Thursday, December 14, 2006

Solving time: unknown

THEME: "FSH" (69A) - WHAT DOES ONE CALL (17A) A FISH WITH NO EYES (28A)? FOR THE ANSWER SEE (46A) SIXTY-NINE ACROSS (60A). . .

This puzzle has 4 X's. As for the theme - it's not really my style. I especially don't like puzzle fill that is essentially directions, although I have to say, working the instructions for solving the riddle into the grid itself stands out as a remarkable and impressive constructing feat. The little SE corner, site of the "riddle's" answer, was the very last thing to fall - in fact, I was very frustrated, staring at it for a good long while before I changed an answer I'd been sure of and the whole corner fell into place. I've learned good, humbling lessons lately about my own solving certainty. When you've exhausted all other options, change what you "know" to be right.

Here, the answer to the riddle was the obvious FSH. I say obvious because it was the first thing to cross my mind when I saw the whole riddle laid out ... and Yet! Yet! I was "certain" that 58D: A lot of Eurasia, once: Abbr. (SSRS) was USSR, which put an "R" in the second position of the riddle answer (69A), which made me think, "well, good, at least the answer's not as obvious as FSH." Crossing obscurities in this SE corner did Not help me: 56A: Wagner heroine _____ of Brabant (Elsa) runs into 59D: Writer Sholem (Asch) at the "A"- as I'd heard of neither of them, and neither of their names is particularly common, I was in trouble. Didn't help that ELSA had an erroneous "U" in it for a while. Actually, the way I finally got this corner was to rethink 66A: Penciled-in eyebrow, e.g. (arc) from scratch, without the (again, erroneous) "S" in the middle position. Seemed like a clue I should get. Tested ARC, then saw the possibility of SSRS rather than USSR, and ta da.

20A: Diva _____ Te Kanawa (Kiri)
21A: Tic-tac-toe loser (XOO)
22A: Line on which y=0 (X axis)

A very great complete horizontal line of the grid. 3 of the 4 X's, plus the K. Nice. Feels like the puzzle is returning to opera with a vengeance lately, but that may just be coincidence. Crosswords have always loved opera (much to my opera-ignorant chagrin). "Opera" used to be the definitive Rex-Doesn't-Know-It category in any trivia game, esp Jeopardy. I'd see "Opera" and think "well I'm dead." "What is ... the fat lady sings?" KIRI Te Kanawa is a Kiwi, so I have a spousal obligation to mention her. "Tic-tac-toe loser" is pretty much crutch fill, but when you put it in this se-X-y context, it seems quite permissible. X-AXIS returns ... right? We just had this answer in plural (X-AXES) - wait, those might have been Y-AXES. Don't remember. Yes, Y-AXES. I remember someone's comment, somewhere, that he didn't know what a YAX was. Awesome.

23A: Start of Massachusetts' motto (Ense)

This is a new Latin word to me. Means "by the sword," apparently, as Massachusetts's motto reads thusly: "Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem" - (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty) [not my translation]. Massachusetts remains the hardest state to spell, by far. No matter what you type, it looks wrong.

29D: Page in an account book (folio)

Muffed this one and ruined the "Oregon" portion of the grid for a while. Off of the "L" from 38A: Lena of "Polish Wedding" (Olin), I entered SALES. Two other initially wrong entries in this region held me up. Had TIES TO instead of TIES IN at 18D: Connects, and TEE instead of LIE at 42A: Golfer's concern. Then there was the entry that I flat out didn't know: 28D: _____ von Baeyer, 1905 Chemistry Nobelist (Adolf). Even with the Pantheon-tastic ICIER (30D: More treacherous in the winter) slicing right through this region, it took me some time to work out.

2D: Like some educ. publishing (El-Hi)
9D: Poetic contraction (e'en)
33D: Ed Sullivan, e.g. (emcee)
51D: Attention-getter (psst!)

Speaking of Pantheon-tastic, here we see last-minute bids to get on the ballot from some very worthy entries. Add the aforementioned SSRS and ICIER, and you can really see the density of crosswordese. Yet nothing seems particularly egregious. EL-HI is my least favorite of the bunch, for no particular reason.

3D: Shakespeare's "very foolish fond old man" (Lear)
6D: Anna's lover in "Anna Karenina" (Alexei)

Mmmm, two of the greatest works of literature ever written (no hyperbole). Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel of all time ... and Still ALEXEI was not a gimme. I was like "Oh, I can see him, he's young and hot ... dammit!" ALEXEI was quite a SMOOTHIE (8D: Glib romancer), back when that word meant a smooth-talker and not, as it does now, a yogurt-and-juice drink. LEAR, like Anna, loses his mind a bit and spirals downward into a kind of madness. I'm trying to reverse the depressing turn this entry has taken, but it's hard to end on an up note when one of the characters you're writing about ends up alone after the death of his beloved daughter, and the other throws herself under a train.

49A: Dugout shelter (abri)

Wow. Really really didn't know this. Sounds like some rare crosswordese that long-time solvers have some familiarity with, but short-time solvers (which I still consider myself) will just stare at blankly. But I think that's the last of the truly troubling fill (beyond what I already mentioned). All the crosses were easy to confirm, so no harm done. I am almost certain to forget this word, ABRI, possibly by the time I finish writing this entry.

55D: Swenson of "Benson" (Inga)

Yes. Yes, this answer I like. I haven't seen or even thought about Inga Swenson, aka Gretchen Kraus, the stern housekeeper in the Governor's mansion on TV's "Benson," for about 20 years, I think. Ever since "Benson" went off the air. This show should be in syndication more. It was a staple of my 80's childhood, in that weird period when the sitcom was kind of dead: "M*A*S*H" and "Happy Days" were aging, "MTM" and "Rhoda" and other great 70s shows were gone, and Cosby hadn't come along and resuscitated the genre yet. Very innocuous stuff, "Benson," but fun. Now that I look at it, "Benson" is basically the primary precursor to Michael J. Fox's 1990s sitcom hit "Spin City," only replace the governor with a mayor and replace Robert Guillaume with Michael J. Fox and then replace the Governor's mansion with city hall. Robert Guillaume is beloved to me for two reasons. First, his work on "Sports Night," which I loved despite its high degree of mockability. Second, he cut a record or two in his youth, one of which I own (a gift from Andrew). Where is a picture... Oh Yeah, here we go. This rules!
Great packaging! You gotta love the little inset of Guillaume as Benson inside the "O" in "BOB" - "BOB," HA ha. Guess that hip moniker, like Bob's music career, didn't really take.

Unknown

I had a huge crush on Robert Guillaume in Benson. Might've started when that character originated on Soap...

Rex Parker

He's not unhandsome.

Unknown

And that character was always the smartest person in the room—which tends to be hawt.

Anonymous

I detest these puzzles with a running commentary that is purely arbitrary. I don't like the long quote ones either, but at least one has a prayer of cracking the code at some point. Bleah.

Anonymous

Hi Rex,

Nice page... I enjoyed the clue references. I can usually get through a Thursday, but got desperate on the bottom right corner and found you by Googling the Wagner heroine question (Googling is my way of giving up). I'm in SW Washington doing the six week late version found in The Oregonian.

Linda G

This one stumped me in several areas. I did much better with today's puzzle. Note to Anon: Googling is NOT giving up. It merely helps us find things we didn't know otherwise (thus a valuable learning tool). After the mind is refreshed -- and the puzzle, as well -- there's the possibility of finishing it. Sometimes I even remember what I've learned : )

Rex Parker

I have had more hits from Google searches for that Wagner heroine than from any other search, ever, in the history of this site. Over 3100 unique users have visited the site today, and I'd say well over a third of them came looking specifically for that answer. Crazy. I guess American shared my blindspot on that one.

RP

Anonymous

Glad to hear we're not the only ones who had trouble with the lower right-hand corner. We knew the answer to the riddle had to be "FSH," but couldn't figure out how to make that work with "USSR" until we pluralized (is this a word?) it!

Enjoyed your blog after reaching it with the "wagner heroine brabant" google...

Anonymous

fyi, saw your page after searching for Wagner heroine "of Brabant" after getting more specific with Google than just Wagner Brabant, only visited the site after checking the OED for abri, ajri, bri and jri, and afterwards found abri on the mot du jour website, but I digress, I was really just curious what you meant by the "Oregon" portion of the grid (as I was solving in Portland and it was less than obvious to me what you could be referring to, although after looking at a crossword for the better part of an hour simple concepts sometimes elude me.) For instance, how is icier more treacherous in the winter? That one became pretty obvious from the crosses but I didn't like the clue, streets can be more treacherous in the winter, icier is more of a winter street condition. And is it really kosher not to give any help on a foreign word like abri on a Thursday? Dammit Shortz!

Rex Parker

If the grid were a map of the US, FOLIO would be in Oregon ... and a little bit in CA, too, I supposed.

"More treacherous" is synonymous with ICIER. The streets were "more treacherous" in the winter. The streets were ICIER in the winter. Works for me.

ABRI was totally unfair, it's true.

RP

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