Commentary: Puzzles reactivated his Dewey Numbskull System

While the breakup wasn’t bitter, I didn’t think we’d ever get together again.

But then the pandemic rolled around.

And now, as the weekends approach, I find myself spending time in the company of Gail Grabowski and Bruce Venzke; Catherine Cetta and Julian Lim; as well as Stella Zawistowski and all the others at Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Word up: They’re the ones who create this newspaper’s crossword puzzles.

I most like hanging out with them on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, because that’s when the puzzles get more puzzling and their puzzling minds come out to play.

In this, my second significant relationship with puzzlers, I’ve noticed a few things.

One: In puzzling, an appreciation for the Dad joke is a must.

So, when the clue is “One who gets famous just for kicks?” it’s a short walk to the solution: Soccer star

And something that’s “Long way to go?”

That would be a limo, which is, in fact, both long and a way to go.

Likewise (or like-stupid), the solution to the clue “Noodle output” will be “idea,” as it was in a recent puzzle.

So, you come to recognize that “what closers open” is the ninth inning.

That a “home delivery assistant” is an EMT – at least for babies.

And that what helps a mouse to communicate is a USB port.

But the clues can quickly turn trickier.

In a recent “One obsessed with guns?” turned out to be a “gym rat” -- a tribute to all those men and woman out there who are clearly “biceptual.”

(Puzzle makers often stick a question mark at the end of a clue that has a solution that comes out of left field.)

Another way they make things trickier is by using “sleight of word.”

Consider the clue “Associates.”

A first thought is that it’s like business associates, the accent on the SO, which is the clue I first tried to run with.

It took some time for me to remember that one thing that associates do is associATES, which moves the accent to the final syllable and changes its pronunciation to ATE.

Once I knew the clue was associATES – meaning something that “associates” people together – I was able to puzzle out the solution: Unites. Something that unites people associates them.

Tricky indeed.

Another bit of puzzle trickery involves taking advantage of the fact that the first word of every clue begins with a capital letter.

The day I missed the significance of that was the day the clue “Carnival offering” had me thinking of merry-go-rounds, cotton candy and everything else associated with the small-c carnival. That put me off the trail of the main “offering” of the capital-c Carnival: a cruise.

Puzzle makers also are time travelers.

Take the day the clue “Mission Impossible’s Martin” showed up in a puzzle.

I knew it was Martin Landau, an actor from the “Mission Impossible” TV series of the 1960s.

But anyone not now eligible for Social Security would be left as clueless by that clue as I was a few days later by this one: “Singer of the 2019 #1 hit “Senorita.” Weirdly, though, from underneath the rock I seldom look out from, I had heard Shawn Mendes’ name.

Knowing that, the clues from words crossing Shawn’s name made it possible for me to fill in the blanks of the puzzle.

Go figure.

As it gets later in the week, not only do the clues and answers get more difficult (I don’t know much about operatic roles), things also get more complicated by the changing puzzle gird.

Generally, puzzles with swatches of longer overlapping blanks become more difficult.

That said, some creators turn open spaces into playgrounds.

In this spirit, Gail Grabowski and Bruce Venzke didn’t just put stars next to the clues for the answers “rust bucket, reset button, robber baron and raisin bran.” They put a cherry on top of these double-digit words by tucking the five-letter answer “r and b” into the bottom right corner of that puzzle.

The clue: “Ray Charles’ genre, and a hint to the answers to starred clues.”

It’s the kind of thing that makes me smile and say aloud to the puzzlers, “So, that’s what you’re doing to me today. And that kind of playfulness gives the puzzle a personality that itself is a guide to figuring out the answers.

But as Saturday rolls around, I find the puzzlers are playing at the outer limits of my Dewey Numbskull System – the operating system for accessing all of the thin cobwebs of memory clinging to the edges of my skull or tickling my inner ear.

And that brings me to the most important thing I’ve learned in my second marriage to puzzles.

I’ll express it here in the form of crossword puzzle clue: What most patients lack.

The answer: Patience.

Instead of just getting angry and giving up, I now sometimes come back to unfinished puzzle later in the day. Or the next day. Or – if I haven’t tossed them out -- sometime later.

Because the most endurable enjoyment I get out of crossword puzzles isn’t in getting the answers right away – at least not right away.

It’s in being puzzled long enough that when the answers do arrive, I’m pleased at having picked another cobweb off the wall and put my Dewey Numbskull System to work.

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