Sunday, August 26, 2012

26 Across: Birthday Boy

Mr. Shortz, captured in a highly appropriate medium
Here's something I don't think I've ever mentioned here:  I have a thing for The New York Times crossword puzzle. 

One of my earliest memories is of Mother Muscato (of sainted, mostly, memory) at the kitchen table on a Sunday morning, flanked by ashtray and coffee cup, working away - alternately gleefully and with enormous angst - at the Sunday puzzle.  One of her proudest boasts was that she generally could do both the puzzle and the accompanying acrostic, diagramless, or other alternate puzzle before we left for church.  Granted, some Sundays that meant we didn't get there 'til halfway through the sermon, but those Sundays were fairly rare. 

Mondays were for children - she started me down the garden path at about six - and it generally wasn't until Thursday that she'd have to resort to Bartlett's, Webster's, or any one of the other authorities we all relied on in those neolithically information-deprived days.  When in a real bind - over a quip that wasn't falling into place, or a truly impossible set of rhebus answers - she'd either make for the phone* and ring up either her mother, who didn't generally get up as early as she but was bound to be more or less polite, or she'd pace the floor until she thought she could get away with calling her childhood friend across town, Aunt Susan (one of those aunts who isn't blood family, but all the more beloved for it).  "Your Aunt Susan is my dearest friend," she'd growl, "but I don't understand how a grown woman can sleep until 8:00 a.m. every day," she for whom that hour was practically mid-day (and later on all too often cocktail hour, but that's another story altogether).  In conference with one or the other she'd struggle toward triumph, although of course she was always far more gratified when our phone would ring, with one of the two calling to get her help instead.  "That?  I'm not even sure I still have this morning's paper..." she'd murmur as early as 11:30, as if it were weeks ago.

The crossworld puzzle's editors loomed larger in our household than any of the Times's reporters - first, in earliest memory, Margaret Farrar, a towering figure who more or less overshadowed (Victoria to his Edward VII) her successor, the comparatively short-running Will Weng, and then for a very long time Eugene T. Maleska, with whom Mother M. carried on an occasional and not entirely one-sided correspondence.  When, in 1993, he was replaced by the unknown quantity of Will Shortz, she was dubious.  I rather liked him, though, and in time a combination of the excellence of his puzzles ("That's practically a Maleska!") and his on-air banter with NPR's Liane Hanson on Weekend Edition Sunday brought her around.  The last time I saw her, she had a crossword puzzle on her lap, and I knew it was all over bar the shouting when Father M. reported on the telephone , truly concerned even in the face of months of decline for the very first time, that she had decided that morning to skip the puzzle (it was, in fact, a matter of only a day).

I stopped doing the puzzle for a long time, but technology does have its benefits, and there is an excellent iPad app to which I've become devoted.  I'm a piker next to Mother, but I'm getting better at it again.  I finished today's in almost church-making time (not, in fact, a destination, not least because today is a working day in the Sandlands), and with minimal reliance on the 21st century Bartletts et al that is Google.

In any case, all of this is a very roundabout way of wishing Will Shortz a very happy "SUIT, OF A SORT," or "NATAL ANNIVERSARY," or however it might pop up as 14 Down.  He seems a most engaging person, dapper in a puzzlemaster sort of way, with, according to his NPR bio, "a Tudor-style house filled with books and Arts and Crafts furniture" outside New York.  And he's a confirmed bachelor.  In the immortal words of Mr. Nathan Lane, you do the math.  Were I not so happily married, I might have to 42 Across:  Set one's cap (MAKE A PLAY FOR)...

* We had one, hanging on the wall in the short corridor that separated the kitchen from the grandeur of the living room. That's the kind of thing that young people today simply can't fathom.  I now have an assistant at the office, a charming and well-educated young person, who has never dialled a telephone.

1 comment:

  1. sunday puzzle, which i almost never fully complete myself, is what propels me thru the workweek. i know i'd do better if i could have an ashtray set next to my pencils.