Saturday, November 20, 2010


ever seen the movie wordplay? not surprised if you haven't, (but its really good). its about my mom's favorite person, will shortz, the editor of the new york times crossword puzzle. she has been doing the nyt crossword puzzle since since he was made the editor of it (1993) and it has been a standard part of my family life for years. she used to only do the sunday crossword and work on it all week on her commute to work, but now that she is retired, and my parents get the times daily, she has been doing each day's puzzle every week. actually, thats not even true anymore. since she has been in continual practice, she doesnt even deign to do the monday or tuesday--they are a waste of her time. cuz, unlike anyone who does these puzzles competitively, she likes to sit with the challenging ones that take her most of the day to accomplish. and then she goes on the crossword blog that she reads and checks her answers and learns about other crossword solvers opinions and hangups and such.
which means i get to do the easy ones. and having been taught by a true aficionado, i feel pretty good when i can get the monday done in a half hour. (of course, rex parker, king of the crossworld, gets it done in 2-3 minutes. for reals.)
but i would much rather work on the puzzle with my mom. since we have been in high school at least, she has given up on it for a time (always to come back to later) and thrown it across the table to one or the other of her children and said, 'see if you can get any of it.' and not in a challenging way, but in a i-give-up-and-maybe-a-pair-of-new-eyes-will-see-something-im-missing sort of way. also, sometimes there are pop culture references she doesnt know. (just like how i never know the more erudite old school film greats or 1960's hall-of-famers). i feel like will shortz edits the puzzle to include clues for trivia buffs as well as word play artists, scholars as well as sports fans, people of the younger generation as well as the older. put all those types together and you have my family. so between the 5 of us, we can usually get it done.
we kids learned at an early age that the first rule to being a part of this combined effort was that our usual sloppy handwriting was verboten in 'mom's crossword' (she is still the primary solver, the curator of the event of solving it, bringing in the experts on this or that at her whim), and the second was writing over the number in any of the boxes. man, all of us have caught hell for that at some point in our lives, and we didnt soon forget it. but, once following the rules, each of us has taken a bit of pride in knowing something mom hadnt gotten, or having a corner 'fall' (which means you get enough things filled in that the rest of the crosses are self evident, all of a sudden) when we were the one with pen in hand. (oh yes, it always has to be in pen. using pencil is not done in my family.) ive looked at finished crosswords lying around the house (usually the sunday) and can tell by the handwriting whose aid was enlisted when. except my dad's. he only works on a consulting basis. never have i seen him lift up a pen to enter a word, but he is the go-to guy for most sports and old movies clues. at least half of my knowledge of sports history has happened around the table with a crossword puzzle laid out in front of us. many a dad-answer is accompanied by a story of how he happened to know it.
the fun thing about staying at my parents house when i come thru chicago is that now, as an adult, i get to be a crossword puzzle 'artist in residence'. when mom leaves the puzzle lying around for a few hours before going back to it with fresh eyes, she not only allows me to have looked at it and fill in what i can, she expects and even encourages it. she will say, 'did you look at the puzzle today?' if she is stuck, and sometimes even when shes not. because on wednesdays she takes the puzzle with her to work, she has given me her login info for so i can do it myself online. then, when she gets home, we compare notes, tho she has always gotten more done than me. sometimes she will have already gotten a thursday puzzle done by the time i have a chance to look. then she will apologize for not waiting, but not as if she was really sorry. and i dont expect her to either wait for me to look at it or be sorry that she didnt. i know my place. its still 'mom's crossword' after all.
because i have a 'completionist' penchant in me i have a hard time honoring the last rule of 'mom's crossword', which is that she never looks anything up. unless, of course, she has admitted defeat and just wants to figure out the rest of the empty boxes for fun. however, there is a tacit agreement that if we are both really stuck and i cave and look something up, she wont ask where the answer came from. i dont get to this point until ive been in despair for quite some time, and usually i ask permission. its still 'mom's crossword after all. and i dont wanna be banned from working on it.
i guess i could always do the one in the trib, but, being my mothers child i have a bit of disdain for anything not nyt. puzzle snobbery runs deep in our family. none of us wants to admit to mom that we might do the odd redeye or reader puzzle, tho i know at least a couple of us do (me included). its just to keep our hand in, not for any kind of challenge, you see. ;) its like playing solitaire on the computer with the deck only flipping one card, just so you can have the feeling of accomplishment that comes from winning (im guilty of that too).


rayvanfox said...

corrections: mom just informed me that 1) will shortz is not her *favorite* person, alex is. (and then dad) and 2) she has been doing the crossword since two editors before will shortz.
(color me sheepish)

rayvanfox said...

addendum: just had the best crossword moment in a while. janet and i brunch together often (and always for each of our birthdays) and we always go to the flying saucer on california and (something south of division) and we grab a red eye and demolish the crossword puzzle over our food. its always fun and last saturday (j's b-day) we inhaled half of it before ordering and had it done by the time our food came. then we high fived. it was a proud moment.
today, however, we found the puzzle more difficult and were still working on a couple corners after we'd finished eating. we were taking turns laboring over it and cheering each other on as we each filled things in. i had the pencil and janet was looking on as i all of a sudden figured out how to make the NW corner fall and filled the last few squares all at once. as i lifted the pencil away, janet breathed 'oh god' and grabbed my arm. it was such a spontaneous emotional reaction it made me blink. she looked over and chuckled and said "i feel so much better and yet worse at the same time." i laughed out loud in the restaurant. i totally understood how she felt. thanks, j-note, for caring as much as i do about the little things. and words.