On Crosswords

26 Sep

I am a happy crossword geek. Witness: It made me geekily gleeful the other week when I went to the café in our campus library for my usual (refill, half decaf/half dark, plenty of room for cream) and saw that the students behind the counter were doing crosswords from the campus paper in their downtime. They’d started a contest to see who’d finish first and then business picked up. It made me happy just to know that college students do puzzles. That something so low-tech could hold their attention. And: I feel a bit bereft when I miss the puzzle on Weekend Edition Sunday, with Puzzle Master Will Shortz.

I toyed with an electronic version, an iPhone app, so I wouldn’t have to pack a puzzle book to Europe, but found a keystroke to be no substitute for the tactile satisfaction of pen in hand, filling in those tiny squares with capital letters. Yes, in ink. As Weeza says in Six Degrees of Separation (I paraphrase): “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t do it in ink.” “It” being the granddaddy of all puzzles, the New York Times Sunday puzzle.

Yes, in ink. In ink, though far, far from perfect. My puzzles are full of ink-overs, hard scribbles to X out whatever dumb thing I put in there while not thinking hard enough, or not looking ahead. I don’t seem to get much better, either. Forget doing the Sunday puzzle, except for those rare times when the trick behind the long clues just hits me (so satisfying). The Saturday puzzles usually stump me too, and the Friday ones. I’m more of a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday type of puzzler. The used-up crossword books stacked up on my bathroom shelf have pictures of bubble baths, kittens, flowers, and cafes on their covers. Their titles say “easy,” “coffee break,” “mild,” and “tension-taming.” Nearly all are NYT puzzles edited by Mr. Shortz. A couple are from the 1980s, edited by Eugene Maleska. I find those almost as impenetrable as the Sunday ones. I get the recent ones better, get their humor, their word play. Like this one where the long answers are lobsterpots, backstop, sunspot, newyorkpost: the second words are all anagrams! (Well, duh, you say.) Or this one, where “assorted hydroxides?” is “packoflyes,” and “always use the term ‘coloring agent’?” is “neversaydye.” Oh, to be so clever! Since I can’t be Oscar Wilde, maybe at least I could create cool puzzles?

One of my favorite pieces of family lore is this: that my Greek immigrant grandfather learned English by doing crosswords. Of course, he had to know enough English to begin filling in those little squares, to even understand the synonym clues, much less the more clever, punny or cryptic ones. Rather, I suspect, it was the way he acquired a large vocabulary, and a deep understanding of the syntax and playfulness of his adopted language.

Puzzles have gotten me through a lot of crap. They protected me from leering men on buses in Huntington Beach and Long Beach, back when I was young and cute and just wanted to get to work and back. They’ve since occupied my mind and hands during scary takeoffs or bumpy flights. They’ve kept me from getting bored or nervous in waiting rooms and lines. They probably feed some obsessive need in me (yes, I do wrap the poles with imaginary string while riding in a car). Too serious. Too rhapsodic. Mostly, they are just freaking fun. Play with words and expressions, play discovering the theme, play fitting letters together on a grid, play with order and symmetry.

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