Happily puzzled

At the end of last year, during the quiet time between Christmas and New Year’s, my husband and I were reading the newspaper one evening when he came upon a crossword puzzle. We had time on our hands, and he began reading clues out loud.

Mind you, I have never had any interest whatsoever in crossword puzzles. I looked off into space, half listening, and couldn’t make sense of a single clue. Then I moved over next to him to look at the puzzle. Putting our heads together, we started figuring out some of the answers and a new pastime was launched.

We were able to do only part of that first puzzle. It was from the Sunday New York Times Magazine. We didn’t yet know that the Times puzzles are considered the hardest ones out there, that Monday puzzles are the easiest, that each day of the week the puzzles get harder, and that the Sunday Times puzzles are the hardest of all. My husband says that Bill Clinton can do the Sunday Times puzzle in half an hour. That would be the gold standard.

Most puzzles have some easy clues. In that first one we attempted, the clue to 123-across was “Like some dough.” We came up with the answer: “Yeasty.” The clue to 63-across was, “Text changes.” Our answer: “Edits.” Cracking clues like these might lead you to think you can do the whole puzzle.

But then you come across this: “Allocated dollars for digs.” You wrack your brain trying to think of this nine-letter word. Problem is, some puzzle answers consist of multiple words, but you can’t always tell from the clue that this is the case. After pondering it for a while, we came up with the answer: “Rent Money.”

My husband and I are not game people, but we are word people. Doing puzzles together gives us a new form of collaboration. He is our jazz, sports, bridge, cars, French and history specialist. I am more likely to know the answers to questions involving plants, birds, biology, folk music, and German. We both do well with the clues involving literature and food. And we are equally hopeless when it comes to those about popular culture. Clues involving television shows and personalities elicit an “Oh no.”

We have gradually improved our skills, and have finished many early-week puzzles, but believe me, you don’t want us on your Trivia team. We can’t instantly access this kind of material. We might read all the clues for a particular puzzle, for example, both for the words going across and those going down, and get only a few answers.

But once we get that far, the brainwork and the fun begin. We use those letters to help us guess the words that cross them. The person who constructed the puzzle is trying to throw you off, to send you down the wrong mental road. For example, one puzzle had “class struggle” as a clue, and the correct answer was “test.” Another clue was “Incendiarism.” The answer was “arson.” It’s fun pitting your wits against the puzzle maker’s, and, working together, my husband and I are more apt to be successful.

We do a few puzzles a week. They get easier to do after awhile because you begin to see patterns and learn the language. Some clues recur verbatim. Some words come up again and again, but each time with a different clue. Still, you know what to watch for. For example, we’ve had countless puzzles with the words “spa,” “ore,” “emu,” or “ego” in them.

It helps us relax to do a puzzle in the evening. It is sweetly funny to me, now that I think about it, that we two bookish types, A-students, with a handful of college degrees between us, are drawn to this activity that is so much like taking a test. There is a certain youthful joy in it. This is something we know how to do! We can check our answers, and feel proud of ourselves for getting it right!

Our favorite puzzle so far definitely spoke to the kid in us. It had these similar clues: “Byproduct of a sad dairy cow?” “Byproduct of a homely dairy cow?” “Byproduct of an exhausted dairy cow?” “Byproduct of an irate dairy cow?” and “Byproduct of a portly dairy cow?” I should say that a question mark at the end of the clue means the puzzle creator is up to extra monkey business.

Have you got the answers?

“Blue cheese,”  “plain yogurt,” “whipped butter,” “steamed milk,” “heavy cream.”

So, don’t get the ague or drink sake. Instead, impel yourself to write your bio. It may be full of bast, but that’s ok. I won’t say a peep.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.