Last year, I hooked-up with a digital subscription to The Gray Lady as she hustled herself to keep abreast of the election that got away from her — and most of us. At the time, she offered her services at half her regular rate, and I thought it a fair fee for her graces. Part of the subscription benefits included a month-long admission to her playground free of charge: an archive of current and post-dated puzzles that exercise brain cells that were left reeling from trying to make sense of national and world events. After the free month, I could opt out of the playground privileges or pay an additional monthly fee to continue playing.
I have never been good at playing games. More often than not, when I play Monopoly or other such board games, I willingly and early on in the game give my money over to the bank after a few rounds around the board, refuse to get out of jail (friends say I tend to back myself in a corner anyway), and enjoy the rest of the evening watching others achieve real estate magnate status four or five hours later.
I have never been good at playing crossword puzzles either. I find them daunting, obscure, and difficult to complete, especially the Sunday puzzles folk immerse themselves in for hours when the early Sunday edition is published and that arrives late on Saturday evenings. There was a time when I attempted to fill in the puzzles that came on the last page of New York Magazine. At the time, EX-Man 2 was a fan of completing Maura Jacobson’s mind-benders. When the weekly issue of the magazine arrived in the mail on Monday, he got me to help him figure out the clues that yielded words that revealed a larger theme hidden in the empty squares. I don’t remember ever completing a puzzle on my own, but he and I spent the remainder of the week looking up answers in crossword puzzle dictionaries, thesauruses, and almanacs. The Internet was not as ubiquitous then as it is now, and Google was not so readily available as to provide the answers to esoteric questions La Jacobson posed to us at each turn.
The first few times I tried to answer the Gray Lady’s riddles I felt at a loss, inadequate, or like I was playing chess with the Sphinx. In the app’s archive there remain a number of puzzles that are left unfinished because, try as I might, I can’t figure out the words, answers, or what, exactly, the clue is asking for. Once, on a Monday, I did finish a puzzle, but not without looking for words online or cheating by looking up the clue’s reference on Wikipedia. Puzzles published later in the week are far beyond me, and they leave me feeling like my vocabulary is lacking.
One day, by chance, my thumb brushed the icon for the Mini puzzle in the Gray Lady’s iPhone app and before me appeared what seemed to be the upper corner portion of a larger crossword puzzle. I pinched the screen several times trying to zoom out to see the larger riddle, but I discovered that the Minis are bite size puzzles one can finish in a matter of minutes, or seconds, depending on one’s verbal dexterity. The words are no longer than five boxes usually, and many of the clues reference recent current events or popular culture icons.
Having plenty to do that would solve half of the world’s problems, I decided to put it all aside and I tried working on a puzzle that I solved in about 5 minutes. When I tapped the final later to fill in the remaining empty square, I was rewarded with a congratulatory message and short jingle that validated my victory, and released a substantial dose of dopamine that made me feel extraordinarily good at having neglected the world’s problems. Of course, I thought, this was an easy puzzle. There is no way that I could repeat such feat of daring and wisdom again. But as the following day dawned, the world’s problems increased, and a decline in the previous day’s dopamine became apparent, I decided to test fate again and play the day’s Mini puzzle. Four minutes later, the previous’s day’s message appeared on the screen again and the very same jingle played, confirming, once again, that I had cheated Death at its own game, the Sphinx recoiled to her cave, defeated, once again, and I welcomed the day’s dopamine rush. I went about ignoring the world’s problems once again, sure that nothing could be so bad while under the influence of the neurotransmitter’s pleasures.
I have since then developed a daily crossword Mini practice — or obsession, some would claim. Every morning, after coffee (gotta be alert), meditation (gotta be calm), and Tai Chi (gotta get the Qi circulating), I indulge in the day’s crossword Mini, and have averaged completing the puzzles in less than 2 minutes. There have been embarrassing days, however, when the Sphinx is far cleverer than I and bested my best efforts. But in the process of accumulating laurels of victory, I have amassed a number of words and clue answers that seem to repeat themselves across different puzzles in myriad of ways. Erie, for example, is common when answering clues about a lake in the New York region, or one of the Great Lakes. Yoko, or Ono, are usually reserved for artist who broke up the Beatles, or not really an artist. The largest land mass is Asia. Iraq and Iran are usually trick questions best left unresolved until one figures out the correct consonant when answering the clue that completes the Ira-part of the word. Obama keeps coming up at least twice a month in puzzles, perhaps as way for the Gray Lady to remember happier, or easier to manage days. And I was happy to find the appearance of a certain villain hailing from a galaxy far, far away in a puzzle I recently completed. Love that dopamine rush!
I have yet to graduate and attempt a full crossword game, the likes of which most serious crossword puzzlers relish and attempt solving. I’ve begun several of the easy Monday games, but leave them incomplete and unfinished, not happy with the results or how long the dopamine release is withheld from me. I don’t know the answers to enough clues or many of the Sphinx’s references yet, but as my vocabulary grows and improves, and I develop skills to read through the less obvious clues, I think that maybe one day I’ll be able to put those skills to the test and enjoy the feeling of satisfaction avid players feel at besting the puzzle’s writer.