SATURDAY, Mar. 17, 2007 - John Farmer

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Solving time: long-ish
THEME: none

One of the hardest puzzles in recent memory. When I'd finished, I had four squares circled as possible mistakes. Irony: I had one mistake, and it was Not a square I'd circled. Ugh. Even Saturdays should not have to go to morbid obscurity for more than a couple answers, at most. This puzzle went there a Lot. A very Maleskan grid, with very little post-Carter administration fill. It may sound like I had no fun, but that's not true. The whole thing was a nice mixture of struggle and success - I'm just not used to finishing a puzzle with So Much grid uncertainty. So I'll start with the stealth square that did me in, and then work through other thorny bits, ending with what was freshest and coolest.

10D: Aviation entrepreneur Sir Freddie _____ (Laker)
18A: Olympic skating champion between Kristi and Tara (Oksana)

The latter was a near-gimme. I had the "A"s in place and I knew the answer. Sadly, I apparently did not know how to spell the answer. I was certain that OKSANA had an "X" in her name, and so I didn't blink at all at the spelling OXSANA. I just thought "Yes, the "S" is redundant, but ... it's foreign, so spelling / schmelling." As for Mr. LAKER, the clue itself basically screamed "HA ha, you do NOT know this." The very phrase "Sir Freddie" makes me laugh. I had LAXER for his last name. Since LAX is the airport code for L.A. Int's Airport, I had at least a very thin connection to aviation there.

49A: Packhorse or mule (sumpter)
40D: Strong Greek wine (retsina)

Flat-out cruelty. I mean, this is Saturday crotch-kicking at its purest. I am strangely not furious, mainly because they are both words in the dictionary, and they aren't clued badly. Plus I guessed that "T" at their intersection correctly, so how mad can I be? I did have "S" there for a good long while, because RESSINA sounded So Much More Reasonable. But SUMPSER ... I could not take that "word" seriously, so eventually I took the risk on RETSINA and it paid off. I always thought that when Certs breath mints advertised that their special ingredient was "RETSIN," they were just yanking my chain. Sounded completely made-up. But now I know that RETSIN is derived from a semi-obscure Greek wine. Live and learn. (It's actually spelled RETSYN, I guess, and its ingredients can be found here)

35A: One of four in mythology: Abbr. (syl.)
37D: French astronomer who wrote the seminal "Celestial Mechanics" (Laplace)

This intersection pretty much had to be an "L," but o my god what the hell??? I have a little experience with mythology, but as of right now, SYL = a mystery to me. SYLPHS? SYLVANS? OK, it just dawned on me that it's short for SYLLABLE (as in "the word 'mythology' has four syllables"), and I am going to Super-Challenge. First, go here, and see that that is not listed as an option for that abbreviation. I can see from various sites that it has some currency in linguistics. The one "L" seems wrong wrong wrong. Just grating and annoying, this clue. Way worse than SUMPTER / RETSINA, in that it's cheap. Oh, I almost forgot: Pierre-Simon LAPLACE. Uh, yeah. He's a French mathematician and astronomer. Andrew or maybe Byron can explain why I should care.

24A: Plays out (unreels)

The "R" made me uneasy. I am imagining reel-to-reel tape or film of some kind. I don't think I've ever seen this word or could use it in a sentence. The "R" was the part of Freddie LAXER's name that I thought I might have wrong. Turns out it was the "X."

OK, that's all the negative stuff I have to say about this puzzle. The good stuff:

47A: "Hair of the dog" alternative (aspirin) - the answer's kinda blah, but the clue rules

45A: Tolstoy's "Voyna i _____" (Mir) - I don't know Russian, but figured this had to be the Russian equivalent of "War and _____." If it weren't for the very famous Space Station, this clue would be totally unfair.

2D: Magazine of the National Space Society (Ad Astra) - I swear to you that, despite never having heard of it, I got this answer with just the "D" in place. Seriously, one of the most amazing, out-of-body, where-the-hell-did-that-come-from serendipitous moments in my history of solving. I hadn't even seen the companion clue 4D: Like 2-Down: Abbr. (Lat.) yet! The NW would have been a Lot harder, I think, were it not for this bit of good fortune. I was also substantially aided by my mother's bookshelf, which is the only reason that 15A: Masters of verse (Edgar Lee) was a gimme for me. I can still see that cheap paperback, for some reason. Of course, I never read it, but now I can almost feel as if I have. The NW actually has two sets of companion clues in the NW: the aforementioned Latin stuff, and then 17A: Bars on bases (canteens) paired with 19A: Operator of 17-Across, for short (USO). CANTEENS took me too long (I was playing episodes of "M*A*S*H" in my head over and over trying to see if any character would just say the damned word!), but USO helped me confirm my miraculous guess of AD ASTRA, for which I thank it. Lastly for the NW, I have never heard of, and like, the term RAILBIRD (1A: Racetrack habitué). If it's obscure, it should at least be inferrable or make sense, and this answer does. 28A: Sophia Loren/Paul Newman comedy, 1965 (Lady L) was a cheap shot - as far as I was concerned, that "L" could have been Any Letter - but the very gettable cross, 5D: Line delivered before lines are delivered ("break a leg") made everything OK.

The NE was mostly uneventful (except for the OXSANA / OKSANA debacle), but it is the home of my first correct answer - ALBUMS (9A: They have many cuts, typically - a nice clue). This made a lot of the Down crosses in the NE quite easy. In retrospect, I was surprised how long it took for me to get 16A: "The Night Listener" novelist (Maupin). If this guy had been clued as "Tales of the City" novelist, I would have made short work of him. The "Tales of the City" novels were super popular among many of my friends in college, back in "the day." Back when I used to actually read from time to time (now I just fake it).

50A: Seniors (golden-agers)
20A: An old secretary might sit in one (antique shop)

Like the rotational symmetry of this geriatric and faux-geriatric clue pairing!

Normally not exceedingly fond of the "?" clues, but this grid had some choice ones, including

  • 42D: Potter's field (sorcery) - Harry Potter clues on back-to-back days. This isn't part of some promotional campaign for the upcoming release of the 7th and final book in the series, is it?
  • 58A: Critic with an opposable thumb? (Roeper) - this guy's kind of a tool, but nice cluing anyway
  • 32A: Result of running off? (xerox copy) - I was fortunate in that the first time I ever looked at this clue, I already had the two "X"s in place!
  • 26D: One working on a canvas? (boxer)
  • 57A: Roast ingredient? (one-liner) - the worst of them, and yet still pretty good
"BOLERO is not an opera... is it?" No, it's not, but the clue is misleading, as the "Opera" of 46A: Paris Opera debut of 1928 refers simply to the building - the Paris Opera House. I don't care how cliché it is or how mucked up its legacy is by association with Bo Derek: I Love "Bolero." I am not a big fan of Alfred MOLINA (29D: Actor Alfred of stage and screen) - bit of a ham - but I was super-pleased with myself to get his name very quickly. Lastly, as three-E words go, I much prefer REESE (48D: Her "Don't You Know" was a #1 R & B hit) to the odd-looking GELEE (38A: Pomade alternative). Della REESE was an accomplished singer and actress who went on to wider ... uh, fame? ... in TV's "Touched by an Angel." My favorite Della REESE moment (and everyone has one ... am I right?) is her cameo appearance in the abominable yet hilarious 1975 revenge non-thriller Psychic Killer. She gives an equally marginal character - a racist butcher! - quite a tongue-lashing. It is, By Far, the best part of that movie, and lasts all of two minutes, tops.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


DONALD 11:22 AM  

Dead on, King of CrossWorld!

Anonymous 11:24 AM  

Yeah. This was a hard one.

I initially put in Boot Hill for Dead center, but of course had to take it out since only Epsom salt fit. And I kept insisting Serbs for Serfs.

Had refusal for a long time instead of recusal.

Edgar Lee was easy, but Bolero drove me nuts.

Sumpter for packhorse and mule--didn't know. So that's where the name Ft. Sumpter came from?

Anyway, the puzzle chewed up an otherwise dreary, gray, sleety morning.

Alex S. 11:37 AM  

Well, you unlocked the puzzle for me.

I got through the top half without much issue but the bottom half was mostly a barren wasteland so I was waiting for your post to give me a couple words. All it too was one and then I finished the puzzle in a few minutes.

That word was SYL because it showed me that IM SORRY ("what a politician often avoids saying") was wrong. IMSORRY correctly worked with ASPIRIN and GRACED so it was locked in hard.

Fixing that allowed me to see TEAM which allowed me to see MIDCAP which allowed me to see GOLDENAGERS and that was enough into the SE for it to quickly fall.

MAUPIN was easy for me because last year I had to review the mostly pretty bad movie version of The Night Listener starring Robin Williams.

Rex Parker 11:57 AM  

The "Emancipation" part of the clue told me SERFS, although part of me though "no, that's too easy."

A Robin Williams movie!? Scary.

I like seeing the wrong answers other people stumble into - I'M SORRY is a great one, esp considering it shares -SOR- with the right answer.


Anonymous 12:10 PM  

46A is not really misleading, just a misdirection, right?, since the "Opera" is capitalized. I actually liked that clue.
10D (FYI) Sir Freddie Laker was the founder of Laker Airways, sort of a precursor to Virgin Air, but his company went bust in one of the biggest corporate failures in British history.
42D Potter's field threw me for a long time, since I couldn't get away from It's A Wonderful Life.

Rex Parker 12:15 PM  

Not sure where the line is between "misleading" and "misdirective," but OK. Yes, Opera is capitalized, but still, even so, it suggests that Operas are performed there (which I'm sure they are). I had BOLERO right away but wouldn't write it in until I had about 4 letters because I figured it had to be wrong.

I was prepped for Harry Potter clues by yesterday's RITA Skeeter clue.

No pi(e) in today's grid - first time since Tuesday!


Anonymous 12:25 PM  

"RP" --

Re: your comments on CEMETERY/MORTUARY from Crosswordfiend -- agreed. "SEE NO" was obvious... but "CEMETERY" was the only eight letter answer I could think of on the bottom for awhile, so "SEE NO" disappeared until "MORTUARY" came to mind. C'est la vie.

My first time commenting on your blog, but I've read it often and frequently get a chuckle. I look forward to meeting you in Stamford next weekend.

Anonymous 12:31 PM  

I actually did pretty well with this one but I do think that "Winked at" is a poor clue for IGNORED. I get that it suggests a short span of attention but my take on it is it's not a wink unless you're trying to get someone's attention in which case you're certainly not ignoring someone.


Anonymous 12:37 PM  


I am still trying to turn SYL into something sylvan, but the 4 winds (on which I was counting) are not really connected to air, water, woodlands, etc. Oh well.

I hate to tell you that Ravel didn't even like his own "Bolero."

ASPIRIN was the first answer I filled in. But like Alex yesterday, I sometimes find it hard to believe the "easy" answers on a Friday or Saturday. I didn't believe in ARENAS or GELEE until I had to admit that nothing more complicated fit there.

I liked the way XEROX COPY, right in the middle of the puzzle, complemented the likewise double-X'ed EXTRA MARITAL SEX from Friday. A different kind of running off, indeed!

See all you crossword fiends on Friday.

Rex Parker 12:37 PM  

IGNORED, like BOLERO, was an answer I just couldn't bring myself to put in until there were just no other options. I had IGNO- and was still hunting for alternatives...

Anonymous 12:42 PM  


I think "winked at" really can mean ignored, as in seeing a problem and deliberately choosing to do nothing about it. Like, say...pollutants or something.

Sorry, I didn't check to be sure, but it was a familiar expression to me.

Orange 12:45 PM  

You just fake it? I thought you were working your way through a list of the best 100 novels.

Retsyn contains hydrogenated cottonseed oil? Wikipedia tells me that's what Crisco used to be made of. Trans fats in Certs!

Orange 12:51 PM  

Remember how Dick Cheney didn't get arrested for shooting his friend in the face? The local authorities winked at it, didn't they? Not so much as a slap on the wrist.

BOLERO reminds me: saw a commercial for a kids' movie featuring a scruffy dog. At one point, the dog meets an Afghan hound (or similar dog), and the Afghan's long hair (on the head only) is in cornrows, and she shakes her braids a la Bo Derek in Ten.

Anonymous 2:25 PM  

Brain like cold motor oil this morning. I find that on Saturdays I am very unwilling to guess at answers unless I'm very certain of myself, or at least have a guidepost crossing letter. (I do them in ink because I like the feeling.) So I had only two answers - SEE NO and MAUPIN - before resorting to research to establish a few other things. (I couldn't even divine DESI, for God's sake!) This is why I won't be joining you at the tourney next weekend. It's too soon (sob). But can we expect to hear from you nonetheless? Will you do the day's puzzle as well or wait til you get home? I'm going to send away for the puzzles so that I can get a feel of what goes on, and hope that next year I'll be vastly improved.

Anonymous 2:29 PM  

We seem to be in another of those periods where WS is ratcheting up the general level of difficulty. Wednesday was the hardest puzzle, by a lot, that I've ever seen for that day in both obscurity and trickiness. Friday was, I thought, utterly impossible. That's until I encountered today's, on which I made no serious headway for about an hour and then tried to google for the French astronomer (got LAGRANGE but no LAPLACE). Other googles brought in a few bits and pieces, but I finally had to resort to Amy's blog, and even with that it was a struggle all the way and not much fun.

I thought the "opposable thumb" clue was way over the line (it doesn't really parse), and the other really hard parts were all clustered together (NE and SE), making the thing just impenetrable, even with copious googling.

Kevin Der 2:35 PM  

Pierre-Simon LAPLACE (37-Down) was an important mathematician as well as astronomer. He has left his namesake on concepts such as the Laplace transform (crucial to many branches of math and physics) as well as the Laplacian operator, which is of utmost importance in differential geometry and calculus.

Kevin Der 2:38 PM  

I had trouble in the SW by initially putting FOURTH YEARS / SHUFFLE instead of GOLDEN AGERS / STAGGER ...

Anonymous 3:29 PM  


I am certain that I will absolutely BOMB at the tourney, but I'm going anyway. I just think it will be fun to meet other puzzle nerds and to try, at least on the easier ones, to do the best I can. I keep telling myself that there will be others as slow as I am (hopefully even slower, so that I don't totally disgrace myself).

Crossword puzzles are the most fun thing I've discovered recently, and it seems that crossword people are pretty cool, too. And, of course, one learns so much while doing them.

Plus I hope to meet Rex and Amy and Linda G and some of the others and attach faces to these amazing puzzle solvers/blogsters.

BTW, I really liked the "opposable thumb" clue. I immediately thought of chimpanzees (!) and secondarily, Siskel and Ebert. My problem was in not remembering Siskel's replacement's name. Must watch more TV!

Rex Parker 4:05 PM  

If your primary point of comparison is violists, then yes, I'm sure crossword people do seem pretty cool. :)

Seriously, it will be great to meet (several of) you in less than one week's time. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have never met another person from the world of crosswords, in person, ever. My presence in that world thus far is entirely virtual. I'm the Max Headroom of the crossword world.


Howard B 4:59 PM  

Went to the tourney last year on a bit of a lark, for the experience of meeting others - I'm back this year, so it must've been a pretty enjoyable experience.

Don't worry much about performance and exact times, honestly - there's going to be a few people there that are going to floor you with how fast they're out the door upon solving the puzzles. There will be many more who will be solving and struggling in the same places, and either way, nobody there judges anyone based on what division they're in, or people's fastest times. At least that's the impression I got. I found I solved much, much better there when I decided early on that my results didn't matter as much as the experience, so I wouldn't end up clock-watching and worrying myself. And that's my advice for the week :).

Anonymous 5:10 PM  

Howard, thanks for the advice! Will hope to meet you there!


Orange 5:19 PM  

Look at last year's standings to see the spread of scores. There are people who finish in a matter of minutes, people who take a few minutes longer than them, people who finish most of the puzzles within the time limit, people who don't finish the hard puzzles correctly, and (presumably) people who have incomplete or wrong solutions on all seven puzzles. Some people come to support a loved one and try the crosswords for the hell of it. But most everyone has a good time.

Anonymous 5:36 PM  

Wow, nearly 500 people! I guess it's not the time element that's the issue for me, because solving fast doesn't necessarily drive my interest in this. It's just that, without the safety net of google, I picture myself sitting there helplessly when I've exhausted my knowledge on any given puzzle. I'm getting *better* at fathoming answers without any outright knowledge, but for the most part, I'm not that proficient at clawing answers out of my brain with nothing to trigger the answer.

Anonymous 5:37 PM  

Sorry, that "anonymous" just now was me; I hit the wrong key.

Rex Parker 5:43 PM  

Look, if anyone has a right to be anxious about DYING at the tournament, it's me. Or "I," I guess, grammatically speaking.

"I thought he was supposed to know something about puzzles..." "Pretty poor excuse for a 'King,' I'd say..." Etc.

And yet I'm not really anxious at all. If I tank - well, I'll have a glorious tale for this blog, and it won't be too hard to improve the following year.

Everyone should GO, especially beginning to intermediate solvers - if only to provide a buffer between me and the Bottom. It's the least you could do for me, honestly.


Anonymous 5:54 PM  

Linda G here -- saving precious seconds by avoiding a sign-in.

Kick-ass puzzle, as in it really kicked mine. A few hints from you, Rex, and I managed to finish it.

Ultra Vi -- I'm so touched that you included me in your list! I won't be there this year (long way from Colorado) but I'm definitely planning next year. I have family in Hartford and have long wanted a reason to head that direction.

Good luck to all of you who are going. You'll all be in my thoughts. Rex, will you be doing your blog from there? I think someone asked, but I don't think you answered.

Anonymous 5:56 PM  

Rex, I shall be happy to end up beneath you. the standings, I mean!

Now on to Ravel, and NOT Bolero. I've got a performance of his string quartet in two hours!

Anonymous 7:52 PM  

A fisherman might play out (unreel) his line before reeling in his catch.

Good luck at the tournament, everyone.

DONALD 1:08 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
DONALD 1:09 AM  

Pie is back Sunday!

40 D -- EASYASPIE (Simple)

Anonymous 2:26 AM  

I was on a cruies and had a chance to do this puzzle earlier than the six week delay and yes it was a hard one. I actually got it with no googling with one age related error. For Potter's field I went with Col. Potter from MASH (which I never missed during the original TV run) whose field was surgery. Surgery is close enough to sorcery (I've seen the Potter movies but have not read the books) so that I got almost all of SE. I kinda knew that the french didnt spell bolero with a U and that a flash probably wasnt a seg but I was stuck on surgery. Ah well!

Anonymous 11:51 PM  

Me again, That first line should read "I was on a cruise..."

Anonymous 11:11 AM  

Pomade alternative: Well, I know what Johnny Carson would have said...
Seriously, this is the first thing that came to mind. And while being fluent in French is often helpful, sometimes (this is one of those times), it's more of a hindrance because, in France, gélée can be a lot of things, but what you put in your hair to give yourself the Tin-Tin look is simply "gel."
I thought the clue to 47A was looking for another way to say "hair of the dog." But yeah, I guess that's right. You can take a shot of vodka or you can take aspirin...or, if you're drinking in the morning, you might want to seriously consider giving up drinking altogether...
(And if you google Dippity-Do, one of the first hits is Dippity-Do Dog! Now there's a hair gel of the dog alternative!)
p.s. If I can swing a trip to the tournament next year, I want to sit by Ultra Vi. I think we're in a similar league when it comes to solving speed...

Anonymous 11:19 AM  

Wow, David Quarfoot, 263rd. That's amazing.
And isn't Amy Reynaldo Orange's real name? Fifth. That's another kind of amazing.

Anonymous 4:34 PM  

Checking in late. The teapot was empty before I finished this puzzle this morning. I did complete it with no outside help, though I left it in frustration a few times. Funny how you seem to come back with new perspectives after a time. I did google M. LAPLACE, to check. (Celestial mechanics is one of those things I rely on others to figure out for me :)

Rex, you and I would make a good solving team, I think. Our strengths/weaknesses seem complimentary: RAILBIRD, LAKER, and RETSINA were gimmes for me.

The north didn't take too long, but until XEROXCOPY jumped out at me, I was lost in the south.

Of course, I had CEMETARY for a while, but wasn't married to it. BURGER just seemed too obvious.

I totally disagree with Bluestarter about the "opposable thumbs" clue...thought it was brilliant. My only quibble was with "winked at"; I was picturing myself looking across the room at a beautiful woman. I feel better about it after reading Orange's Cheney comment.

All in all this puzzle was right up there in the top tenth percentile IMNSHO.

Anonymous 11:14 AM  

Interesting to see the various perspectives on this one; it was more a challenge than "hard" for me, but I guess that all depends on what you know going in.

I fairly sailed through the NE and NW, completed the SE after deducing EPSOMSALT, getting beyond CERAMIC when the initial C wouldn't work, and accepting SUMPTER without knowing it as anything other than a fort involved in the start of the Civil War. The SW was where I stalled: once I realized REMINDTO was leading me astray, ROEPER and LAPLACE fell into, er, "la place."

Looking back, I think I somehow was prepared for the tricks implied by several clues ["an old secretary etc." and "roast ingredient"] and thus hit fewer walls than I normally do.

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