THURSDAY, Nov. 30 - Patrick Merrell

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Solving time: about 24 minutes (I'll explain)

THEME: don't get me started... - apparently the names GEORGE and JOAN can each be the name of either a man or a woman. GEORGEANDJOAN (36A) gives you a "She/he pairing" (21A: SAND AND MIRO) and a "He/she pairing" (55A: BUSH AND BAEZ)

I know that my grousing about themes must be tiresome, but I have to be true to my soul, which cries out to heaven to make the torturous themes-that-are-not-themes Stop. OK, let me back up. I took this puzzle to bed with me right at 10pm, but I got distracted doing something else, then was on the verge of falling asleep, when I remembered I hadn't done the puzzle, so sat up, somewhat bleary-eyed, and started in. I do not recommend this pre-sleeping strategy if your goal is speed. Or happiness. I nailed two top-of-the-puzzle gimmes right off the bat (always good) and then promptly slowed to a crawl. Beautiful 1A: Son undone by the sun (Icarus) and easy-for-someone-who-teaches-Arthurian-Lit 11A: Sorceress Morgan le _____ (Fay) gave me high hopes, but despite the help of ICARUS the NW would Not budge, and because I misspelled FAY (had "E" for "A"), I couldn't see 12D: Beloved ("A"dored), and the "F" and the "Y" in F[E]Y were giving me FIESTA (wrong - correct fill = FAJITA) and jacksquat, respectively (when I finally saw that the "Y" answer was 13D: Musician who takes a bow (Yo-Yo Ma), I physically wilted ... so much more obvious an answer than my ridiculous guess, YEHUDI). So frustration set in, which is never good. Again, I was too tired to be solving, so take everything I say with some grains of salt. I mean, I blanked on the very obvious (to a Beethoven-lover) 18A: Highlight of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Ode to Joy), despite owning it, listening to it with reasonable frequency, being able to hum it on command, etc. So I was not on all cylinders.

And yet, even in the cold light of day, with all my faculties, this so-called theme is bothersome. Look, if GEORGEANDJOAN meant anything - if those names were a well-known comedy act (GEORGE AND GRACIE), or a sports radio broadcasting team or, well, anything, I would not be so annoyed. JULESANDJIM? TOMANDJERRY? Give me Something. GEORGEANDJOAN ... I spent much of my dejected 24 minutes trying to think what the catch was. I had -NDMIRO hanging out at the end of 21A for a while and all I could think was "well that's wrong." Also had -ORGEANDJOAN and still could not bring myself to write in the initial "GE-" because, well, GEORGEANDJOAN is an arbitrary pairing. Arbitrary, I say! If I hadn't been a huge fan of Miro (my very favorite artist of all time ever ... except maybe Cezanne), I'm not sure how long the puzzle would have taken me. Worse, once I'd completed it, I did not see the gender-bending twist At All. All I could think was "yep, those are Georges and Joans alright ... So What!?" The idea that both GEORGE and JOAN had a unisex quality that was being exploited in this puzzle occurred to me only en route to the bathroom at 1:30 a.m., after I'd already slept for two hours (which tells you something about what a little sleep will do for mental clarity). Still, STILL, even with that late-night revelation, Ceci n'est pas un THEME!. When the clue to your theme answer has NO content besides 36A: 21- or 55-Across, then you know you don't have a real theme. Not that there isn't real cleverness in conception and execution here. I just ... look, I'll take it all back if GEORGEANDJOAN turns out to be a real famous pair of people. [And please don't try to pass this duo off as famous]

Speaking of my problems with themes, I screwed up yesterday and gave you only Half the actual theme. All I saw was the apparent oxymoronic quality of the entries, e.g. WHITEFACED BLACKBEARD. I was also supposed to notice (as two readers have since pointed out) that every answer had body parts in it. But they are not "oxymoronic body parts" because, well, they're not. COLDHOTLIPS would be oxymoronic. COLDHEARTED HOT LIPS is ... well, it is somewhat ironic, as both HEART and LIPS are associated with amorousness in some way. Even WHITEFACED BLACKBEARD has a certain ironic quality, in that you would not expect a fearsome pirate to be ashen with fear (or seasickness). But SMALL-MINDED BIGFOOT is not ironic. It's expected. So ... I don't know, the theme's still a jumbly mess. But I'm sorry I didn't see its full complexity yesterday.

OK. Last thing before puzzle specifics: I'd like to randomly vent about the NYT Solvers' Forum site for a moment. Now it's a valuable place to visit, and most folks over there are kind and lovely. But. There can occasionally be a certain prevailing attitude of superciliousness that makes me want to punch something/one. The following is my favorite recent post, in that it is my least favorite, and typifies the worst kind of pedantry that goes on over there (almost to the point of seeming self-parodic). Some guy writes:

Co says:

'the placement of the theme clues doesn't phase me at all.'

The word, of course, is faze.

There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing recently.

I see discrete when the writer means discreet.


"This sort of thing" - what a prick. I love the absolutely arbitrary last sentence. What I wanted to reply, but didn't, was:

"Really, you see 'discrete' when the writer means 'discreet?' That's weird, because I see 'asshole' when the writer means 'I'm a smart word guy.'"


And I'm done.

15D: Physics units also known as centigrays (rads)

Question: what is the only award that Rex Parker, English major, ever won for academic achievement in college?

Answer: The Physics I prize! A cool $50, oh yeah. And yet ... I did not know this answer. Add it to the pile of answers I didn't know (a large pile for a Thursday) including 20A: West Coast beer, familiarly (Oly) (I'm FROM the West Coast, dammit), 23A: People of the Southwest (Pima) (one letter away from my favorite brand of sportswear), 60A: "Help!" song (I Need You) (and here I thought the "Help!" song was "Help!"), 40D: Synthetic rubber (Neoprene), and 48D: Tuberous plant of the Andes (oca).

33A: "The Deep" co-star, 1977 (Nolte)

NICK Nolte. NICKANDNORA ... see, THAT would have worked as your theme. Well, it wouldn't have worked, because there are no guys named "Nora" that I know of, but you see what I mean. NICKANDNORA are a known duo - you can play the theme off of famous names like that; having the theme-defining answer be a phrase or concept that is common knowledge helps anchor the puzzle and give it Zing. Also, NICK AND NORA would have appreciated the face time: you gotta have some pity on a pair of very talented actors (Powell and Loy) who, crossword-wise, are routinely upstaged by a dog. Not just A dog. The Dog.

7D: Shoeless hero of fiction (Frodo)

"Shoeless"! Really, that's your clue for FRODO? This was one of many clues that felt off or forced to me, including 6D: Ship's passage (strait) (come on ... SOME ships, but very few ships, I would imagine, relative to all the ships there are in the world), 43D: They might have springs (resorts) (I ... guess), 35D: Objects, e.g. (nouns) ("Nouns in the mirror may be closer than they appear"), and, much worse, 51D: Word often preceding 35-Down (the), which is my least favorite way that a definite article has Ever been clued. Arbitrary, once again (it's my word of the day). THE precedes virtually all parts of speech: THE quick brown fox, THE badly behaved boy, etc. Why not clue THE: "Not just a" - that works. I'm just sayin'.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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WEDNESDAY, Nov. 29, 2006 - Barbara Olson

Solving time: approx. 8:45

THEME: not sure ... oxymoronic phrases? Each of the 3 theme answers is a two-part phrase, split across two entries; first entry of each answer is a compound adjective, and second entry is a proper noun - both the adjective and the proper noun begin with words that are opposites of one another, e.g. 3D: Petty creature of the Rockies, with 56-Across? + 56A: See 3-Down = Small-Minded / Bigfoot.

Do not like this sort of puzzle. Too fussy. When the theme can't be stated succinctly, something is likely wrong. If the theme requires complicated explanation, then the payoff better be good, and this one's wasn't. I do not like "See X-Down" or "See Y-Across" clues in general. I like clues with content and do Not like clues that send me on a @#$#-ing treasure hunt across the grid. Also, the two parts of each of the three theme answers are in very awkward, aesthetically unpleasing relationship to one another on the grid (though there is, in the end, overall symmetry). Even now, with the grid completed and in front of me, I'm having to scan and rescan the grid to find which compound adjective goes with which proper noun. Please understand that my beef with this puzzle is largely a matter of personal preference. I do not like Fussy. I do, however, like 34A: Classroom missile (spitball), 43A: Carom (ricochet) and 29D: Convenient kind of shopping (one-stop) - long, lively fill. Good stuff.

31A: Not agin (fer)

Oh, I should have got this right away! I had NER, which I realize makes no sense, but I read AGIN as a variant of AGAIN (not AGAINST, as was intended), and so I thought "well, if not AGAIN, then ... NEVER? NE'ER ... NER? Sure, why not?" Small error that disappeared quickly. But still, as I said, I should have got this right away. Why? Because the clue and answer are both components of one of my favorite quotes from Abraham (Grampa) Simpson: "I ain't fer it, I'm agin it!" I think he shouts this after the whole town misunderstands his stance on the proposed monorail system, and they celebrate their decision to go ahead with the monorail idea by cheering and carrying Grampa out of town hall on their shoulders. If I'm wrong, there is someone out there who will correct me. [late addendum: oh what a little research can do - I had the episode right, but the context wrong: Grampa utters his "I ain't fer it, I'm agin it" line while being carried off by the happy mob after they've decided to use Mr. Burns' money to fix Main Street - immediately before Lyle Langley shows up and convinces everyone (but Marge) that the town needs a monorail.

Crowd: "Yaaahhh!"
Grampa: "Shut up! I wasn't done yet. I'm just saying we could blow all our money on a stupid little street but..."
Crowd: "Yaahh!"
Grampa: "I ain't fer it, I'm agin it."
Thanks to Chris for pointing out my error.]

41A: Matthew of "Full Metal Jacket"

I would have preferred "Matthew of 'Vision Quest,'" "Matthew of 'Cutthroat Island,'" or "Matthew of 'Private School,'" but whatever. This'll do. At some point in the 80s Mr. Modine seemed to have a very promising acting career, and then I don't know what happened. I'm overstating the extent of his disappearance. He has worked consistently, just not in the most high-profile of roles. I have a former student who is a bit obsessed with Mr. Modine for some reason. She got to meet him, had photos taken with him, and then put them on her blog. I feel that I might embarrass her by directing traffic to her site ... and yet I will do it anyway.

48A: Composer Rorem and others (Neds)

And somewhere NED Beatty is wondering what has happened to his puzzle cachet. Second time this NED Rorem guy has been in a puzzle since this site began, so now I really have to find out something about him. He is billed at Wikipedia as a composer and a "diarist" (Rorem's own site has the less pretentious term "writer"). It seems that it's not so much the quality of his writing, but the juicy content, that has garnered him the "diarist / writer" designation. In the late 60's he wrote about sexual relationships with Leonard Bernstein and Noel Coward, among others. Musically, he is apparently famous for his "song settings" or "song cycles" or something like that. What do I know? I tend to take my orchestral music singing-free.

7A: What a famous woman may play in a movie (herself)
62A: Friendly (amiable)

They look innocuous on their surfaces, but these are very trappy answers. I had the front end of the first (HER-) and the back end of the second (-ABLE) - and from those angles - well, the first answer wants to be HEROINE, duh. So that's what I had. And while HERSELF is perfectly good as an answer, any actress caught playing HERSELF in a movie will not be "famous" for long, ceased to be "famous" about a decade earlier, or is "famous" for all the wrong reasons. When's the last time a self-respecting actress played HERSELF in a movie (in anything other than the smallest cameo role)? Ooh, ooh, I know: Joan Rivers! No, wait, I said "self-respecting." And "actress." Ah, I've made her angry! Look out!
As for the trouble with AMIABLE, let's just say there are other -ABLE words that fit the bill. I for instance had AFFABLE - which totally works - and then when that proved wrong, I had PLIABLE, which ... does not work so well. Though pliable friends are nice to have. Other answers I had wrong at first include 51A: Cooking pots (ollas) - I had OASTS (they're both klassic krosswordese, but only one actually fits this clue) - 53D: Lie around (loll) - I had LAZE - and 39D: Not budging (firm) - I had FAST, which is a very accurate way of describing a stain that is "not budging."

33D: Architect Saarinen (Eero)
61A: Otherworldly (odd)

Pantheon rules dictate that I must acknowledge every NYT crossword appearance by a sitting member of the Security Council. Thus I hereby acknowledge EERO Saarinen. Even the unquestioned rulers have to get out once in a while and show they're still relevant. As for this "Otherworldly" clue ... I do Not like ODD as the answer. It's too banal an answer for a clue with such extra-terrestrial promise. ODD is ODDly deflating here. The shape of the fingernail on my right middle finger is ODD (because that finger was slammed in car / house doors three times between the ages of 5 and 11). That fingernail is not, however, from outer space. EERO sounds "Otherworldly," like the name of a space alien, but in reality he's simply a Finnish dude whose name (to Americans, at any rate) is ODD.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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TUESDAY, Nov. 28, 2006 - Alan Arbesfeld

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Solving time: 6:35

THEME: "The Inn Crowd" - 3 theme answers are people whose last names are also the names of famous INNs: Alex COMFORT (17A), Lionel HAMPTON (26A), and Billie HOLIDAY (47A)

Cute theme, quick solve. The only snag was 17A (THEME): "The Joy of Sex" author (Alex Comfort) - I was solving that region of the puzzle before I knew the theme, and for some reason I thought the guy's last name was COUSINS. I figured out just this second that the person I was thinking of was NORMAN COUSINS, the man associated with the healing power of laughter. He wrote Anatomy of an Illness, in which he described how watching Marx Brothers films, among other things, helped him recover from a grave illness. Not sure what it says about me that I confused the SEX expert with the LAUGHTER expert.

Seemed a bit mean and unnecessary to clue Lionel HAMPTON as the So-called "King of Vibes". That "so-called" sounds derisive, implying that he's called that but doesn't deserve to be, or that the the title is dubious. I can't speak to his vibes skills, as I have barely heard of Lionel HAMPTON (I'm more of a Lionel RICHIE man myself) and probably couldn't pick vibes out of an instrument line-up. Still, I think "so-called" should be eliminated from cluing unless there is some deflating intent behind it. Long Reign Lionel, KING OF (good) VIBES.

X-FACTOR

14A: Canon competitor (Xerox)
1D: Oral, e.g. (!) (exam)
4D: Either of two A.L. nines (Sox)

Throw in ALEX COMFORT, and this tiny NW portion of the puzzle has 4 X-words (3 total X's). Now throw in 38D: Invoice add-on (sales tax) and its X-cross 68A: An inert gas (xenon) and, well, that's a lot of X's. Nice, especially for a Tuesday. Speaking of the SOX, it seems that the Red SOX (my co-favorite team, along with Detroit) are going to trade Manny Ramirez (perhaps my favorite player, in that his play, good and bad, brings me the greatest joy) because they are picking up some nondescript white boy (J.D. Drew) to play left field. Ick. Manny has personality. Manny makes inexplicable fielding decisions. Manny is the the most preternaturally gifted hitter I have Ever Seen play (finally got to see him play live this past summer - he hit a home-run, hurray). It will sicken me to see him as, say, an Oriole. Nobody that good deserves to be turned into an Oriole.

11A: Huck Finn's raftmate (Jim)
11D: Like many a disabled semi (jack-knifed)

The first of these was my first desperate toe-hold in the puzzle, after I'd gone past 1A and 6A with no luck. The second of these has to be the greatest Tuesday fill ever. The clue is hot - perfectly conceived and worded - and the fabulous double "K" brings an added sparkle and shine. Such an animated answer, and it just feels good when you say it: JACK-KNIFED!

32A: A deadly sin (envy)
33A: Lecherous goat men (satyrs)

Here we enter the sinful center of the puzzle (actually, the true center of the puzzle is 39A: Sale item, maybe: Abbr. [irr.], but IRR. isn't sexy enough for me to want to write about it). ENVY and Lust side by side. Nice. I got ENVY as soon as I read the clue because, coincidentally, I was holding a book with that very title last night as I wandered around Barnes & Noble thinking about what to get people for Xmas. There is a whole series of little books on the deadly sins put out by Oxford University press - and they seemed really interesting to me. They're written for a general readership by quite reputable writers and scholars, including Francine Prose and Wendy Wasserstein. I actually bought the one on Anger for myself. I have ... occasional ... issues ... with that particular ... sin. This is moving into weirdly confessional territory, so I'll move on.

46A: Houston hockey player (Aero)

Never heard of 'em? Well, no surprise there, as they are not an NHL team. They are, rather, an AHL (American Hockey League) team: minor league. I am happy to hear this because I had this alarmed feeling that my sports cred was falling precipitously - how could I not know that Houston had a major league hockey franchise? I mean, I could not name all the NHL teams off the top of my head, but I think I could tell you the name of the hockey team if you gave me the name of the city / state. Florida PANTHERS, Dallas STARS, Carolina HURRICANES - I'm just going to do memory drills here for a while, you guys can go ahead without me ... San Jose SHARKS, yes!

65A: Garlicky sauce (aioli) (mmm, 80% vowels)
35D: Hospital fluids (sera)
59D: Fruity drinks (ades)

All potential Pantheon material. You will not find ADES outside of a crossword puzzle grid except as a suffix. SERA? Hardly. Who says anything with proper Latinate pluralization like that (besides, uh, me)? AIOLI, however, is common parlance - but it's exotic enough, and common enough in the grid, that I would consider AIOLI for inclusion at some point. In conclusion, "Hospital fluids" is the grossest clue I've read in a while - I just thank god the answer was SERA and not one of the hundreds of horrifying potential answers floating through my head.

24D: Singer with an Oscar-nominated song in "The Lord of the Rings" (Enya)

Ugh, now she pretty much has to go on my short-list for new Pantheon inductees. She's everywhere she wants to be. It's a bit annoying. I was happy to see Pantheon aspirant 12D: Louvre pyramid architect (I.M. Pei) up there in the NE, and in his full-name form, no less. Very impressive, Mr. Pei. ASTA approves.

41D: Worth a C (fair)

Man, this threw me right off. Aside from the COMFORT / Cousins fiasco in the NW, this was the part of the puzzle that slowed me down the most. It was only on my third pass at this answer that I saw what the clue was aiming for. So misdirective! C = 100, so my mind was thinking mathematically; the horrible irony is that the clue was going for the "C" that is actually closest to my everyday life, in that I give lots and lots of "C"s on papers. I think did so just yesterday. Grrr.

27D: "To Live and Die _____" (in L.A.)

Thought I'd end today with some glorious 80's goodness, and what says glorious 80's goodness better than Wang Chung? "I wonder why in L.A. / To live and die in L.A." - genius. Wang Chung did the entire soundtrack to William Friedkin's 1985 neo-noir film. If you can get over the group's ridiculous name and ignore some of its sillier top 40 hits / videos, the music on this soundtrack is not bad. Screams 80's, but in the best way possible.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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MONDAY, Nov. 27, 2006 - Marlon R. Howell

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Solving time: 5:28 (applet)

THEME: "Quote by Bertrand Russell relevant to crossword solvers" - THE TIME YOU ENJOY / WASTING / IS NOT WASTED TIME

This is pretty average Monday solving time for me, but I'm a little frustrated because I really felt like I was going quickly, and yet ... didn't even break 5. Two problems. 1. Still working on my applet agility, and 2. block quotes, UGH. The real hang-up came on the middle part, WASTING. I had WASTIN- and I thought it was not one word but two: WAS TIN-, which made me really question the "N" - since the TIME in the first part of the quote somewhat suggested that it might be referred to again (THE TIME YOU ENJOY / WAS TIME...), though if you stop to think about it (not that possible at high speeds) my imagined phrasing makes no sense grammatically. Still I was thinking WAS TINY? WAS TINT? Ugh! I had to snake my way over to that part of the puzzle by another route before the horrid, never-actually-used GELID provided the final "G" in WASTING. I like that I WASTED time figuring that damned part out. I'm also proud that I'm at the point where a time over 5 on a Monday is disappointing to me. Good for me.

My mother foisted Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian on me as a teenager, which says a lot about my mom (most of it quite good, actually). My mom is not a ... fan of organized religion. Right-wing politics are only part of the problem: the Catholics who swarmed our neighborhood every Sunday of my youth (we lived next door to a church) could not drive worth a damn and made our weekly expeditions to IHOP more harrowing than she could accept without exclaiming some kind of profanity. To this day, one of my favorite mom quotes is "god-damned Catholics" (this must be muttered, not yelled, preferably while driving). Ironically, my mom is one of the most Christian women I know (not in the church-going sense, but in the sense that she's actually read the Gospels, multiple times, and lives a life that's mostly in keeping with their core principles - but don't tell her that; it might freak her out).

Back to work today, ugh. I have a turkey-birthday hangover, as I consumed something like my body weight over the four-day weekend. Back to dietary basics, starting ... now.

11D: Old Japanese assassin (ninja)

This word has so much contemporary currency - at least one kid I know was a ninja for Halloween - that I was surprised to see it clued as "Old." That's all I have to say about that. Here is a so-called "Ninja Turtle."

34D: _____ - Coburg (part of historic Germany) [Saxe])
66A: Pivots (slews)

Two words I did not know ... in a Monday puzzle. Humiliating - or would have been if I hadn't been able to piece them together from crosses. What does "historic Germany" mean? Is there a part of the country that has been cordoned off? What part of Germany isn't "historic" in some way? Does the clue refer to a no-longer-current name for a region in Germany? I'm assuming SAXE is etymologically related to SAXONS somehow. The Angles and the Saxons either "invaded" or "migrated to" what is now England in the 5th c. CE. The English language developed from the Germanic languages spoken by these Anglo-Saxon "invaders." Where am I going with this? I have no idea. Slipped into lecture mode for a second. Sorry. SLEWS is even rougher than SAXE for a Monday puzzle because, as far as I can tell in one minute's Google research, which I did just now, SLEW is a variant of SLUE, with the following definitions (from the Am. Herit. Dict.):

slue1 also slew (sl)
v. slued, also slewed slu·ing, slew·ing slues, slews
v. tr.

1. To turn (something) on an axis; rotate: slued the swivel chair around; sluing the boom of a crane.
2. To turn sharply; veer: braked and slued the car around.


v. intr.

1. To turn about an axis; pivot.
2. To turn or slide sideways or off course; skid.


n.

1. The act of sluing.
2. The position to which something has slued.

I can't complain, because if the answer had been SLUES I still wouldn't ever have heard of it.

63A: Hayseed (yokel)

"Some folks'll never eat a skunk / But then again, some folk'll / Like Cletus, the Slack-Jawed YOKEL!"
I like that YOKEL intersects 55D: Drink with sushi (sake) at the "K." Mmmm, incongruity. There are actually 3 K's, an X, a couple of V's, and many many Y's in this puzzle. Pretty good for a Monday.

28D: Vladimir of the Kremlin (Putin)

Soon this answer will be clued "Dictator Vladimir" or "Despot Vladimir" or "Guy who has journalists killed with radioactive material Vladimir." Russia apparently has gotten tired of being an also-ran country and is making a play to get back into the world tyranny game in a big way. Remember when we won the Cold War? Ah, good times.

64A: Capone fighter Eliot _____ (Ness)

Somewhere in a loch in Scotland, a certain giant amphibious creature I know is getting very angry at being snubbed in puzzle after puzzle in favor of this alleged crime-fighter guy. Can't the world's stealthiest dinosaur get a little love? "Home of Scottish monster" - how hard is that? You could even add "allegedly" if you felt you had to. You've got CLAN (1A) in the northwest of the puzzle - you could bring a little of that Scottishness to the far southeast. Viva Scotland. Cue Willie!

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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SUNDAY, Nov. 26, 2006 - Manny Nosowsky

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME

So this is what 37 feels like ... huh. Interesting.

Here is the very super-fantastic "6th Avenue" super-dessert that we got from Sarah's Patisserie in Ithaca:
I'm sorry, but words cannot describe how good a "6th Avenue" tastes. Maybe some day you'll be lucky enough to find out for yourself. While you're at it, drop by Olivia, my favorite restaurant within a three-hour radius of my house, where the food is unfailingly fantastic. I am generally opposed to bumper stickers, but this one is going on my car immediately:


Solving time: 30 flat

THEME: "ENERGY CRUNCH" - a "crunchword" puzzle where the (very crosswordy) word ERG is crammed into eight squares around the grid.

For the record, here is the definition of ERG from Merriam-Webster (m-w.com):

a centimeter-gram-second unit of work equal to the work done by a force of one dyne acting through a distance of one centimeter and equivalent to 10-7 joule.


Birthday blog! This will be brief, as I have breakfast cooking for me downstairs and a sunny day and empty woods waiting for me and my wife and my dog, so ...

A few preliminary notes: traffic to this site hit a record high yesterday as a surge of returning visitors coming back from Thanksgiving vacation (I assume) dovetailed with a tidal wave of solvers around the world trying to find the answer to a single clue from six weeks ago, the answer to which was POG. Seriously. 500+ unique visitors looking for one little three-letter word. I love the apparent randomness of it all: who knew that that clue would send hundreds to their computers? LILI ST CYR ran a very distant second in the search race, but she's hot - she'll get over it.


A Manny Nosowsky crossword for my birthday!? Oh, you shouldn't have. It's beautiful. And it fits! And look, it's full of some of my favorite words: ASTA! (32D) President of the Pantheon! Snap! Oooh, there's IHOP (91D) again: My Church of Choice. Nice. And there's ... wait... who's that dude in the far north? Yeah, between CZAR (5A) and PUSS (15A). Is that ... is that @#$#-ing ILOILO (9A)!? Philippine seaport, my ass. Is this a joke? Oh, you think this is funny!? Get that bastard out of my puzzle! I told him I never wanted to see him again, and I meant it.

The ERG theme was cute. I just learned the term "crunchword puzzle" last night, actually, while reading Matt Gaffney's Gridlock (which is an informative and entertaining book on the world of crossword construction, by the way). I had done many crunchword puzzles before - I just didn't know that that's what you called them. The ERG's in this puzzle are maddeningly asymmetrical - maddening only because they are very nearly symmetrical (which would be an amazing feat), and would be close enough to satisfy my OCD were it not for this random extra ERG jammed into the NE corner. There's already one up there, not two squares away. Too many ERGs spoil my broth! Otherwise, no complaints. A lovely Sunday puzzle, really.

I am being told "breakfast is ready!" - more later.

I'm back, full of fried potatoes, beautifully scrambled eggs, and two kinds of pie.

4D: Place for pearls (oyster bed)

With just the "O" (from 1A AERO) I boldly and wrongly began to enter ON A STRING (it fits ... come on, it's an Awesome guess as wrong guesses go). Then when I got the "Y" from 19A TREY, I thought "Oh, OYSTER something ... BAR! Yes." No. If there are pearls at an OYSTER BAR, you can be sure that something has gone horribly wrong. "My tooth!" The correct OYSTER BED is not a phrase I can visualize. Do they sleep together? Are they farmed in beds? I got the "E" in BED only after 50A: Phrase of nonspecific attribution went from SOME SAY to THEY SAY. It's an odd clue / answer pairing, but I like it - which reminds me: for 27A: "Likewise" (I do too), I mysteriously had I DO SAY ... as in "if I DO SAY so myself" or "I (DO) SAY, old chap, what's all this?" Ridiculous.

30A: Juicy, tart apple (stayman)

Neither I nor my apple-loving wife (nearly wrote "wife-loving apple") knew what (the hell) this was. Until I looked it up just now, I was willing to be that the answer wasn't STAYMAN, but ST. AYMAN. Yet it is STAYMAN, a variety of Virginia apple, it seems. Sounds like something a hippie would say to his dog.

46D: Onetime American Communist leader _____ Hall (Gus)
86A: Prince Valiant's firstborn (Arn)

Oh, his firstborn. I see. No, I don't, as no one under 60 knows what the hell this refers to. See also GUS Hall ("five-time presidential candidate!?" Really?). Is Prince Valiant even running any more? I should know. I'm supposed to know something about comics. Hal Foster was a legendary comics artist. He's dead, but the strip goes on - here, if not elsewhere. Foster was a great, great adventure comics artist, though I always found Prince Valiant kinda boring. And that hair...

50D: Setting for some Sherlock Holmes mysteries (the moors)

Better clue than "Infidels, to the Spanish, once" or "Othello's people," I guess. I like the SYN[ERG]Y (36A) created by this clue and 26D: Raises a howl (bays), as it reminds me of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Sherlock Holmes story I know best, and one that was adapted by Hammer Studios into a very campy yet enjoyable movie starring, who else, Christopher Lee, Dean of B-Grade Horror. For my brief review, see the first "Member Review" here at Netflix (written under yet Another pen name - not sure why I hide the name my mother gave me, which is perfectly good). One other SYN[ERG]istic clue pair of note is 55D: Travel guide (road map) and 87A: Directional aid (sign post). You know, to help you get home quickly in case you get lost on THE MOORS and hear the ominous BAYing of hounds.

82D: Lake that's a source of the Mississippi (Itasca)

Total guess. To be specific, I guessed the "C" - the other letters were solid, but the "C" came from 109A: Lifts (cops). Never having heard of ITASCA, and feeling the answer COPS a bit ... iffy, I circled the "C" here as a possible WRONG answer. I take it that COPS here means "lifts" in the sense of "shoplifts?" When I think of COP as a verb, it is generally followed by A FEEL, not A PACK OF CIGARETTES FROM 7-11. To learn more about Lake ITASCA, I direct you to this site, despite the fact that the text there begins: "The Mississippi River begins it's [UGH] two thousand three hundred and twenty mile [SO WHAT'S BROKEN ON YOUR KEYBOARD - THE NUMBER KEYS OR THE HYPHEN KEY?] journey to the Gulf of Mexico..." COPS intersects THOREAU (surprising - to me - answer to 95D: "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear" penner). Since I showed a picture of THOREAU two days ago (because he was the first ESSAYIST my Google Image search turned up), I'll leave you today with 118A (THEME): He was no dummy (EDGAR B[ERG]EN) and his "dummy," Charlie McCarthy. Enjoy!

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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SATURDAY, Nov. 25, 2006 - Sherry O. Blackard

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Solving time: 16:54

THEME: none

Spending bulk of the day in Ithaca - with pre-birthday lunch @ Olivia's and birthday dessert pick-up @ Sarah's Patisserie - so this entry will be brief. In case I run out of time and have to cut the entry shorter than I would like, I want to say straight off that I loved this puzzle. The best Saturday puzzle not authored by someone named Quarfoot that I've seen in recent months - and I have generally been very fond of all the Saturdays. Who is this Sherry O. Blackard? Her last name suggests a cruel, callous person (or a musician who plays with Joan Jett), but I felt nothing but sweet love while solving this puzzle. Usually the love feeling comes after, but I knew in the middle of solving it that this puzzle was something special. It's true that I got the 15-letter fill very quickly, with very few crosses, but relative speed of solving has little to do with my pleasure here. Answers were tricky in that they were clever, not (especially) obscure, though I did learn a couple of new terms. Ultimately, this puzzle did what the ideal Saturday puzzle should do: make me work, but make the work entertaining. I want to sweat like the souls in Purgatorio sweat - knowing they're going somewhere good in the end, no matter how long it takes. I don't want to sweat like an ESNE - breaking my back with no promise of joy or release, and with only a silly name as my reward. There was so much A- and B-grade pop culture knowledge (e.g. 59A: 1979 #1 song with the chorus line "Turn the other way" (Sad Eyes)), and so much cool colloquialism (e.g. 33A: Claims (has dibs on)), afoot in this puzzle that the whole thing felt like a (pre-)birthday gift, written just for me, and even though it wasn't, I'm thankful.

Writing this blog has been totally worth all my time and effort if only for the vast improvement that I have seen in the quality of the greeting cards I receive from family. It's as if, by writing, I have given my family a better sense of who I am (never been terribly outgoing - "introverted" is the polite term, though "surly" is my sister's term of choice), and so the birthday cards feel like they were selected just for me instead of for "generic male relative number 5." Birthday cards from family are generally very bland, tepid affairs - nice, thoughtful, but not especially memorable in and of themselves. Yesterday, however, I got two birthday cards in the mail (one from my aunt, one from my grandma) that made me laugh out loud. Two! What are the odds? First, from my grandma, a card that features three of my greatest loves: irony, revenge, and rainbow-colored mobs:Sahra, who is six and had a princess piƱata at her birthday party, loved this picture and read it out loud over and over, with increasingly professional inflection in her voice. The second card was from my aunt Nancy, and, well, it doesn't really need explanation:How Nancy managed to travel into the future to get a photo of me on my 65th birthday, I'll never know. The card came with an enclosed check, making my aunt this show's first official underwriter, god bless her.

1A: See people (bishops)

Thought about it for a few seconds, and then got it. Always nice to nail 1A right off the bat. This enabled me to get 2D: Staff-produced (in-house) with just the "I," and though I had both 1D and 3D wrong initially - thought 1D: Novelty race vehicle (bath tub) had something to do with beds and was ever surer that 3D: Prepared for bad news, say (steeled) was SAT DOWN - I quickly surmised the 1970 B.B. King hit that cut across the entire top half of the puzzle ("THE THRILL IS GONE"), and then the Down clues began to fall quickly.

8A: Like Baylor University (Baptist)
16A: Either of two track stars (Al Unser)

Strange that these two are in the Northeast, because they reek of the South. As for Baylor, knew the answer was some Christian denomination, and for some reason BAPTIST would not come into view. I had LUTHERAN, METHODIST ... but no BAPTIST. As for the UNSERs, that clue is rough, both because "track stars" suggests runners, not auto racers, and because the "two" part is a bit cryptic. Must be something to do with a family name, but nothing about the clue says "family," explicitly. Throw in the fact that you end up getting a full name, not the more typical last name only, and a perfectly ordinary answer like ALUNSER becomes very hard to find indeed. Thank god for my nerdy friends, who unknowingly helped me get the short but useful 11D: "Star Trek" series preceding "Voyager," for short (TNG), which helped me begin to crack the BAPTIST / ALUNSER code.

22A: English agriculturist and inventor (Tull)

First, "agriculturist?" I would have said "agriculturAList" (in the imaginary world wherein I have occasion to speak of such things). Who is this guy? Let's see... O My God it's JETHRO TULL, after whom that crazy flute-music prog rock band must have been named. The 18th-century inventor referred to in this clue is one of a long line of people who invented an efficient machine (in this case, a sowing machine) to do the work of laborers he resented having to pay. In your face, laborers!

35A: Faux family name in rock and roll (Ramone)
56A: Destroyed little by little (ate into)

These answers have a lot in common, though they may not seem alike on their surfaces. First, I got tricked by both clues and entered wrong answers. I wanted 35A to have something to do with Sly and the Family STONE (had the -ONE part), even though STONE was one letter short. With 56A, I confidently entered ATE AWAY. Wrong. Trappy. Tough but fair. Both these clues/answers have a certain horror-movie quality to them. If you have ever seen pictures of Joey RAMONE (or any of them, really), then you know it's not a stretch to imagine him as some kind of zombie or other kind of monster whose flesh has somehow been EATEN INTO. Vivid yet horrifically pallid fill that reminds me simultaneously of Dawn of the Dead and Rock 'n' Roll High School.

46A: Actress Lords (Traci)
57A: Galley of yore (trireme)

OK, these answers - even more apparently dissimilar than the RAMONE / ATE INTO answers - have things in common as well. First, they alliterate. Second, I love them both, in very different ways. Ms. Blackard was very kind not to put quotation marks around "Actress" in the TRACI Lords clue, or to add "Porn" to the beginning of the clue. TRACI Lords was an underage porn star (!) who went on to a campy career in both non-porn film - beginning with the John Waters-directed Johnny Depp vehicle Cry Baby - and pop music, wherein I get her confused with Samantha Fox. Apparently her 1995 album "1000 Fires" was not as bad as I think it was. Reader Andrew will likely chime in on this matter shortly. TRIREME is one of those great words you learn in one of only two ways: reading Homer or doing crosswords. I enjoy both. Lucky me. Thanks again, Sherry O'Blackheart!

Signed, Rex Parker, King of Crossworld

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FRIDAY, Nov. 24, 2006 - Dave Mackey

Friday, November 24, 2006

Solving time: approx. 17 minutes

THEME: none

Did this puzzle fairly quickly last night while sitting in "bed" [reader Andrew would have you know I don't sleep in an actual bed, but on a futon on the floor like some kind of 90's college student], after having eaten Thanksgiving dinner ... twice: once with wife and our friends around 3-4 pm, and then again right before Survivor (which I am somehow watching again after a multi-season boycott). Not sure if the Thanksgiving fullness helped or hurt. Seemed like it had no effect. The puzzle had an eerily Maleskan feel to it - some weird (to me) words and phrases that felt like they came from a land I'd never heard of, let alone been to. 36A: Olivine variety (Peridot) is a very good example, as I have no idea what OLIVINE or PERIDOT is, though I feel as if I've heard of the latter, at least. Had to guess a letter in the NW (guessed right). Had to suffer the ignominy of being caught in baseball ignorance yet again (feels like it's happening all the time lately). Learned a couple of things about major pop culture figures who appear frequently in puzzles. Overall, an OK experience. I take back the "Maleskan" part, actually, upon further review. Not enough back-breaking arcana to merit that distinction. But this was definitely a puzzle where my solving skills, and not my general fund of knowledge, was largely responsible for successful completion. Nice to see two guys named "Sal" in the puzzle: MINEO (19A) is angling for Pantheon status, while BANDO (18D) is just happy to get out of the house (notice how he doesn't even care that his clue was really pointing to a railroad name, and not to him at all).

1A: Some Italian baby food (pastina)
3D: Former "60 Minutes" debater Alexander (Shana)

Here is where I guessed a letter ("S"), though really what else could it have been? I inferred PASTINA from PASTA, but what the hell do I know about Italian babies? And though SHANA sounded far too ... unnewsworthy a name to be the right answer to 3D, I had to go with it. Honestly, until I looked it up, I didn't know if the clue referred to a SHANA Alexander or an Alexander SHANA. Shana Alexander was a successful female journalist back when there weren't that many of them. She provided the "liberal" viewpoint in debates with "conservative" James J. Kilpatrick at the end of "60 Minutes" episodes in the late 1970s. She died in June of last year. And yet Andy Rooney lives on. Where is the justice in that?

8A: Company that owns the brands Playtex, Kiwi and Hillshire Farm (Sara Lee)

Hmmm, Playtex, Kiwi, and Hillshire Farm. That's quite a hand you're holding, Ms. Lee. Three-of-a-...kind? "Forget snack treats. I have seen the future, and it is, in order: tampons, shoe polish, and sausage." That has to represent the highest level of difficulty for an ad exec charged with creating synergy among a company's products.

PS somebody tell SARA LEE that despite the fact that she has appeared in the grid, in her entirety, at least twice in the past couple of months, 7-letter words are simply not allowed in the Pantheon.

25A: _____ Ray of the Indigo Girls (Amy)
52A: "_____ to recall..." (I seem)

Thank god for fill-in-the-blank clues like these, or I don't know where my toehold(s) would have come from. I SEEM to recall that I briefly dated the sister of one of the Indigo Girls (Emily's sister, not AMY's). I just like to drop that odd bit of information into conversation whenever I have the chance, even though it's the saddest claim to celebrity proximity ever made by a grown man. The Indigo Girls are of course famous (now) for their crossword fondness. Of all their albums, I am most fond of the oddly titled "Come On Now Social."

39A: Baseball Hall-of-Famer Tim (Keefe)

Uh, who? I've got RAINES and MCCARVER and then I'm tapped out. Holy Moly - I'm going to have to bring the "Maleskan" designation back, as this answer is Old-Timey ... to the Xtreme! Tim KEEFE was a massive baseball star ... in the 19th century. He was a submarine pitcher (HA ha, I didn't know those existed until the days of Kent Tekulve and Dan Quisenberry) who won an astonishing number of games and struck out thousands. If I'd been born in 1869 and not 1969, I'd have known this.

12D: Put in abeyance (laid aside)
13D: One who's not being precise (estimator)
14D: Some bloggers (essayists)

I found these parallel long answers in the NE corner of the puzzle kind of icky and off for some reason. 12D's cluing just sounds clunky, despite being reasonably correct on a definitional level. I guessed ESTIMATOR with just the "M" - my long answer coup of the day. ESTIMATOR as a noun ... hrrmph. Yes, it's a word. As for "some bloggers" - I got ESSAYISTS in fairly short order, but ... what do you mean by "some?" Moreover, what do you mean by "ESSAY?" Again, the answer is not untrue, but the connection between the world of blogging and the world of ESSAYs does not seem very tight. The very word "ESSAYIST" smacks of a world that would sneer at the practice of blogging. POLITICOS would have fit. EGOMANIACS is too long, but would have worked nicely in the singular. This corner is so boring that I can't even think of a good picture to go with it. Here is Henry David Thoreau. He was an actual ESSAYIST.

24D: Sophisticated (smart)

We were watching the British version of "What Not To Wear" just prior to bedtime, so this one came quite easily. Whether most of the fashion on that show could be said to be SMART, however, is debatable.

30D: Quaker product (Rice-a-Roni)

I have no real commentary to offer on this one. I just like the (apparent) incongruity of clue and answer. RICE-A-RONI is very good long fill. It's the San Franscisco treat that was often given away in large quantities as the consolation prize on game shows in the 1970's. Its cable car ads remind me, not surprisingly, of S.F., where I was born.

38D: Fish basket (creel)
44D: Prospect (vista)

I pick these two for different but related reasons: I got them both almost immediately, and I don't know why. I mean I pulled CREEL out of my ... brain - out of the deep, deep recesses. I think I startled the word as it slept, unused and un-thought-of for years. As I wrote it in, I was deeply suspicious, but it panned out. As for VISTA, it's a fairly easy word, but I had only the "I," and I just knew somehow that the answer must be VISTA. I can't explain. It was this weird peek into how top solvers' minds must work all the time. Something weirdly Rain-Man-ish takes over and you see things that reasonable, intelligent people would not see, or not see so quickly. Sadly, this kind of instant divination happens to me far too infrequently to have a huge impact on my overall solving times. But it feels oddly magical when it does happen.

Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld

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