What Crossword Puzzles and My Dad Taught Me About Life

August 27, 2018

In celebration of what would have been my Dad’s 95th birthday today, I am reflecting on one of things I remember most about him, his love of the majestic crossword puzzle and the lessons those infuriating squares can teach us about life.

DadCrosswordEver since I was a young kid, I remember my Dad doing the daily crossword puzzle.  Back then Philadelphia had two major newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Bulletin.  Our local newspaper was the North Penn Reporter. All of these had crossword puzzles and he would generally do all three.  The irony was that my father was The Worst Speller Ever! He’d be at the kitchen table or in his recliner working on the puzzle and then suddenly he’d yell out, “Hey Ying (my mom), how do you spell “receiving” or some other random word.  And the un-spelled words were not relegated to ones with issues around confounding spelling rules like, “I before E except after C…” As I got older, and presumably better with spelling, the pleas for aid came to me.

Flash forward fifty years:  My father’s frail body laying in a rented hospital bed, his glasses now gigantic on his now smaller face, legs propped up on pillows, pen in hand, and newspaper in lap. He never missed a day and the calls for spelling assistance never ebbed.

The origin of the crossword puzzle is a bit disputed. Early versions were found in The Stockton Bee in the late 1700’s with the phrase “cross word puzzle” first appearing in 1862. What we commonly think of as the crossword puzzle can be attributed to Arthur Wynne who published a “word-cross” in the New York World on December 21, 1913. Ten years later, crosswords had become a popular phenomenon appearing in papers across the country and appearing in popular culture via movies, comics and other media. A crossword puzzle book was published in 1924 by Simon & Schuster. The book came complete with a pencil. (There was no reference to an eraser though.)

Ironically, the New York Times, whose puzzles are now legendary, panned the crossword saying it was a, “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words…This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport… [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development.” Yet for all its detractors, puzzles showed no signs of going away.

Obviously, my father’s influence is one of the reasons why I love crossword puzzles, though my affair with them have been off-and-on. I would always do puzzles in the kid’s section of the paper and often would sit with Dad and work on puzzles together. As I got older, other things took my interest and time. But on occasion I would have time with nothing to do and would find myself toiling away at one. As one with a very short attention span, the idea of working away at one all day long did not appeal to me.  I had to be able to knock it out in one sitting. Patience is a virtue I lack. I shared that with my father as well.  Yet for him, it didn’t matter when it came to the crossword.  He could work on one day and night. He rarely slept through the night, so you would often find him up at 2:00 a.m. reading a book or trying to finish yesterday’s puzzle.

He had a terribly weather-worn crossword puzzle dictionary with a mustard yellow cover.  The binding had long ago cracked, and I swear there were pages missing. But it was like a Bible to him.  You’d find it on the dashboard of his truck or on the seat next to him; the current puzzle tucked inside. He did not have the benefit of Google or Wikipedia (whom I graciously thank for much of the historical information contained herein). Everything was just his brain and that little book and of course anyone around him that could spell.

There are puzzle geniuses who rely only on their minds and what seems to be near photographic recall to solve puzzles. For me, it’s all hands on deck! Though I guess to puzzle geniuses, that is akin to cheating. But it’s not a competition for me so, frankly, I don’t care. However, I don’t like using a crossword dictionary. My tools are on the Internet and I try not to use any of the many crossword trackers—sites where they track every clue and response. I use a difficult clue as an excuse to research a topic surfaced in the clue.  Oh, the many rabbit holes that I have gone down.  The current one started with a clue about the royal family and suddenly I’m lost in page after page about Prince Michael and he wasn’t even part of the original clue. That’s one of the reasons why I love doing them: the places that they can take you.

The Website, Lifehack, says this about the benefits of doing crossword puzzles: “Plenty of researchers have discovered the positive effects that crossword puzzles can have on one’s brain if played regularly. Regularly doesn’t necessarily mean every day — once a week is fine. Among these researchers is Ann Lukits, who wrote “Puzzles Boost Verbal Skills, Cut Dementia Risk” for the Wall Street Journal. She firmly believes that solving crosswords on a regular basis can “improve memory and brain function in older adults.” Such activities can also “improve mental functions in patients with brain damage or early dementia.”

There are dissenting voices tough. The site BrainHQ disputes research saying, “A  recent study that pitted brain crossword puzzles against Posit Science’s brain training activities found that BrainHQ training improved cognitive function while crosswords seemed to have no positive effects.” It’s important to note that BrainHQ is a commercial site that provides a variety of brain-focused training, so maybe they’re a little biased.  But they did go on to say that to make crosswords a more effective tool for cognitive health, one should add levels of difficulty by either doing puzzles that are harder or adding a dimension like a time limit.

I picked up crosswords again in graduate school at Temple University. It was the perfect distraction on the days I commuted by train. They helped fill the boring slow times when I was tending bar and even became a point of conversation with customers as we tried to work them together. I started doing them again after I moved to Los Angeles. At times, I commuted by bus (yes, in L.A.) and they were still a trusted companion and distraction. Several years ago, when I got my iPad, the lure of having the daily New York Times puzzle at my fingertips via an app was very seductive. They were the perfect companion for the numerous flights back-and-forth from California to Florida to visit my Dad. I’d first do the puzzle in the in-flight magazine. I admit, I would laugh at the failed attempts that were left behind for me to clean up. I’d go through periods of time where I’d do them daily and then stretches of inactivity.

My father passed away nearly three years ago and shortly after that I began doing them again. Since then it’s been about two to three puzzles a day. I’m not great at it and frankly it probably takes up way too much of my time. I’ve never been a voracious reader, so on those sleepless nights it’s a puzzle I turn to that helps me get back to sleep.

Through my father’s love of the worded grids, I have found that there are so many lessons to be learned from puzzles. Some are a bit abstract, but others are more concrete.

BEAUTY IN SYMMETRY—You may not realize this, and I’m a bit embarrassed that this had to be pointed out to me, but the American crossword has 180-degree rotational symmetry.  This means that the grid looks exactly the same when rotated upside-down or sideways. If it takes some brains to solve a puzzle, then it must take a super-genius (hats off to NYT Puzzle Master Will Shortz who must be the smartest man alive) to create a puzzle.  Not only do you be incredibly smart to come up with words and pithy clues, but you also must do it within a very rigid structure. This takes patience and flexibility. I imagine a puzzle constructor toiling in the middle of the night having come up with the perfect clue only to find it answer just doesn’t fit. How long does she struggle? Does she give up? How does she move on? In life there are times we have the greatest idea for something but if it isn’t the right time or the right fit, you can’t spend your days and nights making it work. Sometimes the solution waits for the right time. You may be asked to sacrifice something for the sake of the greater good.  The clue/answer might be great but if it doesn’t fit the symmetry—that is, serve the greater puzzle—then it just isn’t the right time or place for it. Patience. That time will come, and it will be beautiful.

IN REST, THERE ARE ANSWERS—One of the things that still fascinates me about doing puzzles is that I can struggle with a half-completed grid and get to the point where I can’t continue.  As life calls, I’ll put the puzzle down and go about doing other things. Eventually, I’ll return to the puzzle and all of sudden, the answers that escaped me before, are now flowing out of me with ease.  Where was all this knowledge before? Why all of a sudden are the solutions so easy?  Sometimes we get so mired in problems that we can’t see answers right in front of us. How often at work do we struggle with reports or assignments and just can’t seem to get anywhere?  And what do we do most often?  We hunker down and keep pushing ourselves harder and harder when all we really need to do is take a break. Just getting away from a problem can help one see solutions that were always there.  A computer actually works the same way your brain does in that it can operate in the background.  Even when you’re not focused on a problem, your brain keeps working on it in the background.  Sleep is the perfect example of this.  Our dreams are often the brain’s way of sorting out issues or testing scenarios.  Stepping away from a problem doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t working on it.  Next time your boss asks why you’re busy hanging out at the water cooler and not working on a report that’s due, just tell him, “I’m working on it…in the background.” Let me know how that works out. But seriously, sometime the solutions have been worked out by our brain but the conscious effort and concentration we put into problem solving can interfere with the brain getting the answer to our fingertips.  So, take that break.  Your brain will keep working.

LOOK AT ALL SIDES OF A PROBLEM AND DON’T ASSIGN MEANING—Sometimes clues can be very frustrating because you can’t tell if it’s a verb or a noun that is being used. And great constructors are great pun artists. Even with the way clues are formatted that help the solver understand what’s being asked, it can still be really frustrating until you, with audible groan, figure out what they are really asking and then arrive at the solution. In life things may seem one way but they’re not.  They may be hidden under layers of intentional or unintentional meaning. You have to be willing to open your mind in order to arrive at an answer.  In puzzle life, as in real life, I’ve gotten stuck because I stubbornly refused to think of something in a way other than the way I saw it. But once I opened my mind to the possibility of other things, other meanings, other viewpoints, then solutions became possibilities.  How often do we assign meaning to something that someone said or wrote or did without really knowing the true meaning of the action? And did that affect the way we responded? Let go of your preconceived notions of “meaning” and be open to what other meaning there might be.

BE BOLD—When I do a crossword on an actual piece of paper, I always use a pen. Usually it’s by default because I can’t find a pencil. But it’s taught me that it’s OK to mess up.  Sure, I may have to cross something out or write over it with extra pressure and ink.  In the end it may look a little messy but that’s OK.  Life can be messy. But worrying about mistakes that may or may not happen won’t really get you anywhere.  Take that chance. Commit to something. Be bold!

I’m not sure my father and I shared many interests in life. But sharing interests wasn’t a requisite for our relationship. I value that he gave me the space to find my own way in life. At times I’m sure he would have wanted things differently but that sacrifice helped make me who I am today.  Some of my favorite memories, whether I was ten years old or fifty, are of the two of us trying to figure out a clue. His asking me for help made me feel special. At fifty I could be that ten-year-old once again.

In a way I guess doing crossword puzzles are a way to keep me connected to him. I never fail to think of him when I pick one up or when I come across something I can’t spell. And just like my father they constantly surprise, educate and teach me valuable lessons about life.

(The photo above was taken about a year before my father passed away. He would have been 91 at the time. He was doing a crossword puzzle while my mom, the love of his life, patiently spelled something for him.)