Crossword puzzles

17D: Gist (4 letters)

I recently completed a crossword puzzle that I had been working on, on and off, for a month.

Setting aside the immediately obvious question of my own shortcomings in the area of crossword proficiency, I’d like to just pause for a moment and marvel at the fact that this little square of paper was able to keep me enthralled for such an extended period of time.

Of course, classes and schoolwork intervened, and I’m sure the same is true for most of us: unless you purposefully set it aside, there is very little time in the day to sit down and work on a crossword puzzle. It doesn’t carry with it the fear of a deadline, like our assignments at school or projects at work, and as long as you keep it private, no one will ever know if you fail to complete one.

And yet… one month!

I guess the crux of the matter is that it’s a point of honor.

12A: Longest-lasting detergent? (3 letters)

My own involvement with crossword puzzles may be divided into two distinct periods: Before College and After College. The distinguishing factors of each period are easily defined. The former was characterized by excessive free time, an abundance of household newspapers, and dial-up Internet, which necessitated primary reliance upon reference materials in hard copy. The latter, which ensued following a glacial shift lasting approximately four years, saw a reemergence of the species, but in a far more hostile environment. Free time was drastically limited, newspaper subscriptions dropped off entirely due to a redistribution of budget priorities, and the advent of high-speed wireless Internet, though increasing the availability of access to reference material, also drastically incentivized the information-processing shortcut known as “cheating.”

In other words, it wasn’t until after college that I was able to rediscover an interest that had kept me busy for hours in high school. I think the dawning of the new era took place at work, where good friends in my office set aside a little time at lunch for the daily crossword puzzle featured in the New York Times, and were soon printing off an extra copy for me.

But let me tell you, the NYT crossword puzzle is another animal altogether!

42A: What those in the know know (5 letters)

This is where my involvement with the crosswor(l)d really took off. There is a whole genre of printed and Internet material out there devoted entirely to the NYT crossword puzzle and approaches to solving it! Truly, I had no idea.

For example, there are the blogs. Rex Parker is probably the most famous of the bunch and does an excellent job of wittily walking you through the puzzle, but a quick Google search for “NYT crossword blog” reveals nearly 37,000 similar links!

Then, there’s the background. For example, each weekday puzzle is harder than the last, culminating in a real brain bender on Friday. Around my office, most of us get through Monday and Tuesday with few casualties. More of the lunch hour mysteriously disappears on Wednesdays. If you’re wondering about the one I worked on for a month, it was a Friday.

But I’m getting better…

Finally, there’s the lingo. For instance, did you know that crossword puzzles come with directions? I don’t mean instructions for solving; I mean locational indications. The bottom right corner is the Southeast (SE for short), the top left corner is the Northwest (NW), and so forth. So far I haven’t noticed any correlation between corners and politics, though I have the sneaking suspicion that the top right corner of the puzzle is consistently more liberal. There are also words for special kinds of puzzles, such as the pangram, which uses every letter of the alphabet at least once.

Who knew?

30D: Reference book named for heavy lifter (5 letters)

To return to a point I made above, completing a crossword puzzle has for me become a point of honor. I would rather gnaw on one unanswered Friday clue for a week than Google it just because I can. It can be painful at times, but it’s a good pain—the pain of mental accomplishment. After all, not all of us can run marathons (and some of us wonder about the mental health of those of you who do…)

If you’ve never tried a crossword puzzle but think you wouldn’t enjoy it, I’d encourage you to think again. It can’t hurt to try just one, and you may be pleasantly surprised. I still remember my grandmother working her way through the puzzle, dictionary and atlas at her side, every day for as long as she could see the clues. (So maybe in my case the obsession is genetic.)

At the very least, solving a little crossword puzzle can be a healthy reminder that you know more thank you think you do (which never hurts), and at the most, it could be a frequent exercise of “the barbels of the mind,” as one of my teachers once referred to intelligence.

But if you’re coming to it for the first time, for heaven’s sake start with a Monday!


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