What I Think About When I Think About Thinking


I just reviewed the “About” section of this blog to confirm my declaration that I write about five topics: writing, metal, grilling, management, and running.  I was considering adding “thinking” to the list, but I decided that, rather than being a separate topic, thinking is the reason I write about those other things.  I think a lot, and my thinking tends to devolve into over-thinking.  Over-thinking is not a happy place for me and occasionally leads to a lack of sleep.  Writing is one way I try to cast out the demons of cognition.  I hope you find these posts entertaining and occasionally telling, but the truth is, they are sometimes born of a need to get thoughts out of my head and onto the page.  I like being a thinker, but sometimes it’s a burden.

A couple weeks ago, I went home on a Friday night dreading the thought of thinking.  Just before I logged off the network for the week, I received an email that was upsetting.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it until I returned to the office on Monday when I could meet with colleagues.  That meant I had 48 hours during which my only response to the email was to think about it.  If there’s no hope of resolving the issue through some physical action, the thoughts about it can spread like blackberry bushes through my brain and become difficult, and painful, to remove.  I feared the spiral of unproductive thoughts and was desperate to avoid it. I was saved by Knowledge Bowl.

Knowledge Bowl is a high school activity in which teams of four compete by attempting to answer questions. In this organized team sport version of Trivial Pursuit, teams from different high schools gather to compete in meets.  The competition begins with a written round, in which the teams answer multiple choice questions, followed by three oral rounds, during which three teams attempt to be the first to answer questions asked by a “reader.”  Each team has a buzzer bar that they use to ring in, much like a TV game show.  After 45-50 questions are asked in each round, the correct answers are tallied and winners are declared.

I was first exposed to KB when my son joined his high school team, and I attended the meets to watch him compete.  I have since graduated to “reader.”  Our high school’s KB organizer is a good friend, and I begged for the chance to read.  He relented, and I am now one of the official Alex Trebeks of Knowledge Bowl.  Reading questions to high school kids has become one of my favorite things.

For the readers, each meet starts with a conference during which we review the questions and answers for each round.  We discuss pronunciations of foreign words, debate whether we can, for example, accept “FDR” when the desired response is “Franklin Roosevelt,” and double check that the pre-printed answers to the math questions are correct.  I not only rely on others to check the math, I also ask for guidance about how to read equations.  For example, when I see (x+5) + y on the page, I will write it out phonetically (i.e., “the quantity x plus five plus y.”)  While I don’t speak math, the reader meeting is an opportunity for me to bust out my French pronunciation skills. I don’t speak French either, but I’m pretty good at faking the accent.

After the readers finish educating each other on obscure historical facts and geographical terminology – and let me assure you , we can be quite pretentious – we head to our respective rooms where we will hold court for the oral rounds.  I love the oral rounds.  I read the questions, the teams buzz in, an answer is given, and I let them know if they got it right.  There is a lot of strategy to this sport.  Teams try to ring in as quickly as possible, often before I’m done reading, anticipating the nature of the question to get an edge on the other teams.  It’s fast paced and exciting, with as many thrilling victories and agonizing defeats as any other sport, but far fewer concussions.  The only brain trauma in Knowledge Bowl is intellectual.

As reader, I am the Arbiter of Truth. I made up the title, because I have a healthy ego, but the fact is that I get to rule on any dispute regarding the acceptability of a given answer.  This is my least favorite part of the job as it demands the kind of thinking that causes me stress.  My judgment on an answer in dispute is hindered by my limited knowledge of a particular topic and a failure of the readers having identified a problem with the answer in advance of the competition. For example, the correct answer to a question regarding the first president of Turkey was, according to my answer key, “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.”  However, the answer given by a confident young man was “Mustafa Kemal.”  From my perspective, he left off the last name, as if he had said “Franklin Delano” but didn’t mention “Roosevelt.”  I ruled he was incorrect, but he argued that Ataturk was a title given to Mustafa Kemal.  Well, how was I supposed to know? I was upset with myself, realizing the kid was probably right, but I had already declared the answer incorrect.  I was messing with his team’s point total, and that could mean they miss qualifying for the championship round. I do not like effecting the outcome through my errors. That feels too much like my job.

Fortunately, for my mental health’s sake, those instances of thinking are rare in Knowledge Bowl. For the most part, being a reader is pure bliss. I get to ask questions of bright young people who are excited to answer. When they get it wrong, they are disappointed, and when they get it right, they’re ecstatic, high-fiving like football players.  The unbridled enthusiasm for the expression of knowledge is intoxicating.

For those of you who don’t spend as much time stuck in your head as me, the idea of a general knowledge trivia contest serving as a distraction from thinking may seem counter-intuitive. Knowledge Bowl does, of course, involve thinking, but it’s not the kind of thinking I dread.  Rather, it’s about information retrieval. It’s a sport; you know the answer, you don’t, or you make a great lucky guess.  It doesn’t demand an emotional investment in the content.  That’s my happy place.

The tournament got me through the weekend without obsessively thinking about that email, but my Knowledge Bowl season is now over. I’ll have to wait until next fall to play Alex Trebek again. In the meantime, I’m trying a few other things to keep my mind off thinking.  I ran 20 miles yesterday, I’m listening to some black metal as I write this, and grilling season is getting closer, each of which serve as a good weapon of mass distraction.  I think I’ll be o.k.



6 thoughts on “What I Think About When I Think About Thinking

  1. And this is why I subscribe to your blog. You are like an onion of slow reveal. Like a carrot cake deep in flavor. I never would have guessed you as a Knowledge Bowl reader. Nope, just wouldn’t have. I mean, do you think Alex Trebek would go see Cattle Decapitation after a show of Jeopardy? Let alone be capable of running 20 miles! But the more I learn about you, the more interesting a bloke you turn out to be, and the less surprised I think I’ll be upon your next reveal.

    So do you do better thinking in the shower or on the toilet? If you could only pick one as your think tank?


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