Author: Daniel, Bert

It's A Puzzlement

A while back, we had a temporary worker come fill in at work. The guy was pushing seventy, but he was pretty sharp and I noticed that whenever he had a spare moment in the morning, he was working on a crossword puzzle. Donald was keeping up with his workload just fine so it didn't bother me, but I asked him why he was so into crossword puzzles. Turns out it was a relatively recent pastime for him. He had read somewhere that doing crossword puzzles kept your brain from aging, so he figured he'd give it a try and now he loved it. It made me think, but just for a little while. I had just started my own new project, at age fifty (trying to learn Bluegrass mandolin) and I didn't want any other distractions just yet. I had heard about how some poor souls struggled over the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, only to realize after years of effort, that the darn thing was usually just impossible.

I've read the newspaper every morning for many years and I usually look at the bridge column. I have to tell you, I'm a terrible bridge player even though I used to play a lot. I never play the game anymore, but for some reason I tend to glance at that column, at least briefly. Maybe I'll learn some great insight that suddenly makes me a good player and I can join a club, rack up master points and become a life master at contract bridge, who knows? In our paper the puzzle column is on the same page as the bridge column so I'd look at that page and sometimes think about how my brain was slowly turning into Swiss cheese, while Donald's was staying nice and sharp like cheddar, because he was doing the crossword puzzle every day and I wasn't. Maybe I should try it.

I started with Sudoku. It's a puzzle where you have to figure out numbers that go in a row to make the whole grid come out a certain way. I've always been better at numbers than words so I took to Sudoku naturally. It got to be pretty easy after a while, so I'd stop when I knew the answer and let my young son do the last few numbers. I got to be so good I'd do the thing in pen. Over time I'd leave more and more numbers for my son to complete. Eventually he got to where he was pretty much doing the whole thing. I needed a new puzzle.

Next up for me was the word jumble. You unscramble letters to make words and then use the clues to solve a pun. I'm pretty good at that now too. But word jumble got me to a level where now it was words, not just numbers. Maybe I should try the dreaded crossword puzzle. But, I thought, can my ego take it when I totally fail?

It took a while to pick up some of the tricks of crossword. For example, you'll think a certain clue is a noun at first, but it's actually the verb. Certain words and ideas come up often and just sound right. Some clues are definitions that are way down the dictionary number for senses. Some are turns of phrases that surprise you until you see how they fit into the intersecting letters and they just have to be right. It's quite a lot of fun to look at a blank slate of boxes, go through the clues in a cursory fashion and decide it's hopeless. But then, after a bit of pondering, (which can go on for hours if you're so inclined), you come up with enough inspired guesses to finally figure the darn thing out! It's a rush.

That same sort of thing happens with music, doesn't it? We dig ourselves into a hole trying to come up with a new improvisation, and low and behold, somewhere out of the blue comes that little piece of inspiration that brings it all together to make sense. (Well it doesn't happen all the time but when it does, what a joy!).

Last week I finally completed the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle successfully! That gives me hope. Maybe some day I can play Jerusalem Ridge and it will actually sound good! Keep those brains going, never underestimate yourselves, and hope your biorhythms are just right for the moment!
Posted:  8/8/2010

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