Saturday, April 16, 2011
For as long as I can remember, I've loved word puzzles. My mom did, too, and always had half-finished books laying around the house. Although money was so tight we couldn't afford a washer and drier, she managed to find a way to add the latest edition of Dell puzzles to the shopping cart on the Saturday grocery and laundromat trip. And when I was home sick, which was often, she'd allow me to pass the time working puzzles she wasn't interested in.
I would start at the beginning of a book and work my way page by page through it, solving those she hadn't as I went. If a puzzle was too easy or too hard, I'd leave it after a bit and move on. The diagramless puzzles were beyond my ability or patience. I loved word searches and word mazes, but crosswords were always my favorites, especially if there was a theme or a puzzle hidden within.
When we moved Mom to assisted living and I was clearing out her house, I found dozens of partially finished books, mostly word searches. Even there evidence of her decline showed in the shakiness of the lines circling found words. Tempted to take the books home and finish them, the smell of old cigarettes and mildew was too much to overcome, and I tossed them as I'd had to do with so much of her stuff.
In my early adulthood I followed her pattern, and always found a way to throw the latest issues of Dell puzzles (always Dell, never the other kinds, like it always had to be Best Foods) into my grocery cart. I graduated to logic puzzles for a while, then moved to Sudoku.
I don't remember when I first discovered the NY Times crosswords in the paper. I'd read about them and assumed those puzzles were way beyond my solving ability. After the first one, it didn't take long for me to be hooked, although it took a David Sedaris story for me to understand about the increasing level of difficulty. Monday's puzzle is the easiest. Saturday's is the hardest.
I don't do Monday or Tuesday (too easy), work steadily and happily through Wednesday and Thursday (both of which usually have the extra kick of an inner puzzle), and sometimes take days to complete Friday and Saturday. Once in a while there will be a Saturday puzzle that I can't crack, so I turn to Google and Rex Parker for help. Admitting defeat is hard, and doesn't come easily, but not knowing the answers is nearly unbearable. I need to understand how a clue and an answer fit together.
Some weeks I'm willing to allow a puzzle to unravel in my subconscious for a while. If I leave and come back, answers that weren't there before, appear almost magically. Some weeks, I just need the answers any way I can get them, and concede defeat after a couple of hours of trying to solve on my own.
This morning as I breezed my way through Thursday, pleased with myself for solving the inner puzzle fairly quickly, I realized that my relationship with crosswords is the same as my relationship with most of my life.
I need answers, and as long as things make sense, I'm fine. I'm generally impatient, but allow myself the satisfaction of challenging that urgency from time to time. When I can't seem to solve life's bigger problems, my ability to solve crosswords gives me at least the illusion of power and comforts me.
Words delight me in a way little else in my life does, and word play tickles my soul like a stroking hand elicits purrs from a cat.
Even when I'm frustrated at my inability to find a solution on my own steam, or get to the core of a certain challenge without help, eventually I find a way to acquire answers. And always, I'm happy to sit with a fresh puzzle and my favorite pen, looking for just the right word to fit into a defined space with nothing more to go on than some obscure and tricky clue.
I wonder if it was the same for my mom.