This one is long. I try to keep them at under a thousand words, just out of pride, but I didn’t have time to edit this one. (And you know you don’t have to read these, right?)
How I Do Crossword Puzzles
In the fall of 1985, I left Young County and went to Austin to begin my career as an English major. I grew a beard for the occasion, since I was now exempt from the no-facial-hair policy of Graham High School and of the area at large, and because I was an English major. I wore what I thought then was a beret but realized later was a British driving cap. It was gray, made of tweed, and had a red-and-black checkered lining. I thought I looked like a poet but really looked more like Dave the Helpful Hardware Man. I took myself very seriously, was intimidated by Austin and the university, and made no friends. When the spring semester ended, I shaved my beard, packed my stuff, and headed back to Young County. One afternoon at the lake my old high school friends took my beret from me and invented some sort of game that consisted of nothing more than wearing the hat and walking funny.
One of the few things I remember about that year in Austin was that the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, carried the New York Times crossword puzzle. The newspaper was free and ubiquitous. Sometimes, sitting alone at one of the tables in the student union or on a bench outside Parlin Hall, I’d thumb through the newspaper, and I’d look at the puzzle the way I imagine a foreigner looks at such a thing. It was inpenetrable to me. A few times I may have actually taken out a pencil or pen and tried to fill in some of the answers; if so, I didn’t get far. Everything was shaping up the same way: I didn’t belong in the big leagues of the English major game.
I transferred to a small church college in Abilene, then to a university in Denton, came back and finished up at UT. I made good grades, graduated with high honors, but I didn’t confront the Times puzzle again during any of that time. I moved to St. Louis to see if it was any easier to be a poet up there. It wasn’t.
Years passed. I tried doing the puzzle a few more times, here and there, with no better results, moving all the time. In grad school, again back in Austin, one Sunday morning I decided I’d take the puzzle on again. I was twenty-four now, and I’d figured out a few things. I’d figured out, if nothing else, that I had read as many books as anybody my age and knew as many words. I bought the Times and spent a long late morning at Hillbert’s Burgers on Lamar, determined to do that big Sunday bastard. I may have gotten a bit further on that attempt, but I didn’t finish it. Not long after that I wound up in Arkansas, in another self-imposed exile, which seemed to be the pattern every time I failed at the New York Times crossword puzzle. Somewhere prior to then I had lost my beret. I did try to learn to smoke a pipe, though.
In 1996, I returned to Austin for fourth and final time. Again, there was the Daily Texan, scattered on tables of student hangouts all around campus. Over breakfast tacos at the Posse, I saw a copy of the paper opened to somebody’s abandoned attempt at the puzzle. I looked at if a few minutes and then began filling in the remaining answers. I started doing the puzzle every day after that.
With regular, daily solving, I began to see that I could solve Mondays and Tuesdays quickly with no mistakes. Wednesdays always seemed a bit tougher, but I could usually finish those as well. Thursdays were hard and often had some sort of “puzzle within a puzzle” feature, such as multiple letters in a single square or the substitution of a rebus for a word; I remember catching on to that in a puzzle that substituted the symbols for card suits in place of the words spade, heart, club and diamond. It was one of the biggest revelations of my life. As for Fridays, a friend of mine, the Panda, and I used to sit for hours staring intently at the empty grid without ever entering a letter. Finishing a Friday was rare and a huge accomplishment. I was twenty-nine years old.
What I didn’t know back then was that the characteristics I described above—the progressive difficulty of the puzzles, Monday through Saturday, the trickiness of Thursdays, the opaqueness of Fridays—are institutionalized in the editing of the puzzle. (The Sunday puzzle is a bigger puzzle and is exempt from the regular weekly rating scale that the Mon-Sat 15×15 grid puzzles are subjected to.) I also didn’t know that the puzzle I was doing was syndicated and was not the same puzzle that a person who owned a copy of the New York Times was doing on that day—it was likely the puzzle from the corresponding weekday published six weeks ago in the Times.
That was, as I said, 1996, the pre-internet days, or at least the days before I had tuned into the internet. I barely had a computer. Miss Fussybritches’s husband-to-be sold me 386 PC as we were all leaving Arkansas earlier that year, and it worked fine, but it sounded like an airplane, and every time I cranked it on, the neighbors complained about the noise. Even if I had been more computer literate and internet-savvy, there was probably not at that time on the internet anything that would have offered a detailed overview of the New York Times crossword puzzle to outliers like me. You’d have to figure out the arcana of the puzzle the hard way, the way the Panda and I did. Either that or be from New York, which was never a palatable option.
I left Austin again, for good this time, in 1999, and one of the first things I did when I left, being more attuned to the workings of the internet now, was buy an online subscription to the puzzle. Except for Sundays, which I hardly ever do (they’re just too long), and a few Mondays and Tuesdays, I’ve done, or at least attempted, every New York Times crossword published in the past 13 years.
On Friday, April 20, 2007, I was stumped by a David Quarfoot puzzle and, through a Google search, wound up at a website called “Rex Parker Does the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.” There, every day for about the last two and a half years, a guy in upstate New York named Michael Sharp (aka, “Rex Parker”) has chronicled his daily experiences with the puzzle and presided over a growing community of commenters on his site’s chatboard.
I became a regular reader of Rex, then a regular commenter, and I’ve even filled in as guest-blogger on a few occasions. Relationships that started as anonymous or quasi-anonymous on the chatboard have moved off the board and become real friendships, not just for me but for many other regulars on the website. People in different parts of the country, people who know each other only through Rex’s website, have attended crossword puzzle tournaments together (yes, there are crossword puzzle tournaments–the super-elite hang out here), gone out to dinner together, met each other’s families, even rescued each other from airports when layover flights got cancelled due to snow. It’s all because one guy decided he was going to try to do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day and write about it. Rex’s example is what inspired me to try something similar, even if our motives are different (in that he knows what his motives are, and I haven’t any idea what mine are), and “87 Kinds of Shaving Cream,” written December 3, 2008, is the first song I finished after the nutcracker’s edict. (ATRA is a standby crossword answer, by the way. If you see a clue for a four-letter word that has anything to do with shaving, the answer is ATRA.)
I almost always finish the crossword puzzle now. I can also do (usually) the cryptic crosswords in Harper’s, the Atlantic, and sometimes even British newspapers, where the crosswords speak a whole different language. Getting better at the Times puzzle had very little to do with how much stuff I know. I don’t know much more stuff now than I did when I first tried doing the puzzle 24 years ago. It had more to do with realizing that it is a puzzle and that a puzzle is a . . . puzzle. It does have an answer, and the puzzle exists to be figured out. That sounds obvious, because it is, but it wasn’t to me. I used to assume that, if the answer existed, it existed only for other people. But it’s the same puzzle for everybody. And I’ll stop there because this is starting to sound like the ending of a Waltons episode or some crappy NPR essay.
The Song. This is also the song that was originally scheduled for a few weeks ago but kept getting bumped. It’s not such a great song, but I’m glad to get it off the computer. The song isn’t really about anything. Everybody agrees that there is too much shaving cream, but nobody does anything about it.
The Performance. Just Buck and guitar. I originally recorded this song on December 6, before I’d figured out some of the tricks on my recorder. On that recording, the guitar was very distorted at the bass end. I re-recorded it February 20. The original recording sounded better except for the distortion, but you’d have to really care a whole lot to discern any difference. I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t notice the difference.
The Video. Giant leaps in technical achievement this week: Buck drives! And there’s a chase scene. Or something. And baby kung-fu! Or something. I was trying to get a shot of my favorite taco truck, the one on Durham just north of I-10, in the vacant lot next to Wendy’s, but they’d already pulled it away for the day. It’s a newish city regulation that the taco trucks have to move every day. Nobody knows why. (Maybe to confuse the rats.) It’s all downhill from here, video-wise.
Dedication. This song is for Puzzlegirl, my crossword buddy.
Next Week. Nutcracker Buck sings “Grandpa, Don’t Eat the Gravy.” Probably. Read the rest of this entry »