Prepared to fight Goliath? / WED 1-31-24 / Fine partner? / Rank associated with tea and sandwiches? / Protruding feature on a cliff / Private university of North Carolina

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Constructor: Nathan Hale

Relative difficulty: Medium (4:10) (maybe skewing Medium-Challenging, depending on how easily (or not) you grasped the theme concept)

THEME: CROSSED A BEAR (51A: Betrayed Paddington? ... or what 20-, 34- and 41-Across did in this puzzle) — puns that change familiar phrases containing "to" into verb phrases containing "-ED A" (as exemplified by the revealer itself). First three themers all literally CROSS(ED) A BEAR (a pun on "cross to bear"):

Theme answers:
  • READIED A ROCK ("ready to rock!") crossing TEDDY (20A: Prepared to fight Goliath? / 6D: Presidential nickname of the early 20th century)
  • TIMED A GET-UP  ("time to get up!") crossing SMOKEY (34A: Practiced changing one's costume by the clock? / 29D: Motown legend Robinson)
  • BACKED A WORK ("back to work!") crossing BOO-BOO (41A: Invested on Broadway, say? / 24D: Owie) 
Word of the Day: GREGG Popovich (65A: ___ Popovich, longtime coach for the Spurs) —
Gregg Charles Popovich
 (born January 28, 1949) is an American professional basketball coach and executive who is the president and head coach for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Popovich has been a member of the Spurs organization since 1994, as president of basketball operations and general manager before taking over as coach of the Spurs in 1996. Popovich is the longest tenured active coach in the NBA as well as all other major sports leagues in the United States. Nicknamed "Coach Pop", Popovich has the most wins of any coach in NBA history, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. [...] In 1979, Popovich was named the head coach of the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens, the joint men's basketball team of Pomona College and Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Popovich coached the Pomona-Pitzer men's basketball team from 1979 to 1988, leading the team to its first outright title in 68 years. (wikipedia)
• • •

Well it's ambitious, I'll give it that. It's also a corny mess. It's like you found one kinda funny pun ("cross to bear" / CROSSED A BEAR) and then built a really shaky shack of a house on top of it. None of the other puns come close to the near-funniness of CROSSED A BEAR. I never understood what the themers were doing, or at least not enough for it to be of any help. The non-theme stuff was pretty easy, but there was not a single themer that made any sense to me as I was solving, both because they were super-contrived and because the clues were way too vague to get me there. READIED A ROCK? got the READIED part and then tried to think of some short word for "slingshot." So much torture being inflicted on that pun. And BACKED A WORK? Just ... A WORK? How am I supposed to get to something so stupidly general from something as incredibly specific as "Broadway." A WORK? A WORK could be annnnyyyything. So solving this puzzle was a slog—a never-clicking slog. At the end, there was definitely an aha moment. But that's because, as I say, the revealer works best, of all these dumb puns. Which reminds me: what added to my confusion about the theme was those damn bears, which I didn't know were bears, but which I could see were in gray squares. So confusing to hit themer material in the Acrosses but also have these obviously thematic answers going Down ... which were not clued in any seemingly thematic way (just marked by grayness). I eventually totally forgot about the gray answers, until the revealer made me look again. I do think the revealer pun is good, and that the ambition is admirable. But there was no part of solving this that was pleasurable. The non-theme stuff was forgettable, mostly; the fill skewed SO-SO (e.g. APR, DEE) to sub-SO-SO (e.g. BREA, APIS) (likely because the theme was so dense); and putting together every themer was like pulling teeth. 

Outside of the theme, not much going on. I wish they wouldn't "?" clues for answers that are long and Across when theme answers are long and Across and also feature "?" clues. Very confusing to get to the end and see what looks like yet another themer ... only to have it just be a non-thematic POLYGRAPH. Great answer, but terrible, terrible clue (61A: Something you shouldn't take lying down?). How does the "down" part work here? I get that you shouldn't take it "lying" (because it's a lie detector—hurray, more puns). But what is "down" doing? What's the pun part there? Is the "?" on the clue supposed to mean "hey, just ignore 'down,' it doesn't work, I just can't stop punning"? No real trouble with anything else. GRASP for USURP at first (1A: Seize), and WIG for RUG (58D: Toupee, slangily). Oh, and OTOS for OTOE, which made my thematic adventures even more gunked up (BACKS DA WORK!?!?). OTOS hasn't been seen since 2021, but it has a long history. OTOE is better, but that's not the word my fingers typed in, alas. Managed to guess correctly on the BILLS/BEAKS kealoa* at 31D: Prominent parts of toucans. Managed to actually *use* my recently acquired Word of the Day knowledge to retrieve Chris REDD (who was Word of the Day back on Jan. 11). But that didn't keep me from writing his name as Michael REDD just now (Michael REDD was an NBA All-Star in the Aughts). REDD Foxx has really been put out to pasture, which is too bad. He was a funny (and *dirty*) comedian, and his sitcom still has the greatest TV theme song of all time.

Big month for ELON! (37A: Private university of North Carolina).  Three appearances just this month, two as the University. That's two more appearances than women made as solo constructors on the byline this month. You are reading that right. There was not a single puzzle made by a solo woman constructor in the entire month of January (there were twenty-three (23!) such puzzles by men). Further, counting all co-constructors as a half, there were only three women total. That's an overall "balance" in the month of January of 28 men to 3 women. This (enormous) discrepancy simply isn't happening at other major (and minor) outlets. New Yorker is roughly half and half, by design. Last I checked, USA Today was majority women in January. I'll stop talking about this issue til the end of next month, but this is the worst month for gender imbalance that I can remember. Ever. And I blogged through the very worst years of it (late '00s through mid-'10s). 

I managed to maintain a NYTXW spreadsheet for the whole first month of the year, which means I can easily look back at every theme, every Word of the Day, every ranking (1-100) I assigned to every puzzle (for my eyes only). I can see quickly which day of the week I'm liking most (Friday) and least (Sunday), and what the gender balance is (see above). This makes it easy to compile my Puzzles of the Month (a regular feature from now on, I hope!!). Three exceptional puzzles each month: two themed, one themeless. These are my January 2024 Puzzles of the Month:

See you tomorrow.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. EARL is [Rank associated with tea and sandwiches?] because of EARL Grey tea and the eponymous EARL of Sandwich 

*kealoa = a pair of words (normally short, common answers) that can be clued identically and that share at least one letter in common (in the same position). These are answers you can't just fill in quickly because two or more answers are viable, Even With One or More Letters In Place. From the classic [Mauna ___] KEA/LOA conundrum. See also, e.g. [Heaps] ATON/ALOT, ["Git!"] "SHOO"/"SCAT," etc. 

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Souvenir for a basketball team / TUES 1-30-24 / Turner in a historic rebellion / Shade close to lavender / Galactic time spans

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Hello, everyone! It’s Clare for the last Tuesday in January, which, on the whole, was a miserably cold month in D.C. It snowed a lot, and biking in that weather is not easy. (I have firsthand experience based on a little tumble. Whoops.) The NFL games yesterday went 50 percent my way — the stupid Ravens lost (yay!), but then the Lions just folded to the Niners in the second half. In other sports news, Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s incredible, amazing, lovely, wonderful, perfect manager is retiring at the end of the season. Guess that means we’ve got to get the quadruple on his behalf this season. 

Anywho, on to the puzzle…

Constructor: Freddie Cheng

Relative difficulty: Medium

THEME: THINK TANKS (63A: Bodies of advisory experts … or, when reinterpreted as an imperative, a hint to 17-, 24-, 38- and 52-Across) — Each theme answer refers to a kind of tank (or tank-ing)

Theme answers:
  • HOLDS WATER (17A: Is sound in principle) 
  • COMBAT VEHICLE (24A: Weaponry on wheels) 
  • DROPS LIKE A STONE (38A: Plummets precipitously) 
  • SLEEVELESS TOP (52A: Garment that may have spaghetti straps)
Word of the Day: DINAH Washington (43A: Singer Washington with three recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame)
Dinah Washington was an American singer and pianist, one of the most popular black female recording artists of the 1950s. Primarily a jazz vocalist, she performed and recorded in a wide variety of styles including blues, R&B, and traditional pop music and gave herself the title of "Queen of the Blues." She was a 1986 inductee of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. (Wiki)
• • •

It took me a bit to get the theme, but when I finally did, I found it amusing. That means the theme didn’t help me at all with the solve, and I think the puzzle was slightly harder today than usual, as a result. The theme answers vary in terms of how TANK is used, which didn’t bother me too much, although I slightly question DROPS LIKE A STONE. I think of tanking as something a sports team does to get a better draft pick (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs maybe tanking to get Victor Wembanyama); I don’t really think of a stone dropping rapidly. And if we want to get nitpicky, “tank” there for 38A is being used as a verb while it’s used as a noun for the other clues. 

The rest of the puzzle was fine. I don’t think it was much to write home about, because the fill was quite basic. I usually try to pick out some words I find particularly interesting in the puzzle, but my only options in this puzzle really are T JUNCTION (10D: Three-way road layout) and LONE EAGLE (32D: ​​High-flying metaphor for independence), neither of which inspired me much. (Plus my dad and sister texted me “LONE EAGLE???” so make of that what you will. I maintain it’s a thing, but they disagree.) 

I did like the mini theme of jazz singers in the puzzle with ELLA Fitzgerald (1A), ETTA James (9A), and DINAH Washington (43A). I didn’t know of DINAH Washington before doing the puzzle today, but it seems like she was an incredible woman. OMAHA (20A: Poker variant that, despite its name, did not originate in Nebraska) was a bit funny, even if I only know the Texas Hold ‘Em variety of poker and probably only got the clue right because Peyton Manning used to say OMAHA a lot before he snapped the ball. LILAC (3D: Shade close to lavender) is a lovely color. 

My favorite clue/answer by far was 35A: Sound coming from a bay? as NEIGH. The fact that the answer crossed GNU (36D: Ungulate found backward in "ungulate") and a horse is an ungulate was rather clever. 

I didn’t know MECHA (14A: Manga genre involving giant robots), and there were a few other clues that gave me pause. But for the most part, this was a straightforward puzzle — albeit one that took me longer than a usual Tuesday.

  • I distinctly remember watching “My Fair Lady” (46A) in music class in fifth grade. That was where my love of Audrey Hepburn began, and it has grown ever since. (Everyone should watch “Roman Holiday.”)
  • One of my biggest pet peeves when watching a show or movie is when someone orders a drink (say, a whiskey) and then doesn’t say whether they want it NEAT (49A: Bourbon order specification) or on the rocks. Even if they do, they just order a generic whiskey, and the server doesn’t follow up to ask what type of whiskey they want. I guess my server brain is still there!
  • SHINS (22D: Padded parts in soccer) — Shins really aren’t very padded anymore. This trend started toward my final days playing competitive soccer, and you see it among the most competitive leagues in the world now. Players just wear the teeny tiniest shinguards you could possibly imagine, which really cannot possibly be protecting their shins in any way. Here’s a player for Brighton putting in his shinguard (I kid you not): 
  • SKY High (34D) — I know this isn’t what the clue was going for, but “Sky High” was an amazing Disney movie, and I will forever be in love with it. 
  • I taught my friend who’s getting into crossword puzzles that a question mark means there’s some sort of pun/joke in the answer. I felt like a proud teacher when, while walking back from trivia together tonight, I asked her 13A: Toss-up at a football game? and she immediately said “COIN.” 
And that’s all from me, folks. Hope you all have a great February!

Signed, Clare Carroll, a Klopp fan for life

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Repository of genetic material / MON 1-29-24 / Relating to the bottom layer / Platter used to carry glassware

Monday, January 29, 2024

Constructor: Garrett Chalfin and Andrew Kingsley

Relative difficulty: No idea (as a Downs-only solve, brutal for me)

THEME: PALINDROMES (36A: What the answers to the starred clues all are when their first and last letters are removed) — exactly as described:

Theme answers:
  • PEPE LE PEW (16A: *Amorous cartoon skunk)
  • FAIR TRIAL (29A: *Impartial court proceeding guaranteed by the Constitution)
  • "ONE MOMENT" (43A: *"Just a sec!")
  • FLASH SALE (60A: *Short-lived store event)
  • BAR TRAY (11D: *Platter used to carry glassware)
  • DNA BANK (40D: *Repository of genetic material)
Word of the Day: PERSEIDS (10D: Summer meteor shower) —
Perseids are a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Swift–Tuttle that are usually visible from mid-July to late-August. The meteors are called the Perseids because they appear from the general direction of the constellation Perseusand in more modern times have a radiant bordering on Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. [...] The stream of debris is called the Perseid cloud and stretches along the orbit of the comet Swift–Tuttle. The cloud consists of particles ejected by the comet as it travels on its 133-year orbit. Most of the particles have been part of the cloud for around a thousand years. However, there is also a relatively young filament of dust in the stream that was pulled off the comet in 1865, which can give an early mini-peak the day before the maximum shower. [...] The shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the peak in activity between 9 and 14 August, depending on the particular location of the stream. During the peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour. They can be seen all across the sky; however, because of the shower's radiant in the constellation of Perseus, the Perseids are primarily visible in the Northern Hemisphere. (wikipedia)
• • •

This was the hardest Downs-only solve I've had in a long time. And for what? So disappointing to learn (finally!) that the payoff at the end of the struggle was such a contrivance. My main reaction is "Why?" I have "Why?" written in big green letters at the top of my grid. Who cares that answers to this? They aren't proper PALINDROMES if you're arbitrarily removing letters? And (as always) the fact there's More of a DISMAL theme doesn't magically make it unDISMAL. Any time a grid is crammed with theme material, you can kind of smell the flop SWEAT. Like, the theme is weak, but maybe if we throw a lot of it in there, no one will ... notice? I had a bad feeling about the puzzle from the moment I worked out that rape-y cartoon skunk's name ("amorous"? LOL, OK). The whole thing felt like a rejected Thursday concept trying to remake itself as a Monday. Just ... bizarre. I miss last week's simple and elegant BIRDS AND BEES Monday theme. The grid overall seems fine, but the concept here does less than nothing for me. I'm madder than I would've been if I'd solved it like a normal person (i.e. using Downs *and* Acrosses), it's true. I'd just be merely puzzled and disappointed if I'd only spent three minutes on it. But I spent far more than three minutes on it, and so my disappointment grew three sizes. At least.

As for solving Downs-only, there were low-key screw-ups like VANISH for GO POOF (!) (6D: Disappear like magic), and AXE for SAW (61D: Lumberjack's tool). There was the stuff I just didn't know, like LIAR (24D: "A ___ ought to have a good memory": Quintilian), and the stuff I almost knew but couldn't quite remember, like PERSEIDS (I knew it was some kind of -EIDS but NEREIDS kept getting in the way, mentally) (there are no NEREIDS, meteorically speaking, though there are LEONIDS and PEGASIDS). There was the bizarre word I had no hope of getting (OUTLIE) (?) and the word I had mostly right but also plenty wrong (ADD-ON—I had ADDED) (30D: Bonus). There were the two theme answers, the only two Down theme answers, neither of which I could get (couldn't even conceive of the term DNA BANK, and had a TEA TRAY before I eventually got to BAR TRAY). But the wrong answer that was the most LETHAL to me, by far, was YULE, which is what I had instead of NOEL (37D: Christmas). That is because YULE does, in fact, mean Christmas. And it's four letters long. And crosswords have conditioned me to think of NOEL as a Christmas *song*, not Christmas per se ([Christmas carol], 8 times; [Christmas song], 7 times; [Winter air], 8 times, etc.). So I put YULE in there and ... oof. It took a while for me to pull it. Because my wrong answer went to the heart of the revealer ... well, the revealer stayed hidden, and without that revealer, I had little hope of getting DNA BANK and absolutely none of getting BAR TRAY. I finished the puzzle with TEA TRAY in place and everything looked fine except for TERAY at 18A. Nothing could make TERAY seem plausible. Because it wasn't. Finally I noticed that TEA TRAY couldn't be right, because the answer was a themer—so in went BAR TRAY, and that was that. I guess I did feel a sense of accomplishment at fighting my way to a successful solve, but the theme itself still seems pointless to me. There's no cleverness. No lightness. No humor. Nothing but a fairly unremarkable physical feature shared by the answers. Huge shrug. I mean, "ARTRA" and "NABAN" are "Palindromes" and that's supposed to be ... interesting? Exciting? I just don't get it.

[Bing Crosby, "The First NOEL (Attaboy House Party Mix)"]

That's it. See you tomorrow. 

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Old Venetian money / SUN 1-28-24 / 2017 musical retelling of the stories of Henry VIII's wives / Cotton fabric often used in hosiery / Fifth-century pope dubbed "the Great" / Cotton fabric used in bandages / Like "t," "k" and "p," in phonetics / Aviator's maneuver in a crosswind landing / Lowercase letter that resembles an "n" / Primitive camera feature / Oregon-based athletic brand / Flowerlike sea creature

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Constructor: Nathan Hasegawa

Relative difficulty: Easy-Medium (9:35)

THEME: "Hammer Time": a visual representation of the game WHAC-A-MOLE (113A: Game represented visually in this puzzle) — five [HOLE] squares, one of which is occupied by a [MOLE]—if you hit the mole (with the hammer you undoubtedly keep at your desk), you will achieve a SMASHING SUCCESS (26A: Massive victory ... or a high score in 113-Across?) (oh, and there are gray squares in the shape of, and trying desperately to spell out, MALLET):

Theme answers:
  • OZONE (HOLE) / (HOLE) CARD (56A: Climate issue addressed in the Montreal Protocol / 57D: It's facedown on a poker table)
  • GO W(HOLE) HOG / PIN(HOLE) (58A: Approach something with gusto / 43D: Primitive camera feature)
  • (MOLE)CULES / (MOLE)SKIN (60A: What's the matter? / 60D: Cotton fabric used in bandages)
  • BLACK (HOLE) / FOX(HOLE) (92A: Point of no return? / 76D: Military hiding spot)
  • (HOLE)-IN-ONE / RAT(HOLE) (95A: Ace / 77D: Place that's cramped and squalid)
Word of the Day: PLOSIVE (13A: Like "t," "k" and "p," in phonetics) —
In phonetics, a plosive, also known as an occlusive or simply a stop, is a pulmonic consonant in which the vocal tract is blocked so that all airflow ceases. [...] The terms stop, occlusive, and plosive are often used interchangeably. Linguists who distinguish them may not agree on the distinction being made. The terms refer to different features of the consonant. "Stop" refers to the airflow that is stopped. "Occlusive" refers to the articulation, which occludes (blocks) the vocal tract. "Plosive" refers to the release burst (plosion) of the consonant. (wikipedia)
• • •

I don't know anything about WHAC-A-MOLE except that you whac(k) moles that pop up out of holes. I think I have that right? It always looked like the stupidest game in the arcade, so I never played. Does it have five holes? I assume it does, since this puzzle is allegedly a "visual representation" of the game, and why would the puzzle lie to me? But five seems like ... not a lot of holes. How hard can it be to whac(k) that mole if you've only got five holes to cover. Is it a drinking game? I can see it being hard if you get increasingly drunk somehow. I don't know what to think of this theme. It's not a corny pun theme or a contrived story theme or a change-a-letter low-watt wackiness theme, so it's got that going for it. Seems like the puzzle is pretty light on theme material (just the five rebus squares, plus the straightforward revealer and the "bonus" punny answer up top). But I do like that there was one MOLE square among all the HOLE squares. That really came as a surprise, and confused me for a bit (I double and triple-checked that MOLE square, for sure). Then I got the revealer, and all was clear. I probably should've seen the revealer coming after I got that MOLE square, but I did not. The revealer did, in fact, do its job and reveal the theme to me. It also revealed to me how one is supposed to spell the game, which I did not do properly at first. I had WACK-A-MOLE, I think, but then DUCAT came through with an extremely unlikely assist (when has DUCAT ever done anything for anyone except be a dated form of currency?). DUCAT forced the "C," which forced a recalculation of the revealer spelling. WHACAMOLE looks ... bad, like a guacamole substitute you make out of rodent roadkill. By the time the revealer was in place, I was basically done—although I didn't even try to guess what the software was going to accept as "correct" answers for those rebus squares, so I just left them blank and hit "Reveal > Entire Puzzle," letting the puzzle tell me what was supposed to go there (the (w)hole word, apparently).

I laughed out loud at ATTABOY (6D: "Nice work, little fella!"), because the puzzle is just trolling me now. What is that, the sixteenth ATTA iteration this month? Boy-girl-way-flour-princess. All the ATTAs have been released and have yet to be corralled and led gently back to the ATTA preserve whence they came. The grid seemed mostly clean and tolerable, except for HEROIZE, what the hell is that? (29D: Put on a pedestal, say). LIONIZE, IDOLIZE, these are ... words. HEROIZE just hurts. Lyin' Eyes, yes, Hungry Eyes, yes, HEROIZE, no. Is that when you put an undercoat on your hero so he doesn't rust? Or polish your hero with wax? It's like the "N" in HEROINE just fell over and didn't get back up again. At least HEROIZE was inferrable, unlike SIDESLIP, which sounds like a scifi concept rather than the aviation term that it apparently is (104A: Aviator's maneuver in a crosswind landing). Other than those two answers, nothing seemed particularly strange or irksome. Gotta say that in terms of theme originality and grid cleanness, this one is probably above average for a Sunday. Not thrilling, but not bad.

  • 28D: Insertion mark (CARET) — OK I need some kind of (SILENT M!) mnemonic for CARET v. CARAT (which reminds me, I also need a (SILENT M!) mnemonic for CARAT v. KARAT)
  • 93D: Capital in the Himalayas (LHASA) — I always (always!) want to spell this LLASA. I blame LLAMA and LLANO, which is to say I blame crosswords in general.
  • 119A: Fifth-century pope dubbed "the Great" (ST. LEO) — ugh, this guy. Patron saint of crosswordese. He comes in LEOI form as well. He is best known for ... looking wasted, apparently:
  • 76A: Fracas (FUROR) — this was one of the tougher answers. The clue/answer equivalency just didn't seem quite right to me. "Fracas" suggests a fight, whereas "FUROR" suggests a general uproar.
  • 37A: Lowercase letter that resembles an "n" (ETA) — Crosswords have taught me that ETA looks like "H" but apparently they haven't taught me the lowercase version ... until now:

  • 105D: Cotton fabric often used in hosiery (LISLE) — as a Medieval Studies student in grad school, I learned about the 12c. theologian Alain de Lille. That is how I know the town of Lille, from which the fabric LISLE gets its name. If you asked me for any specifics about the town, the fabric, or the philosopher, I would mumble something and politely excuse myself from the room, never to return.

I learned yesterday that this year's Merl Reagle MEmoRiaL Award (for lifetime achievement in crossword construction) will go to Andrea Carla Michaels! The award will be presented at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament this coming April. Congratulations to Andrea, a worthy winner. 

See you next time.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. I'm told that if you solve in the app, there are post-solve graphics of some sort. This has nothing to do with crosswords, so I don't really care.

[Follow Rex Parker on Twitter and Facebook]


Pioneer in IQ testing / SAT 1-27-24 / Life phases, in social media lingo / Large wine cask / ___ bug (long-limbed predatory insect) / Muralist who was a colleague of Dali / Series that begins on the ice planet Pagodon / Disavowed MI6 agent in the "Mission": Impossible" franchise

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Constructor: Grace Warrington and Greg Warrington

Relative difficulty: Medium (7:32)

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: Alfred BINET (49A: Pioneer in I.Q. testing) —
[there's also a BONET]
Alfred Binet
 (French: [binɛ]; 8 July 1857 – 18 October 1911), born Alfredo Binetti, was a French psychologist who invented the first practical IQ test, the Binet–Simon test. In 1904, the French Ministry of Education asked psychologist Alfred Binet to devise a method that would determine which students did not learn effectively from regular classroom instruction so they could be given remedial work. Along with his collaborator Théodore Simon, Binet published revisions of his test in 1908 and 1911, the last of which appeared just before his death. (wikipedia) 


Stephen Vincent Benét (/bəˈn/ bə-NAY; July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He wrote a book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War, John Brown's Body, published in 1928, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and for the short stories "The Devil and Daniel Webster", published in 1936, and "By the Waters of Babylon", published in 1937. // In 2009, Library of America selected his story "The King of the Cats", published in 1929, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales, edited by Peter Straub.
• • •

So I have mentioned several times that I finish the puzzle and then print it out so that I can annotate it before writing about it. And I've mentioned that I do that annotation in green pen, and that, in general, wherever there's green ink, there's trouble. The more green ink, the more trouble. It's a bit like a difficulty heat map. Also, potentially, a crap map, since garbage gets green-inked as well as difficulty, but generally, green is evidence of struggle. And so I give you ... what my puzzle print-out looks like right now:

It's all southeast. I don't really remember the rest of the puzzle, which seemed pleasant enough, and which played pretty easy. But once I dropped into the SE, things went off the rails there for a bit. The main problem was me, which is to say, I should've just dropped GLORIOUSLY, even though I didn't really like it as an answer to that awkward clue (28D: How one might emerge with a victory). So, actually, I like GLORIOUSLY fine, but that clue, bah. Anyway, if I had just committed to it, then the EARL / ANDY / SEA part might've come together sooner. But that's not really where the main problem was down there. The main problem ... well, I suppose if you have to pick one, you'd pick, "OH, ME!" (43A: "Alas!"). I've spent years complaining about the only-in-crosswords weaponized quaintness that is the alleged expression "AH, ME!" (51 appearances in the Shortz Era). Well, it turns out there's an off-brand version of "AH, ME!" and it's "OH, ME!" (19 appearances in the Shortz Era), and apparently I've seen it before, a bunch, but sanity has apparently caused me to suppress all memory thereof. Annnnnnyway, that "O" (which I had securely as an "A"—"AH, ME" being clued frequently as ["Alas!"] as well) was in "HOP IN!," an answer I couldn't get from its vague clue (40D: Pickup line—I was like "ooh, it's probably not about picking someone up in a bar ... probably about pickup trucks!" ugh). And then "HOP IN!," in turn, ended up having its own vowel ambiguity problem, i.e. it could just as easily have been "HOP ON!" (in fact, I've forgotten and reforgotten which one is actually in the grid several times just since I've started writing this post!). 

And then the "I" in "HOP IN!" crosses yet another answer where, again, the vowel seemed ambiguous. I guess I should've just known the BINET guy. He's been in crosswords before, a bunch. And I did remember him. But I thought he spelled it like the BENET guy (who's a writer/poet ... see both Words of the Day, above). Crosswords teach you lots of names ... and then those names get all smashed up in your head and you try to untangle them midsolve and end up falling on your face. Sometimes. So "OH, ME!" / "HOP IN!" / BINET really knifed me today. Making things worse was DAMSEL bug (never heard of it) and the HEAD part of HOG'S HEAD (wasn't sure ... I know BOAR'S HEAD, but I think that's just a brand of meats and cheeses) (39A: Large wine cask). And then there was the "?" clue on SEASON PASS (45A: Big ticket purchase?), which wasn't helping. No idea how I sorted out that corner when I was staring at HA-EN for 40D: Pickup line for so long (two wrong letters!). But I got there. As I say, there were other parts to this puzzle, but my memory of what they were had faded considerably by the time I wrestled the SE to the ground. 

The marquee answers didn't seem very ... marquee. They also just weren't my thing (i.e. golf, recent Star Wars content, gaming). The puzzle seemed to PLAY IT SAFE with the fill, overall. BOSS BATTLE may be new to some of you, but it was in the puzzle four years back (that's how I learned it). The MANDALORIAN has been referenced in the grid many times before. Seen ERAS clued this way a lot now (T-Swift's tour helped popularize the term beyond "social media lingo") (10A: Life phases, in social media lingo). Many of the longer answers in this one are quite solid, but there's not a ton of sizzle. The fill is mostly clean, despite the occasional "OH, ME!" or SERT (a gimme for crossword old-timers, probably not so much of a gimme for others) (50A: Muralist who was a colleague of Dali). My favorite part of the grid was probably CULT CLASSIC (29A: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," e.g.). Enjoy the answer, enjoy remembering the movie. Double enjoy. 

No idea what a "double albatross" is, so PAR FIVE was hardish (33A: Possible (but extremely unlikely) setting for a double albatross). It looks like an "albatross" is three under par???? And so double is, what, four under? These are mythical feats, right? Isn't there enough actual dumb golf terminology to know without forcing this nonsense on us? Apparently not. Also no idea about the disavowed agent in the "Mission Impossible" franchise, sigh, why, why yet another tired franchise? You're already leaning into one with MANDALORIAN, come on (20A: Disavowed MI6 agent in the "Mission": Impossible" franchise = ILSA). ON RICE is an iffy prepositional phrase (reminds me of when I encounter the term ININK in the puzzle, which has happened way more than zero times—mild cringe every time). I think TOOK LEAVE is a good phrase but my ears want it to be WENT ON LEAVE (it's maternity leave, in case that wasn't obvious) (18D: Experienced a pregnant pause?). I had to think about how [Secret lover?] was CONFIDANT. I guess you tell a CONFIDANT your secrets. I'm not sure where the "lover" comes in. I don't think of CONFIDANTs as particularly thirsty for secrets. But maybe. The "international chain" at 15A: International chain whose name can be a prefix is the Official Hotel of Crossworld": the OMNI! It's frequently clued as a "luxury" hotel chain, though friends who have stayed there dispute the aptness of this description (no SHADE, OMNI! I don't work for Hyatt! Just saying "luxury" as perhaps lost all meaning in this hyper-hyperbolized commercial world). 

Wanted BONK before BEAN (42D: Hit on the noggin). Let's see, is that all? That's all. See you next time.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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Song words preceding "his kiss" / FRI 1-26-24 / Release of a new product to a limited audience / High-value ones are called "unicorns" / Passage that might be a mess after a rainstorm / Bilingual girl of TV and film / Work through seven stages, say / Like holographic Pokémon cards

Friday, January 26, 2024

Constructor: Sarah Sinclair and Rafael Musa

Relative difficulty: Medium (slightly north of Medium, for me)

THEME: none 

Word of the Day: Skara BRAE (22D: Skara ___, Scottish site of Europe's most complete Neolithic village) —

Skara Brae /ˈskærə ˈbr/ is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. It consisted of ten clustered houses, made of flagstones, in earthen dams that provided support for the walls; the houses included stone hearths, beds, and cupboards. A primitive sewer system, with "toilets" and drains in each house, included water used to flush waste into a drain and out to the ocean.

The site was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC and is Europe's most complete Neolithic village. Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney". Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, it has been called the "Scottish Pompeii" because of its excellent preservation. (wikipedia)

• • •

Lots of lovely stuff here, though this was not on my wavelength, much of the time. Too many times (for my comfort / ego) I stared at beginnings of answers I couldn't get endings for, or otherwise struggled to finish off answers that were largely filled in from crosses. Most of this trouble was concentrated in the broader SW, where I came down out of the NW, got the first four (4!) letters of both the long Downs in the SW, and then promptly ... stopped. Cold. UNSU- suggested nothing to me at 24D: Pandemic health worker, say. It's been a long time since this country gave a damn about pandemic workers or the pandemic in general (those were a lovely cooperative four weeks or so, weren't they?), so the whole "They're heroes!" phenomenon was nowhere near the top of my brain. I was just looking for some profession (some kind of nurse?). Couldn't parse it, and then thought the "UN" at the front was going to be something to do with the U.N. Ugh. As for BALLERINA, well, when you've got a "?" clue like that (25D: Ones whose careers have turning points?), and you've got "careers" and "turning," and then you've got BALL up front ... well, what it suggested to me was some kind of professional BALLPLAYER, which fit, but which I didn't write in because I could feel it wasn't right. So UNSU- and BALL- just hung there a while. Getting into that corner from the other direction wasn't much easier, as LEDTVS proved an unparsable yikes for a good chunk of time (30D: Some Best Buy offerings). Had the LED- and ... no clue. Another no-clue: YELLED, yeesh, I needed every cross for that one (44D: Gave a hoot). The phrasing is obviously misdirective (suggesting caring, not yelling), but ... yeah, I don't like the "hoot" / "yell" equivalency. Owls hoot. They do not yell. Screech, maybe, but not yell. I guess there's the phrase "hooting and hollering," which suggests a lot of noises, one of which might be yelling. Anyway, more stuckness for me down there. Even GRIEVE and CHILLS didn't come easily (GRIEVE should've been a gimme, but with almost no crosses because of the above whiffing ... I just couldn't get it). So that corner played very much like a standard Saturday for me. The rest of the grid was normal Friday, but not whoosh-whoosh easy by any means. Just ... Friday. And a good Friday, for the most part. 

[was gonna play the original version, but the drummer's "dunedin" t-shirt here won me over (Dunedin is my wife's home town, and she went to school with and knew a lot of the "Dunedin sound" folks)]

I felt like I was swimming in "?" clues, but it looks like there were "only" five. It's just that said clues ended up crossing one another, twice (STAR WARS / HOTWIRES, BALLERINA / ENEMY TURF), so it felt like I was being bombarded, as toggling from one "?" to its crosses drove me straight into another "?" clue. I don't think any of the "?" clues actually work that well *except* the one on HOTWIRES, which is fantastic (4D: Starts off-key?). That one is beautiful. Elegantly compact, completely misdirective. Works perfectly on both the surface level (where it looks like a music clue) and the trick level ("off-key" = "without a key"). My favorite section of the grid was probably the NE, where SOFT LAUNCH and "I NEED SPACE" really shine, and the crosses (with the possible exception of "IT'S IN" (!?)), are all solid. I like DIRT ROAD fine, but that answer looked like a "mess after a rainstorm" for a bit, since "passage" wasn't suggestive of anything in particular to me, and my brain kept trying to parse the answer as a single word. DI-TR--- looked like DISTRICT, which is not a "passage" and no possible connection to "rainstorm" that I can think of. Luckily, in that case, unlike in the many other cases where longer answers wouldn't come (see above), the crosses in the SE behaved and I didn't spin my wheels on DIRT ROAD too long.

I had no idea the "handsaw" in "I know a hawk from a handsaw" was a HERON (!?!?). I can't say I remember that specific line, though. I'm about to reread Hamlet and watch several productions in preparation for seeing it this summer at the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Minnesota, where my daughter will be Production Manager. Currently, though, all I'm doing is watching "Slings & Arrows," which is a very fine Canadian comedy about a production of Hamlet. Easing my way back to Shakespeare proper. Baby steps. I also had no idea that there was yet another form of ATTA (clearly the NYTXW word of the month for January). A Princess? Really?! (53D: Princess in "A Bug's Life"). I've forgotten everything about A Bug's Life beyond the fact that it exists and I was roughly contemporaneous with that other animated bug movie, Antz (both 1998). So if you're keeping track, there's ATTA boy/girl/way (!?) and also ATTA flour and now also Princess ATTA. Looks like it's also Kofi Annan's middle name. And ... well, if I go back to '90s clues I can find a reference to a HEINE poem (you used to see that dude's name a lot) called "ATTA Troll." I assume it is about a sad troll who needs encouragement.

Bullet points:
  • 1A: Record label for Pink, SZA and H.E.R. (RCA) — I'm so bad at "record label" clues. Put Pink, SZA, or H.E.R. in the grid, I'm good! Ask me their label? Shrug. RCA? MCA? EMI? BMI? TMI? TWA? Who knows?
  • 1D: World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy, for short (RPGS) — this just means "role-playing games," but mid-solve, for no good reason, even after I got RPGS, my brain kept trying to remember the answer I initially wanted, which is M-something... Massive Multi-Player ... something? OK, looks like I was thinking of "Massively Multi-Player Online Games" or MMOGS (also MMOS). Both World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy are in this category. RPGS is a much broader category which, because I am old, I associate more with tabletop gaming.
  • 36D: High-value ones are called "unicorns" (START-UPS) — over time, the business-related crap starts to sink in. Not sure how crosswords taught me the answer to this one, but they must've, because I mostly don't know jack about business-world terminology and I got this easily.
  • 18A: Put off (DEFER) — back on Jan. 5, [Put off] was used to clue DETER, and some people were not happy about that. You don't have to like it, but you should learn from it. DEFER/DETER is, in this instance, a kealoa*, and you should treat it as such. I wisely left that middle letter blank and let the cross fill it in. Luckily, SOTT LAUNCH, not a thing.
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld 

P.S. [Show of Force?] = STAR WARS because it's a "show" wherein people use The Force
P.P.S. [Foe-run land?] = awkward pun on "foreign land" and it's ENEMY TURF because that is "land" occupied by your "foes" (whether you're a gang or a visiting sports team)

*kealoa = a pair of words (normally short, common answers) that can be clued identically and that share at least one letter in common (in the same position). These are answers you can't just fill in quickly because two or more answers are viable, Even With One or More Letters In Place. From the classic [Mauna ___] KEA/LOA conundrum. See also, e.g. [Heaps] ATON/ALOT, ["Git!"] "SHOO"/"SCAT," etc. 

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