Living off the grid
Note: Details are given below for the solution to today’s New York Times crossword.
A week ago, I subscribed to the New York Times crossword puzzle. I’m still not at a point where I can read the news for more than a few minutes without becoming consumed by rage, so I’ve been looking for something else to fill my spare time. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of work to do, but there are always gaps, and you can only read The A.V. Club or even The Lisle Letters for so long. The crossword seemed like a pretty good idea, especially when I caught a deal on the price of an annual subscription—it’s just twenty bucks for the entire year. And it felt a bit like coming home. There was a brief period about a decade ago in which I loved doing crosswords: I could reliably finish a Monday puzzle in two to three minutes and a Saturday puzzle in under half an hour, and I even attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, after they switched venues to a hotel within walking distance of my apartment in Brooklyn. At my peak, I was studying lists of the most common obscure words (ETUI, ASTA, and the rest), venturing into the world of cryptics and acrostics, and even constructing a few puzzles of my own, including a notoriously difficult one that was given out to the guests at my wedding. Eventually, I burned out, and since I don’t have much time for hobbies, I hadn’t gone back to it until a few days ago.
So how did it feel? Picking up a crossword puzzle again after so long is sort of like tuning into a soap opera that you haven’t watched since college: you’re amazed that they’ve kept cranking them out in the meantime, and astonished at how little has changed. All the stock clues and answers greeted me like old friends, and I note that the puzzle still leans heavily on such hoary fallback options as MAITAI, NEHI, and AFLAC. The only difference, really, is me—I’m rusty. I’m lucky if I finish a Monday puzzle in five minutes, let alone three, and I’ll often find an error or two after I’m done. Fortunately, I’m more conscious of my limits than I used to be. When I attended the tournament all those years ago, I arrived, as I’m sure many novices do, with the secret hope that maybe I’d surprise everyone and win the whole thing. It was a dream that lasted roughly halfway through my first puzzle, when I saw that the solvers around me were finishing before I’d even had a chance to read through a third of the clues. It’s a humbling experience. Crosswords, in their oddball way, are an objective test of skill, at least for the community of people who have spent an inordinate amount of time solving and thinking about them. If the same handful of names tend to end up in the winner’s circle, it’s because there’s minimal luck involved, at least when you average it out over seven puzzles.
And while I’m certainly not the first person to note this, a crossword embodies many of the tools, in miniature form, that we use to solve larger problems. When I first tackle a puzzle—like the one in today’s paper by Molly Young—I begin by scanning clues quickly, starting at 1-Across, until I find a way in. Here, it happened to be “Preceder of Barbara or Clara” (SANTA), just because it was the first obvious one I saw. It’s an arbitrary starting point that serves as the seed from which a unique route through the crossword unfolds. (No two solving paths are the same, although it would be interesting to track the processes of expert solvers and see if any patterns emerge.) I already had a hunch, after reading the clue “New push-up bra from Apple?”, that all of the theme answers would begin with the letter “I,” and fortunately, I was right. After getting ILIFT, the northwest corner was a piece of cake. I caught a lucky break with “British P.M. between Churchill and Macmillan,” because I’ve been watching Jeremy Northam play Anthony EDEN on The Crown. The rest unfolded organically, following the path of least resistance, until it finally encountered a few rough spots that didn’t succumb right away. Today, for me, these were the northeast and southeast corners. At that point, you just have to stare at the same few clues, cycling between them until something clicks, and after I realized that “It can help you get a leg up” was OTTOMAN, I was basically done.
In the end, I didn’t make any mistakes, and my solving time was well within my historical average. (I won’t say how long it took me, because sharing your crossword times is like telling somebody how much money you make: anyone who solved it more quickly than you did won’t care, and anyone who took longer will just get annoyed.) And the process is roughly analogous to my approach to tackling any creative problem. I look for the easiest way in, try for one good guess toward the beginning, follow the most intuitive route, seek out catalysts, fall back on experience and old tricks, and rely on luck for the rest. If this were a Friday or Saturday puzzle, it would also include a much larger component of brute force, wrong turns, and frustration. I don’t necessarily think that the result makes you more creative: it’s such a hermetic, closed universe, with its own rules, that it doesn’t open onto anything more. And the correlation between skill here and meaningful talent elsewhere is unreliable at best. But as a short-term, self-contained, single-serving reminder of those basic capabilities, they have real value. They aren’t the only puzzles in life that you should try to solve, and when pursued too far, they can lead to a dead end—like any hobby. Still, at a time when so many dilemmas loom with no obvious solution, it’s consoling, maybe even sustaining, to spend time on puzzles that you know have an answer, in a world defined by black and white.