Puzzling Lessons

I don’t know when I started doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. I wish I did. I remember that I began reading the Times regularly in high school. I was living in the MTA dorm then, and I was able to get a subscription for so little that it felt like they were paying me to read the paper. The idea, I guess, was to grab ‘em young and create life-long readers — and that certainly worked with me. But I don’t remember doing the puzzles in that dorm.

I do remember solving Times’ crosswords in college (another very cheap dorm subscription rate), but only sporadically. It was only at some point early on in my married life that it became an everyday activity, and more than 50 years later I’m still at it. (Okay, to be honest, it’s an almost every day activity, Sunday through Friday, with Saturday only a sometimes thing. I could blame that on Shabbat but — more honestly — the difficulty of the puzzle that day and the time it takes me to complete it are impediments to my being a steady seven-day-a-week puzzle guy.)

I like the regularity of solving a puzzle a day; it helps me get going in the morning, spending a few minutes just after (or, honesty again, sometimes before) davening shacharit, filling in those white squares until there are no blanks left in the grid. And as a person of a certain age, it helps my little gray cells, in Hercule Poirot’s oft-used phrase, keep active and work their wonders. As long as I can complete the puzzle I’m not that bothered that I can’t remember the name of the guy I had a long friendly conversation with after shul during kiddush.

Higher up on the positive list is that doing crosswords is enjoyable and satisfying. Any of the numerous aha moments — like figuring out which of the many themes is being used, deciphering an anagram, squeezing in a rebus, completing a long across word that you never heard of by getting enough down clues, or recognizing a diagram in the black squares — can often be as much fun as watching a Final Four game. And you don’t need a bracket or slo-mo replays, a screaming announcer or a cheering crowd; just you, a pen, and page 3C of the Times. Or, for the millions who do it on line, like three of my daughters, it’s just you, a keyboard, and a screen.

But there’s more. While I don’t have 16 life lessons to learn from crosswords the way Robert Fulghum has from kindergarten, I do have some to share with you.

1. Do it. Like New York Lotto, you can’t win it if you’re not in it. Looking over the shoulder of a friend, parent, spouse, or child doing the puzzle and kibitzing an (easy) answer or two is not doing the puzzle. Get your own copy or subscription and solve it yourself every day. The same is true for playing a musical instrument, exercising, learning Torah, building model ships, gardening, or doing anything that has substance and is worthwhile. Don’t play around at the edges; don’t just dip your toe in the water. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing regularly and seriously.

2. Work at it. Once you’ve graduated from the daily mini puzzle, it won’t be easy at first, even on Monday. So spend more than just a few minutes working on solving it. And remember, if you’ve done as much as you can and you still have blanks or if you are unsure whether all your answers are correct, it’s also important to compare your output to a correct grid. In the old days that meant waiting for the next day’s paper; now you can immediately get all the answers you want online. Studying the correct solution is critical; that’s how you learn — especially what’s called, lovingly by some like me and sneeringly by others like Rex (an inside baseball comment for crossworders), crosswordese. Even after 50+ years I’m still learning. This rule applies to all the activities mentioned in paragraph 1.

3. Sleep on it. Our minds work their magic miraculously. You look at a clue over and over again and you have nothing. Zero. Zilch. And then you come back to the puzzle the next day and boom, the answer immediately pops into your head. Works also for writing columns, drafting affidavits and briefs, and finding the right, though difficult, words to say to a friend to fix a sticky relationship and make it warm again. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it helps complete crossword puzzles — and more.

4. Share it (with discretion). As so many families do today, the Kaplans have a family text group (others use WhatsApp) to share family news, pictures, and many of life’s minor details. But there are also subgroups — I’m pretty sure there’s a Kaplan sibling group (wisely) discussing things without their parents listening in. And I set up another subgroup — Crossword Buddies — exclusively for those of us who do puzzles. We enjoy sharing crossword minutia that would bore the dickens out of anyone who doesn’t care about them. Think about that the next time you’re at a Shabbat lunch and want to share that great story about a difficult diagnosis you finally hit upon for a patient, how you fixed a software bug for a client, or the details of a complicated motion to dismiss that you won. And then discuss the rabbi’s sermon instead.

5 Get it right. While “Hawaiian state bird” hasn’t been a particularly popular clue recently, it was all the rage back in the 1980s. And when Sharon and I vacationed in Hawaii in 1987 and were at a nature preserve, one of the guides told us that we were looking at the Hawaiian state bird. Crossword pro that I was, I proudly said, “Oh, that’s what a nene (which I pronounced ‘neen’ with a long ‘e’) looks like.” Blank stares. As the seconds ticked by and the silence grew, I asked “isn’t the state bird a nene (again pronounced with a long ‘e’)?” which I carefully spelled. Well, I got the spelling right, but not the pronunciation, which, I learned, is neh-neh. So be careful with all newly acquired knowledge, and drop it into conversations judiciously and only after you’re pretty sure you won’t, like I did, make a fool of yourself.

6. Enjoy it. Yes, Fridays and Saturdays (and sometimes Sundays) are tough, often frustrating, and every once in a while infuriating. But take a breath and think about all the new words you’re learning, the exercise your brain is getting, the satisfaction you’ll experience when you finally complete that troublesome NE corner, and the joy you’ll feel when you fill in that last pesky word. And then smile. This isn’t work, it’s fun — advice that’s useful for many activities (and particularly handy for exercise).

And so I continue to enjoy doing the puzzle daily; exercise a bit less. More recently, I’ve included KenKen and Wordle in my daily game regimen, and on Sundays I try my hand at the double acrostic, knock off some of the smaller word games, and particularly love the monthly Puns and Anagrams grid. But it’s not the same; there’s nothing like a first love going back decades, which touches one’s soul and teaches about life. No, crosswords don’t match Sharon in that regard, and that love affair predates the one with crosswords. But if you take Sharon out of the equation, it’s crosswords, as Debby Boone sang, that light up my life.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck's Judaica House and its website). A retired lawyer and long-time resident of Teaneck with his wife Sharon, they’ve been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.
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