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Ross Murray's Border Report
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Ross Murray
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is a freelance writer living in Stanstead, Quebec. You can reach him at ross_murray@sympatico.ca
Posted 05.05.09
Stanstead, Quebec

ROSS MURRAY

Ironically, there is no synonym for "crossword"

They say that crossword puzzles are good for the brain. They maintain cerebral elasticity, improve memory, and sustain mental abilities that decline with age, such as... things I can't remember right now.

This may be so, but in my experience crossword puzzles lead to lack of focus, obsession, irritability, even hostility. This is not mental health. In my case, it's more like making a bad thing worse.

I used to do one crossword puzzle a week: the Saturday New York Times. It's the all-day sucker of puzzles, as in "You're going to be solving this all day, sucker!"

I like the way the Times rolls out its puzzles: easy on Monday and increasingly harder as the week progresses. Again, in terms of mental health, this is commendable. Can you imagine starting your Monday searching for a five-letter word for "'Das Glasperlenspiel' novelist"?

I don't do these early-week puzzles because (a) I prefer the challenge of the tougher ones and (b) I'm usually still working on the Saturday puzzle.

Occasionally, I compare notes with a friend at work -- clues that stumped us, the cleverness/unfairness of others. ("I've never heard of 'lisles,' have you? It wasn't in my dictionary.")

Recently, my friend gave me a book of fifty Sunday New York Times crosswords. If the Saturday puzzle is an all-day sucker, the Sunday jumbo puzzle is a seven-course meal. With lots of leftovers.

But wait, there's more.

Along with the book, he passed on two Lee Valley 4B pencils. I've never put much thought into pencils; I wouldn't know an HB from HP Sauce. But these pencils are sweet. Like writing with butter. Erase like a dream. A smudge-free crossword puzzle is a happy puzzle.

So puzzle- and pencil-wise, I was all set. Thanks, Brian!

Subsequently, though, I've become a bit obsessed.

The Sunday Times puzzle in particular gets under my skin. Though large, it sucks you in with easy clues. "'Jazz trumpeter Baker et al.'? Pfff! 3 Give me a break

Next thing I know, I'm stuck in a corner, sweating for every word. And even when I get one, it contributes squat to solving other clues.

And so I stare at it.

At breakfast.

When I go home at lunch to let the dog out.

When I should be interacting with humans.

The bathroom is always popular.

I ponder clues while drifting off to sleep. The answer to "Dishonest persons' temptation" actually came to me in the middle of the night. Seriously.

Driving with the family last Saturday, I blurted out, "Lobos!"

"What?" said my wife.

"It's the answer to 'Picked styles.' I had -- OS. Lobos. The apple. A style of apple that you pick."

"O-o-o-kay...quot;&

As soon as I got home, I wrote in "lobos" (with my 4B pencil).

But I still had nothing around it. The clue above: "Alewife's relative." What th'?

And this is where crosswords' degrees of cheating come into play.

The First Level of Cheating is the dictionary. You can rationalize this by saying that you simply want to understand a word or confirm a spelling. For example, I learned that an alewife is a variety of herring. And isn't knowledge a good thing? That I happened to deduce that my answer was "shad" is purely secondary.

The Second Level is the crossword puzzle dictionary, which is not a full-on cheat because the book of synonyms is hit and miss. You won't find, for instance, an eight-letter word for "drawer," thereby forcing you to guess that the answer is "animator." Wrong, as it turns out.

The Third Level is Google -- the white flag, the thrown-in towel, the last resort called upon when "lobos" and "shad" and "dolt" and (incorrect) "animator" get you nowhere. It is, however, a way to learn the name of New Mexico National Forests and, consequently, that the correct answer to "Picked styles" is not "lobos" but "afros." It's also a good way to learn that you're not as clever as you think you are.

1. "Hesse"

2. A fine, smooth, tightly twisted thread spun from long-stapled cotton, and the answer to the clue "Fine threads.quot;

3. "Chets"

4. "Blank cheque," with British spelling to comply with the puzzle's theme.

5. Correct answer: "elicitor," though before that I had "elevator" -- all pretty maddening, if you ask me.

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