I love crossword puzzles. My friend Kathy Fernandes got me hooked way back in 1978. Ever since then they have served as faithful touchstones in my daily life. The Daily Texan, the Houston Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Winston-Salem Journal, Raleigh News and Observer, the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, for years I worked the crossword in the paper we got wherever we lived.
I remember grabbing the Daily Texan as soon as I got on campus and sitting in the Student Union before classes. I remember working them in the evening the years before Katie. I remember working them while Katie napped on my lap. Later, she tells me that one of her earliest memories is “shhh, mommy’s working the crossword.” Since going online, it’s my early morning ritual with classical music and a cup of decaf (an early sign that I’m getting old, someday I’ll work the crossword with gruel dribbling down my hairy chin).
When paper newspapers became too expensive, I switched to working crosswords online. I subscribe to the NYTimes and Washington Post and work their daily crosswords. On weekdays both puzzles generally take me less than 15 minutes. Monday through Thursday, I race the clock, trying to get each one done in less than five minutes. I often don’t read most of the clues, just start filling in either across or down. Fridays are more difficult. Saturdays are the hardest, and sometimes, maybe once or twice a month, I look up clues online. Sunday puzzles have themes and tricks: rebuses, puns, quotes, tricks, or circles with additional clues and/or words.
One of the most important things crosswords do for me is give my days structure. The schedule changes, the habit does not. If I can’t work one, there is a sense that the day is not complete. When I was at my sickest, working the crossword became an accurate barometer of my neurological state on any given day. It still is, although the difference is much subtler, a matter of grasping for a word for a bit longer.
Lately I’ve added la crucigrama de El País. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been learning Spanish. I am now at the intermediate level, a bumbling high school junior at the end of her second year of Spanish. Those early puzzles were terribly hard at the beginning. They are still hard. Armed with my dictionary, I painstakingly try to solve the clues. If I can’t get the whole word (hint for Spanish puzzlers, a lot of words start and end with “a” or “o”), I resort to clicking letters on the keyboard using the Wheel of Fortune strategy (a,e,i,o,u,r,s,t,d,p,l,m,m,b,c). Finally, in frustration I tap every other letter until I get the right one. As my Spanish has improved, so have my skills. It’s interesting to see that the creators use some of the same tricks in Spanish puzzles that English creators use, like the ones listed above. The El País puzzle creator has a fondness for clues that shorten the given word ( ¿Asombroso? muy poco.) They also have filler words, the ones that all puzzlers know because they have the right combinations of letters, like “oreo” in English puzzles. These take me around a half an hour after four months of hard work. I believe they are increasing my Spanish language skills, forcing me to learn context, grammar, and usage.
I love almost all word games, but many of them involve other people. The beauty of crosswords is that they can be a solitary habit at one’s convenience or a group effort. We used to have crosswords laying around on beach vacations, someone filling in some of the clues, someone else filling in others. I get texts from friends who crossword, asking about a clue or a theme. I’m sure there is a much broader community that I could be a part of if I wanted to. However, I fall more into the solitary camp. It’s not a competition in that respect. It’s more of the quiet satisfaction of completion.
In Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End“, he posits a theory that is eminently sensible to me. As people age and grow feeble, we should be asking them do what they do that makes life matter to them. It could be as simple as enjoying a bowl of ice cream while watching a ball game. When these things are no longer feasible, the person has most likely reached the point where they no longer wish to live. I’ve often wondered what my answer would be and haven’t come up with anything. After writing this blog, I realize it is my classical music/coffee/crossword ritual. When I can no longer enjoy it, I will have ceased to enjoy living.
Rather than being morbid, I find knowing this baseline comfortable. As I grow older, where I live and how I live will change. The when and how may change (I may go back to pen and paper, perhaps, or start working them after my nap), but the ritual of settling in to solve a word puzzle will not. For what it’s worth, I see many more years spent happily puzzling, but, like a dog who stops wanting to take walks, the day I don’t feel like doing them anymore will be my signal that I am ready. Oh, today marks a change in music. From Thanksgiving until New Year’s, I listen to Christmas music. The ritual goes on.