Saturday, April 7, 2007 -- Michael Shteyman

Friday, April 6, 2007


I think every Times solver has his or her comfort day. I even hear crossworders refer to themselves as a "Wednesday" person, for example. For a long time I was a Thursday, only venturing into later puzzles when I was feeling masochistic. I made a conscious decision to change my comfort level to Fridays, I bought a book of Friday-only puzzles and began to look forward to and think positively about the puzzle on the last day of the work week.
It worked and now like Robinson Crusoe's friend, I am a Friday.

But that means Saturdays still intimidate me. I mean, just look at all those 15-letter words -- 9 of them, and you know there won't be any theme to help you out. Look at all those acres and acres of arctic white space. Look at all those clues referencing things I know less than nothing about -- organic chemistry, Martian craters, Brazilian emperors, et cetera.
Fear not, friends. I can show you how to solve a Saturday (or whatever day lies just past your comfort zone). Here's how you do it: Ignore your fear, throw out your stopwatch, pick up a pencil (with a good eraser) and fill in what you know. Don't worry that it's not a lot. After going through all the acrosses and downs all I had was:

45A: VCR Standard (VHS)
47A: Sly (ARCH)
(50A: 1950s White House name (MAMIE)
(My favorite first lady name -- Dolley is a distant second. Mamie is just not a name you hear much anymore. It seems like such an old lady name, it's hard to believe there was a 50's sex symbol named Mamie Van Doren. Maybe if I had a daughter who was born 80 years old, I might name her Mamie.)
and 47D: Like wine (AGED)

Not much, but for the longest time that's all you have. So at this point, what you do is start looking for any kind of lifeline, however flimsy. 24D was Clean laundry that hasn't yet been ironed and you don't know the answer, didn't even know there was a term for that washday phenemenon, but you have at least done laundry before and you've never ruled Brazil or fallen into a hole on Mars, so you gotta figure you have a better chance of guessing the answer to that than you do some of the others. You know it ends with the H in VHS, is it possible that it's some kind of ___WASH? You write those letters in, a partial but that's all you've got, and you're keeping your eraser handy at that. Now you tap your pencil against your teeth (unless there are other people in the room, cuz they will find this incredibly annoying) and look to see if this helps any. All of a sudden the W in ___WASH and the clue for 38A: Ideally collide in your mind and you're counting squares to see if INAPERFECTWORLD will fit. It does, and now after getting a 15 letter answer with only one letter to go by, you're now thinking this puzzle might be solveable after all.
Then you spend the next several minutes doing nothing but tapping your pencil on your teeth. You notice that there's another clue about wine and wonder if the constructor is trying to tell you something -- like forget about trying to solve this impossible puzzle, go pour yourself a big glass -- or maybe even a ewer -- of Chardonay. But you press on. You remember that the same words that are in easy crosswords are also in hard ones, it's just the clues that change, and that knowledge helps you get ULNAS and SOS and ETA and ELATE. Now it starts to look a little bit more like a solved crossword puzzle. Now you start thinking that maybe the long entries are phrases you've heard of too. And before too long answers like 39A: "You know where I live" (DONTBEASTRANGER) and 61A: Home-coming time? (EVENINGRUSHHOUR) are starting to fall into place. You're even starting to like these long answer phrases. Who needs themes, you'll never work a great answer like HUGECONTROVERSY into a themed puzzle.

Of course there will be a couple of clues you consider not quite kosher: 4D: Atlas shelfmate: Abbr (ENCYC) Well, no, my atlas is in my glove compartment. My ENCYC's shelfmate is a DICT, and some entries that send you frantically shuffling your memory closet for something you thought you'd never need to know again: 44D: Alexander of debates (Now, where did I put that? HAMILTON won't fit and he was a dueler not a debater. Who was that woman who squared off against James Kilpatrick on 6o Minutes decades ago? Is that it? No, that's JANE from the Saturday Night Live takeoff. And no, it won't fit either.)

When you're almost finished, there are a couple of squares you're not sure about: Is it Niccolo Paganini or Niccoli? Does 25A: Some TV programs are shown on it: Abbr refer to CSI or CST? Some trouble spots like this will become clear with a little of that "mental flexibility" Will Shortz says is the key to solving puzzles, and sometimes it's a case of a word you don't know intersecting another word you don't know. In that case, take your best guess and when you learn the answer try to remember it. And remember too that crossword puzzles are fun -- even the ones that are challenging for you -- no, especially the ones that are challenging for you. After all, if you wanted easy, you'd be doing find-a-words.

And that's all there is to it, keep practising and before long you've learned to love what you formerly feared.

I'm going to get off the stage now and make room for the next replacement Rex. I've enjoyed it very much -- so much so that I intend to do something similar on my blog with the New York Sun crosswords. For those who haven't tried them yet, the Peter Gordon's Sun puzzles are considered by many solvers -- including me -- to be every bit the equal of Will Shortz's Times. Try them out here and stop by on Monday and we'll talk about it. (Sun's puzzles are Monday-Friday only.)

You've been a great audience. I thank you and I thank Rex, who I hope is having a great time in Mexico.

Robert

(Could it have been MAMIE Alexander on 60 Minutes? No, SHANA, that's it!)

27 comments:

Orange 9:52 AM  

Your advice for tackling harder puzzles is dead-on: Find a few toeholds, no matter how small or widely scattered, be willing to enter answers you're not sure of (and ready to erase them if they're working against you), build off of what you've got (this is where getting a long entry really pays off), and keep plugging away.

Linda G 10:08 AM  

Yeah, what she said! That's such helpful advice for all solvers.

Thanks, Robert. You've done a great job. I'm sufficiently intimidated about my Monday and Tuesday stints ; )

I just started doing the Sun puzzles in the last week or so. I'll be checking out your blog on a regular basis.

Now...pour that glass of wine.

DONALD 10:26 AM  

Oy! Ennui ad infinitium!

Wendy 10:29 AM  

Ah the Mamie Eisenhower coiffure. You just can't see that enough ;)

This was a killer, but your deconstruction was priceless. Under the heading of "not a lot" I started out only with CNN and couldn't believe that was gonna be it for the unaided approach. But it's so true that you can gradually suss out some of these longer deals - the real kick in the teeth with them, I've found, is when you hit pay dirt and STILL can't get any crosses in the bargain. That happened in a number of instances today.

I'm trying to find today's uncannily resonant answer, but nothing's leaping out at me. Anyway, Robert, thanks for your service and DONTBEASTRANGER!

Evad 11:26 AM  

Yes, a huzzah out to you, Robert! Thanks for getting the guest blogging week off to such a great start. As I was solving today's puzzle, when I wasn't scratching my head (my tic like your using a pencil as a toothpick), I was thanking my lucky stars that I wasn't up today to try to help others solve this one! I liked the long entries, but all the smaller ones that pulled them all together ranged from the sublime to the very, very obscure.

Look forward to reading your upcoming NY Sun reviews. Those puzzles are just as good as the Times, and certainly deserve as much attention in the blogosphere.

jlsnyc228 11:47 AM  

"Mamie is just not a name you hear much anymore."

in a cameo (um, almost invisible) role in "the hoax" is mamie gummer. not a promising "hollywood" name, but she's the daughter of meryl streep and (sculptor) don gummer. mamie lives!! (have seen her in two off-broadway plays in the last year. can you say "the-apple-doesn't-fall-too-far-from-the-tree"?)

also, had a friend who always referred to those stair-on-wheels that were (and sometimes still are) rolled up to prop planes as "the mamie eisenhower stairs." you get the picture...

enjoyed the shteyman puzzle lots. "in a perfect world" was the one that jumped out at me (in a benign way...) and made me think i could do this one after all!

cheers, all --

janie

(ditto the bravo to robert and the great solving advice)

mmpo 12:17 PM  

Yep. You do this for a little while, and you realize that none of these are unsolveable. However, I for (another) one sometimes turn to Google (picking up yesterday's thread) to help me get a toehold. (Presumably, you can't do that at the tournament. Can you use a dictionary?) I enjoy such mini-joys of crosswording as extrapolating a multiple-letter word from a single letter in a cross, but I really don't care about being able to answer the trivia clues unaided. And oh, I especially like getting those 15-letter answers on the first try. Unfortunately, today, when I immediately thought of IN A PERFECT WORLD, I made some sort of typing mistake, without catching myself, and ended up with no place to put the final D in WORLD. Later, though, with most of the central eastern section filled in, I had R, L and D and thought I'd give it another try. The thing about these long entries, for me, is that one comes, its neighbors usually follow in close succession. And once you have a third of the puzzle filled, you know the rest is coming.
On Mamie...I think that's a girl's name (or nickname) that could make a come-back. I met an eight-year-old girl named Ruby not long ago. I know there are other such names being revived. Ruby is the only one that comes to me at the moment. Names that probably won't make a comeback any time soon: Ethel, Frances, Mabel, Gertrude, Elmer, Herbert, Rutherford, Dale...
By the way, googling "debater alexandar" yields "Rex Parker does the NYT Crossword Puzzle: FRIDAY, November 24, 2006."
...And the musical clues continue with CLEF (Sign seen in front of some bars). Interesting way to describe a staff. Some bars. A bunch of black dots. Some squiggly lines. You know...

Norrin2 12:29 PM  

Thanks, Orange, that is high praise indeed coming from you. I can't wait to read your book in July.
Thanks, Linda and Evad I'm looking forward to reading y'all's entries next week (And BTW, Linda, I ignored Mr. Shteyman's advice and had a beer when I finished the puzzle rather than a glass of wine -- and yes, I solved it last night, I don't usually have beer for breakfast.)
I knew it was a trend among Hollywood types to give their kids off-the-wall names these days, but I had no idea Meryl Streep had a daughter named Mamie.
Hah! Those wacky celebrities.
Robert

rock rabbit 12:31 PM  

Loved your narrative -- very encouraging to a newbie like me. I started out with only SHIA, ETA, ROIS, and MAMIE. Being an "early week type of girl" was gonna give up in disgust, but just for yuks googled God save the king, Brazilian emperor, and Lake Thun -- after which, emboldened by getting CAP GUNS, I couldn't RESIST THE URGE to keep plugging away, until I got four of the long phrases and a bunch more fun fill. Couldn't finish the puzzle (even googling) but had a great time trying! THANKS. Now go buy yourself a pair of EEE loafers :)

Anonymous 12:53 PM  

Beautifully done! Props to you.

Anonymous 1:13 PM  

Great entry, great pictures, esp loved the "Days of the Week" people. Another pointer for beginners: if your spouse gives you an answer with complete confidence (1961 Orbiter = "Echo"), it can still be the wrong answer. Decided trying the Sun puzzle would be good for me, but the link won't get me there (I'm on a Mac, would that matter?) Any pointers welcome.

Thanks again for keeping this going, in such grand style.
Trish in OP

Norrin2 1:25 PM  

If that link doesn't work for you, go to http://www.nysun.com/ and click crosswords in the features section. If you do this on a Saturday or Sunday it will tell you it can't open the file (because there is no Saturday or Sunday Sun puzzle) so click the little calendar at the bottom and pick another M-F date. Much like the Times they get harder as the week goes on, so choose accoordingly.
If you live anywhere where the Sun is available, you might want to pick it up. It's a great paper. And they have Stephen Miller, the best obituarist in the country. IMHO.
Robert

rock rabbit 2:17 PM  

Coincidentally, my favorite celebrity child's name is Mia Farrow's daughter Quintana Roo (where Rex is vacationing now)!

Anonymous 2:31 PM  

Joan Didion's daughter Quintana Roo was featured in her (JD's) book, the Year of Magical Thinking. Mia may have followed suit,but I'm guessing, like Moon Unit, there was only one Quintana Roo. Sadly she didn't survive her illness.
Trish in OP

Scott 2:44 PM  

I crashed and burned on "MHO"; I was certain it had to be OHM and so fried my brain on 58 across, trying to think of words that ended in ROANCE. It's true getting a few short words right can be a helpful start, but getting a few short words wrong can bring you misery in the end!

Rachel 2:53 PM  

I loved this blog!! A wonderful narrative - I can usually get through a Thursday puzzle without assistance, but Friday and Saturdays require occasional googling (I admit) which I know is not kosher amoung real NYT crossworders.

Could someone explain CST (Some TV programs are on it) and TRANS (Plantation head?) ... it was the only 'letter' I didn't get - that d@mned "T". I still don't get either one of those clues, what's a "trans"...?

Orange 2:58 PM  

Isn't Tracey Ullman's daughter named Mabel? And the fictional baby on Mad About You was a Mabel. Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain's daughter is Frances Bean. The rest of those names...they're authentically old-fashioned but they don't seem to be making a comeback like Henry and Isabella have. (The Baby Name Wizard blog is moderately addictive.)

Orange 2:59 PM  

Central Standard Time (as in "Thursday at 8, 7 Central") and the prefix in transplantation.

rock rabbit 3:03 PM  

Ooops, Trish, quite so -- Joan Didion's daughter. Guess I burned up too many braincells trying to do Mr. Nediger's puzzle this morning! Thanks for steering me aright for the second time this week.

Scott, I too was certain of OHM, guessed ARES instead of ARGO, and changed AGED wine to FINE wine, so that I could put in FOXY for sly... Also erased SHAHS so I could put in COMMACK (the only 8-letter LI hamlet I could find in my Natl Geo atlas), which, incidentally is usually NOT on the bookcase next to my ENCYC... because it is constantly on the dining room table as my favorite xwp reference! Anyway, those wrong guesses left me lost all across the far southern tier.

Rachel 3:06 PM  

ARGHHHH! I just 'got it' - transplantation... can you all just forget I wrote that? It's midnight where I live and that must have been a brain-freeze. Sorry!

Ultra Vi 3:19 PM  

Robert!

Bravo on a brilliant entry this morning! Loved the retro pics you included and the way you took apart this [...cough...stagger...] challenging puzzle.

Someone asked about some bars in music. (mmpo? You must know this.) Bars = measures.

Thanks, Robert, for easing our Rex-in-Mex Blues.

Kitt 6:58 PM  

Well, shoot! I just typed up a fairly long post about the puzzle today -- pushed the wrong button and poof! Gone!

So, not going to re-type....but do want to say THANKS Robert. I really enjoyed your hand-written puzzle, the pics you included, and your tips for puzzle solving. I learned a lot from you!

Thanks so much.

Eric 8:12 PM  

Unlike Robert, "Atlas shelfmate" didn't give me trouble, thanks to the World Book Encyclopedia set I grew up with at home. My schoolteacher father sold World Book in his spare time, so we got all the extras, including the glorious, oversized Atlas volume. It was my favorite, with big maps of all the continents and countries, and delicious population tables in the back. Ah, memories.

Great job, Robert.

Eric

Howard B 10:05 PM  

To repeat others' sentiments, thanks for the articles, pics, and fun commentary. Been a crazy and somewhat puzzle-free week here, so haven't been able to contribute any commentary insanity this week. But great job filling in - and extra credit for having better handwriting than I will ever have ;).

Keep on puzzlin'!

Judge Sully 1:02 PM  

Only got "encyc" when I remembered the Jiminy Cricket song on the Mickey Mouse Club...encyclopedia...e-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a.

WWPierre 7:04 PM  

Here is a blast from six weeks past;

WHEW!!!

I didn't keep track of how many cups of tea and coffee I drank while doing this one, but there were many trips to the can.

Robert's description of the solving procedure is pretty much right on. I started out with ARCH RAVE AGED MAMIE ARLES, and CAP GUNS. VHS gave me ...WASH, and as soon as I realized that the Brazilian emperor must be PEDRO, and not PAULO, I had WORLD, and a place to start.

The north was the last to fall, as I had DATE for PICK (3d) and BONES for ULNAS, which pretty much proved that ARTURO TOSCANINI had to be right. It wasn't till I tried SHIA, which gave me ASPERSE, that I abandoned ARTURO for NICCOLO, who's spelling I had to check on Google. (it seems he can do without one of the "c's")

I went to my atlas for SYOSSET, and to check that the lake of Thun is on the AAR river.

I especially liked the clues for 61a "Home-coming time" EVENING RUSH HOUR, and 35d, "Capable, facetiously" EPT

I still do not understand 1d, ATNO and 14d, EDIT.

jae 8:31 PM  

ww -- atno is short for atomic number. The clue was not about radio it was about the periodic table. Salon is a magazine so edit is short for editor, I assume. Took a while for me to do this one but finished it unaided. I had yuri for 61 obiter for a while (Gagarin did go up in 61) which slowed me down on the Southern third. Great advice from Robert about how to solve. When I frist looked at this I just knew I would need google. But, after 45 minutes of plugging away I (pretty much the way Robert described it)had a lot more than I would have predicted. A nice challenge.

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