Friday, March 18, 2011

The puzzling crossword addiction


by Manfried Starhemberg
The New York World newspaper has a lot to answer for. In its 1913 Christmas edition, published on Dec 21st, Arthur Winne, a Liverpudlian puzzles & entertainment editor for the World, published the first ever crossword puzzle.  Wynne's puzzle (which can be seen online at differed from today's crosswords, in that it was diamond-shaped and contained no internal black squares. During the early 1920's other newspapers picked up the newly discovered pastime, and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all American newspapers. It was during this period that crosswords began to assume their now-familiar form. Ten years after its birth in the States it crossed the Atlantic and re-conquered Europe.
Surprisingly, despite their instant popularity, for years crosswords in the United States appeared nowhere else but the New York World. Then, in 1924, a couple of newly qualified graduates of the Columbia School of Journalism named Dick Simon and Lincoln Schuster set up a publishing business. Looking for something to publish, they settled on a book of puzzles from the New York World. This book was an immediate massive hit, and launched the crossword craze worldwide.
So much for history. For 38 years, whenever possible, Nancy and I have started out the day with the ritual of the crossword.  While I read the paper, Nancy gets to do the regular daily puzzle of the Gazette, which is then erased so I can have it as she starts on the New York Times. Since the NYT normally takes a litle longer, I download and print two copies of the L.A. Times puzzle; thus I get to do the NYT while she enjoys the LAT, and so on. (Now that I have a subscription to the Sherbrooke Record, I get the L.A. Times puzzle without all that downloading.)
Now, why did I state that the "World" has a lot to answer for? Simply add about seven hours per week spent "puzzling," which amounts to 364 hours per year, then multiply that by over 38 years. That's 13,832 wasted hours. Without the crossword we could have been productive members of our society! Add to this the fact that we each read at least three books a week and you must come to the conclusion that we are complete losers in the socio-economic matrix of our times. In this context I must also admit to making paintings, building ship models, and taking time out for "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera." (If I mention the frequent abuse of late night "Turner Vintage Movies" on the telly we will probably be ex-communicated.)
What have I gained from all this? Well, I know all the regular fillers such as "Aloe," "Adieu," "Sloe," "Elk," "Aida" (which was not a bloody Verdi princess but a slave girl, you New York Times nitwits), and all other twenty daily repetitions. However, often I get bamboozled by something like this: "Last Army Post Abandoned in 1956." I went on Google to see which "Post" the Army had closed in 1956 to no avail. I didn't get it. The answer was "Five Star General." Cute.
Where I am lacking is baseball players and movie stars or their directors. I know Aaron Copeland (met him in Tanglewood in the early 70's), but I do not know any rappers, which makes me a lucky person. And a book published in 1952 that was made into a 1962 film escapes me even if I finally know how to spell Athabasca. I am still weak in the sixth month on the Jewish calendar or the eleventh Pope, but Nancy did coach me on sports starts such as Orr or Sosa while I tell her about Bobby or Al Unser, Mario or Michael Andretti, and the whole list of first names of my beloved opera stars from Feodor Chaliapin to Kirsten Flagstad (after whom our youngest daughter is named).
So, where does all this get me? Did we have time between all this hedonism to procreate? Hell yes, the kids enjoyed the puzzles with us. Now they teach music, literature, and one is a doctor. They never thought they missed out by not being dragged to the basball stadium or watching football with dad on Saturday afternoons (another one of Nancy's favorites, but only enjoyed now that we are by ourselves again).
Well, I have to cut this story short. M.A.S.H. is on in ten minutes on the History Channel and I cannot afford to waste another minute, because tomorrow's puzzle shall surely ask me about "actor Alda" or "actress Loretta," and I will not wear the dunce's cap!

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