My name is Genviève Croissant and I am a cruciverbalist. I solve crossword puzzles by the dozens, by the hundreds. I cannot abide the sight of blank squares. Our whole family is puzzle solvers: my husband specializes in Sudoku, my son is a champignon chess player, my daughter likes cryptograms; we all play Scrabble together any day of the week, and Sunday night is board game night.
I started solving puzzles in the Saturday newspaper out of boredom. My husband’s family speaks Tamil, and to maintain the language, I drop off both my kids for Tamil classes for three hours on Saturday mornings. It was not worth it to make the half hour drive home and back again, so I waited. Granted, there are lots of things I could have done. You may call me not a complete or normal woman, but I don’t like window shopping, I have one pair of practical shoes, I don’t like chocolate or perfume, and I really don’t like to make idle chit-chat with other moms about their snotty kids. Someone had left the comics and puzzles section of the Toronto Star on a bench; I like comics, but reading them and chuckling twice consumed only a few minutes, and flipping over the folded paper, a crossword puzzle looked up at me like a forlorn child, and I was hooked in.
Well, it wasn’t really love at first sight. Though I’d done the odd crossword puzzle now and then over the years, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the clues on this one, and when it was time to pick up my kids, I had filled in only three answers and hadn’t touched my energy drink. So those three were fighting words. I was an educated, intelligent woman raising my children to be educated, intelligent, and multilingual (I spoke only in French to them, all the time, in their early years, and even now we slip seamlessly between it and English), so there was no way I was going to let some illiterate rag sneer at me . . . I was too smart for it, that was it. I would have to lower myself to its level. I was content with this assessment, and so gave it no more thought until the next Saturday; I had dropped my kids off and a gossipy mom was heading towards me when I noticed what looked like the same newspaper on the same bench. I scooted over to get it and made to study it without sitting down (that would have been fatal) and even muttered in the bargain, and it worked; the gossip-mom disappeared.
But this week’s crop yielded only four words. Bapteme! I took the paper home with me and over the week mulled over it when I was alone – I didn’t want my family to see me in a state. By the following Saturday I had filled in a half dozen more; I persisted and within two months I had solved my first Saturday puzzle. Once I got the hang of how the clues worked, they got easier and easier. Then the Toronto Star introduced a second puzzle, North of 49, with a lot of Canadian content. My challenge became to complete both before the class let out.
The next leap forward was tackling the New York Times Sunday puzzle. By then I was familiar with many of the big names in the field: Frank Longo, Joe DiPietro, Cathy Millhauser, the collaborative Nancy Salomon, and others, but the grand imperial pooh-bah was, and is, Will Shortz, the puzzle editor of the New York Times. Besides being the pre-eminent figure in creating and editing puzzles for the NYT, he brought solving out of dusty pedantry to include a lot a modern vocabulary from popular culture. He also inaugurated the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, the Super Bowl (or Miss America) of solving. One day my son called out to me: “Mom, he’s on The Simpsons!” and I got there just in time to see Will Shortz’ iconic pie face and moustache. He had arrived in mainstream, middle-class America.
After scaling these heights, you can’t go back, and the Saturday Star was a thing forgotten. However, one day I was on the subway with my family, and a young man was having trouble with a puzzle, so I sat beside him and nursed him through it, and we both had some good laughs and I introduced him to my family. “She’s a shark,” my husband told him, and my kids still haven’t gotten over the embarrassment. “We don’t know her,” my son said.
For those of you who have never done puzzles seriously, what makes the more advanced puzzles more difficult is not so much the vocabulary – granted, it does become more sophisticated – but the clues. They become more tangential, more obscure, and deliberately misleading. For example, the clue may be “Arab greeting,” five letters. One immediately thinks of SALAAM, and perhaps they left out a letter, but it doesn’t work. One may stare and stare and stare at those blank squares, until a sudden insight comes out of God knows where (we love these) or one figures out that it begins with N and ends with H. Snap! It’s NEIGH, referring not to the Arab language, but to a horse. This is a basic lesson of cruciverbalism: make no assumptions whatsoever. “Full Italian pocket,” seven letters: RAVIOLI. “Barnyard butter” is RAM (get it?).
There are words that are useful in puzzles, but you’ll rarely see them anywhere else: YEGG (safecracker), ELAN (pizzazz), ERN(E) (sea eagle), ORT (table scrap), OBI (kimono sash), OCELOT (wild cat), STET (editor’s direction) and OTOE (American Indian tribe). But please don’t debase yourself by getting one of those crossword dictionaries. Have a little self-respect.
Then there are words that appear constantly, and the clue-meisters are challenged to come up with new clues for them: ABATE, ACRE, ALOHA, ANTE, AREA, AROMA, ECHO, EERIE, EGO, ELITE, ERIE, EWE, LEI, OAR, OREO, RYE, SLOE, URN; UTA (Hagen, the actress), ORR (Bobby, the hockey player), OTT (Mel, the ballplayer), and APSO (Lhasa, the dog). Often an oddly-worded clue yields one of these. The singer John is always ELTON, and the singer James is always ETTA; “Orinoco Flow” was sung by ENYA, and the supposedly Incan singer “Sumac” is YMA. “Adenauer” is DER ALTE, “Slaughter” is ENOS. “Each” is always APOP. The list goes on, but without knowing these, it’s hard to come up with valuable letters for other words.
Even though the puzzles are in English, many foreign words may appear to satisfy the combinational needs of the puzzle. Fortunately, most of these are not obscure if you know a smattering of words in French, Spanish, German, Gaelic, Portuguese, Swedish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, Japanese, Latin, Hindi, Ibo, and Korean. Easy. Harder for me are slang expressions, from long out-of-date jive to hip-hop vocabulary and social networking lingo that I ask my kids to keep me updated with.
To become a cruciverbalist worth the name you must never, never give up. Nothing is more demoralizing to a puzzle solver than checking the answers and realizing that with a little more stick-to-it-edness, you could have eventually figured it out and enjoyed the buzz of doing so. And nothing beats the eureka! of being stumped for hours or even days, and then suddenly, out of the dusty corners of the caves of memory, or even some mysterious and unknown place, the answer appears as plain as day. Beats hot flashes any day. The mind’s search engine just never stops when it is on the trail of something, and is more powerful than Google can ever hope for.
I have never had any trouble with English spelling even though French is my mother tongue. My husband always asks me the spelling of a word instead of consulting a dictionary, and he never second-guesses me. That endears him to me. But I have two confessions: the first is that though I’ve worked hard to make my written English impeccable, I have a slight speech impediment that makes me trip over some words when I get excited, so I compensate by keeping my speech measured and slow, which makes me sound more intelligent, people say. The other is that there are two English words whose spelling gives me fits. I lived a quarter of a century thinking that dilemma was spelled dilemna, and my son got out of a month of doing dishes after I lost that bet. I was so sure that I was right that even after I looked it up in every dictionary in the house and even in a couple of novels where I remembered it had appeared. Bapteme! For two days I carried the illogical notion in my head, paranoid though I knew it was even as I was thinking it, that someone had gone and changed the spelling in all the books in the world to spite me. I blush whenever I remember this, but the correct spelling still looks wrong to me. I also thought fuchsia was spelled fuschia, and when I pronounced the correct spelling to my daughter out loud out of a book, she screamed with unbelief and went into and uncontrollable laughing fit that she returned to three times when she tried to explain to me that the “ch” was pronounced as in scaramouche, not like in eunuch.
Isbel, my Peruvian cholita (cleaning lady), asked me what I was doing.“Ah, crucis,” she said. Her aunt used to do them but had to stop because she got dizzy spells from of all the satanic messages hidden in them. She asked if I ever found secret messages hidden in them. I assured her that many of them did, as indicated by circles or figures you had to connect, but she asked me whether there were other kinds of messages, like from my dead grandmother or other spirits trying to communicate with me. I know she was into spiritualism and all that kind of gallimaufry, but I swept that hoodoo voodoo aside as unworthy of consideration. But she was persistent. She asked me whether I had thought anyone had guided me to that newspaper the first time, and whereas I was 99.99% sure the answer to that was no, I couldn’t dismiss that prickly .01%. She further asked me whether I thought it was coincidence that that paper was there in the same place, week after week, and no one else picked it up or threw it in the trash. No, it had just been part of someone else’s routine, probably one of the other parents’. And yet the next time I saw it sitting there with its peculiar glow, I wondered.
I watched the 2006 movie Wordplay, which was about the annual crossword puzzle champignonship. What I was gratified to learn was that the process I went through was similar to those of the best solvers, but what I had ignored was the challenge of time. I needed to do them faster and faster. So this added a new dimension to my game. At first I felt stressed out about the ticking clock, but as I found ways to economize on time, it became an adrenaline rush, just like extreme sports! I gradually developed the idea that I could compete at their level. There were some women among the best solvers, so why not me?
I sent an e-mail to the website contact asking what the process was to enter the tournament. I expected testing and preliminary rounds, but I got a reply from Will Shortz himself inviting me. It was an open tournament, and I was welcome. I asked my husband. He was supportive. I told my kids. They laughed, and then told me to go for it.
I did go for it. There I was, at the Marriot Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, with nerds and freaks like me. Will Shortz himself greeted all of us, and introduced us to Frank Longo, Manny Nosowski, Cathy Millhauser, and other big shots. It was unnerving. There were cute icebreaking word games, there were jokes, there were awards, there was wine and cheese, shrimp rings with dipping sauce. I hit it off with a dignified and elegant woman a little older than me, who spoke like the Romantic poets as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We became instant sisters in words. I also had a memorable conversation with a striped shirt who never stopped giggling nor did his belly stop jiggling the whole time he regaled me with the most obscure clues he’d ever encountered . . . A complete stranger poked me in the shoulder and said, “Quick. A famous American, eight letters, six consonants, all of which are Roman numerals.”
“Malcolm X.” I don’t know how that answer popped out; it’s just that I was in an environment where minds were crackling. He went away grumbling.
I could have participated as a non-competitor, but I had written back to say I had changed my mind; I was going for it. I was eligible for prizes in three different categories, including Rookie and Foreign. The excitement built through the rounds, and the final three competed for the grand prize on enormous display boards while we all watched and bit our lips.
I came fourth in Foreign and seventh in the Rookie category, and whereas I was disappointed, I at least got to wear the Foreign ribbon on my lapel. I confess I faked a slight French accent (if I spoke French, it wasn’t really faking, was it?) and I didn’t correct anyone who thought I was from France – even those ace cruciverbalists would be hard-pressed to identify the location of Trois-Rivières, Quèbec. I lamented to several people that whenever my name appeared in clues, the answer was always BUJOLD. This was great for my ego.
The following year my husband’s work wasn’t going as well, but he insisted I go to the tournament again. I wanted to show him it was worth it, but I returned with the same fourth place in the Foreign category.
Was it worth another try, or was Foreign fourth as good as it was going to get for me? I tried to balance my competitiveness with objectivity. What I needed was to speed up my game, but race as I might through the Sunday omnibuses, my time stayed relatively the same. I consulted my nutritionist and various websites for brain foods, and bought the fish, vegetables, oils, seeds, and Amazonian herbs that were purported to spark pyrotechnics in the brain. I felt I was speeding up, but was it just the coffee talking? My family encouraged me to have another go, but I needed to know it would be worth it. Isbel told me to look for a sign.
“A sign? Where would I find a sign that would tell me whether to compete in a crossword tournament or not?”
“Could be anywhere, Jenny.” (I wouldn’t let anybody else call me that, but she couldn’t get her tongue around my full name.) “How about in the crucis?”
That stunned me. Ridiculous and yet somehow almost logical at the same time. “I’ve got less than two weeks to decide. Do signs respect deadlines?”
“Come on, Jenny, let it flow. Let’s sit down.” We sat at the kitchen table and she took my hand and told me to close my eyes. I was afraid she was going to knock under the table. We waited. And waited. And waited. “Anything?” I finally said, impatient.
“No, nothing, sorry.” She sighed, I made to get up. “Well, sort of. It might just be a locura that fly into my head like a crazy bird.” Oh oh, here we go. “You are doing the Nueva York crucis all the week?”
“I haven’t for a long time. Monday to Wednesday are just too easy.”
“Suppose you be doing them all the days this week.”
I was waiting for more. “And then?”
“I don’t know.”
I wouldn’t say I was desperate. I just had nothing else to sway my judgement one way or the other. I managed to finagle a week free. On Saturday afternoon I found a sticky note on the computer screen on which was written: 3A, 25D, 16A, 20D, 2A, 3D, 3A. “What’s this?” I asked my son.
He scratched his bushy hair. “Odd thing, Mom. I was looking up a serial killer for English class. This guy killed seven people in the same apartment building, and while I was reading this pop-up appeared with these numbers. I clicked on it, but nothing happened, so I wrote them down. I thought maybe it was the numbers of the apartments where the murders took place, but it begins and ends with 3A – is it believable that he’d end up murdering someone in the same apartment again?”
“Stranger things have happened,” I said, not very interested. But then I noticed something. As a puzzle solver, it struck me that the only two letters in the alphanumeric designations were A and D, which for me meant Across and Down. But the numbers, well . . .
We played Scrabble before dinner. My daughter jumped out to an early lead and wanted to protect it by challenging my word coif: “Mom, you’re always using French words!” but it was in the dictionary. About halfway through I was lagging behind both of them when I converted the innocuous word ran into a triple word score with cranberry, vaulting me past both of them. “Canberra!” I cried out.
“Cranberry, you mean,” my daughter said drily.“Not the capital of Australia.”
“Of course that’s what I meant. In your face!” I said, mimicking one of her favourite expressions, high-fiving with my son. I was back in the game.
But two turns later my son had edged ahead again, and all my daughter could put down after a long and frustrating pause was the lame ham on the bottom row, with only a double letter score, 11 points. But wait, it couldn’t be! Yes, it was! I used all my seven letters around ham with a double triple word score to put down champignon, 230 points! I threw my arms up in the air, like signaling a touchdown. I saw on my daughter’s exasperated face that she was going to pull the French objection again, when my husband called out, “Dinner’s rrrrrready!” and so without further skirmish my victory stood. My son had been thoughtful enough to take a photo of that Scrabble game before he dismantled and put it away and sent it to me on WhatsApp, so I have the evidence if I ever want to brag about it, which I’m sure I will – wouldn’t you? Liar!
So I did the week’s puzzles. Monday took me three minutes, seventeen seconds. The simple clue “Do” yielded the word COIF, the same word my daughter had objected to in Saturday’s Scrabble. Coincidence. I like coincidences, but I’ve often wondered at a word one hasn’t heard perhaps for years, and yet within the space of a couple of days encounters several times in different situations. Tuesday and Wednesday went just as fast, Thursday 9 minutes and 16 seconds, Friday, 13 minutes and one second, Saturday 22 minutes and 12 seconds (which I was pretty proud of – it was a tricky one) and Sunday in 37 minutes flat. Not a blue ribbon time, but pretty good.
So then I began to pore over the week’s collection, looking for a sign. Nothing jumped out at me, but I kept searching, not knowing what I was looking for, and I told myself I would know it when I see it. The problem was that when I was solving a puzzle, I knew there was a solution, whereas here I was being led on a wild goose chase by my superstitious cleaning lady.
Nope. Nothing, and time was almost up. I sat beside my son who was working on the computer, and we had nothing to say because of the elephant in the room. Just to try to think of something else, I asked him about the numbers on the sticky note.
“I don’t know, Mom. It just disappeared. Maybe it fell or maybe Mavis took it out of spite – she’s been really snarky with me since the weekend. Boy trouble, probably.”
If that last part was true, I should be there for my daughter, but for once I didn’t care, and I was in too much of a funk to even feel guilty that I didn’t care.
When Isbel came, she wanted to know if I had any news. I told her I’d done the puzzles but didn’t find any sign. She asked me increasingly stupid questions, like did I read the words backwards or upside down or diagonally; I shook my head no to each question, becoming increasingly annoyed at this inane game (INANE is a common crossword answer.) But when she asked me whether I tried crossing my eyes while staring at a puzzle to see if an image would appear, I got up and said crossly, “Time to get to work.”
A little later I interrupted her while she was bent over the vacuum and apologized for being so curt. I told her my nerves were on edge. “I having hot flash,” she said, wiping sweat from her brow. “I remembering someting,” she said, and took from her purse my son’s sticky note and told me it had fallen down behind the computer, but she had kept it to check some lottery numbers, and now handed it back to me.
There were seven numbers followed by A or D and I decided to check out my original theory of them being Across and Down. Seven numbers, seven puzzles. Monday, 3 Across: there was COIF again. Tuesday, 25 Down: YOUNG. Wednesday, 16 Across: THINKER. Thursday, 23 Down: DWELLS. Friday, 2 Across: BAYOU. Saturday, 3 Down: CANBERRA. That had also been in the Scrabble game (obliquely), which hadn’t struck me while I was doing the puzzle. But Sunday’s 3 Across certainly had, because it was CHAMPIGNON, my immortal Scrabble word. This time I had the opposite reaction, for the simple clue “French mushroom” had made me visualize my hopes ending with the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb.
But now I was getting a little excited, but what could this possibly mean? COIF YOUNG THINKER DWELLS BAYOU CANBERRA CHAMPIGNON. Those last three words could hardly be found in the same sentence. An acrostic? No. Help! I gathered my family and even Isbel around me. Long concentrated silence, finally broken by my husband, who was the first to say, “Ah!” I looked at him and made a questioning gesture with my hands, but then my kids double high-fived and bumped bellies. This wasn’t my moment to rejoice in their reconciliation. I tugged at my son’s sleeve and asked “What? What?” while my tall husband bent down to whisper something in Isbel’s ear. She crossed her arms over her fat belly and beamed at me. I shouted, “Will somebody please tell me what is going on?!”
My son smiled indulgently at me at put his right arm around my shoulder. He pointed at the Sunday puzzle, printed and spread out on the table along with the others. “What’s the title of this puzzle?”
“Minus Two. So?” I had solved it but still don’t know what the title referred to.
“Go to all your answers and remove two letters from each.”
“Okay. So it should say IF, YOU, THINK, hm, WELL, BAY, no YOU . . . Hm, Canberra, Canberra, Canberra – CAN BE A . . .” KABOOOOOM!!!
Champagne for everybody! My husband was already brandishing the corkscrew.