What Is Uncertainty?

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At some point it became traditional for me to watch “Jeopardy!” every night with my roommate Greg and our friend Michael. In fact, it went beyond traditional and became mandatory. For me to watch it without them was considered treasonous, punishable by being sworn at.

It was not always this way. When I first got TiVo, “Jeopardy!” was my first new acquisition. It was a show I enjoyed but that I would never set the VCR to record, and that I was never home to watch when it was actually on. TiVo made it possible to watch it whenever I wanted to, and to do so in 15 minutes: no commercials, no stupid banter between Alex Trebek and his dull contestants, no closing credits during which Alex and the players chat amiably with one another while the audience applauds (after which Alex surely flees the stage, leaving the contestants to wander in confusion). Fifteen minutes, in and out, boom boom boom. “Jeopardy!” accomplished.

Anyway, it was mostly a solitary endeavor, something I would watch when I had 15 spare minutes before or after something else. Greg might pause for a moment on his way from his bedroom to the kitchen, but for the most part he remained separate from my “Jeopardy!” habit.

Then Michael, another singer in the opera program that had brought Greg to Salt Lake City, started to be a regular fixture at our place. His own apartment was co-inhabited by a pothead waitress and often by her similarly inclined friends, which lessened Michael’s desire to spend much time there. Besides, there was no TiVo at his apartment. In fact, there was nothing in his apartment at all except for things that could be smoked, or things that could be exchanged for things that could be smoked.

So Michael would come over most evenings, and the three of us would watch a movie or something, and somehow “Jeopardy!” became part of the ritual, too. We had assigned seats: Michael on the LoveSac, me in the ugly yellow chair, Greg on the couch. In these positions, and in these positions only, could we watch “Jeopardy!” One time Greg and I switched seats, for some reason, and without realizing there had been an alteration, Michael turned to the ugly yellow chair and made reference to an inside joke that its occupant had no knowledge of, a reference intended for me. Michael’s face burned with embarrassment and betrayal. The seating arrangement remained firm thereafter.

We each had our strengths in “Jeopardy!” Greg excelled at the science and sports categories; I did well on entertainment and vocabulary; Michael focused on finding double-entendres in every clue and on yelling obscenities at Alex Trebek.

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Dutch doors: The height of Dutch laziness.

Michael’s hatred for Alex Trebek bubbles with an alarming intensity. It is perhaps the most passionate, baseless hatred I have ever encountered, except maybe for my friend Luscious Malone’s despising of the Dutch. (“Dutch doors?! What are those?! What, you’re too lazy to just build a window?!”)

Anytime Alex said something French, Michael mocked his pronunciation mercilessly. Alex comes from Canada and probably has at least a passing familiarity with the French language, while Michael comes from Cleveland and once used the word “demonsplayed,” a combination of “demonstrated” and “displayed.” If the clue were, “This man speaks better French than Michael,” my response would be, “Who is Alex?”

Yet there was Michael, an upturned middle finger at the ready anytime Alex essayed to speak French. And heaven forbid Alex should tell a contestant his or her answer was wrong. Such acts, in Michael’s view, were condescending and arrogant. Michael apparently believed that when a contestant answered incorrectly, he or she should be given a hug and told in gentle, soothing terms that he or she had made a mistake.

The nightly “Jeopardy!” viewing extended to Fridays, too. If this does not strike you as a normal way for three extremely hip, eligible young bachelors to spend their Friday nights, then please do me the favor of shoving it. In our defense, we sometimes watched a movie after “Jeopardy!,” though we usually just watched a “Law & Order” incarnation or the previous Sunday’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”

The routine was comfortable. We all knew that whatever nagging pressures or unsolvable puzzles the day enforced upon us, there would be solace later that evening, when we would be together for at least 15 minutes to hear carefully structured clues and their black-and-white answers. There is seldom more than one correct answer to a “Jeopardy!” clue. And when there is, they realize it during the commercial and give you credit for it when they come back. It is reassuringly simple: Here’s a question, and here’s its definitive answer. (OK, technically it’s the other way around — answers and then questions — but I always thought that aspect of “Jeopardy!” was stupid.)

Greg and Michael’s contract with Utah Opera ended in the last week of May. They and their fellow singers eagerly counted down the days until they could return to their homes, or move on to other contracts in other cities, while I sadly counted down the days until my roommate and my best Salt Lake City friend would be moving. Who would I watch “Jeopardy!” with? It had been so long since I’d done it on my own that I wasn’t sure I’d know how. What if there were a sports category? What if Alex spoke French, or used the word “unit”? I was panicked at the thought of having to respond to these developments alone.

My friends’ last week in The SLC coincided with the last week of the huge “Jeopardy!” tournament that culminated in uber-nerd Ken Jennings playing against two other nerds for two million nerd dollars. The tournament had been structured like a video game, with previous champions advancing from level to level until finally two of them faced Ken Jennings. If you beat him, you beat the whole game.

Now, I watched Ken’s meteoric rise to fame and power over the course of several “Jeopardy!” months in 2004, and I am in awe of his vast knowledge on a wide array of topics, and also of his prowess with the signaling device. (He lives in The SLC, too, you know.) I considered it insulting that he, the greatest player in the history of the game, should have to participate in this farce just to prove himself. Do you make William Rehnquist spend a day in moot court with the first-year law students? Does Mario Andretti have to take driver’s ed.? Then why should Ken Jennings have to defend his title against two pretenders?

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Jerome Vered, Jon Lovitz’s wheezy doppelganger.

Nonetheless, I was eager to watch him show these amateurs how he rolls, to give them a “Jeopardy!” beating, SLC-style. Greg was mostly indifferent; Michael, on the other hand, actively rooted for another contestant, a man who is a quiz-show host in his native Pennsylvania (a fact which should have disqualified him from “Jeopardy!,” and you can bet the “Jeopardy!” board of governors will hear from me on that subject). None of us wanted the third guy to win, because he was a grotesque asthmatic who looked like Jon Lovitz.

After two days of competition, Brad Rutter, the game show host, was ahead by a wide margin. Ken was doing well, but not as well as he should have been. It became increasingly clear to me on the final night of the tournament — which was also the final night that Greg, Michael and I would watch “Jeopardy!” together — that Ken was going to lose.

And lose he did. Such ignominy! Such debasement! I was sickened to watch the winningest player in the history of game shows be reduced to a mere second place against a smarmy Pennsylvanian. (Jon Lovitz’s wheezy doppelganger came in a distant third, thank goodness.) I was further sickened to see Michael exult in his player’s victory. Michael knew nothing of “Jeopardy!” or of Ken Jennings! His support of Brad Rutter was galling effrontery, pure and simple. I raged silently, and frustratedly. Unseemly though the contest may have been to begin with, Brad had won it honestly. Like everything else in “Jeopardy!,” Ken’s loss was precise, unquestionable and fair — the very things I admire about the game.

And now the consistency and reliability in my own life were evaporating. After Ken’s defeat, I deleted the program from my TiVo and prepared to say goodnight and goodbye to Greg and Michael. This was the last time we would see each other: They were both leaving early the next morning, Greg to Boston and Michael to Houston. I was to move to Portland three weeks later. None of us had full-time employment lined up in our new locales. The well-defined answers-and-questions of “Jeopardy!” would no longer be part of our lives as a trio — we would no longer even BE a trio — and there were significantly fewer definites in our individual lives, too. Questions would start having multiple answers, or no answers at all. The comfort of our friendship in The SLC was ending, and the uncertainty of aloneness was looming. Our goodbyes were as unsentimental as we could make them, and then we stood there, chatting amiably while the audience applauded, trying not to notice that Alex had fled the stage and left us to fend for ourselves.

Though this column is ultimately more contemplative than most, and perhaps not as gut-bustingly funny, I am pleased with its overall tone and content. If it will help you like it more, you can pretend that when I gave Greg his goodbye hug, I held him like I did by the lake on Naboo.

Greg was introduced in this column. He was not as entertaining as Raoul, of course, but who could be? As a roommate, Greg was cleaner, more easy-going and never called me from jail.

Michael, though a good friend during his months here, was referred to in "Snide Remarks" only once, in passing, in this column. In fact, I was going through a phase here, in 2005, when I seldom wrote about my friends. Dunno why. Maybe they weren't as funny as they used to be.

Luscious Malone really does hate the Dutch, by the way, or at least she claims to. I think it's one of those things that started as a joke and got out of control, to where now she has to keep up the appearance of hating them even though she doesn't really. But anything with "Dutch" in it -- Dutch apple pie, Dutch oven cooking, "going Dutch" on a date -- she'll rant and rave against it. She's a nut, that Luscious Malone.

You should know that having to include an exclamation point every time I said "Jeopardy!" (because it officially has one in its title) was really, really annoying. That factor alone almost kept me from writing the column.

I eventually met and had dinner with Ken Jennings, a true meeting of Mormon nerds.

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