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