My friend Monica, who plays a lot of sports, once told me about the day that volleyball slowed down for her. She had been playing for months but the learning curve so steep that even after all that time, all she could do was scramble to process what was immediately happening. Then one day, just like that, she could suddenly see the game as a whole. She was able to anticipate where the ball would be in a second's time and, therefore, where she needed to be.
About a year ago, I experienced the same thing with cryptic crosswords.
I was excited to be on the program. But I was also extremely nervous.
About a month ago, the Sunday New York Time’s crossword puzzle blew the mind of a man named Shane Ryan and he wrote a fantastic article for Paste Magazine explaining why.
The theme of the puzzle was Coriolis force (the inertial effect that causes storms to spin in different directions depending on their hemispheric position) and it is applied with such elegance, you really have to see it to appreciate it.
“Look, it’s entirely possible that I’m just a hopeless nerd,” he writes. “Maybe this doesn’t seem as impressive to you as it does to me. But:”
December was a month that started out hectic and only became more frenzied as the days wore on. Our flight left on the 20th and as the date approached, it was starting to look like I wouldn’t get everything crossed off my “to do” list before boarding. For the most part I didn’t mind but one item that stung was my annual Christmas Cryptic, a personalized puzzle I build for my family every year.
Ostensibly, the Christmas cryptic is my gift to the family. Really, it’s a gift that the family gives to me. I savour their coos of excitement as my parents, sister and husband first glimpse the grid. I smile ear to ear as they retreat to the armchairs and couches with mugs of coffee, ballpoint pens, and the puzzle. “Which one are you working on now?” I pester excitedly. “Have you got 12 Across yet?”
One of the things I love most about practicing yoga is the absence of comparison. When I attend a class, there may be twenty or thirty other people there, but we're all working at our own pace. We have to: our bodies are all different. We are different ages and weights. We have different flexibilities and different amounts of muscle. Different things have happened to us over the course of our lives, and that changes how we move.
When my sister, my parents, my husband and I do the cryptic crossword on weekend reunions at my parents place, we all retreat to our separate spaces to dive into the puzzle. We work at our own paces and (unless someone accidentally cries out an answer in a fit of enthusiasm) respect one another's individual puzzle solving. In that respect, it’s a bit like being in a yoga class: we’re all working towards the answers in our own way.
Having someone call out "You don't have 17 Across yet? But it's so EASY!" would be akin to someone in a yoga class calling out "What do you MEAN you can't do full lotus position? It's SO EASY!”
It would be judging someone else’s practice by the standards of one’s own experience.
And what’s the point of that?
The first time I saw this sign, which is painted on the side of a building by my old home, I did a double-take. The juxtaposition was so strange. What did it mean?
Was it a message of despair? A comment on the futility of a creative life? Was a hopeless artist asking, through graffiti, “what’s the point of all this, anyway?”
Or was it whispered supplication? Was it a reminder to spend our too-few days thoughtfully? Was it a two-word echo of Henry David Thoreau’s reasoning for going to the woods: “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life”?
All of this passed through my mind in a split-second. Then, I realized I was looking incorrectly.
I completely freaked out when I discovered that The New Yorker, my favourite magazine, at one time published cryptic crosswords edited by Fraser Simpson, my favourite cryptic crossword setter. An Amazon search had led me to the collection “101 Cryptic Crosswords: From The New Yorker”, published in 2001, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. How had it taken me so long to discover that such concentrated awesomeness exists?
I added the collection to my Christmas wish list (it was December and my mother has spent years drumming it into me that you never buy yourself anything in that month). Then, I counted down the days to the 25th, hoping someone would get it for me.
It's rare but every now and again the Globe and Mail messes up the Saturday cryptic crossword puzzle and mismatches the clues and the grid. We love Fraser Simpson's Saturday morning cryptic over here, as I've said previously, so it's a bummer when we're forced to miss out.
This morning was one of those mornings: the grid started with 1 Across but the clues started with 7 Across. We mourned the lack of puzzle, then moved on to other things. Until my husband said: "I wonder if we could figure it out for ourselves."
I'm a writer, adventurer, amateur setter of cryptic crosswords, lover of "ah-ha!" moments, and exhausted mom.