Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:
If You Were On Jeopardy! What Would You and Alex Trebek Talk About?
Rules are simple: When it finally comes up. When you are finally selected. When you start your ten-day run on America’s favorite game show. When Alex walks over to you and prompts you to tell your life’s story in a few moments. What will you say in the last moments before you make your first million?
Trebek: You had an interesting run-in overseas?
That’s right. I was 13 and I was lost in Italy. I needed to figure out how to get back to the hotel where my family was, but I didn’t remember anything except my mom’s cell phone number. This is back when pay phones were everywhere, but it’s also so old that Italy was still on the lira. I needed to find some — I guessed about 50 cents worth — of lira. I was really worried and freaked out, but then I found a big bucket of change. I grabbed a handful and went to go make a call when I realized this bucket of change belonged to a lady of the evening. So… that’s how I accidentally robbed what may have been… a professional.
Trebek: Stephanie Feinstein, a teacher, comes to us today from humid Memphis. Stephanie, it says here that you made a working loom as a child. Tell us about that.
Me: Well, Alex, as a child I wanted a fully functional, room-sized loom to make small blankets for my dolls. Both expensive and impractical, it was not something Santa was going to bring any time soon. [I laugh, so does Trebek.] So, after watching a PBS special on the Industrial Revolution, I tossed a footstool on its side, set up a weft of acrylic yarn through the legs and handle, and made a shuttle out of cardboard. Then, while watching The Frugal Gourmet, I wove a small lap blanket for Barbie to use on carriage rides. I was about six or seven at the time, and my parents were pretty impressed.
Trebek: I hear you’ve been editing Wikipedia for a while now. Care to elaborate?
Jon: I’ve been editing seriously on Wikipedia since 2006. Most of my articles cover Austrian and German authors, but I find myself entertaining more and more obscure projects as I go. A lot of people think Wikipedia articles just appear out of the aether, but I probably spend a few hours gathering reliably-sourced material on each subject before I get started. Actually writing the article, putting it into Wiki specifications, and creating citations takes about an hour all together. My next article project is an obscure Japanese silkscreen artist from the early 20th century, so I’ll be hitting the library and online resources hard this summer. Wish me luck!
Mine would be the time I made Barack Obama laugh. He came to my college in… I want to say 2005? He gave a speech in our campus library about the importance of education. It was a pretty decent speech, as I recall. When walking out he shook everyone’s hand and asked for feedback. When he got to me he asked me what I thought about it. I replied with “It was great! But if it gets me out of my American Lit class, I couldn’t care less what you say.” He laughed and said “You missed the point, didn’t you?” This is my Jeopardy! story and I hope, if Obama were on Jeopardy 500 times, he would be reduced to telling the story about some smartass kid he talked to once in Peoria, Illinois.
I have never in my life watched a full episode of Jeopardy!, so to even understand this question, I had to use Google. I ended up reading an NPR article about what it’s like to be on the show. I felt like an alien spy doing desperate pre-landing research to insinuate himself into the cultural life of America. Included in the article was a list of prompt questions you are requested to answer to supply Trebek with banter before appearing on the show. One of them was Brushes with greatness and secret ambitions? We want to hear it. I guess I’ll do that one.
I brushed the greatness of George Saunders. He is the greatest living short story writer. Reading him hits you deep, makes you think, changes you. It is not entertainment, and it is not decoding. It is fresh and harsh and full. It is hard to say how great he is or why he is in so many words. He’s like if you put in a blender the amused old man part of Mark Twain, the “aw shucks let’s discuss mind-shattering truths in real simple talk” part of David Foster Wallace, the hopeful cynicism and tragic humor part of Kurt Vonnegut, and the stark social commentary of all three, then set the blender to amazing.
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?Is there icing on it? he’d said.Dad had done that thing of squinting the eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
Anyway, he came to the Folger Theater in DC to accept the PEN/Malamud award, and I bought tickets. I got drunk beforehand because it’s a good night, cause for celebration, when you meet someone so talented. Attendance was so high that they moved the reading to the church next door, so I ended up schlockered in a church listening to a literary luminary read an excerpt from his latest book (which the New York Times has said is “the best book you’ll read all year”). When he finished reading an excerpt from his book, he took audience questions. He uses a lot of sci-fi in his work, and I asked him a question about it. He said that he wasn’t a superfan, but he enjoyed writing sci-fi stuff and that it was fun and helped break you out of lame writing and bad habits. I swooned. Afterwards, everyone returned to the front hall of the Folger to buy wine and stand in line to have this man put ink in their books. While he was signing, we talked a bit, and I told him about how I read so much now that most of what I think is “Ah. I see what you did there,” but that one story of his in particular took me so completely along with it that I did not have time to think, and it hit me right in the emotional nads (not exact quote). Seems like a really cool guy, but it’s so strange how little I know him and how much I know through his stories.
I think my story would have to be based around moving around so much over the course of my life. Not necessarily living in new areas, but always at least in new apartments and things. I haven’t lived in a place for two years since I was in college and that was because of squatting. I am at about 12-14 different home addresses between two countries so I could carry a conversation about it for awhile.
Backup: My collection of pogs, trading cards, and video games. I would play up the pogs being my true addiction by bringing a carrying case and mat in my coat pocket to challenge Trebek and the other contestants to a commercial break duel.