The following is a short essay I wrote about Cryptic Crossword puzzles. (Partly to exorcize the subject from my mind, as it had been rattling around for ages, and partly to see I could write about such a lack-luster subject in an entertaining manner.)
Did I succeed? You be the judge.
Okay. Here's a puzzle which has an answer.
"Contained park owner has no third to name." The answer has two words, one 7 letters long, and the other is 5. Go to it!
Well, if you're like me, then upon discovering that the answer is, "Bottled water," you'll blink and say, "Huh? ‘Bottled Water' is the answer? How the heck is that? I don't get it."
You might even try to wrap your head around the logic, and again, if you're anything like me, you'll just get a headache. And finally, when you ask the smug ass who gave you the puzzle how the heck ‘Bottled water' could have anything to do with some park owner who has no third name, or whatever, he'll tell you the following:
Okay. ‘Contained' is another word for ‘Bottled', and Walt Disney, (a famous park owner), aka, ‘Walter', when you remove the third letter of his name, becomes, ‘Water." Hence, "Bottled Water."
Well, if you're anything like me, you'll sit there and think, "Yeah. I guess the answer is ‘Bottled Water', isn't it." But then immediately afterwards, you'll squint at the guy and demand, "Hey! Are you some kind of trouble maker!?"
--Because if the path you need to follow to get from a, ‘Contained park owner' to ‘Bottled water,' isn't a very seriously convoluted and annoying bit of puzzling, then I don't know what is! And frankly, if a guy comes up to you and says, "Hey, I have a puzzle! Solve this: ‘Contained park owner has no third to name,' well, as far as I'm concerned, you would be fully justified in slapping him across the cheeks and telling him to smarten up.
Or once again, if you're anything like me, (and heaven help you if you are!), then you throw up your hands and demand, "What kind of puzzle is that? That's bloody impossible! Nobody could be expected to assume convoluted logic like that! People do this for fun?!"
And yes, actually they do.
The puzzles are called ‘Cryptic Crosswords', and they appear in newspapers every weekend from sea to shining sea, and each one comes with about thirty or forty clues of similar difficulty.
As it happened, (and this is probably another part of why I find cryptic crosswords so annoying), my father was very good at solving them; every now and again, he'd yawn and say, "I think I'll do the crossword this weekend." And then he'd have it finished by Sunday evening. Just to keep his mind occupied. And on the occasions when I'd look over his shoulder and think to myself, "Won't I impress my father if I could solve one or two of those clues!" I'd find myself faced with utter bafflement. I'd start, for instance, like this. . .
"Okay. This isn't so tough. I'm a smart guy. I know how to think outside of the box! So let's see here. . . ‘Contained park owner'. Contained? Like in jail? Hm. Maybe it's a fellow who's been caught for tax evasion or something; for not properly recording the proceeds from the entrance fees to his Theme Park. –Or maybe they mean a municipal park, with benches and trees and ladies with strollers, and the collective owner would be who. . ? Us, the tax payers? But how are we contained? Within the restraints of the democratic system? ‘We the People', (assuming this is an American crossword). And how do we not have a third to name? What the heck does that mean? Do they mean like a ‘second' in a duel?
And so on. . , entirely dealing with the wrong layer of logic and word meaning. Thus, with my head set up like that, I could literally go around in circles forever and never come up with the right answer.
Or worse, I'd come up with something which sort of fit the logic but never quite felt right;
‘Trapped Folks', (or something equally lame.) And then, with my head swimming like this, my father would declare, "Ah!" And write, ‘Bottled Water' into the little blank boxes. And the letters would actually fit, interconnecting with all the words already in place from previous clues he'd solved that morning over coffee and English toast with marmalade.
Invariably, I'd throw up my hands. "That's INSANE!" I'd cry. "They're nuts! Nobody thinks like that! How can ANYBODY do these stupid things!" And I'd feel impotent and dumb. But my father would assure me that once you got into the rhythm, you began to see that all the clues used the same type of thinking and patterning. And like anything else, once you understand the rules, it becomes much like any other puzzle. Doable.
Anyway, since the day I was born, I've never once picked up a newspaper and thought to myself, "Hey! I know! I'll blow an afternoon scratching letters into blank boxes printed on a patch of newsprint! What fun!" Indeed, my only exposure to the puzzle form was my father's involvement. And as such, I believed right into my twenties, that cross word puzzles were ALL like the stupidly difficult ones my father used to do. And this drove me nuts for an entirely different reason.
See, every now and then I'd run across people who liked to do crosswords. People at the shopping mall I once worked at. Other kids at school. They'd come up to me and say, "What's a three letter word for-", and I'd stop them in their tracks and say, "Forget it! I'm lousy at those things. How can you do them? They're so difficult!"
To which the reply was always a sympathetic, "Well, they can be tough, but if you just spend enough time, the answers come. They can be quite fun. Me and the guys down at the doughnut shop like to work on the daily puzzle."
And this baffled me. (I actually spend a lot of time baffled by relatively normal things.) You see, while the people I worked with in the mall and the kids I went to school with were by no means stupid, not a single one of them was anywhere nearly as brilliant as my father. Indeed, I tended to regard myself as having something of a powerful mind when compared to most of the people my own age. So upon hearing that they had no problem solving crossword puzzles, I just shook my head and put it down as just another one of those things normal folks seem to be naturally wired for and which I seem entirely incapable of comprehending due to a particular strain of brain damage which seemed to exist in the depths of my so called, ‘powerful mind.' Fair enough. They could have their crosswords, and I'd be the cartoonist. We all have our parts to play. This is what I'd say to myself before settling down to get on with the job of being alive.
Well, one day when I finally decided to take another look at some of the clues in a T.V. guide crossword puzzle, I was taken aback. "Ohhh! Wait a moment! I get it! These are easy!" Or rather, "There are two kinds of cross words! Impossible ones for people like my father, and the kind for everybody else.
Upon discovering this, I was elated, and naturally I set about trying to share what I had learned with all and sundry, (who rightfully wondered why the heck I was excited over a subject as dull as that of crossword puzzles). And worse, when trying to explain to people the difference between regular cross words with clues like, "Cat and -----", and the multi-level difficulty of a cryptic clue, (and for some reason, I have met very few people who are even aware that cryptic crossword puzzles exist), I always seemed to find myself at a loss. Usually my explanations would turn into confused babbles because I would never be able to think of an appropriate example of a cryptic clue. –Heck, I could never solve or properly understand the formulas upon which they functioned, so how was I expected to keep an example filed in the recesses of my head for later retrieval years after? I know some people who can do stuff like that, (like my father), but that just wasn't going to happen in my case. And moreover, I didn't actually care enough to dig out a newspaper from which I could lift a decent example.
So for the most part, I just let it go, and whenever the subject came up in discussion, I'd just flounder again through attempts to explain the differences between, "Cat & -----," and this, "Other type of logic which is so weird and alien that I can't even explain it properly!"
Well, eventually, one rainy afternoon my lazy brain finally decided that enough was enough. I decided that I should actually put some thinking into this, now decade old problem, if just to put an end to my idiotic babbling about crossword puzzles. So I sat down and came up with the ‘Bottled Water' example. It's not a brilliant example; there have been some really amazing, even famous cryptic clues invented over the years. But a ‘Contained park owner,' would suit my purposes.
Actually, a while back, I in fact met the editor of the Cryptic Crossword for the Toronto Globe & Mail newspaper. She lived in my building with her husband and professional writer, Andy Turnbull. A very nice and entertaining couple. Anyway, she had a knack for creating really good cryptic clues, and she had carved a well paid job out of the craft, selling cross words to newspapers internationally. I was given a copy of one of her puzzle collections, and I sort of winced when I took it, because cryptic crosswords still held a weirdly Freudian charge for me. (Damn my brilliant father!) It strikes me now that I could have asked her what the heck was going on with those bent clues. She would have been the perfect person to ask!
But that's not how it went. And indeed, now having gone through the alien logic of a cryptic clue from the opposite end, (‘Contained park owners!' Argh! Contain this you bastards!), I now suddenly understand that rhythm my father told me about long ago. Mind you, while I doubt I'd be particularly adept at solving the weekend Globe & Mail cryptic by Sunday afternoon, the ‘alien-ness,' has finally vanished. What a relief! That only took two and a half decades! Why don't they teach this stuff to kids? It would have saved me two decades of hassle.
So, with the final key strokes of this little editorial, I can finally put away that problem which has been bubbling on a very distant back burner in my mind for so long. And having done this, I do hereby officially declare a, ‘Case Closed!' —You won't catch me wasting another moment of my life on a crossword puzzle ever again, cryptic or otherwise!
Ahh! Now that feels good!