Eyebrow-filling technique / FRI 7-31-20 / Pants slangily / Brand with classic wavy varieties / Gymnastics eponym of a double back somersault with three twists / Country whose name is believed to come from ancient Greek for honey-sweet / Hilton pulitzer-winning critic for New Yorker

Friday, July 31, 2020

Constructor: Claire Rimkus and Erik Agard

Relative difficulty: Medium-Challenging (Medium, but I had an eternal-seeming free fall in the SE corner, so that threw my time off badly)

THEME: none

Word of the Day: MICROBLADING (9D: Eyebrow-filling technique) —
Microblading is a tattooing technique in which a small handheld tool made of several tiny needles is used to add semi-permanent pigment to the skin. Microblading differs from standard eyebrow tattooing because each hairstroke is created by hand using a blade which creates fine slices in the skin, whereas eyebrow tattoos are done with a machine and single needle bundle. Microblading is typically used on eyebrows to create, enhance or reshape their appearance in terms of both shape and color. It deposits pigment into the upper region of the dermis, so it fades more rapidly than traditional tattooing techniques, which deposit pigment deeper. Microblading artists are not necessarily tattoo artists, and vice versa, because the techniques require different training. // Microblading is also sometimes called embroideryfeather touch or hair-like strokes. (wikipedia)

• • •

This grid has many strengths, and I enjoyed solving it right up to the very end, when I hit a clue that made no sense to me and got completely stuck. Freefall stuck. Three blank squares left and ... no hope. Or so it seemed. The main problem is a clue that, in retrospect, seems actually very truly bad, on multiple levels. That clue is the clue for STUBS (48D: Movie reviewers often trash them). I worked that answer down to STU-S and ... nothing. No idea. I figured I had an answer wrong, since STUDS couldn't be right, and nothing came to mind that seemed remotely right. And the cross was 57A: Life partner, for which I had -IM-, and for which the only answer that occurred to me was TIME. Isn't TIME/Life a company of some kind? I seem to remember TV ads featuring TIME/Life operators, standing by ... to do ... something. Hang on, let me look that up... oh yeah, man, that company had a real racket going with their eternal series of books for whatever you're in to. Photography. Cooking. This baloney:

Point is, I am old and TIME seemed a very reasonable answer for [Life partner]. Then there was 52D: "___ pass" (IT'LL). I had the IT- ... but never considered IT'LL. Instead, the only thing I could think of was "IT'S A pass" (kinda like "It's a no" ... like, a way to phrase a rejection, as in "no thanks"). That left one answer that could—and eventually did—rescue me: 60A: Brand with "Classic" and Wavy" varieties (LAY'S). Really, really should've gotten this earlier, but I got so distracted by the stuff I couldn't make sense of, I didn't think this one through enough. The "wavy" part, combined with having -AY- in place, eventually got me LAY'S which got me ITLL which got me LIMB which brings me back to ... STUBS. What the hell does that clue think it's doing? Well, no, I know what it *thinks* it's doing. The STUBS are supposed to be *ticket* STUBS (I think), and you throw them away (or "trash them" after seeing a movie? OK, well, uh, two things. First, movie *reviewers* see screenings before the general public, right? I mean, now they probably just watch screeners, but the point is I don't know what the STUBS situation is like for movie "reviewers" because they just don't see the movies with the rest of us schlubs. I assume the tix are comped and STUBS aren't involved. Point is, I would never associate the general-public ticket *stub* with a movie *reviewer*. That's just nonsense. Further nonsense—even I, an old, don't even deal with STUBS any more. The last few movies I've seen in the theater, my ticket was on my phone. The ticket-taker scans it, bada-bing, I'm in. No STUBS to "trash." So this clue is somehow both factually wrong and dated. And that is what I'm left thinking, at the end of an otherwise nice grid. I'm left with that feeling of "why did you write such a bad clue?" (I have no idea who's responsible here; could be constructors, but editor rewrites lots of clues, as a rule). The clue is just a badly misguided attempt at wordplay, and it really detracted from the enjoyment I was having up until that point.
[Cinema ephemera of yore]

Wasn't sure about ELASTIGIRL because I don't remember "The Incredibles" (15A: Superhero in "The Incredibles"). I think I had both ELASTICMAN and ELASTICGAL in there before crosses led me to the right answer. Don't really like the clue on HALF at all (31D: Like 50 U.S. senators). Yes, 50 is HALF of the *number* of U.S. senators, but the clue is phrased like the adjective is going to describe them (like, in a fair and representative world, the answer could be MALE, say). Clue is awkward as is. Deliberately misleading, but not in a clever way. I also found the clue on LUSTS (24D: Groin pulls?) really truly CRINGEWORTHY. I get that it's about the fact that lust involves a "pull" (or attraction) on your "groin" (or genital ... area) but the image it conjures up, and that "pull" conjures up specifically, is that of a dude masturbating and ... yeah, in my crossword? It's a pass!

While I didn't love cringing, I did love CRINGEWORTHY as an answer, just as I loved "AMEN TO THAT!", MICROBLADING, and HIS AND HIS (saw right through that attempt to trip me with heterosexism, though HER did briefly occur to me as a possible last three letters) (31A: Like some monogrammed towels). Lots of women in this grid (DINAH SHORE! Now there's an old-school answer I can get behind) and in general the puzzle felt gender-balanced, not gender-biased the way it often can in the (somehow still) male-dominated world of NYTXW constructors.  So if I just look at the grid, I think this puzzle is really nice. I just found a few of the clues really off, or off-putting, and that kinda soured my experience.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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French department that borders Switzerland / THU 7-30-20 / Appropriate ratio for this puzzle

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Constructor: Joel Fagliano

Relative difficulty: Easy (?) (very easy for most of you, but not for me; I was so confused by the way the puzzle came across in my software and by having to navigate the grid in an unnatural way that my time came out very normal)

THEME: TWO / TO ONE (51- and 54-Across: Appropriate ratio for this puzzle?) — every across answer comes in two successive parts, so TWO parts TO every ONE answer, I guess

Word of the Day: FALL / LINE (17A & 18A: It's all downhill from here) —
• • •

This is one of those "feats of construction" that you can shoot into the sun, please and thank you. I'm sure it was a challenge to make, but that absolutely does not translate into "pleasure to solve." It's not even that the gimmick is hard to grasp—it's not. It's ultimately very simple. It's straightforward. But imagine ... you know how annoying it is when you encounter one too many cross-reference clues, one too many [With 14-Across, blah blah blah]-type of clue, where you have to look in a different section of the grid for whatever the back end of some answer is? OK, yes, annoying, agreed; now imagine ALL the Acrosses are like that. All of them. ALL of them force you into another section of the grid in order to finish them off. And sometimes, a lot of the time, that means your first part is in the east and your second part is Back In The West. And why? The payoff? Ha ha, joke's on you, there is none. None. It just goes on like that. With no interesting fill, no good answers, hardly any longer answers at all, literally every single damned across entry is made up of 3- 4- or 5-letter bits. Nothing longer. Only (2) answers in the Downs longer than five (5!!!). Absolute drudgery. I guess the easiness is going to make people feel ... successful or good, I don't know. Most people will certainly finish faster than usual, perhaps faster than they've ever finished a Thursday puzzle. But this theme ... I can see how as a constructor you might have the idea and try it out, but once you saw that even if you *could* do it, it would be dreary at best, you'd think ... you wouldn't ... do it. It's not like anyone's going to get to TWO / TO ONE and go "Ohhhh!" or "Aha!" or anything. All in all it's just one more split-answer brick in the wall.

So a brief explanation of why my time was totally average while the rest of you were going very fast. First, I'm tired. Second, I move through puzzles section by section, as a rule. Work the crosses on answers I've already got. When I have to jump sections for every single Across, it's like being forced out of my normal puzzle rhythm at every turn. Just feels yuck. Also, my software was presenting the clues in a weird way. Like this:

I looked at "1a. & 5." and honestly didn't know what it meant. In normal newspaper layout, there's just "1. & 5." under the normal "Across" heading, so the meaning is something closer to transparent. With the "a." part attached to just the first number, I thought, I don't know, maybe math or some other weird thing was involved. It's Thursday, after all, so who knows? The worst part of the solve for me was actually realizing I have no idea what a FALL LINE is. Unless it's a fashion thing. Otherwise, no idea. None. Just none. Tree line, sure. Fall guy, yep. Fault line, definitely. But FALL LINE, wow, made it to 50 without experiencing this one. This is obviously a problem with me, not the puzzle, but it certainly didn't help my mood (which even by then was already pretty foul).

I had OMAN before IRAN (2D: Charter member of OPEC). I don't really know the term LAND / USERS. I laughed out loud at ASPEN / TREE, which is the HAIKU / POEM of this puzzle. I also laughed at MADE / ABID, which feels very "green paint"-y.* At least WAITA / SEC, as a whole, feels like a solid, stand-alone expression. MADE / ABID is just a mini ATEASANDWICH. I think the past tense here is just ... BID. And omg I struggled with the GOOD in GOOD / TONE. GOOD? Just ... GOOD? "Even," "measured," ok, but just GOOD felt vague and confusing. I've heard $100 bills called "C-NOTES" and "Benjamins," for sure, but BENS?? Sigh. That would have people wondering if you weren't talking about a Mercedes. Bizarre. LRON is always awful as fill and AIN is pAINful. With your whole grid made up of 3-to-5 letter bits, those bits could At Least be clean. But no, LRON AIN. That is some 1980s-normal fill right there. And even the two longer answers don't really do much. They're completely acceptable—hell, compared to the rest of the fill, they're two big breaths of fresh air. But your FOLK MUSIC TOILET BAG can't make up for THE slash AISLE (wow) or the rest of it.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

*"green paint" = phrase that, sure, one might say, but that doesn't really hold up as a stand-alone crossword answer

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Wisecracking bear of film / WED 7-29-20 / Animal known scientifically as alces alces / Mobile device that debuted in 2016

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Constructor: Amanda Chung and Karl Ni

Relative difficulty: Challenging (5 minutes-ish)

THEME: STRONG PASSWORD (49A: It may require letters, a number and a special character—as seen in 20-, 33- and 39-Across) — well, you don't actually "see" the numbers and letters as such, but you do see the words that represent them:

Theme answers:
  • TWO PERCENT MILK (2% milk) (20A: Reduced-fat option)
  • IPHONE SEVEN PLUS (iPhone 7+) (33A: Mobile device that debuted in 2016)
  • ONE MICHELIN STAR (1 Michelin *) (?!) (39A: Highly sought-after restaurant rating)
Word of the Day: "TED" (6A: Wisecracking bear of film) —
Ted is a 2012 American comedy film directed by Seth MacFarlane and written by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild. The film stars Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, with Joel McHale and Giovanni Ribisi in supporting roles, with MacFarlane providing the voice and motion capture of the title character. The film tells the story of John Bennett, a Boston native whose childhood wish brings his teddy bear friend Ted to life. However, in adulthood, Ted prevents John and his love interest Lori Collins from moving on with their lives. // The film is MacFarlane's feature-length directorial debut, produced by Media Rights Capital and distributed by Universal Pictures. It was the 12th highest-grossing film of 2012 and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original SongTed received mixed to positive reviews with critics praising the humor and premise while criticizing the plot and inconsistent script.(wikipedia)
• • •

This had a lot of things working against it. I have to admire the ambition here—it's a weird concept, and it can't have been easy to find themers that worked. I just did not like how it came out. TWO PERCENT MILK is fine, that's very much a thing, but IPHONE SEVEN PLUS is several flavors of yuck. First, like the puzzle doesn't shill Apple products enough—the weirdly specific product name just reeks of niche tech crud. How long ago was the IPHONE SEVEN PLUS anyway? Are we honestly expected to remember the different releases of iPhone and their variants going back ... I mean, this must be at least four generations now. I've had my iPhone 8 for 3 or 4 years now. Anyway, that really killed it for me, and then ONE MICHELIN STAR felt like very contrived phrasing. What's "highly sought-after" is *a* Michelin Star. Since there are ... more stars to be had, it seems so odd to say the "highly sought-after restaurant rating" is ONE as opposed to two or three MICHELIN STARs. Surely those ratings are even more highly sought-after. Something about ONE MICHELIN STAR just doesn't feel right as a stand-alone answer. I think it's that the other two themers, when you write them out the way you would normally, the way they appear in the wild, they actually contain a number and a symbol (see "Theme Answers," above), whereas you would never write out "1 Michelin *." Just bizarre. Also, the revealer, isn't exactly strong. When I am asked to choose passwords nowadays I am given strongness ratings that go well beyond merely "strong." This one just clunked in too many places. Plus there's some regrettable fill (e.g. IBANKER CONG OWOW), *and* the cluing felt harder than normal. Just hard to see the joy here.

I don't think I've had a worse start to a solve ... ever. At least not with a relatively easy puzzle. I had four wrong answers (at various points) *in the NW corner alone*. LEGOS not ATOMS (1A: Small building blocks). SIM not ATM (1D: ___ card). BEEP not TOOT (2D: Friendly honk). OUCH not OWOW (3D: "I'm in pain! I'm in pain!") (!?). No idea about sci. name of MOOSE (17A: Animal known scientifically as Alces alces). Don't think of MISO as a "seasoning" 94D: Traditional Japanese seasoning) That whole corner was just brutal for a Wednesday. And the NE corner wasn't much better. Had both DEALS and SALES before PACTS (which are far less handshake-specific, imho) (9A: Things finished with handshakes). Then had STICK ON before PASTE ON (awk) (9D: Affix with adhesive). Needed many crosses to get stuff like POTPIE (25A: Entree baked in a tin) and MOTELS (46A: Things often found near cloverleafs), which had really vague clues. Never got a rhythm (or, if I got one, it quickly ceased). Bottom half was definitely easier. but the general grind of solving was never alleviated by thematic pleasures or sparkly fill. It just missed me, this puzzle, at every level. I'm surprised, as I usually like work by this pair—as I'm sure I will again.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Source of beautiful plumes / TUES 7-28-20 / Wok, for one / Fast runner Down Under / Liveliness

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Hello, everyone! It's Clare here for the last Tuesday of July. Hope everyone is safe and staying inside as much as possible! I've been sitting around watching some sports again, but with Liverpool winning the Premier League title (!!) I'm pretty sated for now. In other news, I just found out that my law school classes will be entirely online for the fall, which is kind of a bummer — maybe I'll just move to Montana and take my classes from there. With that, on to the puzzle for today!

Constructor: Ross Trudeau

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: WEB OF LIES (36D: It's spun by mendacious people ... or a hint to the shaded answers) — The theme answers are all synonyms for a lie

Theme answers:

  • TALL TALES (4D: Accounts of Paul Bunyan, say)
  • FABLE (17A: "The Tortoise and the Hare," e.g.)
  • FALSEHOOD (29A: "__ of the tongue leads to that of the heart": Jefferson)
  • FICTION (8D: Section of a bookstore)
  • WHOPPER (24D: Burger King offering)
  • UNTRUTH (41D: Fabrication)
  • INVENTION (44A: Bubble gum in the 1906, e.g.)
  • LIBEL (60A: Writing that can get you in trouble)
Word of the Day: ENCINO MAN (15A: 1992 Brendan Fraser film about a thawed Cro-Magnon)
Encino Man (known as California Man in France, Great Britain, Asia and New Zealand) is a 1992 American comedy film directed by Les Mayfield in his directorial debut, and starring Brendan Fraser, Sean Astin and Pauly Shore. The plot revolves around two geeky teenagers from Encino, Los Angeles, California, played by Astin and Shore, who discover a caveman in Morgan's backyard frozen in a block of ice. The caveman, played by Fraser, has to learn to live in the 20th century. Along the way, he teaches them about life. (Wiki)
• • •
Wow. So. Many. Theme. Answers! I can't decide whether I'm more impressed that the constructor managed to fit all those theme answers in the puzzle and have it be coherent, or if I'm more annoyed that I had to type all of those clues and theme answers out in today's write-up.

This whole puzzle was centered on the theme, and the way WEB OF LIES tied everything together was quite impressive. The problem with having the whole puzzle revolve around the theme, though, was that the rest of the puzzle suffered. I didn't have any moments going through the puzzle where I thought, "Oh, that was cool" — I just worked my way around until I finished and realized what the theme was. For me, the theme was an afterthought.

A nit about the theme answers is that all of them are singular except for TALL TALES, which is plural. The bigger problem is that the constructor clearly made some sacrifices to make WEB OF LIES work. There were quite a few ugly three-letter fill words (See: INS; OWS; DPS; UMP; ODS; EMU...), and I didn't think anything really popped in the puzzle. (Seriously, I had to search over and over to find something that could work as a "word of the day" — and I ended up choosing a 28-year-old movie that has a whopping 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Also, there were so many words that start with IN or INS in this puzzle. The worst of it was INS (12D), INSPOT (25A), and INDEBT (46A); on top of that, we have INVENTION (44A) and INST (20D), which also felt pretty cheap.

There were also a lot of vague clues that could have led to many different answers, which is definitely fair game in puzzles late in the week but which I find annoying on Mondays and Tuesdays. For example: 36A: Let me see could have been so many things other than WELL; 45D: "Thanks, I __ that" could also have been a variety of things other than NEEDED; and the puzzle started with 1D: [Fizzle], which was quite vague. I hate the fill of IBARS (44D: Some building beams), which could be so many things — depending on what one letter the constructor needs at the start.

Some other nits: SEACOAST (is this a thing?); EWELAMB (again, is this really a thing?); DPS (not a common abbreviation at all, according to my sportswriter sister); ARYAN (having this in a puzzle feels ALL sorts of weird to me).

  • Uhh 28D: Things most interstates don't have — Interstates may not have many TOLLS, but lemme tell you about turnpikes... endless TOLLS! My sister and I just got to D.C. after a 10-day (socially distant, mask-wearing, sanitizer-toting) road trip across the country stopping at a bunch of national parks along the way, and the amount of money we had to pay in TOLLS was just ridiculous.
  • I love me some LOKI (9A: Norse trickster) — Tom Hiddleston's portrayal of LOKI in the "Avengers" movies is iconic.
  • One word I did like seeing in the puzzle was PREVENTABLE (26D) — it just felt interesting and different from everything else.
  • I put in OVERRULED (56A) and then LIBEL (60A) very quickly, so, thanks, law school?
  • Raise your hand if you've ever responded to something with LOL (30D) while you were, in fact, not laughing — or even smiling! (Guilty!)
  • We got the baseball double whammy with DPS (38A) and then UMP (41A) reminding us that baseball is, indeed, back — for now (but who knows how long that'll last?)
Have a great rest of your week!

Signed, Clare Carroll, a proud Liverpool fan — and that's no TALL TALE

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Puppeteer Lewis / MON 7-27-20 / Boozer's binge / Trojan War king

Monday, July 27, 2020

Constructor: Alan Arbesfeld

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium, Medium, somewhere in there (2:50)

THEME: "Hi there!" — theme answers all begin with "hi" sound, with that sound (the first syllable) spelled differently each time:

Theme answers:
  • HIKING GEAR (18A: It may include a backpack, boots and a water bottle)
  • HAIKU POEM (24A: Japanese verse with 17 syllables)
  • HIGH END (39A: Expensive, as a product line)
  • HEIGH-HO (41A: Seven dwarfs' cry as off to work they go)
  • HEIDI KLUM (52A: Supermodel and longtime "Project Runway" host)
  • HYBRID CARS (61A: Toyota Prius and Honda Insight)
Word of the Day: Haiku (24A) —
Haiku (俳句,[...] is a type of short form poetry [ed.: hmm, right there in the definition, interesting] originally from Japan. Traditional Japanese haiku consist of three phrases that contain a kireji, or "cutting word", 17 on (a type of Japanese phoneme) in a 5, 7, 5 pattern, and a kigo, or seasonal reference. However, modern haiku vary widely on how closely they follow these traditional elements. 
• • •

The Friends of Will / Boys Club power is relentless. Over and over and over we get puzzles that reek of last century, that are minimally competent but that don't bring any cleverness or currency, that just take up space, and in doing so continue to groom solvers to expect that "this is just the way puzzles are." I am all for a good, simple sound-based puzzle. Why not? I've seen same-sound, different-spelling puzzles before (a bunch). Make the answers fun, make your grid sparkly, give us a surprise here or there, and you're good. But this puzzle does none of those things. It crowds the grid with themers, none of which are that interesting, two of which are really too close IMHO to be truly *different* "hi-" spellings (HIKING, HIGH-END ... just a long "I"), and one of which is absolutely, puzzle-murderingly not a thing. I direct your attention to HAIKU POEM. Just ... gaze upon it ... in all its luminous, absurd redundancy. To state the obvious: a haiku is, by definition, in all cases, a "poem." There is no need to specify POEM, as there is no non-poem form of haiku. There is no HAIKUPROSE or HAIKUESSAY or HAIKUOPED or HAIKUDOG. So here you have someone who (wrongly) thought, "I need another 'hi-' answer" and then (much more wrongly) thought "I got it, HAIKU POEM!" You'd almost have to hate words to do this kind of thing. So ... the old-fashioned, very well worn concept that *might yet* be done in a pleasing way is instead driven into the ground and lit on fire. NEATO!

The one site of relative slowness for me today was in the NE and E, starting with JOCK, which feels both too slangy and caricaturey to fit the straightforward clue (10A: Varsity letter earner, say). You can letter in bowling, you know that, right? But sure, JOCK. Not getting that one straight off meant I couldn't just fire off the Down crosses. And even when I worked that corner out, I couldn't see OVERNIGHT for some reason (11D: Like some FedEx or DHL service). Clue is reasonable enough there. I just ... I had the OVER- but a couple of the NIGHT crosses were also proving problematic. First, MSN (27A: AOL alternative), which ... is that still a thing? Is AOL? Again, please see my first paragraph, where I talk about this puzzle's belonging to the last century. Speaking (again) of last century: "Snow White!" I had trouble with the spelling of "HEIGH-HO"—tried to write in HIHOHIHO, but ... thwarted by an insufficiency of boxes. But I worked it all out and came in with a pretty average Monday time. Only other place I even hesitated was at MOOSE (55D: Glacier National Park sighting) because of vagueness and "OH, GEE!" (67A: "Well, golly!") because of not knowing what the hell Wally or the Beav or whatever were going to say before "GEE" (I thought maybe "AW"?). Feel the freshness! I gotta go. Take care.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Martin star of 1960s TV's Route 66 / SUN 7-26-20 / Site of Bocca Nuova crater / Hairy hunter of Genesis / Nickname of 2010s pop idol / Bird in Liberty Mutual commercials / Role in 2005 hit musical Jersey Boys / What Winthrop speaks with in Music Man / Nine-symbol message / Rule that ended in 1947 / Shrub that produces crimson-colored spice

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Constructor: Trenton Charlson

Relative difficulty: Medium (11:27) (the cocktail I had with dinner probably slowed me some...) 

THEME: "MADE-TO-ORDER" — random words in familiar phrases are anagrammed to create wacky phrases ... turns out that in each case, the anagram involves putting the letters in alphabetical order (47D: Kind of order for the circled letters in this puzzle => ABC):

Theme answers:
  • SQUARE CHIN (22A: Facial feature of a Lego man?) (from "square inch")
  • HOST IN THE DARK (33A: Emcee during a power outage?) (from "shot in the dark")
  • ACES DISMISSED (48A: "The elite fighter pilots may skip the rest of the lecture"?) (from "case dismissed!")
  • ABET AROUND THE BUSH (67A: Drive a getaway care through Australia's outback?) (from "beat around the bush")
  • BEGIN WATCHING (89A: What you might do after the movie previews are finally over?) (but ... weren't you ... "watching" ... the previews?) (from "binge-watching")
  • BELOW MACARONI (106A: Where spaghetti and orzo rank in terms of their suitability for making necklaces?) (from "elbow macaroni")
  • OCEAN DEIST (120A: One who believes exclusively in a sea god?) (from "ocean tides")
Word of the Day: PASTORALE (83D: Piece of music that evokes the countryside) —
n. pl. pas·to·ra·li (-rä′lē) or pas·to·rales
1. An instrumental or vocal composition with a tender melody in a moderately slow rhythm, suggestive of traditional shepherds' music and idyllic rural life.
2. dramatic performance or opera, popular in the 1500s and 1600s, that was based on a rural theme or subject. (thefreedictionary.com)
• • •

I don't think you understand. The entire time I'm solving, I'm honestly thinking, "Come on, puzzle! Show me something! Wow me! Surprise me! Entertain me! You can do it!" I. Want. To. Like. Puzzles. I acknowledge that Sunday is very hard to do well, because themes are just hard to do well in general, and then on Sunday your theme has to be so good that it doesn't become taxing over the course of a large 21x21 grid. But this is why Sundays pay the most. It's the most-solved day of the week. I get my most traffic (by far) on this day of the week. Like ... yeah, it's hard, but this is the Big Time, so shine, already! Today is a good example of why I find the NYTXW Sunday so exasperating. There's just nothing here. There's a thing that *feels* like a theme. I mean, there is a concept. And that concept extends across the longer Across answers. There is wackiness, of a sort. But there is nothing in the way of genuine cleverness or joy. The "alphabetical order" thing ... honestly, I didn't notice. Not while solving, not after. Someone had to tell me. I never saw the revealer, or it didn't register (look at where it is). I just didn't see a clue / answer anywhere indicating that the anagrams involve arranging the letters in alphabetical order, but more importantly, I truly, genuinely, with all my heart, don't understand why a solver is supposed to care? Solvers are going to anagram, based on information in the clue (familiar phrase where one word is clearly re-ordered). And the anagrams are just words. You can *tell* me they're words that have letters that appear in alphabetical order. But ABET is just ABET. It's not hard. For instance, LOST is a word where all the letters are in alphabetical order. And so what? I don't look at any of the anagrammed words and think "wow, the letters in that word are in alphabetical order." BELOW is just a word; I have never cared, and do not now care, that those letters are in alphabetical order. The puzzle is deeply concerned about a thing that I, as a solver, not only am not concerned about, but never even saw. How is that good? And the resulting phrases aren't even funny, my god, you can make up for So Much if you can just hit the "Funny" mark on occasion. But no. And the fill isn't even good, so there's nothing to make up for the sadness of the theme. If you want to see how a simple concept can be enjoyable, look at last Sunday's puzzle. This ... I don't know what this is. I truly don't understand how this passes muster.

There's not much to comment on here. NW corner was where I started and was probably the hardest for me, as I don't remember Winthrop from "The Music Man" (was that ... Ron Howard??), so LISP, hard (1D: What Winthrop speaks with in "The Music Man"). LASS, with that clue, hard (1A: Miss). I still only barely get the clue for ICON (18A: Where a phone might be tapped). I guess I do tap icons on my phone ... seems like more of a "what" than a "where," but OK. No idea about BOBCAT (53A: New Cub Scout). That's not even ... the right ... species? ... or is that not important? Also, I don't care. Cluing seemed maybe harder than usual, overall, but I am drunker than usual, overall, so it's probably just average (note: I've had exactly one drink so don't Worry, I'm just a lightweight—it's a good thing). Only a couple real mistakes today. Thought Winthrop spoke with a TUBA (LOL) and thought LOTT succeeded Frist even though I sorta knew that was chronologically messed up (23D: Frist's successor as Senate majority leader = REID).

Anyway, as for the theme. it's totally possible that I'm just an idiot and missed the "alphabetical order" thing when every other solver could see exactly what was going on ... but somehow I doubt it. The title doesn't tell us enough. "MADE-TO-ORDER" just has "order" in it, and I took it to mean "we've put the letters in a new order" (i.e. anagrammed them), not "we've put these letters in alphabetical order." I went with anagram, not alphabetizing. Seeing what I missed changes my feelings about the puzzle not one bit; if anything, it makes me more disappointed—I just can't believe no one thought about whether this particular twist would add pleasure to the solving experience. Because clearly no one did. I wish the news were better. I'm sorry. Have a nice day.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Intestinal neighbors of jejuna and ceca / SAT 7-25-20 / One of fourteen holy helpers in Roman Catholicism / L in Broadway monogram LMM / Introducer of math symbol e / Pigs jocularly / Retailer that hired its first openly transgender model in 2019

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Constructor: Royce Ferguson

Relative difficulty: Easy? I was not speeding and got up in the middle to do something, so I don't know...

THEME: none

Word of the Day: ST. VITUS (9D: One of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Roman Catholicism) —
Vitus (/ˈvtəs/), according to Christian legend, was a Christian saint from Sicily. He died as a martyr during the persecution of Christians by co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletianand Maximian in 303. Vitus is counted as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers of medieval Roman Catholicism. Saint Vitus' Day is celebrated on 15 June. In places where the Julian Calendar is used, this date coincides, in the 20th and 21st centuries, with 28 June on the Gregorian Calendar.
In the late Middle Ages, people in Germany celebrated the feast of Vitus by dancing before his statue. This dancing became popular and the name "Saint Vitus Dance" was given to the neurological disorder Sydenham's chorea. It also led to Vitus being considered the patron saint of dancers and of entertainers in general. (wikipedia)
• • •

This one lost me at "intestinal neighbors" and never got me back. Triple stacks on their own just aren't enough to hold my interest, and none of the long answers had any kind of currency or spark or vitality or novelty or anything. Puzzle felt like it was made in the 20th century and then someone got to it last week and added a few current / updated clues, but still ... no one's going to write home about CLOSED-BOOK TESTS or LEARN ONE'S LESSON. And the fill really suffers in places. Lots of short fill yesterday, but most of it held up; today, it fell apart a little bit more. I have the word "Yuck" written across the top of my grid *five* times. Now with ROD I was only mad at the clue (without "fishing" in front of it, ROD is horrible as an answer to [Bit of lakeside equipment]), and with AGNI I was mad because every time I've seen it in the past it's been a crosswordese Latin plural, so I instinctively recoiled, but ... it's a real-ass god, and not exactly a super-minor figure (like, say ST. VITUS—who?), so maybe I'll have to learn to at least tolerate the Hindu god AGNI. But I do not have to tolerate ILEA (yuck all around) or ENES, and SHE doesn't have a slash in it—see: SHE sells seashells down by the seashore. No slash. It *can* have a slash in it, I guess, though no one does that any more (singular "they" has triumphed). Because of all the yuck short fill and associated clues, and because none of the long answers gave a proper payoff when they came into view, the puzzle felt disappointing, and sadly nothing going on in the middle or bottom of the grid did much to change that.

AGNI clues of the Shortz era
I kept getting stalled on awkward pseudo-things like UNEDGED and TIE-WRAP. Remembered crosswordese COATI but half-forgot crosswordese ALTAI. Guessed right on crosswordese TOILE (TULLE is the tutu material, TUILE is ... a cookie, I think, and TOILE is upholstery). I don't accept that "L.M.M." is a "Broadway monogram"—I know who you're talking about, I saw "Hamilton" (and not on Disney+), but that "monogram" has not gotten beyond hardcore fandom, I don't think. At least today the ANO clue told you that you really do need the tilde. But it's still ANO, so pfft. Ugh to the Greek letter gimmick whereby XXX = CHIS. And ugh to -ARY. "IT'S HERE!" has a certain energy I like, but multiple KEATONS and multiple BONSAIS and too many other things just get me down. I was proud of how many of my first guesses on the short stuff were correct. VAST ILIA (misspelled, but still, close) SHE EEL RIPA ENES TESS INCA PELE and DEE, all correct. Oh, and INEXILE, boom, no crosses, nailed it (7D: Like the Dalai Lama since 1959). Of course all of this speed was offset by my total inability to see SEALED ENVELOPES (I had CLASS- at the beginning of 12D: Things for which you must memorize information and that Really hurt). [Know for the future] doesn't capture LEARN ONE'S LESSON at all. There's nothing that hints at the f***ing up you have to do in order to LEARN ONE'S LESSON. [Know for the future] just sounds like info you store away. No context. No sense of learning *the hard way*. I'm reminded all the time of how much better many of these puzzles would be with a more careful (and current) editorial voice. Oh well.

Mistakes? Hmm. ALL for ONE, ILIA for ILEA (again just awful), OAR for ROD. I think that's it. Not many at all. Many thanks to crossword stalwarts EULER and NAST and RIPA for easing my path through this thing.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

PS hey if you want to do a Beautiful (if very easy) themeless today, you should check out Caitlin Reid's latest New Yorker puzzle, which is lovely

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Greek personification of darkness / FRI 7-24-20 / Final challenge of video game level / The Bell of Longfellow poem / Bit of poetry with same syllable count as this very clue / Cartoon referenced in Walt Disney Animation Studios logo

Friday, July 24, 2020

Constructor: Grant Thackray

Relative difficulty: Easyish (5:18)

THEME: none

Word of the Day: EREBUS (5D: Greek personification of darkness) —
In Greek mythologyErebus /ˈɛrɪbəs/, also Erebos (Ancient GreekἜρεβοςÉrebos, "deep darkness, shadow" or "covered"), was often conceived as a primordial deity, representing the personification of darkness; for instance, Hesiod's Theogony identifies him as one of the first five beings in existence, born of Chaos. (wikipedia)
• • •

The grid is striking, but I'm not sure it yields the best results. Those loooooong black bars create sections that, yes, house a bunch of longer answers alongside each other, but that also give you *nine* (9) four-letter (or shorter) Across answers in a row (that is, stacked atop one another). That is a lot of short stuff. A lot. A lot a lot. Real feast-or-famine today. You've got your 10-and-overs and your 4-and-unders and not a hell of a lot in between. And the center ... really a dead zone today. Not a lot you can do with an isolated 5x5 section except try to survive without gunking up the grid too badly—mission mostly accomplished, I think: ESTER is def crosswordese, but only ODIST really feels off-putting. Considering how much damn short fill there is, it's not actually that bad. Not nearly as bad as it could've been. And having a ton of short stuff to cut through the banks of longer answers definitely makes getting those answers easy. Short answers are always (generally) easier to get than longer, so all those shorts give solvers lots of opportunities for toeholds. This puzzle should play easier-than-usual for most people, and who doesn't like that?  On the plus side, I think the marquee answers (the two 15s) are very much worthy, particularly STEAMBOAT WILLIE (10D: Cartoon reference in the Walt Disney Animation Studios logo). That answer next to PULL RANK ON and IN OVERTIME is very nice. I also thought LOWERCASE I was clever. Usually a random-letter answer like that (say, CAPITALO) feels pretty arbitrary, but the Apple clue here really gives the answer a sense of purpose. A heft. It's such a distinctive feature of the Apple brand names that it feels OK as a standalone answer in a way that LOWERCASE [some other letter] might not.

I had a very bad start and still finished pretty quickly. After getting SHALE instantly (1A: Rock in which fossils can be found), I wanted HEXA- (!?!?) at 2D: Prefix with -gram). I then wanted ROLE instead of PART (6D: Auditioner's hope), and then GOES instead of ISAT (7D: Attends). So I had to ditch that section because it was just a mess. Got really going with ELON NANA ALVA TUNA SPIN, in that order, one after the other, which gave me the fronts of all the long Downs coming out of the NE. Getting into the center from the SE wasn't easy because I had -OWNER (no idea) (42A: Stock character?) and -INTO (no idea) (29D: Admire, as a lover's eyes). Decided to jump right into the center with SORTA, and then when I wanted ELDER at 28D: Venerable sort, I noticed that the "D" from that would've work with SORTA but *would* work with KINDA. Rest of the center was no problem from there. Once I shot CRABCAKES up into the NW, I managed to work out all my problems up there (never heard of a BOSS BATTLE, so I'm really glad the crosses were gettable, though EREBUS was pretty tough).

Finished up in the SW, which the short crosses made very easy. The only answer that really made me wince in this grid was ATRI (truly primo crosswordese) (54A: "The Bell of ___" (Longfellow poem)), so with a bunch of solid-to-good longer answers, that's probably a win, overall. Now if only I could commit ARIE Luyendyk's name to memory. I keep wanting it to have a "Y" in it. Why!? "Y"!!!? ARYA. Is that ... anybody's name? Woof. The one thing about crosswordese (which ARIE's name definitely is) is that it's at least helpful. Knowing it (see ELON, ESTER, ATRI, etc.) gives you a quick leg up (one you feel kinda bad about because you just know this stuff, you don't know how you know it except from doing so many damn crosswords, it's not a measure of your intelligence, you don't feel like you earned it, etc.). But with [Racer Luyendyk] I can't even get his name to stick. Seen it a billion times, always want it to be slightly different. I think the name ARIE really has been completely taken over in my mind by musician India.ARIE and she's not moving. ANYA Seton ... there's another one I have to stop and think about. And AYLA, a character created by Jane AUEL (AUEL is easy for me, but AYLA I screw up regularly). Where was I? Oh, yeah, pretty good puzzle.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Swaying just before disaster / THU 7-23-20 / Original airer of Monkees / Heineken alternative / Hindu avatar / Leader typically appearing shirtless in SNL parodies

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Constructor: Robyn Weintraub

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium (5:23)

THEME: NOW (30D: Present ... or a concise explanation of this puzzle's theme) — every time you see a "W" in the clues, you have to pretend it's not there, i.e. pretend there is NO "W"; then the clue makes sense. The grid also contains instructions, in case both your own deductive reasoning *and* the revealer both fail you: REMOVE THE / LETTER "W" / FROM CLUES (20A, 40A, 61A)

Word of the Day: ELIHU Root (6D: Peace Nobelist Root) —
Elihu Root (/ˈɛlɪhjuː ˈrt/; February 15, 1845 – February 7, 1937) was an American lawyer and statesman who served as the Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt and as Secretary of War under Roosevelt and President William McKinley. He moved frequently between high-level appointed government positions in Washington, D.C. and private-sector legal practice in New York City. For that reason, he is sometimes considered to be the prototype of the 20th century political "wise man," advising presidents on a range of foreign and domestic issues. He was elected by the state legislature as a U.S. Senator from New York and served one term, 1909–1915. Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. (wikipedia)
• • •

I kept waiting for the *point* of it all to be driven home—by the instructions, by a revealer, by something. But there is no point (that I can see). "W" is just an arbitrary letter that has been removed from some clues (I don't know how many, I didn't go back and check). I figured out the gimmick early, still in the NW, when neither S-N nor -SH-R made any sense for their clues (1A: Major source of wheat and 2D: Job that involves a lot of sweating, respectively). It was only *after* I figured it out that I saw that the "themers" were going to be instructions—instructions which by that point were totally unnecessary. There was no joy or interest or any good feelings involved in just writing in the very straightforward instructions. I guess there was some question over how the instructions were going to be phrased, precisely, but essentially I knew what they were going to say. And the revealer—well, doubly redundant. Again, I got it. I got it before the instructions, and I definitely got it before the revealer. So what looks like some kind of accomplishment—working both instructions *and* a revealer into the grid—actually felt like wasted real estate. I would've enjoyed this much Much more if the instructions were not here. Put NOW down in the lower right and just open this baby up. Go full themeless; at least then your fill will be good, because you'll have more room and your fill won't be compromised by the structural limitations imposed by the instructions. I always find instructions-as-answers kinda grim, and today wasn't any different. I enjoyed the little bits of wordplay involved in de-"W"-ing the clues, but the grid is pretty plain, and the theme, as I say, once you get it, it's gotten, and there's nothing much more to discover.

Here's a little note Robyn just sent me about the construction of the puzzle:

She may be right about the "average solver"—I don't know who the "average solver" is, but I would be curious to know if the instructions actually proved necessary or had an "Aha!" effect on solvers. It could just be that this puzzle wasn't meant for *me*—these things happen.

Puzzle felt very easy except for "OSO"—wow, that was rough. Nothing in the clue to help at all. I assume the Special Agent of the title is a bear ... a Spanish bear. But my kid was never really into Disney stuff, ("Special Agent OSO" ran 2009-12), so that little nook was way harder to work out than any other part of the grid. I also couldn't put together -CENTRIC (44D: Ending that's in the middle?). I get the clue now (it's a suffix, i.e. "ending," that *means* "middle"), but that was really hard to see while solving. Second suffix of the puzzle, which is ... not ideal (65A: Ending for patri- (-OTIC)). I don't really know why that OTIC / ASCOT crossing wasn't OTIS / ASSET. That corner feels pretty wobbly in general. I really liked "EYES ON ME!" and wanted more of that energy (which I'm very used to from Robyn's themelesses). Themes are hard! Anyway, see you tomorrow for (I hope) a themeless!

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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