Andy Warhol said everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. In my case, it was literally 22 minutes.
That's the running time (minus commercials) of a single episode of Jeopardy! , on which I was a contestant earlier this year. I spent months preparing for my appearance on the game show, poring over history, geography, literature, art, politics, pretty much everything. Wikipedia became my new best friend.
Although initially my goal was to walk away a winner, as game day approached I found my priorities shifting. With the idea of appearing on television becoming more real in my mind, I became increasingly concerned about not embarrassing myself in front of friends, family and millions of viewers.
My worst fear, as I sat in the dressing room at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., was that I would buzz in on a Canadian question and get it wrong. If I said Toronto was the capital of Canada, or that the 1988 Winter Olympics were in any city other than Calgary, I would simply be too ashamed to return home. I'd have to stay in California and sell sunglasses on the beach or something.
What I hadn't realized was that before Alex Trebek even read the first clue, I had already committed a giant blunder. While filling out the contestant information sheet, next to the question, "Where are you from?" I wrote down "Ottawa, Ont., Canada."
You see, despite having lived here for a few years now, I'm not really from Ottawa. I was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador, and so were my parents. My first time out of the province was when I went to university at 17. After a few years in Nova Scotia, I moved to Ottawa for work.
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Besides being a mild-mannered software developer, I'm also a giant, gushing Jeopardy! fanboy, and I knew that Alex Trebek had once lived in Ottawa. Hoping to share a brief connection with a famous person I admired, I wrote Ottawa as my place of origin. I figured that back in Newfoundland, my parents and relatives wouldn't mind, and nobody else who was watching would even know. We taped the show and I began the two-month wait for the broadcast.
But during those two months, something unexpected happened - unexpected to me, at least. I had become used to the anonymity of city living and had forgotten that back home on the Rock, people do care about this sort of thing.
Newfoundlanders are special. Maybe it's the effect of living on an island, or of being the butt of other Canadians' jokes, but something causes them to be fiercely loyal and giving. It's why every season of Canadian Idol includes a Newfoundlander who rides the phone-in-vote competition all the way to the final. It's why, when 38 jetliners were diverted to the small town of Gander on Sept. 11, 2001, stranding thousands of travellers, the generosity shown by the townspeople was beyond description.
And it explains why, when my proud father made a single phone call to the local newspaper, it quickly translated into a full-page story in the province-wide paper, a local TV guide cover photo and two radio interviews.
By the time my episode aired, word of my coming appearance had reached the whole province, and there were probably tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders watching, just to see the local boy make good. But by then it was too late to change what I had done. The theme music swelled, the camera panned and there I was, on international TV, with announcer Johnny Gilbert declaring, "from Ottawa, Ont. …"
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After the episode aired, no one told me directly they were disappointed or, worse yet, offended by my slight. Most people told me I did a great job, even though I didn't win - I went home with $2,000 (U.S.) for coming in second place. And I received messages of congratulation from people I didn't even know.
But I did hear of remarks by some suggesting I should have said I was from Newfoundland. And those people are right. It may be Canada's youngest province, but it's home to some of this country's oldest and richest culture, and being from there is not to be taken for granted. After more than 20 years away, I had forgotten that.
I never felt at home growing up in a small town and couldn't wait to see the wider world. While I was waiting, I neglected to appreciate the simple pleasures of growing up and feel no nostalgia now. But most Newfoundlanders I know who live away do so because they have no choice, and they dream of returning one day to the place that loves them. That feeling seems to have faded in me along with my accent. I wish it hadn't. I wish that sense of identity was as strong in me as I see in others.
So I'm left with the fact that I spent 200 hours studying every subject from astronomy to zoology, but the most surprising thing I learned came after I closed the books. I learned that being "from" a place is not automatic. You have to do something every now and then to earn it. As the cool kids might say, you gotta represent. And, for the record, I don't think Alex cared about our Ottawa connection.
Trevor Janes lives in Ottawa.
Illustration by Josh Holinaty.
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