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Stranger in a Strange Land: Virginia Stem Owens

Belgium for $1000 Please, Alex

Editor's Note: This is a guest column by Virginia Stem Owens, a writer who lives in Texas. Among her many books is Assault on Eden: A Memoir of Communal Life in the Early '70s (Baker).

It was my brother who got me hooked. While I was visiting him in New Mexico one summer, he insisted on having a hit every evening before dinner.

As happens with so many newbies to the world of addiction, I joined him just to be sociable. Now I too regularly find myself taking that preprandial hit.

My brother has moved on to the heavier and headier addiction of New York Times crossword puzzles while I at least have stopped at the more recreational drug of Jeopardy!

I am not alone in my addiction. Jeopardy! is the second-most-watched game show in America. Wheel of Fortune is first, perhaps thanks to the seemingly ageless and voiceless Vanna White. Jeopardy! must rely on the mild Canadian manners of Alex Trebek.

Quiz shows had been a popular diversion on radio in the 1940s. Then they were branded a form of gambling because they awarded prizes to winners. Thus, they were banned from the air waves. But the FCC lifted this ban in the mid-1950s, and the networks were off to the quiz-show races. CBS came out on top with The $64,000 Question, for over a year the most popular show on TV. My family watched it breathlessly every week as the cash prize doubled following each right answer. The show upgraded to The $64,000 Challenge, pitting two contestants against one another in a fancier set. The competitors were enclosed in separate glass booths (supposedly soundproof) and fitted out with headphones and a microphone. With this heightened element of competition, ratings skyrocketed.

Then Charles Revson, the head of Revlon, the show's sponsor, decided to put his finger in the pie. He demanded to personally pick the contestants, eliminating the homely or boring applicants. He manipulated the questions' categories to fit his favorite contestants' areas of expertise. Ultimately, the skullduggery extended to the contestants themselves, tarnishing the reputations of people such as Charles Van Doren, who were fed answers over their headphones. Exposed during congressional hearings, quiz shows were dropped by the networks.

But time heals most scandals. By the mid-Sixties, media mogul Merv Griffin was pondering a possible comeback for the genre. His wife suggested a version wherein the host would give the answer and the contestant would reply with the question. Griffin almost dismissed the notion as a silly gimmick, but more than fifty years later, the twist still persists. Jeopardy! has been on the air since 1964.

Demographers have notched the average age of its listeners today at 65—an age, I confess, I find somewhat youthful. The commercials that break up the rounds of play would seem to support the assumption of an elderly audience. Aleve is one of Jeopardy's chief sponsors. On the other hand, many of the contestants are in their twenties or thirties Often they peg their initiation into the show from early childhood. They remember watching with a parent or grandparent.

I admit I watch every episode in order to test my own expertise in the wide knowledge base from which the writers pick the answers/questions. But over the past couple of years, I have also become interested in other cultural attributes of the show.

Contestants' occupations are often what you might expect—college professors, high school teachers, reference librarians, and lawyers, though surprisingly few physicians. But also in the mix may be a DJ, a fishmonger, a rabbi, or a tour guide. Recently, a hotel front desk manager lasted over several shows. Most occupations are described in fairly generic terms. When a participant is identified as a "sales associate," I suspect he works for WalMart. Some occupations are simply baffling. What, for instance, is an "informal educator," a confidence consultant, or a test reader? Though many are self-employed (viz. "stay-at-home mom"), none ever identify themselves as simply unemployed.

The point, however, is that contestants represent an exceptionally wide spectrum of socioeconomic categories. How does someone who works at a carwash come to know the largest lake in Tajikistan?

The show is carefully ethnically and gender-balanced. Sometimes the three-person lineup is all male, at other times all female. Most often the panel is mixed.

Women tend to zero in on any literary category. Men perform better on sports trivia. They also have a slight edge on risk-taking when they land on the Daily Double spots, in which they have a chance to jump ahead into second or even first place in this intellectual horse race.

Anyone with a competitive spirit who nevertheless wants to avoid looking foolish on TV can take the practice test on the website. Be forewarned with the knowledge, however, that your responses will be timed as strictly as the actual contestants': you have five seconds. And if you have the butterfly-free stomach for it, you can go on to actually audition for the show. You will need to provide a profile and a good score on the website trials. If you simply want to stay on the amateur level, with the practice sessions, the website will keep your cumulative score for you.

Groups who want to contend against others in their specialty have formed their own versions of the show. University chemistry students test their expertise against peers in other parts of the country. Gastroenterologists have devised GI Jeopardy.

I don't see competition as a particularly Christian virtue, but it does seem bred into our American bones. We cheer on our ball teams, tilt toward politicians the pollsters tell us are winners. What would we be without the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the Final Four?

The Olympics may be a celebration of human physical excellence, but we still keep track of which country has the most gold medals—never mind the silver or bronze.

Competition aside, what keeps me watching Jeopardy! night after night? Just this: I learn things from it—odd nuggets mined from the strata of accumulated human knowledge. And I am awed and even gratified by the breadth and depth of seemingly ordinary people's intelligence.

Jesus taught that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30; Matt. 22:37; Luke 10). Today we emphasize the heart and soul, but more rarely the mind.

As a culture or even as a people trying to follow Christ's commands, how do we love God with our minds? I'm not sure enthusiasm for loving with the mind will ever equal that afforded Monday Night Football. On the plus side, the audience for the finals of this year's National Spelling Bee exceeded that of hockey's Stanley Cup. More people are playing chess in city parks these days (or so I read), and high school symphonic performances play to packed audiences.

Admiring the facility of others' amazing minds comes near to giving me a spiritual lift, with a tinge of glorifying God for what he has wrought. Contestants on Jeopardy! often have memory skills equal to the throwing arm of any big league pitcher or the heft of any linebacker (but no concussions will ensue). And watching this gentle mental match of wits is one way I can celebrate the gifts with which God has endowed the human race.

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