Archive for the ‘Narratives’ category

Sweet Mysteries of Youth

12 August 2010
Categories: Narratives

August always makes me think of my childhood, of those fruitful late-summer days spent busy or bored, always struggling to maximize summertime fun against the constant reminders that “Back to School” time was just around the corner. Part of that memory stems from the perennial noise that emits from the trees this time of year. That insistent buzzing-whining drone.

When I was eight, playing in the backyard sandbox, my friend and I heard that sound and wondered what it was. Looking up to the trees and seeing as well the power lines strung along the nearby road, I hypothesized that it was some kind of electrical noise from the wires. My friend wondered why we only hear it in the summer, and I further conjectured that the summer heat caused the wires to leak electricity, or some such.

Hey, to an eight-year-old kid, it was plausible. There’s something special about the age of eight. It’s the age where you have a few years of elementary school under your belt, giving you the sense that you know a bunch of stuff. What you don’t know, you can find out from a friend. And if neither of you have an answer, you can always make one up.

I think my friend might have bought that explanation about buzzing noises caused by leaky wiring. It was a few years before I learned the true cause: cicadas.

Walking the streets of our subdivision (which lacked sidewalks), we would often find these thin, stiff pieces of steel, usually around 5 or 6 inches long, lying near the gutters. Where did they come from? I wondered. A friend’s brother informed me they were car parts, some part of the suspension or leaf springs or brakes or something, and they fell off of older cars.

Again, plausible. They were usually rusty, like the undersides of cars, and I could imagine some old Chevy (or not-so-old Gremlin) hitting a pothole and spewing these strips of metal from its fender wells. But fifteen years later I noticed they were still around. Couldn’t be a car part, I realized. The technology has changed too much for these things to still be as frequent as in my youth. It took very little research to find that they’re bristles from the brushes of street sweepers.

But here’s the greatest mystery—and apocryphal tale—of those long-gone summers.

One day, I and a few friends were patrolling the neighborhood on our bikes. We wandered over to the very edge of my allowed-without-informing-mom-in-advance range. Perhaps a bit further than that, even; I wasn’t 100% sure I knew my way home.

We had reached a point at the eastern edge of town where one of the main avenues crossed a road at the city limits and abruptly changed from a paved thoroughfare to a dusty gravel track that faded into chest-high weeds and grasses. Beyond a rudimentary traffic barricade was a desolate, eerie land of deadly garter snakes and rusty beer cans; of gargantuan tobacco-spitting grasshoppers and dense, impenetrable second- or third-growth woodlots.

As I stood there with my cohort, pondering this unknown realm and whether the reward from its exploration outweighed the risk of getting grounded upon my return, a kid ambled out from the tall grass. He was an older kid, but whether that meant he was 12, or 15, or more, is unclear to me now. Someone in our party knew who he was; a classmate of an older sibling or some such. He approached, stopped, and casually looked us over.

“You know,” he said, with a hint of a grin and a conspiratorial glance over his shoulder, “there’s a nudist colony back in those woods.”

This revelation was dumbfounding. It was so utterly implausible that we launched into the obligatory chorus of “no way” and “yeah right.” He insisted it was true: “I saw it myself.” Naked people frolicking in the woods, he averred, though not in those exact terms. “Go see for yourselves.” And with that idle challenge, he walked away.

Did we meet that challenge? I cannot vouch for my compadres, but I, for one, did not. I figured I was already in enough trouble for straying this far afield. To go beyond that point, in search of a fabled den of iniquity, was inconceivable. My eight-year-old moralism said that if those people were depraved enough to be naked in public, there was no telling of what they might be capable—selling an eight-year-old boy into slavery, perhaps, or (worse yet) stealing his prized purple three-speed banana-seat bicycle. I turned away, and rode home, intrigued but fearful.

Over the years, this mystery stayed in the back of my mind. I sometimes heard further, similar rumors, reinforcing the possibility that a nudist colony really was tucked away amid the trees. Yet by the time I was in high school that area had begun to be developed into a subdivision; the gravel road was replaced by a winding extension of the avenue, and I frequently drove through the area without spying any hint of a naked body or an enclave of debauchery. My gentle skepticism turned to firm doubt.

Finally, when I was in college, I learned the truth: there was indeed—even then—nudity happening out there, but not a “nudist colony” per se. Hidden in what remained of the woods was a deep, roughly rectangular, spring-fed quarry pond. To access it one would park in back of an unremarkable apartment complex, cross over a railroad embankment, and follow a series of unmarked trails that meandered through clearings and skirted low marshes. College students, mostly, used the pond to go skinny-dipping. Those in the know called it Bare-Ass Lake.

In the years since then, the area has continued to be developed, and “Hidden Lake Drive” now passes right by the no-longer-hidden Bare-Ass Lake, stringing together little cul-de-sacs of tidy condominiums. The developer had a sense of humor, however, and left us with a sanitized, punning in-joke: the nearest cul-de-sac is called “Bear Lake Drive.”

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part V

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the last in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds
Part III: Showtime!
Part IV: December 10, 1997

Part V: Aftermath

As an episode of Jeopardy! closes, the three contestants stand with Alex and chat. Ever wonder what it is they’re talking about? Me too. I have almost no recollection of our little conversation that day, despite the appearance on tape of being engaged in some witty banter. It had something to do with lunch being next on the agenda; the one word I remember Alex saying, believe it or not, was “gravy.”

It wasn’t until I stepped off the stage and was handed the post-show release forms that I found out I had won a trip for two to Jamaica. Not my first choice for a vacation, nor my tenth, but it was a lot better than a bunch of furniture we don’t need, or a pair of his-and-hers watches, or a bunch of other second-place prizes they gave away that week. Plus, of course, they gave me all the random shit they always mention—Centrum Silver, Denorex, an Aiwa portable tape player, a Looney Tunes pocket watch, a dozen coupons for free bottles of Mrs. Butterworth’s, the electronic home game and the Jeopardy! scorekeeper (“so you can play along at home”). Piles of the stuff, most of which would arrive in various separate packages during the months following the air date. I’ll never understand why they sent the cough drops and Denorex samples via overnight FedEx. Like I couldn’t wait.

The show broke for lunch, and since I had no reason to stay I gathered up my stuff and met my girlfriend at the studio door. The audience was exiting through that same door, in clumps, and I got a lot of congratulatory and sympathetic comments from a number of senior ladies. Turns out she had made friends with them before the taping and they had all been rooting for me.

The next day I dropped her off in Beverly Hills to spend the day with her sister, and I drove alone down to Long Beach, where the Queen Mary was docked alongside a huge hangar housing Howard Hughes’ second-largest folly, the Spruce Goose. Except when I got there I learned the giant wooden flying boat had been packed onto a barge a few months before and shipped off to a museum in Oregon.

So, not having satisfied my aviation jones, I drove back north along the coast and stopped in Santa Monica at the Museum of Flying, built on the site that was the birthplace of the greatest aircraft in history, the Douglas DC-3. Except the museum is closed on Tuesdays.

I decided LA was trying to tell me something. I stayed in my hotel room the rest of the day, and the next morning we caught a flight back to Chicago.

It was gratifying to learn, once December rolled around, that the actress had been blown away in Thursday’s game, and wasn’t even a contender during that day’s final round. So much for the lucky reindeer.

Having had my shot at fame and fortune on Jeopardy!, I am now precluded from ever appearing on that show again. Which is fine with me. Having seen behind the curtain, I don’t even find the show all that interesting any more, and rarely watch it now. It may be the king of trivia game shows, but to me it has become old and stodgy. Still, I recommend that anyone who likes the show should give it a try. What do you have to lose? Me, I’m gunning now for Ben Stein. His show rocks, and I think I have a chance, albeit a small one, to win his money. Wish me luck.

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part IV

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the fourth in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds
Part III: Showtime!

Part IV: December 10, 1997

Image ©1997 Sony PicturesCaution: spoilers. Watch the tape first, or check out this analysis from the J! Archive fansite, and see the truth. Then read this, and find out what really happened.

From all appearances, it would seem that I was going great—tearing up the board—and then overextended myself on a Daily Double wager, causing me to panic and crash and burn. Not quite.

Let’s be honest. I kicked ass in the first round. I had confidence and knew virtually all the questions. Thanks to the actress’s psyche-out I avoided the Shakespeare category, which was a mistake because I knew all 5… but that didn’t matter because they handed me Let’s Play Clue, a board game I know all too well. (The player moving Colonel Mustard has the best odds of winning.) By the end of the round, I was leading by $200 over the actress. The returning champ was a distant third. The game was mine to win, or to lose.

Midway through the first round came the contestant chat, and my bullshit came back to haunt me. Alex could have asked me about my interest in space exploration, my rocketry web site, my history of bus trips through hell. But no, he went straight to the bottom of my list and asked about my unique hobby of collecting bricks from demolished historic buildings. So I chatted him up about the nostalgia (if not historical value) of the bricks I’ve collected, and managed to slip in a little commentary about the tragic loss of so many works by such great architects as Louis Sullivan.

I neglected to mention that one of the primary reasons I have these bricks is for the twentysomething outlaw thrill of sneaking into cordoned-off demolition sites.

I also failed to mention that the “collection” numbered, and remains, 2.

Then came the Double Jeopardy round. And tragedy struck.

It was going really well. My confidence was high, and I had the button under my thumb, both literally and figuratively—five times in a row I was first to ring in. Somehow I was managing to keep my knees from locking up. Then, from somewhere in the back of my head, or perhaps the ghost of the reindeer sitting on my shoulder, I’m not sure, came a voice:

“There’s a Daily Double behind Record Producers for $600.”

All through the orientation, the producers kept telling us, run the board top to bottom. That way you can get a feel for how the category is going to go, and even eliminate some possibilities since no two answers will have the same correct question. But I said to myself, what the fuck. I know rock and roll. So I asked for it.

Sure enough, a Daily Double. I freaked. Suddenly a sizable portion of my brain was shunted into answering the question, “how the fuck did I know that would be there?” I was surprised to see that I was well ahead and, rather than risk a sensible and tactical $1000, made a big mistake, wagering the margin between myself and second place. And then, the answer:

This person produced the all-time best-selling album in rock history.

Okay, I knew the album was “Thriller.” I also knew that Quincy Jones produced most of Michael Jackson’s albums. But the part of my brain that could put these two facts together was still busy looking for voices in my head, and the random name generator attached to my tongue said “who is David Geffen?”

From then on it was a lost cause, and a lead—I mean, a tie for the lead—dissolves pretty quickly when you start guessing at $800 and $1000 questions. When it came time to wager on Final Jeopardy, I didn’t have enough left to catch the leader. With the distribution of scores and the wagers I expected the others to make, I figured the best I could possibly do was second place, and a category as vague as Women didn’t leave me with any additional hope. Deep Space Probes would have been nice. I wound up betting that one of them would be wrong and would have bet a lot, so I only wagered a portion of my money in case I got it wrong as well. I anguished a while over the decision but never wrote a single number on my scrap paper, crunching numbers and logic in my head to try and find a solution that would let me win. It wasn’t there. In retrospect I should have just had the balls to bet it all, but even in my morose state I couldn’t bear the thought of having that goose egg on the front of my podium. (Not that the amount really matters. Only the winner takes the cash. Second and third places get the consolation prizes, but no money.)

I had a little vindication when I wound up being the only one to get the question right. The answer was:

One of three women, in the only statue that depicts women, in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

I was stumped for almost all of Merv’s little song. Why a trio of women? All I could think of were temperancers, suffragists, and war nurses. Just in the last few moments I thought, well, she was important enough to put on a coin… and jotted down her name as fast as possible. I didn’t have time to change the weird phrasing (“What is Susan B. Anthony?”) that was in fact caused by the producers admonishing us to fill in those words during the wagering phase so that we wouldn’t be disqualified for not phrasing it in the form of a question. (They claimed “What is” would be the correct phrasing, but obviously they had their heads up their legally-protected asses.)

I wound up in second place, just as expected. The champ shot his wad and came in third. The actress/witch and her goddamned reindeer got the cash.

Part V: Aftermath

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part III

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the third in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”
Part II: The Mecca of Nerds

Part III: Showtime!

We returned to the Green Room, where makeup artists prepped us for television lighting and we changed into our dress clothes. Beyond the sound-proofed walls, and our awareness, an audience was led into the studio, one consisting about half-and-half of retirees and white-polo-uniform-shirt-wearing school kids, plus of course the few dozen guests of the folks in the Green Room. Then they pulled two of our names out of a hat (not me) and sent them to get fitted for wireless mikes and to mentally prepare to go up against the returning champ. The rest of us were then paraded into the set and seated in the aforementioned rows of audience seats, making sure to be on our best behaviour and refraining from talking to the people we knew in the stands. Just a smile and a wave, please. With everyone staring and the simmering nervousness in the room, I felt more like we were condemned murderers than contestants.

Or perhaps I should continue to say “prospective contestants.” See, the way the show works is this. They tape 5 episodes, one full week, in a day—three before lunch, two after—and only tape two days a week, so in fact the returning champion, winning on a Friday episode and coming back the following Monday, had really been waiting since the previous Tuesday to defend his title. Now, the producers have no idea until an episode ends just how many new contestants they’ll need: usually 2, but if there’s a winners tie then only 1, and if someone becomes a Five Day Champion that person is sent home and they’ll need to fill all 3 spaces. (The Five Day Champion rule has since been abolished.) So until they actually pull your name from the hat and say “you’re on the next episode, come with us,” there’s no guarantee whatsoever, even after all the rigmarole you’ve gone through, that you’ll actually be on the show. A person could potentially sit through two whole days of taping without ever having their name called. I’m not sure what the producers would do with you then.

Johnny Gilbert, the guy who reads “Now entering the studio are today’s contestants…” and all the Rice-a-Roni hoo-ha at the end, was up in the audience with a cordless mike, putting the crowd at ease and in a good mood as only a professional raconteur can. He was wearing a gold satin jacket, embroidered with the Jeopardy! logo on the back and left breast, and a fine silver toupee. Like seeing a radio d.j. introduce your favourite band, it was weird to watch this unfamiliar, slightly paunchy, overly tanned, nearly 70-year-old dude, while hearing that voice we all know so well. Johnny reiterated the audience rules (no shouting, clap for the applause sign) to a group that had probably already heard them a few times before, and then we settled down for the first episode.

Of course, Jeopardy! is not a live show. They keep a buffer of at least a couple of months in the can, just in case. Though it was the last week in September, the episodes being taped would not air until the second week in December. Even knowing this, I was a little nonplussed when Alex Trebek finally appeared and his first words to the camera were, “Two and a half weeks to go before Christmas. Have you done your shopping yet?”

A show goes by pretty fast, even during the taping. They don’t stop the tape during most of the commercial breaks, so that two minute “pause that refreshes” is the exact same duration as the pause in the studio. They blank out the Big Board, bring the contestants a sip of water, and Johnny goes up into the audience to ease the tension and answer questions from the peanut gallery. The only time the tape stops during a normal show is between the Double Jeopardy! round and the final round, when the contestants are given unlimited time (and scraps of paper) to calculate their wagers before writing them on their light-pen pads.

Except when there’s a goof, and there was a big goof in this first episode. Two categories in adjacent columns were City TV and Driving. This guy from NYC ran them together and asked for City Driving for $300. The controller heard the City part and punched the button for City TV, revealing a Daily Double. Stop tape! Did he say City Driving? Playback. Sure enough. The judges debated for a while—quite a while, as if this had never happened before, which I can’t imagine—before deciding that he should request City TV for the same amount, but the Daily Double would be moved to somewhere else on the board. They reset the board, rewound the tape, and just as if nothing ever happened, Alex prompted the guy to request a category. Watching the tape, it’s seamless. There’s a tiny, subtle shift in mood due to the delay, but unless you know where it is you’d never notice it.

The delay to figure all this out and reset everything took around 15 minutes. During this time Johnny Gilbert answered audience questions as usual. Someone asked a question about Alex Trebek that Johnny didn’t know the answer to, so he turned around and called out to Alex, who was sitting in a high director’s chair down on the studio floor, reading a magazine.

A question frequently asked by people who find out I was on the show is, “What’s Alex really like?” Here’s the answer: he’s a robot. For all I know they had the Animatronic Alex there that day. Alex looked up from his magazine as if startled from a reverie—or a powersave mode—and gazed up at Johnny with a look that seemed to say, “How dare you involve me with the hoi polloi?” Johnny coaxed a reply from Alex, but I don’t recall that he answered the woman’s question, whatever it was, with more than a nod or single syllable.

The first episode passed in a blur, I was so nervous. I found myself wishing it had been my turn at the podium—there was a category of Astronaut Lingo I could have swept even with major head trauma—and the Final question was a piece of cake. The old champ got beaten and two new contestants were picked. Again, not me. The tension level for me remained steady—my chances of being picked were slowly rising but my comfort level was too, so it all balanced out. They took the trio backstage and swapped mikes around (the mikes correspond to each podium, so the new champ had to give back mike #3 and take mike #1). Meanwhile, I chatted with the prospective next to me, a young woman from New York with an ebullient, egoistic personality—quite obviously an aspiring actress. She psyched me out by mentioning that she and her roommate had stayed up late the night before, cramming Shakespeare—and then offhandedly quoted verbatim a few lines in one of his many plays from which I’d have trouble naming three characters (even though it might have been Troilus and Cressida).

Then, the second game. If not for having a tape of it, I’d remember not a thing, as all three contestants were infinitely dull and even the categories sucked. Once again, the champ was usurped.

And then, they called my name. And that of the actress beside me. We ran through the prep routine and before I knew it, I was standing first in line at the base of those newly-striped steps. Just before tape rolled, the actress put her good-luck charm, a little stuffed reindeer, on my shoulder, feigning best wishes to me. I politely shrugged it off, knowing a witch’s hex when I saw one. And then the music began.

Part IV: December 10, 1997

Part V: Aftermath

My 22 Minutes of Fame, part II

10 December 1999
Categories: Narratives

The following is the second in a five-part narrative about my appearance on Jeopardy! in 1997.

Part I: “How do you get to Sony Pictures Studios?”

Part II: The Mecca of Nerds

We arrived at the studio gate bright and early. In fact, I was amazed by how quickly we got there from the hotel. Maybe it had something to do with having taken surface streets and not the expressways, but LA traffic was reasonable and flowed much more smoothly than it does here in Chicago. Security at the gate was fairly tight, but once we were inside and had parked the car, there seemed to be no security at all, frankly. We actually walked most of the way back into the depths of the lot, to the temporary-looking prefab double-wide trailer home that serves as the Jeopardy! offices, before someone informed us that we were supposed to wait near the front gate for an escort to take me to the studio. Okay, we’ll walk back. Most of the other prospectives were waiting by the time we returned. Everyone was trying to look nonchalant and cool. We engaged in terse small talk about the weather, which was hot for 8 a.m., and after the nice stroll back and forth I had worked up a sweat. So much for cool. We all casually eyed each other, sizing up the competition, wondering silently which of us was the returning champion from the previous week.

Then a shuttle bus arrived and took us to the studio that I’d already passed twice, a big featureless soundstage that looked just like every other on the lot except for the little Jeopardy! sign by the door. We were taken into the Green Room, not actually green, which from the inside looked like a perfectly normal room but was in fact a free-standing box, ceiling, carpeting, fire sprinklers and all, tucked behind the tiers of the audience seating. The walls of the Green Room were covered with photos of celebrities who had played in the annual charity tournaments. (My favourite: Cheech Marin.) There were several comfortable couches and chairs, a table full of pastries, juice and coffee, a couple of dressing rooms and two makeup stations. They had us fill out the information forms and sign the contracts—yet again—and admonished us not to leave the room without permission, and not to talk to anyone we didn’t know if we went outside for a smoke break (for all we knew we’d be talking to a writer!).

Then they took us into the set itself to meet the director and producers, and to do the myriad preparatory items: a run-through of how the buttons and light-pen writing pads work, taping little “hometown howdies” (“Hi, I’m Kevin Forsyth, watch me play Jeopardy! on WILX, TV-10!”), what monitor to look at for video clips, stuff like that. The most important thing we learned, if you don’t count being able to write your name legibly on the pad, is this: the buttons are programmed to be inactive until Alex finishes reading the answer. If you ring in early there’s a half-second lockout, which is why you often see contestants clicking their buttons as if they’re in a full-blown panic. They jumped the gun and are desperately trying to catch the first instant their button reactivates.

(While I was doing all of this, my girlfriend was wandering the studio lot. She met up with a group of SFX wizards who happened to be doing post-production on the latest mega-blockbuster, Godzilla.)

Let’s take a look around the studio, much as it looked that day except without the people running around setting stuff up and the loosely-knit pack of nerds standing awestruck. The official website has a 3D interactive movie that allows you to see a full 360-degree view of the Jeopardy! set. You can even check out some of the rigging up near the ceiling. (The set has been redecorated since 1997, but the basic layout is the same as ever.)

We’ll start at Alex’s podium. Alex is of average height, but even so he has a riser back there to make him look taller. The wall behind, through which he walks, looks like it opens by magic but is really pushed by hidden stagehands, just like the doors on Star Trek.

Proceeding left (i.e., counter-clockwise), we next see the Big Board. On either side of the Board are four panels, arranged vertically. You never see this on TV because they go from a close-up of the answer to a shot of the contestant who rings in, but at the center of each panel is a bright white pinlight that goes on the instant the buttons are activated. This is your visual cue to know when Alex is done reading, and is controlled by some judge offstage. (Truth is, like all incandescent lights they take a split second to become bright, so a contestant is better off listening closely to how Alex phrases things and anticipating the lights.)

Next is a wall of 12 panels, three of which are open holes. These are for the contestant cameras, usually only two (a wide shot and a close-up). At the very top of this wall, rarely seen on TV, are three scoreboards so contestants can check their scores. This is where they’re looking when a Daily Double comes up and they’re trying to figure out what to wager; putting the scores up high is a good way to make them look thoughtful. Next is a large screen for the audience, basically showing exactly what they’d see if they stayed home. Then there’s the rostrum where Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, sits.

Then, of course, the audience, with a couple of long desks in front for the producers, judges, etc. The front two rows of the audience, far audience right (far left in this view), is where the prospective contestants sit. The two big monitors in front of the boom camera are for the contestants to watch video clips.

Zoom out while facing the Big Board to see the three contestant podia at the bottom edge of the frame. Just to the left of them is a short flight of steps, marked in bright yellow tape stripes, that one uses to go from the studio floor to the stage. (As the show began, the three contestants stood in single file at the base of these steps and were prodded onstage one at a time by a producer.  Nowadays, the show starts with the contestants already standing at their podia.) The day I was there, there were no stripes. One of the contestants, lost in a haze of wonder and nervousness, walked right off the stage, tripped on the steps, and fell flat on her face. The producers rushed her some ice and made sure she wasn’t badly hurt, a lawyer slipped in there at some point and got her autograph on a release, and makeup was later able to cover the bump on her forehead so she wouldn’t look on TV like she’d just been mugged. And pretty quickly, a gaffer was out there with a roll of bright yellow tape, unobtrusively marking the steps.

What surprised me most about the set were the podia. I had always just assumed that they contained nothing more than a couple of cords running down into the floor, one for the button, one for the lightpen pad. Turns out each one of those boxes has a full-size PC tower under there, plus some sort of networking controller, a few black boxes for the button system, a rat’s nest of cables, the works. They’re literally stuffed full—I mean, FULL—of computer equipment.

What didn’t surprise me, though, and what is belied by the VR movie as much as by TV, is the sheer gimcrackery of the set. On TV the Jeopardy! set looks elegant, solid, and glamourous. Truth is, everything’s built of plywood and plaster, and painted with faux wood and marble grains that look great on TV but up close just look like paint on plywood. The stage floor that gleams so brightly on TV is dingy and permanently scuffed by years of grips in work boots dragging heavy power cables across it. And the dividers that pop out of the podia between the contestants during the final round? They’re lifted by hand and held up with old battered two-by-fours shoved underneath, cut to length and labelled something like “For dividers—do not cut or throw away” in permanent marker. Ah, the magic of television.

Part III: Showtime!

Part IV: December 10, 1997
Part V: Aftermath