I’ve been a fan of crossword puzzles for about 17 years, although there was a considerable break in the middle of that period. When I was in college, the school paper (the Daily Pennsylvanian) would run the New York Times crossword puzzle each and every day. I used to do it at lunch. Back then, Mondays were usually pretty easy for me, and I could reliably do up to about Wednesday, but anything further became extremely tough. (For those of you who don’t know, the NYT makes its crosswords progressively more difficult as the week goes on. Monday is relatively easy, and then they scale up to mind-bendingly muderous on Saturday. They run a much larger puzzle on Sundays, but it “only” has the difficulty level of Thursday or so).
I remember using the dictionary in my dorm room as my resource for knocking down some of the harder Wednesday clues. For example, if I could get the first two letters, say ‘de,’ and the clue was 7 letters long, I would just flip open the dictionary and scan for the words that began with ‘de’ with seven letters. It wasn’t as time-consuming as you might think. Sort of cheating, sure, but it was sufficiently effort-intensive that I didn’t feel too bad about it. I was still working hard for that filled-in grid.
After college, I dropped the puzzle for a while, although I would intermittently try my hand at a Sunday, with mixed results. Crosswords are always fun, but mostly when you beat them. Sundays typically have a meta-puzzle or theme buried within them, which is usually a shared element among the long clues (10 letters or more). It might be puns that use numbers, or movie titles, or hidden codes. I used to like doing the Sundays until I figured out the theme/code, and then I often wouldn’t bother to finish them.
I picked up the crossword again more regularly about five or six years ago. I started with Sundays, again, but realized that somehow, they weren’t as challenging as they used to be. I think that’s mostly because the NYT crossword requires a very broad base of knowledge – you need to have a working knowledge of French, Spanish and very basic Latin, you have to be pretty well-versed in pop culture references of the past 25-30 years and moderately aware of cultural touchstones for the past hundred, you have to know your history, your geography and of course, you have to know what any number of 50-cent words mean. So, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more, and have a deeper well to draw from when I’m working on one of these things.
Eventually, Sunday puzzles seemed to be bunch of work for not that much fun. I could get the clues without much effort, but it was time-consuming to work through the puzzle (as I mentioned before, Sunday puzzles are about three times as big as the regular Mon-Sat weekly puzzle). So, I decided to try for the brass ring and check out some Saturdays. The Saturday puzzle is the bitch-goddess of crosswords. Here are a few representative clues from this past Saturday:
“Corriere della ________, Italy’s top selling newspaper”; 4 letters
“Foals:horses :: crias:__________”; 6 letters
“Sideshow Bob’s last name on ‘The Simpsons'”; 11 letters
“Radiodensity indicators”; 8 letters
I got all of those, but I’m still stuck on five or six clues. Still, I’m proud to be able to say that I usually don’t have to Google to complete a Saturday anymore. When I started doing them, it was very rare to make it through a full puzzle without looking something up. Crosswords, though, like anything else, get easier with practice – even really hard ones. You start to recognize common clue patterns. For instance, the novel “Omoo” by Herman Melville comes up as an answer over and over again. They try to disguise it with different clues, but almost any time you have a clue asking for the name of a novel with 4 letters, it’s going to be Omoo. I suspect that O-M-O-O is a pattern of letters that comes up a lot when people are creating these things, and they must thank god that there’s even an answer they can use.
Anyway, I’ve come to love the Saturday, and I make it a part of my weekend routine. My weekends aren’t anywhere near as mellow as they used to be – I was up at 5:55 this morning, for example – but working the puzzle is a way to prove to myself that I haven’t gone soft, despite all sorts of distractions. That being said, I haven’t cracked this week’s yet – any idea what “My God” in Aramaic might be? (4 letters).
Oh, and by the way, SERA, LLAMAS, TERWILLIGER and CATSCANS.