Column: Not all cross words are bad

by Father Mark Goldasich

Grumble, mumble, snarl, gripe, seethe.

Consider yourself lucky that you’re not here as I write this column. I’m not in a very charitable mood. Something has set my teeth on edge and started the day off on a sour note: I didn’t get my morning Kansas City Star.

As per my routine, I got the coffee going, popped on the desk lamp on the kitchen table, lined up my “puzzle pen,” and headed down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper. It wasn’t there.

I went back inside, thinking that I was just too early and had beat the carrier to the punch. After the coffee was ready, I again ventured outside, admired the total eclipse of the moon, but still didn’t find my paper — even though I searched diligently all over the yard.

By now, I was ready simply to beat up the carrier. Happily, I instead reverted to Plan B: I raided my ample supply of crossword puzzle magazines and pressed one of them into service. Immediately I could feel my mood lift. It’s odd, but if I don’t do a morning crossword, my day is filled with, well, cross words!

I suspect that a good number of people reading this are devotees of crossword puzzles themselves. According to Charles Elum, the president of Scrambl-Gram, Inc., a puzzle distributor to publications, some 100 million Americans work some type of word puzzle each week. Puzzle addicts tend to be people 35 or older, 60 percent of whom are women, “all over the economic spectrum, with varied amounts of formal education, and from all walks of life.”

Author Coral Amende traces the “history and lore of the world’s most popular pastime” in the book, “The Crossword Obsession” (New York, N.Y.: Berkley Publishing Group, 2001; 369 pgs.). The world’s first crossword appeared on Dec. 21, 1913, in the eight-page “Fun” section of New York’s Sunday World newspaper. It was invented by a man originally from Liverpool, England, by the name of Arthur Wynne, who at the time was editor of that “Fun” section. Here’s the best part: Amende writes that Wynne “brainstormed it on an occasion when he was having trouble meeting his space requirement (and his deadline!).” It just goes to prove what a paperweight on my desk says: The ultimate inspiration is the deadline.

I’ve worked crosswords since early grade school. Only lately, though, have I done some deeper reflecting about why I continue to start my day with one (or two). It’s not primarily to improve my vocabulary. For example, even though words like “ugli” (a Jamaican citrus fruit), “nene” (a Hawaiian goose), “xebec” (a three-masted ship) and “Eli” (a Yale graduate) are popular crossword words, I’ve never had occasion to use them in conversation or writing (until this column!). No, for me, the art of solving crossword puzzles mirrors life. Here are some lessons I’ve learned:

• I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do. There are always facts, words, people, and other trivia that trip me up in crosswords. There’s a big world out there with plenty to explore and discover. It’s humbling.

• It’s a good idea to start with what you know for sure and build from there.

• There are generally a number of watts to get around obstacles. If you don’t know a word going across, for example, you will often be able to figure it out by filling in enough words going down. Persistence, creativity and a cool head prevail.

• It’s fine to ask for help. There are plenty of resources available — dictionaries, Web sites or a knowledgeable person — to help find obscure words or locate arcane facts. You’re not dumb for making use of them; it’s smart to know where to go for help in life.

• No matter how good you are, you’re going to make some mistakes. That’s why pencils come with erasers, right?

Why all of this talk about crosswords? It’s a reminder that learning and growing in life didn’t stop when we finished school. It’s a lifelong process. Starting the day with a puzzle gets the mental juices flowing as much as coffee wakes up the physical body.

I’ll end with a neat story from the crossword world. One day a couple of men were traveling together. To pass the time, one worked on a crossword puzzle. At one point, he turned to his friend and said, “I’m stumped! I know I’ve got the right answer, but it doesn’t fit.”

His friend asked, “What’s the clue?”

The first man replied, “I’m looking for a three-letter word for ‘man’s best friend.’ I’ve put in ‘D-O-G,’ but it’s not correct.”

With a huge smile, the other man said, “Of course not! That’s not really the right answer. What you’re looking for is ‘G-O-D.’ That’s actually the best friend anyone can have.”

And he was right! It fit — both in the puzzle and in life!

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