Sunday, 22 December 2013


Nine Letters for Desperate Need Ending in N

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. The Globe and Mail yesterday published its annual mammoth holiday crossword puzzle. Some 1100 clues to solve. Life is very, very good.

Twenty-thirteen marks the centenary of the crossword puzzle. (For our purposes we are discussing The New York Times or American model rather than the British cryptic which is a different kettle of red herrings altogether.) Planet Earth as we understand it resides in the grid, a square comprised of squares. The clues, which may be straightforward or cleverly and cheekily misleading, lead the solver through our pre-history and recorded history; our various mythologies and religions; our arts and sciences; our commerce, economics, nations and politics; our games and pastimes; and our many languages. Words themselves are wondrous constructs and can be spellbinding tools of magic in the vocabularies of demagogues and poets. A completed crossword is the world made rational and orderly amidst the entropy and chaos dutifully reported in the newspaper in which the puzzle appears.

Crosswords are the time-killing companions of the lonely in bars and the frightened in hospital waiting rooms. They may be a collective weekend activity, each solution the subject of a household brain-storming session.

I’m old enough to remember the 60s and I was so much younger then that I hadn’t yet discovered the fun involved with frying brain cells. Dad is sitting on the green, black and orange floral patterned couch, left side. His feet on the green shag carpet. The coffee table has a lip around the rim to hold a pane of glass long since broken by my brother, my sister and me roughhousing in the room we were never supposed to be in. It’s a weekday evening. Dad has a drink beside him on the end table and a pen in his hand. He’s folded the broadsheet Montreal Star to the crossword puzzle. Earlier that day on the commuter train downtown he’d done the same thing with The Montreal Gazette.

The tableau repeats in the 70s. Mom, now a Holly Golightly divorcee, is sitting on the couch, the right side, her side, solving the crossword.

On two recent family business visits to Montreal, staying with my sister, the daily crossword puzzle was always on the dining room table with a pencil and a pen beside it and four different sets of printing within the grid. I recalled growing up and how in many ways we are our parents’ children. And I remember my deceased brother and visiting him when we both knew he would die and how we frequently sat up late at his kitchen counter studying the crossword and passing a pen back and forth: You do across and I’ll do down. The puzzles seemed curious instruments of intimacy.

I guess I’ve come by this addiction honestly. It runs in the family; we’ve got the gene. As I write this, a section of yesterday’s Edmonton Journal is on the kitchen counter, folded to page F11 and one third of The New York Times Sunday crossword has been inked in. My nephews and their girlfriends have since gathered around it. So over these holidays, first we’ll take Manhattan and then we’ll conquer The Globe.

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