Crossword Puzzles

I suddenly looked up from the article I’d been reading and half-shouted, “Damn! That’s it!”

“What’s it?” inquired my startled wife Elaine.

“Arcana!” I told her. She stared at me, that uncomprehending look I’ve grown accustomed to.

I explained. As a Times crossword puzzle addict, every Sunday I pit myself against the cleverness, the coyness, and, yes, sometimes the strained logic of the paper’s various puzzle constructors. Because I am essentially a competitive sort, I always start optimistically. “Yeah, they’re devious but I can handle them,” I assure myself. Would that it were so.

There are occasions, few to be honest, when I reach the finish line with relatively few reminders of my linguistic inadequacies. On those occasions, my self-esteem ramps up. Many more times, I’m waylaid by obstacles that stymie me. When that happens, instead of surrendering to frustration, I’ve learned to discipline myself and set the puzzle aside temporarily. The next day or whenever I return to it, I’m always amazed that I seem to be thinking with a different brain. Answers that had hidden from me earlier seem almost pathetically obvious. The mind is a devious instrument sometimes, its setting somewhere between flexibly resourceful and stubbornly obtuse. Regardless of my early confidence, I know I am at its mercy.

Sometimes, the difficulty of the puzzle requires three or four revisits. Almost every time, I add something, even if it’s a single word. But there are times, I must admit, I capitulate to the infernal puzzle maker, ball the paper up, and toss it. “I have better things to do than mess with this accursed thing,” I tell myself.

In working on this semi-hobby, I hold myself to certain rules. I never consult a dictionary nor do I seek help from other people. I finish it by myself or I fail by myself. Seeking assistance would be cheating, like copying from someone else’s paper on a final exam. Appropriately, my competitive nature views these as contests between me and the collective resources of the Times.

The word “arcana,” referring to rare uses of language, had prevented me from crossing the finish line for a number of weeks. That puzzle had been exiled to a corner of my dresser, where I could usually ignore it, but I knew it was there, mocking me. Its reprieve from the trash can had been uncommonly long because rattling around in my brain was a single word synonym for “rare uses of language.” I just couldn’t resurrect it. Sometimes during the day, when I was totally oblivious to the siren call of crossword puzzles, the hint of the word would tantalizingly break through almost to the level of consciousness, but then, with equal suddenness, return to its hiding place.

Probably a day before the puzzle was to be trash-bound, I was reading the paper and in a story ran across “arcana.” That’s when I shouted the word, alarming Elaine. Under the circumstances, a feeling of elation should probably have followed, but I had an ethics problem. I hadn’t dredged up the word myself; it had been handed to me accidentally. The newspaper I had been reading, not my deft memory, had ended my quest for closure. I hadn’t sought help; I hadn’t deliberately flouted any other of my self-imposed rules. But patient and diligent as I had been, only outside help prevented the bottom of a trash can from being lined with that Times puzzle.

We crossworders can be a curious bunch, indentured to individual principles. In this case, I felt a sense of mild satisfaction, but I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether cheating can be accidental. For the moment, I’ll stick with my puzzle addiction and let ethicists work on that question.

Mort Maimon