★ A perfect Saturday crossword.
72 words is the max allowable for a themeless, so the bar is sky high. Not only do you have to maximize every long slot and use near-zero dabs of crossword glue, but these days, there's another requirement: your short entries can't be boring. Will Shortz gets so many themeless submissions that he can shrug at entries like ERA AREA ARENA. Maybe this seems arbitrary, but it's hard to produce anything interesting for these words now — interesting both for him and for solvers. Caitlin and Erik hit all these marks.
Where this puzzle absolutely dazzles is in clever cluing. Roughly five great ones and I'm impressed, but I tallied nine today. Even better, they came from a wide assortment of categories:
On that note, I need to issue an apology to Kameron Austin Collins, as well as other solvers out there who love names in grids. Years ago, I got turned off when OLIVIA POPE caused me to finish with an error. There are many solvers who write to me that they hate names in grids — whether or not they're fairly crossed. I ignorantly assumed that this was the vast majority of solvers. Now I realize there's a segment, notably of younger folks, who strongly disagree.
I still don't love name-heavy grids, preferring pure fun and diversion in my crosswording. And from a results-driven perspective (if that's one of your goals), today's approach finally got me to read up on Olivia Pope — with high interest, at that.
When a name-heavy grid comes up, I try to keep Erik's editorial philosophy in mind: "this one might not be aimed at you, but maybe tomorrow's will be." I'll continue to make mistakes and say ignorant things, but I'll strive to keep listening and learning.
Anyway, I wish I had the skill to make a puzzle half this outstanding. Perhaps my favorite of 2021.
★ Two of my favorite themeless constructors teaming up; how could I resist giving this a POW!? Cool middle, with TREASURE TROVES / MAIN THEME / ABOUT THE AUTHOR stacked, and ELIZABETH WARREN persisting through them all.
Not only are the Across marquee entries fantastic, but they can all take clever or interesting clues. I was so befuddled by ABOUT THE AUTHOR, thinking at first about a denim jacket (I swear, they'll come back in style one day), then a record jacket, and finally a book jacket.
Sad performance from an *ahem* author.
I wonder if ELIZABETH WARREN will prove divisive as a crossword entry. There's no doubt she's famous enough, having made a serious Presidential run earlier this year, but Will usually tries to stay away from politics, as one might at a dinner party. I imagine she'll evoke both cheers and jeers, depending on the political stance of the solver.
While it may be true that the NYT solvership skews left, it is a widely diverse audience. I bet there's a reasonable number of solvers who would prefer seeing IVANKA TRUMP in their grid, for instance, and I would at least have to listen to their grievances.
Caitlin and Andrew did especially well with their mid-length material, so often blah. Most editors prize two-word phrases for their potential to sing, and TO ORDER, ILL BITE, AL DENTE, HOT TAKE all strengthen that perspective. Wonderful work, making such good use of those corners.
I did get stuck in the lower right, worried that I wouldn't be able to finish. Thankfully, I remembered Constructor's Rule #7: if you're filling a big region, you'll usually have to lean on common letters (RSTLN E) — as a solver, if you're stuck in such a wide-open area, try penciling in a random E or T or S and see if that triggers anything. I still couldn't tell you anything about ORESTES, but the name looked familiar enough when I eventually stumbled upon ?RE?TES.
Meticulous craftsmanship, great sizzle in the long entries, and some wickedly sharp clues. I'd love to see more synergistic constructor pairings like this.
OH, THE HUGE MANATEE! I had a manatee-sized laugh at that one ... until Jim Horne pointed out the origin of that phrase and the potential inappropriateness of playing on a national disaster. Right.
The other puns didn't tickle me as much, but they did make me groan. And what is a pun without groans?
Jim and I both struggled to describe the theme as a whole. Marine life puns? Exclamations that NOAA might use in their awareness campaigns? While I did like that Caitlin played on all fun outbursts, some revealer or extra layer would have been great.
Caitlin's gridwork is so strong — she's not just a themeless specialist! Check out what she does with her fantastic long downs: IT DEPENDS and AVALANCHE, properly alternated down/up. Not enough constructors use this great layout, which gives you four long downs in an arrangement that gives you a ton of flexibility, allowing you to work in stuff like BAT SIGNAL and BLIND DATE.
Caitlin's themelesses usually contain several delightful clues, and getting some of that was fantastic. BLIND DATE is already a great piece of fill, and [It may be a setup] — misdirecting toward a criminal setup — makes it even better.
Come to think of it, back when I was single, some of my blind dates could be considered criminal.
Puns often aren't my thing, and I would have liked a theme set that felt less loosey-goosey (skimpy-shrimpy?). Still, I smile even now, thinking about that middle themer. If with a dose of guilt.
Philosophically, I'm not a fan of 21x21 themeless puzzles. A huge puzzle ... about nothing? That fundamentally doesn't work. Not a single headlining piece of entertainment has been about nothing —
Huh? Seinfeld was a show about nothing?
Okay, wise guy, now it's time for the Airing of Grievances.
Running a quarterly themeless Sunday puzzle might work for some subgroup of solvers, and it might even elate them. So what's with my bias?
It could well be that I'm adversely affected by my constructing background. Hearing so, so, so many constructors say, "I couldn't think of a theme, so I made a themeless" — plus hearing that submissions are perpetually skewed, with floods of themelesses and only dribs of Sundays — makes this strategy feel like a cop-out.
My bigger issue is that I see so much possibility in the 21x21 canvas, the big board begging for artistic and creative brilliance. I've heard the argument that it's too tough to come up with a brilliant Sunday theme every week, but I don't buy that. Evan Birnholz (of the Washington Post) doesn't always hit, but at least once a month, I sigh, wishing that Will Shortz would hire a team of people like Evan, tasking them with rejuvenating Sunday puzzles.
It's not fair for this philosophical discussion to ignore Caitlin's puzzle, so I will say that I appreciated much of it. A ton of entries delighted — TRICK OR TREAT, DELETED SCENES, SKINNY DIPPING, SLUMBER PARTY — making this far from a TERRIBLE IDEA. Great clues, too, a SHOE STORE a place to "go for kicks." Overall, it worked much better for the broad solving audience than the last one.
I enjoyed enough of Caitlin's work that I gave it some POW! consideration — but only relative consideration, because it's much better than most recent Sunday NYTs. That's a big problem. I'd love to see Will Shortz figure out a way to tackle this issue, casting aside the old-school way of doing things, steering the NYT toward a brighter future for Sundays.
This isn't your father's sound change puzzle! Evan and Caitlin play on "Wait … what?", going from long A sounds to … short U? It's much harder to wrap one's brain around than a straightforward long to short change using the same vowel, but it did produce some excellent results. RAIDERS to RUDDERS is a great find, and RUDDERS OF THE LOST ARK is fantastic. The fact that RUDDERS can directly relate to Noah's Ark makes it a standout.
THE NUMB OF THE GUM gets an A for effort, numb and gum tied nicely together by dentistry. It sounds so much more awkward than CUSS SENSITIVE or WHY THE LONG FUSS, though.
I could not wrap my brain around YOU GOT THAT STRUT. I kept thinking, you got that strat? You got that strot? It now seems obvious, you got that straight, but since all the other base phrases were so much easier to figure out, it might have been better not to lead off with this one.
Such a top-notch grid! No surprise since both Evan and Caitlin have exhibited a top-notch mastery of gridwork. Put two of them together, and of course, you should get beautiful corners like LOCAVORE IN UNISON LETS NOT I KNOW.
And to keep the glue to just IDEE ORO RET, far less than the NYT Sunday average of roughly a dozen, is amazing. Note the liberal usage of extra black ("cheater") squares. Twelve cheaters might seem like too many to some constructors, but I'd pay that price any day to get a grid as clean and colorful.
It's a shame that a few themers didn't hit, like LOADED THE BUSES felt too much like a ho-hum real thing. Sundays that keep veteran solvers entertained from start to finish don't come often, especially when it's a tried-and-true theme type, but this one had that potential.
★ Jim Horne summed up today's wonderful solve perfectly: "They had me at PALM FRONDS." I was so stuck in this corner, unable to figure out if it was fans of Jesus, zealots, fans of Pilates? Nope, manual PALM FROND fans from the Biblical days; so brilliant!
A close second was something "sacrificed at the altar." That's sure laden with imagery of ancient sacrifices to the gods. Talk about Biblical! I laughed upon uncovering the wordplay here, some women "sacrificing" their MAIDEN NAME upon getting married.
Caitlin is a rising star, having recently joined the New Yorker's crack squad of themeless constructors, and Erik perhaps the best clue writer on the planet, so my expectations were already high. Yet, they still wowed me. We get a fun SLEEPYHEAD, the evocative SUCKED FACE, BLACK MAGIC with a wicked [Bad spells clue] that hid the plural. There was about an average number of long slots for a themeless, but they used every single one of them so well.
I wonder how newer themeless solvers feel about clues like [Get out of here!] for ESCAPE ROOM. I hitched when first encountering these directive clues years ago, but now I appreciate them more and more.
The one issue I had was the difficulty level of the lower-left corner, which felt ten times harder than the rest of the puzzle. It's a dirty trick to clue RAH as a crowd roar when every solver will auto-fill in OLE. (Have you ever heard a crowd roar RAH?). Along with barely knowing a thing about "Coco" and being unable to identify AC/DC as the singers of "Rock or Bust," even though I'm a fan of the group, my solve nearly ground to a halt.
Even with that corner, though, the entire solving experience was exactly what I want out of a Friday themeless: a load of great long entries, a ton of witty clues, and an elegantly constructed puzzle. Ticks all the boxes.
★ Caitlyn's gridwork is so strong. I struggled with the top corners of the puzzle, but I got into a groove as I continued, encountering so much great fill: ACTIVEWEAR, SARDINE, HOGWASH, HANGNAIL, NIHILISM, SIM CITY, NESSIE. And I had barely broken into the bottom half of the grid!
The good times kept rolling with AA MILNE, CAPITAL O (tricksy!), ZONE OUT, ESKIMO KISS, MINERAL / ANIMAL linked together. This, my friends, is themeless-caliber work. So much sizzle.
I eventually made the connection that CORNER KICKS hinted at rebuses in the four corners. (KICKS is slang for "shoes.") I continued to struggle, though, and the rebus squares weren't that satisfying to uncover. I had a difficult time figuring out why.
Part of the reason was that I don't know shoes that well, so WEDGE didn't come easily. Also, some of the theme phrases felt like they were too specific. PUMP FAKES, for example, is something I know well from being pump faked out of my Reebok pumps on the court, but if you're not a b-ball fan, that might be mystifying even after filling in every square.
Finally, there's something unsatisfying about all the rebus squares being at known locations. Part of the fun (and frustration) of rebuses is finding the sneaky sneakers. When you know exactly where you need to look, it takes away some excitement of discovery.
Overall though, the fantastic gridwork was more than enough to make up for these issues. I debated over giving this one the POW!, especially since Caitlyn's bar has risen so high so quickly (three out of her last four have won POW!s now). In the end, though, I judge a puzzle by how much entertainment it gave me. By that measure, this one was a big winner.
★ Before I found my literary agent, I'd read everything agents said regarding what they were seeking. More often than not, the number one criterion was "voice." (Besides "an NYT bestseller." Thanks, very helpful.) It was incredibly frustrating, considering voice usually got defined as "It's impossible to describe, but I know it when I read it."
Over the years, I've figured out that "voice" relates to how someone's work makes you feel. Does it make you happy? Confused in a great, tense way, wanting to read more? Maybe it even creates electric sparks. It's personal, of course, but the best writers' voices soar above everyone else's.
Caitlin has voice. There's so much distinctive personality built into this puzzle, from the expressive OH MY GOSH to I DON'T HAVE ALL DAY to STINK EYE. Something old (HAIR TONIC), something NEW AGERS, something BLENDED IN, something STAGE CREW.
Apparently, I still don't have voice.
Such fantastic use of her long slots, not a one I didn't like. STRAIGHTS could have been ho-hum, but not with a clever clue. [They're in good hands]? That's poker hands, that is!
Strong technical merit, too. I've appreciated how her prior crosswords have been so carefully built, avoiding crossword glue much more so than other constructors. Need to smooth out a region? Use cheater squares (the black squares in the upper left and lower right), absolutely!
(Note that not all editors are lax about cheater squares, especially those in the grid's corners. Rich Norris at the LAT frowns mightily upon them, for instance.)
(Also note, I'm fine with ADOS as a plural noun and MIROS as in "what did you think of the Miros on display?" I have no problem with IN ON or HAD IT, either, both of which can stand on their own.)
A couple of amazing clues rounded out the exemplary solving experience. My favorite was NOAH as famous for "seeing double." But close behind was the T.REX "bearing small arms."
A sparkling themeless, outstanding in every way. If I were a crossword agent, I'd sign her in an instant.
So few people can make a Sunday 140-word grid with so much sparkle and smoothness. Sticking to six themers (average tends closer to seven) is often a smart choice, and Caitlin took advantage of the flexibility it allowed. Along with smart placement of her long down slots, she exhibited so much care and craftsmanship in filling her product.
I was even more awed when I checked the word count — 138! The sub-140 challenge is something few constructors should ever consider. For someone with only four published NYT puzzles to tackle it, and execute on it with sizzle? Outstanding.
She even threw in a touch of razzle-dazzle, stacking parallel downs in PET PROJECT / SHOE RACK and OH GROW UP / ONION ROLLS. That's not easy to do, at least not without making a compromise (needing one of the long entries to be neutral, or having to use gloopy short fill to hold everything together).
I haven't been this impressed with a newer constructor's gridwork in years.
Fun clues, too. Charging for balloons A POP? OUTLETS as [Powerpoints?]? SHOE RACK made even better by its punny clue, [Sole supporter?]? Playful, entertaining, dynamite.
The theme wasn't interesting, since adding a single letter is an overdone theme concept. Additionally, adding a common letter like R is way too easy, and the meanings in TIME / TIMER and PLUNGE / PLUNGER hardly changed.
But the title did amuse me. (Might have been even more fun for "Talk Like a Pirate Day." ARR we finished, me hearties?) And for the average solver, the easily-gettable theme concept plus so many bonuses within a flawless grid could result in a smooth solve that they can brag about.
★ Every once in a while, a new voice emerges onto the scene, making me sit up a little straighter. It hasn't been since Robyn Weintraub started making her playful themelesses that I've felt this great a disturbance in the Force. I loved today's solving experience, packed with joy and entertainment from start to finish.
Let's start with the feature entry. If you're going to pick a 13-letter seed, you have to make sure it's solid gold — both on its own right and for its cluing potential — because 13-letter seeds often make trouble for the rest of the grid. Caitlin made hers count, SHAM MARRIAGES colorful, and made even better by the clever repurposing of "actors' unions." Brilliant!
I call I GOT DIBS on this puzzle, far from a HARD PASS, a DEAD SEXY solving experience, WINK WINK, PREGGO, CAPISCE? Zero BAD PR on this one.
With a 70-word themeless, I want every long entry to count. ENROLLEE and ATE LUNCH struck me as more neutral, but everything else was an asset. No SOB STORY there; great usage of long slots.
And the clues. ORBS as "round figures"? The DERMIS being "skin deep"? Clever clever, wink wink!
Just a couple of dings, DAT and MARG thankfully minor. I used to be perfectly fine with KOD = KO'D in boxing, but I've heard a good number of complaints about this one, from both solvers and editors. What do editors know, anyway, you might ask, when KO'D is seen all the time in boxing recaps?
Well, they do control publication, so there is that. Thus the reason I lowered the score on KOD a while back.
I'm hoping to see a lot more from Caitlin. I have a feeling we might be lucky enough to be witnessing the emergence of a great new themeless writer.
I never used to understand the allure of FISHing. You sit quietly in a boat for hours on end, with nothing to do? Really?
Now that I have two (very) active toddlers, I'm starting to understand.
I enjoy trying to guess the theme in "what's the connection?" puzzles. I didn't figure it out until I got to REEL, so my a-ha moment was decently delayed. I enjoyed how well-disguised TACKLE was — a SLIDE TACKLE is very different than fishing TACKLE!
Unless fishing is a lot more violent than I thought?
As I analyzed the puzzle, I realized I knew the fact that TACKLE was a fishing term ... but not exactly what it means. Apparently, it's a catch-all term for fishing equipment? This made me enjoy the theme a little less, as it seemed like a redundant answer, given that one example of TACKLE listed in the Wikipedia article is REEL.
Maybe I should stop anally looking everything up and just enjoy puzzles.
Pretty good gridwork, although it's not as smooth as I think a Monday ought to be. NEG MEDO REDDI and CTR aren't bad, but the grid would have been so much elegant if that SW corner had been redone. As much as I liked James GANDOLFINI on "The Sopranos," I have a feeling that there are other alternatives in that slot, facilitating better surrounding fill.
I did appreciate Caitlin's strong work in the north and south though — POTHOLES / I PROMISE and DIET SODA / SLEEPS ON are solid bonuses. With just the prices of ESO and ENDO respectively, that's more like it in terms of trade-offs.
Great debut! Interesting and twisty theme, perfect for a Thursday, where I want all my hard solving work to have a big payoff. DEAD CENTER hints at the word DEAD being in the black square at the center of the puzzle, completing LEFT FOR (DEAD), (DEAD) OR ALIVE, (DEAD)BEAT DAD, KNOCK EM (DEAD). Four snazzy theme phrases!
At first, I didn't notice that ON THE MONEY was also thematic, a synonym for hitting DEAD CENTER. It's not easy to symmetrically interlock LEFT FOR / ON THE MONEY and BEAT DAD / DEAD CENTER. It's rare that the crossword gods smile upon constructors so fortuitously.
It's especially rare, considering how few (DEAD) phrases Caitlin had to choose from. Sure, there are a lot of phrases involving the word DEAD, but how many are exactly 7 + 4 = 11 letters long, with DEAD at the very start or beginning?
I so badly wanted the single DEAD black square to be by itself, not touching any others. It would have been awesome if the other black squares around the middle had formed a quasi-bullseye shape, or been arranged like a shotgun spray. It would have been possible — I was interested enough to lay out a quick grid skeleton — but it would have been much harder to fill well.
Speaking of filling well, REAL SOON / AFRAID SO! LENNON / AA TEAM / MR HYDE! Even TIMBRE and DOODLE helped out. Not as big on SERVED OUT, pretty dull, but FURY ROAD was a NICE IDEA for a movie (and very entertaining!). Not sure FURY ROAD will remain crossworthy 10 years into the future, but it's spicy right now.
Nice job on the short fill, too. I counted a bit of ENS INME and the tough-if-you-don't-know-it AFTRA, but that's solid work, especially considering that the themers interlocked to form an inflexible skeleton.
Well done! Very much looking forward to more from Caitlin.