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Puzzles for October, 2021
with Jeff Chen comments

Fri 10/1/2021
KEGELDESTLOST
ITOLANDHOONTO
WAYNEMANORNCIS
ISAACAVENGERS
ITSERAT
MADRONALORETTA
ATERADARSCREEN
CRAPSGAMEMATT
RIDEMBASMRI
OASESIDOSMIC
IKEAGYMCLASS
SOLARCARMIGS
THEBATCAVEBCCS
ANNOELMERTOGA
TOTODUSTSQTIP

Jim Horne curates our Grid Art page, which is one of my favorites, so we figured, why not try to add something cool to it?

What, though? Plenty of crosswords have used black squares as grid art, even some that employed rare diagonal symmetry. My favorite was one depicting a kite, but there's been a host of animals, too, including fish, birds, panda, dog, and even a pinata. Lot of these are Bruce Haight's … Bruce ...

Hey, wait a second! Jim. Jim! Let me tell you all about Bruce Wayne's journey to becoming Batman. We'll start off with the comic book lore, move onto the new era where Batman fought Superman, continue into the early movie days, discuss the pros and cons of each of the four people who have been Robin, although there is controversy about the exact number—

Jim? Hello? Did your line accidentally get disconnected?

Originally this comic book nerd wanted to do a giant Bat Signal in the sky, but that felt a bit too obvious. It had nothing to do with the fact that all my Bat Signal attempts looked like Bane smashed his fists into the grid.

After noticing that WAYNE MANOR and THE BATCAVE were matching lengths, that felt like something! Until we realized that regular crossword symmetry would place THE BATCAVE in the opposite corner, not directly underneath. Mirror symmetry wouldn't work and Will Shortz dislikes up-down symmetry. Once we settled in on diagonal symmetry, the bats sort of emerged on their own.

Hopefully, solvers will notice the bats after uncovering THE BATCAVE. Or at least, that effort won't drive them batty.

The Joker made me say that.

Sat 10/2/2021
SESAMESDOSAGE
ONLYONCERAISON
GREENTAXASLANT
LADDORISMILLER
AGGIETEASWPA
DEEMOBIESCAAN
SEDANSTRYST
COULDNTRESIST
SOURSDEEPEN
ERTECARDSGMOS
ANYSHIVMEANT
CHECKEDINTOMRI
ROLLIEECONOMIC
ALLIESWINERACK
BESORESETTLES

Three outstanding feature entries with clues elevating them even further:

  1. I fall for the cab(ernet) misdirect every time, but I still love it. Pulling a three-dollar cab out of my fridge isn't quite as inspiring as getting something from a WINE RACK.
  2. EXIT INTERVIEW is a stellar phrase. Repurposing "canned lines" — playing on lines you might give the interviewer after being canned — is wickedly clever.
  3. Seattle is chock full of hipsters and posers. They're usually saying cannabis-related things, but when they pose for pics, they say CHEESE. Then get hungry and order cheese from Uber Eats.

I also appreciated the effort to make the neutral CHECKED INTO stand out. Fun to think of two completely different CHECKED INTO meanings: registering at a hotel or investigating a UFO sighting.

68-word constructions are so tough to get both clean and colorful. If it's not some wastage in SESAMES, ECONOMIC, OUTYELLS, it's ORTs of ENTO EPS TSE WPA. The gridding challenge can make constructors BE SORE, all right.

Interesting to learn about DORIS MILLER. Didn't know him (or that he was a man), but he's definitely crossworthy, as the first African American to earn the Navy Cross. Such an impressive profile in courage.

Sun 10/3/2021 SNOOZEFEST
SAILSBFFBMAJOATER
OZZIELAIIAMAOLIVE
FUZZYWUZZYARROZHBEAM
TRYFREEZINGDRIZZLE
DRESSPOESYDEANERY
ZEROINGEOGGULLIVER
AGAZEGTERAZZLEDAZZLE
LAZEDLOEBPESETAOAK
EDENDITZESNANMANIA
SSSPATIENCEJADED
ZIZZERZAZZERZUZZ
MAINEDEERHIDEMAT
HOSTSSUERESINYCANI
ETSSAUTESSANGNANTZ
PRIZEPUZZLESTOYORTIZ
TISAPITYCHEZPAPACY
ANIMATOGLEANEARNS
BUZZFEEDQUIZZESOSU
HAZELOLLIEFORTYWINKS
BLAZENEILNAEELZIE
OPCITEDDAESCRLESS

It takes a lot of confidence to give your puzzle a title like "Snoozefest." Years ago, Will Shortz asked Ellen Leuschner and me what we thought about naming one of ours This Puzzle Sucks. While I thought that was hilarious, we didn't relish the idea of thousands of solvers biased against the puzzle — even if only subconsciously — from the start.

This one smashed the record for Zs, clocking in at 40; appropriate for FORTY WINKS. Not a surprise that the previous record-holder also used FUZZY WUZZY and RAZZLE DAZZLE. I used to love the former, until Barbara Lin alerted me to its troubled legacy.

Rare letters add spice to a puzzle, but where's the beef? As much as I love cinnamon or cardamom or cumin, eating them by the spoonful doesn't hold much appeal.

That said, it is an impressive feat to jam in so many Zs. The technician in me looked long and hard at various sections, admiring how Trenton worked in some of them. It'd be such an interesting challenge to dive into the optimization of color and cleanliness, while adhering to exactly 40 Zs.

Mon 10/4/2021
ABBOTMONTECOB
SAUNABROOMLIE
LABORDAYWEEKEND
GASXROOKS
CAPESIAGO
PUSHTHEENVELOPE
ARTIEDALISPAM
CARDIGRESSENO
ETASBELTOWNIT
DELIVERYSERVICE
DOTSLEANS
CHILIGLEE
HERECOMESMYBABY
ARKENOLAEAGLE
PBSDEISTSHOTS

Hey, this isn't the correct progression! It's race to the hospital, be told that it's false labor, go home, rush back hours later, no progress, walk around the hospital for two hours at 2:30 am trying to induce labor, return home, pass out, dash back …

That might not all fit in a crossword.

Christina and I both have two little kids, so it was super fun to solve this one with her stories in mind. LABOR, PUSH, DELIVERY make for a tidy theme.

Unlike the actual childbirth process.

I appreciated that LABOR was disguised, pointing more toward general work with LABOR DAY. And such a colorful phrase in LABOR DAY WEEKEND.

PUSH THE ENVELOPE also performed some obfuscation, since it's an idiom. Great phrase selection, again.

I had an inkling what was going on by now, and DELIVERY SERVICE sealed the deal. Signed, sealed, delivered, "Name That Tune" was mine! It'd have been great to get more misdirection, but that's tough with a DELIVERY ___ phrase. Maybe DELIVERY ROUTE could have been slightly better, since I've heard DELIVERY SERVICE punnily described as in Ob/Gyn's job?

Only four themers, but the fact that they're grid-spanners does bring up some challenges. The tricky areas are usually the west and east sections, where so many adjacent Down answers have to thread through the middle two themers. I'm impressed that they escaped with only ENO and WVA in the east.

Getting these regions solidly filled, though, often locks things in, removing precious flexibility elsewhere. While I love SORE EYES, having to accept some ELEM isn't ideal. The opposite location is super-clean, but TARGETED isn't that interesting a bonus.

I feel blessed to have the opportunity to get to know a lot of constructors, and that enhanced my solving experience today. It gave this childbirth puzzle more meaning to me, even more than the last one.

Tue 10/5/2021
PASTSAIRESGRU
ESTEEINAPPOOP
THEARTOFWARBUS
RENISLEIMAGE
INTHEAIRTONIGHT
EARALTO
IOWASARGETHU
SWITCHESPARTIES
HENHOWLSHERD
PELEMCA
HEADFORTHEHILLS
ATLASHALOIOU
LUGHEARTBROKEN
ADAAGREEDUEIN
LEETOMESSRSLY

You're breaking my heart! Literally, HEART in the middle of THE ART OF WAR, separating by one square at a time. I appreciate the extra layer, helping to elevate this from the standard "hidden words" pack.

Great theme phrases, too. HEAD FOR THE HILLS almost felt related, referring to the eternal struggle between the HEAD and HEART. It's been a minute since I've heard IN THE AIR TONIGHT, but the tune snapped right back.

I'm hoping that the earworm will head for the hills soon.

Like Kim mentioned, I would have loved for the final themer to have the HEART broken further to the right, completing a progression from NW to SE. I was surprised to find that there are few possibilities for that last one. Couldn't find anything that was 15 letters, but WEATHER CHART or THE DEPARTED would work with a matching length.

I love the notion of the shaded squares looking like a heart (when turned sideways)! You can always "flip" a grid along the NW-SE diagonal, making Across answers Down and vice versa, so that would have accomplished it.

Will Shortz doesn't often take puzzles with the same letters in sets of circles or shades, because it becomes too obvious. Once you realize the HEART letters will fill the second set, you can plunk them into the rest. I wondered, was there a way to avoid this? I doubt it, since without the shaded squares, it'd be impossible to figure out.

Five themers, with three spanning the grid, is no easy feat. Well done to incorporate CHEF'S HAT, a delightful entry. Even more impressive when considering it strings through three theme answers. There aren't many possibilities. Our word lists have only that one entry for the C??F?H?? pattern.

With a theme set like this, the problems usually occur when you get to the perimeter, having to work through two themers. Take the bottom right, for instance. The K in LIKES makes it even tougher, and few constructors would aim to end with LOEIL in their grid.

Not the smoothest ride today, but full of ups, what with all the pizzazz in the themers and bonuses. Appropriate for a puzzle about love and heartbreak.

Wed 10/6/2021
MOLESIEGEWPA
IDESSACREDHAS
KEEPACLHEADALI
ASKANCECRAFTED
NOHOTTESSE
COMANECIOLDCTS
AWEDOLTAOK
NEWATATESNIDE
ARILYRANOD
DANGLECRSLIGHT
ONTOLENIAN
COCNINGPASSAGE
IRKPIGEONHOLES
LAIANODESLIMP
EKEDONUTETSY

It always throws me off to experience a rebus on a Wednesday. Sometimes it's obvious what's going on — today's was not. So tough to figure out not only where the rebus squares were located, but what was inside them. When I eventually figured out that I needed multiple letters for WHATS COOKING, I tried COOK as the rebus. Geezers as OLD COOKS, you ask? Sure, I like to cook!

Rebus revealers can provide such a sharp a-ha moment when they're indirect but still lead you to the right notion. My light bulb dinged as I went from wondering what PIGEONS had to do with COOKs, to realizing it was a sly way of getting at COO. Clever idea.

I'm not sure the HOLES part of PIGEONHOLES works as well as some rebus revealers, though. I usually think of crushed or box, which more directly gets as the notion. Since this is a Wednesday, how about circling the rebuses like in Amanda and Ross's puzzle, making the COOs more hole-y? Maybe even darken them!

It'd have been great to get COO broken across words of a phrase, but all I could find was CO-OWNER. I like Jules's selection of themers, evocative KEEP A COOL HEAD to WHATS COOKING to a COORS LIGHT. And heck yeah, ME WANT COOKIE! Almost could make this into a food/drink mini-theme. Just sayin', ME WANT COOKIE with ICE CREAM SCOOPER …

I appreciated Jules's effort to make all the rebus entries interesting, in both Across and Down. COCOONING and OIL TYCOON, that's great extra material. It did force some compromises, especially where themers met up. No surprise to see TERR near the crossing of OIL TYCOON and COORS LIGHT.

Overall, a fun multi-step process of rebus discovery, making me work for a payoff that was worth it. I found it tough for a Thursday experience, making it frustrating for a Wednesday, so all the ANON EDT ESSE LAI OTT WPA kind of glue bothered me more than it should have. Curious choice to not run this on a Thursday.

ADDED NOTE: Jules writes, "Pigeonholes are boxes like crossword squares. Your hole-y critique was wholly misplaced." Excellent correction and love the groany puns!

Thu 10/7/2021
DEWARSCOSTANZA
EXARCHAWAYTEAM
MARACAREARAXLE
EMPLOYEDBATTEN
ROLLING
ICEBALLDINGED
TITOASKANYONE
ROSETTA
CHESSGAMEHAND
AIRPOPALISTER
BLARNEY
STASISBEANPATE
EACHTIMEBOYTOY
ANHEUSEREUROPE
SKIPPINGSTONES

Such a fun way to interpret SKIPPING / STONES, ROLLING Stone, the ROSETTA Stone, and the BLARNEY Stone spaced out as if they were skipping across the grid. Reminds me of a similar layout that played on a different concept.

I can see why Will Shortz decided to run both puzzles on Thursdays. Each letter has two crossing answers like in any crossword, but the themers are essentially unclued. You know by the end that they're going to be some sort of stone, but which one? There's no [Key to deciphering Egyptian writing] anywhere.

Part of me liked that this made the puzzle extra difficult, but another part wondered if an Across clue at the R of R O S E T T A might have enhanced my solve.

It's a shame there isn't another famous historical STONE that would fit with the ROSETTA and BLARNEY Stones. Not necessary, but it might have lent a touch of elegance. There's the Marvel Universe's INFINITY Stone, but that might be too niche-dorky.

The wide-open upper-right and lower-left corners provided so much themelessesque goodness. I am the George COSTANZA of my family. [Patriots in New York] is so cleverly getting at the NFL Patriots playing as the AWAY TEAM. TYRANNY and NEXT GEN are vivid. Two dings for the nerdcore AT-AT walker and ZALE instead of ZALES stores, but I happily accepted those prices for such fun.

I slowed way down through the center of the puzzle, trying to figure out if crossword rules were being broken or what. No letters are technically unchecked, but no clue for the three STONES sure made things challenging. I'm leaning toward wanting clues for them now, which would have made the entire solve more even.

Fun concept, always neat to see something a little familiar yet also different on a Thursday. Well done, Tim!

Fri 10/8/2021
AHAMOMENTSPLED
TOMATOSOUPAERO
IMPROBABLEPTAS
LILIESACCESS
TEENTANKARD
FORCETHING
ROCKIDOLSEAGAL
INHERITMARTINI
TEIGENWINESNOB
AGASPSOLED
STIPENDTSPS
TEATAXDMITRI
WHENITSMEAGAIN
MADDGOTOETOTOE
DISSEYEOPENERS

Neat mini-theme, linking AHA MOMENTS and EYE OPENERS as [Epiphanies]. So appropriate for a crossword puzzle.

Lots to enjoy in the grid, from WINE SNOB to CHIA SEEDS to KEG STANDS to LET'S DIG IN. Nothing that screamed out as a flashy marquee entry, but along with IT'S ME AGAIN, PAPER HATS, TOMATO SOUP, it all made for a satisfying meal.

Slightly constricted grid, what with the middle diagonal nearly slicing things in half, but there's adequate grid flow. As a constructor, being able to work on one region at a time is so handy. You can toil away at the upper left corner almost independently of the rest of the puzzle, for example.

A couple of standout clues providing me with excellent AHA MOMENTS:

[Obtain a sum via special relativity?] I thought physicists didn't make much money. Ah! They do if they INHERIT sums from special relatives. That's brilliant!

I don't know what you were thinking with [Some like it dirty], but I was thinking MARTINI all the way.

For a puzzle focusing on AHA MOMENTS, though, I wanted more of them. So much of the solve felt straightforward; hardly any wordplay. Yacob is a budding crossword star, and I'd love to see him inject more playfulness and sparkle into his clues.

Sat 10/9/2021
VISAITSWARFAM
ALECCANADAECO
CLAUDEMONETACL
CEDRICBESEATED
IGUANASMUSS
NATSSPLITTERS
ELYSTRIKEONE
ALLABOARD
TRUECRIMENTH
FAIRSHAKELORE
PLIEOVOIDAL
LOLLIPOPEMERIL
OOFBOWLINGLANE
TRIORIENTOMEN
SSNSTEAKSWARE

Sticking to an established themeless genre is a sensible way for many themeless constructors to get started. I appreciate that August took the "stair stack" pattern two steps higher, going to five long answers in the middle, not just three. Fun for the baseball fans out there to get SPLITTERS atop STRIKE ONE, and ALL ABOARD, TRUE CRIME, and FAIR SHAKE all evoke vivid imagery. That's an impressive quintet anchoring the puzzle.

I also appreciate that August didn't stand pat but worked hard to thread ICE CASTLES and TEAM EVENTS through the stair stack. Such a beautiful way to connect to the puzzle's outskirts.

I found myself wanting more juice out of the corners. It's tough to fill a 7x4 swath like the NW, and when you have ICE CASTLES fencing it in and CLAUDE MONET running through it, there's not much flexibility left. All the entries work, but SEA DUTY isn't going to win any awards, and Ron ELY's days in the spotlight are long passed.

I studied the grid skeleton for a long time, wondering if there were some way to open up a few more long slots in the corners, perhaps by making the NW / SE corners narrower and thus easier to spice up. Not an easy task, but I think at least one more slot might be possible in the lower left corner.

Excellent job with the cluing; so many Saturday-hard clever clues. I counted about five, and they all sizzled. I couldn't decide which one I enjoyed most, from a LOLLIPOP being "stick-y" (referring to its stick), or [Scales up?] pointing at the LIBRA sign in the sky, or the innocent [More than discouraged]. I was so sure that was something along like the lines of DESPONDENT, but it meant the ILLEGAL sense.

Enjoyable debut. I like seeing new constructors with ambition.

POW Sun 10/10/2021 CLUE: THE MOVIE
LASATOMSEEKLADIES
ASASARAHELLEORONYM
PSYCHOANALYSISGIJOES
CUSHYOREOMONSOONS
ACMEISWEARITSISEHS
THEREDCARPETPANELSAW
PIERSCPAEDDA
PELOTONTSHIRTCANNON
ALOUMEANIEGLUEDAWK
CLAIMSNONETABOOS
KANJISIMONSAYSBORON
ATHOMEOKIEMORALE
AMARADARTOLDTOENDS
BINGEWATCHERORESTES
UNTOOYEIDIOT
JOBOFFERCHANELNOFIVE
AREALSUKULELESONED
RESTUPONMORTBASTE
GOTHAMFLYMETOTHEMOON
ALLELETIMEIRAILLEI
REESESTADAORTAESC

★ I love being surprised by a theme. It didn't take long to uncover PSYCHOANALYSIS, which is a "field of dreams." I didn't have to work at all to make that connection, though, which made it feel like a ho-hum concept. Take movie titles, find appropriate things they describe. Okay, that works.

I was so pleasantly thrown off-kilter by THE RED CARPET. "Star Trek" describes this … how? Then it dawned on me, that it perfectly encapsulates a star's trek into the Oscars. I've done so many of these types of "reinterpretation" puzzles that it's rare for an example like this to shine so brightly.

My solving experience kept ratcheting up, too. I read [Top Gun] and figured it would hint at a weapon high up. Maybe a SNIPER RIFLE — morbid, I know. I was so thankful to uncover something completely different, a T SHIRT CANNON firing tees, or shirt tops. Another innovative leap.

[Scent of a Woman] leading to CHANEL NO. FIVE was more literal than I wanted, but near it was the highlight. I could not figure out how BINGE WATCHER linked to [A Man for All Seasons]. Ironic for someone who's binged every season of roughly 50 shows in the past year.

Oh! Two short bonus answers that I nearly missed. [Guys and Dolls] works okay for GI JOES, but [Wayne's World] — as in Bruce Wayne — is such a creative link to GOTHAM City. A shame that the full GOTHAM CITY wasn't the grid entry since that would be harder to miss.

I do wonder if some solvers' dreaded "weird alert" will be triggered. I've gotten tons of feedback that it only takes a small handful of oddballs to sour people's experience, and ORONYM / ARIOSE, FLUMES / ALLELE, IRAIL, etc. have the potential to do so, as words not heard in everyday conversation. If you're in this camp, I'll plead to you to focus on the fantastic theme and look past any weird-factor grumpiness.

It's no secret that Sunday NYT puzzles sometimes underwhelm me. This is a splendid example of how a standard theme type can be played upon to perfection, built around some creative connections I might never have imagined myself.

Mon 10/11/2021
CONCHSAMCLOUT
AKIRATIOHENNA
TAKEITORLEAVEIT
EYEDROPENLIST
TOGAGEN
LOVEITORHATEIT
ANISETAGSCUE
LEDETABLEBALM
APENONOFARSI
MOVEITORLOSEIT
OWLKEEL
BOWSERDADBODS
MAKEITORBREAKIT
EARLEWOORHINE
GLASSSEXSTEEP

Surprised to discover that there are so few X IT OR Y IT phrases out there. I could only think of "eat it or wear it," from "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing," involving a snubbed bowl of cereal dumped over Fudge's head. Ha ha, I would never actually do that!

But a guy can dream.

It's a shame that MAKE IT OR BREAK IT isn't as sparkly as the others, with "make or break" sounding more convincing. Ah well, the quartet is still solid, and it's a minor miracle that Ben could find enough phrases with this exact pattern.

A couple of bonuses, this guy doing a lot of pull-ups and push-ups these quarantine days to combat DADBOD. (My daily hour-long erg workout is a USE IT and LOSE IT proposition.) HAIR TIE, CHALETS, REDBOX, Muriel BOWSER, ARTBOOK — nothing flashy, but above-average use of mid-length slots.

I'd go far, far out of my way to avoid BAAL, especially given the potential traps crossing BOWSER and EARLE. Tough vocab for me as a seasoned solver. For newbs, things like ESE and LALA are so much easier to fill in.

I had the pleasure of hanging out with Ben years back at the ACPT. He was just a teen back then, and it's neat to see him continue his construction career.

Tue 10/12/2021
SALSABEETIWO
EMAILARCHRAPT
RUSSIANROULETTE
INSSFODINEIN
FRENCHFRYMERCH
ASIAASPLIU
ELEMENTBOAT
ALLITERNATION
DUESSTAINED
ETALYECELS
TODDYDUTCHDOOR
ESPORTNAHRUE
CHINESECHECKERS
TOPOPOLOPEACE
PERSNEEAGLET

ALLITERATION + NATION = ALLITERNATION? I spent a full 30 minutes on the Goog and befuddling Siri. I don't think ALLITERNATION is a real-world "thing," more a made-up construct for this puzzle … yes? On one hand, it's a perfect term to describe what's going on: alliterative two-word phrases where the first word is a country.

On the other hand … why?

I let this one sit for a day, and to my surprise, my admiration grew. ALLITERNATION is so creatively kooky. Also, I got curious to see how many other possible theme phrases I could find. There's AMERICAN AIRLINES, the CANADIAN CABINET (okay, a bit arbitrary), MEXICAN … MOLE (sauce)? There are probably more, but the ones here are fine, in-the-language phrases.

A tough grid to debut on, and Conor worked in so many delightful bonuses. I'd usually suggest avoiding big corners like the upper right — breaking them up at the IN of DINE IN usually makes things so much friendlier. WATERLOO and OPTICIAN is a great result.

The opposite corner showed some of the typical kinks one might expect from such an audacious layout. AUTOSHOP and LEADPIPE are assets, ESPORT is modern, and I like me a hot TODDY after I drop the kids off at school. Er, I mean, when I'm sick. Are these worth TOPO, TSPS leading into SNEE? Not sure.

It's rare that a puzzle — especially a debut! — is unlike anything I've ever seen before, and this veteran solver appreciates that. Took me a while to figure out the magnitude of my appreciation, but it ended up much higher than I would have first guessed.

Wed 10/13/2021
CLEFTSODSTIRS
PALEOEVETONIC
LASTNAMESERICH
INDIRAGANDHI
HOLDEMCULLES
ESOAAHATREST
ISAMUNOGUCHI
ROMAPADTASK
ICHIROSUZUKI
SCALIANIPDOT
KATNRATSHIRT
ISAACMIZRAHI
BIRCHMAURITIUS
UNITEENDFTLEE
MOSESEYETOEYE

Impressive to dig up four people whose full names all begin and end with I. No doubt that I saw I to I with today's puzzle!

Even though I'm not into baseball, ICHIRO SUZUKI made this Seattleite smile. Absolute stud of a leadoff hitter, and it was so awesome to see an Asian dude making local headline news for more than a decade. He even played a part in Acucela Inc. raising our first round of financing since he gave our Japanese investors an extra reason to visit.

I wasn't as familiar with ISAMU NOGUCHI, but the Red Cube is so memorable. I even recognize one of his famous table designs, as an industrial designer friend of mine used to own one of these.

INDIRA GANDHI and ISAAC MIZRAHI, great people to fill out a name-based theme. I'm far from a fashionista, but I (shamefacedly admit that I) watched a lot of "Sex and the City," for which he did a cameo.

I wondered, why feature four people with an I to I theme? There are sizzling phrases like ILLUMINATI and IRON-CLAD ALIBI that would work. It'd be next-level if there were some clever way to link SEE EYE TO EYE to people, but at least the grouping of four celebs made the theme more interesting. I couldn't find any others that fit the pattern, so that tightness elevated my experience.

Speaking of linking, SEE + EYE + TO EYE wasn't ideal. I was about to suggest a middle-row revealer to Jim Horne when he said, "At least SEEING EYE TO EYE wasn't in the middle." I don't mind middle revealers, but Jim and others don't like having the game given away so quickly.

Couple of trouble spots, tricky TONNEAU forced by the added bonus of LAST NAMES. Upper right corner, I often type in SCHIST during construction when I mean the more top-of-head SCHISM. Big corners like this are no joke.

I struggle with name-heavy crosswords, and this one was no different — having to piece in every single letter of NOGUCHI's name wasn't easy. However, there was something satisfying about all four themers being people, and all ones I should have known, at that. Fun debut, albeit with a few shaky bits in grid execution.

Thu 10/14/2021
LEGSKURTOMIT
ALOTDEFERNEMO
BLOODYNOSEETNA
MIDWEEKVIDEOS
ISIFREAKINGOUT
COEDNRAVERSE
ENSURETYPOSER
DARNSOCKS
CAMIEOHSERIFS
AMASSLOOSCAT
ROTTENAPPLEELI
WEIRDOTIKIBAR
ABLEBLASTEDOFF
SADEEERIEEWER
HEATLIENALLY

Such amusing finds, phrases reinterpreted as if they started with swear(ish) words. I got a fun visual of a monocled Brit shaking his fist at his face, yelling you BLOODY NOSE!

FREAKING OUT uses a baseball out; clever change of meaning. BLASTED OFF was my favorite, though, as an epithet raised against bug spray not doing its job.

I wasn't as taken with DARN SOCKS, because the base phrase activity is such an annoying task. Not a surprise that my kids think socks are supposed to have at least one hole for each toe. Still, the reinterpretation works well for the theme.

Strong bonuses all over, from LAB MICE / ELLISON to METEORS to the ICE BOWL to the beautiful stack of CAR WASH / AMOEBAE / MATILDA. Some compromises — not a surprise to get that and ERE sandwiched between two themers, given this lofty layout. And given that IM PEI always goes by IM, IEOH feels like a $2000 "Jeopardy!" question.

I wasn't sure how to feel about IM NO USE, feeling a bit arbitrary, but I often feel of no use as a parent. I do cut a nice toehole, though.

Fantastic theme, with 4 out of 5 standouts. If the fifth had been as delightful — perhaps playing on RUBBISH? — and a few rough edges smoothed out in the gridwork (breaking up the SW / NE corners might have helped, perhaps at the S of VIDEOS), this'd have gotten some POW! consideration.

Fri 10/15/2021
AMENMASSTAMPS
FORESIGHTARIAL
GROWINGUPDINGY
HOTSTARTWADDED
ANIJOYCEGOO
NICHEORBPANG
EXSQUEEZEME
BIGSURPRISE
GODIHOPENOT
JONIARINOBEL
ETAPAEANENO
TOFFEEHEADINTO
SPILLWORKINGIT
KODAKALIENRACE
ITEMSNEEDEYED

Such sass! BIG SURPRISE dripping with sarcasm. GOD, I HOPE NOT. SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE! And I'm curious how our French friends down the street would react if I said EXSQUEEZE ME? Apt that the opening corner contains AGGRO.

Excellent grid, Ashton did a superb job of exsqueezing the most out of his long slots, that SLY DOG. Kicking off with a HOT START to MIND GAME to WORKING IT to BONA FIDE, virtually every one of his 8+ letter slots contains an asset.

GROWING UP isn't that exciting, but I liked the effort to elevate it with that insightful Virginia Woolf quote. "Losing some illusions … perhaps to acquire others." That is one high-level MIND GAME there.

68-word constructions are so tough to make both colorful and clean. Big ups for gridsmanship — POW!-worthy work.

The tone reminded me too much of my day-to-day life, though. "Dad, I know how to use the fancy cup!" she yelled, just before SPILLing milk down my socks. Six going on seventeen ...

So much of a Friday themeless's satisfaction is personal connection. I don't envy Will Shortz, having to sift through dozens of these per week, trying to guess what tenor and feel will go over best with what percentage of his audience.

POW Sat 10/16/2021
SKASTIRNOVAS
CRIBNONAPOLOGY
RIRIITSHANDLED
ESCORTERIECNN
WHOSESCANWADE
UNOFILTHCONEY
PALMEDORFLOOR
AREWEGOOD
NINESPLUSSIGN
HINGEBEALECOO
ECHOWELDINERT
YEAFALLUNIPOD
NOSPOILERSTOGO
ONTHEFENCESPUN
WEEDSSTARSEE

★ 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:

  • Question Mark Fun. Clearly, something tricksy is going on with [Undesirable bedmates?]. Doesn't stop the fun of talking about WEEDS in flower beds.
  • Innocent Misdirection. Repurposing "blowing off steam" to describe a VOLCANO is Einsteinian.
  • Punnery. I'd never think of turning Watergate into "water gait" or linking it to WADE.
  • Figure-out-able Trivia. "Four-letter countries" is a common trivia category, and if you remember French colonization in West Africa, TOGO pops out.
  • Colloquial. NO SPOILERS is such a zingy phrase. "Wait, wait, don't tell me!" is even better.
  • Enticing. Someone with an awesome catchphrase, IT'S HANDLED? Now I can't wait to find out who Olivia Pope is!

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.

P.S. CONEY refers to the CONEY dog. Megatoad for the win!

Sun 10/17/2021 COMMON CORE
OMITSSCHWABONSPEC
HADITTRAINORPREHEAT
SLIDEROGETSTHESAURUS
NADIROPSNEUROTIC
ALIENSWWISUNHEM
PATRONOFTHEARTSIMAGE
LLBEANOLEGONGS
STOICGISTBAEDEUCES
TOCCATASATANHATRED
ATHENAWINESLENIN
GOOTHEREINSPIRITUFO
MOONYGSPOTENURED
STONEDSHELLBLOGGED
ECHOESNETALOEWHETS
TRESSAOLHYENAS
TUTEECHARTEREDPLANES
ABEMRIISRFOMENT
ASSOONASSOUWOODY
BOACONSTRICTORSCECIL
ARCADESINPEACEABOVE
ASTRAYGASPARLANES

I've been fascinated by Patrick Berry's SPLITS AND MERGERS puzzle for years. It speaks to both my finance and my crossword technician leanings. How the hell did he figure those crazy things out?

I finally got a chance to meet the introverted Patrick at the ACPT a few years ago, and it was great to get some insight into his process. Not surprisingly, there was some programming involved, but also some clever holistic problem-solving.

It was so interesting to hear him say that sometimes he simply looks for cool letter sequences and patterns to build themes around. I figured, if he can do it, why can't I?

Bwa ha ha ha ha!

Given that I had no idea what letter overlaps might be interesting, or even what kind of overlaps to consider, or where, this entire project would have been DOA if it hadn't been for my wife, Jill. After weeks of brainstorming off and on, the process littered by stupid ideas followed by yet stupider ones, she picked out one of my grid skeletons and said, "What about COMMON CORE for that one?"

Every day, I thank the stars for our merger.

Mon 10/18/2021
MAINESLOTHBUB
ELMOSPATIOANA
STARQUARTERBACK
HOGFIDONOBLE
ODEONSEAAIR
MANIASRATTRAPS
EVENSCHAI
TARGETHEARTRATE
WETSHORAS
PEARTARTBOOTUP
RUPEESFLUFF
IRENAHALOOOH
DEMOCRATICPARTY
EKEUNHIPHIMOM
SANPASTSOLSEN

Artistic, those shaded square patterns. I see a face. Ominous clouds. The Grim! A duck melting into a clock.

Not sure what those Rorschach test results say, but maybe I should stay inside today.

I admire this ART FORMS experience. I see soooo many anagrams these days that it takes a lot to keep me engaged. Sitting down to calculate the number of possibilities you'd have to search for — two ART anagrams (6 permutations x 6 permutations = 36) — counts as engaged. Diving into programming would count as obsessive, so to no one's surprise, I got coding. Thanks a lot, Freddie!

Particularly strong find in TARGET HEART RATE, featuring three ART anagrams. It was deep in my language back in my triathlon days, and it comes up in an opposite sense, when I try to remain calm after one of the kids spills milk down my boxers. Accident, my (wet) ass!

Excellent craftsmanship. Apt to deftly weave ART FORMS through two themers. IM A GONER is a great bonus, too. It'd be fine if the rest of the grid filled cleanly, but Freddie went out of his way to work in EUREKA, APE MEN, TEACUP. A corner like the lower left is not easy, since 1) it has to mesh with two themers, and 2) it's a big 'un. I'd usually shy away from this kind of situation. Great result on a high degree of technical difficulty.

It's a mark of professionalism when you can't figure out how a complex sculpture was put together; no seams or fasteners showing through. Along with a theme on a higher plane than yet-more-anagrams, this one received POW! consideration.

Tue 10/19/2021
JAMBMAASHAG
ALOECOUCHNORA
BESTENNUIOPAL
CHARLOTTESWEB
ALLTIEDUP
KEEPSHEARATSO
LAMPPEACHCHEZ
ERISSINCEKENO
ILLASNERBIN
NYYATTENDSROE
RSVPSSTODOR
PILEUPTURNIP
ASISITGUYOTTO
PESTCHAMPVEIL
ARTSSAYSOESSO

Crossword constructors jump at sets of three or four (sometimes five). Perfect sets make such great crossword themes, and ANNE, CHARLOTTE, EMILY are exactly that. Even a boor with my lowbrow tastes can appreciate that.

It's a shame that there's no wordplay reveal possible, as there might be for Jane Austen (maybe you could riff on "plain Jane" or AUS + TEN somehow). THE BRONTËS tells it like it is, unfortunately without any of the wit exhibited in "Pride and Prejudice."

If you tell my b-ball buddies I said that, I'll deny everything.

Exactly three sisters is a tight set. How to showcase them, though? CHARLOTTE is a tough name to integrate into a phrase. Besides CHARLOTTE'S WEB, there's CHARLOTTE HORNETS (I'm targeting Terry Rozier in our fantasy draft this year), the delicious CHARLOTTE RUSSE, and CHARLOTTE AMALIE.

EMILY is even harder, surprisingly, with mostly only people as options: EMILY DICKINSON, EMILY POST, EMILY BLUNT. EMILY'S LIST disguises things much better (EMILY is an acronym, not a name), although it was awfully tough to figure out for this apolitical person.

I can hear Ross's thought process: with two possessives, why not go consistent with a third? AUNTIE ANNE'S has a special place in my heart since on my honeymoon in Malaysia, my pregnant wife could tolerate zero smells. I fetched many AUNTIE ANNE'S pretzels from the malls for her, while I gorged on Panang curry (sitting far outside as I ate).

The consistency of three possessives theoretically might enhance the theme. However, it felt odd. The BRONTË sisters weren't known as Anne's Brontë, etc. So ... why? I'd have preferred random phrases with no consistency for consistency's sake.

Hey, I never said I was consistent!

I enjoyed so much of this solving experience, neat to see the BRONTËs get their due. Loved the bonuses of BETA APPS, ACUTE ACCENT, EARLY RISER, SENIORITIS; Ross as always doing such top-notch gridding. That wasn't enough to overcome no zing in the revealer along with some head-scratching, though.

Wed 10/20/2021
EMSGALCHIAPET
SAIDIDOHENDRIX
ORLANDOORALIST
BREDISPOWEN
EINSSEAMARGUE
SETFANTASYLAX
ODDJOBACTMEET
ORANGERED
SHOTBAOEASTLA
TOVVAINESTRAW
PIECEFINSKAVA
RIGAARFAVER
ORDEALSORCHARD
DIURNALLEONINE
EMBASSYLEXLEE

Neat finds! As a former "Star Wars" fanboy (pre-"Phantom Menace") I'm ashamed to say I never thought of LANDO in ORLANDO. There have been so many space-addition crosswords over the years. It's refreshing to experience a novel one.

Great idea to feature ORANGE RED = OR ANGERED in the middle. The multi-space-shifting is some Matrix-esque maneuvering.

I wasn't as hot on ORALIST. While I admire the transmogrification to OR A LIST, I don't use (or even see) the word ORALIST nearly as much as the others.

Regular readers would be stunned if I didn't write code to figure out other possibilities, so here are the additional results that twelve lines of code spat out:

  • OR ANGINA (yikes, no one wants to hear about medical conditions)
  • OR ANTES (who?)
  • OR BISON (any Street Fighter fans out there?)
  • OR BITER (thankfully no biters in this house — yet)
  • OR ESTES (who, and who?)
  • OR MANDY (whatever the question, the answer is Patinkin!)

I might gone with OR BISON over ORALIST, but David's choice has merit.

With a 7/7/9/7/7 themer layout, the 7s are often best in rows 4 and 12 — putting them in rows 3 and 13 forces big corners, chock full of 7s. That's not always an issue, but when you're already splitting the grid top to bottom with a middle 9, the corners become hard to fill with both color and clarity. I love CHIA PET and HENDRIX. I'm glad David called out EIS and EINS out himself. TXT and EXT are gettable, but most editors would at least ding both.

Kicking off the puzzle with EMS crossing ESO BESO is tough, too.

However, the lower right corner is beautiful! Not a drop of crossword glue, and LAVERNE / COX to boot. Maybe you don't know the OitNB star, but it's not hard to piece together two names that you've likely seen before in other contexts. And if you're not a fan, there's LEONINE and TRAVAIL as bonuses. Amusing to juxtapose TRAVAIL with STRESS FREE, too.

Perhaps some layout tweaks could have improved the execution, but overall, a good product. Memorable parsing theme, too — OR LANDO will be frozen into the carbonite of my mind.

Thu 10/21/2021
IRANSTATCOBB
NORAPOTHOLDER
GOONPRIMEVIDEO
OKCORRALTEN
TSKBEYPARKOUR
LOGSTABSAMA
SPINSKULLSTAG
HIVEUNTIEAHME
AXISROUNDSTIR
WINWETSRISE
NEGLECTLILSHY
OARPINKYTOE
GOFORAWALKVISA
BOOTYCALLEFTS
SHESKNEESYST

X UNDER Y phrases, expressed literally as YX. I like the vertical nature of the themers; so appropriate for this concept. Four fantastic phrases, too: LIVING (UNDER) A ROCK, CRACK (UNDER) PRESSURE, DRINK (UNDER) THE TABLE, and TESTIFY (UNDER) OATH.

Vertically-oriented themers can be difficult to build around — specifically, it's challenging to make the grid shine with sparkly bonuses. Many editors won't allow long Across bonuses in a puzzle like this, because they muddle what is theme and not. Great decision today to go hog-wild with POTHOLDER, PRIME VIDEO, OK CORRAL, PARKOUR, PINKY TOE, GO FOR A WALK, BOOTY CALL all horizontally flashy. I'll gladly accept a bit of EFTS SYST GBS as a small price to pay.

Quantity/quality of bonuses is essential when considering veteran solvers who have seen literalism themes dozens of times over the years. Even if you've encountered THE TABLE DRINK before, at least there's a wealth of rich bonuses to uncover.

I'd have preferred some extra layer to elevate this concept — perhaps linking the four themers by subject matter? Making a story out of them? There are dozens of X UNDER Y phrases out there, so there's enormous room for brainstorming a way to make this stand out from the pack. Great effort to inject spiciness into the solve, though.

Fri 10/22/2021
AMPLEELLATHU
RELAXLEASTAOS
NAILPOLISHOKRA
INEARNESTEYES
ETSEONLASSES
MSNHEATAMY
CASEDISMISSED
LETTHATSINKIN
GENERATIONGAP
EFTANATAFT
STUPIDITOCHO
TRONPOKERCHIP
SOILGOONSTRIKE
EWOKOUZOWOVEN
ANNDREWOPEDS

LET THAT SINK IN, EATING FOR TWO — now that's the Weintraubian themeless vibe I know and love! Fantastic everyday phrases that can take on clever clues, all while keeping the mood fun and playful. They make for such brilliant marquee features.

Not as wild about the rest, at least compared to my heaven-high standards for Robyn. It was much darker than usual, with HORSEMEN of the Apocalypse, CENTURION, packing HEAT, DREW in a pistol duel … yikes.

Thank goodness for that awesome NAIL POLISH clue. [Digital (relating to the digits of the hand) color presentation?] is such a clever misdirect, getting me to think about Powerpoint.

I didn't love ANAT, ESSO, THU, and especially EFT in a 70-word construction — these days, the competition is so high that virtually all 70- and 72-worders ought to be near spotless.

However, Robyn worked in enough CASE DISMISSED, POKER CHIP as "food" that goes into a poker kitty, GENERATION GAP, to still make it a fun diversion.

Sat 10/23/2021
POPQUIZEMIRATI
GROUCHYMASALAS
FIRELOGOILGLUT
INKAPOSTLESRI
LOREETHICSTIN
MCINGEACHTANK
SOBEITDOIDARE
RSVPNMEX
PIGTAILPRICES
DENYNEUFENACT
ATEITCLUBGROK
TUXDEALERSTRI
INAWINKLEADACT
NICEONEUVLIGHT
GATEMANPETFEES

Sam is a recent college grad and thus roughly three orders of magnitude hipper than me. I often have trouble with his themelesses, mystified at some show or artist that plays to his tastes/generation much more than mine, or words that I only vaguely recognize, or Learned-League-level geography. Such a pleasant surprise to feel on Sam's wavelength for a great majority of today's puzzle!

Great start at 1-Across, POP QUIZ featuring the rare Q and Z, and such a great wordplay clue for it. "Questions of surprise" isn't as in-the-language as I'd like, and the telltale question mark puts you on alert, but it's still a fun misdirection toward things like "but why?" or "oh really?"

Well done in juicing out of the long slots. EMOTICON is a bit dated but still fun, MAILCHIMP is a funny brand name, TV ANTENNA as "rabbit ears" was a nice throwback for us older generations.

And the PIECAKEN always makes me laugh. Where else but in America would you see at least one pie stuffed into a cake? Calling the PIECAKEN a "hybrid," though, doesn't do American gluttony justice. It's not simply kind of a pie, kind of a cake. It's a full freakin' pie jammed into a ginormous cake. U-S-A! U-S-A!

I'm always apprehensive about solving themelesses heavy on 7s because it's so hard to squeeze every last drop out of those mid-length slots. It's even more challenging when you have two stacks of 7s intersecting each other in all four corners. I imagine that few people will be tweeting #CARTAGE or #TAURINE.

However, Sam did a nice job working in OIL GLUT under EMIRATI, PG FILMS, PORK RIB, ALL STAR, UV LIGHT. That's a lot of solid to fantastic entries.

I did come to a screeching halt in the lower right, though. CARTAGE ... okay. Next to … ÉCORCHÉ? I asked some French-speaking American friends if they knew this, and I got a bunch of blank stares. (My native French friends said, "oui, bien sur!") It's a tough call. Part of me likes that Sam unabashedly features envelope-pushing words. However, along with PET FEES, which sounded odd to this former pet owner's ear, it was a tough way to finish out.

Super thankful for all the fair crosses! Also grateful that there was more for me in this one than in previous Sam themelesses.

POW Sun 10/24/2021 SPORTS NUTS
ALLAHDEBITCDCSPAT
MOIRATEXACOLAOHULA
OFFENSIVEREBOUNDITEM
STEWAMISSIBETCEASE
EDGESRAISEHELL
FLOOREXERCISEOLDISH
RILKESUITDUNEDEE
APAWESSTARTINGBLOCK
YOYOTRICKYOGISANTA
HONDAMADISONRIOT
SHAWSERVICELINEETRE
CODETRAILERTRIAD
ORALBOMANTEENMOVIE
UNPLAYABLELIEPSIINA
TITTADAOKRADOORS
SNAPONSEVENTENSPLIT
TANGERINEELATE
ROILSYURIDELISNEWT
AWOLDESIGNATEDHITTER
ZINEJUTMOUSSEMONAE
ZESTSPYARBYSPEARS

★ This is a perfect example of why people shouldn't listen to me.

If Katie had approached me for feedback, I'd have replied that the general approach is fine — we've seen sports term reinterpretations for golf, basketball, football, and many more. However, a mishmash from all different sports? What is this, a Calvinball crossword?

Moreover, I'd have suggested that terms like UNPLAYABLE LIE might turn off sportsball haters. Heck, even OFFENSIVE REBOUND might have that effect (unless you're a bball junkie like me). Will Shortz has such a vast solving population to address that he usually pushes to the masses.

The fact that Katie picked and chose from the entire sporting universe, looking for odd and interesting terms that best lent themselves to reinterpretation, is exactly what made this puzzle stand out.

Maybe you don't know the dreaded 7-10 split in bowling, but what a clever idea to imagine it as a time to leave. I'm no golf fan, but I could at least guess what an UNPLAYABLE LIE might be. Such a huge change in meaning, to an untruthy statement that can't be rebroadcast.

It was probably even funnier pre-2016 ...

It'd have been so meta if the grid had a black corner square in the NW — a perfect STARTING BLOCK to insiders. Still, an empty square can be called a "block," perhaps.

I also appreciated that Katie didn't try to do too much with her grid. Work in a handful of bonuses (RAISE HELL, TEEN MOVIE, YO YO TRICK, UNION REP), take meticulous care to avoid crossword glue (only APA and INRI is outstanding Sunday cleanliness) ... it's not a complicated formula, but so many constructors push too hard to feature some snazzy bonus they're in love with, aim for a personal-best low-word-count, etc. and end up with a product that I hear tons of complaints about.

Even not knowing some of the phrases right off the top, I still breezed through the entire puzzle, solving in record time due to the grid's top-notch smoothness. That made me feel smart, and who doesn't like feeling smart? Ten minutes of pleasure and ego-boosting, accentuated by several humorous highs? Yes, please! Every Sunday NYT needs to be at least this good.

Mon 10/25/2021
LATHSEALSTEAM
ACREURSATOPIC
PAULAZAHNIPADS
SCAMPIASEA
EINPETTINGZOOS
SATSORSOVCR
PESKYORBITS
PRINCESSZELDA
POINTYATEIT
IPATAILSEGO
POLISHZLOTYLEB
CHETHIPPIE
CILIAEASYPEASY
FRANKCRAMASHE
LEDGESTYETOAD

EASY PEASY! Get it? Because the theme phrases have E Z P Z letters?

Wait. They're just P Z phrases. Okay ... the E part of EASY PEASY refers to the fact that all the phrases contain Es.

No. That's not it. Unless … it's PAULA ZEHN and POLISH ZLETY?

Well, it could be.

I'd be lucky to get ASEA as my grade today.

This might be a situation where newer solvers gloss over the theme, not even noticing the P* Z* initials, much less the fact that the revealer is supposed to connect them. While a smog of confusion pours out of my brain.

Some neat finds, not easy with the Z constraint. PETTING ZOO is a squee-worthy answer. I never played Zelda, but PRINCESS ZELDA works. Great thought to clue it to Fitzgerald, too, so more people have a fair chance at figuring it out. I couldn't place PAULA ZAHN's face, but hers is a familiar-sounding name, even to this non-news-watcher.

POLISH ZLOTY. Being a finance guy, this registered as a term, but I'm curious how many people would list this if you ran a "Family Feud" survey of 100 people, asking them to name world currencies. I'd set the over/under at 0.5.

There aren't many P* Z* phrases, but I'd have leaned much more toward something like PARKING ZONE.

A couple of not-super-newb-friendly spots in the grid, too. When you already have the ZLOTY, including the RIAL could feel excessive. The CFL (Canadian Football League) is fair game, but the CILIA crossing might give solvers pause. Even OVID crossing ZELDA could trip up Monday solvers.

Five themers, including a middle 13, is far from an EASY PEASY construction, especially when you have to integrate four Zs. Thankfully, some strong mid-length fill to help offset the rough patches. I enjoyed ACACIA, SCYTHE, AZTECS, SNOOZE, EL PASO, GEISHA.

POW Tue 10/26/2021
ADLIBSBBCREDS
MEADOWEEOOREO
AMOEBAEGOSURFS
NUTSANDBOLTS
ARSSEANPERCH
SEERSELIEOHO
ANARMANDALEG
BATSINGCLEFS
LIGHTNINGROD
AMIAREANOSED
BEFITACTSPLO
FRANKENSTEIN
ALLEYCATECHECK
LEIAIIIROADIE
BEERDRETWISTY

★ I love getting cleverly stymied in "Name That Theme." NUTS AND BOLTS. AN ARM AND A LEG. Clearly, it's X AND Y phrases. Let's figure out what ties them more tightly.

Wait. LIGHTNING ROD?

Bzzt … literally!

At that point, I went looking for hidden words like SAND in NUTS AND BOLTS and MAN in AN ARM AND A LEG. Nope.

Maybe BOLTS, LEG, ROD are all different parts of … a Wankel rotary engine?

Even this mechanical engineer snickered.

Wait! The BOLTS is the nickname for the San Diego Chargers. The LEG … is the nickname of their punter, Mr. ROD?

An appropriate bzzzzt!!! for that Chargers theory.

Such a huge smile on my face upon uncovering FRANKENSTEIN. All three themers work beautifully, these figures of speech literally things that Dr. FRANKENSTEIN needed. You might even say that this joke was a graveyard smash.

Ow, stop smashing me!

A couple of blips in execution, not surprisingly showing up in the 1.) big NW corner (LAOTSE crossing ARS) and 2.) middle, where two themers squish together (ENGR crossing the ambiguous G CLEFS). Much of this stems from having to squeeze themers together since the 12-letter FRANKENSTEIN had to go in row 12, not 13. Some massaging could have helped boot out the AMIE/AMI and SNERTy crossword glue, but there's a case to be made that goodies like AD LIBS, MEADOW, AMOEBA, ROADIE, TWISTY, DONKEY …

And now that I see all those mid-length bonuses, I'm perfectly fine with these trade-offs.

What I want most out of a crossword, especially these days, is a few minutes of diversion, maybe some smiles, and even a laugh. I got all that and a whole lot more today. You might even say I was buzzing with electricity—

Bzzt bzzt BZZZZZZT!!!!

Wed 10/27/2021
FABLERUMORIWO
UNLETOPERAMRI
DAAAAABEARSPAL
DINPENNCOUPS
SCHWEDDYBALLS
IOSALASKA
CREDOTWINIIS
LIVEFROMNEWYORK
ACEYODAHUNTS
DENADASIR
WERENOTWORTHY
CIDERSRISYAP
ANOMORECOWBELL
FEUININKEENIE
ESTSECTSBAAED

I have fond memories of "Saturday Night Live," my dad letting me watch with him when I got to be ten. Neither of us was huge into football, nor did either of us understand why DA BEARS was funny, but Chris Farley as one of DA BEARS posse always made us laugh. I hitched on the extended DAAAAA, which felt done for symmetry's sake, but there were a few sketches where those guys would extend the DA sound.

Then there was "Wayne's World." I had no idea why it was so humorous, but Mike Myers is such a great comedian.

Years later, Christopher Walken yelling MORE COWBELL, transfixed me. Not that I could figure out why I was cracking up. And now that I watch it again … why is it funny?

I'm sensing a pattern here.

I lost all interest in SNL by the time the SCHWEDDY BALLS sketches came out. Feels like something my 17-year-old nephew would roll his eyes at (but secretly start saying to his friends, with an adolescent "heh heh heh"). Alec Baldwin did later draw me back into SNL with his Trump impressions!

Some cool bonuses in the fill, Johanna treating us to RICE WINES, WRAP SKIRT. I'm not sold on IMPULSION, though, not nearly as common as IMPULSE or IMPULSIVE. Given the price of IIS and OLA, and ANO FEU EST in the opposite corner, changing ALASKA to ALAS and DE NADA to NADA might have allowed for a single sparkly bonus per corner, surrounded by perfectly clean fill.

ALASKA to ALAS … there's a Sarah Palin joke in there somewhere.

SNL is so hit and miss, but these days I do tune in for Michael Che and Colin Jost's hilarious Weekend Updates. If you haven't seen their annual holiday tradition of writing jokes for each other, it's the funniest thing ever.

Thu 10/28/2021
BADPRABAFTTBS
AMORENOMASHOW
BERIGHTBACKACE
EXAMAIOLIINCA
ABSFLICKER
IFALLTOPIECES
MILTELLKEATS
URLSNEARSSTAT
PENALTIPSOPI
ITSANOBRAINER
OHGODNOEND
ZAHNGRAPEIDLE
ANTWEARESODEAD
ROEALIGNPINKY
KIRNANOSSTYES

A second Halloween joke puzzle in one week? What is this, Groundhog Day of the Living Dead?

Zombies saying I FALL TO PIECES, IT'S A NO BRAINER, WE ARE SO DEAD — hilarious!

I'm no zombi-ficianado, but I paused at the start, with BE RIGHT BACK. These days, so many zombies are of the horrifying fast-zombie type. Someone gets bitten/infected, then they turn into the undead version of Usain Bolt. Some research shows that plenty of zombies rise from the grave, so those do fit the BE RIGHT BACK mold better.

And the clue for IT'S A NO BRAINER … I thought that would describe the zombie, who has no brains. Wait. Do zombies have brains, but simply act as if they don't? Why are they at an empty house, anyway? Is this some sort of empty nest-themed zomcom?

Either this clue wasn't a NO BRAINER, or I'm the no-brainer. (It's clear which.)

Fun to get PRIMAL, ALL NIGHTER, and OH GOD NO in the grid, all adding to the monster movie ambiance. The grid was also mostly clean (ABAFT and partialish NO RAIN, I see you), although it felt like a no-no-no to have NO BRAINER, NO RAIN and OH GOD NO.

Even though I'd heard some of the zombie jokes before, notably various riffs on NO-BRAINER, I still got some laughs. I wasn't sure I'd like so much Halloween humor in one week, but I'm not (warning: horrible pun alert!) beMOANing it.

Fri 10/29/2021
CHOCOTACOBASES
HELLTOPAYALEXA
UNDERWIREDIPPY
CDTONEGSASHES
KRISSCARYSTORY
LIMOSEMIRSRTE
EXEMPTEAUSASS
MAILLPGA
MDSETABSONICS
ERNCHIRPASNAP
DOUBLEDAREAFRO
INGOODVENARON
AEGISHUMONGOUS
NOISEIRECKONSO
SNEERMADHATTER

There would be HELL TO PAY if a male constructor tried to pull off a [Boob tube?] clue for UNDERWIRE. That's so brilliant, so funny, and I'm so glad that Aimee made this one!

I also appreciated DOUBLE DARE and I RECKON SO, both fun phrases to say.

There's a Nickelodeon show called DOUBLE DARE? Involving crazy stunts with cymbals and slime poured on people's heads?

If anyone tells my kids about this, I will kill them.

Seven-letter slots are so hard to fill with great material, but I did enjoy HENDRIX, SNUGGIE (not to be confused with the Snugli), CAR GAME, and BRAVURA.

I'll leave the clever clues for that last one to Aimee.

It is tough to populate so much real estate with neutral entries like MEDIANS, SAYS YES, IN FRONT, though. I'd cash in all of these for a single 8+ sizzler that oozes with BADASSery.

Not wild about all the CLE ERN MDSE OTRO RIAL RTE glue, either, especially since this is a 72-worder, the max allowable.

A couple of entertaining clues, headlined by [High rollers' rollers]. I did a double-take on that one before realizing that the second "rollers" was slang for people's cars, in this case, LIMOS.

Not as much juice as I want out of a Friday puzzle, but that marquee UNDERWIRE pun was memorable.

Sat 10/30/2021
VOCABSATEODDS
IVORYTOWERNOAH
SEATFILLERANTE
ANTASEHEARTED
TRACKEDDOWN
HASPIPESLAIN
LUMPFISHLALIGA
ALBATMGALTHY
BLURRYHIDEOUTS
SALEMCARYPPS
BASEBALLBAT
CATERERTIMTOE
ELIAEDGARAWARD
COOLFIELDHOUSE
EONSYOLKLETON

Mike has a tried-and-true themeless plan, and it's worked well for him. Instead of aiming at low word counts or innovative patterns, he sticks to 70 or 72 words, focusing all his efforts on maximizing the sparkle in his long slots and minimizing the short glue. Not complicated, but he does it well, his themeless acceptance rate higher than that of his themed.

So much to love in the long slots. SEAT FILLERs make me think of Kramer, and combining it with IVORY TOWER and TIS A PITY makes for amusing imagery. Almost all of his 16 long slots (8+ letters) are strong: DON'T WAIT UP / DATE NIGHTS make for a fun pairing, HULLABALOO is fun to say, and what cleverness in EDGAR AWARD's clue — a literal mystery prize (for mystery writers), not a MacGuffin.

ASE is not great, but that's the only hitch in this meticulously constructed grid.

I also appreciate that Mike explored beyond his typical themeless pattern, which features three long answers stacked in two corners and two stacked in the others. It might seem like a small change to have only two long answers stacked in each corner, but that allows for long slots extending into the middle of the puzzle. With BASEBALL BAT jutting into the center, meshing into GIRL TALK and LADY BIRD, I got a feeling of juicy entries everywhere I turned.

A couple of standout clues, too. "Cropping up" doesn't exactly get at a FARMER's crops, but it's close. And this capitalist loved [Commercial success] — what all startups aim for, right? Nope. That's an AD SALE type of commercial success.

Mike has good-naturedly pointed out that I have a ton of gaps in my knowledge base, and SOLECISM falls squarely into one of them. I was hoping reading about its etymology would shed some light, but that ended up confusing me more.

A ton of pluses for this one, with not a lot of minuses. I'd call that a commercial success.

Sun 10/31/2021 CHOICE WORDS
PATRASCALSPENSEP
ECOEMMYLOUWAGEAPE
THEWHEALBUMHITORMISS
FETASRODEPORTDIDIT
ODORSTNTREMEETABLE
OFTASISAYPETRIMOOR
DOORDIELIVERANDNIONS
READSMUNIPSST
METRESLOLTHRILL
IMPOSEONBEHEADODEA
MOUNTRUSHMMOREORLESS
POPEEASELSSURELETS
STASISNSANOSIDE
SHAHTHONADDTO
MARCHIGORDERSINOROUT
AVERARTIEHEPCATUTE
DAZETONNESSHESACHS
ERODENESTEAABCSHOT
WINORLOSEWHIRLWDTOUR
ACEAIMSUSROUTEFSU
YESSPYPOSSESSFEN

Literally, CHOICE WORDS squeezed into a single square. We've written them below in teeny-tiny letters — hopefully, paper solvers used extremely sharp pencils today!

Great selection of common X OR Y phrases. Even better, fantastic idea to include those phrases within the grid — in the same row as the matching entry!

I'll admit, I was annoyed at having to squish HIT/MISS into the first special square, but uncovering HIT OR MISS next to it made it much more HIT than MISS. It's a feat of construction to get matching pairs of length, but it's so much more than a constructor's flourish. Without this added layer, the puzzle wouldn't have been nearly as much fun to solve.

The layout challenges did come with a few trade-offs. Because many of the themers are short, having to stick to the 140-word maximum meant that Alex had to make his fill slots longer than usual. For example, check out the big swaths of real estate between MARCHING ORDERS and WIN OR LOSE, chock full of 6-8 letter entries. That's a themeless-esque filling challenge.

Given this constraint, Alex did well, even a bit better than a typical Sunday puzzle. DES, FSU, IDEE, SEP, etc., are common enough. AST (Atlantic Standard Time) and the racially charged AH SO are harder to swallow. METRES and TONNES are passable by themselves, but using too much of one type of crossword glue reinforces the feeling of inelegance.

The juxtaposition of the X OR Y phrase next to its matching themer made this a strong concept, enjoyable to solve. It's a shame that there are so many letters to write into such a tiny box, though — I'm curious to see if there's an online solution that would make this aspect of it less frustrating.