July 1, 2009

Literary Impressions: Puzzle Me This...

This is cross-posted at New Haven Review here.

When I was a child, I was absolutely stupefied by my father’s ability to complete the New York Times Sunday crossword. Mind you, he was not a competitive puzzler, one of those types today who now bundle themselves off every end of February to the , which, after 30 years at the Marriott Stamford in Connecticut, was held for the first time ever at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott.

Puzzling as a sport was not a feature of my father’s love of the crossword. He enjoyed them thoroughly, but there was no fanaticism in his play, and thus neither stopwatches nor blasts of indignation at seemingly disingenuous clues or specious puns. He was a cruciverbalist—the technical moniker for the habitual crossword solver—in the most traditional of senses, at his leisure or on a lunch break. Moreover, he liked doing them in ink and all caps—both no-no’s according to Stanley Newman in his , a lovely little hardcover I picked up while combing the shelves of the Goodwill on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden.

Stanley Newman is the puzzle editor for New York Newsday and this short paean to the crossword, co-authored with Mark Lasswell, is a fascinating little contribution to puzzle lore that at an easily perused 160 pages is entirely worth reading by anyone who enjoys crosswords. Take me, for example. I like crossword puzzles, and even though I’m not nearly as capable as my father, I relish the qualities of its particular type of challenge: the puns and the trivia, the small victories and epiphanies in lateral thinking that spring from that part of your unconscious where facts you thought lost still roost .

Newman covers several topics in his little tome: how he went from bond businessman to crossword puzzle guru; the history of the crossword (which is how publishing giant Simon & Schuster made its first real money); the ways in which puzzle editors and constructors go about the daily grind of producing their wares; some general principles for solving puzzles; and sundry other matters. But what caught my interest were the very first pages, where he holds forth on his outright distaste for New York Times puzzle editor Eugene T. Maleska and reviews the war he started with him and the New York Times over the state of the crossword.

This is no doubt where his co-author came in, suggesting, “Look, if we’re going to hook general readers first and fans second, let’s begin with a pie fight, because everyone loves a pie fight.” And I must admit, I do like pie fights, especially when they take on bathetic proportions, making mountains of molehills, the truest sign of passion.

When Newman was a bond trader, he started a newsletter about the crossword business in which, among other things, he regularly took to task Maleska’s penchant for publishing puzzles that depended on overly obscure geographical locations, an unhealthy interest in opera, an utter distaste for popular culture, and a schoolmarmish predilection for Latin phrases (Maleska had been a Latin teacher before replacing the much-beloved Will Weng as the crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times). Newman was convinced that Maleska’s role doubly damaged the state of the crossword: for puzzle solvers, his stiffness dampened the interest of the next generation, while for constructors his perch at the Gray Lady overshadowed the innovativeness of their work at other papers. In brief, Maleska was giving cruciverbalism a bad name.

And yet whatever pleasures pie fights may present, what most endeared this reader to Newman’s tale is his belief—and demonstration by personal example—that old dogs can learn new tricks. Unlike many crossword enthusiasts, who tend to start young, either around high school or college, Newman himself became a crossword champion in his 30s! Before then he was not much better than your occasional cruciverbalist. But, as he suggests, with a little dedication and some zeal, it is possible for anyone—and he is emphatic about that anyone!—to become good at doing crosswords, regardless of age. And, that, in itself, sheds some light on the beauty of a book that illustrates how the ability to excel at some cerebral or artistic passion does not necessarily diminish with time. Think Grandma Moses with a paintbrush or Immanuel Kant publishing his first book at the age of 50!

Homeward Stay: Why I Love Westville, New Haven

Donald Brown, writing at New Haven Review, asked the following at the end of his post here:

So, a question to any long-standing or native New Haveners reading this: what do
you consider to be definitive aspects of New Haven … the kinds of things one
shouldn’t miss while living here? Or: what’s a change you’ve seen in your time
here that had some effect on you?

How could I not answer about the neighborhood I've come to love as follows...

I grew up in Brooklyn. There I attended all my life public schools to which I walked nearly every day of the thirteen years I had to go. At the age of 17, I left my family home and never came back, which is not the same as saying that I didn’t return to New York or even Brooklyn. I did. But I didn’t return “home” in that most traditional of senses: taking up residence, as my brother did till age 35, in my parents’ five-bedroom home on Glenwood Road.

When I left New York for the last time, after a two-year stint as an editor, to return to New Haven (yes, I lived here twice), my wife and I were not only overjoyed, we even returned to the neighborhood in which we had rented the first time around: that part of Westville between Whalley & Derby on the north and south respectively; and Yale Avenue and Forest Road as far as east and west go. We have had no regrets since in the last 10 years that we have resided here, and we both chalk that up not to New Haven itself, but the neighborhood in which we reside.

I could write electronic ream after ream on the wonderfulness of this neighborhood. My children walk two blocks to school (Edgewood School); my wife walks two blocks to work (Mitchell Library); we walk two blocks to synagogue (Beth-El Keser Israel); we have farmer’s market directly across the street in the summers; access to tennis courts in Edgewood Park (across the street) and Yale fields (three blocks) respectively; sledding at the Yale golf course in the winter five blocks away we can walk less than a block to five art galleries, four bars, five restaurants.

It’s the neighborhood thus that has made New Haven home for us (and our children) and not “New Haven” itself. The spatial proximity of creature comforts, leisure activities, the necessities of food and culture have created a latitude and lassitude in time: it moves more slowly, more relaxedly, more satisfactorily, with fewer alienating effects as I wave hello to friends going north along my block to synagogue or walking their children south along it to school or heading in either direction with dogs in tow or on bikes or in jogging suits.

Were I to leave New Haven, what I would miss is not its individual places or events--this restaurant or its much celebrated Festival of Arts and Ideas or remarkably Long Wharf Theatre--but the entire gestalt of the community that occupies its small corner of this small city.