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Rosemary Mild

How I Jeopardized My Sanity

The Hilton Hawaiian Village , a sumptuous resort in the heart of Waikiki , used to be my favorite haunt. It always beckoned like a Siren, with its beachside music, luscious restaurants, exotic wildlife, and Friday night fireworks. But now, every time I set a sandal on its turf, I suffer pangs of regret.

It’s the Internet’s fault. The Internet makes everything too easy. Click, click and voila! You’ve committed yourself to some reckless venture—like signing yourself up to be a contestant on Jeopardy! The team was coming to Honolulu for three days of testing at the Hilton Hawaiian Village . My husband, Larry, and I were “snowbirds,” wintering in Honolulu , so how could I not leap at this chance to join the brainy wannabes?

Click, click. Within a day of applying on line, I received a response. “Congratulations! You have been selected for an appointment...” Oh, my God, what have I done?

Jeopardy! is the second longest-running game show on television (after Wheel of Fortune), and the format is unique—the reverse of the usual quiz show. A player selects a category and dollar value from the list offered. Host Alex Trebek gives an answer; the contestant must provide the question, preceded by “What is...” I’m addicted to Jeopardy!, but I used to be a whole lot quicker than I am now at 71. I’m convinced that the most successful contestants possess three qualities: photographic memories; nerves of titanium; and lightning reflexes—not only mental, but physical, meaning a masterful thumb on the response button. My DNA does not include any of these skills.

I accept the e-mail invitation, noting that we’re going back to our home in Severna Park , Maryland , on April 1. Good. My schedule will kill the appointment and I can relax. But no such luck. The very next day, I get my marching orders. Be at the Hilton Hawaiian Village on February 21 at 11:30 a.m. The test will consist of fifty questions. I’m to come dressed in what I’d wear if I were chosen as a contestant. But the invitation warns: “Even if you pass the test, we cannot guarantee that you will be invited to do the show.”

That night I wake up at 2 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep. The realization has hit me: I have only one month to LEARN EVERYTHING. What’s the best way to cram? In the morning, I call Border’s and Barnes & Noble to get a book, any book, dealing with past Jeopardy! shows. Not a single bookstore on the island of Oahu has one in stock. And there’s no time to order from Amazon. But a teacher friend tells me to buy a trivia book. I literally run to Ala Moana Center, a massive mall four blocks away, and come home with a 2006 Time Almanac.

Of course, I can’t ignore the evil Internet that got me into this in the first place. I log onto links of former Jeopardy! champions. The crosscurrents of advice are akin to entering the Bermuda Triangle. I find three pages of instructions on how to handle the response button. You must wait until Alex has finished giving the answer or you get “locked out” for a fifth of a second; or is it five seconds? Rest your hand holding the button device on the podium to steady it; activating the button requires pressure. One contestant actually built himself a mock button device so he could practice.

Another champion offers a sample test, which should take ten minutes. I’m in such a hurry to take it that I forget to write down numbers one through fifty in advance. So I waste time, fret about it, and only get twenty-six right. The minimum is thirty-five, or seventy percent.

As Larry and I splash around our apartment pool, he offers to drill me on the U.S. capitals. A no brainer, I tell myself. But I suck in a mouthful of chlorinated water as I discover I only know about half. Topeka, Kansas? Lansing, Michigan? Helena, Montana? Pierre, South Dakota? Concord, New Hampshire? Salem, Oregon? I was smarter in eighth grade.

The almanac becomes an extension of my body. I even take it into the bathroom, one of my favorite reading places, and set it on the Formica counter. Sorry, Wilkie Collins, your Woman in White will have to wait a month. In bed that night, I prop the almanac on my belly, preparing for my first real cram session. It’s 11 o’clock . Larry laughs. “Think you’ll be finished by morning?” He drops off peacefully to sleep. I don’t. After memorizing the first twelve U.S. presidents in order, I turn off my light. So much for cramming.

I wake up at 6 a.m. in a panic. Was it Tyler-Polk-Taylor or Taylor-Polk-Tyler? A peek at the almanac: right the first time. Sunday breakfast has always meant a leisurely hour with two newspapers. But not now. Parade has a cover story about the world’s most horrendous dictators. “Better memorize those,” Larry says. Of the twenty who are pictured, I only know half a dozen. (I’m lying. I only know three.) Instead of my honey wheat bagel, I digest women heads of state: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia; Michelle Bachelet, Chile. I open the almanac and spill guava jelly on the chemical elements.

In the following weeks, I study Verdi operas, Super Bowl winners, Irish authors, mixed drinks, and the tallest peak in the Andes: Aconcuaga in Argentina. I start memorizing country capitals. Angola:Luanda. Azerbaijan:Baku. Democratic Republic of the Congo:Kinshasa. Republic of Congo:Brazzaville. Djibouti:Djibouti.

The day before my appointment I make an ominous discovery. The ocean of facts I absorbed a month ago—the facts that surged into my head like the waves on Sunset Beach —have now receded to some distant swell where the sea turtles live.

Yikes! What to wear? I always critique the women contestants’ clothes, noting what makes a woman look anorexic or chubby or drab or gorgeous. I set the parameters. Nothing ruffled—too frou-frou; no small prints—patterns break up on TV; no flashy jewelry—too distracting. That night, I select my outfit: an aqua jacket, black pants, and lacy camisole. It’s one of the year’s very “with-it” ensembles. Plus my arty silver earrings to look younger. I haven’t seen a contestant who looks my age since Jeopardy stopped the senior tournaments. In fact, not even then. I figure they dropped those tournaments because they couldn’t find enough seniors who remember things.

“J” Day. February 21, 10:30 a.m. Larry wishes me good luck and tells me he loves me. He’s too kind to add “no matter what.”

At the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort and Spa, I roll into the parking garage. It’s 11 a.m. and I have no idea where to go in this opulent complex set on twenty-two acres. So I whisper the magic word to the bell captain. “Jeopardy!” He smiles sympathetically and directs me to the Tropics Showroom. This is the third and last day of testing in Honolulu (about fifty of us each day). In the anteroom, a few test takers stand about, shifting from foot to foot. There are no chairs, no receptionist to take our names, no Security to frisk us. A sign says the doors will open at 11:30, not a minute before.

I leave the room, stroll past a swimming pool filled with sunburning tourists, and visit the jungle gardens. The flamingos ignore me; they’re too busy balancing on one leg. They look so improbable, so pristine. Pristine? Now I’ve done it. I forgot to put on deodorant after my shower. It’s 11:15, too late to find a sundries shop. I’ll be disqualified! I visualize a sumo-size guard blocking the testing room doorway. He’ll growl at me: “Sorry. The correct response is: What is Lady Speed Stick?”

I return to the Tropics anteroom at 11:22, perspiration beading up in my larcenous armpits. No one socializes; everyone looks agitated. Some of the men stand about in their dignified suits and ties; others slouch in jeans or cargo pants and T-shirts. I compare the women’s outfits to mine. A young woman in a sleeveless blouse has flamboyant tattoos covering every inch of her arms. If she makes it onto the show, will they require her to wear long sleeves? I’ve never seen a tattooed contestant. An Asian woman carrying a briefcase is wearing an aqua business suit, the same color as my jacket. She nods, but doesn’t invite conversation, and that’s fine with me. Concentrate, I remind myself. Focus. My psychoanalyst father once told me, “You woolgather, you daydream.” I know, but I’ve never learned to stop. This does not bode well.

At precisely 11:30, fifty-five of us are ushered in; we merely have to show our invitation at the door. There are no tables, no lecture-hall chairs with pop-up writing surfaces. Just small velvet chairs squeezed together, as if we’re attending a Renew-Your-Marriage retreat. On each seat there’s a test paper and a cardboard backing. The man in front of me has a large head and even bigger hair. I can’t see the screen well. The screen is the old-fashioned type used for home movies.

A young man “coach,” for lack of a better word, greets us in an upbeat voice. He asks if anyone has taken the test before. Maybe six hands go up. He runs us through a casual sample show, flashed on the screen with the categories and dollar amounts. We raise our hands to answer. We’re instructed not to write down “What is?” Just our responses.

Finally, the test. No categories to select, no dollar amounts. Just random answers in miscellaneous categories, called out to us orally, with about eight seconds to write each response. We begin. The first answer I should know, but don’t. The second and fourth I do know. The third and fifth, I’ve known for years, but my brain blocks! Traitor! Rat! I scribble a note next to each blank, a reminder so I can come back to it. By number forty, I’m losing my concentration. I write only half the question to the last answer. I’m not having a senior moment. I’m having a senior decade.

“That’s it, friends, time’s up! Pass your papers in.” I take the ones handed me from my left and pass them to the woman on my right. And now I remember the questions to numbers three and five. I want to fill them in, but I don’t, fearing someone will think I’m copying another contestant’s paper.

“The tests will be graded in twenty minutes,” the coach tells us. “But while you’re waiting, we have a surprise for you. Alex Trebek!” Alex strides to the front of the room wearing an orange aloha shirt and slacks. He’s relaxed and charming, sincere and unaffected. One man raises his hand and asks, “Why did you shave off your mustache?” Alex looks at him in mock surprise and says, “You don’t have a mustache.” Everyone laughs. He talks about the test, telling us, “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t pass. Some contestants took the test six and seven times before passing.” Good grief! The test cannot be taken more than once a year. Those applicants kept trying for six or seven years?

At last, the verdict. Alex is handed a small sheaf of test papers. He studies them and announces the names of those who passed. Six men and two women (about the same number and ratio of men to women as on the two previous days). One is the Asian lady in the aqua suit. (Recently, she actually did appear on the show—and wearing the aqua suit! She didn’t win, but she acquitted herself well.) In the next hour, the lucky eight will go through a mock show and short interview. Alex says, “If you don’t exhibit personality in the interview, you won’t be invited on the show. And if you’re not called within one year, you won’t get called at all.”

About 25,000 hopefuls audition each year. Only 400 make it onto the show.

The coach tells the rest of us “Goodbye and good luck” and then warns: “Everything we said here stays in this room.” I assume he means everything significant that isn’t already on the show’s web site.

I slink back into our apartment, take off my trendy jacket, and confess to Larry: “I failed the test.” I ache to reveal all the answers and questions. “But we’re not allowed,” I add.

Always eager to help, Larry asks: “Did you sign anything?”


“Then you’re not liable. You can say whatever you want.”

I gasp, “No, I can’t!” I visualize Alex Trebek finding out that I blabbed, and horrible images flood my brain. He’ll roar, “Get that woman’s name and address, her fingerprints, her voice print, her DNA. Tell her never to darken the Jeopardy! testing doors again. And one more thing. Get her pen back.”

That ghoulish, nightmarish thought does it. My lips are eternally zipped. Because that’s my one tangible reward: the ballpoint pen given to each of us to take the test. It’s royal blue and silver, with JEOPARDY! emblazoned in red block letters on the silver panel. And I am never giving it up.

©2008 by Rosemary Mild

Rosemary Mild and her husband, Larry, coauthor the Paco and Molly mystery series Locks and Cream Cheese, Hot Grudge Sunday, and Boston Scream Pie. Her latest essays appear in Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover's Soul and the Maryland Writers' Association's first anthology.

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