The Crossword Puzzle

Every Sunday I tear the crossword puzzle page out of the back of the NY Times magazine.  The following Sunday I tear out the answer page and staple the two together and stack them on a shelf.  Granted, if i get through the whole puzzle with out having to consult the answers, it’s not a problem, but let’s face it – I’m not Bill Clinton.  I work the puzzles in pencil, and I am never going to get 1) sports trivia, 2) contemporary television trivia, or 3) the name of any of those damned little Eastern European rivers, lakes, or bays.  I like the Sunday Times puzzle because it is hard enough to exercise me, but not impossible to do, and I like the cute little inner puzzles – it’s like working two muscles groups at once.  And thankfully, the magazine paper is very eraser friendly.

Whenever I am going anywhere that is likely going to involve any waiting, I grab a couple of the stapled puzzle sheets and pop them into a pretty leather folder (purchased just for this purpose) to take with me.  As soon as I sit down to wait for whatever it is that constitutes that day’s exercise in delayed gratification, I take out a puzzle to work on.  They are great for traveling, too.  They are sufficiently engrossing that they even make flying tolerable.  My fantasy vacation is to be lying by some gorgeous pool with nothing to do but work these crossword puzzles all day, with a cute pool side waiter in close attendance.  An Eastern European waiter with a degree in geography who knows sports and TV trivia would be perfect.

I started doing the Sunday Times crossword years ago when I was losing my vocabulary.  Because I am a visual artist, my work is nonverbal, and although I listened to the radio in the studio and talked frequently to the dogs, my vocabulary skills were diminishing.  I began finding myself in conversations where, in the midst of making some profound point, I wouldn’t be able to think of just the right the word I wanted to use.  I hated trying to be clever and all of a sudden sounding ditsy.  So, I turned off the radio, started listening to audio books instead, and began doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzles.

I have a collected stack of these puzzles because weeks can go by when I don’t work on one, and depending on individual wait times, I may work on the same one over the course of many waiting room stays.  Still, my vocabulary has improved tremendously.  I catch myself using words that sound so appropriate and cool that for a moment I don’t much care if they’re quite the right ones or not.  Sometimes in conversation a word will pop into my head that I didn’t even know I knew, but that sounds great; I use it with a question mark, asking the other person if indeed it sounds right, and regardless of whether they know or not, I score big language points all the same.  Obviously my subconscious loves the oblique and mischievous relationships between many crossword clues and their answers, and she keeps a little notebook of the most artful and fun ones for reference.  I can be blathering on about something in the most pedestrian way, and she will suddenly whip one of these obscure words out for me and toss it in the ring.   It never fails to catch me, and often the other person, off guard, and so I either wind up sounding like William F. Buckley or Mrs. Malaprop.  Never mind; they are both heroes to me.  Ah, language is a many splendored thing.

The trick to crosswords is the fact that way too often, a clue will have several possible answers, all of the right letter length.  Without any letters filled in from auxiliary words – wait, contiguous words; no, adjacent words – it’s hard to decide which answer to use.  So you try to fill some of the adjacent words – no, peripheral words – to get enough letters to solve the clue.  Of course, sometimes there are several possible answers that have similar letter constructions, so you can still be stymied and put in the wrong word, which then messes up your chances of getting the peripheral – no, intersecting  – words right.  In other words, solving the puzzle can often be a mind boggling conundrum of obfuscating clues and obtuse answers.

I didn’t know at the time I started doing crossword puzzles but I was in training for a different realm of vocabulary challenges. Trying to understand the workings of a mind with dementia is literally a crossword puzzle.  Sometimes the course of my father’s thoughts seem obvious, and then the next moment you realize he’s made a sharp left turn and you’re still going straight.  Suddenly we are no longer on the same page.  It doesn’t help that he has lost much of his vocabulary.  Often you can’t get a direct clue as to what he is thinking or wants to say, because he no longer knows himself, or worse, he knows but can’t come up with the words he wants to express it.  That’s when you have to look for intersecting  – no, neighboring – clues; facial expressions, hand gestures, what we were just talking about, or which way the wind is blowing.  I offer up word choices that I hope are correct until he agrees with one.  If he doesn’t like  any of them, I offer a multi-syllabic zinger that I know is not right but that sounds impressive, and he will always go for that.  He knows it’s not the word he wanted to say, but at least he appreciates the joy of it’s sound and is happy to use it.   That may seem dishonest, but by the time we reach that point, he’s forgotten what he was talking about in the first place.  He used to be an avid reader and I can see that he still enjoys saying a great word.

With this particular puzzle, there is no answer sheet to peek at for help. The way I cheat sometimes is to agree with whatever he is trying to say and then change the subject. I am trying to learn his vocabulary of recurring memories and concerns, and from that, I can often fill in the blank for him.  If not, I move on to the next set of squares and hopefully an easier set of clues.   My father’s dementia is a puzzle we must work together.

Now if only I could get hold of that cute pool side waiter.

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