The summer of 1972 was a sizzler. It was 100 degrees the July day I got married. It was also the summer that an interest was sparked that has only grown hotter and brighter over the years. That summer, I discovered crossword puzzles.
A paperback of crossword puzzles had somehow come into my possession. Margaret Farrar was the editor, I think. Maybe Will Weng. An inveterate reader, I was shocked as September ticked around to realize that I’d read nothing all summer! Zip. Nada. I had spent the whole summer doing crosswords.
I’ve been at it ever since. According to Adrienne Raphel’s new book, Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them, crosswords became a fad in the 1920s and has not let up.
People do crosswords to focus their minds and, at the same time, to get out of their minds, according to Raphel. As for me, I do crosswords to escape the boring stuff: brushing my teeth, taking a shower, and that other thing I do in the bathroom – dyeing my hair.
“Brain magic,” is what Raphel calls the feeling when the answer suddenly comes to you. As she puts it, “The aha is addictive.” I should know. I feel that aha hundreds of times a day. Each one is a squirt of dopamine that hits me like a shot of espresso.
That’s only one reason I do crosswords. I like to solve them because the clues are like jokes. For example, a clue for a five letter-word is, “Feature of Algeria and Egypt.” The puzzle maker leads me to think of similarities among North African countries: Oasis? Oases? Dunes? Well, it is a purposeful misdirection. The answer is “SOFT G.” The letter “g” in both Algeria and Egypt are soft “g’s.” (Spaces between words are always ignored.)
Here’s another example. Ten spaces with the clue: “It appears first in China.” Does it refer to the sun coming up? Something the Chinese invented? Paper money? TikTok? The answer turns out to be “FAMILY NAME.” I like all the twists and turns my mind has to navigate to get to the correct answer.
Sometimes, the answer is a bit of trivia that pleases me. Fifteen letters. Who said, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” “CHARLES DEGAULLE.”
I like that I can start it anywhere on the grid. I can skip around and put an answer in any quadrant. When I’m stuck in one corner, I can work in another area. It feels, I don’t know, democratic.
A side reward is that it gives me a window to my brain, or possibly, my courage. It turns out that my tolerance for risk changes wildly from day to day. I can’t say for certain what factors are in play, although lack of sleep is one. One day, I want all the down clues to fit before I put an across answer, afraid that an incorrect letter would throw off the other answers. Another day, I’ll fill in anything.
Doing the crossword can be a social experience. In the mid – ‘70s, my grad student friend Judy and I would do the Sunday New York Times puzzle together. We lay on our stomachs on the rug of her rented attic living area. We seldom finished, but boy, it was fun. I also cleaned out her supply of Vienna sausages.
During our courtship, Bill and I did the newspaper puzzle together. It got pretty competitive. We still do the puzzle together – but consecutively. I start it. I fill in half of the squares. I choose the up half or the bottom half; the right or the left half. There’s extra pressure to be correct as a wrong answer would handicap him.
You are probably saying, am I doing crosswords to stave off dementia? The studies are inconclusive. Here’s my take: Anything that much fun cannot also be good for you. My longshot hope is that I’ll have what neurologists call Procedural Memory. We’ve all heard about demented patients who can still play the piano. My mother was like that about mah-jongg. Late into her dementia journey, when she didn’t even recognize her grandson, Mom could still beat us at mah-jongg.
The best reason to do crosswords these Covid days is that my mind travels to places even as my body cannot. Here’s a clue.
Six letters. “A.J. ___ author of the best seller ‘The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.’” A.J. “JACOBS” is the cousin of my late friend Michael Flug. Michael was delightful, the kind of guy who would regale us about his cousin while he, wife Suzanne and Bill and I chowed down at their favorite Chicago ethnic restaurant. He died last year.
Six letters. “ ___ Anne’s (pretzel maker).” This is not a hard clue. That smell of “AUNTIE” Anne’s pretzel-making is unmistakable. That crossword entry takes me back to the twelve hours that Bill and I spent at Newark Airport’s cramped terminal. We were already exhausted from our SAS trans-Atlantic flight. The only connection to St. Louis was twelve hours later. The terminal was a small, circular space and there was no way to escape the aroma of Auntie Anne’s.
Six letters. “Havana highball.” I had my very first “MOJITO” in Havana in February, 2013. I was enchanted by the Latin musical rhythms and the dancing. I remember exclaiming, “Everybody in Cuba can move their hips and their shoulders independently!” Our group got a special concert by the Buena Vista Social Club.
For me, crosswords are much more than Thinking Inside the Box. It’s a rocket ship that takes me, as the Beatles say, “across the Universe.”
Tell me: What is it you LOVE to do?