< every nyt crossword is a ghost story

08/31/18 (13:19)

I told my roommate that I wanted to watch a movie from the 1950s last night, and then we half-discussed whether said decade is in the ‘golden age’ of cinema (answer: technically). Then she made some tea and left to go do something, and I didn’t catch whether she made two cups or not, and so I assumed that the mug left on the table (the other side, mind you) was hers and not mine and she was coming back for it, though she never did and it was still there in the morning and I felt pangs of guilt pouring it out. Also, I do a thing where I eat most of something (like, a sandwich, for instance) and then throw away the last half bite or morsel. Is this chthonic or self-denying or what?

I never did watch the 1950s movie though I want it to be The Maltese Falcon (actually an early 1940s movie!), which I read about on Wikipedia. I hope that watching a movie like this will permit some narrow bridge or causeway to aesthetic domains not so dominated by people being sad and clever but not as clever as they want to be. Yesterday, also, I watched the NYT solve their own crossword on Facebook Live. The two commentators were professional puzzlers, and one of them accidentally said ‘Austria’ when she meant ‘Australia,’ which is a thing every kid has done at the Trivial Pursuit board at least once, but for these people, self-designed masters of trivia, the mistake seemed to hit hard and put a damper on the erring woman’s mood for the rest of the day’s crossing. The man speaking, pitching up his voice to appear upbeat and whimsical, used the noun ‘crossers’ (e.g., ‘the unique feature of crosswords is that a difficult or unknown word can be revealed by the perhaps easier ‘crossers’ with which it intersects’) at least once per minute. In the world of crosswords, the smallest technical or linguistic innovation is radical and explosive. The puzzle featured NYT debuts of the words ‘NERDSROPE’ and ‘BUTTLOAD,’ among others. Before the broadcast ended the woman made one more reference to the Australia vs. Austria thing, in an indication that she had not ‘let it go.’ She views the preservation and (proper) pronouncement of facts as sacred, is how she got the job. The man also used the word ‘gimme’ to mean an easy or obvious word, most often names of actors from the time of his adolescence. They debated the merit of the entry BMOC (Big Man on Campus), quoting the reason ‘gender.’ The puzzle composer is apparently a young newcomer who I can only picture as (still) living in a carpeted Midwestern basement, developing his art (the art of ‘crossing’) during hot summers while other kids were getting tan-lines and body-anxiety splashing in the local turbid lake (most of this is, to be honest, intuited from ‘NERDSROPE’). Through the broadcast, the two commentators ignored comments in the chat that were lewd or insulting. The woman whispers anxiously: ‘I have a meeting at…’

I hope that she does not feel so bad about the mixup, which I have made too, although it is not my job to curate facts (more of a basement hobby). It is so much her job and his job to do this that even complex rich to-live-for social issues like gender are foremost commented on for their ability to tightly interlock with other words than as the semantic hyperlink they are. Compression by necessity. It’s like a linguistic vasectomy. Though, to be fair, in a crossword, for a word to standout is for a word to extricate itself from its ‘crossers.’ It is to negate the cross of crossword. It is to make the puzzle unpuzzled.

This is all a gentle chiding. I didn’t watch the Facebook Live stream because I wanted biting social takes on the (presumably male-dominated, erudite, cloistered) world of ‘crossers’ and puzzle ‘artists.’ It’s all a little reductive. But can I deny that I felt some sort of kinship with them? That I felt closer to the chance and design that excites all puzzlers? That their avoidance of or glancing over of the darker underbelly or history of puzzling in a sense, I feel, deepened the mystery and also ‘begged the question’ of what these puzzlers do on their own time. That by devoting themselves to trivia these puzzlers both make light of but also call out (I hear it in the woman’s stressed voice) that words have specific domains and implications that no factoid could contain. That there is a face behind the puzzle that both cares about the puzzle and does not: wants to get home, or make pottery, learn Portuguese, switch to Sudoku, or just buy groceries one time not still in work-clothes with an ongoing dental problem that they’re simply too busy and overworked to address. Godspeed, puzzlers.

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