Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Not a cross word


By JOELLEN COLLINS

At the risk of being considered one of the nerds featured in the fine documentary film "Wordplay," I have to fess up. I am an absolute crossword fanatic. I have not let it drive me yet to enter contests or attempt to submit possible puzzles for publication, but I can think of few pleasures more rewarding than tackling a puzzle which is not too easy but eventually solvable. I would place myself, not immodestly, in maybe the upper-middle range of puzzler fiends. While British crosswords are beyond the pale for me, I attempt other challenges, such as the cryptics, anagrams, crosswords and acrostics of The New York Times. I cannot easily solve that paper's Saturday puzzle and find the Sunday puzzle challenging enough that I put it down and return to it many times during the week. Eventually, I solve it. I did know a man once, a friend's ex-husband reputed to have scored the highest possible total ever on the California Bar exam, who solved the Sunday puzzle in ink in about 15 minutes. Can't stand the man!

I mention this passion of mine because the other day someone told me that I would live longer because of my penchant for working puzzles. Another friend rejoined with the statement that it was simply another waste of time, akin to watching junk TV. So I thought I'd add my 2 cents. Yes, sitting with pencil and a fresh crossword or acrostic may be time wasted in consideration of other things one could be doing at that moment: I could be feeding the poor or writing letters to my congressperson. However, as someone who loves letters, words, and the way they fit into a language, I think of it as intellectual warming up. I admit to playing Scrabble on my computer before I attempt to write this column or add pages to my Great American Novel as a way to get ready to put more letters into good words in my writing.

Believe it or not, I have learned a great deal from puzzles, not only funny little words like "cobia" or "apus" or suddenly recalled trivia. Just yesterday I was working a recent Times acrostic and came across a phrase in which I was to fill in the missing word: "When the gods wish to punish us they ________ our prayers." (Oscar Wilde) I quickly guessed the six-letter word was "answer." The joy was not only in the solution but also in the reminder of the quote's meaning: How often have we prayed for something and then realized the result was not what we had anticipated? I thought of Truman Capote's manuscript, unfinished at his death, "Answered Prayers." I like being intellectually stimulated or philosophically challenged by puzzles.

Once I did try to create an acrostic of my own: My daughters and I labored for weeks over the concept. I finally gave up in frustration. I am not ashamed to admit that I probably never will attain that kind of mastery of language or the additional skill to visualize letters in spaces. Wordplay proposed that many expert crossword puzzlers have abilities in math. Perhaps my math phobia is what makes it hard for me to win any games that involve checkerboards or spaces. Thus, I don't think I would excel at Sudoku and really don't even want to try: I have been told these puzzles are even more addictive than ones using letters. I don't need another addiction, and for now I can rationalize my absorption with word puzzles as at least contributing to my further agility with the English language.

For now I will remain one of the Sunday morning market haunters looking for The New York Times so I can have my weekly fix. Thank God the library keeps unsullied Sunday magazines to copy in case I miss a week. I can carry a couple of weeks of saved-up puzzles on planes for the perfect activity while awaiting boarding or for tucking into my dwindling carry-on luggage ... lightweight poundwise but heavyweight intellectually.

Of course, I do hope fiddling with all these letters helps me stave off Alzheimer's. I hope I will be sitting in bed happily somewhere in the old folks' home (wow, what euphemisms we use) to nod off with a recent and fairly challenging puzzle in my lap, my favorite mechanical pencil with its handy refills always available. That wouldn't be a bad way to go to sleep.




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