Wait For It… a blog by Andy Ross

Ingemar Johnasson

Posted on May 16, 2011

Trivial Pursuit

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared a true story about myself on this blog. I spend a lot of time as a storyteller around the city, including at the show I curate called Real Characters. So, I thought I’d include one here. We’ll see how it works in prose instead of performance. I hope you like it:

My family teases each other constantly. Bordering on torture. If someone misspeaks or embarrasses themselves, that misstep plants itself as a recurring leitmotif across all following conversations. There is a game to it, and fortunately, we're all good sports and generous laughers, even when we're the butt of the joke.

On one particular family vacation, when I was about twelve, my mother accidentally called our lunch destination Ruddfuckers. She immediately self-corrected, but to this day, every Fuddrucker’s, every Chili’s, every T.G.I.Friday’s or Bennigan’s or Applebee’s, every Ruby Tuesday’s or Bubba Gump Shrimp we drive past---it’s a Ruddfuckers.

That same night on that same vacation saw our final family game of Trivial Pursuit.

Every spring break until I was eighteen, my family---me, my older sister, my mom, my dad---would drive 1,000+ miles from Wisconsin to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. My parents chose Kiawah because our family friend/my pediatrician had given us a deal on his time share.

Kiawah is essentially clusters of condos built along a series of golf courses. None of us golfed, so instead we strapped four bikes to the roof of the minivan and packed as many paperbacks as we could carry.

We’d hole up inside a peach-colored condo with white wicker furniture and bleached white shells everywhere---shells on the dressers, on the windowsills, shells inside glass table lamps, shells glued to the picture frames that held painting of… starfish. Do starfish count as shells? How ‘bout sand dollars? Because, there were sand dollars everywhere, too.

My folks saved up their Dick Francis and John LaCarre; my sister read teen romances; and I read horrible fantasy novels filled with puns. We could have read at home, but we didn’t. That’s the point. We were a latchkey household, and all the rental fees and hours of driving were our only way of assuring quiet time together as a family.

Every night we played Trivial Pursuit in two teams---my dad versus the rest of us. We’d get back from eating at various chicken fingers purveyors and pull up the rattan furniture to the glass dining room table. We’d move aside the shell-motif centerpiece to make room for the board game, and my dad would destroy us.

He was the perfect age for the original Trivial Pursuit. It's questions skewed towards European monarchies and classic literature and Watergate. Things like D'Artagnan's horse's name were always on the tip of my dad's tongue, so to him Trivial Pursuit was a piece of cake. Six pieces, technically.

The rest of us liked the categories with questions about M*A*S*H.

Even accounting for the pop culture cards, we still lost by huge margins. Question after question, we would miss on easy ones, because we were frustrated and therefore trying too hard.

Dad, on the other hand, would pause and think through an answer. “Let’s see, who TKO'd Floyd Patterson for the 1959 World Heavyweight Championship? I guess, Sonny Listen---no wait, that was ’62. Patterson had won the belt back in ’60 from… Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson. That’s my answer.”

That is the correct answer, by the way.

Which would just enrage my mom. My mother is a very smart woman---intelligent, well-educated. But, she’s also a non-linear thinker. (My wife says that my mom's stories are like listening to Abraham Simpson---she starts at the middle, gets to the beginning, and stumbles back to the middle.) Mom would get tripped up following the questions, and she’d make careless mistakes.

"What young actress had her breakout role in Mystic Pizza? Oh, she was in that movie with the guy who had the rumors about the gerbil. With the Porshe and the 'lights would be good here' line. Who was in that with him? Jason Alexander! That's our answer: Jason Alexander."

Finally, my dad had five pie pieces, cruising toward the win, and it’s our turn. Things have gotten desperate.

“What mammal lives at the highest altitude?” he asks.

My sister answers quickly, “Mountain goat.”

To which, my mom screams, “WAIT!! Let’s think this through... Is a goat a mammal?”

That was it; she was done for. Because of that one outburst, anytime---make that every time---over the last nineteen years the conversation stumbles across the word “goat” someone will yell out, “WAIT!!! IS A GOAT A MAMMAL?!!”

Petting zoos are rough on my mom.

There were more vacations, more paperbacks, but we never played Trivial Pursuit again. Eventually, my sister moved down to Texas and started a family. And, a couple of months after my wife and I moved to New York, my dad passed away. It was sudden and hard on everyone. Death is blunt and stupid.

We didn’t really joke with each other after that. I mean, there was some gallows humor here and there, but not much teasing, because we each assumed the others were fragile. Probably rightly so. It created a distance there that wasn’t about geography.

A few more months passed. Then, one morning, my mom sent my sister and me an email. It was a link to the New York Times obituary for Swedish boxer and former heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson. The subject line of her email read, “Is a goat a mammal?”

We’ve been better since then.