Monday, February 18, 2008
Relative difficulty: Challenging
THEME: LEFT-ists - theme phrases all start with words that are (supposed to be) synonyms for non-conservative political affiliations
Well, for those of you who were expecting a higher-than-166th-place finish from me at the upcoming American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I have a bad omen to report. That omen is today's puzzle, which I tanked like I have not tanked a Monday puzzle since I began blogging. Lately my times have been in the low 3's. Today, high 6's. I couldn't get serious traction to save my life. None of the long phrases made any kind of sense to me, and the NW ... well, I actually had a mini-free-fall up there, where a Horrible baseball clue threw me off completely. Sometimes, knowing too much about a subject can, it seems, hurt you. So I rated this puzzle "Challenging." And yet I doubt other people had anything like the trouble I did. Times at the NYT site seemed normal enough. And I really like Lynn Lempel's puzzles, generally, and don't want to rip into it just because I sucked as a solver. So I'll just tell you where the wheels came off, and try to whine as little as possible.
My underlying problem was with the theme - not just that I couldn't see it, but that the phrases felt far outside the language. I mean, they are phrases one might use, but they don't seem very strong as self-standing phrases. Not xword-worthy. To my ears. Let's start with 17A: Free health and dental care, and then some (Liberal benefits). Frowny face, I say. So Frowny, in fact, that I had -I-E-ALBENEFITS and couldn't figure out what the hell it was. That's the NW corner that's so bullet-ridden there where LIBERAL is supposed to be - more on that later. Then there's 25A: Math symbol for extraction of a root (radical sign), which is really high-end for a Monday. The SIGN part was, for no clear reason, slow in coming. [symbol] for SIGN = kind of anti-climactic. LEFT HANGING (45A: In limbo), which a crossword blogger who shall remain nameless cited (to me) as the iffiest of the bunch, was actually the theme answer I got most readily. Then there was PROGRESSIVE LENS (57A: Eyeglass option for different distances), which I have never heard of. Or, rather, I think I have heard of, but not as clued. My idea was that PROGRESSIVE LENSes were the kind that got darker in sunlight. So, the whole theme just tortured me. On a Monday, if I stumble, I expect to move a little to one side and pick it up again. Not today.
Another thing about the theme: RADICAL does not belong in here. A RADICAL can be right just as well as he can be left. In fact, "the RADICAL right" feels like a much more in-the-language phrase than anything currently associating that word with the LEFT. Further, the whole idea that politics can be effectively understood in terms of right and left is a Lie that the entire world seems quite content to perpetuate because it suits our outmoded Dem v. Rep binary system so well. But this is not the place for that discussion. Probably.
Then there's the specific problem of the NW, and the answer that is really the linchpin of my catastrophic experience: 1D: Pitcher's faux pitch (balk). I follow baseball. You might say I'm a fan. See my earliest write-ups, where I'm out-of-my-mind excited about the Tigers, or this past fall's write-ups, where I can barely refrain from gushing about the Red Sox (whom I've rooted for since Roger Clemens's rookie season, back when becoming a lying steroids-user was probably the furthest thing from his mind). I know what a BALK is. It is not a pitch, and not a "faux pitch." A BALK is a ruling by an umpire on a pitcher's actions, one of which might be any number of feints. The list of balkable actions is long. This is all to say that faking a pitch is not a balk. Pitchers fake runners out all the time (especially lefties trying to keep a man on first) by pretending to start their pitching motions but then not moving toward home but instead stepping and throwing toward first. That is not a balk. To call a "balk" a pitcher's "faux pitch" is absolutely absurd. Makes it sounds like it's something he's got in his repertoire, whereas it's a ruling *about* the pitcher's actions. Many "faux pitches" are not balks at all - in fact, none of them are inherently balks. They have to be ruled as such. It is not a pitch, and it does not belong to the pitcher, the way the clue suggests. I had PALM here, thinking that maybe the pitcher has PALMED the ball (pretended not to have it) and then somehow used that deceit ... to do something. You can see that I was desperate.
The one mystery of the NW, to me, was why I never wrote in BABY at 3D: One often needing a change. When I read that clue, it's the first thing that pops up (not @#$#$#ing BOBS UP - 1A: Bounce to the suface). Who knows what happens to one's brain mid-solve. I think the frustration over BALK colored the whole puzzle experience for me.
- 34A: Entree in a bowl with beef or lamb, say (meat stew) - this is a crossword-worthy phrase? Don't most stews have meat? I expect my longish answers to be far less arbitrary-seeming than this. I think the word MEAT is just rubbing me the wrong way. Perhaps something to do with yesterday's beef recall and the infernal treatment of the cattle in those videos (and in general, frankly).
- 39A: "Hey, come back a bit" ("not so far") - the longish counterpart to MEAT STEW. This is terrible. I was befuddled that NOT SO FAST (an actual phrase) would not fit. The arbitrariness of these two important, anchor answers is very disappointing.
- 42A: Enter en masse (pour in) - not sure why, but it feels off. The more I think on it, the more acceptable it seems, though, so I'll just leave it.
- 5D: "Couldn't be better!" ("Perfect!") - file this with "NOT SO FAR" under "Colloquialisms I Could Not Retrieve."
- 7D: Ear or leaf part (lobe) - wrote this in, but the "leaf" part made my answer feel very iffy.
- 8D: Four Corners area Indians (Utes) - this was OTOE, then OTOS. If I'd been thinking about geography very clearly, I wouldn't have made this mistake.
- 6D: Pertaining to a son or daughter (filial) - more idiocy on my part. I teach about FILIAL piety every @#$# year when I teach the Aeneid, and still this word would not budge. I blame FLUB (6A: Botch).
- 13D: Move skyward (rise) - SOAR is the much, much better answer here, as it actually has associations with the "sky," whereas RISE is banal and generic and describes the action of bread more aptly than it describes what a plane or bird does.
- 23D: Bygone Italian coins (liras) - wrote it in quickly, while cringing. Is that really the plural?
- 25D: Monsoon occurrences (rains) - I thought RAINS were part of "monsoons." I didn't know RAINS were a separate "occurrence." Well, it appears that a "monsoon" is just a seasonal prevailing wind. So ... there. Now I know.
- 42D: Home viewing for a price (pay TV) - completely befuddling. I was trying to imagine a situation where you would pay to have a realtor show you a home. Why would you do that? Terrible phrasing on the clue. Or maybe it's Wednesday or Thursday phrasing, and that's what's bugging me.
- 51D: Cries after being burned (yows) - one more thing to groan at.
There's a nice Russia subtheme here, with LENIN, ASIA, and TSAR. There, I said something vaguely positive. I feel better.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld