I am a creature of habit.
My morning ritual is not quite as intricately methodical as chado or sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, the “way of tea”. No tatami mats. No hanging scrolls. There are, however, certain items placed in certain order, necessary to the shaving ritual, a three part exercise involving a shaving cream bowl provided by Taylor of Old Bond Street, and two razors with double edged blades made with highest quality steel by Gilette in the Czech Republic.
That portion of the ritualized greeting of the day accomplished, I set aside fifteen minutes of silent mental exercise, accomplished with the assistance of one of the New York Times collections of crossword puzzles. I can’t explain why other crossword compendia do not speak to me, but there it is. The Times or nothing.
There are limits, however, that cannot be breached. The time limit is flexible, and I have put down a cortex damaging puzzle to be completed on another try, but my sweet spot is the puzzles published on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I can work with the Friday and Saturday puzzles when I can spend more than fifteen minutes on the task, but the ritual demands orderly procession from one task to the next,and there are dogs to feed.
Have I done a Sunday puzzle? I have; the cost was great and the hours lost will never be recaptured.
I like words well enough and challenge, but the exercise comes in practicing a particular sort of discipline. Each of us has certain abilities; recognizing words by simply looking at empty boxes is not one of mine. My wife and daughter, for example, are whizzes at solving Wheel of Fortune missing word challenges; my daughter actually got a word before the first letter appeared. Lacking the spatial genius they possess, my method is more deliberate.
I won’t say that everything I learned I learned from completing crossword puzzles, but the lessons I have learned in black and white are significant.
In the first place, I might not start at the first place. The temptation is to start with the clues running across the page from left to right, then turning to the clues running down the page, top to bottom. As is often true of life its own self, however, clues are likely to be obscure or ambiguous. A first clue might be “Shaver’s purchase” in four letters. OK, I’ll take a leap and assume that we’re talking about the sort of shaving that is part of my ritual, but several words might fit the bill. I’m inclined to go with “soap” or “blade”, but in this case, the correct entry would have been “foam”. Then, of course, the clue might have referred to those who shave wood, or points, or minutes off a commute.
The point is that without knowing that my entry is absolutely the only answer that could work in that space, I might happily pencil in “blade” and find myself hamstrung when answers to the first clues running down the page are at odds with the letters in place. In this case, for example, “blade” would have been useless in finding the answer to, “Big sugar exporter”, which turned out to be Fiji. Who knew?
The first lesson has been this: I’m best served by starting with what I know. Had I been completely stuck in ambiguity, I could have turned to clues 50 and 51 across, way down at the bottom of the page — “Sitcom pioneer Desi” and “Nicolas of Con Air”. No ambiguity there. Desi Arnaz and Nicolas Cage. I had to remember that Desi’s last name, pronounced ArNEZ, is spelled with an ‘a’, but other than that, slam dunk. Having those two words in place, 50 down — “Elemental particle” in four letters — has to be “atom”, and having “atom”, 60 across — “Doomsayer’s sign” in four letters — is pretty likely ‘omen”.
The second lesson follows the first in recognizing that as one word clarifies the identity of another, the process works best by tugging at each available string until the entire puzzle is pulled apart, and that tugging is not necessarily done by serially attacking clues one through fifty in order. In fact, the task is not only more difficult when order has to be maintained, it is changed. By the time I have encountered eight clues running across the page, each of which is shrouded in deceptive ambiguity, I have nothing. Let’s say this is a Wednesday puzzle, considered to be far less challenging than those that follow it. I’m looking at empty squares and quickly overwhelmed by my inadequacy on this, a medium level puzzle. I take a breath and try the eight clues running in sequence down the page, only to find that once again, no rock-solid answers arrive. I’ve now exhausted sixteen clues without putting pencil to paper.
What does this say about me? Maybe I need to scale down my ambition and do the Monday puzzle on The Atlantic’s website, twenty-four spaces in all, five across and nine down, with clues such as “Gargantuan aquatic mammal with a blowhole” in five letters. Maybe I should admit defeat and watch youtube videos of animal best friends. I should do that in any case, but in this moment the choice before me is to yield or push my brain a bit farther until I find a clue I can answer, then the next, and the next.
The lesson for me is that I can’t know what I know if I walk away. I have to take it one word at a time. As Anne Lamott’s father advised her brother, stuck and overwhelmed by a project on birds, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
We’re talking about fifteen minutes before I grab a cup of coffee and a yoghurt. Fifteen minutes of brain tuning. Some days are better than others. I’ve raced through an entire puzzle in ten minutes and on others found myself stuck on “Gargantuan mammal with a blowhole”.
The final lesson is that I’m content with finishing a puzzle even as I meet friends who polish off the Sunday crossword in ink. This not “Zen and the Art of Crosswords”, but things do go better when I am amused by a crossword’s tricky word play and appreciative of the lengths to which someone has gone to provide me with fifteen minutes not engaged in culture wars, financial planning, or the to-do list languishing on the refrigerator door.
So, mammals with blowholes? I began the quest, whale by whale until I hit the headline: “Scientists Discover A Mouth Breathing Dolphin”. The world is unimaginably surprising.