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Crossword Puzzles

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

Most of my contemporaries (i.e., old people) have health issues. We keep our pills in little plastic containers divided into compartments holding our daily regimen. We go to the gym, walk every day, watch our cholesterol, and install grip bars in our bathrooms. We are no longer "beautiful people." For many of us, however, our biggest fear is that we will develop dementia.

Almost all of us know people, some dear to us, who have Alzheimer's disease or dementia. (Alzheimer's is a specific ailment; dementia is a general description.) Parents don't recognize their children, paranoia is common, and Harry Truman is our President. We do our best to ward off our mental decline by exercise, reading, Tai Chi, and gulping down Prevagen. And we do crossword puzzles.

"Wordplay," a 2006 documentary about the New York Times annual national crossword puzzle championship, inspired Linda and me to try our hand at puzzle solving. The film featured a number of solvers, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, Bob Dole, and Ken Burns. If they could do the puzzles, so could we.

We learned that puzzles in the Times follow a weekly progression; Monday is easy, Tuesday slightly harder, and by Saturday, almost impossible. Thursday's puzzles always have some trick or catch, often accompanied by a clue called "the revealer" that helps with the solving.

Like many activities, puzzles have a learning curve. When we began solving, we could finish Monday and Tuesday puzzles and occasionally a Wednesday. On Fridays and Saturdays we might fill in one or two words. Now we routinely finish Saturdays, although it may take an hour or more.



We learned that certain words continue to crop up in the puzzles. Many of them are words with multiple vowels, such as Yoko Ono, ego, or ire. Epee, the blade used in fencing, appears every few weeks.

It also helps if you have a teammate whose areas of expertise complement yours. Linda knows artists, old movie stars, blues singers, cars, fashion, and present day slang. I am better at locales in Africa and Latin America, European history, Australian flora and fauna, and authors.

Do we ever cheat? I guess you could call it cheating, but we have evolved certain "workarounds." For example, we may look up rap and hip hop stars. There are hundreds, and the only one we know is Lil Nas X. We also allow ourselves to search for obscure NFL, NBA, and NHL players, but not major league baseball players.

After a few months of solving we learned about a blogger named "Rex Parker," who daily posts completed puzzles on the Internet. Mr. Parker, a college professor at SUNY Binghamton, also provides commentary, clips of movies and tv shows, and recordings of songs mentioned in the puzzle. Occasionally he is irritating, as when he calls a Saturday puzzle "easy" when we toiled over it for hours.

Is all of this activity helping to ward off dementia? It is too early to tell. In the meantime, I'm trying to figure out "Ingredient in a Long Island iced tea" and "2007 Alicia Keys release featuring the #1 hit No One." I'll be looking up ____St. Brown, NFL star nicknamed "Sun God."

~ Roy Christman


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