My first alumni interview at Amazon is live on Omnivoracious now, and it's an appropriate one for the all-Jeopardy!-all-the-time world I seem to be living in for the time being: with Seattle's own Ken Jennings, for his new book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. We recorded it recently at a restaurant next to Amazon's shiny new South Lake Union campus (about which I sort of feel like Moses might have about the land of Canaan). When I used to do these video interviews with authors at Amazon, I used a Flip (my own Flip, which I had to clear my kids' soccer videos off of beforehand), with my elbow as the tripod--it was nice to see they had stepped up the equipment quality, as well as the use of disturbingly disembodied chef's heads as a backdrop.
Ken, as anyone who read his Reddit riff will not be surprised to hear, was funny and sharp (as is his book), and he was even more so at a packed reading/geography quiz he gave afterwards to a hundred or two Amazonians. That video may never surface online, thanks to his extended riff on unintentionally dirty place names like Dildo, Newfoundland, so you might have to settle for watching the two of us:
One part of the interview that didn't make the final cut concerns one of my favorite sections of the book, his excavation and--finally!--explanation of one of the great mysteries of my adolescence: the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Not the Jazz Age gangland slaying, but a contest that used to advertise regularly in the back of Games magazine, entrancing and bewildering me with its cryptic self-description, which probably went a lot like the one that's on its website now:
Just before New Year's (or as soon as we receive your entry, if between then and Valentine's Day), we'll send you the giant 11x15 100-page-plus 2012 Rand McNally Road Atlas and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre book of instructions. We'll start at the Golden Gate Bridge and motor (vicariously, by map) across the continent to the Statue of Liberty.
Huh? Drive (no, "motor"--that verb carried half the weird power of the thing) across the country on a map, with a special book of instructions? I had no idea with that meant, and I think I vaguely imagined it would be like Milo getting the mysterious box at the beginning of The Phantom Tollbooth. But I never took the plunge and mailed in a check (as I did do for the equally mysterious but colossally anti-climactic Sea Monkeys), and, until Ken reignited those latent synapses of memory, I had completely forgotten about the Massacre (I can't help but say it "Massacree," in Arlo Guthrie's voice--I actually figured the contest's name was inspired by "Alice's Restaurant," but since the game started in 1964, three years before the song came out, that can't be so).
Like me, Ken had been intrigued as a child by the ads in Games without ever entering, but now, as an adult with a contract to write a book about crazy map subcultures, he had a perfect excuse. The Massacre is still running (2012 will be its 48th year), and if it wasn't quite a Sea Monkeys experience for Ken, it's clear it was not quite what he expected. It turns out to be a "map rally," in which you plot your way across the country according to an intricate series of directions that require attention to some pretty arcane and exacting rules to stay on the path. After a few dozen dogged hours, Ken gave up halfway through (his kids gave up earlier), and though he speaks of possibly doing it again, you get the feeling that it's a variety of map-nerdery that doesn't quite, well, map with his own.
I'm just thankful he resurrected and then cleared up one of the forgotten enigmas of my youth (although part of me, like those mapheads who are nostalgic for the time when maps contained great white unknown spaces, will miss the mystery).
P.S. Meanwhile, speaking of Jeopardy!, I should mention, in the unlikely event that there's any reader of this blog who I'm not in touch with otherwise, that the Tournament of Champions starts next Wednesday, November 2, and I'll be playing in the very first first-round game, that day. I may have more to say about it all here when it's done two weeks later, if I have anything left to say about that subject...