Back in the days when I could visit my grandparents’ house and not just wave lamely at them from outside the window, I would always find my grandfather in the same position: leaned back in his armchair, wearing a worn gray sweatshirt, a mug of black coffee by his side, a pencil and a copy of The New York Times crossword puzzle in hand. He’s so engrossed in 29A that he does not even notice me enter the room until I tap him on the shoulder.
“Ruby, who was the ‘Sultan of Swat?’” he asks, fully knowing the answer.
Interested in vocabulary but willfully ignorant about sports and Babe Ruth, I became disenchanted with the crossword right there and then. I carried this indifference toward crossword puzzles with me through my life — that is, until I learned about The Daily Californian’s Dead Week Puzzles special issue.
So today, I decided to revisit the crossword to see if the clues are as archaic or athlete-oriented as I recall and evaluate the puzzles for style and difficulty. Along the way, I hope to discover why people such as my grandfather are so dedicated to their morning crossword ritual.
I start with the classic: The New York Times crossword.
When I open the 15-by-15 word grid, I find that the digital crossword highlights related words when you click on one to complete and has a “reveal” and “check work” feature. This isn’t my grandfather’s crossword experience, which he completes in a house with no Internet connection, with only the help of a dictionary and a World Almanac collection on the shelf. I’m thankful for the technological assistance because even though Mondays are the easiest day of the week (apparently puzzles get more difficult as the week goes on), I find I need the help I can get.
Completing the crossword with the Nov. 3, 2020, discussion thread on the r/crossword subreddit for the publication, I quickly gather that there’s a Canadian theme to Monday’s puzzle. My favorite part is the northwest corner, which houses “timhortons,” “saunas” and “boxseat.”
I click around wildly, looking for any three-word answers I can fill. I quickly get stuck and think about the ethics of phoning a friend. When we’re all increasingly wired to our computers and cellphones and my friends are only accessible to me by text message, is texting my film aficionado friend for a hint to the Sidney Lumet question really any more ethical than typing the hint into Google?
I learn that she-crab soup is a bisque popular in South Carolina, made by mixing a splash of sherry with eggs from a female crab. I then turn to the next puzzle on my list.
The New Yorker’s crossword is even harder for me than The New York Times’, with fewer easy giveaways. Nonetheless, I give The New Yorker style points for its reference to Kanye West’s verse in American Boy (the phrase rhyming with “chain blinger” is “rap singer.”)
The Atlantic offers only a 5-by-5 letter minicrossword that sounds easy but leaves you hanging if your knowledge and the game at hand aren’t a match. After only getting No. 1 across (the “flower associated with romance” is “roses”), I move on to my final crossword.
In New York Magazine’s crossword, the emphasis is on celebrity trivia. Teasing its east coast audience, several questions pertain to Los Angeles geography. I like the section with “ilovedit,” “sinner” and “katemoss.”
Crossword puzzle constructor Matt Gaffney takes some creative liberties to fit the Taste of Tokyo theme, making up some words. “‘Zoolander’ actor’s preparation of a Japanese lunch” is a “bentostiller.” “Soybeans prepared by the singer of ‘Shape of You’” is “edamamesheeran.” “Clinton and Obama’s adviser’s noodle soup” is a “ramenemanuel.” I give points to New York Magazine for timeliness, quizzing readers on Kamala Harris’ “bday” and newly elected Iowa senator Jodi “ernst.”
The crosswords we choose to tick away our days on and the niche knowledge we choose to cultivate say a lot about who we are and who we want to be. With its 2020 political references and geographical emphasis, I decide New York Magazine’s crossword puzzle is the one for me.