Our Lives in Jeopardy

In 1968, if you were off from school in Detroit on a weekday, you might start the day at 8:30 am with Rita Bell’s Prize Money Movie where she would dial for dollars during commercial breaks from black-and-white-movies. It just had to get you to 10:30. Time for Jeopardy.

James, Ken, and Brad battle to be the best on “Jeopardy” 2020. Photo at NYPost.

Last night, Jeopardy completed its “Greatest of All Time Tournament” in riveting fashion as nearly 20 million viewers watched a trio of America’s fastest trivia buffs duke it out for a million dollars. It’s strange to think that you’d spend much of your life watching a particular show, seeing the drama of life play out in questions and answers, risky wagers and eye-popping pull-out-of-your-fundament responses. The players have aged; the hosts have aged; I’ve aged. This is no longer television. This is mythology.

The Game Before Alex

It may seem like a tangent to go back to the first rendition of Jeopardy, which ran on NBC from 1964 to 1975, then again from 1978-79. But, in a way, Jeopardy saved the quiz show, bringing respect back to fact-based questions following the scandal of the 1950s, where contestants were fed correct answers in order to boost TV ratings. In the early 1960s, game shows had switched to focusing away from trivia, where contestants guessed dollar amounts (Price is Right), played simple games (Concentration), or performed silly physical challenges (Beat the Clock.) Jeopardy was the first where contestants had to demonstrate knowledge more than luck and where the answers were more interesting than the banter between barely known celebrities.

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On Reflection

Mirror art which says "Are You Really Here"
Mirror artwork by Jeppe Hein, photo at curator.com

One fun gift I received for Christmas was a book for making short daily bullet point lists, such as “Things to Do on my Next Day Off,” “People I Miss,” or “Advice for my Future Self.” Like a blog post prompt, it lets you do a little self-reflection and riff on the stream of consciousness that ensues. There’s space for three years’ worth of thoughts, so it will be fun to look back on what you were thinking–not to mention that you don’t have stick to three years. Yet, after a few days entering highlights and fun memories from 2019, I was taken aback by the suggested entry for December 30:

Some Things to Say in the Mirror Today:
a.
b.
c.

Ugh! To be honest, this is a detestable thought–looking in a mirror! That seems like a recipe for self-criticism of disastrous portions. I immediately resisted the thought with every fiber of my being. I have never liked looking in mirrors, considering it a necessary requirement of life, rather than an enjoyable pastime. Rather like laundering one’s undergarments, looking in a mirror is a needful chore, not one to get excited or thoughtful about. Does anyone like looking in mirrors?

Bronze Egyptian hand mirror
Mirror from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, @1700 BC. Metmuseum.org.

Ancient Mirrors, Ancient Self-Absorption

Apparently, the Mespotomians did, or at least they had mirrors, made from polished obsidian and bronze dating roughly back to 4-6000 BC. Found in Turkey, Egypt, and even Central and South America from millennia ago, mirrors seem nearly as old an invention as the boat. Greek urns and Roman busts depict looking in mirrors, so that preparing one’s self to go out into the world seems nearly as ancient as writing or collecting taxes.

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Let’s Evolve the Decade

red dice changing year to 2020
Yes, it is time to close this decade. Photo at military.com

I am absolutely positive that on January 1, 2000 I made a point of explaining to everyone how it was not the new millennium.  The correct way to count the beginning of decades and millenniums is on year one, you see, so everyone was confused. The New York Times and The Farmer’s Almanac backed me up on this, and, while common knowledge was throwing ticker tape and blaring trumpets and partying like it was the end of 1999, common knowledge couldn’t hold a candle to fact and correctness. Only one problem.

I was wrong.

So was/is the Times and the Farmer’s Almanac and the US Naval Station and what will be the tsunami of nitpickers and fact porn purveyors who are about to begin that drumbeat again. I’ve already seen a few Facebook posts that begin with “Look, people…” It’s seductive, almost irresistible, but you can hold fast. Facts are more flexible than we might think.

This is absolutely the end of the 2010s, as I will literally explain below.

Anno Domini Was a Figment of Denis’ Imagination

Here’s the issue at hand. When the calendar was created–and it was created, it’s an artificial construct rather than being a natural phenomenon like atoms which had to be discovered–when the calendar was created, assumptions were made. As the many articles being written this week will tell you, the monk Dionysius Exiguus in 525 created a labeling system of years because people were using all different dates for their own purposes. (Dionysius stands for Little Denis, by the way, which is why a monk would be named after the Greek god of drunkenness and debauchery).

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The Potato that Circumnavigated the Globe

A potato, a yam, and a sweet potato were sitting in a bar. The sweet potato said, I think I’ve had a few too many… better call me a Tuber….

Fozzie Bear: What is the potato’s least favorite day of the week? Fry-Day! I’ll be here all week. Photo from pinterest.

Did you know that yams and sweet potatoes are not the same–oh you did? Did you know that potatoes and sweet potatoes are not the same species–oh you did? Ok, did you know that sweet potatoes sailed to the Polynesia? Gotcha there.

Also, potatoes once made Queen Elizabeth ill, while yams rule the world. And, since those bastard potato plants pretty much destroyed an entire country and created a big chunk of a new one, that makes the lowly potato pretty down powerful. Yep, I started poking around to find out why potatoes and sweet potatoes aren’t related and I found all sorts of interesting stuff. We’re goin’ in!

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History Is Only in the Rear View Mirror

With the impeachment hearings going on in the background, it’s hard to write today about other topics on my mind, like Medicare-for-all or whether the laugh track is a spawn of Satan. Comparisons have been made for days back to the 1973 Watergate hearings, although I don’t know if that will turn out to be the right comparison. Historical accounts depict those hearings as riveting coverage that all of America tuned into, day in and day out, when the reality was a little different. I remember because I was there.

Who watched Watergate in color? Only the people in the room. Photo from ABCGo.

One of the reports last night showed a picture from the first day of the hearings, with the green Senate table, splashing across the view like a movie green screen. This is misleading. In 1973, less than half the households in America had color TVs, and even though we had one, that was not the TV being watched in the middle of the day. It would be doctoring the past to describe the hearings with that kind of illustration, though several journalists have done so in recent weeks. The first time I saw that vision, all I could think of was, “Well, the hearings weren’t conducted in color.”

The Senate Select Committee on Watergate convened these public hearings in May 1973, and they continued until September. When it’s noted they were on during the summer, that means All Summer Long. It’s hard for me to imagine today’s Congress or public having the kind of stamina or interest to generate hearings for that long.

There had been precedent: the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954. Those televised hearings were on the subject of whether the fanatical anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy had misused his status in helping promote an aide. McCarthy had made a name for himself by accusing the government of being infiltrated by communists, and he was a rising star in the Republican party, which had control of the Senate. For several years, McCarthy had been pointing fingers at the Army for harboring enemies of the state, and the Army in early 1954 started pointing back. The Senate decided to investigate the counterclaims and chose to publicize the hearings. The brand new TV networks were happy to have something interesting to show.

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