Crosswords Don’t Count



I have been in a horrific reading slump. For weeks and weeks now, I have been unable to pick up a book, with the exception of two slim volumes of poetry, which I have somehow managed to finish. Other than that, zip, nada, nil, zero.

I blame it on my youngest brother. It’s all his fault. Why, pray tell? How could my poor little brother be held responsible for my shoddy reading habits? For my birthday (the day after Christmas), he gave me what he thought would be the ideal present for a word person: three crossword puzzle books. Not your simple little buy-them-at-the-drug-store books. These were volumes of crosswords, that he bought at a bookstore. One, for example, was the Simon & Schuster Mega Crossword Puzzle Book #7, containing 300 puzzles. Plus the New York Times Best of Thursday Crosswords – only 75 in that volume. I don’t have the title of the third book, because I already completed it, and recycled it.

Corey told me the whole story, how he chose a couple of books, then brought them to the counter, and described who he was buying them for, only to have the sales clerk say, “No, these are too easy.” He was redirected to the exact volumes that would be the perfect fit for me, challenging enough to be worthy of my time. And he got an education along the way — he never knew, for instance, that the New York Times puzzles start out easy each week on Monday, and increase in difficulty, leading up to the final monster of the Sunday mind-bender. He had to settle on the Thursday volume because it was the highest day of the week in stock.

And I? I was tickled at the attention behind the gift, the thought. Corey always gives that care, and it is much appreciated. But there was a dark side underneath this gift. Crossword puzzles are an addiction. You can’t do just one.

So every night, when I got into bed, during that precious time that I used to devote to an hour or more of reading, I would pull out one of these mammoth crossword puzzle books, and dive in. I couldn’t stop. I would be up for hours. I would be solving those damn puzzles until my pen left streaks running down the page, as I nodded off and on, trying to read one more clue, fill in one more little box.

As a word person, one tends to kid oneself when doing crosswords, saying, “But I’m building vocabulary. I’m using words. This is actually good for me.” That is a lie. It is the addiction speaking. True, there are some words that you learn. A fishing basket is a creel. Another word for “accord” is “entente.” A “boom” is also a “spar.” A bay window is technically an “oriel.” The end of a railing is known as a “newel.”

And you do learn some random facts that perhaps might come in useful at some point, such as that a warm-blooded shark is a mako, and Noor was a Jordonian queen, and the River Styx circles Hades nine times, and Claudius I became an emperor in the year XLI.

But am I ever going to need to know that Charlie Chaplin’s wife’s name was Oona? Or that there was a “Dukes of Hazzard” spinoff called “Enos”? Will anyone ever really quiz me on the name of the 1975 Jackson 5 hit, or all the names of TV’s Gilmore Girls? Is it important to know that Chi Rodriguez was a Puerto Rican-born PGA star? And that the 1967 NHL rookie of the year was Bobby Orr?

I look at the crossword in front of me right now. Somehow, I find it hard to believe that this information will make it into my next poem: “Esteban’s eight” – “ocho;” “River to the Caspian” – “Ural;” “Run out of gas” – “tire;” “Turns the stomach of” – “revolts;” “Wheels for yuppies” – BMWs;” “Okey-dokey” – “yeah;” “Gardner of mystery” – “Erle;” “Completely isolated” – “all alone;” “One of Lee’s men” – “reb.” And the doozy (since this is a themed puzzle, answers have a Broadway hit hidden inside), “Like some apartments” – “rent controlled.” Get it? “Rent”?

Instead of simply burning the damn things, which would be one choice, I am dealing with it like any good addict who is sick and tired of her habit: I’m trying to use up my supply first before going cold turkey. In the Simon & Schuster collection, I’m on puzzle 271. Only 30 to go, and I’ll be free.

Don’t buy me any puzzles. Please.

  • Don Mitchell says:

    I don’t find it hard to believe. I think you could do an excellent job riffing off “wheels for yuppies,” for example, or “completely isolated.”

    Definitely. Seed phrases!

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