Alex and Me
My Jeopardy! miracle, preempted
by Dave Algase
From the March, 2020 issue
Channeling Alex Trebek: This little muddle-class, middle-aged Michigander recently turned from trauma toward triumph.
The question takes the form of my distant, nearly forsaken dream to play Jeopardy! as if I belonged there, valiantly, perhaps even finding victory.
But you probably didn't see that happen, even if you know me or you're among the nine million who typically tune in for a dose of Daily Doubles, the Final Jeopardy! clue, and the dopamine burst of shouting out something that stumped all three supposed savants on the screen.
My Warhol moment, the December 18 air date I'd awaited since taping the show in October, got trumped by the House of Representatives' vote to impeach the president.
Win some, lose some. In my view, we all won a little something that night, whether we saw it or not.
That was slim consolation, though, as seven-thirty p.m. neared and my Saline house party watched WDIV's preemption continue to show a much bigger House. I was bursting to end my enforced secrecy with this big reveal.
My son, Elliot, brought me to my Jeopardy! experience, and we saw it through together. For two months I'd thrown him red herrings, such as having Alexa play him Queen's We Are the Champions and then Weird Al Yankovic's I Lost on Jeopardy!
In 2015, as a Honey Creek Community School fifth-grader, he first suggested I test to get on Jeopardy! Though no quiz bowler or trivia night regular, I grew up watching game shows and still, as a vicarious evening avocation, regularly played along, phrasing answers as questions.
Elliot's eleven-year-old mind's eye could see me on the show for real. And I remembered my own young projection of myself on TV, having fun, winning fabulous cash and prizes, celebrating.
So I tried. From the online test and the luck of the draw, I was invited to audition that June. But the closest site was Kansas City. Already busy finishing up my first book, I almost opted out.
But being a
parent raises the stakes of your choices. Thoughts of the message I'd be sending my son helped me tell myself to go for it. So I drove our Prius 1,500 miles to and from Missouri in two days, solo.
The show's staff tells auditionees to expect an invitation any time in the next eighteen months. Or not. One in roughly seven or eight hopefuls gets called to Culver City, California. For most, like me that time, the calendar slowly expires.
Meanwhile, major life changes made the whole Jeopardy! endeavor, well, trivial. On the heels of my book publication came the sudden passing of my father-in-law. Elliot started middle school at Emerson. A depressing public sphere perplexed many basic assumptions and challenged my values, just as politics got more personal than I've known.
And eventually, like some dying stars do, a twenty-five-year marriage went supernova.
Win some, lose some. No pain, no gain.
I survived with the help of some of Ann Arbor's leading doctors, therapists, and, yes, attorneys, not to mention my folks, remaining family, and friends. Trying again at Jeopardy! was part of my moving forward. It happened here with your support, whether you saw it or not.
My second audition, in July 2018, was easier: just a drive down I-94 to the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit. Well-rested and experienced, I put several peppy, proper responses on tape.
Many Michiganders I met that day subsequently appeared on Jeopardy!, but as thirteen months passed with no word, I tried to release what I couldn't control. So the call to California this past September felt like discovering the last golden ticket.
With just five weeks for "Jeop Prep," trying to absorb new information was probably pointless. I brushed up on basic facts and game strategy. But the crucial and hardest work was to handle my own excitement, anxiety, and the specter of becoming a meme embodying public failure. Perhaps I'd botch my brief interview with Alex, finish below zero, and get kicked off stage even before the final clue.
That inner work happened at Yoga Focus, high in Tower Plaza, and in many modes at home. Life coach Ronza Potter's words lingered: no matter what happens, I'm already a champion. For my son, for myself, and people and causes I hold dear.
Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. I had barely enough of both. My game would appear on the 18th, my lucky number and episode #8118 of the Alex Trebek era. Luck goes both ways.
This didn't air in Detroit, or my hometown Toledo, or many other markets that night, but through the show's kindness I now own a copy of the episode on an official DVD.
I played neither as well as hoped nor as badly as feared. I didn't win the buzzer until the ninth clue. My babbling about interviewing Marcel Marceau got edited well. Nerves short-circuited my logic. Where are the Daily Doubles? (I never found them.) Where are my glasses? (Back in Michigan.)
Suddenly Double Jeopardy! was done, and I was deep in third with just $5,200. Rodolfo and Christine had each scored more than twice that. My sole hope hinged on being the only one to get Final Jeopardy! right. I knew that much.
I didn't know this: "One of Britain's few native evergreen trees, it's prized for bringing color to winter, & its foliage is often hung in homes."
The theme--called "Think"--was into its second verse before I started writing "mistletoe." But that's no tree, is it? So I crossed it out and scrawled "holly" with no time left for the question mark.
Seconds later came those blessed words from Alex Trebek. At seventy-nine and battling pancreatic cancer, his chemo had set him up for a nasty cold that day. Painful coughing jags brought the studio to states of silent empathy for long moments that never aired.
He had every excuse to call in sick, as I later told him. Instead he said, "So Dave, congratulations! You're the new Jeopardy! champion at $8,218!"
The real prize arrived in Elliot's wide-eyed joy as he cried out with amazement what I had already known: I was a champion. Unbridled glee in a fifteen-year-old boy is a precious sight to fully embrace.
Back after a triumphant lunch hour in the Sony Studios cafeteria, I lost the next game decisively. So if you caught me on WDIV at all, you saw me fail to catch a runaway bartender. They've been cashing in lately. At least I was again the only one to get Final Jeopardy! right.
Win some, lose some. No pain, no gain.
Knowing all this, the next evening I tuned in lower-key, with just my boy, this long-haired novice driver who's outgrown me and now studies at Washtenaw Technical Middle College. He was kind and consoling, reminding me I'll always be a Jeopardy! champion. And that he's proud of me too.
From Jeopardy! I've won richer relationships with my closest family and friends, a fun entree to rekindle and deepen many others, and a bright and eclectic new cohort of fellow Jeopardy! players, with which Ann Arbor abounds. A recent public library panel at the Pittsfield branch seated no fewer than nine alumni, many others also there in person or spirit. I've met them by chance at places like a Unitarian Universalist youth group banquet. Lots of locals have Jeopardy! stories. If you're like me, you don't mind telling them.
These connections deep and wide are my prize for going for it and the reason it came true as it did. Whether you saw it or not.
Whether you at Arborland sold me the suit I wore on TV. Whether you're a U-M librarian accessing my obscure book needs. Whether you via Treasure Mart or Facebook Marketplace brought my home the newfound cheery containment of your grandma's Fiesta dishes. Whether you tell truth in local and social media, touching on what's still good and constructive around us. And not least, whether you were a cashier tendering a spare smile if I punned my way through some dismal days. We've "whethered" this together.
Thank you and congratulations.
[Originally published in March, 2020.]
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