Over Easy: With ‘Jeopardy!’ it’s just the facts, and that’s what we need

For the Valley News
Published: 1/21/2022 10:37:37 PM
Modified: 1/21/2022 10:36:32 PM

I cannot claim that Jeopardy! has saved my life in the pandemic, although this column would have a better chance of going viral if I could.

No, the game show has not saved me, helped me lose 7 pounds in 7 days or preserved my so-called sanity. But my appreciation for it has only grown since COVID arrived in early 2020. (I had to Google its debut since time is fuzzy right now. I don’t think my last two birthdays should even count.)

At our house Jeopardy! is part of the routine — as they are for preschoolers, routines are essential for retirees. We don’t get around much anymore; most nights we watch the local and evening news on NBC.

Then comes the national news: fires, floods, famine and fakery, backended by a little inspiring story. You know you are supposed to be inspired because the segment is called “Inspiring America,” but I resist. A child sells a world-record amount of cookies for charity and I see the hidden hand of helicopter parents, a retail consultant or her college admissions coach. When I complain, my wife, Dede, sweetly says, “Oh, I think it’s a nice story,” and I am reminded that the world is how we view it.

But then we hear the Jeopardy! theme and we leave all that behind, especially national politics, which has come to a fork in the road — and smashed into a tree, setting off a dumpster fire, melting the whole ball of wax and mixing our metaphors.

Reality itself is in dispute, but on Jeopardy! facts are facts, eternal truths are still true, the Battle of Hastings was in 1066 and always shall be. Clara Barton founded the Red Cross, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, Dean Rusk was John F. Kennedy’s secretary of state.

That last fact is recalled from my youth, from deep in my memory. I have no use for it other than Jeopardy!, but it’s lovely that a fact can wait years for its moment, like the cicadas, which come out every 13 or 17 years.

After controversy over the selection of a new host following the death of Alex Trebek, Jeopardy! was fortunate to have affable champion Matt Amodio go on a long run last year.

I guess I could memorize Shakespearean characters and state capitals, but how do people like him excel at things like Minor Characters in Russian Novels, Small Town Nebraska, Balkan Currencies, Hupmobiles and Studebakers, Indonesian Provinces and Things Nobody Remembers?

I play along during the show and generally do pretty well, although at times I shout like a street lunatic: “Marie Antoinette,” “Vladimir Lenin,” “Lake Titicaca.” Fortunately, there is only one other home viewer nearby. But at 69 my performance is variable. Some nights the stars align and I am Sirius, the brightest in the sky. Other nights I am a gunslinger who has lost a half-second on the draw. “Billy the Kid,” I want to yell out in response to a question about the Wild West outlaw, but a contestant has already pulled the trigger.

I don’t recall Lebanon making it onto Jeopardy!, although famous son Phineas Gage may have. He was a railroad worker whose personality changed when a large iron rod was driven through his head in 1848, destroying much of his frontal lobe. It’s a tough way to get in the history books.

Dartmouth College makes it now and again, but less than attention-hoggers Harvard and Yale, who think the world stops when they play football.

New Hampshire (and President Franklin Pierce, White Mountains, 400-member House of Representatives) and Vermont (President Calvin Coolidge, Green Mountains, ice cream icons Ben and Jerry) also get air time, though less than New York and California, which is understandable.

But in my mind there are too many questions about the likes of Montana, Arizona and either Dakota. They could just combine a bunch of them and name the state “Tumbleweed.”

The great pleasure lately has been to watch the success of Amy Schneider, a whip-smart, pearl-wearing transgender woman who passed the million-dollar mark in earnings. Her wide range of knowledge is inspirational, as undoubtedly she is, too.

These days facts have lost some of their currency, since they are all at your fingertips — if you can find your smartphone. The human brain can’t keep up, and phones slyly encourage us to rely on them more and more.

But not on Jeopardy!, where there is no time to look up the capital of Suriname, the organ that cleans your blood, or the name of John F. Kennedy’s Navy boat. In that split second that decides victory and defeat, Paramaribo, the liver and P.T. 109 are everything.

There’s nothing but you and your memory. At my age that’s truly a moment of truth.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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