Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why I Shout at My Mother

Or more accurately, why I try not to shout at my mother.

My cell phone rang the other night, and when I saw "Mom" on the display, I sighed. I answered it, though, because the only things worse than answering are listening to a voicemail from her and having to call her back.

She said, "Hi, I wanted to double-check that your address is still the same, on [redacted] street."
"Yes. Yes, it's the same. We moved here in August. It's December."
"Well, I don't know! I lived in apartments for a month sometimes."

I bit back my reflex response of "well, I'm not you." Instead, I thought about the last few years. Prior to this address, I'd been at the same one for nearly 4 years. The one before that, for almost 2 years. Before that, 6 years. Nothing to make you think I'd be so transitory.

But this is exactly the sort of exchange that drives me crazy. When I moved, she wanted to know if my phone number was going to change. "Mom, it's a cell phone. It's not going to change."

"Well, I don't know!"
"It hasn't changed in 10 years, including when I moved from California to Colorado."
"I just wanted to make sure!"

As if I wouldn't tell her. And I would, both a forwarding address and a new phone number, in spite of the fact that I don't get any joy out of hearing from her.

But back around to why I try not to shout at her. You might think that she just sounds irritatingly neurotic, but really what's frustrating about it is that she put herself into this condition. She drank her way there. She was always cautious about things like that - she would repeat a phone number to you and make you say it back to her - but somewhere over the years, alcoholism took its toll and she has a hard time remembering things, or just making logical connections. It's a little like talking to the guy from Memento, if he peppered every other sentence with "I'm over here...."

"I went to the store and I couldn't believe how expensive the [whatever] was. I'm over here, are you kidding me?"

"The bus in town was late by 20 minutes and I'm over here, 'I'm going to miss my connecting bus!'"

I have no idea if she drinks anymore (she lives in southern California and I haven't seen her in years), but I don't think it would make much difference either way at this point. Her personality, her ability to carry on a conversation, her interest in anything, none of it is coming back. She is what she is now, and yelling at her only makes her respond like a child. She gets meek, and apologizes, and offers to let me get off the phone. She's got to be aware of everything that she's lost, but there's nothing to be done about it now. So I do my best not to yell and instead substitute silence. I'd feel sorry for her if I could feel anything at all.

Friday, November 23, 2012


I just read something on Postcrossing today that was pretty timely for the post I'd already been planning to make: on the radio in Germany, some guy said that the postcard is dead. Postcrossers are now sending him postcards from around the world to show that people do, indeed, still mail them. I don't know if it particularly proves the point, since they will be coming from a specialty site, but I'd have to agree that the postcard is definitely not dead.

My mother-in-law sent us a postcard from her trip to France. My kids sent us postcards from Hawaii. Maybe we don't use them much for general correspondence anymore, but they are still the way to send a little souvenir from a trip. Did you send anyone a postcard from your last vacation? Or pick up a couple to keep for yourself as mementos?

As I said, that happens to tie in with what I was already planning to write about, which is other people's postcards. I've never been terribly interested in them. I know there are plenty of folks who collect old letters or postcards, but it's never really grabbed me. Recently at a couple of estate sales, though, I picked up some used postcards just because I liked the images on the front and in some cases, the stamps. I'm not going to collect them, though; I'm going to repurpose them in some way. Heresy, I'm sure.

But I can preserve them digitally at least.

Here's one sent from Rome:

At first, I didn't even think this was in English.
People's handwriting has changed so much from ... whenever this was. I can't find a year on the postmark. (Edited to say: I see that under the postmark, the author of the card has the date written - Nov. 20, 1938) As I said in the caption above, I didn't think it was written in English, but now I can make out that the last few words are: "is his girl." It just takes practice to read this style of handwriting - I have the same problem when I'm looking at old records on Maybe eventually I'll be able to decipher this one.

Just for fun, I looked up the address it was going to on Google Street View.
I couldn't find any interior shots for this particular building, but Googling the address and looking at images brought up the interiors of a few apartments on the same block, and they look nice. It occurs to me that it would be interesting to find some sent locally and do a then-and-now comparison of the addresses. So many project ideas, so little time.

And as an aside to the topic, did you know that I blog all the postcards I receive from Postcrossing on my art-and-everything-else blog? Well, now you do.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Inherent Value

Going to estate sales will show you a whole range of ideas about the value of items. Morgan and I were at a sale last weekend where I found a copy of Good Housekeeping magazine. It wasn't priced, so I took it up to the cashier and asked about it. She said, "Four dollars." I just shook my head and set it aside. She said, "It's from 1941." I replied, "Oh, I know." She sort of made a face that suggested she thought I didn't understand the value of an old magazine.

Funny, I left thinking the same thing about her.

I used to work for a record store, and they bought used music and games from people. Doing that, you very quickly learn that there's a disconnect between what people think things are worth and what they actually are worth. In that business, there's an additional disconnect caused by the fact that you're selling them to a middleman, so values are even lower. But I told many people that they were more than welcome to try selling their albums on eBay or wherever. It's all a matter of what's worth more to you - time or money. It's time-consuming to sell your possessions online and try to get the best price for them, and there is risk involved. Selling them to the store results in less money, but it's done, nothing more to think about. People always wanted more money for their vinyl records because they tended to equate "old" with "valuable," or because they attached monetary value to their sentiment.

Them: "It's a Rolling Stones album from the '60s!"
Me: "Do you know how many copies of this album were pressed and sold?"

You know what's worth something? First pressings of the Stones' first albums on Decca. Early punk albums. Your Journey or Boston albums that sold in the millions and were ubiquitous across everyone's record collections? Pretty much worthless and easily found in basements across the country.

I don't know much about vinyl, so the point of that story isn't the medium or the specific example, but rather just to say that that job is where I finally started to get it. Before that, I also thought "if only I had my mom's old Beatles records!" Now I realize that it would be great to have them for sentimental reasons, but I sure wouldn't be retiring on them.

On to another medium: books. I love books. But I also buy old books, cut out their insides, and fill them with blank paper for use as journals and sketchbooks. Let's talk realistically about old books - while it's quite romantic to imagine that every one of them could find its home with someone who appreciates it, it's simply not true. Lots and lots of books fade into obscurity and would never have their covers cracked again, many with good reason. Who today is going to miss a copy of Mystery in Old Quebec? Sure, someone out there might, but I highly doubt that was the last copy in the world. (Indeed, there are currently 9 copies available just on Amazon starting at $2.51 - feel free to save one.)

Finally, back to the magazines. I have gone to enough estate sales to know that there is no shortage of people who saved every copy of magazines to which they subscribed. So that copy of Good Housekeeping from 1941? I'm sure it's not the only one. To a collector, who wants to put it into a plastic bag and store it, it might be worth $4. But assuming you're going to run across that person at an estate sale on a cold day in Denver is a bit of a stretch, and a risk. Acting like I'm some sort of Philistine for not realizing the value of a relic from 1941 (71 years ago!) just increases the likelihood that you will end up selling those magazines like the ones at a sale we visited last weekend, where there were shelves and shelves full of magazines. They had previously gone for 50 cents each. They were now being sold 10 magazines for $1.50. I picked up 20 of various publications and years.

Some of these are from the 1930s, they must be worth a fortune!

I'm going to cut them up for collages and similar work, but before I perform this treacherous act, I'm scanning them first. Isn't technology wonderful? I can then keep them in their entirety, but I don't have to become a hoarder. Digital storage space is cheap. I will be posting ads and other interesting bits from them on Flickr, so keep an eye out there (I've just started, but there is much more to come, so check back).

Oh and at the sale I mentioned at the beginning of the post? We spent that $4 on a much-needed and seemingly brand-new tea kettle.

Clearly worthless, as it's not old.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Last Saturday was the annual Zombie Crawl in downtown Denver. This was our second year going. It's quite a scene; people in this town really seem to love their zombies. I'm not going to post any really gruesome ones here, so even if horror isn't your thing, you can read pretty safely. (Also, I'm just gonna tell you now there might be a reason to get all the way to the bottom of the post.)

Checking his No-Facebook.

One intersection on the 16th Street Mall gets closed down and most of the people congregate in that area, although there's certainly no lack of zombies for blocks around. Many people go all-out with their costumes, some go the lazy "I smeared blood on myself, I'm a zombie" route, and others just seem confused.

I believe the mime convention is next weekend.
You may also have noticed her mismatched footwear. 

I love child zombies, and there were quite a few out. The family that eats brains together, stays together, I guess. 
Even zombie children don't always get their way.

No festival is complete without music from a band of the undead. Whoever they were, they weren't half-bad, either. The singer had a sort of Tom Waits thing going without sounding like he was imitating Tom Waits.

I have no picture to illustrate this story (and that's a real shame), but here goes anyway. We brought Penny down with us. She's okay in crowds, although she doesn't like it when dogs sneak up on her, so sometimes she's a little embarrassing with the growling and barking at them. She was really good on this particular day, not with the dogs, but with the number of people (especially children) who petted her suddenly. Sometimes she interacted with them; most of the time she just ignored them while they patted her head. We had been standing in one place on the sidewalk, leaning against a wall, for a while and she got comfortable enough to settle in and lay down. Not long after, a trio of cops on bicycles squeezed past us. The first one was close but not that bad. The second one encroached on Penny's space (I thought his pedal was going to hit her in the head). She jumped up and nipped his ankle. I think she got him, although it happened fast and so I could only say for sure that I saw his pant leg stretched in her teeth. The third cop paused for a second and looked at Penny, but went on without comment. I know he deserved it, Penny, but you just can't go around biting the cops!

And now, as a reward for scrolling all the way to the bottom, it's time for Who Wore It Better? Blood-Spatter Edition.

Exhibit 1: Accessorized with blood, a fox mask, ripped stockings, and a hook.
Someone's having a bad day
Exhibit 2: Accessorized with bolero jacket, wrist corsage, '80s hair, and a gay prom date.
Yes, me. 
It's sort of an odd feeling to see someone wearing your prom dress as a costume. I mean, okay, the prom was in 1989 so that's practically vintage (the shortest amount of time I'll accept as "vintage" is 25 years, so we're not quite there yet), but still. When did so much time pass? Oh, who am I kidding: my initial reaction was to laugh, not to ponder the nature of time.

I have a bunch more pictures of zombies that I didn't include here - you can see them on Flickr.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Family Skeleton?

I was nudged back into doing some research into my family yesterday. It had been a while, which is good in a way because Ancestry has added in a lot of new sources, so there's more information available. Plus, I'm finally getting a little better at searching things out. I have two trees going, one for my dad's side of the family and one for my mom's. The one on my dad's side is more of a poking-around hobby because there are a number of other researchers working on both of his parents' sides, at least sporadically.

My mom's side is a mystery, and there's no one else working on it, mostly because there's no one else to work on it. Her family tree is full of dead ends. She was an only child, and she had one first cousin and that's it. That probably doesn't seem that bad, aside from having no comrades-in-arms with whom to exchange information. However, there is the matter of her father.

She had told me that her father was killed in a car accident when she was a child. I remember one day when I was a teenager, we sat in my room talking and I asked her what it had been like for her to lose her father so young. I was pressing for details, and she finally just said, "Okay, I have to tell you the truth. He wasn't killed in a car accident. I never knew him." She knew his name - Roy Weimann - and that he had been a sailor, but that was it. I have no idea if he even knew my mom existed.

Looking into that part of the family has been completely unexplored territory. Finding him was pretty easy, actually. It's not a terribly common name, and he lived in Oakland (my mom and her mother lived in San Francisco), and of course there were Navy records. He died in 1979. Last night while browsing around, I found a member who had some photos of his family, including his mother and some of his siblings. I worked up the courage to send her a message and ask if she had any photos of Roy. It felt weird to tell her he was my mother's father, although I'm guessing from what I saw that her focus isn't on that part of the family so it was probably a non-issue to her. Nevertheless, it feels strange to be looking into family that no one even knew I was a part of. It's possible I'm the skeleton in the family closet.

She said she thinks she has some photos of Roy, so I'm anxious to see what she can find. She also had the single greatest family photo I've seen so far. This is Sophie, who was Roy's aunt. (That makes her my ... greater-than-great aunt, right? That's how it works? ... Yes, I'm joking.)

Seriously, isn't this the most amazing thing? (c. 1910)
Sophie here was born in the Hawaiian Islands in 1890. Very cool to find that the family was there at that time. It seemed completely random for a German family to be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th century, but as it turns out, German settlers came there and were notable as the only sugar plantation owners to import labor from their own country. So as it turns out, at one time there were kind of a lot of Germans in Hawaii.

In any event, I never thought that researching any branch of my family would take me to Hawaii. Fascinating stuff - I guess that family history is all about expecting the unexpected.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Living (and Blogging) in the Real World

(Disclaimer: These are just thoughts, brought on by a variety of influences. These thoughts in no way imply any sort of current issues here at home. Please don't read into them.)

Blogging is weird.

Theoretically, you can talk about your life, in whatever level of detail you're comfortable with. Except you don't live your life completely alone, so part of your story is invariably also part of someone else's story.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

-John Donne

How do you deal with that? Other people are entitled to whatever level of privacy they want to maintain online, right? But you are also entitled to talk about your own life from your own perspective, aren't you? (Side note: I hate the word "entitled." I hate it about equally as much as the word "deserve.") So do you make up names for people so that they're not as easily Googled? That stops random searches, sure, but if someone who knows you both stumbles upon your blog and reads the pertinent entries, I imagine they're going to see right through your "Great-Aunt Bertha" alias and realize you're talking about your great-aunt Greta. And when you're talking about people even closer to you, like your spouse, parents or children, well - there's no hiding who they are to anyone who knows you.

One solution is to only write about things that are specifically about you, as if you really are an island. Another is to only write about the most positive experiences in your life. Yet another is to write about other people only when you can say something that can't be interpreted even obliquely as negative. Finally, you can write about only people who can defend themselves (ie, who read the blog and are therefore free to comment with their side of the story), or perhaps only people who can't defend themselves (ie, who are dead or are unlikely to ever see the blog).

I have problems with all of those, but the one I really want to talk about is the second item on that list: writing only about the most positive experiences in your life. I can think of some compelling reasons to do this; a big one is that putting the best face on everything keeps everyone happy. Except possibly you, since you may spend a lot of time writing if not fiction, then at least half-truths.

I watched the first few episodes of Mad Men recently (I know, where have I been for the last 5 years?). The '50s and early '60s were a time when everyone thought everyone else's life was perfect. Your neighbor had beautifully behaved children, her house was always neat as a pin, she threw wonderful dinner parties. But you really had no idea what was going on behind the picket fence and therefore, you spent a lot of time comparing yourself to the illusion of your neighbor. And although there are complaints that now we know too much about everyone, and we see too far into people's lives through the various social networks, in a lot of ways, that illusion is still there.

Blogging was harder when it was called "writing your memoirs."

Now I'm about to sort of contradict myself, because I'm not saying anyone should post about every little frustration or argument on Facebook (we all have people like that on our lists, and it is cringe-worthy to read things you're pretty sure they'll regret saying soon). But I am saying that posting about things that you've gotten some perspective on, or things that happened in the past can be helpful to you, and helpful to others. It doesn't help anyone to look around and find either perfection or complete disarray to compare oneself to. I think it's important for people to be honest, although it's also important for readers to remember that they are always only reading one view on the story. It's easy to forget that we're all the stars of our own movies, and it may look different from the viewpoint of someone you think of as a minor character. (If you haven't seen it, you should check out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for an illustration of that point.)

And since I don't want to end on a parenthetical statement, I'll just say that I appreciate and have been seeking out people who are brave enough to write about the full range of their experiences. It takes guts to do at all, and it takes sensitivity to do it fairly.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Love Affair

In spite of the title, this post is not going to be a mushy paean to my relationship with Morgan.

It's going to be a mushy paean to my relationship with estate sales. I've always kind of been interested in them, and in fact I remember taking my kids to one a number of years ago. They were really interested, and then they realized that everything in the house was for sale because the occupant had died and were momentarily weirded out. They got over that, though, and each found something to buy. But I never really went to them with any regularity, partially because garage/yard/estate sale hours were a little too early for me most of the time.

Which reminds me - I'm going to go off on a slight tangent here for a minute, so bear with me. What time in the morning do yard sales start in your part of the world? All my life, I have been used to sales starting at 7 or 8 AM. Here in Denver, they often are listed as starting at 9 or 10. And if you go by there anywhere shortly after the start time, it's not that rare to see either nothing or someone who is just beginning to drag a couple of things out. Sometimes it feels like Mountain time bears more than a passing resemblance to "island time."

Anyhow, back to the point: the later hours here have meant that I have a thoroughly rekindled interest in yard sales and especially estate sales. Luckily, Morgan shares my enthusiasm, and it's become a regular event to go out to sales on the weekends. We've found all kinds of great things (and passed up some other great things, of course).

For example, we found our dining room chairs:

I didn't know we were looking for red chairs
until we found them.
We have also found a lot of really great things for my collaging endeavors, along with maps for my drawing series. There is no place like an estate sale for ephemera and old books and magazines.

Total: $4.00
I have to remind myself that I only have a craft room, not an entire house to put these things in, and therefore I need to limit myself. But wow, what great stuff I find! Recently, we went to another sale where I picked up some coffee table books from the woman's travels to Russia and Poland in the 1980s. They weren't exactly popular tourist destinations at the time, so it makes me wonder how and why she went there.

Another find from this past weekend:
This will soon be full of bourbon.
They also had a bottle for sulfuric acid, which was tempting, but it was smaller and therefore not as practical for alcohol storage. 

I was going to write more about our sale adventures, but it'll start getting really long so I'll quit here and come back to it later. The point really is that I love all kinds of weekend sales, but estate sales are my absolute favorite. And I'm really lucky that Morgan not only sees the appeal but also has similar tastes; we're both drawn to things that are old-fashioned. If we could manage it, I'm pretty sure our house would look like some kind of time warp hit it. We both want to actually use these things, too, not just display them. Next time, I'll talk about not only some of the things that came home with us, but some of the things that set our hearts aflutter but had to stay where they were.

Monday, September 10, 2012


I've been thinking a fair amount recently about what I want from various online venues, both in terms of what I put out there and what I get back. The result is going to involve a little restructuring everywhere, including this blog. When we (I) started this, I wanted to have it be a 50/50 collaboration with Morgan. A variety of situations have made that vision difficult to achieve, which is fine, but I also didn't want to really take over while he was otherwise occupied and turn it into a place that was more for me than for him. The bottom line though, as anyone who knows us realizes, is that he is the strong, silent type and I'm the can't-shut-up-already type. And just like in any conversation, he is most comfortable when he can interject when he feels he has something to say, and I am most comfortable if I am talking the rest of the time. So why should the blog really be any different?

In other words, I'm no longer going to try to hold us to an alternating schedule of posting. Morgan will still post, but the timing of those posts will be on no set schedule.

Now that the housekeeping is out of the way, let's get down to the real and serious subject of this post: Morgan and I were recently being stalked.

By this:

"So I take it this means we're not going to box after all."
And I know that right now you're probably thinking a couple of things. Well, if you're bug-phobic, you may be thinking "holy crap, I'm going to have nightmares!" But if you're not, you're probably thinking, "a praying mantis? That's what was stalking you? Seriously?" Hear me out, though.

I sat down on the closet floor a couple of days ago to get out a pair of shoes. I sat there for a couple of minutes getting the shoebox, opening it, talking to the dog, that sort of thing. Then I got up, sat down on the bed to put the shoes on, and thought I saw a large piece of ... fuzz or something? blowing in a breeze on top of Morgan's shoe. Yes, a breeze in the closet, on top of his shoe. I have no idea why I thought that, except that it made more sense than the reality, which was that it was actually the above-pictured fellow waving his front legs back and forth like a prizefighter. Once my brain put that all together, I said to Morgan, "There's a praying mantis in the closet, on top of your shoe. Right by where I was sitting a minute ago."

Morgan got a plastic container, trapped the mantis, took him outside, and unceremoniously dumped him off the edge of our porch. Then he came back inside and we tried to figure out how and why a mantis was in our closet. Where did he come from? How long was he in the house? Why the closet? Yeah, we didn't (and don't) have any answers, either. Anyway, later I went outside and the mantis was still in essentially the same spot, so I took a picture of him. That's when I noticed that the eye visible in the picture above was damaged. Poor thing! Maybe that's why he thought our closet looked like a garden?

Anyway, we went off to an estate sale and when we came back, the mantis had moved a few inches but was essentially in the same spot. A couple of hours later, I went outside on the porch to see if he'd moved. I went to the railing and leaned over - he was gone. Cool! Except that I realized that his new hangout was on our railing about 5 inches from my hand as I looked over. (And this railing is about 10 steps above the ground where we put him, so it's not like he could have accidentally wandered over to it.)

"Yeah, haha, that was funny. Now let me back into my closet."
Every time we looked outside over the course of a few more hours, he was sitting there exactly like that, staring at our door. It was unnerving. He was obviously just waiting for us to slip up and leave the door open for too long so he could get back inside. Morgan eventually went out, recaptured him, and relocated him to a yard a few doors down.

I'm not going to lie, I half-expected him to turn up again later that night or the next day, like something in a horror movie, but so far we haven't seen him again (and the closet has been thoroughly inspected for any friends of his). Still, I am going to look before answering any knocks at the door.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Scenic Route

This is not the sort of thing I normally write about in this blog, and it's also not the post I intended to write today. However, this situation has reached a point of absurdity that must be preserved in writing.

The background: I mail things. No, not email - actual put-a-stamp-on-it-and-wait-for-someone-to-pick-it-up mail. I like the US Postal Service. I mean, I've had my annoying days standing in line at their offices where just as your turn is about to come up, someone puts up their "window closed" sign and you're left staring forward at the one guy who is left helping people, and behind you at the line that goes out the door. And it's summer, and there's no air conditioning. Sure, it happens. But the people who work at my post office branch are generally pretty cheery, and helpful, and friendly. And in the end, I also know from working retail that when it's time for someone to take their lunch, it's time - it just screws up everyone's schedule if you monkey around with that.

But this isn't about my local office. This is about ordering stamps online. Right now, you may be wondering, "If you don't mind your local post office and the people there are friendly and helpful, why would you order stamps online?" It's a good question. I like to send mail with a variety of stamps on it. I mean, sure, I could send an envelope with a regular boring flag stamp, but where's the fun in that? I prefer to mix up the denominations and the images so that people don't get the same old stamps, and get to see some of the fun ones that exist. Unfortunately, the new and interesting ones often sell out at our local office, and they don't always get more.

So I order them online. I've done this before, and it was great - I put in my order, and a couple of days later I had all kinds of stamp-y goodness arrive on my doorstep. Last week, I did it again - with slightly different results. That's what this post is about.

I have an account on from my previous orders, so I logged on and happily ordered a variety of stamps. My address information was already in there, so I checked out, got my confirmation email, and closed the browser with a smile. I had some mail I wanted to send out, but it could wait a couple of days till I got my awesome new stamps. That was June 12.

June 13: I got an email from USPS saying that my order had been shipped, and giving me the tracking info. I looked it up, not expecting much. Often when you send something with tracking via the post office, the tracking info takes a day or so to update. However, I was pleased to see that it was being sent Priority Mail (2-day service!) and was already listed as being processed at the sort facility in Kansas City, MO. I should have those stamps in no time at all!

June 14: No stamps. Not surprising - I mean, it's not next-day service. I checked the tracking info. It had departed the sort facility in Kansas City the night before. Cool, I'll have them tomorrow.

June 15: No stamps. Hm. Check the tracking info: Nothing new.

June 16: No stamps. Check the tracking info: see above. Sigh, and put the boring stamps on my mail to be sent.

June 17: Sunday, so no delivery, obviously. Check the tracking info: see above.

June 18: No stamps. Check the tracking info: status says my package has been processed through the sort facility in Springfield Massachusetts.

Wait, what?!

I called the customer service line. The woman I spoke to told me that my package was in Springfield, Massachusetts. "Yes, I know this," I told her. "That's the problem. Can you explain to me how a priority mail package where the sender is the actual USPS itself spends 5 days in Kansas City and then gets routed to Massachusetts on its way to Denver?"

"I'll pass this information along to the person best able to address your issue, and someone will call you within 24 hours about this."

...Great? You do understand that this is a Priority Mail package according to the tracking, right? And that we're at 5 days so far, and it's a couple thousand miles away from me?

"I'll pass this information along to-"

"-the person best able to address my issue. Got it."

So I hung up, and waited. A few hours later I got a call from someone in an office somewhere in Denver. She cheerily informed me "Your package was processed at the sort facility in Springfield, Massachusetts."

Initially when I asked her how it was possible for a Priority Mail package to sit in a sort facility for 5 days, she said "maybe there was a problem with the zip code." That's when I realized that she, as "the person best able to address my issue," had no idea what the situation was. I had to explain it to her all over again. "Maybe it was in a cage that had to fill up before they shipped everything out," she suggested. When I asked her if that was perhaps counterproductive for Priority Mail service, she just said that she didn't really know what might have happened to it. "I'd guess you'll get it tomorrow." I said, "Well, I'd have guessed I'd get it on the 15th, but it's the 18th now so obviously that didn't happen." She said she'd file a formal complaint with Kansas City on my behalf. I'm sure that'll help.

June 19: No stamps. Check the tracking info: the package has departed the sort facility in Springfield.

June 20: No stamps. Check the tracking info: the package has been processed through the sort facility in Jersey City, NJ. Yes, seriously.

Assuming my stamps leave Jersey City tomorrow (big assumption) and come directly from there to Denver (even bigger assumption), this is the route they will have taken to get to me.

If, by some miracle, they arrive tomorrow, it will have taken 8 days and 3,302 miles to get my stamps to me on a route that Google maps says could have been driven in 55 hours. On the other hand, one could have driven directly from Kansas City to Denver in just under 10 hours if one didn't want to tour the east coast first.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Last Chapter

In the comments to my last post, Benjamin wrote the following:
I've been trying for years to get on the show. (Have you seen "White Men Can't Jump"? That's me. Rosie Perez, not the dudes.) So, your posts are fascinating to me: So much I always wondered about - like how long between shows and figuring out the wagering, etc.
That made my day, honestly, because it's a major part of why I wrote these posts in the way that I did. Out of the number of people who go on Jeopardy, the percentage who write about it is small, and the percentage who write more than a couple of paragraphs is infinitesimal. I know that before I did this, I would have been interested to read how it all happened and how it felt. But I'll get back to that at the end of the post.

When I ended yesterday's post, I was sitting in the audience ready to watch Joel try to become a 5-day champion, and Jim and Jennifer try to prevent that from happening. So I'll start off with thoughts about the show. Spoilers starting ... now.

Jim was so nervous! I felt terrible for him - until he really came on strong in Double Jeopardy and got out in front of Joel. I thought he might be the one to knock Joel out going into Final.

A funny note about one of the early clues on the show - the clue had to do with the TV show Alcatraz. It made me laugh because during the end-of-show standing around and talking with Alex, he mentioned that he had DVRed Alcatraz the night before and was looking forward to seeing it. This is essentially why Alex isn't allowed to talk to the contestants most of the time, haha. I mean, it was harmless and Joel didn't even get the answer in the next game, but the fact that Alex has read all the shows already does mean that it's possible it came up in conversation because it was at the forefront of his mind.

I'll be honest - although I overall have something like a 65% rate of getting Final Jeopardy answers correct, this week was absolutely terrible for me. The sole one I knew this week was the Tasmanian devil, and even that was a last-second get for me.

Regarding the end of the game, I can only say, "Oh, Jennifer." I talked in my wagering post about how hard it was for me to really get my head around the idea of playing to win, and understanding that for the purposes of wagering, second and third place are both losing and therefore equal. It's simple; binary - "1"= 1st place, "0"= 2nd or 3rd. It was absolutely brutal to see that in the end, Jennifer just didn't play to win.

But hey, that's part of the game. If you're a tennis fan, you know that Brad Gilbert is well-known for talking about "winning ugly." No matter how you do it, a win is a win. So there you go - ugly win or not, Joel wrapped up the day/week as a 5-time winner. Two more people who were part of our pool would come back for taping on Wednesday, and be joined by another group.

And now for the aftermath, and my personal take on the whole experience. I'll tell the truth - I was gutted to lose, both in the sense of not winning and in the sense of falling to third place. This is maybe where the "what if"s can get you. But looking at the scores going into Final, I had no choice in what to do. I had to get the answer right to have a chance, and I didn't. I bet to be over Julie's double and Joel's wrong answer, and that's the very best I could do under the circumstances. The only "regret" I can have is that the gaps in my knowledge (and we all have them, don't kid yourself) were positioned precisely where an Opera Daily Double and a scientist Final could fall right into them. There were a couple of times I thought I knew the answer and didn't ring in (I was reasonably sure that the guy in Nickelback was named Chad, and I had "October" bouncing around my head for the Cuban missile crisis), but those times wouldn't have made the difference. Knowing that it was all building to a Final where I didn't know the answer, the only possible way I could have won was by making the game a runaway. And I just couldn't get in ahead of Joel on enough questions to make that happen.

Which is all very zen-sounding, and I truly do feel that way now. But in the moment, it was a little different. As I said, I was gutted. And there's no time or space to really process how you feel. You do quite literally step off the stage when the show ends, sign your paperwork, get escorted to the green room to get your stuff, and then get asked if you're going to stay to watch the other shows or if they should call you a cab right now. Right when you may want just a couple of moments to yourself, the champ is being rushed past you to change for the next show and all of the hubbub is starting again. And they're waiting on your answer about the cab.

The coordinator made some comment about me not being very talkative while collecting my things, and I said, "Well, some people are here just to play I guess and some of us are worried about covering our plane tickets home." The coordinator responded in a very cold tone of voice, "People like that rarely win. The ones who just want to have fun, those are the ones who win."

I felt like I'd been slapped in the face, and I brooded over it for quite a while. It seemed like he was saying you need to be independently wealthy and pure of heart to win at Jeopardy. In retrospect, though, I think it was just a simple misunderstanding.  I didn't mean that I was going on Jeopardy as a career plan, just that the opportunity had arisen at a bad time financially and making it happen had meant going into debt to someone I'd rather not owe anything to (not a loan shark, my kneecaps are safe!). In the wake of the loss, I was feeling very much like a failure, and like this whole thing had been nothing but a waste.

I chose to stay so that Julie and I could share a cab back to the hotel.  After Friday's game ended, I was standing out in the studio lobby feeling lost and sorry for myself when the audience for Thursday and Friday's shows started walking past. A number of people stopped to tell me that they thought I'd done amazingly well, that they were sorry I hadn't won, that I'd looked unbelievably calm up there. "Weren't you nervous at all?" Someone told me that they knew they could never make it on the show, but "at least I can say I met someone who was on!" To the random people in the audience who talked to me: you really helped. I can't thank you enough for the things you said.

This is what the studio looks like when you're
outside the gate waiting for your cab

I feel bad about the cab ride back with Julie, because I was really still trying to process what had happened in our game, and I know it's got to be terrible etiquette to talk to her of all people about my own sadness over losing. Back at the hotel, we shared an elevator with a guy who was interested in the fact that we'd just taped  Jeopardy, and he said he'd be fine unless any opera categories came up. I said, "Wait till May 24, and you'll see how I feel about opera!" When I got to my room I called Morgan, and I realized that I didn't want to spend the next day (his birthday, no less!) in LA alone, eating out with money I hadn't won. I canceled the night's reservation at the hotel, booked a new flight home, and went to LAX. I was back home in Denver by about 1 AM.

I spent the next four months (not the entire four months straight - I'm not Eeyore) deciding how I felt about the whole thing, and thinking about how I wanted to handle telling people about the show, and trying not to feel like a huge loser. Oh, and watching the Cult of Tesla thrive, with Google+ trending topic games, and online comics, and every time I just wanted to scream, "Don't talk to me about Tesla!" But of course I couldn't. Here's the thing, though: over those four months I realized that what the contestant coordinator said at the beginning was actually not just feel-good crap. Hundreds of thousands of people take the online test. A few thousand of those are contacted to do an in-person audition. A few hundred of those actually make it on the show. Every single one of them loses, most without ever winning. I'm competitive, and who doesn't think winning is more fun than losing? And who doesn't judge the people on TV against the yardstick of your own knowledge? But it's hard to meet the standards to get through the process and onto the stage, and even harder to have the guts to find out if you're as good as you think you are when you're sitting on your couch yelling out answers.

I did both of those things, and I lost. It's okay, though. I got to write a lot of blog posts, and learn a lot of things, and I got a lot of support and positive comments from people who know me, as well as total strangers. You don't get any of that if you're too afraid of failure to try.

Friday, May 25, 2012

She Blinded Me With Science

It's hard to even know exactly how to approach today's entry. But the first thing I'm going to say is that I will also be doing an entry tomorrow, so if you were hoping I'd shut up already, sorry! The second thing I'm going to say is that it's been too long since these entries involved a song to get stuck in your head, so here you go.

When the category headers are revealed and you're watching at home, you might look a little askance at one or two and wonder what on earth that might mean, but generally you just accept them. When they're revealed for your all-important game, your brain is racing and you're wondering things like: Seriously, what does that one mean? What do I know about that topic? What the heck is that? But before you know it, the champ is selecting the first clue and there's not much more time to think from that point forward.

...Because before you know it, you're getting the first question of the entire game wrong.

You know, if you'd asked me before I did this, "what would be the absolute worst thing that could happen on the show?" Well okay, "getting the very first question wrong" isn't what I would have said. I would have said, "answering with something like 'a threesome,' resulting in having Alex make fun of me and becoming YouTube famous." I told myself that if I could avoid that, I'd consider the experience a success. (High standards, I've got 'em.)

It's funny about that clue though - watching it on tv it looked very strange. Alex says "yes," and then I make a face and Julie rings in and gets it. Alex didn't correct himself out loud, but right as he was saying "yes," the judges were yelling "NONONONONO!" and that's why I made a face. I knew as soon as I heard them that I'd added a stupid 's' onto their name. Oh well.

I was doing okay as we went into the first commercial break. As I've mentioned before, at the break, the makeup artist comes over and touches up your face, and the coordinators come over and talk to you. You also get offered a little bottle of water if you want a drink. I did, so I opened it up, took a drink ... and promptly dribbled it down the front of my shirt. I had to explain that this wasn't nerves - I do stuff like this at home all the time. I was freaking out that there was going to be a big dark spot on my shirt when we came back from commercial, but the coordinator said, "oh honey, it'll dry, you'll see." And then she spent the entire commercial break standing and pressing a paper towel against my chest. All while saying "it's fine, I'm just going to stand here and press on your breast!"

I hated that Discount Tent category. It wasn't that hard, it was just random. We didn't get to the Daily Double in the Jeopardy round, which none of us had realized until the coordinator mentioned it during the commercial. I think I went to Shakespeare because it seemed like the most likely place for it, and I felt okay about the category. But even so, by the time the round ended, I remember all of us just looking at each other in a daze when he said we'd missed the Daily Double.

Things were good when the Double Jeopardy round started, and I felt like I did all right, although Joel running that Roman roads category didn't help me any. I knew the first few, but Joel was too fast. I was momentarily glad he got the Daily Double because I wouldn't have come up with "milestones" with a million years. Of course, it was only momentary relief since I found the Daily Double just a minute later in Opera Characters. This is not what I would consider a strong category for me, but time was running out and like I said before, I had decided before walking out on the stage that I'd play to win. In this case, I didn't have the confidence level in the category to wager enough to try to take the lead, but I picked something in the middle that hopefully wouldn't sink me even if I got it wrong. Which I did, because I had never heard of that character in my life.

Just like in yesterday's game, a wrong Daily Double by a challenger ended the Double Jeopardy round. Time for the Final, and I was in an awkward 2nd place position.

Quick note about wagering - as I said in a previous post, I practiced my wagering. However, I practiced it like this:
Normal pen, notebook paper
and on the stage, I was faced with this:
Half a sheet of paper and a Sharpie (which was considerably
duller than this one)
It's like practicing calligraphy and then being presented with a crayon and an index card. Bottom line, practice your wagering with a crayon and an index card!

It was all irrelevant though when I saw the Final Jeopardy clue. I read the clue and tried to think of it in every way possible, since I didn't know it right away. Balkan? That wasn't going anywhere. Invented the 20th century? Twentieth century inventions didn't really take me anywhere that sounded Balkan. Back to thinking about Balkan countries and ... nothing. If I'd been able to come up with anything at all, I'd have written it down, but I don't know that my mind has ever been blanker than it was in those 30 seconds.

And then it was all over, and Joel had now gone through 7 of his 11 possible competitors. Julie and I signed our paperwork and got our stuff from the green room, and were ushered to seats in the audience. The people in front of us told me I'd done great and some other nice things. I was still basically in a fog. Then in a blur, Friday's show was starting, with Joel now a 4-time champion.

Tomorrow I'll talk about Friday's game as well as giving a post-mortem on the experience, including why I wrote all of these posts when I knew it ended like this. I hope you'll come back to read it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Get Ready, Get Set

I think I'm going to change things up and talk first about today's episode, and then add my experience at the end. Nothing of note really happened between the end of yesterday's episode and the beginning of this one except calling the next people to be Joel's competition for "Wednesday," and a mix of relief and disappointment at not being called. Our ever-dwindling group (six of us, now) of remaining contestants-to-be sat in the audience and watched the show, exchanging nods, smug smiles, upraised hands, or shrugs depending on how we felt about any given question.

But before I really get into anything about the game: SPOILERS! There will be spoilers past this point! If you haven't seen the game, stick your fingers in your ears and say "lalalalalala." Or actually don't, because that won't prevent you from reading the spoilers. The spoilers for today's game. The spoilers that start right now.

(Incidentally, if you didn't hear that last part in the voice of Kronk from The Emperor's New Groove, like when he says "The poison. The poison for Kuzco. The poison chosen especially to kill Kuzco. Kuzco's poison. That poison?" then you need to run out and watch that movie immediately. Well, after you read this.)

Now that that's out of the way: today's episode, which featured Barb and Jody trying to beat Joel. First, did you notice Alex turning after he ruled Jody incorrect for "Boulder Dam?" That's because there was a yelled chorus of "YesYesYesYes!" from the judges' table.

Jody seemed very nervous, and I noticed that he switched hands for the buzzer after the first break. The contestant coordinators come over and talk to you during the commercial breaks, and one of the things they'll do is give you suggestions for things to try if you're having trouble ringing in.

Before this week started airing, I thought Joel had left out the verb in his Final Jeopardy response twice in a row, but I realized after seeing yesterday's show that it was actually a reversion to form on this show. Also, I didn't make a "me Tarzan, you Jane" joke about it after Monday's show because I couldn't remember if Alex made one on the second day (you don't want to step on Trebek's jokes, do you?), but now I see he didn't. Instead he just told Joel, "you must learn to appreciate verbs." Definitely heard the laughs from the audience this time - it's the same audience for the first 3 shows, so this was everyone's second time seeing Joel do that.

As for the actual final, this was the first one of the taping that I'd been able to come up with. It took me till nearly the last second (I think I would have had time to write it down though). The clue in Animals read, "A 2005 study reported that this animal named for an island has, pound-for-pound, the most powerful bite of any mammal." The reason it took me till the final few seconds of the "think" music was because I'd been casting around mentally trying to think of islands with animals named for them. The Madagascar ... nothing. Iceland ... Hawaii ... Shetland pony! I kind of wished this had been my game because I'm sure a response that said Shetland pony Tasmanian devil would have gotten a laugh.

And that's it - Joel won again. After Wednesday's show is taped, everyone gets a break. One of the coordinators takes the remaining contestants to lunch at the cafeteria on the lot. That was 6 of us waiting to play, plus Joel. I had a salad and double chocolate chip cookies, which my companions gave me sort of a hard time about (the healthy vs. not-so-healthy components), but it was really about what I thought I could keep down with some sugar for energy. My stomach had mostly settled down, but the 2 hours of sleep was taking a toll. Lunch conversation was pretty relaxed - we talked about Wheel of Fortune and how they're the moneymaker and Jeopardy gets second-best of everything. We talked about the morning's games. Then it was time to head back to the studio.

The folks remaining got a second round of warmups at the podiums. Joel and I were both in the first group for the practice game. I very quickly got in first on three questions in a row, and they called me to rotate out. Right when they did that, Joel gave me a sidelong look and said, "you're fast on that thing." I said, "yeah, I don't know what I'm doing differently than this morning, but it seems to be working."

After the practice, they called out the names of Joel's next two competitors: "Ursula! Julie!" We went back and had our makeup touched up and our microphones attached, got our last "good luck"s from the remaining few in the contestant pool, and then headed out to the set. Meanwhile, the new afternoon audience had come in. Julie and I drew for positions - I got #2, so I'd be at the middle podium. We got settled in, wished each other luck, and then the Jeopardy theme started playing.

It was go time.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Jeopardy by the Numbers

Here's something I thought might be a little fun: I did a (very) quick sketch of the Jeopardy set as seen from a podium, as I remember it.

By the numbers:

1 - The podium, obviously. The dark lines around it are where the dividers get put in for Final Jeopardy. To the left of your screen is a Sharpie, which is your writing implement for wagering (more on that later) and also there in case something disastrous happens with the technology in the Final. There's a piece of paper next to it where you can write your response in case of malfunction - I don't think they'd like it if you used the Sharpie on their screen.

2 - The game board, also obviously. It's true - you read the clues off small TVs that are across a large room from you. It becomes easier to understand why you sometimes see people leaning in or squinting at clues, and how easy it would be to misread something. Also, all around that border are small light bulbs that come on to show you when you can ring in. (I forgot to draw them.)

3 - A big TV screen. You might think this would be a great place to put up the actual clues so everyone could read them easily. You might be right about that, but it's only for video clues and Final Jeopardy.

4 - Cameras!  Remember when Cindy Brady went on the quiz show and she was mesmerized by the red light on top of the camera? I don't think these had any red lights. I also can't say for sure that the cameramen were standing there, but I figured I should put some people in lest you think the whole thing is run by robots.

5 - Another camera, one that they don't really talk about, and then all of a sudden the show starts and this thing comes sweeping out toward you and just when you should be smiling, your expression is a mix of confusion and uneasiness. Am I supposed to look at that thing? Ignore it?

6 - Alex! He is also across a large room from you. You need to speak loudly enough for him to hear. Yeah, you're wearing a microphone, but that only helps for the broadcast. You're relying on your own ability to project for Alex.

7 - Table of judges and other stuff. The guy who triggers the lights for ringing in sits there. When you see Alex look off-camera for a moment when he's not sure if something is right or not, that's where he's looking. They also yell "YES" or "NO" to overrule Alex when he makes the wrong call.

8 - You say "hey, wait a minute, where's 8?" Good, you're paying attention. The 8 should be right above the cameras and cameramen, and it's where the scoreboard is. When you see someone glance off to the left somewhere in the middle of the game, that's what they're looking at.

Thoughts about tonight's game (SPOILERS! Here be spoilers! And maybe dragons, so proceed with caution...)

Mike was an interesting character. If this were a reality show, he would be the first one to say, "I'm not here to make friends." Having said that, we got along pretty well. You know how long his interview felt watching at home? It felt even longer live.

I was a little surprised Joel didn't get the "a grave is a grave is a grave" reference to Gertrude Stein, since "a rose is a rose is a rose" is a pretty famous quote of hers, and she's well-associated with Oakland thanks to "there is no there there." On the other hand, Joel is not originally from Oakland so it may not have been as clear a connection to him.

Oh, Marnie. I was sad that she chose not to go for it on the Daily Double at the end of the first round.

Overall, this game felt easier from the audience than Monday's did. The Tribes category was pretty brutal, though.

When the Final Jeopardy category of 1957 was revealed, we all looked at each other and shrugged. We compared what we knew about 1957, and the answer was ... next to nothing. For the actual clue, most of us thought first of Kansas and Brown v. Board of Education, but we all knew that was wrong. Then most of us settled on Mississippi, although no one felt like it was right. I believe none of the contestants-to-be got this one right, but I could be mis-remembering.

And that's it for Tuesday's show. Oh, except for Alex saying "We'll do this again in 23 1/2 hours." Ha! More like 23 1/2 minutes. As usual, you can pop over to The Jeopardy Fan for a real recap (they're usually posted a little later in the evening), or to the j-archive (today's show is already up!) to check out the clues, responses and game dynamics. And I will be back in 23 1/2 real hours or so to talk about some other stuff and Wednesday's show.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

T-Minus 3 Days

Oh hey, look what turned up in my email box yesterday!

And I'm wearing heels. Small ones, but still.

Anyway, after waiting what feels like an eternity, the first show of my week aired tonight. I'm going to go ahead and talk a little bit about what happened before that show was taped, and then I'll throw in some thoughts on the episode itself. After our makeup was done, and everyone had filled out their paperwork, we walked into the studio for the first time. It's smaller than you might expect, and very bright. (I'll talk about the set itself tomorrow.) I was pleased to see two things about the live audience (well, three things actually): 1, they weren't in the studio yet; 2, the audience area was actually pretty small; and 3, the set is so bright that it's nearly impossible to make out the audience.

Everyone went up on the stage to stand behind the podiums for the first time. They show you how everything works - the lights that will come on around the game board to let you know when you can ring in, how to write your name on the screen, where the signaling device is kept and how to use it. I was told to get in the front and do the writing, so I got to touch everything first, and at this point I still wasn't feeling great from the food poisoning the night before, so I was hoping this wasn't a sign that I was going to be playing in the first game. The last part of the orientation was going up and playing part of a mock game. They picked three people to stand up there and start the game, then as each of them seemed to get the hang of ringing in, they would rotate in someone new.

When it was my turn, I was surprisingly nervous. It was a practice game, in front of only the staff and my fellow contestants, but it was still nerve-wracking. I was terrified I wouldn't get the rhythm of ringing in and I would stay up there forever trying to get called on. The coordinators tell you that everyone has to find their own sweet spot for pressing the button. If you're young and play a lot of video games, you can probably use the lights coming on as your cue. If you're not exactly Quick Draw McGraw (and also probably if you're old enough to know who Quick Draw McGraw is), you may need to anticipate the lights a little to help your reaction time. I was up there for a little bit, but not an excessively long time.

Then it was time to find out who was going to play Jacob in the first show of the week/day. (They use the highly-scientific method of writing everyone's name on index cards and drawing two.) The lucky winners were Joel and Cindy!

Quick (relatively, I'm not good at "quick") comments about today's show (don't read it if you haven't seen the show! There are spoilers and some of it probably won't make sense.): 

Alex talks to the audience on the commercial break and he explained that although he had said it was good to be back home in the intro, they hadn't actually gone to Washington, DC yet.

Joel was trying to decide which interview snippet to use and I said he should go with the car story. It was definitely the funniest choice, in my opinion.

In our group of contestants-to-be, we were pretty gender-divided on getting the Laura Ingalls Wilder answer.

I forgot to listen to see if the laughter that broke out in the studio after Alex read Joel's response of "What Doubt" came through on the broadcast. In the pre-show briefing, they tell you that if you don't write in a verb, it's technically acceptable, but that you don't want to give the judges anything to pick on with your answer. I think it must have been like telling a kid, "don't run," and all that gets stuck in their head is "run," because somehow Joel ended up completely forgetting the verb. Alex looked briefly at the judges before saying for sure that the answer was correct, but it wasn't a big deal.

Afterward, Joel said that he didn't know the answer at first, but focused in on the "fall 1964" part of the clue. He'd seen the movie version and said something along the lines of "they kept showing that damn leaf." (I haven't seen the movie, so I can't say if it would have been enough to trigger my memory. I didn't get the final.)

We were all happy that someone from our group had dethroned the reigning champion. Score one for us!

I was pretty relieved that that hadn't been my game; I didn't know the Final and I felt like there were a fair number of pretty hard questions. I have no idea if that's true or if I felt that way because I was imagining myself trying to answer those questions!

Well, those are my thoughts on it. If you're looking for a real recap of the show, you should definitely visit Jeanie's blog The Jeopardy Fan!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Here We Go

Today is Friday, and the week of "Power Players" on Jeopardy ends tonight. Next week the shows airing will be the ones I was present for. How exciting! So what that means is, it's time for me to quit talking about preparation, and wagering, and start talking about the actual experience of being there.

I flew to LA on Monday afternoon, alone, since Morgan had to teach class. I caught the shuttle from LAX to the hotel. My plan was to relax a little, have dinner, go for a run, and then turn in early since the shuttle to the Jeopardy studios left at 7 am.

You know what they say about plans.

The relaxing went fine. Then I went across the street to get something to eat, which also went fine. Everything after that quickly became not fine. I was feeling a little icky, but an hour and a half or so after I ate, I went downstairs to the hotel gym for a run as planned. That did not improve the ickiness at all, and in fact, I felt flushed and in serious stomach pain. So I went back up to the room to lay down.

As if.
I'll spare you the blow-by-blow account of the evening and night, but let's just say that it passed in a haze of queasiness, pain, and lying on the bathroom floor. I estimate I slept for about 2 and a half hours. In the morning, I felt quite a lot more human, but I would not say I was at 100%, even leaving out the sleeplessness. Breakfast was free, but I gingerly ate some fruit and a bagel, and that was it. I wondered what would happen if I told them I simply wasn't well enough to play today. I figured I'd just have to see how it went.

I went back up to the room to get my changes of clothes (you're supposed to come with several outfits, not only in case you win but also in case one is terrible on tv - there are certain colors they ask you not to wear, and small or busy patterns can be a problem) and then came back down to the lobby where I got my first confirmed glimpses at my competition. (The nervous expressions and garment bags were dead giveaways.) We made small talk about where everyone was from, and the fact that we were all assured to actually make it to the shuttle since we were all together. Most people seemed pretty nice; a couple kept to themselves (which is not to say they weren't nice, of course).

The shuttle ride was pretty jovial. The topic of studying came up and a number of people said things like "I figure if I don't know it by now, I'm not going to be able to cram it into my head before the show." I assumed they were sandbagging. For my part, I just said that studying isn't as easy now as it was when I was in high school. Once we arrived at the studio, one contestant was already there who had a brother he was staying with somewhere in the LA area. Our pool was almost complete - we were missing one woman who lived in LA but hadn't arrived yet. Oh, and we were of course also missing whoever it was that was the current reigning champion!

We all got directed into the green room, and it's hard to explain exactly what a model of controlled chaos it is, but I'm going to try.

This? Slower than the pace in the green room.

In the green room, you have:

12 soon-to-be-contestants ...
2 contestant coordinators (one of whom is very loud, while the other one is merely quite loud) ...
2 makeup artists in a small room off to the side ...
a constant very loud rundown that is part pep talk, part everything you need to know about being on the show (buzzing in, answering, how much leeway there is for mispronunciations, what happens if your stylus doesn't work during Final Jeopardy, what to do if you feel there's been a judging error made, on and on) ...
a constant quite loud review one-on-one with each contestant in turn about the information you've provided on your forms ...
calls for contestants to go one at a time back to get their makeup done ...
contestants getting up to go to makeup, or to the bathroom, or to get some food or drink (I was still eating grains and fruit very carefully at this point - my stomach seemed to be recovering but I wasn't going to take any chances)
repeats of relevant parts of the rundown for anyone who missed them while getting makeup done or going to the bathroom ...
pen clicking (oh, the infernal pen clicking - just like at the audition) ...

Hopefully that gives you some idea.  And somewhere in the midst of all that, we got introduced to Jacob Silverman, our nemesis. He was a 3-day champion, and they told us he had had a bit of a break between shows because there were a couple of weeks of special shows that would be aired between his last win and what we were about to tape.

This is way too long already, so I'll save some things I was going to say for the next entry, which will be on Monday. I'll try to write something each day next week and get the rest of my story out there interspersed with whatever I have to say about the shows from the perspective of the audience.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The job hunt

Looking for a job with a specialized degree like mathematics can be tough.  There really are not as many jobs in the U.S. as it may seem.  I can always remember hearing "we need more people studying math and science."  Because of this, there seems to be this perception that there are a million jobs out there with no one to fill them.  I'm sure if my degree were in statistics, financial probability, or optimization, I could easily find a job in some corporate or engineering-related field.  But for someone like me, the situation is quite different.

I am what they call a "pure" mathematician.  This is in comparison to an "applied" mathematician.  An applied mathematician studies math to solve problems related to the real world, things like ocean currents, satellite communications, etc.  A pure mathematician works on solving problems that are of interest to the field of mathematics.  The discoveries of a pure mathematician may apply to some of these real world situations, but studying those applications is left to other people.  An organization like Google, Microsoft, IBM, or the NSA may want to hire a pure mathematician; they have identified mathematical problems they want solved, and then they will use their engineers to worry about actually applying the results.  Companies like Lockheed-Martin or NASA probably would only want an applied mathematician, maybe even someone with an engineering or physics background.

The three types of jobs that would be available:

1: Government- This would be if I were to either work researching for an organization like the NSA or funded as a researcher by some government program.

2: Industry- This would be a job from some private company, doing research.

3: Academic- This would be a job as a professor or researcher at a University.
Of course, finding a job in these areas is also restricted by the kind of math I do.

Getting a math job for the government is difficult in the U.S.  There are only a few agencies that would hire a pure mathematician; these would either be the National Science Foundation, or one of the agencies related to defense such as the NSA.  The NSF primarily offers highly competitive research grants.  To apply for these, I would come up with some sort of project to propose, write up the details, explain why they should throw a bunch of money at it, and convince them that I am awesome enough to get this project done.  The NSA, on the other hand, specializes in highly paid positions requiring security clearance and a strict "I could tell you but I'd have to kill you" policy.

What this means for me is that, if I were to stay in the country, I would be pursuing an academic job.  This is where it becomes most apparent that we are not really suffering from a lack of mathematicians: each academic job opening gets somewhere near 300 applicants.  This generates a cycle where PhD graduates feel like they have to apply for around 200 positions, hoping the numbers work out in their favor to get a job.  I'll explain more in another post about actually applying for these jobs, and the different kinds of academic jobs.  In a nutshell, a lot of these positions aren't really jobs I would want for a variety of reasons and I see it as a waste of time to apply for a job I wouldn't take.

This is a "to be continued" sort of post.  Next time I'll explain the application process, why some of these jobs would be terrible for me, and why the grass is probably greener overseas.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Care To Bet on That?

In all the preparing for Jeopardy, the most dreaded aspect was wagering. Everyone can remember a time when they watched someone completely blow a game because of a wager that was too large or too small. Heartbreaking. Of course I wanted to avoid that, but here's the thing - I've never really enjoyed math. Besides that, though, wagering is less like plain old math and more like chess crossed with probability. I was terrible at probability when we did that section in school. I could never understand how many tries it would take to pull out a pair of socks from that drawer.

Now I'm married to a mathematician. That would seem to make it easy. In fact, when one of my fellow contestants heard that, she said, "oh, so he could tell you what to do." Well, it's not quite like that. I have a hard time memorizing things like math - I need them to make sense to me. I can't believe "just because" or "just do this, it works" as a reason. Here's a case in point: a couple of months ago, someone online brought up the Monty Hall problem. I had never heard it before, and so I talked to Morgan about it. Well, actually, it's more like we argued about it for an hour. He explained the right answer to me, but it still didn't make sense. So I argued my position, and asked "but why..." a million times, and in the end, I got it. I not only knew the answer, but I understood it.

Which brings me back to why it very quickly became clear that the wagering calculator at the Jeopardy archive, while an incredibly useful tool, was just not going to work for me. It explains all the various rules for wagering - there's a 3/4 rule, and a 4/5 rule, and a 2/3 rule, and all kinds of other permutations (are scores evenly spaced? Do two scores add up to another score?) that started making my head swim. So I asked Morgan to look through the whole mess and explain it to me in a way I could make sense of. He did a fabulous job, but overall after many days we were still at the "but why ..." stage for me, and I wasn't feeling any more confident at betting. One mental block I had centered around wagering recommendations that seemed to create a loss - betting big, where clearly you'd win if you were right, but you'd not only not win if you were wrong, you'd be dropped all the way to 3rd place. This seemed wrong to my risk-averse mind. Eventually, though, I started to understand that the probabilities mostly take into account winning vs. losing (2nd and 3rd are both losing - you either win or you don't, after all), and additionally are trying to prevent situations that actually turn a win (you got the answer right) into a loss (you bet too small and someone was able to pass you). So I was able to get into the right mindset, which is summed up in three little words: play to win. Seems simple, but it was hard for me to get over the fear of ending up last.

Anyway, once that was straightened out, I had the right attitude but I still lacked the skills to consistently come up with the right answers, let alone do it quickly. First I was looking at the scores and trying to figure out what situation they fell into, and then I was doing the math for what I thought my bet should be. But when I checked my answers against the wagering calculator, I kept finding things I hadn't thought about or realizing that the scores actually fell into a special case. I was a mess, and Morgan's explaining wasn't helping me any. Worse than that, I couldn't tell him exactly what it was I needed from him. So I asked him to go away for a while and I would figure out where the disconnect was happening for me, and then he could help fill in the blanks.

This resulted in me coming up with a chart of all the numbers, and then asking him to show me what they all meant for wagering. Morgan was impressed that my little chart really did provide all the info necessary to make a wager, and once I had it, he was able to help me learn to interpret it. Here's what you do, step by step (this one focuses on 2nd place, because 1st place normally has it easiest, needing to bet to cover second's doubled score, and 3rd place's figuring often needs to know what 2nd should do).

First, write down all three scores. I start with third on the left. The lines in between them are for the differences between the scores. (I chose to work with round numbers and put "R" or "W" next to them so I would know if I should add a one, thus removing a place where I could make stupid computational mistakes.)

Next, fill in second and third's doubled scores.

Now that you have the doubled score for 2nd, you can fill in what first place's bet to cover should be. I write the number up above first's score and then actually add it, putting the total below to make sure I'm not making any dumb math errors.

The final math steps are to subtract first place's covering bet and put that under his column, and then figure out the difference between your current score and that number, then between your current score and third place's doubled score. Fill in those numbers along with an R or W designation.

Now you have all the information you need to figure out how to wager. Ideally, you want to make a wager that will meet these conditions: if you get it right, you will stay above third place's doubled score (this is your minimum bet), and if you get it wrong, you'll be above first place's wrong answer (this is your maximum). In the example above, it works out that you can do exactly that by wagering between 4101 (add the dollar for the "R") and 4900 (it's a "W," so leave the number as is).

This is a basic example, but using this will cover all the eventualities - if your minimum bet turns out to actually be more than your maximum bet, you're in what they call "Stratton's Dilemma," where you have to decide whether you hope to win on a right answer or a wrong one. There are also a couple of situations where you have to take into account double the difference between your score and first place's current score, but again, if you practice with this and check your conclusions against the wagering calculator, it'll become clearer. If you're interested in more examples or how to use this system, feel free to drop me a message.