1957 Jimmy Dorsey hit / SUN 1-31-21 / Oldest tech. school in U.S. founded 1824 / Lonely Boy singer 1959 / Prairie east of the Andes / Cloth woven from flax fibre / On a seder plate it represents the arrival of springtime

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Constructor: Jim Hilger

Relative difficulty: Medium (10-ish)

THEME: "Product Misplacement" — familiar expression where some general category of thing has been replaced with a specific brand of said thing, and then clued wackily. Thus:

Theme answers:
  • MONSTER RAM RALLY (23A: Huge celebration after L.A.'s football team wins the Super Bowl?) (so ... it's "monster truck rally" ... and the RAM, clued here as a football team, is a brand of truck ...)
  • NATURE ABHORS A HOOVER (38A: Reason that the prestigious scientific journal refuses articles from President Herbert's relatives?) ("natures abhors a vacuum," and HOOVER. clued here as a president, is a brand of vacuum) (etc.)
  • MY SOLO RUNNETH OVER (57A: Apology from a musician to the other band members?) (Solo cups are a thing)
  • WORKED FOR PLANTERS (79A: Volunteered at a nursery?) (so ... the clue wants you to think of the kind of nursery with plants ... where you'd maybe see ... planters?) (also PLANTERS is a brand of peanut, obvs)
  • THROWING IN THE BOUNTY (97A: Adding a historic ship as a deal sweetener?)
  • TALE OF THE SCOTCH (117A: Story about a drinking binge?)
Word of the Day: Ad VALOREM tax (44D: Ad ___ tax) —
An ad valorem tax (Latin for "according to value") is a tax whose amount is based on the value of a transaction or of property. It is typically imposed at the time of a transaction, as in the case of a sales tax or value-added tax (VAT). An ad valorem tax may also be imposed annually, as in the case of a real or personal property tax, or in connection with another significant event (e.g. inheritance taxexpatriation tax, or tariff). In some countries a stamp duty is imposed as an ad valorem tax. (wikipedia)
• • •

I can't give much time to this because it's so depressing. This puzzle is depressing, and the general state of the NYTXW Sunday is so depressing. The editors are busy bragging that they're getting more submissions than ever, but as far as I know they don't have a great explanation for why Sundays continue to be so completely terrible the large majority of the time. It's stunning to me how stale Sundays are, week in and week out. Not sure why the best constructors seem to avoid them. Paolo Pasco had one a few weeks back that was fantastic. But most of what comes out just rehashes the corny, stale wordplay of yesteryear, with fill to match. Today's theme didn't even make sense. Or, rather, the title in no way accurately represented what the theme was about. "Product Misplacement?" Nothing ... is misplaced. Placement ... is not an issue. At all. In every case, you are making the general specific (for some reason ... I guess this amuses you ... we'll leave the specific merits of the theme aside for the moment). That's not "misplacement?" The product is in the same "place" as it ever was. But instead of the general (e.g. "towel"), we get the specific (i.e. "BOUNTY"). So it's awful from the jump, on its face, in the title. This is elementary stuff. It's fine to have a title that only faintly captures what the theme is about—not all themes are reducible to a pithy title. But to have one that actively misstates the premise. That is bad. 

Then there's the inconsistency. The truck that's turned into a RAM is actually a truck, whereas the vacuum that's turned into a HOOVER is not a household-appliance vacuum. "Peanuts" are metaphorical, but still, the basis of the metaphor is the food, which is what PLANTERS are: peanuts. But you don't throw in a *paper* towel, which is what BOUNTY is. And I get that SCOTCH tape is a thing, and that SCOTCH is a brand (even though it's used generically to mean a kind of tape, like Kleenex ... I think). But wow, that answer. First of all, "tale of the tape" is the kind of phrase that ... I don't even really know what it means. I know I've heard it, but it's not exactly evocative of ... anything for me. Apparently it comes from boxing (which used to be a big deal in the 20th century, kids, ask your folks), where you'd compare boxers' stats, including their reaches, which I guess ... you measured with tape. So the base phrase feels archaic to me. And SCOTCH, well, SCOTCH is not something I readily associate with a *brand*; no, Scotch is something I drink, and something I desperately want to drink right about now, as the conceptual deficiencies of this puzzle are really too much.

Imagine thinking VALOREM is a good thing to put in your puzzle. I don't know how something like that—a *long* *partial* *Latin* answer—gets in here. Maybe Jimmy Dorsey or Paul ANKA or Johnny UNITAS knows the answer. Which is to say, holy smokes this puzzle is living in the past (and *only* in the distant past). Please, don't accuse me of I not enjoying old things—I'm a medievalist, for pete's sake (shout-out to all the ANGLO-Norman fans out there!)—the issue is how aggressively, er, AGO a puzzle is, and this one's about as aggressive as they come. BAILOR? NUNCIO? What am I supposed to do with this? I can handle some antiquated rough stuff here and there, if there's, you know, amelioration somewhere else in the grid. But alas. All I get is IRISH LINEN, which I'd like to like, but honestly, again, I don't even know what that is. 

[123A: Puccini piece]

I struggled in the NE because of VALOREM (???) and then because I had GROAN instead of GRUNT (possibly because I was groaning, not grunting, while solving) (22A: Sound of exertion). Ran into the old ALOT v. ATON dilemma (31A: Oodles and oodles). Couldn't see "MERCI" as a "nicety" (26A: Nice nicety) (ugh, why do you let your cutesy alliterating and rhyming take precedence over precision!?) (Oh, and "Nice" is a city in France, in case that didn't register). Clue on SPA DAY was way too vague for me to have much hope there (48A: Restorative indulgence). Oh, and I misspelled FOIE (Fr. for "liver") as FOIS (Fr. for "times"), thus ending up with ASONS at 43D: Units in the life span of a galaxy (AEONS), which I was *almost* willing to believe was some astronomical term I'd just never heard. But thankfully I caught the mistake on FOIE and fixed it. The rest of the puzzle was uneventful (unless groans are events). Alright, that's all. Sorry, Sunday-only solvers. I wish I could be more chipper for you, but truly you have chosen the worst day of the week to solve. Trust me, I solve them all.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Amphibian that Ogden Nash once rhymed with bottle / SAT 1-30-21 / Singing style with African-American roots / Longtime Sacha Baron Cohen persona

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Constructor: Nam Jin Yoon

Relative difficulty: Easy (more Friday than Saturday)

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: Milan KUNDERA (34D: Milan ___, author of 1984's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") —

Milan Kundera (UK/ˈkʊndərə, ˈkʌn-/Czech: [ˈmɪlan ˈkundɛra] (About this soundlisten); born 1 April 1929) is a Czech writer who went into exile in France in 1975, becoming a naturalised French citizen in 1981. Kundera's Czechoslovak citizenship was revoked in 1979. He received Czech citizenship in 2019. He "sees himself as a French writer and insists his work should be studied as French literature and classified as such in book stores".

Kundera's best-known work is The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Prior to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the communist régime in Czechoslovakia banned his books. He leads a low-profile life and rarely speaks to the media. He was thought to be a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was also a nominee for other awards. (wikipedia)

• • •

A smashing success. And I smashed it. As with yesterday, this felt very very easy for a NYTXW themeless. I have not been timing myself regularly these days, but it genuinely feels like the NYTXW is deliberately making its F and Sat puzzles more accessible (i.e. easier), bringing them (in that respect) more into line with the New Yorker themelesses (which come out M, W, F and get progressively *easier* as the week goes on, but which are never harder than an NYT Friday). There's something to be said for easier themelesses. They're great fun, and there's no reason only the most experienced solvers should be able to enjoy them fully. Still, if you solve a lot, it's nice to encounter puzzles with real bite once a week or so. The Saturday Newsday crossword (formerly the "Saturday Stumper") recently changed its name to the "Saturday Themeless" (worst name change ever) and is being made somewhat easier now (though I'm happy to report it's still pretty ****ing hard). The upshot here is that I have adored the last two NYTXW puzzles (today, Friday), but didn't get to spend enough time with them because they were clued so easily. I am not asking for torture. Just a little fight. But on to the puzzle...

This one started with a gimme at 1A: Hero of Philadelphia (HOAGIE). If you've done enough puzzles, the word "Hero" (esp. on a Saturday) is gonna shout "sandwich" at you, the way any number of clue words (on a Saturday) radiate with potential doubleness of meaning (or tripleness, or quad- etc.). "They mean the sandwich," dropped in HOAGIE, immediately checked the crosses, and got enough of them to confirm HOAGIE's correctness. Fast start in the NW (where the front ends of the long answers are) heralds speed, and sure enough, immediately after HOAGIE confirmation, this happened:

Counterpoint: I do not hate to see it. I love this answer. Such a great way to have the puzzle blow open. Very current and colloquial and just mwah. I feel like this is more a social media phrase than an irl (in real life) phrase, but then most of my human interaction these days is online so separating online from irl languages is getting increasingly difficult. Anyway, YOU HATE TO SEE IT brought me joy. It's not ROCKET SCIENCE! Give me pizzazz in the long answers on a Fri/Sat and just don't botch the short fill and tighten up your cluing and boom I am Happy! Seemed like almost no time until I was already at the halfway point. Here:

From here I dipped into the SW corner, where I am happy to report, that yes, I knew *and* misspelled both AXOLOTL (AXOLATL) and SAOIRSE (SAORSIE): quite a pair, those two. Luckily, the crosses for those were fairly transparent, so I didn't wallow in my misspellings too long, and then, just as easily as I threw the long answers across the top, I repeated the feat down below:

This is the only point at which I ran into a little resistance, as I couldn't see CROW or DOO-WOP there in the crosses. I *should* have just looked at the Down clue over, because KUNDERA would've been a gimme, but instead I jumped over the the SE corner and hammered at the short stuff, swung up into the middle via KITTY CAT (keety!!), and down around and done, finally, at RODE (47A: Was on). The answers that were hardest for me in this puzzle were all short. SCAB clue didn't mean anything to me (15D: Natural cover), even with SC- and then SCA- in place. Even then, I guessed SCAR. And then CROW, even with -OW in place, couldn't see how you get from the end of a magic trick ("ta-da!") to CROW. I guess you are boasting about your accomplishment. OK.

PASTED was also hard, as there are soooo many words for defeating someone soundly (54A: Absolutely trounced). Clues on TET (51D: Banh ___ (sticky rice cake)) and AKA (3D: America's first historically black sorority, in brief) were also new to me (nice new clues on overfamiliar stuff), so there was hesitation there. But mostly there was just speed. And delight. This is really good. I haven't yet seen a ton of puzzles from this constructor, but I must've seen a few because my reaction on seeing the byline was "oh ... this is a good sign, I think." And I was right. Was worried it was going to get over-tech-y on me there early on (ITERATE, CODE), but no, it was nicely restrained. And then it gave me a KITTY CAT, COATES, CRUST (my favorite part of the pie!) and KUNDERA—all things I enjoy. Really lively, really wide-ranging fill. Hurray. Until tomorrow.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. just realized that it's possible one might not know either ALI G or GENA Rowlands, in which case that cross would be a harrowing guess. If this was you, my sympathies. Proper nouns, man ...

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


TV roommates for 50+ years / FRI 1-29-21 / Indian lentil dish / Creature in Liberty Mutual ads / Apt name for a yoga instructor / Article of attire akin to a tarboosh

Friday, January 29, 2021

Constructor: Robyn Weintraub

Relative difficulty: Easy (maybe too easy? I mean, that's not a terribly valid criticism, but I really wish I'd been timing myself because this felt close to the 3-minute mark)

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: Tarboosh (1A: Article of attire akin to a tarboosh => FEZ) —

A tarboosh is a man's hat that is typically made of felt. It has a flat top, no brim, and fits firmly on the head. It is commonly worn by Muslim men, either by itself or under a turban. The tarboosh also often has a silk tassel attached to the top. Red is the most common color for this hat.

Derived from the Persian word sarpush, meaning 'headdress,' the tarboosh is also known as a tarbush. It has also been called a fez and a checheya. The fez is a hat originally only produced in Fez, Morocco, and is slightly smaller than a tarboosh. Regardless of the name, all hats of this type have a similar truncated cone shape, that narrows as they extend upward from the head. (wisegeek.com)

• • •

Few things are as reliably good as a Robyn Weintraub Friday crossword. Even with my rage-response set to ultra-sensitive, I don't know that this puzzle would set off any alarms. Whatever crosswordese there is ... is scattered and unremarkable. I mean, what? ATRA? Maybe ATTY? What's in this puzzle that's gonna make you mad, make you ugh or eye-roll? Whatever it is, there ain't much of it. Maybe I wouldn't put two initialisms right next to each other? (SPCA / AARP). You can see, you have to really reach to find fault today. The one issue—which I mentioned at the very tiptop of the write-up—is that it's soooo easy. I know those of you who struggle to finish a Friday hate hearing stuff like this, but truly, relative to even a normally breezy Friday, this one felt toothless. Resistance-free. What little green ink there is on my puzzle print-out merely indicates an occasional slight slow-down. No actual battles or bafflements. It's nice to have to wrestle with a puzzle at least a little. I know that's what Saturday's for, and I do love crushing a Friday, or any day, but this one almost didn't feel like a worthy opponent. But only at the difficulty level. In every other way, it's worthy as hell. Smooth, clean, lively, broadly accessible. Oh, I am gonna ding it for introducing me to the term "Lubrastrip," which is a particularly off-putting bit of adspeak. A horrid portmanteau? A snortmanteau? Portmant-d'oh!? I managed not to see that clue at all while I was solving, and I was so much happier in the before-Lubrastrip time. Still, even Lubrastrip can't eliminate the warm glow that this lovely puzzle leaves behind.

Hardest part of the puzzle was probably 1A: Article of attire akin to a tarboosh, as I didn't know what a tarboosh was. First instinct was HAT (close!), but "akin to" didn't feel right. Seemed like tarboosh might be a "type of" HAT, but not "akin to" a HAT, so my brain switched to some more specific article of clothing and ... well, it's a crossword we're solving here ... three letters ... so ... OBI? Maybe a "tarboosh" was some kind of non-Japanese sash, I wrongly thought. Checked 1D: Achievements, instantly guessed FEATS, and as soon as the "F" went in, I thought, "oh, it's FEZ." And it was. And once you've got a "Z" in an initial position on a long answer at the top of your grid, well, hold on to your tarboosh because you're about to take off. Whoosh. High speeds, no looking back. 

Here are the little bits of resistance the puzzle offered:
  • 22A: Spacewalk, e.g., in NASA shorthand (EVA) — I was pretty sure that the BERT of BERT AND ERNIE was an "E" BERT (!) and not a "U" BURT, but I thought, "better check the cross." And then the cross was this. I knew it wasn't UVA, so cool, but I totally forgot what EVA was "shorthand" for. It's "Extravehicular activity." So I didn't "forget" what EVA meant so much as "never knew until this second." Cool.
  • 49D: Symbol of opportunity (DOOR) — this was eerily vague to me, and it ran right through a *bunch* of answers I was not entirely sure about. I've seen "Sweeney Todd," but ___ Lovett didn't evoke anything for me, and it seemed such a bizarre way to clue something simple like MRS. that I didn't write the "R" in despite having the "M" and "S." Further, I had PARENT but didn't yet know HOOD, and CRISIS but wasn't yet sure of MODE (though I had at least tentatively written it in). I actually had to reach over and get DONE DEAL at 49A: "100% happening!" in order to get the "D," and then write in -HOOD at PARENTHOOD and then take a second to look back at DOO-, which had to be DOOR, which left me with MRS. Lovett, which seemed entirely plausible. Easily the roughest part of the grid for me (by normal Friday standards, not that rough). 
  • 45D: Spacecraft activity (FLY-BY) — clearly space is my enemy today. I think of planes doing FLY-BYs, not spacecraft. Eventually got the two "Y"s and then saw the answer. Parsing short two-word answers can be difficult, since you only ever expect to see a one-word answer in a space that small. See also SUM UP (26D: Recapitulate), which took a few crosses to get.
That's it. Everything else was read-it / fill-it. We had YOGA MAT very recently, didn't we? (yes: yesterday) So the MATT clue was not as tricky as it might've been (10D: Apt name for a yoga instructor?). I have never seen "The Sound of Music" (it's true!), but I damn sure know LIESL, a favorite of crossword constructors for her highly common letters in uncommon configuration (not much ends -SL). Didn't know DEPP did the voice of the title character in "Sherlock Gnomes" (whatever that is) but I had D--P before I ever saw the clue, so my eyes only got as far as [Actor who voiced...]. That was enough. Loved all the long stuff, esp ZERO CHANCE, EXTRA SPICY, BERT AND ERNIE, SECRET RECIPE ... at this point, I'm just writing out all the long answers, so let's just say all of them. Everything 8+. This is a model puzzle, the cluing difficulty of which could've been turned up a notch. Good day.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


TV producer Chaiken / THU 1-28-21 / Giant walking combat vehicle in Star Wars films / Golden blades that may be tenderly chew'd by equine or bovine beings / Girl group with 1999 #1 album FanMail / Release as song in modern lingo / Funerary burners

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Constructor: Steve Mossberg

Relative difficulty: Easy

THEME: ily — familiar expressions have their last words turned into adverb (through addition of "ily"), and are clued as if the newly-made adverb referred to the cluing of the pre-adverb part of the sentence. So, in essence, the answers are the clues ... for the clues ... the answers end up describing the ways the theme clues are written:

Theme answers:
  • THE LAST WORDILY (20A: Something directly following a penultimate position — that is to say, diametrically opposed to primary one) (so ... the clue describes THE LAST and the clue is written WORDILY)
  • HOT MESSILY (34A: L iKe aN Ov eN) (so ... the clue describes HOT and the clue is written MESSILY)
  • HAY LOFTILY (39A: Golden blades that may be tenderly chew'd by equine or bovine beings) (clue describes HAY, is written LOFTILY)
  • ALL THAT JAZZILY (53A: The cat's meow, baby. Dig?) (clue describes ALL THAT, is written JAZZILY (is it, though...?)
Word of the Day: crystal jellies (29D: What crystal jellies do when disturbed) —

Aequorea victoria, also sometimes called the crystal jelly, is a bioluminescent hydrozoan jellyfish, or hydromedusa, that is found off the west coast of North America.

The species is best known as the source of two proteins involved in bioluminescence, aequorin, a photoprotein, and green fluorescent protein (GFP). Their discoverers, Osamu Shimomura and colleagues, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on GFP.

• • •

Themes where the clue writing is *everything* are always dicey and usually fall flat because of the editorial voice. You have to be good, and funny, to make stuff like this land, and today, the clues were really off the mark. Forced, awkward, somewhat inaccurate or misleading. I literally heaved a heavy sigh when I got the first themer, as I realized two things. Well three. One, nonsense would be in the grid. Two, we would be in one of these "answers are really the clues" situations, which almost never go well. And three, we would be subject to three more stabs at humorous clue writing, the first of which, wow, did not go well. I'm just gonna type out the first theme clue again, so you can re-experience the magic: "Something directly following a penultimate position ... that is to say, diametrically opposed to a primary one." Awful clue writing is bad enough, but now we get not just a parody of awful clue writing, but a bad parody of it, which takes us from bad to possibly good to nope still bad again. It is painful to read this clue, which I get is the point, but still, painful is painful. If you're going to deliberately subject me to pain, man there had better be relief at the end. And there was not. The clue doesn't even describe THE LAST very well at all. First of all, you would (probably) never have THE LAST in a puzzle all on its own, so cluing it at all is a bizarre idea. Second, this clue doesn't even do that well; it's not "wordy" (which is what it's *supposed* to be) as confusing, inaccurate, and pompous. The clarifying phrase ("that is to say" and following) only obfuscates by using the word "diametrically," which brings shape or the idea of antithesis into the equation, neither of which has anything to do with THE LAST. What does "diameter" have to do with "(the) first" and "(the) last"? "Wordy" does not mean inaccurate or confusing, necessarily. Also, the clue isn't even that wordy relative to clues you see every day in the NYTXW. There are more words in the LEAR clue!!!!!  I guess that makes this clue penultimately wordy, which is by far my favorite thing about this clue now—its ironic self-referentiality. This first theme clue is so important for setting the tone, and it was just so unpleasant. Other theme clues were better, but how could they not be? The whole concept left me pretty cold.

I kinda like the slanginess of HOT MESS and ALL THAT, which at least make the clues in those instances a little interesting. I worry about people not familiar with the expression "ALL THAT," which, yes, is decades old, but still might not be in some people's lexicons (there was a brief unfortunate period in the '90s when "all that and a bag of chips" was a popular expression).  If you somehow missed the emergence of the expression ALL THAT (which OED dates to '89), it just means "something special" (i.e. as the clue says "the cat's meow" ... or "the cat's pajamas," I suppose. They sure liked their cats in the '20s ... or maybe it was one particularly awesome cat and people just lexically freaked out). "Cat's meow" is from the '20s and "Dig?" ... isn't ... and "baby" evokes Austin Powers, so I don't know what era or planet that clue is on, but at least it's entertaining, unlike the HAY LOFTILY clue (39A: Golden blades that may be tenderly chew'd by equine or bovine beings), which honestly sounds exactly like many ordinary NYTXW clues except for the ridiculous elided-e version of "chew'd." And about that: elision like that only happens in poetry, when you need to make the meter come out right (the elided "e" makes "chew'd" definitively one syllable, whereas without the elision, it could be pronounced with two).  In poetry, elision might be "lofty," I guess, but in a prose crossword clue, it's nonsense. This clue and the first one are just cringey, whereas the other two at least have zaniness going for them. The fill, well, you can see, all 3 4 5s, nothing interesting going on. TOSH, ugh, that bit of archaic nonsense (I had BOSH!) crossing LATTE as clued (1D: Drink from a machine) was the worst. You use a machine to make a latte, "From a machine" makes it sound like it's dispensed out of a machine like an ICEE or something. Blargh. TOSH! The venerable AOL / NETZERO pairing tells you exactly how current the fill in this puzzle feels, generally (is NETZERO still a thing!?). But the fill's not bad. Just blah. Well, ONE TO GO is kinda bad. Like yesterday, this one relies entirely on its theme for entertainment. Unlike yesterday, this one couldn't execute the concept well at all. 

Seems possible that the AT-AT / TARTT crossing might've flummoxed someone somewhere, but all the other names seem fairly crossed. That's all for today.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Drug trafficker informally / WED 1-27-21 / Servius Tullius e.g. in ancient Rome / Texas politico O'Rourke / Longtime actress co-starring in Netflix's Grace and Frankie

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Constructor: Mike Knobler

Relative difficulty: Easy

THEME: What lies beneath... — familiar phrases that start with "beneath," "under," and "below" (respectively) are situated in the grid literally "beneath" (or "below" or "under") a word defined by the latter part of the familiar phrases. Thus:

Theme answers:
  • BENEATH CONTEMPT is situated "beneath" a word meaning "contempt" (i.e. SCORN)
    • 17A: Despicable ... or where this answer goes? + 15A: "Silence is the most perfect expression of ___" (line in a Shaw play)
  • UNDER THE WEATHER is situated "under" a form of "weather"(i.e. MONSOON)
    • 39A: Sick ... or where this answer goes? + 36A: What to expect between June and September in India
  • BELOW THE SURFACE is situated "below" a type of "surface" (i.e. FACET)
    • 62A: Latent ... or where this answer goes? + 57A: Side to be considered
Word of the Day: AGAR (14A: Vegetarian substitute for gelatin)
1a gelatinous colloidal extract of a red alga (as of the genera Gelidium, Gracilaria, and Eucheuma) used especially in culture media or as a gelling and stabilizing agent in foods
2a culture medium containing agar (merriam-webster.com)
• • •

I think this theme is fantastic, and the me who started this puzzle is very surprised to hear himself say that, because things did not start out so promising. The fill early on (and throughout, honestly) just EKEs BY. Lots of short, overfamiliar stuff including not one but two of the dreaded playground retorts. Loved JANE FONDA, but everything around her suggested to me that we weren't going anywhere good:

This corner suggests that a very crusty, olden puzzle is about to roll right over you. So bad of an omen did it seem that I stopped (as you can see) and took a screenshot. But immediately (and I mean immediately) after I redug into the puzzle after this screenshot, the theme leapt across the grid. I got both grid-spanning themers, bam bam:

So I thought, well, if nothing else, this puzzle just got a whole lot easier, real quick. I could tell pretty quickly where the theme was going, but I didn't stop to work it out; I just went back to filling the grid as fast as I could, knowing the theme would reveal itself in time. And while filling the grid wasn't exactly joyful (the fill remains in a kind of dry 1980s state throughout, with almost no sparkle or personality and an abundance dull short answers), the theme, when it came into full view at the very end, really does come out looking great. All the phrases are perfect 15 grid-spanners, all of them "under" phrases, all of them have their crowning word centered directly on top of them. The mirror symmetry of the grid allows for a visually pleasing execution of the theme. So while the fill is meh, the theme itself feels very thoughtfully worked out and very polished. There's really nowhere to go with the fill, considering the way the grid is built (i.e. with almost all the answers being 3, 4, or 5 letters in length. JANE FONDA and TUMMYACHE really pop against the drabness of the rest of it. But today, merely not being terrible is enough for the fill. The theme is a gem, and that is plenty.

Five things:
  • 26D: Enlist again (RE-UP) — this was the very last answer I filled in on the very first Sunday puzzle I ever successfully completed (spring of '91). I was solving with friends and said "Roop ... roip ... that can't be ... oh, wait, is it RE-UP? Oh my god, it's RE-UP, it's right, we're done!" Much celebration, in the form of milkshake-drinking, ensued, probably. And yet when I see RE-UP today, it just seems like crummy crosswordese.  
  • 5A: Frequent sights in Road Runner cartoons (CACTI) — I know you put MESAS in here at first so don't even try to pretend you didn't.
  • 38A: What's what, in Italy (CHE) — got this entirely from crosses and when I checked the clue, I was startled not to see the famous revolutionary staring at me. I do not mind this cluing of CHE at all (if you *have* to use CHE).
  • 67A: Burnish (RUB) — weirdly, one of the harder moments of the puzzle for me, since I only ever hear "burnish" used metaphorically (as something one does to one's reputation). EKE BY is rough, as is so much of the dregs of this grid (or maybe the "lees" of this grid, since it's all just settled on the bottom, this gunky mess of EKE BY and WSW crossing WDS crossing AHAS plural next to UEY. You can see REX down there, huddled in the SW corner trying to keep his distance from all that mess.
  • 41D: Drive ... or drive mad? (TEE OFF) — another hard moment; clue writer tries to get cute, and doesn't really hit the nail on the head with either halves of the clue, frankly. I had the TE- and the terminal -F and no idea what to do with it. But then James Brown came to the FUNKy rescue (61A: "I only got a seventh-grade education, but I have a doctorate in ___": James Brown), and that second "F" helped me parse it correctly. I'm on the record as not enjoying fill-in-the-blank quote clues, but James Brown gets a pass. You know who doesn't get a pass. George Bernard Shaw. At least I assume it's George Bernard and not, I don't know, Artie that we're talking about at 15A: "Silence is the most perfect expression of ___" (line in a Shaw play) (SCORN). *A* Shaw play? You're gonna fill-in-the-blank me on a quote from a play you won't even name, by an author you won't even fully name???? No. I'm fine with Shaw standing on its own, actually, but *a* play is awful. At least name the play. (Haha, here's why they fudged it: the quote is from the fifth part of Back to Methuselah, which is really a series of five plays—this quote being from the part entitled "As Far As Thought Can Reach: A.D. 31,920"; since the play is not famous and is really five plays ... you can see why they just threw up their hands and went with "*a* Shaw play" (still very unsatisfying))
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Blows one's top / TUES 1-26-21 / Snoring symbols / California's motto / Bigfoot or yeti

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Hello! It’s Clare back for the last Tuesday in January. Hope you’ve all been staying as safe and as entertained as possible. I’m over here starting to feel like I may be losing my mind — I’ve finally reached the stage of quarantine where I’m making a sourdough starter and have spent way too much time on TikTok and Twitter and have dyed my blonde hair red and am contemplating surrounding myself with 800 plants (but I’m worried that they’d just judge me for my random BTS dance parties). 

Anywho, let’s get on with the puzzle before I expose any more of my oddities...

Constructor: Peter Gordon

Relative difficulty: Difficult

THEME: SCRABBLE (60A: Game in which the answers to the starred clues are legal plays but cannot be formed even if you have both blanks) — words that can’t be played in Scrabble because of a limited number of certain tiles

Theme answers:
  • PIZZAZZY (17A: Having panache
  • KNICKNACK (25A: Trinket
  • STRESSLESSNESS (35A: State that many people want to get to on vacation
  • RAZZMATAZZ (50A: Gaudy display

Word of the Day: NARWHAL (45A: Tusked marine creature of the Arctic)
The narwhal is a medium-sized toothed whale that possesses a large "tusk" from a protruding canine tooth. It lives year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia. It is one of two living species of whale in the family Monodontidae, along with the beluga whale. The narwhal males are distinguished by a long, straight, helical tusk, which is an elongated upper left canine.
• • •
Wow, I really did not like this puzzle. I know Rex is usually the one who rails against Scrabble-ish puzzles, but I’ll give it a shot today! My uncle is a former Scrabble national champion, so I should probably know a lot about the game, but, alas, I did not pick it up. To be honest, I didn’t even understand the point of the theme until afterward with some quick Googling — there’s only one Z-tile, one K-tile and four S-tiles, so even with the two blank tiles you can’t play words with four Z’s, four K’s or seven S’s. And once I understood the point.... I still didn’t like the theme. First of all, in terms of construction, to work down through the puzzle and go from Z’s to K’s to S’s and then back to Z’s seems off. I hated STRESSLESSNESS with a passion and don’t think it should be a thing at all. Who goes on a vacation and says, “Ah, yes, when I come back I shall have achieved some STRESSLESSNESS”? Same with PIZZAZZY. Pizzazz is a great word. I love that word. But get that Y out of there. 

I liked TANZANIA (36D) as a long down, but the others in the NE and SW corners made the puzzle a bit harder than usual. POTTAGES (11D: Thick soups) and TREACLES (12D: Thick syrups) are cool words, but both made me reach into the far corners of my brain to figure them out. And I’m not especially familiar with the Glass-STEAGALL Act (35D), so that made me stare at the puzzle as I tried to work it out. 

Sorry, I’m on a roll — and my brain feels fried from classes — so I think I just have to keep ranting now… THE CIA (59D and 61D: org. once headed by George W. Bush) was really quite dumb. I spent way too long trying to puzzle this out. Just… maybe don’t use “THE” in a puzzle? Who is Horatio SANZ (38D)? (It’s awesome that he was the show’s first Hispanic cast member, but he made me long for the days of Cheri Oteri as a name I’d know) Lava may be legit as a type of SOAP (15A), but it is verrry old-fashioned. Its logo alone looks like it belongs in the ‘70s. Please leave it there. There were two characters from St. Elmo’s Fire in the puzzle (54A and 2D), which is odd to me. Having SEAEAGLE (31A) and then STEAGALL (35D) in the same puzzle also feels like a lot of overlap. 

I don’t know if I just wasn’t on the puzzle’s wavelength or if it was a bit old for me or if I’m just way too exhausted to be thinking straight, but getting through the puzzle was a struggle. Sorry to be such a Debbie Downer today! (By the way, Debbie Downer is an SNL character played by Rachel Dratch, in case any future crossword constructors are looking for names people might know.)

  • I had “icicle” rather than ICE DAM (29D: Cold weather roofing problem) for a while in the puzzle, which messed me up in that whole lower left area. 
  • I think HOBBES should be in every puzzle — I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, and it’s just objectively the best. 
  • It’s like the puzzle constructor was speaking directly to me because I am most definitely feeling SLEEPY (20A: Feeling ready for bed)… 
  • When I hear RAZZMATAZZ, I can only think of it as the Jamba Juice flavor I used to get every single time. 
  • Here’s a Scrabble story for those of you who have gotten this far: When my dad congratulated his older brother on winning the Scrabble title, my incredibly and wildly rational mathematician uncle replied, “I was lucky.” Oh? How so? “In the final game, I had to beat the best player in the world by more than 150 points. I drew both blanks and all four S's, and beat him by 185. I was lucky.”
Signed, Clare Carroll, a stressfullness-ed law student

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Fledgling pigeon / MON 1-25-21 / Nickname for Cardinals with the / Old weapon in hand-to-hand combat

Monday, January 25, 2021

Constructor: Kevin Christian and Andrea Carla Michaels

Relative difficulty: Medium (3:01) (normalish M time)

THEME: "YOU'RE FIRED!" (62A: Dreaded cry from a boss ... or a hint to the ends of 18-, 23-, 40- and 53-Across) — familiar phrases where final words (which are nouns) can also be verbs meaning "fired" (as from a job):

Theme answers:
  • GARBAGE CAN (18A: Oscar the Grouch's home)
  • BATTLE AXE (23A: Old weapon in hand-to-hand combat)
  • QUARTERBACK SACK (40A: Result of a football blitz, maybe)
  • ANKLE BOOT (53A: Bit of fashionable footwear)
Word of the Day: SQUAB (33D: Fledgling pigeon) —
ba cushion for a chair or couch
2or plural squab a fledgling birdspecifically a fledgling pigeon about four weeks old
3a short fat person (merriam-webster)
• • •

Not sure I'd run this puzzle in *this* economy, but whatever. Today's big revelation, for me, is definition 1 and 3 in the SQUAB entry (above). Wow. COUCH!? Bizarre. If you clued SQUAB as [Couch] ... would it make a sound? I mean, who would get that? And the "short fat person" just sounds mean. SQUAT or SQUAD is better for a Monday, but this grid is really committed to RED BIRDS, which, uh ... let's just say, not my fav franchise (though Bob Gibson *is* one of my fav players). Just pull everything after RED and refill the grid, IMO. This will help you get rid of not only SQUAB, but also AANDM, a really ugly ampersandwich that has no business being in a grid that has no real thematic pressure on it and should therefore be relatively easy to fill cleanly. The fill on this one is STALER than I'd like, but overall this grid, and it's theme, is very very 20th-century normal. The puzzle is partying like it's 1999. Very straightforward, very consistent, just fine. No zing, but no clank either. It's fine. Thematically, the only part I hesitated on was the BOOT part of ANKLE BOOT, as I had no idea those were inherently "fashionable." Or is "fashionable" just there to get you your cutesy alliteration in the clue? Anyway, I was expecting something more "fashionable"-sounding than a mere BOOT. Still, not much here to cheer or get mad at. It ticks the Monday box. Done.

I always try to do the first three Acrosses in a row on Mondays, and if I can bang them out 1 2 3, I know I'm gonna do well. Today, 1 2 ... not three. Couldn't get ADAPT from just 9A: Become acclimated. Somehow, the clue doesn't suggest ADAPT to me at all. I think more of "change" rather than merely "getting used to," oh well. I tried to run all the crosses off IRAN next, and only got one (1) (!) of them at first pass. I got AMIGA. That's it. I kinda misread 1D: Not give an ___ (be stubborn), with my brain thinking the "an" was going to be part of the answer ... I do not understand this elaborate, clunky fill-in-the-blank clue for something as simple as INCH. And REHAB as a verb, clued very plainly (and with no injury or drug/alcohol frame of reference) really threw me (2D: Give a makeover, informally). "NO CUTS" was easily the toughest, in that it's highly colloquial and childish, neither of which is suggested by the clue (4D: "Hey, don't jump in front of me in the line!"). Had DIS before DIG (5D: Insult). That is a weirdly mid-to-late-week clue on DIG. "MERCY!" was way too quaint for me to get quickly (28D: "Goodness gracious!"). And I honestly couldn't remember if the fledgling bird was SQUIB or SQUAB, and I definitely wrote in SQUIB at first (though I did realize I'd have to check that cross very shortly thereafter, and I did, and so I fixed the error quickly). Two cross-references made things a tad slower today than they might've been as well. But still, as I say, totally normal (i.e. fast) Monday time today. Very average. Everything about this puzzle: average. See you tomorrow.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Diarist who documented Great Plague of London / SUN 1-24-21 / Blueberries for kid-lit classic / Only Stratego piece with letter on it / Maker of X6 and Z4

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Constructor: Lucy Howard and Ross Trudeau

Relative difficulty: Easy (8:47)

THEME: "Sugar, Sugar" — wacky phrases made out of candy names:

Theme answers:
  • NERDS RING POP (22A: Bookworms call dad?)
  • BABY RUTH SNICKERS (31A: A young Justice Ginsburg chuckles?)
  • CRUNCH NOW AND LATER (47A: Do core exercises all day, every day?)
  • WHOPPERS SPREE (67A: Burger King bingefest?)
  • MILKY WAY STARBURST (84A: Supernova in our galaxy?)
  • LIFESAVERS PAYDAY (103A: When E.M.T.s bring home the bacon?)
  • MARS SMARTIES (115A: Some astronomy PhD.s?)
Word of the Day: Tones and I (37A: Singer Watson, a.k.a. Tones and I with the 2019 dance hit "Dance Monkey" => TONI) —

Toni Watson, known professionally as Tones and I, is an Australian singer and songwriter. Her breakout single, "Dance Monkey", was released in May 2019 and reached number one in over 30 countries. 

In 2019, she broke the Australian record for the most weeks at number one on the ARIA Singles Chart by any artist with 16 weeks. By mid-January 2020, "Dance Monkey" had spent its 24th and final week at number one, beating Bing Crosby's all-time Australian record for his version of "White Christmas", which spent 22 weeks (five months, namely June to October) at the top spot in 1943.

"Dance Monkey" was accredited 13× platinum by ARIA for shipments of over 910,000 units, in October 2020. Tones was the most awarded artist at the ARIA Music Awards of 2019, winning four from eight nominations. Tones and I released her debut extended play, The Kids Are Coming, on 30 August 2019, which peaked at number three in Australia, and top 10 in several countries. (wikipedia)

• • •

Tame wacky is always so depressing. There are no laughs here, and not much in the way of real cleverness. There's a core idea—a theme type I've seen before ... I'd be stunned if I hadn't seen this exact theme at some point in my life. But once you piece the first themer together, once you grasp the concept, solving mainly just involves thinking of candy names. The particular humor of the clue doesn't matter much, and in most cases isn't really there. Remember some candies! That's all you do here. Except for FANTASY SERIES (which felt new / interesting) the fill doesn't do much that's interesting either. This is placeholder stuff; just absolutely typical, run-of-the-mill, utterly characteristic late 20th-century NYTXW fare. It clears the bar. It's passable. But it's not innovative, and it doesn't even offer much of a new or vibrant take on an old concept. It's just there. It's fine. It'll pass the time for 15 minutes or a half hour or an hour or whatever. Ho + hum. Still not sure how the marquee puzzle remains this tepid, week in and week out. 

The image of a snickering baby Ruth Ginsburg is probably the highlight of the puzzle, in that it's bizarre, and therefore offers a memorable image. something to sear your brain. Everything else is so milquetoast. Wacky puzzles have to get weird, or else they get very tedious (polite smile-quaint) very quickly. NERDS calling their dad, also on the better side of this theme set. But the rest are forgettable. They don't even seem to be really trying. Smaller nit—I don't think "now and later" means "all day, every day." If I do something now and later, then I do it at two discrete times, with a gap in between. The clue is incorrect on a literal level (never a good thing). I did blow through the puzzle pretty quickly, which is always a nice feeling. As usual, the struggles came in the first half of the solve, and the second half was a sprint by comparison (if you watch the solving video I made for yesterday's puzzle, you can see this phenomenon happen quite clearly—2/3 of the time to solve the first half, and 1/3 to solve the last; night and day). 

The NW of course tripped me up a bit. I always start there, and since you start with nothing, that's when you're likeliest to go wrong. Small wrong was ONS for INS (5D: Walk-___). Bigger wrong was PACK UP for TANK UP (not a phrase I heard growing up, and I grew up in car country, i.e. California). Had NEMEANS (!?!?) before NUBIANS, so that slowed things down a bit (also no idea about TONI, who isn't even known by her real name, so ????). The slowest part by far, though, was the NE. Fill-in-the-blank clue (BRAIN) and BMW and WMD all eluded me (wanted a 3-letter version of ICBM, or maybe IED, for that last one) (I never think of WMD as real ... the only time I've ever heard it used is in Bush-era war propaganda) (14D: Subject of intl. treaties). Wanted NGO instead of the mere ORG. at 15A: Doctors Without Borders, e.g.: Abbr.). Haven't played Stratego since I was maybe 14, so SPY was meaningless to me (in general, I find puzzles overestimate how common board game knowledge is ... which reminds me ... maybe I've seen this puzzle type done with board games before? Cereal brands? I know I've seen it ... movie titles, maybe? The whole "making wacky phrases out of names from some category" is definitely a thing). I don't think of what a pen does to your shirt pocket as a mere INK MARK (wanted BLOT or something equally evocative of mess). So I fumbled a bunch up there. But after I escaped, whoosh. No trouble except for the SERIES part of FANTASY SERIES (after I couldn't get NOVEL to fit, I was stuck until crosses came to the rescue). Now I have an urge to reread the "Earthsea" series. If a puzzle inspires you to read Ursula K. LeGuin, it can't be all bad. 

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. LAST CHANCE: Boswords is gearing up for another online crossword tournament in the very near future. Here's the blurb from co-organizer, John Lieb:
Registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Winter Wondersolve, an online crossword tournament, which will be held on Sunday, January 31 from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Eastern. Solvers can compete individually or in pairs and will complete four puzzles (three themed and one themeless) edited by Brad Wilber. To register, to see the constructors, and for more details, go to www.boswords.org.
Many of my readers and friends really enjoyed the last one of these, so even if you've never competed in a crossword tourney before, you should consider it. ("Competition" isn't really the point)

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