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Puzzle People

December 21st is National Crossword Puzzle Day!

When I was a little girl, my parents, as a team, would wage war on the daily New York Times crossword like it was a fierce beast. It was the ultimate family breakfast table showdown, like watching a high-stakes game of intellectual combat, with words flying left and right. I’d sit there, munching on my Cheerios, secretly hoping they’d get stumped on a clue just so I could witness an epic meltdown. But I can’t remember that ever happening.

If Daddy did the writing, he always did it in pencil because he believed in the power of second chances. Mama, on the other hand, was a fearless warrior who wielded her pen like a mighty sword, leaving no room for mistakes. If they ever found themselves stuck, they would resort to exchanging brain-busting riddles like, “What’s a 5-letter word for someone who’s way too smart for their own good?” To which the other would reply, “Try brain, or maybe plodz.”

Plodz? Really?

It gave me a headache, with my brain cells running for cover as I listened to their chatter. It astounded me how they came up with words out of thin air. I knew my parents were smart, but I always wondered why on earth they tormented themselves with something so b-o-r-i-n-g (a 6-letter word for dull and stupid). Even in their senior years, they continued to do their morning crossword ritual. Maybe it was a special brain glue that bound their relationship because they were married for over 60 years. Yay them!

I’m not sure exactly when my brain decided to enter the world of crossword madness, but I guess my neurons woke up one day and said, “Hey, let’s torture ourselves with cryptic word games!” It must be hereditary. I did have the sense to get my feet wet with puzzles that were labeled easy to medium. And I avoided the NY Times crosswords like the plague. Back then, I saw the NYT puzzles as real monsters who sneered “Mwah-ha-ha’s” at the poor, hapless souls who attempted to solve them. Heck, they made even dictionaries tremble in fear.

When I met the legendary Capt’n Clean, it was time to level up my crossword skills and show the puzzle gods who’s boss. Since the day we tied the knot, Capt’n Clean and I have been crossword addicts. We subscribe to the New York Times online, and with it comes access to all of their games.

Our mornings go something like this. First, we get up and start the coffee (a 6-letter word for a magical elixir of life). Next, we each retreat to our designated cozy fortresses, Capt’n Clean at the kitchen table and me in my office easy chair. With our minds fortified with caffeine, we dive into reading emails, and then, ka-pow!, the battle begins. It’s a race to see who can do the New York Times crossword the fastest and be dubbed the day’s geek-a-holic (a 10-letter word made up by Wimpy Girl for this story).

I do a few mental calisthenics by warming up with Wordle, Connections, Letter-Boxed, and Easy Sudoku. Capt’n warms up with all three Sudoku levels (easy, medium, and hard) like a true swashbuckler. For me, Sudoku is more like So-Easy-To-Do-Ku. I suck at numbers, and he was an engineer, so bragging rights on Sudoku don’t mean anything. It would be like me challenging Serena Williams (a 14-letter word for a champion netter whose sister is named after a planet) to a tennis match. But hey, who needs numbers when there are letters to fill in and puzzles to solve?

Once we’ve pumped enough caffeine into our bodies and warmed up our brains with a few number-letter jumping jacks, it’s time for the Holy Grail of our morning existence, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle. The first one to finish the puzzle has the responsibility of texting their time to the other. (Sidenote: Our house has three levels, so yes, even though we are both home, we often text each other throughout the day.) After sharing time results, the puzzle is reset so the other person can complete it and then brag or make excuses. Generally, Capt’n Clean has the best time, but we are often within a few minutes of each other, at least for the first part of the week.

If you’ve ever done the NY Times daily crossword, you know that each day gets progressively harder, like climbing a mountain, with the Sunday puzzle being the Mount Everest of the week. Sunday’s puzzle is always much larger than its predecessors. I rarely win on the Sunday puzzle because my eyes aren’t so good and I constantly have to enlarge and shrink on my tablet. I know I’m making excuses (7-letter word for desperately trying to save face), but that’s just the way it is.

A very wise anonymous person once said,

“It’s better to do crosswords than to have them.”

I have to agree. It’s like our daily wordplay ritual is a sacred ceremony. We’ve done it in airplanes, buses, and taxis on three different continents. We’ve become the ultimate puzzle-solving power couple. It’s a secret to our marital bliss—a daily dose of brain-teasing fun that keeps us on our toes and our brains sharp. Who needs couples therapy when you have crosswords? Our quirky little tradition proves that we’re not just partners in life, but partners in puzzle-solving as well. There’s nothing like linguistic seduction to spice things up in a marriage. How’s that for foreplay? I mean, wordplay?

This week, Capt’n Clean and I are celebrating 18 years of marriage. Yay us!

I can’t say that the NY Times crossword is the super glue that has held our relationship together for 18 years, but it sure hasn’t hurt.

Happy Crossword Puzzle Day, and
Happy Anniversary, Capt’n Clean. I love you both!


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This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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