Friday, April 24, 2009

Why do you think they call it trivia?

Last weekend, I took part in something called CultureQuest, which has nothing to do with yogurt or strep throat.

Instead, it is a 90-minute test of "cultural literacy" (a term for people who are too prissy to call it trivia) among teams representing Mensa chapters across the U.S. and Canada. Do you know the eight countries in “The Group of Eight”? Or what characteristic makes the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl ferruginous? Do you care?

I have played on CultureQuest teams for two different Mensa chapters over the past few years, and we have, more often than not, managed to earn a few bucks for the chapter—which is good, because all this knowledge should be worth something.

It’s fun, it’s not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon—but with every passing year it means less to me.

When I was younger, trivia contests were what I was all about. I was a terrible athlete, had no real talent that went beyond the high school marching band—but I never met a state capital that I couldn’t name.

So, I was a natural for “In The Know.” You might know it by a different name in your town, but the principle is the same—a TV show where teams from two high schools answer trivia questions.

I was always pumped for each game, because it was my chance to shine. The results were all too predictable. My school would win one or two games each year, and then lose to a school where people besides me took the game seriously.

Since there are no professional trivia teams, my spotlight disappeared once I left high school (although, for several years afterward, I would often overhear kids in my neighborhood mumble something about “In The Know” whenever they saw me), but that didn’t stop me from wanting to reclaim it. I would play along with “Jeopardy!” whenever it came on. People in the room would usually say one of two things. One was “Shut up!” The other was “You should get on that show.”

I had my chance to get on a quiz show a few years ago when tryouts for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” came to Pittsburgh. I made it all the way to the final interview, but was not chosen.

Why? I think it might have had to do with my answers to a questionnaire where I was supposed to tell the producers about myself, recount interesting things I’ve done, tell them about my most embarrassing moment, and so on. It was then that I realized that I’ve led a pretty boring life.

You’ve seen the interviews with game show contestants where they tell the host about the time they were almost thrown in jail in Mexico or climbed a mountain in the Alps. My most embarrassing moment involved pissing off a state driving examiner. Not exactly something that’s going to keep people from switching over to SportsCenter.

The contestants may be lying through their teeth, but their stories are interesting, so they make for good TV. TV game shows aren’t about being smart. They’re about being entertaining.

Which is just as well, because life is no longer a trivia contest for me. I would like to see a game show full of information that is truly relevant. “If you had to be late with one of these payments, which one would it be—house, car, or credit card?” Now that’s important information. How about, “In a job interview, what is your response to, ‘What is your greatest weakness?’”

Forget being a millionaire. I’m just glad I’m not a slumdog.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Personal responsibility

Pittsburgh is not the first place most people would guess that a tragedy like last week’s shooting, which left three police officers dead, would occur, let alone the relatively quiet neighborhood of Stanton Heights.

While most of us were shocked by what happened, what will happen from here is all too predictable. The accused gunman, Richard Poplawski, will have his day in court, during which he will have a free public soapbox for his ridiculous conspiracy theories. He will then have 10 or 15 years to write his book, and then, as a prosecutor on "Law and Order" once put it, there’s that pesky needle.

Much has been said in the media about Poplawski’s easy access to a variety of guns and extremist media. It’s enough to make you think that the Bill of Rights—or at least its first two amendments—might have been a bad idea.

But the problem isn’t too many rights—it’s not enough responsibility.

There is the Second Amendment guaranteeing the American public’s right to keep and bear arms (although nobody seems to quote the part about the “well regulated militia”). I have no problem, in general, with someone wanting to own a gun, but I don’t understand the fascination with guns—and I find the whole fanatical “from my cold, dead hands” gun culture creepy.

Poplawski, with a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines and a restraining order from a former girlfriend, was able to buy four weapons, including an AK-47, from a local gun store. And nobody saw anything wrong with this picture?

If I walked into a bar visibly drunk, the bar could not legally serve me another drink. If I claimed that I had a Constitutional right to one more beer, nobody would take me seriously. Yet nobody questions why someone with danger all over his past would want an AK-47.

Then there is the First Amendment—the right to free speech. I’m a former journalist, so you won’t find anybody more opposed to censorship than I.

But it’s hard to ignore that two major influences on Poplawski are right-wing crank Alex Jones, who alleges that FEMA (an agency barely capable of handing people bottles of water) is building concentration camps, and Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who disseminates nightly lies about President Obama. Not to mention Poplawski’s frequent visits to hate sites such as Stormfront.

But we know what will happen. The Becks and Hannitys and Limbaughs will all throw Poplawski under the bus. “Don’t blame us. That’s not what we meant. Don’t censor us over the actions of a lone nut.” Nobody is talking about censorship—but shouldn’t media outlets accept some responsibility for the messages they send?

“Personal responsibility” has long been the mantra of right wingers, especially when they want to berate some alleged “welfare queen.”

It’s time for the right wing to accept some personal responsibility of its own.