The New York Times Crossword Puzzle

Last week, I discussed my relationship with newsprint, particularly the New York Times.  At the time, I deliberately left out something important in the Times that has changed my life in the past two years.  It has become an almost daily ritual for me, and it is a powerful symbol in my life and my approach to its mysteries.  It is the daily crossword puzzle.

For those of you who are not familiar with the daily NYT crossword, each gets progressively more difficult as the week progresses.  Monday’s is very easy, and I can typically complete it in about ten minutes or so.  Most people agree Saturday’s is the most difficult; it takes me upwards of an hour. Incidentally, Sunday’s puzzle appears in the New York Times Magazine.  Except for rare occasions, I typically do not do Sunday’s puzzle.  It is somewhat challenging, but it is usually very long, and though I am home all day on Sunday, I have other time-consuming things that I usually do.

Unlike most people who complete the daily puzzle, I consider Thursday’s to be the most challenging.  It’s theme is often some kind of trick–a trend of double entendres, words whose common endings would run off the edge of the puzzle, or even instances in which we have to put multiple letters in one box.  From Thursday to Saturday, there are fewer short words whose early solutions would assist in the solution of longer, more challenging intersecting words.

From Monday through Saturday each week, the puzzle is part of my daily routine.  At about 10:30, I eat a late breakfast (in lieu of lunch) in my office, and the school secretaries do their best to prevent me from being disturbed.  For about 30 minutes, I enjoy a pastry and some coffee, and depending on the day, I either complete or make significant progress on the puzzle.

Using thoroughly unscientific techniques, I have noted a correlation on Thursdays and Fridays between the difficulty of my professional activities during a given week and my ability to complete the puzzle either at school or at my desk at home later in the evening.  In fact, I had such an intense experience two weeks ago that I could not complete that Friday’s puzzle. For some reason, I could not figure out the upper left-hand corner of it. I simply kept it in my “Home” folder in my briefcase and devoted a few minutes to it on each of several subsequent evenings.

By yesterday–eight days after–I still could not complete the darn thing.  It was a classic mental block. This morning, in fact, I arose early, made sure the clocks were set ahead, sat some minutes looking out the window as the rain worked on clearing away last Monday’s snow, and then made my procession downstairs to my desk.  In minutes, I had the confounding corner of the puzzle done. The clues were tricky but not enough to account for my former barriers.

Clearly, so much influences us in our lives, and we can see the effects in our varied activities.  When we make ourselves aware of even minor effects, we can better understand our responses to life’s successes, rhythms, and challenges.

But I use the daily crossword for something else.  To me, it is a reminder that no matter how off track my mind is, no matter how insidious the plot of the puzzle creator to assault my sanity, no matter what difficulties life presents, I will prevail–even if it takes me far beyond the prescribed time frame.

Along with this comes another important lesson.  The demands of my work, my responsibilities in my personal life, and my avocational pursuits would make it seem unlikely that I should have time to do a crossword puzzle six days per week.  For some reason, though, it always fits in. The significance of this understanding would seem to defy the capacity of language to express it.

That is why we have life’s symbols.

7 thoughts on “The New York Times Crossword Puzzle

  1. Perseverance plus! And look at how you choose to spend some of your leisure time! Pursuing such a (in my opinion) formidable goal! But, your words challenge me to try, just to see what you describe.

  2. My husband and I do the daily NY Times puzzle too. I must admit that I often just give up on Saturday’s. One of the highlights of the week is doing Sunday’s puzzle. Even when I was working, I gave myself permission to spend an hour on it. I admire the cleverness of the constructors. Completing the grid is fun.
    Mental blocs, though, I get a response (that doesn’t fit) stuck in my head, and that’s all I can think of.
    We all need our escapes, don’t we?

  3. I love love love this post! Crossword puzzles are frustrating to me- usually resulting in some form of anxiousness. I stay away when it starts getting too intense for me, and by that I mean, when I spend too long trying to figure something out (I’m not a super patient person when it comes to things I “should” have control over). I liked how you tied this game and routine into other aspects of your life.

  4. When my dad was in his 20’s he won a contest with one of the big Chicago papers. $20,000 for the Crossword puzzle. Makes me realize that we have not asked him to retell this story in way too long.

  5. My dad does the NYT puzzle every day as well. Although he has been doing so for years, I was not wholly familiar with the notion of weekly themes and the progressive difficulty of the puzzles until reading your post. All of this makes it that much more impressive as does the discipline of finding time for the puzzle each day, somehow. It also helps to shed light on your tremendous talent as a writer. Great post, Paul.
    Thank you.

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