I remember a time not too long ago when I would glance at a crossword puzzle in the Times of India or the New Zealand Herald, and exclaim, “Who can figure these things out?”
But one day not too long ago, stuck on a BART train under the Bay, I opened that morning’s newspaper, and scanning for something to do, began to scribble in the grid. It must have been a Monday, because, lo and behold, I was actually able to work out some of the clues. It would take me several more weeks to figure out the Puzzleland convention; puzzles get increasingly complex over the week, and by Sunday, become so insurmountable that countless citizens around the world spend endless hours doing little else.
Slowly, I worked my way through the weekday Chronicle to the Pink Section to the New York Times, which I subscribed to for a while, spending a small fortune just to flick to the puzzle pages daily.
It was around this time that I became friends with my son’s tutor Adria. Twice a week she would arrive at our house to notice newspapers strewn about, opened to pages of half-filled word-grids, recognizing a kindred spirit.
So one Sunday morning, she arrived at my house for a breakfast of crepes stuffed with fruit and nuts, and afterwards, a sojourn in the garden where we opened the Chronicle magazine section to the Merle Reagle crossword page, and completed it to the accompaniment of hummingbirds. What a heavenly morning that was. Something magical happened to me that day; I discovered the crossword puzzle as a spiritual journey. Crosswords, I have realized, are a form of meditation. Not the kind of meditation in which you empty your mind of all thoughts.
Crosswords lend themselves to a different kind of meditation, one in which you are so focused that all worries and stresses flee from your mind and all that is left is the sheer joy of reaching within the farthest recesses of your brain to pull out some obscure piece of information you didn’t know you had and certainly didn’t know the meaning of. Take a clue like “Daughter of Zeus,” for example. Did I know it was Athena? Of course not! Greek myths are things I have read but not bothered to remember. Yet, I can recognize the word patterns and come up with the right answer. The same thing happens with clues involving sports teams or cartoon characters. I have no idea who is who, yet week after week I am able to find the correct answer because, subliminally, I have absorbed this culturally specific trivia. If this is not proof that I have become American, what is?
Pretty soon, my friend Adria began to wonder why an immigrant like me, who had not grown up with Bugs Bunny or Ozzie and Harriet, would beat her at crosswords.
Until she moved to Austin, began to get the New York Times crossword in her local paper, and became a formidable rival. Not to be outdone, I subscribed to the New York Times online so I could access puzzles going back to prehistoric times.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”
The best puzzles, we both agree, are those involving word plays and theme answers. An example was the end-of-the-year New York Times puzzle, in which each clue started with a number and all the clues combined constituted the New Year’s countdown at Times Square. What an “Aha” (another puzzle word) moment that was to stumble upon the theme and boldly fill in the words, which all turned out to be movie names starting with numbers, as in “Seven Samurai.”
Every time I tell someone that I spent a perfectly good Sunday solving a crossword puzzle (and listening to Click and Clack brothers’ Car Talk), they say, “Oh, but that is so good. I bet you will not get Alzheimer’s!” And I always reply, “Well, it better be good for me because I am wasting all this time on it.”
The only reassuring thought is that I am in good company; Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Mathew Modine, are all crossword fans. I worry sometimes that I will get so involved with puzzles that I will not be able to see the books for the words in them, that I will start to scan newspapers simply to absorb trivia clues, that I will stop writing the great American novel and spend all my time solving crossword puzzles.
The thing is though, when Saturday night comes, I can’t help looking forward to Sunday morning, when, the household still asleep, I will walk out to the front yard in my slippers, pick up the bundle of newspaper, and tossing aside all the other sections, fumble to that one page of that one section to begin working on the word play clues, a steaming cup of tea beside me. I will be lost to the world for an hour or two, and the world and its trials and tribulations will be lost to me, as I travel on this journey of self discovery to that Shangri-la within me where knowledge is all that matters.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.