The call came last Wednesday afternoon. I was walking into the barber shop for a pre-Thanksgiving haircut when my cell phone rang. I looked at the phone and asked myself who would be calling from Washington DC. I went back on to the street and answered it to hear the caller identify himself as calling from National Public Radio: “I imagine you know why I’m calling”.
Yes, I imagine I did. After years of entering the “Sunday puzzle” contest on NPR, never expecting to be chosen to play the puzzle on the air, I was the “randomly chosen entry” from the more than 900 puzzlers who had correctly answered this week’s challenge. More than 900 of us who were able to figure out that the food item “Mayo” could, when subjected to the proper rearranging of syllables lead to the expression: “Yo Mama” and the celebrity: “Yo Yo Ma”. I had come up with that answer within a minute or two after hearing the puzzle and had forgotten to submit my answer, remembering to do so only an hour before the deadline. And now, two hours later, I was faced with the reality that I would have the opportunity to be heard by millions, many of whom I’m sure would be ready to pounce on any hesitation screaming out: “Oh come on,what’s the matter with this guy? ” while another person in the house would say: “Give him a break, it’s harder when you’re on the air”. (I know that conversation very well, we go through it almost every Sunday in our house.) But, there was no escaping fate.
Imagine having two days to prepare for an exam but not having the slightest idea what the subject would be? Each puzzle is different so there was no preparation except getting lots of sleep (yeah sure), deciding where to talk on the phone away from the animals and other distractions and calming myself by thinking that no one really cares about the puzzle anyway.
On Friday, at 2:45 p.m. the call came in and I found myself surprisingly calm having rehearsed my answers to what I imagined would be the first questions asked by the host. I mentioned my daughter as I had promised her I would and we dove into the puzzle which, thank God, turned out to be easier than I expected it would be. When they stopped taping, they thanked me, told me I did fine and I hung up and only then did I announce on my facebook page that I was going to be on the air on Sunday.
Right away, I realized that my assumption that no one cares was dead wrong. The reactions to the Facebook announcement started coming in immediately and after the show aired, the fun really started. Two phone calls came in within 30 seconds of the end of the broadcast, one from an Ann Arbor friend, one from a friend in New Jersey who sounded like he had almost driven his car off the road when he heard my name mentioned. Then the emails started: a former camper from Camp Ramah who is now a Rabbi, a person whom I hadn’t been in contact with for almost 40 years since we lived in the same dorm at school, friends of my parents from Boston who sent me a note telling me how they bet my parents would have been proud of me (he would have been but he would also probably have corrected my grammar and my mother would have told me I should have spoken up louder), two other Rabbis who had previously been on the air welcoming to the small club of Rabbis that had achieved this distinction, a few dozen friends from Ann Arbor and, most surprisingly, people I had never met who found the synagogue website and wrote congratulating me and asking me what the secret was to getting picked. It really was a great day and even today, the emails are continuing to come.
All in all, it was a bit more than the 5 minutes of fame I expected and it truly was a lot of fun. I’ve been doing puzzles of all kinds since I was a kid and I do believe that as we get older, this idea of “mental calisthenics” becomes even more critical to keeping our minds sharp. I’ll keep playing the NPR puzzle but knowing that I won’t get picked again, I imagine I’ll be a little less motivated. But, the thrill of being on the air and the fact that it connected me with so many people really made this a special weekend.
I have to close with a puzzle: What is the next letter in this series: O T T F F S S E N _ ? Feel free to respond with your answers to my email address at email@example.com I can’t offer you a lapel pin but it will keep you in good form if NPR calls.