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Below the Beltway

Who Wants to Be a Nervous Wreck?

It's slow death, being a 'lifeline'

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page W13

James K. Polk, one of America's best presidents, did not run for reelection because of diarrhea. In 1966, the 25-man roster of the New York Yankees included two players named Horace.

There is a type of skin tumor, called a chloroma, that is bright green. It has been known to give someone, literally, a green thumb. As I write these words, I am sitting at my dining room table, beside my telephone, hoping it does not ring. If it does, I am going to get scared, because on the other end of the line will be Meredith Vieira, and I stand a pretty good chance of costing a nice person a lot of money.

(Eric Shansby)



Some weeks ago, in an unguarded moment, I agreed to be a "phone-a-friend lifeline" for Bridget Grimes, a contestant on the syndicated version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," hosted by Vieira. Bridget is an administrator at Georgetown University, and the odd thing about this whole arrangement is that she was not exactly my "friend," in the sense that we had never met, or even spoken on the phone. Bridget reads my column, though, and e-mailed one day to say she thought it would be a hoot if I'd agree to be one of her three lifelines.

I explained to her that I, too, thought it was a swell idea except for the fact that I know absolutely nothing, having forgotten everything I once did know, which wasn't much to begin with. When this did not deter her, I patiently explained that there were only three subjects about which I feel significantly more knowledgeable than the average person : (1) the New York Yankees, (2) diseases and exudates of the human body and (3) presidents of the United States. For reasons I cannot understand, Bridget remained undeterred. Possibly all her other friends are idiots.

Have you ever considered the plight of the lifeline? The good part is that you can't study for it. The bad part is that you can't study for it. That means absolutely everything you have ever learned about your subjects, however arcane, courses through your mind, unbidden and unstoppable. The man who tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Andrew Jackson was an unemployed house painter who thought Jackson was preventing him from taking his rightful place as king of England.

A pheochromocytoma is a tumor of the adrenal gland that sometimes causes overwhelming sensations of anxiety every time you pee. It is better, however, than micturition syncope, caused by a disorder of the vagus nerve: When you pee, you faint.

Contrary to popular belief, Yogi Berra is not the dumbest ex-Yankee. That distinction belongs to erstwhile second baseman Jerry Coleman, who, during a long, unforgettable career as an announcer, said: "Last night's homer was Willie Stargell's 399th, leaving him one shy of 500." Also: "Hector, how can you communicate with Enzo when he speaks Spanish and you speak Mexican?" Also: "Edwards missed getting Stearns at third base by an eyeball."

The Millionaire show doesn't let lifeliners use cell phones, so I find myself thankful for basic wireless handset technology, since there are some places in a house that one might need to visit during a six-hour vigil, places that conventional phones do not reach. Still, there are potential pitfalls. I have soaped the mirror with a reminder that says, "DO NOT FLUSH."

The toughest challenge is to avoid my natural inclination toward subversion. Imagine if I get the call from Meredith Vieira, get switched to Bridget, and snap, "I told you to stop calling me!" But, I decided . . . Yikes, there's the phone! Hang on.

It isn't Meredith, it's Bridget. Her segment is over. She is prohibited from telling me how she did, except to say, ruefully, that she wished she had phoned me on a certain question. She tells me the question, and the multiple choices, and I pick the right one, which makes me feel good and her feel not so spectacular.

I'll find out what happened when the show airs in mid-November. Some good things came out of it: Bridget and I now really are friends. And however she did on the show, things could always be worse. For example, she could have been the copy editor at The Washington Post in 1915 who missed a typo in a story about President Wilson and his fiancee, Edith Galt. The story was supposed to say that the president spent the previous evening "entertaining" Mrs. Galt, but the letters "t-a-i-n" were dropped.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.


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