On being ... curved molding

By Ingrid Sapona

In my family never did crossword puzzles. I don’t know why -- we just never did. Sure, it’s occurred to me it might be because English wasn’t my parents’ first language. But not being a native English speaker never stopped my mother from playing Scrabble -- and winning at it!

Last year when I visited one of my favourite law school professors I was a fish out of water when he tried to get me involved in the morning ritual of tackling the New York Times crossword over coffee. I politely explained that, though I had tried crossword puzzles once or twice over the years, I was absolutely useless at them.

Undaunted, my host proceeded to read clues and letter counts aloud and encouraged me by ignoring my spelling deficiencies and cheering the few words I managed to come up with. And, in true professorial style, as he filled in all that I couldn’t come up with, he explained crossword puzzle clue tricks, for example, how you know to use an abbreviation, or when to use a plural. By the end of the long weekend I was pretty much hooked, though under no illusion I’d ever be able to finish a crossword puzzle myself (not even “the Monday” puzzle).

On my return from that trip I was relieved to find that my newspaper doesn’t run the New York Times crossword, so at least I have a fighting chance. Lest you think I have worse self esteem issues than I actually have, in my own defense I honestly believe the main reason the Times crossword will remain forever out of my reach is not because I’m particularly stupid or because I’m a terrible speller. It’s because I never took Latin. (Mea culpa.)

Unbeknownst to me (15 letter, 3-word phrase meaning: without one’s knowledge), at about the same time both my sisters started doing crossword puzzles. I found this out when we were together for a long weekend in February and one sister pulled out a crossword she had started earlier. I think we were all surprised to learn that we enjoy them. That weekend we had fun impressing each other with words the others couldn’t come up with.

One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone has their own style when it comes to doing crosswords. I start by going very quickly through both the “across” and “down” lists, filling in all words I’m sure of right off the top. I don’t ponder the clues on that first round at all. Then I return to the top of the “across” list again and I think about each clue more, dissecting it for hidden meanings (plurals, abbreviations, multi-word phrases, etc.). Then, if I come up with a word but am unsure of it, I check to see whether any of the possible letters work with any of the “down” clues before I pencil it in. I go through both lists like that a few times, before I’m forced to spend longer periods thinking about any particular clue.

My professor friend, on the other hand, goes corner-by-corner (or small section by section), rarely moving on until he has all the “across” and “down” words in that section filled in. I’m never patient enough to do it that way. Indeed, if I’m working with someone and they’re reading the clues, if neither of us comes up with something in a few seconds, I pester them to go on to the next clue.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that how a person approaches a crossword puzzle reveals much about their personality. Does my method betray a short attention span? Maybe – but it could also have to do with the fact that I see crosswords as a game, rather than a painstaking intellectual exercise. Similarly, I don’t buy into the notion that whether one uses a pen or pencil is a sign of confidence (or a lack of it). I have one sister who uses erasable pen -- what would you make of that? (Her rationale for doing so is simple: it’s easier to read letters written in ink (a testament to the fact that our eyes aren’t what they used to be), but it’s always handy to be able to erase!)

That said, doing crosswords has brought my attention one negative trait I’m trying to work on. You see, once you’ve been doing crosswords created by the same person (or company) for awhile, you start to relate to them like a friend: you become familiar with quirks of how they phrase things and you tune in to words they like (and re-use). In many respects, it’s comforting. But, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve noticed there are some words my friend the crossword likes to use that I have a mental block toward.

It’s quite embarrassing, not to mention frustrating. A four-letter word for curved molding is a prime example. For the longest time I couldn’t remember the word for it, despite having noted it in the puzzle solution every time it came up. I tried everything: I made a mental note of it; I looked it up at least half dozen times; and I tried using it in a sentence. Nothing seemed to work. It’s only when I considered maybe my mental block is part bad attitude that I decided perhaps I could put some of that stubbornness to a different use by forcing myself to remember the word.

I’m happy to report my efforts have paid off. This week when I came across that bugaboo on my first run through the “across” clues, I joyfully penned the word in and moved on.

Oh yes -- the word: it’s ogee. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.) But don’t worry if you can’t remember it -- you can always drop me a line, I’d be happy to help!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


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