This Week's Contestant
POSTED on Friday, June 14th, 2013
So, there you have it. I won some pretty incredible things: a ten-day cruise to the western Caribbean (yes, please!), and over $37,000 cash. I also rediscovered my game show mojo, and earned back some much needed game show street cred. The best thing? I had the time of my life. I had a blast - and I never use the expression, "I had a blast." The very fact that "I had a blast" just flowed out of my fingers onto the keyboard proves I genuinely had an overwhelmingly fun and memorable experience.
There were several people that deserve special mentioning in making this moment possible. First of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't yet again acknowledge the role my grandparents played in all of this (see: entire pre-show blog). By the time you read this, they will have watched the episode with me by their side. Their eyes will have been full of pride and glee and my grandmother will hopefully have roasted me in front of our entire viewing party for my train-wreck of an interview.
Seriously, though - it was bad, wasn't it? I had that interview polished and ready to go all day long. A couple bathroom stall practice sessions and several silent recitations while pacing through the holding room yielded a perfectly succinct, adorkable shpeel. Then, after a seamless kick-start to the game, somehow THAT jumble of words came out. I think I said the word "program" fifteen times in ten seconds. Then I distinctly remember my brain telling my mouth to shut. it. down. So, I just wrapped it up and pulled the plug, fully aware of how suddenly and awkwardly it ended. I basically used the "Night at the Apollo" hook on myself mid-meltdown. I had to put my interview out of its misery. (It was just the humane thing to do.) So grandma, wisecrack away!
I also must mention the amazing contestant coordinators. They were unreal. They were kind, helpful, encouraging, engaging, passionate, and maintained a level of energy I didn't know was humanly possible to maintain for that many hours straight. We were the sixth and final show to film in one tape day, so it was no small feat that they were still insanely enthusiastic when I finally filmed during the ninth hour.
I'll never forget the advice one of them gave all of the contestants first thing in the morning. It resonated with me more so than anything anyone said to me throughout the entire day. He said that in all the years he's been prepping and helping contestants to tape the show, he's observed one undeniable trend: that the people who tend to win big tend to be having the most fun. He must have said it three or four times. Because of him, I did constant mental check-ins to make sure I was still having fun. And every time I thought about it, I realized I was having a blast. (See I just keep typing it). I honestly didn't care about winning. I was so loose and in a good mood that I had to be told by the producer during a commercial break not to drift too far from the center mark outlining where I needed to stand. (There was a lot of knee bouncing and reserved, in situ dancing going on).
I also have to give a shout out to my wonderfully kind and friendly fellow contestants. We spent the whole day getting to know each other, and I can honestly say we had so much fun experiencing everything with one another. It's funny I always watched the show and cynically doubted every adorable little exchange between contestants thinking that this faux camaraderie was just for show. How could these contestants possibly be friends? Aren't they each hoping the other one crashes and burns? There's no way they're genuinely happy their competitor just won some money. Guess what? All wrong. All of those things you see are true and honest. You really forge a bond -even if just for the day- and you all want each other to go home with something. The two girls occupying the red and yellow contestant podiums were sweet, funny, and thoughtful. I'm so happy we each left with some money in our pockets!
Most importantly however, I need to thank my sister, Michele. This is Michele for you: She hopped on a plane with less than two weeks notice, left her family behind and crossed the country by herself, found her way to the studio first thing in the morning, and then sat through 8 hours of filming just to be there with me on the big day. We couldn't fly out together because we left from different cities, but the moment our eyes connected across the crowded studio audience during the first show taping, I knew everything was going to be all right. I knew it was going to be a good day. She brought calm, stability, happiness, and just plain fun with her. It was like the final ingredient necessary to make sure the outcome came out just right. With her there, I was officially ready to have the time of my life.I was also potentially in need of accident insurance. Just before the trip out there, we were recounting a couple unfortunate, albeit hilarious mishaps with her car. One time, a garbage can attacked her back bumper. Another time, a fence leapt right out in front of her. If I'm not mistaken, there was also a cement pole that moved foolishly into her path. It should come as no surprise then, that she nearly took out Sajak on her way up to hug me after I won the bonus round. Careening through the studio, a split-second directional choice nearly caused a mid-air, celebrity/common folk collision of epic proportions. However, I think her track record more than substantiates the fact that Sajak totally jumped right out in front of her. It was a moment I will never forget as long as I live. I would imagine it's the same for Pat. He may have PTSD.
Standing on that set in front of the blue contestant spot, I was standing in my happy place. There was a moment when I actually envisioned Happy Gilmore's happy place, where Chubbs was playing a white baby grand piano and my grandmother had just struck the jackpot on that lone outdoor slot machine. I could hear that repetitive, energizing music playing in the background so loudly, it sounded like it was in stereo. It honestly kept me laughing all day long, which in turn, really did help keep me centered in my happy place.
My Millionaire debacle long behind me, and my new perspective on life driving me forward, I played with one strategy in mind: just be happy to win whatever you can. Every little bit helps. After all, Wheel is one of the only shows out there where regardless of the final outcome, you walk away with whatever you win. So I felt strongly that I shouldn't be greedy, I most definitely shouldn't press my luck, and I should quickly solve it when I know it.
Seriously. How many times has the line, "one more spin!" ended in disaster? Let me help you out it's EVERY time. In fact, the very act of vocalizing the words "one more spin!" pretty much ensures your soul-crushing loss and lifetime of regret in five, four, three, two I would not become another one of those contestants that curses myself by risking a zillion dollars for "one more spin!" while all of America yells at the screen "You fool! Serves you right!" Absolutely not. I already knew the feeling of profound game show loss and regret all too well. Trust me it's a feeling you only need to feel once.
Accordingly, if you noticed, I happily solved many of the puzzles with little or no money, and just slowly padded my lead one puzzle at a time. I also had made a promise to myself before I flew out for the taping of the show that was simple and ironclad. If I ever had the chance to solve the prize puzzle, even if I had zero dollars, I would solve it the second I knew it. Midway through the prize puzzle round as the contestant to my right was filling in a couple letters for "Places," the solution to the puzzle dawned on me. "Enchanting Ports of Call." I had yet to spin and earn a single dollar in that round, but I now officially knew the answer. I felt like I was sitting on a winning lottery ticket.
It hit me that if anything happens during her turn, it's coming to me next. I don't think I finished that thought before I heard Pat pull me back into the moment with, "Mark! What do you want to do?" I'll never forget the sound of my own voice saying, "I think I'll just solve?" Best decision I've ever made. Now I don't have to regret spinning it once to be greedy, only to lose the chance to win the free trip and consequently, place out of the bonus round. America will not heckle me through their TV screens for being a fool. A horrible interviewee, yes; for avariciously pressing my luck, no.
What Are You Doing?
Going to the bonus round was surreal. That's the only word I can use to describe it. I had watched this moment play out thousands of times on TV. Suddenly, I was the one going through those motions of spinning the prize wheel, and doing the famous Sajak strut across the studio to stand in front of the puzzle board. I clearly remember introducing my beautiful sister on camera and matching gazes one more time. Once again, it had an immediately calming effect on me. Her smile was so wide and genuine, it looked computer generated under the bright studio spotlights.
Finally, after RSTLNE and my chosen letters were all filled in, I was left with " _ O R _ I N G T _ E R O O _ ." The first thing I saw was "forking" and "roof" I believe in that order. So when Pat started the clock, I said those two words knowing full well that they were nonsensical. Have you ever forked a roof?It honestly did help to keep "talking it out." That's when the word, "working" occurred to me. Thinking I might be right, I called out "Working The Roof!" only to hold my breath for a split second awaiting a big celebration that never came. That's when disaster struck. My brain completely locked onto "Working the roof." I felt like that had to be right. It seemed like those were the only letters I could possibly think of that both fit and made a decent amount of sense. I knew deep down I was willing it to be correct, but my brain froze and lost the ability to fluidly substitute other letters to help solve the puzzle.
Tic. Toc. Tic. Toc. Thankfully, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head. All day long the contestant coordinators (THANK YOU!!) reminded us to "USE THE CALLED-LETTER BOARD!" Up to the left of the puzzle board was a flat screen TV displaying all the letters in our alphabet with the vowels conveniently plucked out and assembled in their own separate bottom row. Possible letters that have yet to be called are lit up beautifully, while called letters are blacked out. So as the clock ticked down, I had this epiphany. You know when people say that certain significant moments in their lives happen in slow motion? That's totally what it felt like. In a moment of mesmerizing clarity that was entirely in slow motion, my head tilted up to the used letter board, and I caught sight of the inviting glow of available letters.
I'll never be able to explain what happened next. I only saw the letter "M." There were sixteen letters lit up all over the screen, and yet somehow, the only letter my brain recognized was "M." I don't know if it was luck, an unintentional function of accidentally seeing the M first, or the game show gods intervening, graciously explaining to me that, "this one is for steam ship." How had I not considered the M before? Room. Working the Room. I mumbled it first, deep in thought. WORKING THE ROOM! I screamed it out the second time when I realized that my audible thought was correct. The big celebration came. I had no idea how much time I had left. All I remember thinking was "#@!%&*$!!!! I just won Wheel of Fortune!!!" (That, and, "So long STEAMSHIP and hello, WORKING THE ROOM!")
One of the single most exciting moments of my life (and sure to stay in the top three forever) was the moment just before Pat Sajak opened the envelope. It was an incredible feeling knowing that I just won whatever he had in his hands. It was a guarantee it was mine. I wanted to stay in that moment forever.
When I grew up, three cheesy shows I watched all featured the magical manipulation of time. The Secret World of Alex Mack, Clarissa Explains it All, and Saved by the Bell all contained inexplicable moments where their main characters could turn toward the camera and freeze time. It's funny I always idolized Zack Morris. So much so that when I worked at a high-end restaurant which had an executive chef who was infamous for doling out nicknames to his staff, I personally requested "Preppy." He had a Gordon Ramsay sort of temper, so I didn't realize at the time what a ballsy risk I took by requesting my own. Luckily, he liked me not enough to humor me with "Preppy" though.
Well, in that moment standing in from of Pat Sajak holding the envelope, just like Zack Morris, I wanted to turn to the camera and say "Time Out!" and have everything freeze around me so that I could just take it all in. It was just sheer unbridled joy and excitement, and boundless hope and promise. Something about the power of having that envelope still be closed it just became so much more than an envelope. Of course, opening it wasn't so bad either. As soon as he revealed that "Working the Room" was a $30,000 solution, I just started celebrating. I don't remember what I did or what I said. I think there was dancing involved. Bad dancing. Elaine Benes from Seinfeld dancing.
But I do remember Michele speeding onto the set doing 90 in the express lane and nearly making Sajak roadkill. I remember seeing her smile and hearing her exuberant laughter. Her laughter is such that it immediately triggers my own laughter. (Siblings will always share that connection. It's something I've grown to appreciate more and more in my adult life.) Celebrating without a care in the world, the two of us felt like kids again - except this wasn't Monopoly money! My life had come full circle, and my grandparents and everyone else in my family would be jumping around right along with us.
Then suddenly, it was over. I was walking in the Sony Pictures Studio parking lot in the rain, when I turned to my sister and said, "What just happened?" It was all just too surreal to be believable. We were smiling, laughing, and recounting every memorable detail with glee, completely unfazed by the fact that our damp clothes were slowly absorbing more and more rainwater. Everything about that moment felt right - the win, the redemption, the rain, the laughter, and my sister.
So the question that's probably on everybody's mind: "What am I going to do with the money?" Save it. Pay bills. Send myself back to grad school and maybe buy a Vespa. Snicker away, but I'll have you know I rode one across Block Island and it was one of the most exhilarating things I'd done in a while. I also love "Under The Tuscan Sun" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and each of my favorite characters in those movies rode Vespas across Italy like a boss. I also love Italy. So, there you go. According to that brilliant word association game masquerading as a logical train of thought, a Vespa is the perfect thing with which to treat myself.
Plus, a Vespa might actually come in handy when I move to Boston this summer to pursue my PhD in Curriculum & Instruction and ditch my car (or as city residents call it, "a hassle"). While undergoing the application process to be on Wheel in the fall, I was also filling out doctoral program applications for a group of graduate schools of education in the northeast. I was honored and humbled to be accepted into a 2013 doctoral cohort and be given the opportunity to pursue all of my educational aspirations. When I finish teaching fifth grade in a couple of weeks, I will begin an entirely new career path in the field of education. Suffice it say, this money couldn't be coming at a better time.
- Fun & Games:
Who would've ever guessed that all of those Wheel of Fortune games I played with my grandparents using our homemade wheel were just training for the real thing? I'm sure there were times I won this exact amount of money at my grandparent's kitchen table. I wonder if we would've believed somebody if they told us then that it would happen for real two decades later. Better yet, who would've thought that one day, my grandparents and I would be able to sit together and watch Wheel of Fortune as usual, but see me on the screen winning the night?
In the end, it really wasn't about winning or losing it was all about how I played the game. I had fun. I enjoyed myself. I took everything in stride (even the interview covered in word vomit), and I felt grateful for every moment. Don't get me wrong - the part of me that plays to win will always be there. (I apologize to some of you for that - you know who you are.) I just remember thinking that it felt so easy, just like I was sitting on the couch in my grandparents' old house, calling out the puzzles. Talk about a "happy place?"
I can't wait to finally watch the episode I filmed. I've been dying to fill in the holes in my memory for quite some time now. I'm planning on re-living every moment of it, but this time, my sister and I will be surrounded by all of our friends and family. My grandparents will witness a moment that's been in the making since I was a kid in their house scribbling on score sheets. You know what? To pay tribute to my grandparents and bring everything full circle, I think we'll serve my grandmother's "special tea" at the viewing party to celebrate. (See: pre-show blog.)