Lohengrin soprano / SUN 12-11-11 / Mario's dinosaur sidekick / Cactuslike plant of southwest / Vaquero's neckwear / Southern university whose campus is botanical garden

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Constructor: Timothy Polin

Relative difficulty: Challenging

THEME: "Taking Half-Steps" — rebus puzzle with "SHARP," "FLAT," or "NATURAL" found in 14 squares throughout the grid

 Word of the Day: OCOTILLO (119A: Cactuslike plant of the Southwest) —
n., pl., -los.
A cactuslike tree (Fouquieria splendens) of Mexico and the southwest United States, having clusters of scarlet tubular flowers.

[American Spanish, diminutive of ocote, a Mexican pine, from Nahuatl ocotl, pitch pine.]
• • •

I got pretty badly shredded by this one, though in retrospect my own denseness was as much to blame as the legitimate difficulty of the puzzle. It took me an Embarrassingly long time to associate the rebus with music. This was due primarily to my belief that 1A: Knives, forks and spoons must be [silver]WARE. Nevermind that I'd never heard of a [silver]TOP—as we all know, I've never heard of *lots* of things. Anyway, after that, even after running into what was obviously a [sharp] and even a [natural], I didn't think to go back and alter my understanding of 1A. I just plodded through the puzzle waiting for a pattern to emerge, and it was only after running into repeated [sharp]s that I realized I had all the rebus answers I'd ever have. I then played "which of these things is not like the other?" and [silver] lost. By this time I'd lost untold minutes roaming around an astonishingly patchy grid — cluing was pretty tough in general, and when you don't know where / what the rebus squares are, difficulty increases quite dramatically. Figuring out the music thing helped a lot, but I still finished with the worst time I've had since Kevin Der's Chinese zodiac puzzle last year ... or whenever that was. And yet I'm currently sitting at 6th on the leaderboard (!?!?!) and only 29 online solvers have managed to finish the puzzle in the first 90 minutes, so it looks like I'm not the only one getting battered. Good to know.

Theme answers:
  • OF LATE / FLATTERER (hardest one to get by Far—if you haven't figured out the theme yet) 
  • FLAT FEE / FLATTED NOTE (I do not like this— "flat" should not be allowed to come from music at all; for the sake of elegance and consistency, all rebus-containing answers should be *non*-music related) 
Aside from my difficulties simply grasping the damned theme, I had especial trouble with the Spanish corners of this thing—CORONADO (22A: Spanish conquistador who searched for the Seven Cities of Gold) was completely blocked to me because of my stupid blind belief in [I GOT a secret] and OCOTILLO was completely blocked to me because it's f&$*ing insane. Who knows that word!? Dear lord. I think the only reason ALETTE follows directly on the heels of OCOTILLO is to make OCOTILLO look reasonable by comparison. "Yeah, we know you're already mad about OCOTILLO, so we're just gonna give you ALETTE now and hope you get over it quickly." ALETTE ... man, that is up there among the stupidest things I've ever seen in the grid. I'd like to buy a vowel, please. Two, actually: O and U. Then I can make "ALOUETTE" and sing a nice French song to distract myself from the #&!@iness that is ALETTE.

  • 53A: Radiohead frontman Yorke (THOM) — it's him or McAN.
  • 63A: Southern university  whose campus is a botanical garden (ELON) — Thought this was UTEP, back when I thought the [Wrinkly-faced dogs] were PUGS.
  • 100A: Goddess with a headdress depicting a throne (ISIS) — daughter is neck-deep in Egyptiana right now. She sculpted and baked sarcophagi today. Somehow the discussion got on to the Bible. At one point, she actually asked my wife the question: "Who names their kid 'ESAU?'" Then I tried to tell her, and got my birthright / blessing stories all muddled up, and so handed her "Who's Who in The Bible" from my ref. shelf. Also handed her R. Crumb's faithful but graphic "Genesis." Yes, I'm going to hell, I know.
  • 15D: Vaquero's neckwear (BOLO) — total gimme, one that helped almost Not At All in that sticky NE corner.
  • 31D: 2005 biography subtitled "The Making of a Terrorist" (OSAMA) — See also [Cruel Ugandan] (AMIN). HITLER still M.I.A.

  • 34D: Repeated film title role for Jim Varney (ERNEST) — speaking of evil white guy ...
  • 54D: Shapes studied by Dr. Watson and his partner (HELICES) — HELIXES sounds better. And looks better. The Pluralizing Committee should really reconsider.
  • 59D: Letter after pee (KUE) — KUE ALETTE, gentille KUE ALETTE / KUE ALETTE, je te plumerai. 
  • 66D: Mario's dinosaur sidekick (YOSHI) — Me: "LUIGI was a dinosaur?" Needed all crosses.
  • 79D: Former Connecticut governor Jodi (RELL) — come on. When do we have to know "former" governors of small states? Never. Never. That's when. RELL ALETTE, gentille RELL ALETTE ...
  • 82D: "___ Andromeda" (British sci-fi series) ("A FOR") — no hope. British?! At least it's not "former British..." I guess. No, wait. It is.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld


foodie 12:18 AM  

Well, I was feeling really stupid because Saturday got an Easy rating from SanFranMan... but this Sunday puzzle helped my wounded self-esteem, mostly... I tumbled quickly to the Sharp and Flat rebus, but for some stupid reason did not consider Natural. It was possible to keep going for quite a while without getting that sorted out. Eventually, it came into focus. So, I'd put it at Medium for me.

I know that Watson with the HELICES. I've even published a paper with him. Very interesting man! Amazing to think how young he was when he and Crick figured out the structure of DNA.

I love the word LABILE and plunked it down with no hints.

In general, very cool concept, well executed! Almost a perfect work out for a Sunday puzzle.

Scott 12:21 AM  

I know OCOTILLO, but only because of Scrabble. It even came up on a study list today!

meta4 12:48 AM  

I caught on to the theme right away so came together nicely. It’s a pity the all those Sharps didn’t shout out to you sooner, Michael. I was happy to learn a new word today. I had no idea what sycophant meant... good to know but not likely to work its way into my vocabulary.

chefwen 2:00 AM  

Like @foodie fell into the flat and sharp right off with flat ware and flat top. Natural was just not going to appear for me and I ended up with one of the ugliest DNF Sunday puzzles EVAH! Can't remember a Sunday that I didn't finish. Sigh!

Favorite answer was 106A #objects, this klutz knows all about them.

jae 2:10 AM  

Got the rebus fairly early but this was still a tough solve and a DNF for me. I knew 84a was CAPEESH I just didn't know how to spell it. So, with an unknown governor and dinosaur as crosses I missed it by one square. Still an impressive puzzle.

Any reason for 5 SHARPS and FLATS but only 4 NATURALS? Unless of course I counted wrong.

Deb 2:45 AM  

Jae,, please don't accept that as the spelling of "Capiche.". I resisted filling that answer in even when it became obvious that's what it was because it' just a plain- assed ugly way of spelling it.

I hit on the full rebus right away, but still took an hour longer solving than I usually do on a Sunday. I blame that mostly on solving a puzzle for only the second time on my new iPad rather than on paper. Not sure if I'll pony up the seventeen bucks to continue the subscription after the free trial ends, but it's fun sitting at the grown-ups table instead of in the land of five-weeks-back for a change. (yoohoooo, Dirigonzo, can you hear me back here?)

Evan 2:55 AM  

I thought this puzzle was great. Just consider the marvel of its construction:

1. 28 theme answers, comprised, at least by my count, by 152 theme squares (!!). I think 90-110 theme squares is normal for a 21x21 grid.
2. Nearly all theme answers being fresh, in-the-language phrases or easily recognizable names (with NATURAL LAKE and FLATTED NOTE being arguably the toughest of the bunch to solve).
3. A fair number of Scrabbly letters (4 K's, 2 J's, 1 X, 2 Z's, and while there's no Q, there's at least a reference to it with KUE)
4. Having all of that while keeping a relatively low black square count for a Sunday (72) and several wide open spaces, like the stacks of 8-letter answers in the NE and SW corners.

This was one of those puzzles that, after I was finished, I felt mad that I didn't come up with it. To me, that's the real sign of a fun, enjoyable puzzle, and the fact that I thought it was executed so nicely made it even better.

Obviously, with a theme puzzle this ambitious, there will inevitably be some crap in there: Rex has already mentioned ALETTE and OCOTILLO, and there's TAVI, CIRRI, CTEAM, OSSE, and COLS. LEOVII is a legitimate historical entry but it was clearly forced fill, I personally hate how ART LOVER crosses ARTIER, and I feel like CAPEESH is a misspelled version of the real word. But having said all of that, the puzzle is such an inspired work that I can overlook those minor flaws.

Being a musical guy, I caught onto the theme very quickly, and might have finished with a better time if not for the fact that a) I wasn't expecting to see naturals along with sharps and flats in the gimmick, and b) I couldn't see my mistake with MOLES at 50-Across for quite a while. The theme pretty much cracked open for me at 6-Down. After I put in JANETS, I immediately suspected that the instrument was a JEW'S HARP. I just didn't know if the rebus was going to be a HARP, a SHARP, or.....a JEW. I'm surprised that Rex didn't put in a YouTube clip of someone playing a Jew's harp, so I'll do it for him.

Four stars for this puzzle. Bravo, Timothy Polin, on a fine debut to the NYT.

Evan 2:58 AM  

Oh, and hand up for thinking that 12-Down has an absolutely brilliant clue. I originally thought that "There's no foul play when one passes by these" was an obvious reference to baseball, i.e. it's not a foul ball when a runner passes by the bases. Figuring out NATURAL CAUSES was a real a-ha moment.

jae 3:39 AM  

@Deb -- I was actually looking for some version of CAPISCE. No way I was going to get to CAPEESH from there given my unknown crosses. "Assed ugly" as an excuse works for me. And, welcome to prime time.

Gareth Bain 5:22 AM  

My wrong initial guess at 1A was [TABLE]WARE...

Bob Kerfuffle 7:24 AM  

A fine Sunday puzzle (except maybe KUE - huh?).

[NATURAL]LAKE brings to mind a bit of trivia - How many natural lakes are there in Texas, one-time largest state in the USA? My previously certain answer was 1/2, with Caddo Lake being shared with Louisiana. Unfortunately for my certainty, I looked it up and there may be another, Big Lake, but that was only seasonally filled with water. Texans, what's the truth?

Glimmerglass 8:08 AM  

Challenging indeed. More challenging than the usual Sunday puzzle. This seemed to me like a long Thursday, and a pretty hard one at that. I learned the term "rebus crossword" here a couple of years ago, but this is the first "rebus" puzzle that actually fits my old-fashioned definition of a rebus (a picture used as a syllable in a word or phrase). Like Gareth, I started with Table in square #1. Like Rex, I object to 86D, in which the answer uses the rebus in its real sense. There was some awful fill (KUE was the worst, I thought), but this was a dandy Sunday.

Mary BR 8:13 AM  

I'd put this at medium for me. I had wanted NATURAL SELECTION (well, after evolution was to short) and HYPER INFLATION, and once I got enough crosses to fill in most of KEEP A _ LOOKOUT I could tell there had to be a rebus and puzzle title confirmed the theme.

ALETTE was a total guess, as was ELSA crossed with ILER. Guess I should know such crosswordy answers, but still annoying. For some reason RELL just popped immediately into my head and I put it down with confidence. I guess living in NYC some Connecticut politics rubbed off.

Ended with one error - had nIRRI, a holdover from when I had penciled in NIMBI (never could keep my clouds straight) and the obscure abbreviation crossing it never made me go back and fix.

OldCarFudd 8:20 AM  

I found this an unpleasant slog, although with a few high points. I caught on to the sharps and flats pretty early, but wasn't expecting (and didn't like) natural. I guess you have to have something to take a half-step from, but I still grumbled. It's unusual to be able to figure out a theme entry and then need it to suss the crosses. I say native habitat and native-born citizen, so those were hard although legitimate. I thought preternatural and Flat Earth Society were wonderful - since I own a steam car, I've been accused of belonging to the automotive branch of the Flat Earth Society.

A brilliant debut, but not a very fun solve.

Smitty 8:27 AM  

Ok I don't feel so bad for crawling across the finish line.
I got the theme pretty quickly but the fill was brutal and ugly at times. Why HYPERinflation? Why CAPEESH?
Didn't see CARD SHARPS at all (thought it was SHARKS)
C TEAM? Not real searchable on Google.
AHA moment goes to ALSO RAN

jberg 8:39 AM  

I got JANETS after only a few seconds of trying to fit "capitals" into 6A, and that gave me JEWSHARP and the theme - but like several others it took me some time to realize that a NATURAL also changes a note by a half step (since you wouldn't put a natural sign in unless it was already flatted or sharped). And since all the first rebus squares I got used the sign as the word, HYPERINFLATION and OF LATE were hard to see.

The ENE patch was the hardest for me, because 50A looked so much like it was going to be mOLES, which was so obviously wrong I didn't want to write it in. Took ages to think of VOLES, which then gave me fOrK out for 41D - but I finally saw RAZOR SHARP, and it all fell into place. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say SHARP SET, however - at least not in the sense clued. "Possible remark to John Coltrane" might have been better.

I thought NATURAL LAKE was OK given the clue, which rules out artificial ones.

Looked up ALETTE only to see that I didn't know what a jamb was - thought it was the bottom of the doorway, not the sides. Live and learn!

Pacha 8:40 AM  

I was really surprised at the difficulty rating, and the complaints about much of the puzzle. Then I realized why my take on the puzzle was different from Rex's: Rex actually does the whole puzzle. Sunday's are so much better if you do just enough to get the theme, fill half in, then go watch something actually interesting in your NetFlix queue. See, my way you only have to get past CORONADO, which doesn't look so bad when it's the only outlier.

Constructor Destructor 9:03 AM  

Good idea but not well executed, IMO. If you can't fill giant corners cleanly, make smaller corners!

JenCT 9:26 AM  

Wow, this was hard for me - I thought at first that the Half-Steps referred to half an answer; ie SHAR pei, etc.

Must be brain fog from the holiday party last night...

DNF; came here for the explanation.

Aleman 9:27 AM  

Z=zee or zed
Note that vowels are spelled with their own single letter:
The only letters that do not contain themselves in their spelling are:

JenCT 9:27 AM  

And of course, RELL was a gimme, living in CT.

FloridaPerry 9:53 AM  

Figured this out immediately when I realized 6-D must be jewsharp. Then the theme of musical half steps became obvious and fun.

Mark Tebeau 10:12 AM  

Oddly, I found the flat, sharp, natural aspect easy to get but expected that there might be some pattern to their appearance in the puzzle. And, thought the Dinosaur sidekick was too vague...

vegetarian 10:18 AM  

challenging! this must be hard for me!

miriam b 10:21 AM  

I enjoyed thuis puzzle but bridled not only at CAPEESH (ish), but at the fact that ARTIER crossed ARTLOVER. I kept thinking this had to be wrong.

consin: a transgression involving two or more people

jackj 10:33 AM  

What a sparkling debut from Timothy Polin; an impressive feat!

The rebuses may be musically pertinent but the puzzle is really a themeless with some of the most unexpected answers imaginable:


As one who grew up with kids whose parents came to America from a place “found near the toe of a boot”, (yes, SICILY), I was pleased to see their favorite expression, CAPEESH, included in the puzzle.

As a Washington State University web site notes:

“In formal Italian, capisce is pronounced “cah-PEE-shay,” but in slangy Italian and English it’s “cah-PEESH.”

Cah-PEE-shay? No way, it’s cah-peesh!


Great puzzle!

TomAz 10:34 AM  

OCOTILLO was close to a gimme for me, being in Arizona and all. Could have done without ALETTE and RELL though. All in all though I thought this was fun.

skua76 11:03 AM  

Whew! Challenging for me for most of the same reasons. Got most of the rebus quickly from JEWS HARP but was a bit surprised to see it in a NYT puzzle. Then I kept looking for some other rebus in 49D--I wanted TALLYHO. Then finally finished with a few blanks and wrong squares before coming here. HELICES??? And I stuck with cONK for 41D so never got 39A. Wanted RAcORic, perhaps another rebus??

SethG 11:20 AM  

I thought q was cue instead of kue. Silly dictionaries.

CEEPAPLOOEOUT was hard to parse. I figured it out.

baja 11:33 AM  

Toughie - also had no idea there was such a thing as a natural in music.

Anonymous 11:46 AM  

Good Grief. You must be an 'easterner'. Those of us who live in the southwest knows what an ocotillo is. Try traveling west of the Hudson River

Anonymous 11:47 AM  

C team never heard of it B team yes but thats it. Capeesh why not some clue that the answer is not English. Agree with fearless leader about alette and the cacti. How obscure can you get? GBM

Anonymous 11:48 AM  

Thought I aced it, but I assed it.

chefbea 11:52 AM  

Too tough for me. Couldn't figure it out so came here.DNF. Of course knew Jodi Rell.

Too busy to try and finish it. Company coming for dinner. Beef stew yummmm

Norm 11:52 AM  

This would have been a really great puzzle but for the unNATURAL words like ALETTE and OCOTILLO (and I too refuse to spell CAPICHE that stupidly). A-

DBGeezer 11:54 AM  

On reading the clue for 54 d, I thought it referred to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. I did not recall their ever having studied helices. Thanks to this blog, the nickel finally dropped.

Jim Walker 12:00 PM  

The ocotillo is one of the joys of living in Tucson. Brilliant Red-orange flowers in the Spring. Loved the puzzle. JEWSHARP gave it away early for me, and I finished in record time. ALETTE is ugly but a total forced fill.

Good start Mr. Polin

John V 12:15 PM  

Run up the DNF flag for me, big time. Very embarrassing to not have seen the music themed rebus, especially after staring at the F Major clue, knowing it to be signed with one flat and just ***not*** seeing it. Had _HABITAT @12 across but was not thinking Sunday=rebus.

This felt like a 21 grid Saturday to me.

Anoa Bob 12:19 PM  

Got the musical rebus theme coming out of the gate with FLAT TOP and JEWS HARP.

Rex, I'm surprised that a Southern California boy didn't get OCOTILLO right away, what with the lovely garden spot OCOTILLO Wells being right there in San Diego County.

Anonymous 12:20 PM  

Super easy and fun.

archaeoprof 12:30 PM  

Yes, challenging. One letter DNF. The cross of CAPEESH and APIA was a pure-bred, high-fiber, condensed Natick for me.

But I will not be a NAYSAYER about the rest of the puzzle, which had RAZORSHARP VERVE.

STELE and CODEX made my archaeo-heart skip a beat.

@Rex: next time try telling your daughter about GIDEON.

Z 12:32 PM  

Got the theme at 1A/1D and confirmed. Finished the extreme NW and went down to the SE to see if the rebus would be symmetrical. It wasn't, but that uncovered [natural]SELECTION for me. Finished the NW-SE axis easily, but the NE and SW both gave me trouble.

I have to agree with @RP that OCOTILLO is very obscure (and yes 11:46 Anonymous, I live west of the Hudson) as evidenced by the fact that my spell checker is telling me I want co-pilot. I guess it is a fair balance of obscurity with governor RELL, but what is a poor Midwesterner to do?

Given my distaste for RRNs, pairing it with a Random Pope is ugly in my book. Sadly, I plopped down LEO and left the VII for the crosses without hesitation.

@meta4 - a sycophant is more than just a [flat]TERER, "yesman" (my first guess) is a closer synonym.

Rube 12:33 PM  

Fell asleep over this last night while watching "Bridges of Madison County". Knew it was challenging as I spent more time watching the movie than working on the puzzle. Got the rebus concept immediately from JEWS(HARP) then (FLAT)FEE, but took me awhile to see (NATURAL)LAKE. Finished this morning although the determination to not Google made it a verrry long solve.

Looking at the next to last line made me smile -- OCOTILLO ALETTE ORNOT -- or frown. I feel as though I know a fair amount about carpentry, but ALETTE is new to me. OCOTILLO sounds like something at a cotillion -- or not.

As I remember, knew of VOLES from "The Secret of NYMH", one of my kids' favorites, so waited for the crosses there. Looked askance at CAPEESH, particularly since Jodi RELL was a total stranger. LABILE is a neat word -- will add it to my long list of words I'll try to remember someday and use in a sentence soon.

Great puzzle. Fortunately, I had the time to spend on it without getting frustrated. It increases the rating on the enjoyability scale if you're a music lover.

Z 12:35 PM  

Oh - and a technical DNF for me because I flipped my sharp and flat symbols. DOH.

Norm 12:57 PM  

I don't think ALETTE is even accurately clued (not that it would have made a whit of difference). It apparently can be a side piece to a column or an archway, but that's not the same as a simple "doorway jam." Disclaimer: I have not consulted every dictionary possible, so maybe that's a definition somewhere, but still .... Gripe #2 is 10D: I cannot find an entry for RENDER as a noun meaning "one who renders" -- which is the only way that TEARER would seem to fit as the answer. Harrumph. Exit with indignant snort.

Evan K. 1:40 PM  

@ Evan: I'm a fan of your writing -- nice analysis. P.S. I also say "a-ha moment". Small world.

As far as this puzzle goes, the first theme entries I caught were the pair of NATURALs in the southeast corner, with the rebus squares at the beginning of each respective clues. This led me to hunt down, of course, NATURALs all over the place in similar locations, to no avail. That slowed me down a bit.

Lewis 1:44 PM  

Got the theme at SHARPTON of all places. Once I got the theme, things went quicker, but they didn't go fast. Felt like a lot of work. I felt anything but SHARP and certainly not double SHARP. But also it feel like my brain was a flooded sponge, got wrung out, and now feels refreshed.

Joe Nicholson 2:10 PM  

Thought "Killed, as a test" (102A) was "Axed", making 103D "Xodus", a Var. That killed any hope of getting "Alettte". Otherwise, a great puzzle but the blogger who said it was super easy lies.

syndy 2:11 PM  

I got the rebus( well the sharps and flats)early-I needed a scond bite to get the natural.I liked the puzzle mostly;except for some spelling CAPEESH? SHEESH! and whats with HALLO_I don't think so. But I lived FLAT EARTH SOCIETY and NATURAL CAUSES! did not like ARTIER crossing ARTLOVER: ZONK shouldn't that be CONK-I'm frankly of two minds on the SHARPIE/SHARPEI conundrun,and finally DNF as I see I have CODEP/SEPTET ha ha heh

Bob Kerfuffle 2:14 PM  

@Norm - You say, "Gripe #2 is 10D: I cannot find an entry for RENDER as a noun meaning 'one who renders'"

That's because RENDER means "one who rends", thus "one who tears", thus TEARER.

My Webster's Third New International Dictionary gives this meaning for RENDER.

TimJim 2:16 PM  

Got the theme fairly early due to JEWSHARP and found the rest fairly easy except for the ALETTE region. BTW today's diagramless is quite easy, a good one to start with for anyone who's been thinking about trying one.

Arlene 2:17 PM  

I feel really smug today! I got the rebus at 1A - and checked it at 1D. Then came the JEWS HARP - so I knew we were into music. So it wasn't a stretch when NATURAL fit in naturally. I did not want to put in CAPEESH - just didn't think that was right, until it just had to be. Just got stuck on HELICES - oy! Interesting that the response to this puzzle varied so much. It definitely was a fun one for me.

John Hoffman 2:52 PM  

I finally gave up on this one after too many hours working on it -- couldn't make any progress. Then I looked here to find the theme! Wow. Would have taken me years to figure this out. And I'm a musician!

I'm impressed with the smart folks here that can get through these.

edmcan 3:19 PM  

I'm thrilled to say I finished this one in under an hour. Not super easy, but gettable; I got the rebus right away. Go figure...

Masked and Anonymous 3:41 PM  

@#31: Don't know if this helps any, but would a FORHITLER NYTimes puz entry qualify? (See: 19 Apr 2007, by Henry Hook) Could then upgrade "MIA" to "Absent WithOut Preposition", perhaps.

joho 3:59 PM  

I left quickly this morning after finishing this fantastic puzzle, started last night with natural and sharp discovered. Only in the light of day did I see the flat.

Definitely difficult for me but so gratifying because this is the kind of challenging Sunday solve I yearn for. A lot of the time I just feel like I'm filling in the squares. It can actally get boring.

Congratulations, Timothy Polin! Absolutely loved it!

Anonymous 4:00 PM  

I figured out the "natural" rebus easily enough - but went crazy on account of my assumption that the rebus answers would be symetrically distributed throughout the puzzle. OCOTILLO, ALETTE, & KUE made me see red, while the intersections of SHARPIE/SHAR PEI & ART LOVER/ARTIER made me uncomfortable.

Tim Polin 4:01 PM  

Hey everybody,

Thank you for doing the puzzle and for your comments about it. @Evan, your warm remarks made me feel much better last night after getting roundly panned in a couple of places. When you're a n00b constructor it can be hard to know when to be proud of a puzzle and when to join the chorus of criticism. And thank you to all the others I haven't named, whether your impressions of the puzzle were positive or negative. I'm glad at least some of you enjoyed it. I'm sorry about its rougher areas and nasty fill. I did my best (relative term) to avoid them whenever possible. Anyhoo, you guys seem to enjoy it when constructors go over the process and history of their puzzles, so I'll try to give you some background.

Not to be pedantic, but to clear up one misconception I've seen in a few places, NATURALS are accidental marks, along with SHARPS and FLATS. They don't appear in key signatures, but if you wanted to play a B-natural while in the key of F (to use the puzzle's example) you'd insert a natural mark in front of that note, just as you'd likewise insert a sharp or flat in F major to play a G-sharp or G-flat (which is natural in F). Any B-note in F major implicitly will be flatted a half step to B-flat without requiring a flat mark. Essentially these three accidental marks alter notes by half a step upward or downward to pitches that are not ordinarily found in whichever key you happen to be playing. If you understood any of that, congratulations. I'm not sure that I do.

I sent Will 4 puzzles over the summer. He accepted 2, and I certainly can't imagine that the other one will generate the mixed feelings this one engendered--though whether that's a good or bad thing may be debatable. The idea for the F/S/N rebus came to me in a true flash of *genius*: I was sitting there, trying to think of a set of words that hadn't yet been rebused, and I stumbled upon the accidentals. I came up with a very incomplete list of words that contained the three terms, and waded in haphazardly.

My original submission only had 12 rebus squares, which lacked the flat and sharp ones present in the SE corner of the final version. To give you some idea of how much the grid changed here are some of the entries and locations from the original:
1. (S)TONGUE/OBJECTS in the NE instead of (N)CAUSES/HABITAT.
2. ALL(N)/(N)BLONDES in the SW 8x4.
3. THE(N) at 36D.
4. 41D AND 58D were the 8-letter entries AROMATIC and TOMBRADY.

Tim Polin 4:02 PM  

Will asked me to revise the submission b/c 2 of its entries were too strained: 28A was NOTSOBER and 59A was SHARPDISAGREEMENT. I was confident that I'd be able to redo the NE 8x4 by switching around some theme entries but despaired at finding another 13-letter rebus entry that would fit in the very constrained space of 59A. Fortuitously I chanced upon KEEP...OUT and realized that the new (S) position would slot in perfectly with space below it. My second submission had 13 rebus squares, having fit in CARD(S)S. The fill was also around 90%+ different than the original's, which had some ugly plurals in the (F)EARTH area. The grid structure was somewhat changed as well.

The second version also had some entries Will asked me to change. 34D was EASYBY, 61A was REBID and 64A was ORYX. LTA didn't pass muster, so that section got changed. 106D was (S)EST instead of (S)TON and 107D was OXER, another word he hated. I felt strongly about keep (S)OBJECTS over other alternatives like SHOOTER/CHEDDAR/TONGUES, etc., but couldn't get it to work without OXER. Thankfully I found another presidential candidate named Al whose name would also rebus to 4 squares, and he let me fill the SW as it currently stands.

I spent days proving Einstein right, trying over and over in vain to fill the much-reviled ALETTE section. On a lark I inserted the final (F) to make (F)FEE and was pleasantly surprised to realize (F)TEDNOTE would actually fill legitimately. I realize the potential inelegance of having only one music-related rebus theme entry but I don't know what else would have fit in there. I'm hoping it was worth the trade-off to squeeze in another rebus square. At 111D I really wanted to fill that with something other than (N)IZE/IST, etc. GAS ended up being the only one that I could get to work, though if truth be told I would have preferred (N)LAW or TAN instead; the latter offering some delicious cluing possibilities.

Tim Polin 4:02 PM  

I know the fill was ugly in spots but please believe me it was not due to "laziness" or lack of imagination or trying as I've seen both implied and posited in some places. I spent hours trying to polish every corner of this grid. As @Evan helpfully pointed out my options were VERY constrained on account of the abundance of open areas and crossing theme entries. There was a lot of unfortunate old-school crosswordese. I don't like ALETTE any more than you guys. I don't enjoy having ART cross ARTLOVER. SSTS & SSS together sucks, even if they're considered somewhat clean. There are literally no words that fill K?E, and I really don't think it would have gone over well if I'd used KEE and referenced it as the pregnant chick in Cuarón's "Children of Men." I can't say I'm in love with CAPEESH, though I was honestly happy to discover no one else had ever used YOSHI before. It's not often you'll find an entry under 5 or 6 letters that isn't utter sh*t and has never been used before. Other than the ART/ART crossing I'm happy overall with the 8x4 corners. I don't think OCOTILLO is all that terrible, esp. with its crossings. Plus, it's in the SW of the grid itself. Another Southwest entry got lost in the NE--Herr Coronado.

I'll wrap this up but will give a quick overview of some cluing. Will changed a lot of my clues, which I completely understand and support, as they would have ratcheted up the difficulty even more. I gave him 2 or 3 options for a lot of them. The HELICES and (N)CAUSES clues were mine, and the clue for (F)EARTH... was "Group staunchly opposed to globalization?", instead of the play on "revolution." He basically used one of my clues for (N)LAKE referencing a volcano's caldera. My other option was the African-slanted "Victoria, but not Volta." (Natural and man-made lakes, respectively). ORCA was "Water sealer?" and CORONADO referenced Indiana Jones. EVERETT referenced the Washington city and Boeing. SEXTET was geographical in nature: "The permanently settled continents, e.g."

Thankfully Will changed my ELSE/NOTER crossing to ELSA/NOTAR. I'm pretty sure I'm being honest when I say that I considered NOTAR, but not knowing anything about cigarettes (I could only really find stuff like "low tar" online) I submitted it as the uber-inelegant NOTER. To counteract that last little PSA on smokes, I'll end with a line from Bill Nighy: "Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star and they give you them for free!".

And if you've come this far, maybe you're wiling to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don't you?

@jae: The reason I ended up with a 5/5/4 ratio is that I simply couldn't fit in another natural. Nothing sinister or particularly elegant about it. Haha. Ty for your comments.

Thank you again very much for your comments, feedback, and most of all for doing my puzzle.

David 4:13 PM  

Definitely Medium-Challenging for me, though I got 2/3 of the theme very quickly. I've never heard of a Natural note - fortunately, ALLNATURAL was a near gimme, as was PRETERNATURAL, so I just went with it. I did google it just to see how to draw it into the puzzle...

Got really stuck with the 3 letter clues in Northwest, and then left for my son's soccer game. What the hell is a 3 letter synonym for "Just recently" that begins with an O??? About 10 miles down the PA Turnpike it hit me - OF LATE!!!

Had a few nice misdirects/writeovers on this one - HELICES/HELIXES (also thought about HELIVES/VOLS for a sec). LTR over LGL for the 45A paper tray size, after thinking AGREER was my sycophant. All of this was solved by OF LATE!!

Took me forever to confidently write in that goofy spelling of CAPEESH, and I had CUE for KUE, until the SHARP LOOKOUT part of the clue gave me KEEP and the K for KUE (yuc)

Always happy for a tough Sunday puzzle, greatly increases the satisfaction when I fill in that last clue.

David 4:18 PM  

Damn, Tim, that was a helluva writeup on your puzzle - thanks!! As said, I like a big challenge on a Sunday, and this one came through.....

Anonymous 4:31 PM  

I got the rebus gimmick in a half-second looking at 1 Across.

But after I finished the puzzle I was still scratching my head about when Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were ever worried about helices.

Shamik 4:45 PM  

Congrats on this debut puzzle. Found it to be a thoroughly delightful Sunday puzzle, a little chewier than most. And that's what Sunday should be. Calling it a medium-challenging at 22:56.

jae 4:46 PM  

@Tim -- Thanks for clearing that up. And if it wasn't clear from my comment, I meant "impressive" in a good way i.e. what Evan said. I just hate to DNF. I guess I shoulda spent more time playing video games in the 1980s, but hey, I was pushing 40 and golf was hard enough.

skua76 4:55 PM  

Thanks Tim for ALL of those comments! I wouldn't do these puzzles (or read these comments) if I didn't enjoy it. Lots of great clues that make things more interesting. Capeesh!

I look forward to seeing #2!

North Beach 5:14 PM  

This reminds me of what clever musical kids used to write in the autograph books of my youth:

Sometimes B#
Never B♭
Always B♮

Do they still have autograph books? Somehow I doubt it. More's the pity.

Um, believe me, I'm not quite the oldster this post makes me sound. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

JaxInL.A. 5:18 PM  

I had a truly marvelous time with this puzzle. As others observed here, Sundays can feel like a real slog of just filling in letters. Not today. I can hardly believe this is a debut. It felt sophisticated, original, and filled with loads of rewarding aha! moments.

Rebus puzzles make me happy to start, and the dense theme entries made this particularly fun. I wish I had time today for the more in-depth analysis that this gem deserves, but mostly I have to settle for agreeing with much of what @Evan says, and Rex's compliments.

Of course, it helped that this was totally in my wheelhouse and, after a scan of the puzzle, I tumbled to the theme really quick and smack in the middle with HYPER INFLATION. The cluing was hard but logical. I found the fill mostly fresh, the obscure entries had fair crosses, and even the crosswordese was, somehow, high quality.

Thanks for the long exposition, Mr. Polin, and I look forward to your sophomore effort!

mac 5:18 PM  

Smart puzzle, which took me more time than I could really afford, even after getting two/thirds of the theme at the beginning, at razor sharp and natural habitat.

Thanks for the great comments, Tim!

Favorite clue was the one for 12D.

Anonymous 5:43 PM  

I enjoyed this Sunday puzzle because I am a relative novice and it was one of the first I remember being rated more difficult that "easy/medium". Loved the author's fulsome commentary. Have to admit I cheated to find the rebus(s)es. [Will and Rex: could we have some help on the appropriate spelling.) Love all the comments since RP rated this puzzle "challenging." Had little trouble accepting "ocotillo" but "alette?" Come on. I love the way solving puzzles improves my spelling!

Thank Polin, Shortz edits, and all the comments.

CoffeeLvr 5:43 PM  

@Tim Polin, thanks for your very challenging Sunday, and double thanks for your generous explanations here. I am in awe of your debut status.

I ended up with two wrong squares, as I mis-remembered Jean AUEr, and did not know either the CT gov (RiLL was my guess) or how to spell Americanized Italian slang - frankly, I though CAPiESH looked more likely. Otherwise, I enjoyed chewing my way through this while watching TV. I remembered CORONADO while I was making a sandwich!

CoffeeLvr 5:44 PM  

That is, I thought capiesh looked better.

AV 6:08 PM  

@Tim: Thanks for stopping by.

Ambitious debut, nice work!

Keep up the creative effort, and stop worrying about the critics/panning. You already know what to avoid in the next offering!

Wood 8:55 PM  

Wow, do we always get great write-ups by the constructor like we did today? What a great window into the workings of construction. Thanks, Mr. Polin!

This one was pretty easy for me. I suspected music immediately from the title, and one of the first answers I got was JEWS HARP and, with the # in place, PENCIL SHARPENERS. From there it was pretty smooth sailing, although the under-appreciated "natural" came as a surprise to me as it did to others.

Anybody else stumped by "Brass" as a clue for HORNS? I don't get it. Had OSTE at first for the bone prefix, which made HORNST which was even more nonsensical.

I personally wasn't bothered by CAPEESH -- I know it's not the Italian spelling but can you really hear Joe Pesci saying "CAPISCE"? It's an Italian-Americanism.

I finally got stopped at the very end by OF LATE and FLATTERER. Had just 4 empty squares and couldn't see that there was one more rebus square to fill in. Turned off my iPad, took a nap, came back later and boom, there it was.

It's a very pretty grid but I'm bothered by the fact that the far SE section is the only one of the 10 edge sections that does not include a rebus square. But given the struggles Mr. Polin points out, I guess I can cut him some slack.

Timeless Tunes 9:51 PM  

@Wood -

The brass section of the orchestra is known for its brilliant and blazing sounds. Brass instruments are usually made of metal tubes with a cylindrically shaped mouthpieces. The notes that come out of the bell shaped end are produced when the air column within vibrates. The tighter the player compresses, his lips the higher the note. Playing the brass instruments softly produces a mellow sound and a mute over the bell gives the composer the ability to convey mystery or menace. In order to tune the brass, the length of the tube must be shortened or lengthened accordingly.

The oldest brass instruments are the horn and the trumpet which were initially constructed out of animal horns. Before joining the orchestra, most brass instruments were used for military or ceremonial purposes. In 1815, when valves were invented, the brass instruments were adjusted to produce different tones by diverting the airflow through the tubing.

The French horn was the first brass instrument to be used consistently by composers in orchestras in the early 1700s. The reason may be that its tones blend easily with the stings and the woodwinds. The trumpet, on the other hand, can supersede the entire orchestra if needed. It is the highest pitched of the brass instruments. Normally two or three are used in a symphonic orchestra for that reason. The tone of the tuba is much deeper than the trumpet due to the large size of the instrument and its tubing system.

tcsung 10:33 PM  

Loved the puzzle.
But just couldn't crack 'eave' which left two cities and a Connecticut ex-governor unknown (even with capeesh filled in) so did not finish.
And got the answer but don't really 'get' natural causes.

theblasevick 10:36 PM  

I've never been so angry at a puzzle. This puzzle had little to do with solving skills and much to do with being a musician and knowing things nobody cares about. I would never, ever, ever like to do another puzzle by Timothy Polin.

william e emba 10:52 PM  

I found the puzzle quite enjoyable. I got the rebus almost instantly off of 1A/1D, although yes, I did think of SilverWARE first. It may have helped that today's Dick Tracy stars FLATTOP Jones, who may or may not be dead after all.

I permanently learned the word ESKER decades ago, from the song "Minnesota Clementine", lyrics posted down the page.

swimslikeafish 10:57 PM  

I am thrilled to have finished (with one error) a puzzle Rex rates challenging and so many of you crossword gods and goddesses had trouble with.
My one mistake was stupidly adding the "p" to 60D and then wondering why in this case the dogs were called "SHAR-PIES." Though maybe it was a shout-out to Foodie or ChefBea.
Did the puzzle whilst flying from west to east so couldn't come here until late.
Great puzzle, Tim, and thanks for coming by and doing such an interesting write-up. Any puzzle that has both PRETERNATURAL and LABILE is fine by me!

Tita 11:01 PM  

Thanks Tim, for the puzzle and the writeup. I have learned lots when the constructors stop by.

I loved this - love rebuses, and this one was fun. Got it round about (N)SELECTION.

VOLES - no brainer!! Venus and Marzipan bring us voles all the time. Moles too, and even star-nosed moles, but mostly voles.

I had little time for the puzzle - just sat back down to it to finally wrestle KEEPA(S)LOOKOUT and THOM to the ground.

@Foodie - thx for explaining the Helices - like DBGeezer, I was stumped.

Fav clues for AVION, SST, CAPEESH... I had no problem with that one - that is exactly how someone far-removed from Italian immigrants would think it's spelled.

@JohnV - ironic as I struggled with this (struggle I did!), I was thinking this would be a slamdunk for you!

retired_chemist 12:16 AM  

Well, I am not a musician and I enjoyed the puzzle greatly. even though I did not finish with a completely correct puzzle.

LoriS 9:00 AM  

I am an avid reader of this website but first-time poster - so, to begin, thanks Rex for a resource and community that makes puzzling even more fun! I am not a speedy solver - hence the lateness of this comment - but I do nibble away until I get it. And I'd like to congratulate Timothy Polin. It took me a bunch of sporadic fill to finally get the rebus - but when I did (it was "jew's harp" that did it for me, with "natural selection" providing the "natural"), what fun to go back and try to fit the rebus answers into the ones that had been giving me trouble. I thought this puzzle's theme kept it sparkly and interesting all the way through. Thanks and can't wait to see more from a talented constructor!

Anonymous 3:26 PM  

HATED this puzzle. Not fun, nifty, awesome or anything but headache-inducing. I got the theme from pencil sharpeners and flatware but still hated it all. Never heard of a Jews harp (except kvetching in Brooklyn) Alette was not in MY dictionary and flattednote just hurts. When I did the KenKen in 7 minutes I knew the crossword would blow. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Anonymous 11:06 AM  

I got "ocotillo" easily thanks to one of my favorite children's books, Alice McLerran's gorgeous Roxaboxen.

Dirigonzo 12:19 PM  

From syndication (yes @Deb, I can hear you) of course it was the dogs (SHARPEIS) that gave me the rebus - I immediately thought of it as a shout-out to our host but the title suggested the musical gimmick so the flats and naturals started coming into view as well. I still needed some lucky guesses (most of which were "L") to finally finish so I would rate the puzzle challenging and satisfying.

Anonymous 12:27 PM  

Spacecraft here, and if you don't like reading gushing testimonials, stop here. This was, in my memory, the single greatest crossword puzzle I've ever seen. I can't even count the AHA! moments.
Started in NE with TAVI and TORT, BOLO would lead to [blank]HABITAT, which I wanted, but didn't cop to the meaning of "passes" in the downer, so for a while I was stymied. Looked at the title again, but found no answer in "Taking Half Steps."
Headscratch, headscratch. Then I saw 75d, and immediately knew [NATURAL]SELECTION, so rethought 12d and AHA'd that one. UNIONIST, of course! Went down and picked up the 111's--and thought ALL the special squares were gonna be "NATURAL."
Uh...no. Mr. Pulin was not about to make it that easy. The 86's really put my brain into a twist, as I had _TEDNOTE and _FEE to work with. Still no idea about sharps and flats.
Went over and put in GORE for 106d, but couldn't get far in the SW after that. Wanted TRUELIES for the Ahnold film, but that doesn't start with O. Also--while I'm on writeovers--had ZONE for ZONK and ATA moment's notice. These mistakes held me back and I very nearly gave up.
One trouble spot was in the center with "letter after pee." Well, I get that you're supposed to spell out "Q," but my NATURAL inclination is KYU (perhaps due to my association with both karate and go). KUE only forced itself in there via crosses. I'd never think of that way to spell out "Q." That, and the double-ART crossing in the NE (along with the unfortunate timing of having SSTS two days in a row: I thought those bad boys were retired!) are my only complaints (I said you were great, Tim; I didn't say you were perfect!).
Eventually I hit upon RAZOR#, and had the OMG of my solving life! It all came into focus then, and I quickly finished, with only the aforementioned writeovers and one Natick guess (correct!) at AVILA/APIA. Oh, and no Googles.
Bravo, OLE!, both ears and the tail to Mr. Timothy Pulin! Take a bow, dude.

Anonymous 12:30 PM  

70 down CARDSHARKS not CARDSHARPS why recreate a word just to fill in a space? Don't like that much.

Anonymous 12:56 PM  

Got the rebus early with JEWSHARP, and FLATWARE/FLAT TOP. Okay, sharps and flats. Then NATURAL HABITAT showed up (also early) and I realized this wasn't going to be easy.

Even the simplest words became challenging. Is it HASFLAT, HASSHARP, HASNATURAL or something as simple as HAS_? Oh--HASH.

In the end I finished with five errors. Should have been four (I stupidly misspelled BUeY) and probably should have been three; I was so certain of OStE that I didn't bother to check 12d, and hey by the way HORNS is a nice musical reference. But mOLES, EtON and AcETTE weren't going to change without help, which I eschew as a rule.

Center answer gave me fits and was the last to fall. That's because I had NAY at 68d from early on. I knew there had to be a rebus in 65a somewhere but couldn't suss out which square until I finally revisited 68d. Aha! SHARPLY refuse! Which caused more problems, briefly, until I remembered that you could also FLATLY refuse.

80d CELTS was a tough one for me too, as I charged ahead with CORGI off the C and had a helluva time recovering from that.

CARD SHARPS? That's a new one on me, but it fit. And apparently its use may or may not predate CARD SHARKS. Sharks were sharp last night, though, against the Oilers.

cody.riggs 9:21 PM  

I wish I'd written sooner. This was one of my fastest Sundays ever, and I got the rebus immediately.

Just sayin'.


cody.riggs 9:34 PM  

...and I must add, Tim, that was an EXCELLENT puzzle. Not your fault I figgered out the rebus on JEW[SHARP].

Thank you for the explanation as well. I wish all constructors would.

And gimme a break. CARD SHARP is correct. You people who thought it was "Shark" are guilty of a malapropism. I hear it all the time. Sheesh!

rod_subdriver 7:17 AM  

Both card shark and card sharp are correct, although card shark seems to have become more popular in the US

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