It was one of those mysterious, sudden impulses that came on me like a message from aliens: you must do crossword puzzles. It hit me at the end of March, early in Coronatide. I’ve never been much of puzzle person, but this just seemed like a good way to deal, you know?

Among the first puzzles I tried was a Thursday New York Times. I was naïve and did not suspect nefarious, underhanded schemes. Well, I could not figure out some of the clues. Nothing seemed to fit the squares, not matter how many synonyms I came up with or angles I squinted from. Finally, I peeked at the “reveal” only to discover that sometimes you can put more than one letter in a square. This was outrageous! I had been betrayed! Someone had changed the universal, God-ordained rules of crossword puzzles!

So of course I went on Facebook to express my outrage and to crowdsource wisdom. That was the right thing to do, turns out. Besides gently amused sympathy, I also received camaraderie and excellent information. The term for that multi-letter-square trick is a “rebus,” someone explained. It’s a thing, and Thursday NYT puzzles often contain sneaky surprises like that—beware. Another friend sent a whole article on how the NYT puzzles work, which was highly informative. Numerous people among my FB friends outed themselves as longtime crossword fans. I never knew.

__ R __ __ A __ __ A __ I A __
Clue: No fruit-picking yet.

Since then, I’ve gotten into a rhythm. I do the NYT puzzle every day in the evening as my reward for putting in a “day’s work,” at least by Coronatide standards. I print out the puzzles and do them on paper because I need the tactile satisfaction of penciling in the answers—and erasing. I definitely erase stuff.

Monday puzzles are easy; I can do them in about twelve minutes with no hints. As the week progresses, the puzzles get trickier. I now have actual data to confirm this because I’m keeping track of how long it takes me each day and how many hints I get from the internet to help me figure out, for example, “Spotify’s most-streamed artist of the 2010s.” I am not going to know that. I have to look it up (it’s Drake). So if I need to, I allow myself to look up factual things on the internet—always nice to learn new things—but I try to keep the number of hints low and I’m not allowed to just look up an answer on the answer key.

It’s not hard to guess why I’ve gone on this crossword jag. It’s the satisfaction of closure. You can’t swing a cat these days with hitting someone who… oh, wait. We’re all socially distanced, so you could swing cats all you want (but don’t; it’s mean). What I’m trying to say is that you can’t go longer than ten minutes these days without hearing one or another pundit or advertiser or politician or newscaster tell us these are “unprecedented, uncertain times.” Bleh. As if we hadn’t noticed. No wonder I crave the certainty and closure of puzzles. Evidently I am not the first person to take shelter in the absorption and delight of crosswords during an historical crisis.

E __ __ __ L __ S __ __
Clue: How we might get into the spirit?

The idea that there are answers, and that I can find them, and that eventually I will know them all—this is soothing. On Sundays, it may take me 115 minutes and 11 hints to get there, but I’ll get there. I do get stuck sometimes—6 out of 36 times so far, according to my data. One of these was the infamous Rebus Incident. When I do get well and truly stuck, I go online and still try to solve the puzzle using the autocheck function. Usually I can finish in less than ten minutes that way. Chalk it up to honing my puzzle skills with the training wheels on.

I think knowing there is an answer frees me to enjoy the process of finding it, even when that process is frustrating. I love the way I can start with just the few clues I know and then work outward from there. It might seem hopeless at first, but if I just keep at it, it’s like pulling apart a knot. You’ll get there. Be patient. If I get stuck in one corner of the puzzle, I can move to another section and start from a few letters there. Come back later to the stuck place. Things do reveal themselves. It’s kind of beautiful.

__ __ __ __ N E __ T
Clue: Not the one about something that’s about to happen.

I like the way my brain dredges up words from some deep, dusty file. It’s interesting what the mind carries. Turns out I can readily produce the words apse, cote, sclera, shagbark, and Argo (Jason’s ship), for example. I love the “aha” moment when I catch on to the long phrases that suddenly open up eight new clues that stumped me before: I got “JUKEBOXMUSICALS” right away, I’m proud to say. “PRIMEREALESTATE” took longer, but I got it.

I also enjoy the word play in NYT puzzles, which gets more convoluted as the week goes on, both more fun and more exasperating. “Relief pitcher of old” had me stumped for a long time. What do I know about baseball history? Finally I realized the answer was ROLAIDS. Gah! And here’s one from this week. The clue was “What’s found once in a generation?” I finally worked out that the answer had to be SOFTG, but I still didn’t get it. That’s not a word! Then it dawned on me… oooohhhhhhhhh. Argh!

You have stay on your toes, always ready to look at things from a different angle. Last Sunday I got stuck. Not from the dratted clues that turned corners and left out letters—I got those. It was the fact that I was sure I knew how to spell mascarpone but in fact I had it wrong (I had MAR etc.), and my mistake put up a roadblock I couldn’t get around. Hubris!

__ H U __ __ __ __ R __
Clue: Some acolytes.

So many potential life lessons in doing crosswords: You know more than you think. Work from the smallest beginnings and keep at it. Look at things from multiple angles. Don’t get too attached to what you are sure is right—check, and erase if wrong. Get help if you need it. Keep learning. Keep track of data; it’s useful. All good stuff. But ultimately, life isn’t like the puzzle, and that’s the bummer about this. Conundrums are all in good fun when you know there’s an answer. What about when there isn’t?

Can we enjoy the process of puzzling things out when we’re not sure, at the end of it, that there’s an answer? We’re in a global predicament right now that does not have a readily available answer key and is going to take many, many months to solve. Also, there’s no easy way to get hints. Despite what everyone keeps saying, this situation is not exactly unprecedented (1918 flu pandemic, e.g.). And when have we ever lived in certain times?

__ __ C __ __ __ O __ __ G __
Clue: We’re coming to the end.

At least with crossword puzzles, I only get well and truly stuck 16.7% of the time, at least so far. I hope I’ll improve that percentage over time. Meanwhile, when I get stuck, I know where to go for the answers. In life, we get stuck all the time and the conundrums are often not fun at all. I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say that we also know where to go for answers. You know, five letters, begins with a B, or five letters, begins with a J. Yeah, but the answers we get from those sources are never precisely spelled out and simple, are they? More like clues upon clues, beautiful but perpetually mysterious. Or I could indulge in wordplay here and say that the answer to the troubles of life is embedded in the topic of this essay. Get it?

Eh. Let’s just agree that puzzles are a soothing and therapeutic exercise, crafty little mysteries that give us a pleasant, temporary illusion of certainty and closure. In these–uh–times, I’ll take what I can get.

Note: the five one-word puzzles above are pretty hard. Stars in your crown if you get them. Don’t put your guesses in the comments and spoil the fun for others. I’ll post correct answers on my Facebook page on Monday and then you can tell me if you got them—honor system applies. @debrakrienstra.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty for over twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over two hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. My husband and I have three grown children.

10 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    One of the great humiliations in my life was to discover that I was no good at crosswords puzzles. The NYT puzzles defeated me. Always. I have never admitted this to anyone before. I feel like I should give back my Ph.D. That amount of embarrassment and shame.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Nothing to be ashamed of, Dan. I’m hopeless at Scrabble and I hate it. Anyway, PhD’s don’t prepare us for practical survival skills like plumbing, drywall repair, and crosswords!

  • As a member of a crossword and Scrabble loving family, I love this. One of my find memories of my brother Al (Janssen) is when we spent a few days together in the ICU of the Pella hospital, keeping vigil before our mother’s death. Two other siblings were there as we shared our tips for solving crosswords. Scrabble is practically a contact sport for us!
    Thanks for a fun essay. Did you know that the Midwest gets the Sunday NYT a week later? Hmmm, mascarpone…

  • Mark L says:

    Didn’t you love the one where the only clues were ” – ” where the answers zig-zagged through the puzzle (like ‘PLANTAGENET’). I GOT A (oops) I got a month’s NYT puzzles from my daughter for Christmas and, like you, have become addicted to the weekly rhythm of more or less easy Mondays to frustrating Thursdays to glorious Sundays. Like all secondary closures this one too satisfies only momentarily (on to the next one). Just imagine what the really BIG CLOSURE just might be like, the one which has already begun. Can’t ________. !

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Just curious – are these from an American-style crossword? They might be Friday or Saturday clues – but not Monday to Thursday or Sunday. Or are they from a British-style (cryptic) crossword? If so, the rules of solving are very, very different. 2/6 so far, assuming it’s the former.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Um, American, I guess? There’s another thing I didn’t know: the difference between British and American clues!

  • Lest we get too proud, especially those of us who also Scrabble, go to https://isc.ro/ and click “Observe” to see word memory at a different level.

  • Diana Walker says:

    TRLABILIN!
    KATNH UYO!

  • David Timmer says:

    Thanks for this, Debra. I think working NYT crossword puzzles has had some unanticipated benefits for me. One is intellectual humility; if I get into a hopeless tangle, I usually find it is because I had come up with an erroneous (but in my own mind brilliant!) answer that I have to retract. Another is the pleasure of finding, in those Thursday and Sunday puzzles, a “hidden” rationality (for instance, a rebus pattern) that makes everything suddenly “click.” Both usable real-world skills.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    If you are a Times digital subscriber, there is a daily “mini” crossword you can do on line. It is satisfyingly easy. I usually finish it in one to three minutes and feel smart. If I start the big boy puzzle in the Times I feel dumb. Guess which I choose to do? “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Oh well…

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