I call myself a crossword addict. There’s a deep sense in which that’s true. As the joke goes, I can quit any time I want; I just don’t want. But what’s the hook? What do I get out of an activity that looks suspiciously like homework? The answer is what I call the Crossword Puzzle Moment.
Remember the knock against American-style crosswords is that, far more than their cryptic foreign counterparts, they rely on factual knowledge. You either know the name of some TV character or river or politico, or you don’t. So what’s the point?
The point is that you know more than you think, and dredging musty facts out of the far corners of your brain is satisfying. Making synaptic connections that have lain dormant for years causes something deep in the pleasure center to squeeze out a juicy shot of chemical goodness. How many times has this happened to you? You read a clue and know immediately that there’s no way you can know the answer. Then while you stare at the boxes the answer letters slowly dissolve into place before your eyes.
I separate these experiences into two categories — facts you knew you once knew and facts you know you never knew. "Reagan Attorney General" is an example of the first. If you’re old enough to have read newspapers or watched TV during the 1980s then this is a name that you heard every few days but, unless you’re a puzzle regular, haven’t thought of in decades. You notice the answer is five letters and all of a sudden something clicks. EDWIN, right? No, that was the first name. The last name is stored somewhere in a nearby folder in the same general disk location. It’s on the tip of your cranium, just out of reach. You finally give up and concentrate on the next clue and just when you divert your brainpower to another topic the word MEESE floats up into your consciousness. Who knows how or from where, but it feels good. Maybe you never forget anything in your life and just need the right trigger to pull it out. That would be depressing if true.
The second category is even more amazing; those facts you know for sure you don’t know, have no way of knowing, couldn’t possibly have ever known. Here’s an example that happened to me a while ago. The clue is "Seinfeld role", 6 letters. I’ve never seen that show, I have no clue what it’s about (despite friends trying to explain it to me) and consequently I skip immediately to the next clue. With the cross clues I get an E as the final letter, and I know immediately that the answer is ELAINE. How? I have no idea. I must have read something about the show or heard people talking about it. Who knows? The point is, it’s not just an aha moment. It’s not just that I figured out some logic puzzle and can be smug about how clever I am. It’s more like magic. I concentrated. I relaxed. The answer came to me.
Maybe this is what religious experience is like for some people, like the universe is speaking to them, providing them with answers. Maybe it’s all just Crossword Puzzle Moments. Or maybe God likes crosswords too.
As usual, recent solutions are in the Answers module in the right-hand column. Happy puzzling.