Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Crossword Puzzles Can Teach Us

Like most people, I grew up tinkering with crossword puzzles—the easy ones in the back of TV Guide and the quickies designed for killing time in waiting rooms. But a few years ago I got hooked on New York Times puzzles. With my special puzzle-only subscription to the Times, I download a few every week and work on them at odd hours, usually during meals. And while I’m sitting there pondering clues, I often think about how much I learn from doing crosswords—and I don’t just mean the names of R&B singers (BLUCANTRELL) and silent-film stars (MAEMURRAY). Some of the lessons are a bit more metaphorical.

1) All knowledge is useful.
Lately I’ve been appalled to find that most of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” has fallen out of my head like so much crumbling plaster, yet the entire theme to Gilligan’s Island is still in there, maddeningly intact. But crossword puzzles are a great leveler—every fact counts, and pretty much everything you know, from horse anatomy to foreign swear words to Forrest Gump’s military rank, will come up sooner or later. So that makes it equally OK to browse People magazine (RACHAELRAY), eavesdrop on fishermen (STONEFLY), and brush up on your Egyptian board games (SENET). In the crossword universe—and, I like to think, in life—no knowledge goes to waste.

2) Your brain sees things differently on different days.
Sometimes I get stuck on a crossword answer that won’t come and won’t come, and I finally give up and put down the puzzle. Then I pick it up the next day, and that elusive answer pops out at me like one of those 3-D images in the Magic Eye books. It’s like some days my eyes can’t fill in the gaps and recognize the patterns, and other days they do it effortlessly*. There are two life lessons in this: 1) If you can’t solve a problem now, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to figure it out later, and 2) If our eyes can make connections on some days when it couldn’t see them before, then maybe other things involving our “vision”—like intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry—aren’t set in stone, either. These too may change over time—perhaps suddenly, perhaps tomorrow.

3) Sometimes we’re wrong.
Once in a while, I feel like I’m cooking along pretty well on a section of a puzzle: I get one easy answer and a few others seem to fit, but then I get stuck and can’t fill in the rest around them. Much later, I figure out that my first answer—the one that seemed so obvious—is actually wrong. (It’s CAPEANN, not CAPECOD.) This reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers: “Don’t believe everything you think.” It also serves as a reminder that we all make mistakes—I do, and so does the driver who almost hit me this morning, the one I growled at and almost flipped off. And among all those mistakes we make, most of them aren’t deal-killers; nine times out of ten, we get to just fix them and move on (and question our assumptions next time).

4) Difficult things take time.
Times Sunday puzzles used to scare me just because they seemed so ridiculously hard. I’d sit there and look and look at the clues, and not one answer would come to mind. Frustrated, I’d toss the puzzle aside and go do something easier, like caulk the bathtub. But in time, I figured out the secret to doing the Sundays and their much harder brethren, the Fridays and Saturdays: simple, dogged persistence. To get started, I just have to figure out one word somewhere in the puzzle—the thin edge of the wedge. This often takes a while, but if I look at it long enough, I’ll at least be able to guess at one. And then, after I keep pushing at it and thinking and thinking and thinking on it—sometimes over the course of several days**—things start to happen. Patterns emerge, red herrings get tossed out, blanks get filled in. And then—pop—it’s done. And what a rush that is, to do something that seemed virtually impossible at first. I can’t speak for other puzzlers, but for me, there are no shortcuts to this—it’s just a matter of putting in the time and not giving up. This philosophy comes in handy in other difficult parts of life, like writing a novel, or finishing a project at work, or even recovering from an illness. In our fast-food, quick-cut culture, it’s easy to forget that some things have to happen in a series of small increments, not all at once. So we sometimes give up on a difficult task before we even take the first step. And then we never get the satisfaction of doing that hard thing—a thing was actually within our reach all along.

5) There’s more than one path.
Crosswords are a bit like religion, in that there are no one-size-fits-all rules. Some salesman in New Delhi may be plunking away on the same New York Times Sunday puzzle I’m working on right now, and so is the retired woman across the street from me, but that doesn’t mean we’re all doing them in exactly the same way. There are no classes where we learn this, no set of printed rules we have to follow. And in fact, one person’s “cheating” is another’s “standard procedure.” For example, my dad always kept a crossword dictionary next to his reading chair. But to me, that’s cheating, so I don’t own a puzzle dictionary. But I will, on occasion, look up an answer in a reference book if I’ve been stuck on that spot for days and I know I’ll never get it because, going one way, it’s “the city where Jonah preached,” and going the other way, it’s the aliens in Avatar***. But some would consider that illegal, and would never look up an answer. On the other hand, some people think it’s OK to peek at the answer in the next day’s paper or the back of the book, but to me, that’s the ultimate disgrace; I usually won’t look at the answer even after I’m done. If I’ve got a little fudgy spot that I’m not sure about—that IPAD might be an IPOD, and that Macedonian river might be misspelled as a result—that’s OK; I can live with it. The important thing to me is to finish the puzzle, even if it’s not quite perfect. I find it comforting—and subversive, in a way—that we’re all doing crosswords while adhering to our own completely arbitrary set of rules. We all get to the same place at the end, so what does it matter? Like I say, a lot like religion.

*Case in point, a couple of weeks ago: “She’s no naïf” ( - - M - - - - T - - - - - - - ) turned out to be WOMANOFTHEWORLD. It stumped me and stumped me, and then one morning I looked at it and could just see it. How my eye could piece that together from only two letters, I’ll never know.

**I recently did a stinker of a Saturday puzzle that took about a week. I had to break down and look up a couple of things, because there was no way I’d get them otherwise. One was the highest mountain in Australia—KOSCIUSZCO; the other was a 1902 Kentucky Derby winner named ALANADALE.

***NINEVEH and NAVI. One unfortunate thing about crosswords is that they point out the holes in your education, much like those Jeopardy categories that make you groan. Among my weak spots are the Bible, British royalty, and bloody Roman numerals, which trip me up every bloody time. I’m actually pretty good at James Cameron movies but have never warmed up to the cartoony blue people in Avatar.

Alan-a-Dale in 1902, with Jay Winkfield aboard.