February 16, 2008

Hail to the factoids

So I'm pretty lousy at the blogging-regularly routine. I'm not promising to change, but I'm promising to worry more about whether I'll change.

In the meantime, enjoy this post I wrote today for Time Out New York's blog. Equally relevant here…

Saturday morning on a long weekend, 11am. No better time to cruise by the New-York Historical Society for a little quiz-show action. As TONY’s official trivia sensei, I was asked by Around Town editor Dan Avery to check out the NYHS’s Presidents’ Day trivia quiz, hosted by pop-history author Kenneth C. Davis. "All ages welcome!" the press release trumpeted. I’m not sure mine was, though. Friends, I am presently at that magic age where I’m too old to spend all night partying like a BMX bandit, but still young enough to work like a dog all week and need serious help dragging my dessicated carcass out of bed before the Jews are done with shul. So it was a bit surreal to hustle down to the NYHS, half awake, and watch a bunch of pleasantly precocious preteens answering trivia questions about old dead white guys. And realize that I may or may not be smarter than a fifth-grader.

But oh, what fun it was. In my mind, presidential factoids are the unelected monarchs of the trivia republic, so any chance to exercise that detritus of my mind was worth exploring. But this was mainly for the youngsters. Davis played quizmaster, and while he wasn’t the world’s most magnetic host, he is, to use a favorite word of mine, extremely avuncular in the "he tells neat stories" way, not the "Mom says I can’t be alone with him" way. He held court in the NYHS’s auditorium, between two tables that he said represented the Yellow Team (it had a peach-colored tablecloth) and the Red Team (American flag cloth), each adorned with four game-show style buzzers (which, miraculously, seemed to function as intended. Listen, I’ve been in the game show business some time now, and every single buzzer setup I’ve ever encountered has been a grade-A pain in the ass. They break, they’re hard to read, they don’t respond quickly. Even ones of network TV game shows take kung fu–like training to use with any degree of reliability. Check out this piece-of-garbage system I used for an event once—$530, and it got me a volley of balled-up paper tossed at my head when the blue units broke into 14 pieces). But I digress.

Davis welcomed eight kids onto the stage, ranging from, oh, let’s say 7 to 12 (I am a terrible judge of children’s ages), split them into two teams, asked them a series of presidential trivia questions, and whenever a team’s score reached five, he dismissed the losers (in a very nice fashion, of course) and welcomed up new participants. Simple, simple. But believe me, this game had the power to restore my faith in the American educational system. These kids were good.

In fact, the Yellow Team won everyone round and stayed onstage the whole event, mostly through the awesome might of one member, an approx. 12-year-old I started calling Skippy. (Not sure why; physically, he struck me as a very academically disengaged kid, possibly a bully, but he clearly had his head wrapped around American history. "Skippy" just seems like the name of a semimeathead who happens to be a supergenius.) Skippy’s teammates—kids I referred to as Milicent (impossibly cute; wearing a flowery dress totally wrong for mid-February), Petey (little sidekick type) and Martina (your typical eight-year-old female jock)—were impressive in their own right (except Martina, who is apparently mute), but Skippy just lit the stage on fire. This kid knew it all. Davis asked…

"Who was the first President to live in the White House?"

"What was the U.S. capital when George Washington was President?"

"Who was the youngest person to take office as President?"

And Skippy was right on top of it. Squad after squad of Red Team replacements were felled by his power (hooray to these kids for none of them bitching and moaning—smiles all around on a Saturday morning, which I envy). Even the odd adult who jumped into a Red Team formation was no match; a ridiculously overcaffeinated guy in his twenties, high-fiving his prepubescent team members, answered "Ford" when he buzzed in for "Which President founded NASA?"

Meanwhile, Milicent and Petey were right behind him—in fact, I started feeling dumb when Petey scored on "What President got a speeding ticket for riding his horse and buggy too fast down Pennsylvania Avenue?" I had no idea. I also couldn’t puzzle out "President Truman used something no other President has used. What was it?," which I’m ashamed of, though in my defense, none of the players (not even Skippy) knew. (A Red Teamer guessed "a bath tub.")

Sitting there in my early-weekend stupor, I felt like a moron. I’m supposed to be this presidential-trivia wizard, and I was missing too many of these. I mean, I never volunteered to go up on stage, mostly because I have a life, but partly because I was scared: If I answered wrong on "Which President returned to the Congress after he was President?" and a roomful of sixth-graders laughed at me, I’d be redeeming the worst fears shared during my preteen psychological counseling sessions.

Yet, I did have my one moment. The question was, "Which President legally dodged the draft during the Civil War?" I knew it cold. And the kids took their laughably wrong guesses…

"Abraham Lincoln?" (Uhh…)

"Rutherford Hayes?" (Come on! That dude was a war hero!)

"Polk?" (And he was dead by the time the war started!)

"Hayes?" (Oh my God!)

No one got it. Davis threw it to the crowd. A moment of silence. And I piped in with the correct answer. I smiled. I had outsmarted an auditorium of pre-shave-age American history buffs, including the dreaded Skippy, in the fine art of presidential trivia. A glow of satisfaction filled my entire being.

Maybe I should’ve stayed in bed.

Kenneth C. Davis will be hosting another American history quiz at the New-York Historical Society on Jul 4 or thereabouts, at least according to his end-of-show announcement. Stay tuned to the Interwebs.