Tuesday, May 29, 2018

In the Crossword Zone

Something odd has happened. I've become a whiz at crossword puzzles, having completed the New York Times Crossword thirty-one days in a row, without cheating. It's almost enough to make me believe in miracles. Or maybe the Times puzzles have gotten easier. More likely, though, my newfound skill is due to my sister, Janet, and my son, Alex.

Logically, my ability to solve puzzles should have become worse as I've aged. My word recall has deteriorated and I forget the plots of novels almost as soon as I've read them. Yet, I manage to dredge up long-forgotten names and words when I'm working on a puzzle.

An antique French etui
In part, I've improved because I've mastered certain crossword puzzle techniques. Like many frequent solvers, I now easily fill in words that are virtually only found in crosswords, never in actual speech, like etui or iambi. And when a cookie or a snack or a "sandwich often given a twist" is involved, I've learned to think of oreos.

I've also gotten much better at recognizing the different possible meanings of a clue. Take, for example, the seven-letter clue "big hits," which appeared in a recent Sunday puzzle. My first association was to successes in the arts, like a hit song or a hit film. When nothing along those lines seemed to fit, I thought maybe the hits referred to punches. Finally, I realized I should have been thinking about baseball hits — the answer was "triples". I used to become fixated on one definition of a word or phrase, which led to frustration and defeat. Now, I'm more attuned to different meanings.

The Times Crossword increases in difficulty as the week progresses, with Monday the easiest and Saturday the most difficult. In the past, I could usually complete the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday puzzles, but after that all bets were off. Thursday puzzles feature "tricks", which I used to find confounding. Sunday puzzles are longer, but at about a Thursday level of difficulty. Despite having learned the crossword techniques described above, I had never finished a Sunday puzzle without "cheating," which for me meant Googling to discover which Rhine tributary flows through Switzerland (Aare) or the name of a famous Verdi aria (Eri Tu). Then a casual conversation with my brother-in-law, Michael, changed all that.

The Aare River at Bern, Switzerland
We were discussing crosswords and I mentioned that I found the Times Sunday puzzles daunting.

"Really?" said Michael. "Janet always finishes them."

What? My little sister was better at crosswords than me? A competitive nerve I thought I'd long ago numbed began to twinge. I resolved to try harder at the Sunday crosswords. If Janet could do them then, by God, so could I.

And so it came to pass. My progress was slow at first, but I persisted and eventually I could almost always complete the Sunday puzzles, without cheating. And I got better at the Thursday puzzles, too. The Friday and Saturday offerings still eluded me, though. Enter my son, Alex.

When Alex was younger, he used to tell me he admired my vocabulary. Back then, he was impressed that I could finish a Monday puzzle. So imagine my surprise when, about a year ago, Alex sent me a text to let me know he had finished a Friday puzzle in under twenty minutes. I was filled with pride — my son, the genius! But wait, how had it come to this? My child, who only yesterday saw me as an accomplished puzzle solver, had surpassed me. I felt a sudden determination to master not only the Friday puzzle, but the Saturday, too.

Was I now competing with my son? Had I stooped so low? I preferred to regard myself as inspired by him, but let's call a spade a spade. Alex's accomplishment gave me the jolt I needed to go to the next level. Soon, I was solving Friday and Saturday puzzles with some regularity, and there's no doubt I was spurred on by my desire to perform at least as well as Alex.

Crossword puzzles may have brought out my latent competitiveness, but they've also awakened a couple of qualities I feel good about. The first is a can-do attitude. I used to approach every Friday puzzle convinced that I could never solve it. Now I assume the opposite. Add to that a newfound persistence, and my odds of success have vastly increased. I simply don't quit. I just stare the puzzle down and keep at it.

When I'm feeling totally stumped, I get up and do something else for a while. Often the answers to seemingly insoluble clues become obvious after a walk around the block. But if all else fails, I just think of Janet and Alex effortlessly conquering the worst that the Times Crossword can throw at them. That does the trick every time.

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