Seems like every time I pick up a magazine, there’s an article extolling the virtues of crossword puzzles. I call them my brain food, as necessary as vitamins. No day is complete without at least one grid solved. I crave the stimulation and I’m grouchy when deprived. You’ll find one in most magazines and newspapers. The very best are from the New York Times.

I began my first NYT puzzle with military precision, answering the clues in numerical order: across, down and then back again, a loop that eventually filled in the puzzle but took a long time. Seemed like there had to be a better way.

Bit by bit, I learned little tricks that helped. Completing corner boxes first often makes solving the rest of the puzzle easier. If the subtitle refers to a numbered clue, start there and build around it. Read clues with different inflections. Sewer can be a person who sews or a city’s waste system. Consider whether the clue is a verb or a noun. Is it bait as in “to lure” or bait as in “fishhook food?” Clues with question marks are often puns (be prepared for groaners).

With the New York Times, crossword puzzles become more difficult as the week progresses. Mondays through Thursdays are easy-to-medium. Fridays are notoriously hard. Saturdays can leave you stumped and cursing the devious minds that create them.

And then there’s the Sunday puzzle, guaranteed to challenge but never overwhelm. There’s always a theme, the most significant answers will connect to it. The grid is bigger, much bigger, than the daily versions, and meant to be savored with a cup of tea on the most comfortable chair you’ve got, preferably by a sunny window.

The only drawback to NYT puzzles is they’ve turned me into a crossword snob. I dropped the local newspaper that carried them—too many times where the carrier didn’t deliver.  A regular NYT subscription is expensive, not to mention that it can take up to a week after publication before I get it in the mail. There are paid online versions available but they’re not the same. I need to move freely around the grid, not click and type.

I’ve bought just about every NYT puzzle book collection available, so getting my crossword fix means settling for less. Nothing quite matches the NYT’s wit, although the Wall Street Journal is a real contender. Merl Reagle used to create some wonderfully clever puzzles, but, sadly, he’s gone. Simon and Schuster publishes bargain mega-collections—300 puzzles per book—but they’re not as challenging. I tend to go through them quickly, four puzzles a day.

But all is not lost. The NYT puts out a Crossword Page-A-Day Calendar. (Buying link sent to partner, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Don’t ask why I took this long to find it. Either I was oblivious, or I knew about it but thought the print size looked absurdly small.

So this Christmas morning, I look forward to continuing a tradition that began during WWII as a way to entertain war-weary readers. I’ll put on holiday music and then settle under a cozy throw in the sunroom, pen and puzzle in hand, with a mug of ginger tea and a box of See’s candies—dark chocolates, of course—close by.


For an intriguing look at the world of cruciverbalism, check out WORDPLAY, a 2006 documentary by Patrick Creadon. The film features Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, crossword constructor Merl Reagle, and various celebrity crossword lovers.

Thanks for reading.




In my search for the perfect word, I sometimes turn to Roget’s Thesaurus. It’s a great resource, but the potential for distractions can take me to unexpected places.

For example:

Look up sat. See Satan at top of page. Investigate synonyms and antonyms for “the devil.” Notice Beezlebub.

Am reminded of the Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational’s contest for reworking of the word. Search old emails until I find it: Beezlebug (n): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into your bedroom at three a.m. and cannot be cast out.

Re-read the rest (**) and have a good laugh. Return to thesaurus. Notice Loki under the subheading “fallen angels.” Hey, wasn’t that the spirit that possessed Jim Carrey in “The Mask?”

By now I’ve forgotten why I open Roget in the first place. And I wonder why my word count is so low for the day!  😉


**The Washington Post’s Mensa Invitational asks readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition. Recent winners:

Cashtration: The act of buying a house, which renders the person financially impotent for an indefinite period.

Ignoranus: A person who is both stupid and a butthead.

Intaxication: Euphoria at getting at tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

Bozone: The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating.

Caterpallor: The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you’re eating.

Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

Karmageddon: It’s like, when everybody is sending off these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it’s like, a serious bummer

Decafalon: The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

Glibido: All talk and no action.

Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

Arachnoleptic fit: The frantic dance performed after you’ve just accidentally walked through a spider web.