Saturday, February 27, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 4

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

As I head down to the tournament room Sunday morning to do Puzzle No. 7 – the last puzzle for everyone except the finalists – I’m not feeling totally up to snuff. I’m even wondering whether I did indeed catch something from the woman on the plane who’d left a sick kid at home, or the guy on the elevator the night before whose wife asked him if he’d thrown up yet.

Of course, and not for the first time, I’m psyching myself out, because I feel a lot better for the rest of the day when I see the newly posted scores (in hard copy this time), showing that after the last two puzzles of the previous day I have risen from No. 231 to No. 221.

Puzzle No. 7, by Merl Reagle, is not unusually hard, at least for me. It is a big puzzle, the size of a Sunday puzzle, which, given what day it is, is entirely fitting.

And Mr. Reagle – who is prominently featured in the documentary “Wordplay,” which I recommend if you haven’t seen it – makes a living (or at least part of one) by designing Sunday puzzles with clever themes.

“Heads of State” is no exception. The theme consists of postal state abbreviations that have been attached to familiar phrases.

Thus “Like some political scandals?” translates as “MISTRESS RELATED” (MI + STRESS RELATED).

For the most part, the trip through the puzzle is an easy one, though I occasionally run into a section with one or two clues I can’t answer and sweat a bit until I find one or two nearby easier clues that help me solve the harder ones.

My worst problem is self-inflicted: 16 down, “Some bow ties,” seems to be coming out as “PASTS.” I try hard but can’t see any direct or even indirect connections between the past – or any pasts – and bow ties.

It takes way too long for me to discover that I’m getting “PASTS” because of a typo in my 33 across answer, which reads: MISTRESS RELSTED. Oops. Change the errant S to an A and I get “PASTA,” which makes a lot more sense. Whew.

Even with this, I finish well ahead of the deadline and go upstairs to finish packing, check out and check my luggage.

I get all this done in plenty of time to watch the finals, in which the top three contestants in three divisions (A, B and C) compete by doing the same puzzle on huge boards set up in front of the audience.

One major piece of news this year for Division A, the top division: Tyler Hinman, the young man who has won the division – and, in effect, the entire tournament – for five years in a row has just missed being one of the three finalists.

Instead, the top contestants going into the last round are, in alphabetical order, Howard Barkin, Anne Erdmann and Dan Feyer.

If you’re interested in how things went, with running commentary by Merl Reagle and NPR’s Neal Conan, click here.

The excitement, for me, at least, doesn’t end with the naming of the winner.

For as I leave, I discover that for the first time since I’ve been coming to the tournament, the final scores – taking into account all of the seven pre-final puzzles – have been posted. (This is due to advances made in the electronic scoring system and overseen, I gather, by Will Shortz and Doug Heller.)

And it turns out that I am no longer No. 221.

I am now No. 213 – out of 643 – in the top 33 percent.

And I immediately begin to wonder how long I’ll be able to hold this position; in the past, in the week following the tournament, my score has changed (and not for the better) as tournament officials make adjustments for newly reported scoring errors.

But right now, almost a week after the tournament ended, I’m still at 213, probably because the improvements brought forth by Shortz, Heller and their helpers have enabled the contestants to spot scoring errors earlier, during the tournament itself.

I’d considered making this year my last one at the tournament out of a concern that my score wouldn’t change much from year to year. But the latest score changes my mind.

Which leaves me with this to-do list for the 2011 tournament:

1. Crack the 10,000-point level (my point score this year was 9775).

2. Correctly finish a bastard/bitch mother puzzle well ahead of deadline.

3. Marinate myself in Lysol before boarding any public conveyance.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 3

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament's puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

It’s Saturday afternoon and time for the fourth of the seven puzzles designed for all the contestants in this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

And this time I get a surprise:

The fourth puzzle is constructed by Mike Nothnagel, the guy who’d handed me my registration folder the night before.

This is a surprise because a) in the previous two years the person who handed me the folder has turned out to be the person who constructed Puzzle No. 5, traditionally the tournament’s most difficult puzzle, and b) Mr. Nothnagel certainly has the chops to construct such a puzzle.

So I guess the streak (if two years in a row can be called a “streak”) is broken.

The puzzle, “Without Fail,” is pegged to words that can be used to form phrases when combined with the word “pass.” It’s an entertaining, pleasant puzzle, and I finish it perfectly, with nine minutes to spare.

The puzzle – as so many puzzles these days do – reflects a kind of generation gap. Some present-day puzzles contain modern references that I’m too old to get. This one, however, contains an answer that leaves a young woman two seats away from me clueless: Wavy Gravy (“Woodstock emcee who had a Ben & Jerry’s flavor named after him”). This charming young woman also mentioned earlier in the day that she’d had a dream in which she was on a car trip with Will Shortz, during which Will challenged her with this crossword clue: “The Opposite of Mexico.”

Yeah, I can see where that would be an odd dream, if not an out-and-out bad one.

And speaking of bad dreams, here comes Puzzle No. 5.

And it’s by Brendan Emmett Quigley.

I’ve written about Mr. Quigley before – he’s one of the most ingenious of the newest crop of constructors. And in the world of crossword terminology, “most ingenious” generally means “You’ll never get out of this alive.”

And if a puzzle sets my heart a-palpitatin’, it’s this Puzzle No. 5.

I don’t think I panic much when it comes to doing a puzzle – unless I’m having trouble finding a clue that I know the answer to, something that can give me a foothold or a toehold.

In this case, I’ll settle for a toenailhold, for at first glance none of these clues seems to mean anything to me. Heck, I’d even settle for “the opposite of Mexico.”

Finally – finally – I find something I can grab on to, and bit by bit I start filling in the grid. It’s a slow process, and the fact that I can’t seem to figure out the theme doesn’t help. Eventually I get part of the theme figured out, but that doesn’t help much.

And I once again find that, as with the other fifth puzzles I have done, there comes a point where you look at the clock, see you have only a few minutes left, realize you’re probably not going to get the theme (or the bonus for finishing the puzzle) and try to fill in as many answers as you can.

As the clock runs out, I realize I am one of many, many people who haven’t finished the puzzle. I later find out that I got 76 out of 94 answers right, for a total of 760 points.

Saturday ends, as it usually does, with a tension-relieving, amusing puzzle by longtime constructor Maura B. Jacobson, called “MISFILINGS: Seemingly the new library assistant hasn’t a clue.” (“Ivanhoe,” for example, has been filed “under Soviet Farming.”)

Cute idea.

Since last year, the folks at the tournament have been fine-tuning their electronic scoring system, so that at the end of this day the scores for the first four puzzles – and preliminary standings – are now online, along with scans of the actual completed and corrected puzzles.

In other words, I can call up these scans and see if there have been any scoring errors and, if so, report them.

That is, I could do that if I had a computer or fancy cell phone with me. I have neither. (My cell phone can supposedly surf the Web, but somehow I can’t figure out how to do it.)

Fortunately, I’m scheduled to get together for dinner with a niece who is a local college student and who is far more advanced than I, and she uses her super-duper Swiss Army phone to determine that with the scores from the first four puzzles in, I’m at No. 231 out of about 643. I’m quite happy about this, considering that I finished at 250 last year.

If that won’t give me a good appetite, nothing will.

Next: The Rousing Finish. (Assuming you’re easily roused.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 2

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament's puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

Once again it’s time for me to pick up my tournament folder at the registration desk.

This is my third year at the tournament, and in past years my folder has been handed to me by two nice fellows: David J. Kahn in 2008 and Patrick Merrell in 2009.

Or at least they seemed nice – until I got to each year’s Puzzle No. 5.

For the unitiated: The tournament consists of seven puzzles for everyone: three on Saturday morning, three on Saturday afternoon and one on Sunday morning. An eighth puzzle, the championship puzzle, is done only by finalists.

During my first two years at the tournament, Will Shortz, in announcing Puzzle No. 5, mentioned that the fifth puzzle is known as “the bastard puzzle.”

This year, he will describe the puzzle as the “bitch mother.”

I’m curious to know what he calls it when he’s not anywhere near a live microphone.

Anyway, this year’s folder is handed to me by a very nice gent named Mike Nothnagel.

Uh oh.

I know that name.

I know I’ve done some of his puzzles.

But I can’t remember exactly how many of those puzzles I have actually finished.

I can only conclude that he is the father of the bitch mother.

But Puzzle No. 5 will have to wait. In the meantime, this year I’m smart enough to get into the puzzle room early enough to get a good seat. I like to do these puzzles with my glasses off, and I like to be close enough to the clock to be able to read it without squinting too much.

In 2008, I finished in 262nd place. In 2009, I was No. 250. I’m hoping to better my score, especially considering that were it not for a stupid mistake I made last year, on a puzzle by Brendan Emmett Quigley, I think I would have placed somewhere around 223.

Puzzle No. 1 is by Stanley Newman, a veteran crossword compositor and editor, and the author of a good book on crosswords, “Cruciverbalism.”

The first tournament puzzle is always supposed to be easy, and this one is no exception.


We have 15 minutes. I get stuck near the bottom, with this downward clue: “Aptly named journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.” Given the surrounding words, it seems as if this can only be “The Auk.” Which kind of makes sense, as I know an auk is a bird. But I can’t help thinking that the journal would have a more clever name. Eventually I come to think that I’m overthinking this, and I let it be.

Which turns out to be a good thing, because “The Auk” is correct and I’ve completed the puzzle perfectly, with five minutes to spare. I get 25 points for each of those minutes. I would have had more if I hadn’t spent so much time on that clue, and it also occurs to me that I might be taking too much time in proofreading my solution before handing it in, maybe taking two minutes instead of one. But a perfect solution means a 150-point bonus, which I really want.

Puzzle No. 2 – 25 minutes –is by Elizabeth C. Gorski, another name I know, respect and, most of all, fear. For the most part, there’s not much to be afraid of here, though when I get to “Feldman and Robbins” I write in “Corey.” After all, I know there’s a young actor named Corey Feldman (or at least I remember him when he was young), and maybe there’s another young thespian named Corey Robbins.

But the surrounding answers indicate that I’m wrong, and I eventually curse myself for, once again, overthinking, because although I don’t know how old Ms. Gorski is, she’s been doing puzzles long enough so that she’s probably around my age and remembers – as I should have remembered – comedian Marty Feldman and singer Marty Robbins. (I wonder how many of the younger contestants had heard of Marty Feldman, who died in 1982.)

But then I meet the vampire – or at least the clue for 33 Across, which is “vampire.”

The answers going down indicate that the answer to 33 Across is “lamia.”

Lamia? I’ve never heard of that. I’ve seen “Dracula” a couple of times and “Nosferatu” once, and I don’t remember hearing anyone say “lamia.” (Then again, “Nosferatu” was a silent picture.)

I have a brother back home who spends much of his time watching horror movies and TV shows. When it comes to loyalty, no one is truer to “True Blood” than he. If only he were here! Or if only those movies and TV shows had taught him to read my mind and transmit the answer to me!

I double-check the down answers: Yes, a leaf (L) is something a caterpillar would eat; abr (A) is indeed an abbreviated synonym for “condensed”; an amateur (M) is a hobbyist; Tiny Tim (I) was a “blesser at Christmas”; and that actress’ name is Virginia Madsen (A), not Medsen, Midsen, Modsen or Mudsen. Or at least I think it is; I do know she was on the last episode of “Monk” and that’s how here name was spelled. Right?

So I leave it, and I turn out to be (whew) right – a perfect solution, again handed in early.

We have 30 minutes to do Puzzle No. 3, by Patrick Berry, which has a punny theme that’s built around sports terms. This is worrisome to me, considering that on a good day I’m barely able to distinguish between the Final Four and the Fab Four. But it turns out that I’ve heard a lot of the terms mentioned, and what I don’t know I can figure out from the other clues. Another perfect solution, with 11 minutes to spare.

And time for a lunch break.

More to come, if all of you can stand the suspense.

Back from Brooklyn, Part 1

Oh, the suspense! The uncertainty! The nervous fears!

Am I talking about the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

Well, yes, I suppose I am – a little bit, at least – come to think of it.

But I’m mainly referring to the harrowing fear that I wouldn’t be physically able to get through it.

Scene one:

I’m on the plane to Brooklyn, looking out the window. The seat between me and the guy on the aisle is empty -- but not for long.

A woman whose assigned seat is somewhere else on the plane plops down between us and buckles the seat belt. She’s a colleague of the guy on the aisle seat and hates sitting alone.

Apparently she hates sitting alone because she also hates not talking, and she’s such a flannel mouth that during the flight, representatives of several pajama manufacturers drop by and place bids on the rights to her upper palate.

But this is OK with me. I often like to listen to people’s unguarded public conversations. (Especially if they’re talking on cell phones. One of Murphy’s Rules of Nature: the loudness of a cell phone conversation held on a public conveyance is directly proportional to the privacy – not to mention indictability – of the matter being discussed, and inversely proportional to the percentage of space in the caller’s brain that is not occupied by seaweed.)

But to give these two other passengers some privacy, I make sure to keep my head turned to the window.

Near the end of the trip, she talks about how her boy needed a sitter and that one problem she faced was that the boy has had some kind of intestinal flu, and she didn’t want the kid’s regular sitter to catch it.

I now make doubly, tripley, quadrupely sure that my head is facing the window for most of the rest of the flight….

Scene two:

It’s Saturday night, and I’m on one of the hotel's elevators, headed toward the lobby.

There are two other passengers, including a man and a woman who appear to be a couple.

The dialogue goes something like this:

She: “Have you thrown up?”

He shakes his head, not happily.

She: “You might be better off if you did.”

I keep my eyes straight ahead and thank the gods and the ghost of J. Willard Marriott that the lobby is only one floor away.

More to come.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Across and down to Brooklyn, yet again

This weekend I will once again be a contestant in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

I've competed twice before, both times pretty much winding up in the upper 37 percent overall.

Do I have any real hope of winning the thing? Not really, though you never know. It's not that I can't solve the puzzles -- I think I solved six out of seven perfectly the first year and five out of seven last year -- but I doubt I can do it fast enough to beat the likes of Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein and all the others.

My guess is that in addition to brains (and, um, yes, I'm willing to concede that the above three -- and others -- might be at least a little smarter than yours truly), the true crossword champs have perfect hand-and-eye coordination.

Me, I never could learn how to ride a bike.

But one big selling point of the ACPT -- for me, at least -- is that unlike competitive mind games, the tournament has champs that are likable, real people.

Matter of fact, everyone there is nice.

If you've see the documentary film "Wordplay," filmed at the 2005 tournament, what you see is what you'll get if you compete or even hang out at the tournament.

And the players have a sense of humor about themselves; when Amy Reynaldo (who might be the queen of the crossword bloggers) was kind enough to link to my wrap-up of the ACPT last year, this blog received many hits, some of them, I suspect, from the higher-profile players.

Fortunately for me, these hits weren't physical.

And, of course, I hope things stay that way.

Matter of fact, if the only thing I suffer this weekend is a bruised ego, I'll figure I will have come out ahead.

See you soon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There's no business like Shokus' business

For a long time now I’ve been regularly listening to something called Shokus Internet Radio, and although I rarely plug other Web stuff (aside from what’s in my blogroll), I finally realized that you might also enjoy listening to it, especially if you’re interested in old movies and old TV shows.

Shokus calls itself “TV on the radio for baby boomers,” and I’m glad it describes itself that way because it sure saves me a lot of time and effort.

I will, however, add that Shokus offers an entertaining mix of music and interview programs.

The hosts and disc jockeys remind me of what local TV and radio stations used to be in the days before two or three media companies seemed to own everything, the days when local broadcasting featured charming, distinctive personalities whose programs weren’t canned and homogenized and playing on who knows how many other stations nationwide.

Although I enjoy listening to the music, the real drawing card is the interviews. The crown jewel of the station is “Stu’s Show,” hosted by Stu Shostak, who is the Sho in the Shokus.

If the prospect of listening to in-depth interviews with people like Peter Marshall, June Foray and Jack Narz (among many others) makes you drool to the point where you put Pavlov’s pets to shame, this is the station for you.

But it’s one thing to have guests like these; it’s another to have a host who knows what to ask them and how to treat them. Shostak knows his stuff (he himself spent many years working with Lucille Ball), and he not only shows his guests the proper respect but also extends this respect to the folks who call into his show and to listeners who write in.

I suppose it’s an oxymoron to say that Shokus is a high-tech mom-and-pop-type station, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it, or a better compliment.

And if you’re still drooling, get a napkin, wipe your mouth off (and your keyboard, too, if necessary), and go here to find out more.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why St. Peter is shopping for a blow dryer

"Frank N. Magid, a marketing consultant who was widely credited, for good or ill, with standardizing the face of local television news, introducing the fast-paced, user-friendly 'Action News' format in markets nationwide," has passed away, The New York Times reports.

Services are Monday on his roof

Walter Fredrick Morrison, who has been credited with inventing the Frisbee, has died at the age of 90, The Associated Press reports.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

With no mononey down

A local car dealership's commercial proclaims: "FINANCINING AVAILABLE."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

That dry cappuccino looks so natural....

USA Today reports that cemeteries and funeral homes across the nation are offering “environmentally friendly burials” that include “biodegradable caskets made of pine, wicker or even cardboard.”

Not a bad idea, but the paper quotes one Georgia man who might be a mite too enthusiastic:

“I’m trying to be more green in my everyday; why not be more green in eternity? I’ve actually thought about buying my casket and using it as a coffee table.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Haven't I read this before?

Zelda Rubinstein, who played the psychic in “Poltergeist” (“This house is clean!”) died last week.

Sir Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud and a noted broadcaster in his own right (I remember seeing him with Jack Paar many years ago), died last April.

You might be hard put to come up with two people who have less in common than these two, but there is one bond that they indubitably share.

When I saw each one’s obituary, I had the same reaction:

I thought they’d already died. I was sure I’d heard they’d died.

But nope. To paraphrase Mr. Twain (who must be getting sick of being paraphrased, especially because, as far as I know, he doesn’t get paid for being paraphrased), my memories of their deaths are premature.

But how to explain it?

Is it some subcategory of déjà vu?

(Hey, look, my word-processing software automatically added those accents – both up and down! How cool! And yes, I’m a sucker for card tricks, too.)

How about “deja deceased”?

(Hey, wait a minute. Where are the accents this time? Does this software give only one set of accents to a customer? Or does it happen only when you type “déjà vu”? Ah, yes, that’s the answer.)

It’s quite possible – and quite possibly more than possible – that I’m the only one who thought these two were dead. (And it’s happened to me with other celebs, too.)

But am I the only one who has ever prematurely buried a celeb? (Come to think of it, with some of the celebs around today, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.)

Has this ever happened to you?

Or, to pose an even scarier question:

Are there people out there who think I’m already dead?

And do they know something I don’t?