Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Legend of Lefty

Soon it will be time to go to the local ballpark again with my friends Rollie, Gary and Dan.

The four of us have been going there for many years now, usually sitting past the first-base line.

And we've made so many trips to the park together that certain traditions have been established. For example, it wouldn't be a true seventh-inning stretch if Gary and Dan didn't spend it deconstructing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." ("Whaddya mean, 'Take me out to the ball game'? We're already here!")

And we often remember one early season game, in either April or May, where a bunch of would-be macho but meteorologically challenged teenagers showed up wearing shorts, only to wind up pretending they weren't freezing their alleged buns of steel off after the sun went down.

But one of our most cherished traditions is remembering Lefty.

And to be fair, the title of this posting might not be completely accurate. For Lefty, as we have since called him (never knew his real name), did in fact exist, and probably still does, somewhere, though I probably wouldn't recognize him if I fell over him, and that's a pastime I don't intend to take up any time soon.

Anyway, Lefty and his girlfriend came to a game and sat a few stands away from us.

I don't know how long the two of them had been going together, but apparently Lefty thought it would verily impress her if a ball were hit into the stands and he caught it.

I of course don't know whether Lefty came to the ballpark planning to do this, or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, the spur being a ball that was hit right toward him.

In any event, Lefty apparently never stopped to consider the difference between the gentleness of a fly ball descending into two cupped, conveniently placed hands and the abruptness (maybe that's putting it mildly) of a line drive.

So that when the line drive was indeed hit in their direction, Lefty reached out, and the ball made contact with his hand (and that for damn sure IS putting it mildly) before dropping into a lower row and into the hands of a fan who in high school probably had higher marks than Lefty in physics class.

Did all this embarrass Lefty in front of his girlfriend? Quite possibly, but if so, that was the least of his problems.

For he now had to spend the rest of the game pretending that his hand didn't hurt like a son of a you-know-what. Kind of reminded me of that "Dick Van Dyke Show" episode where Rob has to pretend to Laura that he doesn't have the flu, and he has to stifle a sneeze with a grimace that he is somehow able to turn into a tortured smile.

Pity poor Lefty. I'm sure he wished he were anywhere else in the world than that ballpark -- even on the deck of the Titanic, where, with the band playing its last song and all the available lifeboats already lowered, he could at least have taken solace in the knowledge that nearby was the one piece of ice that was big enough to ease the pain and swelling.

We occasionally look for Lefty when we go to the ballpark, though we really don't expect to find him. Some weeks ago, Gary, Dan and I went to a basketball game, and for all I know he might have been somewhere in the stands, maybe with the same girlfriend, engaging in the following dialogue:

She says, "Honey, why don't we go to baseball games anymore?"

"Aw, baseball is such a slow sport," he replies as he raises his left arm and self-consciously tries to adjust his comb-over with what looks like a leg of lamb.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy birthday, Henrik

Norwegian poet-dramatist Henrik Ibsen ("Hedda Gabler," "A Doll's House") would have been 180 years old today.

Which reminds me....

Some years ago, one of my fellow copy editors was handling a column about the arrival of two tigers at the local zoo. He told me he was thinking of putting the phrase "Tiger! Tiger!" (or maybe it was "Tiger, Tiger") in the headline, an allusion to the famous poem "The Tyger." ("Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night ...")

He told me he was thinking about alluding to the Ibsen poem because --

Wait, I said, you mean William Blake, don't you?

No! Henrik Ibsen!

The look he gave me implied that I was so dumb it was amazing I'd ever learned to stand on two feet.

I again hinted (gently, I thought) that William Blake had actually written the poem. (Seemed odd to me, an English major, that a Norwegian poet-playwright would have written one of the enduring works of British literature.)

No, he said, it says "Ibsen" in Bartlett's. He then got up to walk to a reference-book table in the center of the room so he could look it up again.

No, I said, politely but firmly (I think), it doesn't matter. (And besides, I was busy with other stuff.)

And I was. But something kept nagging at me. Finally, after 10 or 15 minutes, I couldn't take it anymore, and I walked over and went to the Bartlett's myself. And there I found the quote from the poem.

Under the citation was this word:


I never did talk to the guy about it. For one thing, we were busy. And it seemed best to take the high road.

And for all I know, old Henrik always wished he HAD written "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright...."

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunday at the puzzle tournament

Final notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 28 to March 2 in Brooklyn.

(Previous postings below)

I get my stuff all packed (checkout time is a few hours away) and head downstairs to see if the latest rankings have been posted.

I'm not completely eager to see these postings, considering that I wiped out on Puzzle 5.

But I force myself to look, and the news isn't all that bad. I've slid from 231 to 245, with only 580 points from Puzzle 5 (meaning 58 correct answers out of 94). If I can only do a perfect job on the next (and, for me, last) puzzle....

It's a 45-minute puzzle called "Where Oh Where?" and it's by Oliver Hill, who, Shortz informs us, is all of 17 years old. (I've done at least one puzzle by him before -- a Saturday Times, as I recall, and The Times' Saturday puzzles are the toughest of the week.)

I'm a little nervous, but I figure out the gimmick early on. It involves directions -- left, right, up, down -- and these directions take up one word space in various answers.

The first, clue, for example, is "Perfect husband material." It's seven letters: M I S T E R -- and in the last box, RIGHT. It's tough fitting that word into the box, but I do it. (I later learn that I could have drawn an arrow facing right.)

Another clue is "Play direction." Obviously "E X I T S T A G E RIGHT," so I fill in that too. The last box also happens to be the first box of a Down clue, which I look at quickly.

Of more concern to me are two other Across clues:"'Illmatic' rapper" and "Former San Francisco Mayor Joseph."

I'm especially concerned because in each case I'm not sure about the clue that intersects with the answer. "Bath sponge," five letters: LOOF something. I know the rapper, three letters, is N-S. I know LOOF has to end in a vowel. Maybe it's LOOFA. And somewhere from the recesses of my brain I think I've heard of a rapper called NAS. So I try that.

The ex-mayor is A-IOTO. ARIOTO? The intersecting answer, for "Foul-smelling," is O-ID. ORID? Doesn't sound right. Maybe OLID. Then is the ex-mayor ALIOTO? Again, somewhere from the depths of my brain, specifically the part that holds my memory from my many years on The Post-Standard's national and international news desk, comes ALIOTO. Let's go with it.

Afterward, partly through asking other contestants and partly through eavesdropping, I learn I'm right on both counts! Yippee!

Finally it's time for the championship puzzle, done by the three finalists in three Divisions: A, B and C. Each final round is held in front of the audience, with each competitor doing the puzzle on a big grid.

Did I score high enough to be a finalist?

No. (Just as well, considering how tired I am, not to mention having to check out and check my bags between Puzzle 7 and this round.)

This part of the tournament ends with the big showdown in Division A, involving Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne and Howard Barkin.

These three guys do the same puzzle as the finalists in the other divisions -- or rather, the grid is the same and the answers are the same, but the clues are harder. One example: for MITCHUM, the Division C clue is "Robert of 'The Night of the Hunter.'" The Division B clue is "'Farewell, My Lovely' star, 1975." The Division A clue is "Actor who Ebert called 'the soul of film noir.'"

And that's one of the easier ones.

Payne finishes first, but he has two errors; Hinman eventually wins, becoming the first person to win the tournament four years in a row.

After a pleasant banquet and award ceremony (by chance I wind up sitting next to a woman who went to college in my hometown, who's roughly in the same line of the work and who knows a longtime co-worker of mine), I eventually head home.

Once there, I check the standings. It seemed pretty clear at the banquet that the top category winners had, for the most part at least, 10,000 points or more.

I figure I have at least 9,100

I'm in for a rude surprise: From the standings I can see I didn't score perfectly on Puzzle 7, though I'd taken care to proofread my answers before submitting it, and though I know NAS and ALIOTO are correct. My final point score is 8,985.

Fortunately, contestants are allowed to e-mail Shortz, asking where they went wrong. So I do.

On Monday evening, I get an e-mail from Ellen Ripstein, who is assisting Shortz. (If you've seen "Wordplay," Ripstein is the one-time champ -- she finished fourth this year -- who at one point is shown twirling a baton.)

She responds:

"At 35A/41D, you had EXITSTAGE(RIGHT)/(RIGHT)IST instead of the correct direction (LEFT).

"Sorry about that!"

It turns out that the clue for 41 Down was "Extreme liberal."

HOW could I have misread that?

Oh, well.

My final ranking is 262 out of 699. In my age category (fifties) I was 61st out of 161; among rookies, 55th out of 237; and regionally (Upstate New York/Westchester) 18th out of 53.

Doesn't seem too bad for a first-year effort.

But wait till next year....

What's a six-letter word for 'Swanee River'?

At one point during the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held in Brooklyn, I notice that one part of the hotel is dedicated to a Brooklyn favorite.

It's the Jackie Gleason Room.

It's on the same floor as the tournament, but we never use it. I never even see what's inside it.

But I'd like to think that if I put my ear to the door, I'd hear Ed Norton tickling (or perhaps mangling) the ivories.

Maybe next year....

An evening at the puzzle tournament

More notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held Feb. 29 to March 2 at the Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge.

(Previous posting below)

Evenings are social times at the tournament. On Friday night, in the same room where we worked on the puzzles, the get-acquainted event involved splitting up in teams of three to solve a series of puzzle with clues related to Brooklyn. The idea is to get through the puzzles and thus be the first, within one hour, to come up with the Big Answer, which was, appropriately enough, "Fuhgeddaboutit." (But please don't hold me to that spelling.) My team eventually solves it, though quite a bit past the deadline.

On Saturday evening, Will Shortz, who each week appears on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday" with a different puzzle (and a contest for listeners), presents that weekend's radio puzzle. (He'd taped his segment earlier in the day.) He also tries out a puzzle he says is too hard for the radio. The crowd rises to the occasion.

Next is a short movie made by Ed Stein, who has been in the tournament for more than 20 years. The film, "Wordploy," is a parody of "Wordplay," a documentary about the tournament that was made several years ago. The parody focuses on Stein's efforts to finally win the tournament, and it's pretty amusing, largely because of Stein's self-deprecating sense of humor.

After that, there's a tournament version of the TV show "1 vs. 100," pitting the audience against past tournament winners. It's a clever idea, but it's been a long day (not to mention that I have a cold that keeps hanging on), so I escape early.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Saturday at the puzzle tournament

Notes from a rookie contestant at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.....

It's 11 a.m. last Saturday, and I'm sitting at a long table in a ballroom at a hotel in Brooklyn. All around me -- seated across and down, you might say -- are other puzzle solvers. In front of me, face down on the table, is the first of seven puzzles I'll be working on this weekend. (There will be six today and one on Saturday, plus the puzzle that only the finalists do.)

Registration began Friday night. A nice, seemingly harmless guy named David J. Kahn, who also happens to be a puzzle constructor -- I recognized the name -- handed me the registration packet and took pains to point out my contestant number (415) on the folder. I'm supposed to write the number, and my name, on the back of each puzzle. (I later find out that some people have neglected to do this in the past.)

Each of the puzzles has a time limit. Each correct answer is worth 10 points. If you finish early, you get 25 points for each minute you had left. If your solution is perfect, you get 150 bonus points.

The bad news is that if you have a mistake -- or mistakes -- you get 25 points taken off the finish-early bonus for each error. If you have more errors than you had minutes left, though, you don't wind up in the "minus column," like a hapless "Jeopardy!" contestant.

And of course you don't get the 150 bonus points for a perfect puzzle.

On Saturday morning, before going into the ballroom, I walk through the hallway a few times. Tables have been set up and people are selling T-shirts, word games and, of course, crossword puzzle books. New York Times puzzles. New York Sun puzzles. Raunchy crosswords. Even a small book of crosswords to be done in the bathroom. The book is in the shape of a toilet.

People from The New York Times are giving away small card games and mouse pads in exchange for getting your e-mail address.

It's pretty crowded -- 699 contestants, in all -- but one guy stands out. His name is Jim, and apparently every year he wears some kind of weird costume to the tournament. This time Jim, who also sports a mustache, is wearing a wedding dress with a crossword puzzle on it. As he walks by, another contestant looks at me and remarks about the various kinds of people who show up at the event.

"Always a 10 across, but never a 5 down," I say.

It gets a laugh.

I eventually learn that there seem to be two groups of contestants, not necessarily mutually exclusive: those who are hotly competitive and want to WIN WIN WIN, and those who just like solving puzzles, don't get upset if they don't finish that well and just enjoy seeing the same people year after year. (The event has been going on for three decades.)

The first puzzle is titled "Encouraging Words," described as "a puzzle that provides some figurative pats on the back." Will Shortz, The Times' crosswords editor, who runs the tournament, announces that the puzzle is by Andrea Carla Michaels. This brings a round of applause, which is repeated throughout the tournament as Shortz announces the name of a puzzle's constructor. The hardcore puzzle solvers know the constructors' names -- and quite often, their constructing styles. And a number of the constructors are present, serving as tournament officials.

It's a 15-minute puzzle, as indicated by a big digital clock at one corner of the room. Shortz gives the signal, and we're off.

It's supposed to be an easy puzzle, and it is. I finish it with six minutes left. I look it over carefully before raising my hand -- which brings a referee over to take the puzzle from me and write down the time.

I'm a bit miffed; I shouldn't have taken nine minutes. It's as easy as a Times Monday puzzle, which I usually can do in six minutes.

Then again, I use a pen at home, a Pilot G-2, which is easier for my hand than a pencil, which the judges seem to prefer. My hand now feels a little cramped. For next year's tourney, I'll get a pencil that fits my hand better. Also, I solved the puzzle with my glasses on. Sometimes reading things at close range is a bit easier for me if I take the glasses off.

After a brief break, the second puzzle is passed out. Though it's face down in front of me, I suspect it's going to be trouble, because I can see that, besides the usual grid, there's some other kind of grid. Oh oh.

The puzzle, by Mike Shenk, is titled "Change of Venue." The smaller, vertical grid is a word latter; complete it and you get the last word of the puzzle, though the smaller grid will not be scored. We have 25 minutes to solve the main puzzle.

The answers to nine of the clues will complete the grid, but four of these answers are 11 letters long, and clues such as "second word in the ladder" are no help. Besides which, I can't figure out how the word ladder is supposed to work; at the top is the word VENUE. As I work the main puzzle I try to get the 11-letter answers by working around them. The first answer is "love goddess." The next is "bills of fare."

At some point I wonder why the hell I came here. I can't figure out what's going on. I envision myself running up to my room and packing.

Eventually I remember how a word ladder works: Each step of the ladder is just like the previous one, with one letter changed. So VENUE leads to VENUS, MENUS, MINUS, MINES, DINES, DIVES, DOVES, DOVER and, finally, MOVER.

Once I finally have this figured out, it's smooth sailing, and I finish with one minute to spare.

After another break, Puzzle 3 is "If I Wrote the Dictionary" by Merl Reagle, another of the crowd's favorite constructors. It's a 30-minute puzzle but not that hard, with cute "deft-initions"; "adj. pertaining to jazz singing," for example, turns out to be "scatological."

After lunch, I see that the preliminary standings have been posted. I can tell from my scores that I did perfectly on all of the first three. Thing is, though, that solving time is such a major factor that even given this, I'm at 231 so far. (Which, given that it's my first time and there are 699 contestants, I don't exactly mind.)

The fourth puzzle, by Paula Gamache, is "Can You Dig It?" The theme answers are various meanings of "digs." ("Living quarters," "Gets the picture," "Likes in a big way.") It's a 15-minute puzzle. I again finish with six minutes to spare.

The fifth puzzle of every tournament, Shortz tells us, is known as "the bastard puzzle." Because this is supposed to be a G-rated blog, there is no way I can do justice to how much he was understating this.

It's a 30-minute puzzle, titled "Up-Scale: Whose theme will be revealed one step at a time." And it's by that nice man, David J. Kahn.

At least he'd seemed nice.

When a crossword puzzle has a theme (and most of them do these days), figuring out the theme usually helps you speed to the end. In this case, I never do figure out the theme. By working around it, I know that "Physician who treats weightlifters?" is MUSCLE DOC. Also, "Pitched weight-loss programs?" is SOLD DIETS.

Okeydokey, but what do those clues mean? I eventually give up trying to figure it out and try to focus on the "straight" clues, at 10 points a pop. I, and many others, fail to finish on time.

Afterward, I'm told that the theme involved notes on the musical scale. If you take the DO in MUSCLEDOC and take it down one notch in the scale (TI) you get MUSCLE TIC. Taking the SOL in SOLD DIETS down a notch (FA), you get FAD DIETS.

It's a wonder I have any hair left.

The last puzzle of the day, "Elmer Fuddisms," is by Maura Jacobson, who has been putting crosswords together for many, many years. It's a 30-minute puzzle, and as you might expect, the theme answers involve switching an "r" sound to a "w" sound. Thus, "Story about an unemployed hag?" is "The idle witch."

A cute puzzle, and my notes indicate I solved it with 14 minutes left.

Later in the tournament, a woman who has been sitting in front of me and has been going to this thing for years tells me she was on an elevator with David J. Kahn.

Which leads me to wonder how many bruises he got off with. But no, she says she told him he'd forgiven him and had given him a hug.

Yes, I concede, David J. Kahn is certainly a nice man.

But I wonder if his mother knows what he does for a living.