In February of 1942, a scant couple of months after Pearl Harbor, the world was a scary place, even scarier than it is now, if you can believe it. The New York Times was a serious newspaper covering serious stories, but people needed a diversion. It was time for the Times to publish what it had previously considered a “sinful waste” of time.
Last month marked the 75th anniversary of The New York Times crossword puzzle, and I have to say, completing the puzzle each week saved me. It saved me from cleaning the garage, it saved me from doing the dishes and it saved me from mowing the lawn. It also saved me from sudoku. I don’t know if you would call sudoku a mathematical puzzle, but the damn thing is filled with nothing but numbers. It’s the equivalent of water-boarding for someone who got a 425 on their math SAT, only much more addicting.
I had always thought that crossword puzzles were silly, the way I think that everything I can’t do is silly, like surfing or neurosurgery. But when my wife found out that I was filling in the wrong answers to her puzzles, we started completing them together so that she could keep an eye on me. As a team, my wife and I are a formidable puzzle-solving machine. She handles all the clues about geography, current events, art, culture, languages and literature. If a question comes up about “F Troop,” that’s when I spring into action. Picture if you will (I wouldn’t if I were you) the symbiotic relationship between the sea anemone and the clownfish, where the clownfish knows a lot of commercial jingles and game shows from four decades ago.
I convince myself that the puzzles are educational, and that I am warding off Alzheimer’s disease with every answer I fill in. I have learned who Brian Eno is, why Mel Ott was so great, and a lot of names relating to rare birds. I now know what an ern is, and an ani and a nene. When I am 95 years old, muttering random three letter words etched into my memory, it isn’t going to help convince people that I DON’T have Alzheimer’s.
Will Shortz has been the Times Crossword Puzzle editor for decades now, and I picture him sequestered in a dark, candle-lit room in the top floor of a castle, maliciously devising new ways to make me seem stupider than usual. Thursday and Sunday he embeds some sort of trick into the puzzle, as he laughs a sinister laugh: “MWA HAHAHAHAHA!”
Whenever I feel like I don’t have a clue, I open up the Times, and the crossword has dozens of them. What’s a four-letter word for Will Shortz? Next time I see him I’ll let him know. I actually have met Will Shortz, because he owns a ping pong club in Pleasantville. I only use the term “ping pong” because I know he would hate that I didn’t call it “table tennis,” and he has it coming to him. He’s wasted more of my time than my personal trainer, who has never trained me to do anything but a bunch of dumb exercises. I’d like to say more bad things about Will Shortz, except that he was actually quite fun and friendly, and I couldn’t think of a cross word for him.
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