★ Leveling up from Wednesday to Thursday NYT crosswords can feel insurmountable. The only rule for Thursdays is that there are no rules. So many people are flummoxed by Schrödinger dualities, letters impossible to write in a black square, or entries that literally require outside the box thinking ... they dejectedly throw in the towel.
Today's puzzle is an excellent gateway into the wonderful Wonderland down the rabbit hole. Some Wednesday solvers have at least heard of rebuses before, and Barbara gently nudges folks into the uncharted, but conquerable territory.
[Eat, quaintly] — wisely italicized for emphasis — can't be BREA(KD). It has to be BREA(K) BREA(D), and the concept's dam breaks open. Some neat finds in (P)OWER (M)OWER and (G)O TOE (T)O TOE.
Although DO(N)'T DO (I)T is short, I admired how non-obvious it was, much harder to suss out that something like (H)OCUS (P)OCUS or K(I)NG K(O)NG.
I also appreciated that Barbara made me curious to see what other possibilities existed. Jim's approach below is great for non-coders. With twenty lines of Python coding, I captured a more complete set, including some neat ones like COMME C(I), COMME C(A), TOMA(Y)TO TOMA(H)TO, SPL(I)SH SPL(A)SH, along with several others that were already featured in Matt's concept. Taking it one step further, I found another set that were in line with Patrick Berry's amped-up execution.
Given that there are hundreds of possibilities, it would have been nice to have some extra layer to help this puzzle stand out. However, Barbara did a nice job of picking out fun examples, and the use of both letters in the Down direction as a rebus square made for a concept that might rocket Wednesday solvers through the sound barrier of crossword soundness. Welcome to the Bizarro World of limitless creativity!
Two vastly different meanings of FLIP-FLOP give me pleasure: the comfy footwear that 80-HD wears and the logic circuit I used to rely on back in my engineering days. A single electronic flip-flop is not so useful, but when you combine dozens or hundreds of them, they can make amazing robots … like 80-HD.
Maybe not so vastly different. I flip-flop my statement.
I appreciate the elegance in featuring two each of FLIP, FLOP, and FLIP-FLOP. Much better than three FLIPS, a FLOP, and a FLIP-FLOP flipped over a FLOP.
It would have been more satisfying, though, if all the themers had been in-the-language phrases. It's a lot of work to uncover themers when the clues don't give you much information. All that work, and all I got was this lousy CASUAL SANDAL? No thanks. A dry dictionary definition isn't an epic fail, but it's not nearly as enjoyable as EPIC FAIL.
Will Shortz doesn't take many "themers are all different definitions of a single clued word" puzzle, so you need something extra to get over the high bar. I like the FLIP + FLIP + FLIP-FLOP element, but there was potential left on the table. With all these flippety flippers, I can envision some backwards entries, some upside-down, even some head-breaking chaos. FLIP-FLOP is so full of wordplay possibilities; it'd have been fun to brainstorm.
Lisping themes make me uncomfortable. I've known enough people with speech difficulties that playing on them feels more than a tad insensitive. Given that my son said only "Quack" and grunted (mostly grunted) until his third birthday makes me even more aware of these issues.
That said, I appreciate Barbara effort to distinguish hers from other lisping themes, by linking to a childhood favorite of mine, SYLVESTER. He wasn't Road Runner-level awesome, but he wasn't Tweety-groanworthy, either. I tended to feel sorry for him. Just once, it'd have been great to see him catch that annoying little big-eyed canary and slowly tear his wings off, savoring him screech "I TAWT I TAW A PUDDY TAT GO ALL GAME OF THRONES ON ME!"
My theory is that my pediatrician was a quack.
Some interesting finds, MTYH to MISS, MOUTH to MOUSE, TRUTH to TRUCE, FAITH to FACE. I didn't totally buy the last two, but I'm not going to make judgments on what's "accurate" when it comes to lisping.
Loved the bonuses in the corners, Reba MCENTIRE getting her due after usually seen only as REBA in crosswords, OH I GET IT lovely, and SKITTISH excellent. Most constructors would automatically put a black square at the T of MCENTIRE — probably the E of OH I GET IT, too — so it's neat to see someone go the extra mile to treat us with the long bonuses.
No doubt, they do require some tradeoffs — AFUSS is a partial, and a confusing one since AMESS is what this parent of two dirty and sticky kids knew as truth. It's worth it, though.
I enjoy Barbara's gridwork; she's exploded onto the construction scene in a short period. Wish today's theme made me cringe less, though.
It's not uncommon for my kids to sing, "GIMME A BREAK, GIMME A BREAK, break me off a piece of that Chrysler car."
My work here is done.
POOL! I used to play four hours a day in college, honing my game as a pool hustler. There was just one problem: I wasn't any good. The other problem was that I couldn't fool anybody.
I wasn't great at arithmetic, either.
Speaking of playing the fool, I wondered why Barbara included BREAK, RACK, BALL, POCKET, but not CUE. Of course, you should include the iconic cue stick Paul Newman carries around …
Right ON CUE, Jim Horne pointed out that CUE, in fact, was in the puzzle. Middle of said puzzle. No hocus-POCUS, it's right there, in the dead center of the puzzle. I missed it even worse than when I lost my dining hall pass scratching on an easy bank shot.
Seriously though, I would have liked something longer for CUE, like THAT'S MY CUE or RIGHT ON CUE. Would have stood out much more strongly. I'd have also liked consistency in the themers, all items or all actions, but not a mix. With TRIANGLE, TABLE, CUE, BALL, CHALK, POCKET, there are many ways to disguise some subset of these nouns.
KYIV … my first impression was to stare at it for five minutes, wondering how it could possibly be right. Surely I had made a mistake in one of the crossings? Interesting to read Barbara's commentary; that helps ameliorate the unsatisfying end to my solve. It will take me a while to get used to that spelling since I'm so used to KIEV, but I'll work at it. We've added it to our Word List at the nominal 50 level.
It's not a groundbreaking POOL puzzle (and this one too), but I did enjoy the reminder of my youthful idiocy, and the POOL terms were well disguised, using different meanings. A couple of nice bonuses, too, ALLCAPS "shouting," EXHIBITS, GAS LOGS, leaving me IN PEACE (of that Chrysler car).
In Britain, when a crossword — cryptic, of course — setter makes a poor puzzle, they get the boot. As in, they get thrown into the trunk of someone's car. Those old chaps take their crosswords — sorry, crosswourds -- seriously!
I'll show myself into the boot.
I've seen a ton of Britishism crosswords, but this implementation still felt interesting. Regular ol' Yankee phrases, interpreted with an across-the-pond feel ... I like it. I can imagine a Brit asking the elevator operator, CAN I GET A LIFT? Then the American tourist snickering, calling the Brit "old bean" or something. Then the American getting punched in his old bean.
I appreciate how Barbara used four solid phrases, each incorporating a word well-known to have different meanings between the losers of the American Revolution and the winners. (Yeah, I know, it was all a long-con ploy to divest unwanted assets, you got us.) TUBE = the London Underground, LIFT = elevator, TORCH = flashlight, CHIPS = fries.
I've been impressed with Barbara's later-week gridwork, generally featuring colorful bonuses. That was the case again today, with the lovely MENNONITE, TAX RELIEF, OUGHTA, always controversial OCTOPI, POST OP. Solid.
Mondays can be so tricky, though, much less tolerant of crossword esotery that might turn off newbs. If you do crosswords, you have to know your EPEE, you see. OBI aussi? OSSO also? If you've never watched This Is Us, Chrissy METZ would be tough. Toss in plural XIS, and that could be a rough go for a tiro. Er, tyro. Tyrou?
Still, the theme worked well enough to give Barbara a "pip pip," if not a curtsey to the queen.
I enjoy working with new constructors, helping to bring their seed ideas into fruition, and DO RE MI concepts are some of the most common theme proposals. These days, I usually gently nudge people away from them, because they've become so overdone. Thus, I was predisposed to dislike today's puzzle as soon as I read the title and was able to fill in the circles with DO RE MI right off the bat. The three-letter SOL confirmed my hunch 100%, so what was left to solve?
Turns out Barbara found some neat transformations! I loved the GRACE to DOG RACE and SCARCE to SCARFACE changes, DONATION to DOMINATION felt dominant, and FOSTER to FORESTER also delighted me. I love neat wordplay, and these all qualified with high marks.
What a perfect title, too. MUSICAL INTERLUDE aptly hints at the DO RE MI notes interupting normal phrases. That alone was worth the price of admission.
I often don't laugh at "kooky" themes, but there's something so hilarious about ORGAN DOMINATION, the organist letting out all the stops to blow everyone away. An army of soldiers sporting PARASOLs instead of guns? If only the world could be so lucky! GLARE AT GRANDMA isn't funny in itself, but juxtaposing GRANDMA and "stink eye" got a chortle from me.
Barbara's weekday (15x15) gridwork has impressed me, exhibiting both color and cleanliness. Going to a 21x21 140-word puzzle ups the level of difficulty by a factor of about five or ten, though, so I shouldn't be surprised that there was an ENORM of MATIC EROO NUTRI ARMEE EDATE. Those five-letter gloopy bits are so much more noticeable than the shorter stuff like CTR LTD MRE TOR UAR.
Even the most promising new constructors have to learn the ropes. I have a feeling that Barbara will quickly find her way through these types of potholes more quickly than others, given how strong she already is with 15x15s.
It'd have been great not to have the circled letters, which gave away the game way too quickly, but the concept did exceed my fatigued DO RE MI expectations. Several wonderful wordplay discoveries.
I'm a big fan of Barbara's gridwork. I'd guess that 95% of constructors couldn't make a 72-word puzzle as smooth as she did — it's an incredibly tough task. Her debut puzzle was similarly elegant. Rare to see such excellence right out of the gate!
Although I've heard a few of these job puns before, the drill operator ... FINDS WORK BORING amused me. The dichotomy of "boring work" being both a terrible and fantastic thing? Delightful! If all of them had been that fun, this would have gotten POW! consideration.
The calendar maker NEEDS A WEEK OFF … why? I get that the person needs a vacation, but why take a week off of the calendar?
A-ha! Is it like a leap second, a periodic required time adjustment?
Wow, do I overthink things.
Nevertheless, strong overall product. It's a rare case that I'm so impressed by a new constructor's craftsmanship. Now that she's proven she can achieve top-notch smoothness, I'd like to see her add more snazziness to her fill, balancing her cleanliness and John's color from earlier this week.
I'll be keeping a keen eye open for Barbara's bylines.
★ Regular readers of this column know that I love Thursday trickery. Nearly every single ground-breaking / avant-garde / mind-blowing work of iconoclasm has come on a Thursday, and for good reason — Will Shortz aims for Thursday to be the hardest themed day of the NYT week.
Will has been consistent in his philosophy, wanting Thursday to be nothing more than harder than Wednesday. However, all the clever, unique, crack-the-mold concepts have to be slated for Thursday — and there are a lot of them. Those pesky constructors and their breaking of every single crossword rule! Lawless agents of chaos!
Not every Thursday can break the mold, though — that's unrealistic. And even if it were possible, I wouldn't want it. My brain likes to be challenged, but it also likes success. Solving something hard but familiar can produce a great feeling.
That was exactly the case today. At first, I was underwhelmed by the theme being a simple sound change, and I wrote it off as not POW! material. Chatting with Jim Horne made me rethink, though, giving more weight to some of my first impressions:
There were a couple of blips, notably that "gimme a sign" as a base phrase doesn't sound as strong as "give me a sign," and there was more crossword glue than I'd like — close to a GROS amount. As much as I enjoyed some of the wide-openness, I'd have preferred a more standard grid layout that would have been easier to fill cleanly.
Barbara did so much right, though. I'm glad that Jim nudge-nudged me to take a second look.