(NYT Puzzle Editor Will Shortz)
I can’t stand it when someone grandiosely declares that a movie “changed [his] life” because it usually just means that a film had an emotional impact – like, maybe the viewer developed a fear of computers after “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Big deal.
But there is one movie that literally changed the daily routine of my life. When my wife and I went to see “Wordplay,” a documentary about a crossword puzzle tournament, neither of us had ever attempted, much less completed, a New York Times crossword. But with the movie so entertaining we decided to give it a shot and now we find ourselves doing the puzzle four or five times a week. In fact, I think it’s possible that we talk about the puzzle more than we talk about our son when he’s off at college (sorry buddy!)
How we love to complain when the Monday puzzles are too easy (“The XXXX Ness Monster? An insult!!”). And how we love to grouse about the dirty tricks that puzzle editor Will Shortz pulls on Thursdays (“You have to shift all the answers in that column up by one square? What a sadist!!”) It’s gotten to the point where “did you finish the puzzle?” has replaced “how did you sleep last night” as the default marital question of the day.
Let me make it clear that doing crossword puzzles doesn’t automatically make you eligible for Mensa. It doesn’t take long to discover there are hundreds of easy standard answers rotated from puzzle to puzzle. Among three-letter clues, a hockey player is always ORR, a baseball player is always OTT, and an actor named Stephen is always REA. Once you master these basics anyone who only marginally payed attention in college can complete the easier puzzles.
Yet there is a darker side to this crossword fixation. One of the other things I can’t stand is when people say they’re “addicted” to something, meaning they enjoy it a lot, like chocolate or Agatha Christie novels. And yet, while it’s probably an exaggeration to say I’m addicted to crossword puzzles, I am definitely experiencing mild addictive tendencies. And I’m not just saying that. Buzzfeed did a funny post listing 21 signs you’re addicted to crossword puzzles and I suffer from 16 of them.
An addiction is defined as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is physiologically or physically habit forming, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” OK, so that’s not precisely what I have, but I do feel a little jittery if there’s a NYT crossword puzzle in the house that I haven’t worked on. I sometimes find myself working on the puzzle for hours even when I should be doing real (i.e., compensated) work. I also dream about crossword puzzles. This is no joke. As I am drifting off to sleep, I literally dream about unfinished puzzles, in a way that I’ve never dreamed about martinis, slot machines, or any of the other established addictions.
The causes of addiction are not fully understood but they are believed to be linked to the brain chemical dopamine, which facilitates the sense of pleasure. Answering complex questions apparently triggers a release of dopamine in the same way that a gambler gets a pleasure jolt from winning a bet. And a good crossword puzzle is all about answering complex questions.
Here’s the interesting thing about the pleasures of crossword puzzles. I get zero satisfaction out of answering the easy clues. In fact, the two most enervating minutes of the day are when I am skimming through the puzzle filling in the generic answers. It isn’t until I get to the tricky questions that the pleasure starts to kick in.
And the REAL serotonin buzz starts when I’ve been stymied on an answer for 10-15 minutes and then, suddenly, the scales literally fall from my eyes. Sometime it seems like actual magic. More often that not, if I can’t get any more answers and walk away for a while, when I come back, it’s – Bang! – one answer after another. It’s like the brain circuitry gets tangled one way and then somehow straightens itself out when it’s at rest. My favorite clues play into that – like when a word that seems to be an adjective or adverb turns out to be a noun or verb. Take this clue: five letters for “revolting sort.” It turns out that “revolting” isn’t an adjective, as in sickening. It’s actually a verb and the answer is “REBEL.” Aha!
I get another blast of satisfaction when my mind magically comes up with a factoid I didn’t know I knew. Example: six letters for “like the women in a famous Rubens painting.” No idea, until the first letter established itself as an “S” and suddenly I guessed SABINE, as in “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” I don’t recall ever seeing the painting or knowing anything about it, but someone this fact was lodged way way back in the most distant ganglia of my brain and the crossword puzzle dislodged it. Amazing. I feel almost giddy and gay.
I would feel better about myself if I could solve the harder puzzles. The Monday NYT puzzles are the easiest and the week gets progressively harder until Saturday. I can usually finish Thursday by cheating on a word or two, and I sometimes can do Friday but never Saturday (Sunday’s larger puzzles I can usually do over the course of a weekend.) This level of accomplishment is where I’ve been stuck for five years. And the sad thing is, I probably never will solve a Saturday without checking out Rex Parker’s blog site because I’m not proficient enough in the following categories: the moons of Saturn, Spanish phrases (other than “Ole!”), European rivers (other than the “Arno”), Verdi operas, elements with atomic weights over 100, one-hit wonder songs from the early 1970s, minor Grecian goddesses. I will admit that I have occasionally googled an answer toward the end of the week, but I make excuses for myself (just like an addict!) that no sane person could be expected to know all that.
One last point on that movie “Wordplay.” It really is terrific even if you don’t like crossword puzzles or documentaries. But be forewarned. It’s a gateway drug to a lifetime of noticing that “TIARA” has a lot of vowels and that a five letter word for “Hollywood’s Davis” is more apt to be GEENA than BETTE.