Cross Words

Blue_24 hr_2012-07-30

2013-02-03 – “. . . Where seldom is heard a cross word . . .”

Sorry, it should say “. . . where seldom is heard a discouraging word (and the skies are not cloudy all day).” But I see crosswords everywhere. Especially on Sunday. (And, believe me, in my life crosswords are not seldom.)

I got started doing crossword puzzles in 1974. It was a bit of a reaction to my C years in college. By C years, I mean my first two years at the University of Chicago when I went from being an A student to being a C student or worse. It was a tough transition going from high school to college and it took a couple of years to become an effective college student. High school was easy. College was not.

I was floundering. I started out as a physics student but had a hard time (who knows what would have happened if I was a better student during that time). Then I wanted to be a rabbi, but I needed the college degree by that point, so I switched my major to Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. I did better, but I graduated with only a C plus average.

So far, no crossword puzzles.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, I went to a yeshiva in Jerusalem. I studied with my fellow yeshiva bochers (seminary students), and while I was learning many pages of Talmud, I was also learning that the religious life was not for me. I decided to return to the States and go to law school.

Here’s where the crossword puzzles come in.

Getting into law school was going to be hard, given my grade-point average. I needed a stellar score on the LSAT. These were the days before widespread test prep for the LSAT, at least in Dayton, Ohio, where I lived. But I did manage to pick up a prep book for the LSAT. It suggested that I would do better on the vocabulary section of the exam if I did crossword puzzles. And that’s how I got started.

They are addicting.

I did get a good score on the LSAT and did much better in law school than I did in college. But I don’t think that crossword puzzles had anything to do with it. After 40 years of doing crossword puzzles, I now know that the ability to define or use a word contributes very little to your crossword puzzle success. It’s more about relationships between words. Puzzle clues are often synonyms of the puzzle word. Word play is also important, as many clues are joke clues. And finally, there’s the ability to recognize words from fragments. Sometimes you don’t get the clue, but you can solve a word anyhow if you have some of the letters. Not very useful on the LSAT.

But, as I say, the puzzles are addicting. I got my good score on the LSAT and I kept going with the puzzles. Maybe they would help me on the bar exam. They didn’t. But I passed the exam anyway and came to Chicago to start my career. Crossword puzzles were great for the daily commute.

And there it stood for many years. Until I got my AARP card. (By the way, AARP could be a solution for a four-letter word, if you have two letters already solved: _AR_. But it could also be a river in Switzerland—AARE—or a starship engine—WARP—or many other words.) The idea these days is that doing crosswords will keep me from getting Alzheimers by exercising my mind. I don’t know if that is true. I certainly hope so, since I do so many of them, but I doubt it.

I probably spend 30 minutes a day on crosswords. That would be three to four puzzles. I probably double that on Sunday. For those of you who know, I usually solve the Sunday New York Times puzzle, but I like the Thursday puzzle better because of the trick aspect. (For those of you who don’t know, the Thursday NYT puzzle has some sort of theme usually involving trick clues. If you catch on to the theme, you can solve the puzzle fairly easily. If you don’t, solving the puzzle would be highly unlikely.) I can often do Friday and Saturday, but often not. (For those of you who don’t know, the NYT and other newspapers give you the easiest puzzle on Monday and difficulty increases through the week until Saturday. Sunday is a bigger puzzle, but I’d say that it is of medium difficulty.)

Frankly, I’d like to stop. But puzzles fill those in-between moments. When you want to clear your brain so you can go on to the next thing. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a puzzle to do.

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