While these are rarely the most persuasive personal statements, they always remind me that we all have personal myths around our obsessions, even if some of us are too sophisticated to share them.  Either we have loved books our entire lives, which is one kind of myth, or we began loving them at a particular moment, which is another–perhaps a conversion story; meeting Harry Potter on the road to Damascus, if you will.

With trivia people, it’s usually that we have always been collectors and retainers of information.  Some of us have truly astounding capabilities with regard to learning, storage, and retrieval, but since most kids are interested in collecting something–I liked owls and bottlecaps–and kids who don’t have too much difficulty with reading often find themselves collecting large amounts of facts and information as well (these weren’t really around when I was young, but they’re everywhere now), a lot of us just carry on with the childhood habit of collecting and not discarding what we learn.  My husband still has a lot of 1970s-era dinosaur lore (and has kept up with some advances in paleontology) and can identify a startling number of shark species.

I didn’t have the focused obsessions that he and lots of other kids had, though. I wasn’t necessarily in search of particular prey; I was more of a reading scavenger.  Books weren’t scarce in my world, but what seems important as I look back is that they came to me in a lot of different ways.  I had books of my own, books in my elementary classroom libraries and school library, but I also had my parents’ bookshelves and their coffee-table books and the books at my aunt’s apartment and at my grandmother’s house.  My mother ran an antique shop for a few years of my childhood and bought books in auction lots; I also went with her to other antique shops and browsed the book sections, which were always more interesting to me than furniture or glass.

Cover of The Book of Lists

Wow, did I love this book.

When you read this way as a child, you come across all sorts of information and have no way of knowing that most of what you read is nearly completely irrelevant to your life.  I still can’t tell, to be honest.  The problem is that I don’t retain as much as I used to–and, in my adult life, with so much of my reading on the Internet, I can’t always remember where or in what context I learned some half-remembered thing.  It was different when books were so much more closely tied to specific places and even times for me.  I remember reading The Peterkin Papers in the wonderful loft in my elementary school library and The Book of Lists at my aunt’s house in Atlanta.

Reading books from those auction lots, in particular, gave me a passing acquaintance with names that were unfamiliar to other children and even adults.  There always seemed to be one of Bennett Cerf’s compilations of funny stories, hardcover books featuring celebrities of other generations, like the wits of the Algonquin Round Table.  (I probably would have found Dorothy Parker on my own, but it was definitely from those auction boxes that I also became a Robert Benchley fan.)  I think it was from one of Cerf’s books that I learned some quip that I parroted to my parents, attributing it to G.K. Chesterton, a name that sounded to them as if I had made it up.

Posted in Jeopardy!

Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 1

Over the last few years, I’ve consumed a lot of the small subgenre of online writing that is Jeopardy! contestant narratives. Josh Fruhlinger, the writer of the indispensable Comics Curmudgeon blog, observes in his own writeup, “There seems to be some kind of rule that if you go on Jeopardy, you write about it on the Internet.”  Thank goodness for that; I might never have ended up on the show at all except that when I got serious about trying to get on, I wanted, like any other nerd, to read about the experience before having it.  Now I’ve had it, so, if you want to, you can read about mine.

I’m going to do this in a series of short (I think) blog posts leading up to the beginning of the 2017 Teachers Tournament, a month from now, and running through the tournament itself, May 8-19.  I won’t be able to talk about game specifics until after the tournament games air, but it feels as if I have plenty to talk about before then.  My family, friends, and colleagues could certainly tell you that I had a lot to say about the experience of preparing for the show long before I ever got to the studio.  In fact, some of them might be enjoying the respite from Jeopardy! prep talk that has ensued since I got back from taping.  (The ones who attended the taping, however, get to hear me rehashing the experience, something that probably won’t stop for a while.)

So, please, follow along.

Posted in Jeopardy!