Cross Purposes

A challenging routine, its abrupt end, and a pledge to do better next time. 

Last month, my nearly two-year streak of solving the NY Times crossword puzzle came to an accidental end.  It really wasn’t my fault.

Here’s what happened: the crossword comes out each day at 10pm, or 6pm on weekends (daylight savings time wreaks havoc on this schedule, so let’s leave it at that).  Credit is given for completing the puzzle before midnight the next day.

On my way to a Saturday evening event, I realized that I hadn’t yet done the crossword, so I opened it, and Kelsey and I got it done over the course of twenty-or-so minutes.

Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the puzzle we were doing was the Sunday puzzle- which should have been obvious, as it’s a larger puzzle grid.  The Saturday puzzle was not complete, as I would learn the following day, when I looked for the Sunday puzzle and was informed that it was complete, the first installment of my new streak.

In many ways, the crossword puzzle is a perfect hobby for me.  As someone blessed with mild OCD, I thrive on daily tasks.  Each day’s puzzle is a new challenge, growing progressively more difficult from Monday through Saturday, and easing up with a large, enjoyable grid on Sundays.

The puzzle’s test of trivia, wordplay, and pattern recognition also appeals to me.  My brain, notorious for forgetting names of people I have just met, excels at remembering inane trivia several decades removed from practical relevance.

I am also blessed to have Kelsey as my solving buddy.  Not only does she have a knowledge base that covers many of my blind spots, she greets puzzle puns with the most satisfying groans of anyone I know.  Between the two of us, we can usually crack the grid at a good clip.

Those times when the answers just aren’t coming- I remember one frustrating puzzle where every CLUE was an anagram, and until you figured that out, you were lost- we are both shameless about asking friends, colleagues, or friendly-looking strangers.  You would be amazed how many people can identify, for instance, ballroom dancer Castle (IRENE), Nixon’s “In the _____,” (ARENA), or a relative of Calliope (ERATO).

Over time, as the streak grew longer and longer, it became of corresponding greater importance to me that it continue.  On days where I would be out of cell reception, I made sure to complete the puzzle when I had signal.  During my trips back to Lexington, I would impress my parents and sibs into service to get the puzzle done over coffee.  My day didn’t feel complete- didn’t feel right- until the puzzle was done.

That said, it was perhaps surprising that the loss of the streak came not with anger or devastation, but with mild sadness, and a resolution to start a new, even longer streak.  I’ve realized that, while the streak had a motivational impact that scratched my OCD itch, it is really the process I enjoy: the puzzles themselves.

So, after going back and finishing that regrettably-missed Saturday grid (the functionality of the app is truly amazing), I immediately resumed puzzle solving as my daily task.  The streak is now back in double-digits, and given time, I’m sure it will grow back to something more substantial.

People tell me that crossword puzzles are good for the brain, and may help keep our minds sharp as we age.  I don’t know about all that.  To me, they’re really more about assuming challenges, and doing everything necessary to overcome them.  The moment the grid is complete, and the app plays the little “success” jingle, feels like enough of a wholesome reward to keep me consistently coming back.

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Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment