On a recent daytime Delta flight from Los Angeles to New York City, I was thrilled to find that our seats were outfitted with individual video screens. Hoorah. Well, the thrill only lasted until the staff announced that the movies and cable shows we wanted to watch (i.e. anything that wasn’t a sports news show or a travel commercial) could be purchased with a credit card for six dollars. Six dollars for a 5′ x 7″ movie with crappy headphones in an uncomfortable seat with no popcorn. I felt a little ripped off and as much as I wanted to pass the time on the flight watching a movie, I felt like I had to send a message. It’s the principle of the thing, I thought, as I often did. What with all the recent price hikes for checked bags and surfboards, not to mention charges for cheap plane snacks, I decided to stand up for passengers rights by sitting down and suffering through the ride without a movie.
But I was bored. Really bored. Many of the passengers on the flight were typing quietly on laptops and taking notes in the margins of manuscripts. Me, I don’t work so well on planes. The seats cramp my creativity as much as my legs. So I started pushing a few buttons on the video screen to see what free options were offered. There, under the “Games” button was a free choice of an “In Flight Trivia Challenge.” I like challenges, I thought. I pushed the button and up came Question 17, which threw me. Why weren’t they starting me on Question 1? But I had no time to analyze it, because they were asking me an aviation question: Something about the Spruce Goose. Hmm, gosh…maybe “C?”
Seconds later, the answer popped up. Oh cool, I was right. Then another screen popped up, revealing that my correct answer moved me up in “ranking” from 8th to 7th, just behind HUGO Z and MUTE. Wait, who the heck are…
Ooh, quick, next question. Something about a record-breaking baseball player, which I got wrong. Luckily, everyone else did, too. Including N.E.R.D in 14A at the top of the ranking, BOBBBB in 24D and HUGO Z in 29E. Our standings remained the same. And it was only then that I realized that in flight trivia didn’t just mean answering trivia while in flight, but that the trip promoted, basically, in-flighting, a battle between eight curious passengers—oh look, another seat joined in, make that nine—stuffed into seats around me all over the plane.
I was so thrown by the passenger v. passenger concept—and so busy trying to catch a glimpse of the guy in seat 14A—that I got Question 20 wrong, too. Then, up came a big blue screen that read, simply, “Congratulations…N.E.R.D IS THE WINNER!” According to the rankings, me, “AMYYYY”, ended the game in next-to-last place.
Seconds later, the screen announced that a new game was going to begin. Now we’re talkin’. I knew the lay of the flight, I knew the rules; I felt hopeful and ready. And I was starting fresh from question one. I’d be lying if I say I didn’t shift up in my seat, straighten my back and start to get a little serious. This wasn’t just any old trivia game I’d play in the backseat of my parents car. This was a contest among adults flying from Los Angeles to New York. And my seat number was on display, here. I had to save face.
For a minute, I appreciated how bonded I felt to these fellow passengers. Before this, I’d only bonded with one person after I (seated at the window) and my row-mate (on the aisle) realized for the first time we’d have an empty seat between us. You know how that goes: As the the staff was about to close the big door, we looked at each other and smiled. “This would be the first lucky thing that’s happened to me all day,” he said, laughing. I crossed two fingers on both hands and held them up, waving them for dramatic effect. “This is for both of us,” I said, laughing back. Minutes later, the door shut, and we stretched out and smiled again.
I liked having someone on the plane, even one person, I felt connected with in some way. It made the flight something more than the mechanical, do-it-with-your-eyes-closed journey it has become. It’s already so far from my memories taking a plane as a kid, when I’d pack for the flight two weeks ahead of time (and then wear my crappiest clothes so I wouldn’t disturb the folding). Then of course the staff on the plane would come around with plastic airplane wings, coloring books and crayons. Flying was one big family-fest. I’m not saying I’m a big fan of airplane conversation (in fact, I’m usually the first one to put on my headphones to discourage small talk). But I do like the feeling of feeling connected to my fellow passengers in some way, rather than all of us tuning each other out.
Okay, here we go. “Which organization is in charge of running the PGA Championship?” Among the choices was “The PGA Tour,” “The PGA of America,” and two more variations on the P, G and A. Hmmm, I took my time thinking about it, but I still got it wrong. (The PGA Tour, it turns out, does not run the championship; The PGA of America does.)
Dang it, not a great start. Here I was, settling into feeling all sappy about the bonding I thought was going on, yet my blood pressure was rising with every question. Especially because I had just caught on that the strategy of the game wasn’t just about getting the question right. It was about getting it right quickly. There was a timer that counted down the points from 600 to 50: Answer as fast as possible and you can earn 450 or 500 points; wait and think about it a minute, and you’re down to a measly 100 points for the correct answer.
Yep, fine, I’ve got it now, and here’s another question... A) Vietnam. Got it! And pretty quickly! Wow, 250 points. That’s not bad. But wait, N.E.R.D. in 14A got it right and got 600 points. Holy moly, he’s good. Still, I was only 350 points behind him.
I answered a question about Aviation as fast as I could. 300 points! N.E.R.D got it wrong, so I moved up two notches, right behind him. Something came up about a 50s singer I’d never heard of. I took a minute, took a guess and got 350 for it. Wow! I might be gaining on N.E.R.D.! I waited with excitement for the tally. N.E.R.D got it right. For 600 points. Damn you, N.E.R.D. We’d both gotten the last two questions right, yet I was hovering at 550 points, and he was soaring at 1200. There was SMARTIE was between us. And BOBBBB was close behind me.
Now of course, my pulse was racing, and my curiosity was killing me. The plane was as silent as ever, and yet 9 of us were battling it out on our video screens against one another. Who were they? Who was BOBBBB? And SMARTIE? And most important N.E.R.D.? I knew Pharrell Williams used the title for his hip hop group, which I happened to love. But for someone to know these answers and get them so quickly, he had to be decades older than a typical Pharrell Williams fan, didn’t he? So was this a computer nerd who listened to hip hop? Was there such a thing? My competition was about 12 seats ahead of me, and I was dying to get a good look. See, if I just sit up and crane my neck around the flight attendant the right way… Nope, no time. The questions were coming fast and furious.
“Hot-Air balloon.” Wrong. “3,475 miles.” Right. “1961.” Right again! The game went on like this for a dozen more questions. I got a bunch right for slowly increasing amounts of points; N.E.R.D got some right at 600, and the rest wrong at 0. By the time we reached the last stretch of the game, I was in second place right behind him. The questions now mattered more than ever.
“What kind of plane was the Enola Gay?” I skimmed the answers and chose quickly—B) a B-29—taking my best gut reaction guess. And the answer was…Thank God, got it! That means 450 for me…0 for N.E.R.D. I moved up again. Another question earned me 450 and another 0 for N.E.R.D. Ha haaa, sucka! I was thrilled to imagine his face creasing in frustration at missing the question. But who the heck was he? Was he from Northern California, someone with a young son who chose the name? Someone in his 50s who’d been around for a while, who knew about Vietnam and the Wright Brothers and football players from the 70s? Luckily—A!—he didn’t know anything about cell reproduction.
But how in God’s name was he getting such high points? I tried to wiggle myself high enough to glimpse my competition again, to solve the mystery with one quick glance, but the next question was coming, and winning seemed far more important. So I readjusted in my seat, shoving the pillow I’d nabbed under my butt for maximum height and readiness. I rubbed my hands together, breathed deeply. I was focused and I was ready. The next question, about a physicist I’d never heard of, popped up. I guessed as fast as Amy-ly possible and…got it right. For 500 points! I was feeling great. If he got it wrong, this could put me ahead of N.E.R.D. And there he was…another 0! I was winning! Just a few questions to go and I was 150 points ahead of him. I was soaring. In a way that felt even higher than 30,000 feet.
He must be losing all concentration, I thought. Perhaps his son is next to him begging to guess. Or maybe he’s the one… And that’s when it hit me: That’s it! N.E.R.D wasn’t the Silicon Valley genius I’d made him out to be. He wasn’t a middle-aged expert in a few fields. He was just blind guessing as fast as he could. His 600-point tallies were the giveaway. The fact was, by the time you read the question, the points are already down to 550. Glance at the answers? You’re down to 500. The only way N.E.R.D was getting 600 for some and 0 for others is that he was blindly pressing letters without even reading the questions. And because the game only added points for correct answers—it didn’t subtract points for the wrong ones—he was free to guess away and still lead the pack.
It made me feel good at first—after all, I was actually getting these right because I had some knowledge of the information. All those years of school and Trivial Pursuit; all those years of listening to my dad talk about Boeing’s impact on Long Island while he took me flying in rented Cessnas and seaplanes; all those years spent visiting the Atomic Museum in Albequerque, and observatories in California. It was all building up to this moment. But the fact was, N.E.R.D was winning. No matter the rules, no matter the pride I had in playing the game fair and square in a battle of wits, he was using his system and beating us all.
Sure, he was gambling by stabbing blindly at the choices, because he would lose some of the questions altogether. But the ones he got right, he’d get right big. And it just might be enough to beat the rest of us, who were scoring 350 or 400 for a correct guess. But now, you see, knowing this, I was revved up and determined to beat him. This wasn’t just for my own satisfaction anymore. It was the principle of the thing.
Okay, N.E.R.D, I thought, you’re in for it. I readjusted the pillow under me and stared at the screen, breathing fast, my finger held aloft in wait over the video monitor. I’d figured out that the B answer was about a third down on the screen, so if I floated my finger around there, I’d minimize the lap-to-screen travel time that could cost me valuable points. I pulled my finger to my mouth and breathed on it quickly, in case the heat helped activate my answer any sooner. At this, my row-mate looked up from the paperwork spread out on his lap and smiled at me. I awkwardly grinned back. Just past him, on the aisle, a businessman was still typing in his computer. There were people on this plane doing serious work, dealing with things that mattered. And I was posed in front of a trivia game like an eight-year-old ready to poke someone’s eye out. I looked ridiculous. But I couldn’t worry about that. I didn’t have time! We were basically neck and neck on Question 18. My lead of 150 points didn’t mean much.
I did the calculations in my head: If he got them all, he’d win, end of story. If he blew one question and got the other two right, he’d get 1200, so I still had to get all three of mine right at more than 400 points a pop. And Question 18 was another Aviation question. Something about a jet engine.
I got it wrong. Crap. Crap. Crap. I bit my lip and waited, my brow furrowed, to see how N.E.R.D. did. It turned out he…missed it! He missed the question! I was still just a hair’s length ahead. Okay, come on, Amy. Be alert, be smart, be strong. I had to get both of these and he had to miss one.
Question 19 was about the muscles in the leg. I got it right. Again for 500 points! But…N.E.R.D got it right, too. Shoot, he’d gained on me. Now I was just 50 points ahead of him, with one question to go. I could still win, but I had to get this next question right. And I had to get it right for an impossible 600 points. 550 points would tie us, and I’d still feel good. But I wanted to win. I mean, I really really really wanted to win.
There were still nine of us playing, but the others didn’t matter now. Although I did wonder: Were they following the battle, too? Was it possible that BOBBBB was frustrated by N.E.R.D’s tactics? Had HUGO Z, who had fallen in the rankings, figured him out? Was SMARTIE kicking his or herself for not being able to beat him either? Thinking about the others planted in seats all around me, I felt a surge of responsibility. I wasn’t just doing this for me anymore; I was doing this for all of us. There was a whole group of bored flyers who’d pressed a button on their screen and started playing for fun, guessing wisely, limbering our way up the trivia ladder in small-point steps. I inhaled and thought about the films where the good guy football team takes the ball at the last down with 10 seconds to go, 6 points behind. This is for you guys, I thought. The Hail Mary pass, the moment the crowd would go wild. I was going to win this game and show N.E.R.D that honesty and integrity do prevail.
I got in position, my finger floating in the air halfway down the screen. Read fast, think fast. Ooh, here it is: “What do you get when you add all the numbers from 1-100?” Umm, umm, hell if I know, maybe…D) 5050. And then I waited…and waited…and…I got it! But I only got it for 500 points. Still, I got it right. This could be it. If N.E.R.D got it wrong, I could still win. I clenched my fists and smiled, bouncing in my seat. I didn’t care how childish I looked, or what my row-mate thought of me. This could be it. If N.E.R.D blew it, I would beat him by hundreds. I would win for us all!
The screen chugged away for a moment, adding, assessing, readying to tell us the winner. I willed the sight of my name. “AMYYYY” was going to win. I was ready for it. I held my breath.
Then the blue screen popped up with four simple words: “Congratulations…N.E.R.D. IS THE WINNER!”
Nooooo! No. No. No. My heart sank. My posture followed. I’d let us all down: Me, HUGO Z, MUTE, BOBBBB, SMARTIE, the values of honesty and integrity. The blind-guesser in 14A had beaten us all. But he’d beaten me by only 50 points. 50 measly points. He’d guessed, and he’d won. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t play another game. I didn’t have an ounce of competition left in my body. And by the time the plane landed two hours later, I’m sorry to say, I forgot to look for N.E.R.D in seat 14A. As passengers stood up and stepped into the aisle to reach for their overhead bags, I struggled to figure out who’d been sitting where. I saw an older white-haired man and a young couple speaking Spanish. I saw a mother holding a baby, two dark-skinned kids in their 20s, and a guy with a handlebar mustache who looked like a mechanic in Texas. I never found out who N.E.R.D was that day, and I will forever wonder. But even worse, all that bonding and connecting I’d thought I’d done that day felt hollow now. Not knowing who my fellow seat-contenders were left me feeling as disconnected as I had before I started the game. We were all headed toward baggage claim and going on with our lives off-flight, and the trivia game would soon feel as small as it sounded: trivial.
On the way back, I played three in-flight trivia games in a row. N.E.R.D wasn’t on the plane. My will to win was gone. So I pulled out my credit card and swiped it through for a $6.00 movie. Screw principles. I just wanted to watch Made of Honor.