Saturday, September 12, 2015

Waiting for Alex Trebek

My great grandfather – my father’s mother’s dad, who we call “Papa” – turns ninety-three this week.

I visit Papa a lot, every week in fact, which is a lot to visit a ninety-three year old great grandfather who never speaks and rarely moves and only lives to watch a tv game show called “Jeopardy.”

He lies in a hospital bed in his bedroom with three pillows under his head and the rose-print bedspread pulled all the way up around his neck. And his body is so withered and so thin that the bedspread covering him looks perfectly flat. He doesn’t even make a ripple. So every week, when I walk in to visit him, he looks like just a head sitting there on a pillow, all by itself, smiling.

You can go ahead and laugh but it is an unsettling sight to see.

I arrive at four thirty which is “Jeopardy” time which is like feeding time at the zoo which is the time when all the animals are the most active. Except instead of pacing his cage and waiting for food, it is just my great grandfather’s eyes, darting left and darting right and back and forth and he’s waiting for Alex Trebek.

Only this one particular Friday, I’m early. It is not quite “Jeopardy” time yet. Alex Trebek is still back in his dressing room, gluing on his smile and rehearsing the right way of saying “Mozambique” and “potpourri.”

The news is on and all the news is terrible. They’re showing refugees somewhere standing in a field and a news reporter is kicking the refugees and there’s a panel discussion about whether it is bad form for news reporters to kick refugees. And now they’re showing Mexicans in America and the panel discussion switches to whether Mexican immigrants eat wholesome American babies whole or if they chew them up a bit first.

The panel does not reach consensus.

“Ack!” There’s a noise coming from the general direction of Papa’s head, which scares me at first until I realize maybe he’s trying to talk.

“Same old bullshit,” he says.

It has been ages since I’ve heard my grandfather say three and a half words like this and it turns out he’s not even finished yet.

He says, “You know, Kay, I grew up in Omaha. This was in the thirties. Between the wars. And we were Germans and worse than that, we were Catholics, too. Everybody hated us. They said we could never be real Americans because we followed the Pope. They said we were animals and they said we had messy beards and they said we refused to learn English and that we stole all the good jobs and worked for too cheap.

“And the papers had stories and the stories had numbers and the numbers said crime had gone up since we’d got there.

“My grandparents forbade me from speaking German and the schools forbade us from speaking German. And things were bad sometimes but then the Russians and the Polacks and some Estonians came to work the railroad and everyone agreed to call them animals instead. And the Italians came and the Bohunks came and then they were the people who’d never fit in.

“Out west, they were rounding up the Japs. It was for their own safety, they said, and because Japs might be working for Hirohito, too, waiting for a signal to kill us.

“Then they brought Vietnamese in after Vietnam who we heard were secretly North Vietnamese fighters.


“Never be Americans.

“Refused to learn the language.

“And Kay? When you asked people, ‘How can you be sure? I mean, you were wrong last time and the time before that and the time before that and about the Bohunks and the Italians and the Estonians and the Polacks and the Russians and the Germans,’ do you know what they said?

“Do you know what they always said?

“They said, ‘This time is different. This time it is not like before. These people are animals. This is an enemy unlike any we’ve known. These people can never fit in in America.’

“Same old shit.

“I sure wish I remembered how to speak German.

“Ack. It’s time for jeopardy.”

I do not know what that last bit means but I nod anyway because it might be profound.

Papa’s eyes dart back and forth so quickly it’s like his head might roll right off the pillow and onto the floor.

“Oh!” I say, looking for the remote. “THAT ‘Jeopardy!’ Sorry. It’s time for ‘Jeopardy’.”

Alex’s pronunciation of “Mozambique” is spot-on this afternoon. 


  1. Answer " The policy of protecting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants."
    Question "What is nativism?"

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name, Mother of Exiles.

    Answer " A person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group, such as a racial or religious group.
    Question "Who is a a bigoted person?"

    "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

    Answer "Is checking out the concept of immigration"
    Question "Who is Donald Trump?"
    Alex Trebek "incorrect"
    Question "Eva Mendes"

    1. That's your blog post that ends with the great Eva Mendes gif.

      Everybody gets a little scared of people who are different than them, but I believe we can start to get over our differences if we all sit around watching that gif of Eva mendes' butt.

      I could be horribly, fatally wrong about this, of course. But it's worth a try.

  2. I hope your Papa lives forever. And Alex Trebek, of course, that goes without saying. But especially your wise and wonderful Papa.

    1. Thanks. At this rate, he'll throw down another chunk of wisdom right about the time I'm nothing but a head on a pillow.

  3. It's all a cycle and it always leads to not trusting "the other". That and it always comes back to the Potpourri category. I can't imagine the torture of being confined to a bed and being forced to watch television news. I could definitely see how Trebek's painfully accurate pronunciation could be a respite. Also, it's good of you to visit.

    1. I couldn't go into it here, but one of the mother of a woman I work with lives in a nursing home, and she says the same thing applies to a lot of the residents there. Everybody has to watch "Jeopardy" or "Wheel of Fortune," and sometimes it's ALL they watch.

      Somebody ought to do a study of the effect of game shows on aging brains.

      I'd be fine with my tax dollars going for that.

  4. Great writing Katy. Your great grandfather is a man with great wisdom. And I hope your story and his, wakes up a lot of people here in of the free, home of the brave.....if you were born here. How easily many Americans forget their roots. Politicians today are using the current influx of immigrants as a political tool to gain votes, especially those pushing for a giant wall to keep all immigrants out. If half of them would search their own heritage they might get a wake up call. But, I suppose that's asking too much as a majority of them choose to remember "selective history."

    1. Thanks, I had fun writing this one.

      I grew up in a suburban middle class area of Housdotn, where the Vietnamese kids weren't much different than the white kids or the Pakistani kids or whatever, really. That has to be a lot different than what my great grandfather saw, living in a place where successive waves of immigrants came to work the packing houses and the railroads.

      I'm an optimist, despite my better efforts. I believe things are better now than before.

  5. "There’s a panel discussion about whether it is bad form for news reporters to kick refugees" -- at first, I thought this must be a sly reference to Fox News but then I realized it couldn't be, because surely the Fox News team's consensus would immediately and unanimously be "no."

    1. Fortunately, I manage to stay away from TV news channels, for the most part.

      Cartoons and Doctor Who have never steered me wrong.

  6. "I'll take Whore Ads for two hundred, Trebek.". "That's "Who READS, Mr. Connery, not whore ads!"
    I think it's human nature; the need to feel that anyone different from your tribe is something less than you are, if not less than human. That's for the survival of your tribe. But while Birds of the feather Do, for true, flock together, them sumbitches migrate, as well. Not like coconuts.
    The Human condition is same as it ever was. We all suck at being 'human' toward each other but our 'nature' makes us humans very adept at surviving. ANYthing. Like cockroaches.
    Tell your Papa bj said "Hello in there." next time you see him.

    1. If I try and explain to my great grandfather that i toldn people online about him and they said "Hi," he's going to be afraid y'all are going to stop by for food.


      and I'm bringin' Slick Pig wings if I come

    3. That's great. I don't have anything by Prine, but everything I've heard is pretty great.

  7. Token Mexican here. We eat our babies whole, wrapped in a tortilla, covered in foil. Always covered in foil. Preferably with salsa but not a must.

    My grandma is 92 years old. She's not withered, not confined to a bed, lives by herself in the house she bought some 70 years ago. Walks to mass every morning at 5, often walks to McDonald's to grab a cheeseburger for lunch. And yet still when you visit her she's either watching awful cable news or Jeopardy. I guess what I'm saying is that the elderly will find their way back to cable news and Jeopardy no matter how healthy and aware they are.

    Frankly, I blame Alex Goddamn Trebek.

    1. I don't get it. I mean, maybe they feel like "Jeopardy" keeps their brain going, but it's not like they know the answers to the questions anyway.

      Because no one actually knows the answers to those questions.

      "The sixth word on page 37 of this writer's third novel is 'arch'."
      "Who is Thomas Hardy?"

      I mean c'mon...

    2. That is 100% true. I have never once finished an episode of Jeopardy and thought, "Ah, I have truly learned something today." Plus, contestants don't even make a lot of money compared to other, brainless game shows. Is it really worth all that studying?

      Alex Trebek: "This 16th century German count was known for imposing unfair trade tariffs."
      Eager contestant who just instantly knows this: "Ooh, who is Count Johann Johannessburg the Fourth?"
      Alex Trebek: "That is correct!"
      Eager contestant: Ha, and they LAUGHED at me for studying the entire German nobility bloodline! Well, I just earned $200! Who's laughing now, bitch?

    3. Art history, man. I don't know nearly enough about art history to ever go on that show.

  8. Back when I was a ten year-old with potential I contracted rheumatic fever, which in those days (black and white TV and all...) meant a person had to be confined to a bed for months. They pulled me out of school, had the family doc come by every few days to draw blood, and the lack of activity made atrophy my new word. A homebound teacher would show up every so often to give me some official "schoolin' ", and to make sure I was keeping up with the other ten year-old kids I'd left behind at the school.

    A couple of things made that four month ordeal bearable, and both of them involved Jeopardy. My mom got someone to loan us a portable TV which was put on a table at the foot of my bed, and I was allowed to watch one program during the day, and it was the game show of which you spoke. She'd go into the kitchen and make a milkshake for me (and I suspect massive quantities of foul tasting antibiotics were shoveled into the blender along with the ice cream), and we'd watch Jeopardy, with Art Fleming as the host.

    To this day I'm a huge fan of the show, and we record them and watch them here when nothing's on worth watching.

    I'll take classical music for a thousand, Alex.

    Loved this post!

    1. Wow. That's a hell of a story. Rheumatic fever.

      It sounds like:

      When I was a child I had a fever. My hands felt just like two balloons. Now I got that feeling once again. I can't explain, you would not understand. This is not how I am. I-I-I have become...

    2. I had no idea that Trebek wasn't the first and only host of that show.

    3. It was all downhill for Jeopardy after Don Pardo went to Saturday Night Live.

    4. Don Pardo was part of "Jeopardy"?

      Impossible. Next you're going to try and tell me that Drew Carey wasn't the original host of "The Price is Right." I might be young, but that doesn't mean you just slide anything by me and have me believe.

  9. Katy. I just realized that I have written replies to your last couple dealios and rather than pushing the blue "Publish" button, I, rather, pushed "Sign out". Word drivel is a terrible thing to waste.

    "I'll take "Knuckleheads" for a thousand, Alex... Who is Mooner Johnson?""

    For the millennials, millennia maybe, that we humans have survived this planet, or, and again rather, the millennials the planet has survived us, the hallmark of our continued march to civilized behaviors has been the striving to accept the differences among us. As Beej said herein above, genocide is in our DNA, numerous Gods' population control system implanted in the spawn of Adam and Eve. Or Nassar and Hermadan for you Muslims. Amit and Pramod for the Hindis out there.

    For us to be accepting is contrary to those God's will. To be Donald Trump is to be God's chosen. To wish peaceful assimilation of the unwashed masses is but one of the many faults in the teachings of Jesus, that Jewish bastard.

    Didn't the Old Testament God tell everybody to stone an adulterous woman and her bastard child to death? Shouldn't God have had Mary and Jesus stoned prepartum? Save us from all our sins be-fucking-for Jesus made all those statements and edicts which so terribly conflict with God's earlier edicts? Save His only begotten Son from all that pain and suffering?

    My God thinks their God is, as my God likes to say when I ask, He'll say, "Well Mooner my man, some Gods seem to be mean for sport."

    What was your question? "Jeopardy answer is 'Giant flaming corporate assholes.'"

    That answer is simple. "Who is Walmart?" Fuck Walmart!

    1. Many years ago in a different life, I wrote a blog post called "In defense of racism" where I made the argument that fear of the people lurking just outside the light of the camp fire probably saved people at one point.

      I didn't actually defend racism, although the title still set off such a flurry of debate that the site I published on couldn't handle all the comments.

      But I wouldn't actually defend racism. After all, I have no position on any issue. I just adopt positions to figure out how other people think.

    2. Katy. The defense of racism seems to be the full-time job of the Republican Party. "Fully one-percent of all Mexican immigrants commit crimes...Black-on-black crime is the most prevalent...SCOTUS has declared that racism is a thing of our past..."

      Like the good Lady Macbeth, me thinks, mayhaps, they doth protesteth too fucking much.

      And how insightful was The Bard? I pray thee, Fucketh Walmart!

    3. Is that the same SCOTUS which, this past June, ruled that everyone has to engage in gay sex now?

    4. great Cesar's ghost! i missed the "has to" part of that ruling. No WONDER everybody's so pissed!

    5. It's already so hard for me to get a date, and this is just adding way too competition to the field.

  10. I hope to make it to "head on a pillow" status in another thirty years. I have only seen 2/3 of what your Papa has, but I am sure I will see more of the same. I always figured that as I took my last breath I would have a revelation and I would think, "Oh, I get it now." I should be so lucky.

    1. When you get to that point, I will come and visit you and we can watch a game show together.

      I love to gather bits of deathbed wisdom.


Hey you! Why not leave a comment to tell me what you think of what I wrote?