Thursday, November 14, 2013

Faith, Hope and Jeopardy! Part One

Jeopardy! is celebrating its 30th season this year.  For the first 21 of those seasons, I dreamed of being a Jeopardy! contestant. For the last nine seasons, I would give my right kidney for a do-over, or my left kidney for that matter. Take your pick. Sadly, there are no do-overs with Jeopardy!.

Young people of today don't understand the frustration smart television viewers felt when watching game shows before Jeopardy! returned to the air.  Up until then, the closest pretender to a challenging quiz show was The Joker's Wild.  And by closest I mean contestants on each show had to answer some questions.* The similarity ended there. The difficulty of Joker questions ran the gamut from I-learned-that-when-I-was-in-first-grade to my-dog-knows-the-answer-to-that-and-he's-not-even-all-that-smart. 

Still, it was fun to be able to impress friends with my first grade education.  It would have been even better if The Joker's Wild asked more than seven questions per episode.  A contestant could win by answering three questions correctly. Alas, answering questions wasn't the point of the game. The point of the game was pulling on the arm of a giant slot machine and yelling (you guessed it) "JOKER! JOKER! JOKER!" until the contestant won a set of luggage and Jack Barry announced they were out of time. Exhilarating it was not.

I was eighteen when the new incarnation of Jeopardy! premiered. I was elated. Sixty-one challenging questions per game, and no giant slot machines. It was so wonderful, I was sure it wouldn't last. Nothing good on television ever does. 

But it has. For thirty glorious seasons.

From the start, I dreamed of being contestant. In those days, either you went to California for an audition (an unlikely scenario for an unemployed community college student) or waited for the auditions to come to you. I only remember them announcing Detroit auditions once. I sent a postcard as instructed. I heard nothing. 

Still, I watched. Every episode. When I was home, I mean. I didn't have a VCR back then. But, I also didn't have much of a social life. So, yeah, I watched it a lot.

Finally, in 2000, I got my chance.  An audition in Chicago was announced, so I put my name in and crossed my fingers. I got a phone call inviting me to Chicago for the test. I was as excited as I've ever been for anything in my life. I will leave it at that.

I told my husband. He was somewhat less excited. 
"Was there a screening process? How do you know you can pass the test?"
After thanking him for his heartwarming confidence in me, I informed him that I was going to Chicago, I was going to take the test, and I was going to pass it. I also told him it was in his best interest to have a little more faith in me if he wanted me to share my winnings--or anything else--with him.

I went to Chicago. The test was at the Sheraton on Michigan Avenue. Very nice. Lots of test takers. Lawyers, doctors, college professors, and me. The contestant coordinator warned us the test was difficult. Fifty questions and they didn't have those hints that point you to the answer like on the show. You either knew it or you didn't. They didn't tell us what the passing score was (I later learned it was 35/50) which made me worry that if I got a single one wrong, I was done for.

I suddenly became desperately afraid that my husband's skepticism was well-founded. What made me think I could pass this test? It seemed like I was the only person there without a college degree. Well, me and the guy with a biker jacket, ponytail and very few teeth. He had confidence though. Mine was slipping away rapidly.  I would've traded a few of my teeth for that guy's confidence. Molars, of course. Nothing that showed. 

Panic set in. My one consolation was that I'd won the door prize, a Jeopardy! t-shirt. The day wouldn't be a total loss.

The test started. I took a deep breath.
Question one: "Who wrote Tess of the D'urbervilles?" 

It was a sign from above! 
It wasn't just that I knew Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D'urbervilles
It wasn't because I thought it was a very easy question. 
I took it as good omen because, not only did I know the answer but Tess of the D'urbervilles is my favorite book in the whole wide world.  
The first question on the test was about my favorite book. It was as if the Jeopardy! gods were saying, "Don't worry. You got this." And I did.

When the test was over, we were told that fourteen of us passed. Fourteen out of seventy-five. The names were read. Talk about drama. You've seen the the movie Miracle, right?  Remember the look on the faces of the hockey players as Kurt Russell called the names of those who'd made the cut? It was like that.
But without skates.

Mine was the last name read. A little too much drama for my taste. I wouldn't have remembered if my name had been called fourth or seventh. It's hard to forget your name being the very last one. All I heard was "Not Beth" thirteen times. 

Of course, my name being read meant sixty-one hopes dashed.  I felt bad for them. For about a minute. Once they'd all left the room, I got over it. There was a lot of grumbling as they departed, as if somehow Jeopardy! had cheated them. Asked the wrong questions. Some of them even threw down their questionnaires and souvenir Jeopardy! pens indignantly. 

I tried really hard not to make eye-contact with any of the doctors, lawyers, and college professors as they walked past. And I tried really hard not to look smug. But, I was so darned pleased with myself. You're probably expecting me to tell you the toothless guy with the ponytail was one of the fourteen. I'm not going to.

When the rejected test takers left, the audition process started. We answered questions about ourselves, and played a mock game. I was feeling really good. My husband sat outside the conference room, and he started feeling really good when I didn't emerge with the first wave. Naturally, he spent the remaining time trying to find the right words to beg my forgiveness for his lack of faith. But then he gave up on that and just decided to deny he'd been anything but completely supportive. I was in a good mood, so I let him slide.

Our drive back to Michigan was joyful. I was sure the call would come soon. I half expected there to be a message on the answering machine when we walked through the door. I was going to be on Jeopardy!. Hurray!

But the call didn't come. I was told they keep your name on file for a year. 
A year passed. Disappointment set in. 

Then came the summer of 2001. Another Chicago audition was announced. Again, I submitted my name. Again, I was selected to take the test. Again, I made the road trip to Chicago. This time we took the kids. Family fun time in Chicago.   

On the morning of the test, my skirt was wrinkled. There was no iron in the room and I didn't have time to wait for one to be sent up. It's hard to ooze confidence with a wrinkled skirt. 

When the test started,  I didn't know the answer to the first question. I didn't know the answer to the second question. Or the third. I was going to fail the test and have to leave, ashamed (I would've kept the pen, though). But, saints be praised, I knew the answer to the fourth question and the next several. I was doing okay. I hoped. I tried to keep track of the ones I didn't know, and the ones I had to guess at. Five blanks. Ten guesses. I didn't like the odds.

This time, we were told that only five people passed. Seventy people would have to leave. I steeled myself for a big letdown.

Mine was the first name called. Big letdown averted.
I wondered why I'd doubted myself. 

After the indignant pen throwing and grumbling subsided, it was time for the audition. I was inexplicably nervous this time. I can only attribute the nerves to my wrinkled skirt. I remember my hand shaking as I poured myself a glass of ice water. My throat was dry and I wobbled when I walked.

I hope I have conveyed the importance of travel irons and amenity rich hotel rooms to would-be Jeopardy! contestants. If only I'd known then.

During the interview and mock game, I was a red-faced, tongue-tied, weak-kneed mess. I blew it completely. I was mad at myself, and knew they wouldn't call this time either. I was right.  

In 2004, I went for my third and last Jeopardy! test. We took the kids again. And just to mix things up, I was pregnant. Visibly. Something fun to talk about during the interview.

The test was at Navy Pier this time, and everything felt different, in a good way. I readied myself for the test to begin, hoping for a good omen. I got it with the first question. "In the bible, who was Esau's brother?" The question might as well have been "What is your son's first name, Beth?" because the answer would have been the same. Might have been a little unfair to the other test-takers, though, so it's probably good they asked the bible question instead. 

Definitely a good omen.

I knew they'd call my name. They did.

This time I was not going to let my nerves get the better of  me. 

They called me forward to chat. 
I was all smiles and confidence.

On the questionnaire, next to "how many children?" I had written 2.5. The contestant coordinator loved that.  Making the interviewers chuckle is a key factor in getting selected for the show. And, clearly, it's not that hard. I thought it was fairly lame joke myself. But I was grateful for the chuckle.

He asked me to tell him about myself. I said, "I work as a lunch lady in a middle school cafeteria, so nothing scares me anymore." 

Everyone laughed. 

I got this.

More chit-chatting, more laughs. Bring on the mock game. I was on a roll.

I was killing it. I found out later that my husband and children were listening through the door. They were feeling pretty good, too.

The only clue I clearly remember was "He was the narrator of Treasure Island."
I buzzed in. 
"Who was Jim?"
"Jim who?"
Hawkins. Jim Hawkins. I remember it now. I didn't then. Not knowing Jim's last name worked in my favor. Here's another piece of advice for potential Jeopardy! contestants, 
if you can't be right, be funny.
"Jim the narrator."**
Laughs galore. They loved me. Oh, I was going to get called this time. I felt it in my bones.

I really wanted them to call me right away. After all I was very pregnant. Timing was crucial. I guess the staff of Jeopardy! didn't share my concern.  In retrospect, I'm glad they waited.  If they had called me right away, I would've been one of Ken Jennings' many victims. Then again, maybe not. Maybe you'd be saying Ken Who

Who can tell?

You'll have to wait for the rest of my Jeopardy! saga. If you're wondering if the call ever came, I will say...what's the matter with you? Do you have straw for brains? I gave you the answer to that in the first paragraph. There's a picture of me with Alex Trebek right down there, for heaven's sake. 

So, now that I've hurt your feelings, you'll probably Google my name to make sure I'm not making this up. You won't find anything though, because I use my maiden name for writing and my married name for everything else, including game show appearances. 

I sincerely hope you'll check back for the next part of Jeopardy! story. Oh, and I didn't mean anything by that "straw for brains" remark. No hard feelings, okay?

*Please don't feel the need to point out Jeopardy! gives the contestants the answer, and the contestants supply the questions. I know. Everyone knows. It's just easier and less confusing this way. No one likes a smarty-pants.

**If you appreciate foreshadowing in storytelling, make sure to read part two of my Jeopardy! adventure (coming soon). It's funny how the event that's been foreshadowed never turns out to be a happy thing.  Well, not funny really. Tragic is a better description. Horribly, horribly tragic. Have a nice day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Lack of Character

It has come to my attention that there is a dreadful shortage of fictional characters in the world, forcing the few who do exist to do the work of a great many. Jane Austen's weary characters can't get a moment's rest. They're constantly being dragged out of their stories and made to be the pawns of any unimaginative and unscrupled Austen wannabe with a keyboard.

Existing literary characters are in high demand. After all, why should you go to the trouble of creating your own character when all that's necessary is to pick up a book, say... Pride and Prejudice, open it up and snatch a ready-made character for your very own. Elizabeth Bennet is very popular. As is Darcy. Go ahead take them. Everyone is doing it.

I mean, making up a character from your own head is such tedious work. You have to close your eyes, picture the person, then give him a name, think up a few details--his weaknesses, his strengths, his favorite color. You mustn't forget to throw in a childhood trauma or two. Exhausting.  How can you be expected to put in so much effort for your sure-to-be-a-bestseller? You're far too busy rehearsing your interview with Oprah.

And it's so wasteful. Why create when you can recycle? You're all about conserving resources. Green literature is all the rage.

Most importantly, the tried and true characters are profitable. And that's all that really matters, isn't it? Giving the people what they want. Market research clearly shows that Elizabeth and Darcy sell books. Why fight it?  If Elizabeth Bennet was good enough for Jane Austen, she's good enough for you. And that Darcy! Of course you want a piece of him. He's good looking.  He's got ten thousand a year. And let's not forget his fabulous estate, Pemberley. You couldn't possibly conjure up such a catch with your own fingers. So why bother?

If you're concerned about the ethics of using someone else's brainchild, someone who cut out a  piece of their own soul to give the character one, don't worry. It's all good. Readers love characters they already know. It's asking a lot to introduce them to someone new. Why else would there be 12,137* different books featuring Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy when Jane Austen only wrote one? You're doing the reading public a favor. Well done, you.

I, myself, would never think of doing such a thing. I'd as soon take another woman's child as another author's character. It's just as well since, like my children, I prefer my own characters to anyone else's. No offense. I'm sure your characters are sweet and precious. Doesn't mean I want them tugging at the hem of my skirt with their grubby little hands all day long .

While giving your character a face and a name takes relatively little effort, allowing her to develop into a living, breathing person with thoughts and fears (not to mention  a compelling backstory), requires love. Authors love their characters. A character isn't die cast to easily fit into any story you might have lying around. Each one is carefully, thoughtfully crafted by and for the maker. Look, but don't touch. If you want one, make your own.

John Lennon once chided someone who presumed to know what his lyrics meant better than he did. The listener fits lyrics into his own understanding of the world, but he does not--and never can-- know what was in the mind of the songwriter. With one or two exceptions, of course. I'm pretty sure I get what the guy who wrote You Shook Me All Night Long really meant. Doesn't leave a lot of room for conjecture. I'll give you that one.

The same is true of a novel. Not the You Shook Me All Night Long part, but the bit about not being privy to the writer's thoughts. Each reader relates to the story and the character in their own way, but no one can presume to know the character as well as the author does.

One of my favorite books is Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. The main characters are well-drawn and, as a reader, I feel I understand who they are. Though the book is long and detailed, there is much Hardy left untold. We don't know why Bathsheba is self-centered and thoughtless, we just know she is. We don't get to see the relationship between Frank Troy and Fanny Robin until she tells him she's pregnant with his child. And what on earth did Farmer Boldwood do with his free time before Bathsheba Everdene sent him that ill-considered valentine? Did Gabriel and Bathsheba live happily ever after, or was their marriage haunted by the memory of Frank Troy? So many questions.

I could write half a dozen novels by stealing Hardy's characters and extending his storylines in various directions. But, if Thomas Hardy had wanted all those stories to be told, he would have written them. To presume I know Bathsheba's backstory or the nature of her love for Gabriel Oak, would show far more arrogance than I am willing to admit to.

I clearly remember the public excitement and anticipation for the sequel to Gone With the Wind. I worked in a bookstore at the time, and purchased my own first edition of Scarlett. It sits on my shelf still. Unread. I may have started to read it, I really don't recall. What I do recall is watching part of the mini-series and seeing Ashley Wilkes portrayed as a drunk. Ashley Wilkes? A drunk? Not the Ashley I know and love. Sure, he was good enough at pretending to be drunk that he was able to fool Ward Bond** into believing he was at Belle Watling's and not attacking a shanty town. But, the idea of him turning to drink after Melanie's death offended me enough that I made the conscious choice to skip over any sequels not written by the original author. I keep the book because it's a first edition and might be worth something someday. Interested buyers may contact me by email.

I was persuaded to suspend my self-imposed ban on repurposed characters after repeatedly seeing Wide Sargasso Sea  by Jean Rhys on lists of great books. For those of you who don't know, Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the story of Rochester's first wife, Bertha (the author changed her name to Antoinette with the unconvincing explanation that it was Rochester's idea to call her Bertha. Apparently, it's not enough to take someone else's character, you're entitled to change her name, too. How nice).

In the book, we see how Bertha/Antoinette was misunderstood and Rochester was the nineteenth century equivalent of a douchebag.. Okay, thanks. It  ruined Jane Eyre for me. But that's forgivable, I suppose, since this book was such a fine piece of literature in its own right. At least, that's what I've been told. Frankly, I didn't understand what was supposed to be happening in ninety percent of the story. Had I been forced to read it during a fever-induced delirium, it wouldn't have made any less sense to me. But it is on a list of great books, so someone liked it. The guy who made the list certainly must have.

If, for some unthinkable reason, I were persuaded to write a sequel to Far From the Madding Crowd, (it would only be under extraordinary someone offering to pay me)  I would take the opportunity to change Bathsheba's hair color. Hardy wrote her as dark-haired, but I really see her as more of  a blonde. And the bit about Fanny Robin dying was far too sad. So, with just a few keystrokes, I'd make it into a case of mistaken identity. Fanny's alive and well in the next county with her little baby. So much happier that way, don't you think?

No one, to my knowledge, has taken one of my characters for their own. I'll admit I'd be giddy with excitement if they tried. Because that would mean someone has actually read my book. Woo hoo! But, as soon as I got over the initial glee, I'd be calling my lawyer. I don't actually have a lawyer. I'd have to get one. It just sounds more intimidating to say "call my lawyer" than "hold on, I'm going to find myself a lawyer on Yelp and then you'll be sorry".

Sadly, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte don't have lawyers. Nor can they stand up and say, "Hey! Stop that! She's my character. You might think you know her but only I really know her. I know what makes her tick. I make her tick. I gave her her soul. Her thoughts. Her compelling backstory. Her afterward, if she has one, is mine to tell, not yours. Let her be. She belongs to me."

I can only hope that a hundred years from now, my books (yes, I said books...plural...there are more to come, you lucky, lucky readers) are so well-regarded that Beth Anne Niemela wannabes of the future are tempted to appropriate Lissy Porter and Tom McGarry to fill the pages of their very own sure-to-be-a-bestseller.

A note to those potential grave robbers, I'm not above haunting you. Not the "Ooh, I just felt a cold draft" kind of haunting either. It would be full-blown, screaming, jaw-less, Japanese woman in an attic kind of haunting. I won't be messing around. Fair warning. Hands off. Yes, I mean you. Make up your damn character.

Now, you'll have to excuse me while I get back to my newest character's compelling backstory. It's a doozy.

*Hyberbolic number pulled out of the air for purposes of amusement. At least, I hope it's hyberbolic. If it's in the least bit accurate, God help us all.

**Yeah, yeah. I know Ward Bond wasn't the character's name. The character's name escapes me at the moment. I could Google it, but that would be cheating. Ward Bond is the actor who played the federal soldier who was so chummy with Rhett Butler in the movie. He also played Burt in It's a Wonderful Life. I love that guy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Princess Pride

With Halloween on the horizon, it's time to turn our thoughts to who or what our children will transform themselves into for the myriad of parties they will be attending and, of course--the happy culmination of the harvest festivities-- trick or treating.

Dutiful parents (and by parents I mean moms) buy, sew or assemble costumes of all kinds. They range from the impossibly cute to the horribly gruesome. 
Pirates. Pumpkins. Zombies. Mummies. Presidents. Vampires. Ghosts. Angels. Hippies. Unicorns. Witches.

And let us not forget the ubiquitous blood-covered psychotic killer.

Then there is the princess. The Disney Princess is  generally the princess costume of choice and they are readily available for purchase wherever Halloween costumes are sold. I have two daughters with thirty-one Halloween costumes between them. Of those costumes, they have been one or another Disney Princess seven times. 

I should mention that I also have a nineteen year-old son. But--so far-- he hasn't opted to be a Disney Princess at Halloween or any other time.  He does get along with the DPs, though. He especially hit it off with Ariel during his last visit to Walt Disney World. There were sparks flying in the Grotto.

I hasten to add that his father and I would be accepting of any costume choice he  were to make.

My reason for bringing up the princess Halloween costume is that I am confused and --frankly--upset by a trend I see among my friends and acquaintances. That is the uncalled for bashing of the Disney Princess.

Women who have little problem with their daughters pretending to be  a witch, a vampire or a pirate actively discourage dressing up as a princess. 

I want to know why. So, I've asked.  Each answer I've received can be boiled down to this, "I don't want my daughter to feel as though she needs a man to rescue her."

Really?! You think that the princesses in Disney movies are sitting around on a silk cushion waiting for a man to save them? I'm going to guess that these well-meaning moms haven't seen a Disney Princess movie from the last 25 years. 

I am an unapologetic Disney Princess-phile. My daughters (and my son) have seen every DP movie. Every DP movie made has a place on our shelf. The old, the new and the in-between. The Disney Princess approaches icon status in my home. I can assure you--and my daughters will tell you--that I have absolutely not brought them up to believe they need a man to rescue them from the possibility of a not-so-happily-ever-after. Not my daughters. They've been taught to make their own choices, paddle their own canoes, work for their own dreams, and never settle for any man who doesn't deserve them.

And it was the Disney Princesses who taught them. 
And me, of course. And maybe their dad... a little.

I can only assume that the anti-princess moms see the princesses as victims of DIDS (Damsel in Distress Syndrome). A common and unfortunate fallacy.

Sure, Cinderella wasn't the best example of self-reliance. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were perhaps the paradigm of the sit-around-and-wait-for-a-man-to-rescue-me princess. They were also from another era. An era when women rarely wore pants in public or worked outside the home, let alone found some way to extricate themselves from a self-inflicted comatose state.

The Disney Princess of  the millennial generation is a shining example of all that is good in the world of girlhood. If, by some truly unimaginable chance, you are not acquainted with these lovely and laudable (albeit animated) heroines let me introduce them.

Pocahontas. A devoted environmentalist. Believes that there might be better things in store for her than marrying the guy everyone thinks she should (a common value among the modern DP). Doesn't let anyone badmouth her peeps...not even the really hot guy with the sexy accent who she's obviously very in to. Fights against injustice. Risks her life to save aforementioned hot guy. Definitely does not suffer from DIDS. The only princess who, to my recollection, doesn't end up with the hot guy. A bit of a letdown to my view, but at least it means Disney wasn't willing to rewrite history...not much at least. Not sure how historically accurate the talking willow tree was. But you get the point.

Mulan. Not technically a DP, certainly has the right stuff to be. She doesn't want to compromise who she is to land a husband. Fabulous lesson. Yet, she is willing to disguise herself, leave home, endure hardship and risk life and limb to protect her father and save her country. No hint of DIDS there. She gets the hot guy, whom she saves by the way, not the other way around. Two princesses, two hot guys saved. Anyone sense a trend?

Jasmine.  She's absolutely not going to get married just for the sake of getting married. Really, if there were one unshakable thought I could put in my daughters' heads, that would be it. Don't get married until and if you find the guy -hot or not- you want to be with. Schools should teach that lesson. But they don't. Luckily, we have the Disney Princess.

Tiana. Work hard for your dreams. Nothing's going to get handed to you. If you experience setbacks, work harder. Taking shortcuts might turn you into a frog. If it happens, work hard again. You can get your dream and the hot guy. It just takes determination. And lots of hard work.

Belle.  Belle's admirable traits could fill a fairy tale castle. First and foremost, she loves books. A girl who reads won't be bound by limitations. She yearns to see the world that exists outside her small provincial town. She cares nothing for the good-looking stud who all the other girls adore. He's not nearly smart enough-or kind enough- for her. She risks her safety, then sacrifices her freedom to save her father. She looks beyond outward appearances and learns to love who a man is instead of what he looks like. She stands up to bullies and bigots and fearmongers. She keeps her promises. And, above all else, Belle is kind. 

Ariel  Ariel has a lovely singing voice. For part of the movie. Okay, so Ariel might resemble the classic DIDS-afflicted DP, but she has some fine qualities. She does save her prince from drowning. That's a good thing.  Also, her movie has a terrific soundtrack. I can't say I would recommend her choices to young women. But being willing to make a sacrifice for the man you love isn't necessarily a bad thing. She followed her instincts, which is something most of us would like our children to do ( provided they have good ones). And it did work out in the end. So, there's that. 

Let's just call Ariel the bridge between the old and the new. Even the DIDS-suffering princesses have many fine points. Far more than any vampire or pirate or blood-soaked pycho killer. 
Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora are good and kind. They love animals. They work hard. They dress well. And, though they may wait around for a man to save them, they pick good men. I mean, who can say something bad about a man who searches high and low to find the woman he loves? Who fights witches and dragons to save his princess? I'm all for self-sufficiency, but a loyal, brave, romantic man is nothing to scoff at. And being hot doesn't hurt.

Halloween is a fun and magical time. I wouldn't discourage my children from dressing as ghouls or goblins or anything else their hearts desire. 

But, while pirates, zombies, witches and homicidal maniacs may be fun to dress up as, they aren't  exactly ideal role models. Good role models have qualities we want our children to emulate. Kindness, intelligence, loyalty, love of family, protector of the environment, brave, selfless, a strong work ethic, the courage to follow your dreams and make them come true.

All the qualities of a Disney Princess.