Will Shortz Can’t Keep Me Down
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m still working on the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. As pathetic as this may seem, it’s a regular occurrence for me—I’m far from being an ace and will be quietly impressed with myself if I do manage to finish. I’ve only started to attempt the puzzle with any kind of regularity in the past few months, even though I have had a connection with it for my entire life. The NYT crossword is something I feel like I should be good at it, not just because I happen to be literarily inclined and am very much a geek, but because of my great-grandmother, Margaret Farrar. In 1942, she became the first crossword puzzle editor at the NYT, a position she held until 1968. From adding in the black boxes—as the family lore goes—to being one of the first people to create and publish a book of collected puzzles, she had a major role in making crossword puzzles into what we know them as today. But for me, this bit of family history had never really engendered any passion beyond a passing interest. It was just an interesting story to tell, a nice conversation point to bring up with a puzzle geek or whenever I happened to play a game of Scrabble (an idea she had herself, but never acted upon). And, strangely enough, I think this is more-or-less the case for the majority of her offspring and descendents. Sure, my parents and sister have all benefited from a Christmas present or airplane ticket or weekend of snowboarding bought with the bit of money my grandmother—who says the crossword makes her feel stupid, so she doesn’t do them—gets from the puzzle bank Margaret Farrar started—and have been grateful for it. Beyond that, there were a few half-hearted attempts at a puzzle—usually on an airplane or in a doctor’s office—and all were utter failures. But then, for me, it got personal: Will Shortz insulted my intelligence. Sort of.
I emailed Will Shortz, the current crossword puzzle editor at the NYT, just after the documentary Word Play came out a few years ago. Shortz had been heavily involved in the films and it included a very nice section about my great grandmother, for which I thanked him. I also mentioned my pathetic track record with the puzzle, to which he responded: “And I’m sure, with perseverance and maybe a little more life experience, you can solve a least Monday-through-Wednesday New York Times crosswords!”
Monday-through-Wednesday? More life experience? The heir to my great grandmother’s puzzle throne doesn’t think I can handle anything late in the week? The gauntlet, clearly, had been laid. And taking the challenge oh-so-seriously, I started in a month or two ago—meaning nearly three years after the fact—by picking up a New York Times every Monday and taking a shot at the puzzle. Sometimes, I end up with the more readily available LA Times, or once, a Long Beach Press-Telegram. But as Jon Stewart said in Word Play, they don’t make me feel good about myself. For me, it’s about family, about history, about not letting Will Shortz keep me down. And someday, Will, I’ll make it to Sunday.