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Puzzles for November, 2020
with Jeff Chen comments

Sun 11/1/2020WEST-SOUTHWEST
ONSTARICUEBERTCHUG
REPOSERAGXAXESROME
SWAYUPHIGHQUANTASIN
EMTSODESUMMERSWEAR
RESTAPLEPOISWANLAKE
ORALSORSOSPA
SWARMRECEPTIONSPITES
AONETRENDTHORSNARK
MENSCHDIKEROCTERI
SEADOVEAIWAOBOE
FORWANTOFABETTERSWORD
OPEROEUFOTHELLO
ARTYNASOBIESUPERB
MARESMEANCELIAOLAY
SHORTUSPARKLINGSWINE
ANYACUEELATE
ISCARIOTCDTSANDREEF
SWEPTFORJOYSTYDANO
LILIOHYOUSWISHLISTS
APTSROSINHALSEVERS
MESHMOTETATLTIEDYE

Straight over the plate Sunday, casting a wide net to catch as many solvers as possible. There's nothing about the theme that's tricky, nothing to trip up even a starting solver. It's easy to recognize that W words become SW words.

Well, easy … ish. SUMMER SWEAR had me confused for a hot minute, thinking that maybe it should be SWUMMERS SWEAR. Like what a backstroker would do when hit by cramps?

And FOR SWANT OF A BETTER SWORD? Swans can become knights?

Let's call it easy(ish) for non-ridiculous overthinkers. The "straight over the plate" pitch might actually be a W-SW curveball!

I appreciated so much of Julian's grid: IRIDESCE, TOY STORES, PARTHENON, CARL SAGAN, POWER DIVE? Yeah!

It's not easy to smooth out an entire 21x21 140-word grid, though. If it hadn't been for that pesky middle section ... I didn't know NORITE, fine. One word, whatever. Then ROWEL? And if you don't own any AIWA electronics, or if you haven't heard stories of ROCs in Arabian Night tales, you're in big ROC doo-doo.

Then there's KEBAB. No, KABOB is the alternate spelling. No again … KEBOB? I know it's a transliteration, so there might not be a "correct" spelling, but man, does KEBOB look wrong.

Simple letter swaps like W to SW seem too easy to be interesting, but I did get a laugh out of SPARKLING SWINE, which made me imagine pigs shining each other up with their muddy dung. You can almost get to a "polishing a turd" joke … not quite, but close enough to make me giggle.

I prefer more envelope-pushing Sunday crosswords, but a softball every once in a while isn't a terrible thing, offering up a theme that might be accessible to the entire gamut of Sunday solvers.

Mon 11/2/2020
SACKJEERSCRUB
HEHEOGLECAUSE
ASINIAMBURBAN
GOLDENDOODLE
SPEAKRUPEES
LEAVENOTRACE
MEWLGINESSAY
UMACODDLEDERE
FAIRYEARSLED
FIVECARDDRAW
LESLIESEAMS
COMEDYSKETCH
TRAINFEATTARO
WAYNEEMMAERIE
OPEDSROSYNIBS

Fail at "Name That Theme" once, shame on me. Fail twice ... shame on me even harder. Dang it!

I had a sense that this looked familiar, but I still struggled to connect GOLDEN, LEAVE, FIVE, COMEDY. That sounded (vaguely) enough like Alec Baldwin's impression of Trump (hey, he's orangey-golden colored, yeah?) that I buzzed in.

Alex Trebek (note how similar his mustache is to Will Shortz's) gave me that condescending tsk tsk smirk.

I'll take "Revealers" for $100, Will. Perhaps something like BUT IS IT ART or PICTURE THIS could have been a fun way to point newbs to today's "hidden synonyms" theme of DOODLE, TRACE, DRAW, SKETCH. I worry that some will miss what's going on.

Delightful SCULPTED clue! Repurposing a valid phrase like "made a bust" is a clever bit of wordplay. Not only that, but it echoes the artsy theme. Such a treat for a Monday puzzle; I'd love to see more of this.

Beautiful gridwork, big ups to Luke. I tend to go on and on about long bonuses, but this is a great example of how you can make your grid sparkle with mid-length material like KENDALL, SWEETEN, CODDLED, RESCIND. You wouldn't write home about any one of those entries, but in total, they elevates the solving experience. Achieving that while forcing yourself to keep to a minimal AS IN, VID makes for a fantastically beginner-friendly product.

The theme wasn't as interesting as Evan Kalish's BIG PICTURE progression, but it worked fine. Regular solvers might have less of a Spidey-sense "haven't I seen that before?" tingle if Will had sat on this one a few more months.

Tue 11/3/2020
EMUSSENDSOHHEY
TONEIMOUTGEICO
HOWDYDOODYRADON
ISRAELRELIEVE
CHANTEYSIMYALE
SUPDEIPEDWAY
HOUNDEDSUAVE
HUMPTYDUMPTY
SWANNALIMONY
PORKIETANMSG
AWRYGEMSOIHEAR
IDIOTICGUYANA
BISONHANDYDANDY
ADORNATEINTIRE
SONYSNATTYTEAR

What a curious finding! I've seen the phrase HANDY DANDY many times, even used it (much to the mocking snickers of millennials). I've never noticed the ANDs inside the words, though, nor have I thought about parsing it as H AND Y / D AND Y.

Even if someone gave me a listing of HOWDY DOODY, HEAVY-DUTY, HUMPTY DUMPTY, HUNKY DORY, it would have taken me a million years, banding away on a million computers, to come up with the H AND Y / D AND Y revealer. That's a fine HOWDY DOODY to ya!

(Ok, boomer.)

A quick search confirmed my intuition that it's a tight theme — not many other options. HIPPY DIPPY might be considered derogatory, HICKORY DICKORY sounds partial-ish, and HOLY DAY (or HEYDAY) isn't a long or interesting as the others.

Karl and Amanda are so good at imbuing a grid with glittery goodness. If the theme didn't grab you — I did find the revealer parsing a tad hard to figure out and understand — how about some IDIOTIC HOUNDED ALIMONY MEANIE CHANTEY? That would be quite a song, SO I HEAR.

I paused at PEDWAY, PORKIE, MONOGYNY, which felt tough taken together, but all are figure-out-able. PED WAY = pedestrian walkway, PORKIE = Pomeranian + Yorkie, MONO/GY/NY = a single dude in the Big Apple. It's a "Sex in the City" thing.

Wonderful clues for ISRAEL and BISON. It's tough to make early-week clues both interesting and accessible to newbs. ISRAEL using glue that's kosher for stamps? I enjoyed learning that, and it's something most everyone could reason out. Same goes for the BISON as the national mammal of the U.S. That choice seems about right for America's combative nature.

Innovative theme. I enjoy parsing findings I've never thought of before. It didn't pique my interest enough for POW! consideration, but it's creative, no doubt.

Wed 11/4/2020
DUBWIGSPAVES
IPADHOOTAMISH
EASYMONEYROACH
OTTERSSLATE
FRITIEICYBLUE
FELTNAPCHAINS
ELISZESTABOP
EMPTYNESTER
PHDIHEARSWAP
BEAUTYLIPERRS
ANYTIMEFAAYAO
UTEROPLACID
ASTROESPYAWARD
KEANUCHARERIE
ANGSTTAXIDEN

What a debut! I enjoy letter homophones, and although I've seen similar plays on ESPY = S P AWARD, the rest felt fresh. I started at [Euro, Zloty] as I slowly uncovered the entry EASY ____. I got a great a-ha when EASY MONEY = E Z MONEY fell into place.

It was a little too Euro Zloty to fill in the rest after that, though since the [I C] entry had to start with ICY, M T had to start with EMPTY, etc. Such solid themer examples, though, that I didn't mind breezing through it all.

Jack impressed me with all the wonderful bonuses he wove in. That's not an easy task when you have five themers — many experienced constructors haven't gotten the hang of offsetting long downs (alternating BASTILLE DAY / SPIT IT OUT / PARTY HATS / LIBRARY CARD up/down/up/down with proper spacing). The overlaps of these bonuses create difficulties, so getting some PBA and ACCTS in those west/east regions isn't surprising.

What is surprising is that Jack kept his dabs of glue so minimal. There's no secret to it, simply an unwillingness to say "good enough."

I did find it odd to get EAZY E in the grid, both because it (sort of) duplicates EASY MONEY, but also because it's another two-letter homophone in E Z. I'd have asked for a revision there, especially since if you don't know your Keebler crackers, ZESTA might feel wildly incorrect. Experienced solvers might also think to themselves that, of course, Will Shortz wouldn't allow an EASY / EAZY dupe, so they might go with EATY E or EAVY E instead.

Overthinkers of the world, that's my tribe.

A debut rarely gets POW! consideration, but this one was right up there.

ADDED NOTE: Some readers have been confused by ESPY AWARD — it's referring to the Satellite Awards and the Pultizer Prizes. I know, that last one is much more a "prize" than an "award," but it still works.

POW Thu 11/5/2020
APPARGODWELLS
LOUSEAMOHLOOK
ALLTHINGSBEINGE
SOLVINGNEWGIN
ACESMUWING
SEPARATEBUTE
EDAMGASNOGGIN
MERHASHTAGEMO
INTWOSTIPOTIS
EOPPORTUNITY
SAWSAPESEN
HOEWAYSAVAGES
ERIGHTSMOVEMENT
STREETOMITAYE
MADMENBEDSRAW

★ I love every aspect of this crossword, a beauty that ticked all the boxes. Like Jeremey said, it's not just another rebus, nor is it another play on the pound sign (a.k.a. the octothorpe); it's so much more. Even having a strong feeling that some rebus-like element was in play, it took a long time to piece together the concept: overlaying the equal sign = on top of capital II to form #. What a delight when that finally clicked into place.

Sometimes a rebus gets boring when you repeat it; multiple instances of the same thing over and over, but I was so tickled by the deconstructed HASHTAG idea that it made me smile every time I put it in.

Other aspects of the puzzle felt hard in the right way, too. Little esoterica or crazy dictionary definitions; most of the difficulty coming from wordplay clues that gave me head slap moments:

  • If you still don't understand Jeremy's APP clue, think about physically tapping your phone screen. Groanworthily great!
  • The sun and Sunoco have in common … the letters S U N? And gas — that's hydrogen gas, for the sun.
  • [Thank you for waiting]? The clue is talking to me? Ah, it's a TIP, a "thank you" gesture for someone waiting on you.
  • This MBA knows a thing or two about divisions in board of directors. Not quite as much about SAWS creating divisions in literal boards.

And some great fill in GET IN GEAR, MESH TOP, OH LOOK, MAD MEN, NOGGIN, US VETS? Totally worth some DO BE, HOO, IM IT, SMU. Note how all of these, save the last one (Southern Methodist University), are easy to figure out.

GEM, indeed.

Fri 11/6/2020
EMMADESCSFPD
BARTRIVIAOOHED
BITTERENDPRIMO
SENSESALOT
SPINARTTANLINE
PENALHOSTELS
LEAVENEDFAITHS
ALTEANDSOCIAO
TETLEYEARCANDY
EGOSURFARENA
BANANASERNESTS
LUTZYEOMAN
ARIELDROVENUTS
HAVRETIDESOVER
LESTONESTAXI

This is how expert solvers break into a themeless puzzle:

  • 5-Down, [More urgent], has to end in ER.
  • 22-Across, [Crafts created on a rotating platform], will probably end in S. Given the first finding, it has to end in -RS. Rotating platform, ending in -RS …
  • A-ha! Can't fool me. POTTERY is plural but doesn't end in S.
  • Then it's s simple matter of filling in letter patterns. Crosswords are easy!

At least I had the R at the end of DIRER correct. SPIN ART, what a fun answer and a clever trap that I totally didn't fall for.

I loved most of Aimee's long entries, BAR TRIVIA, a highlight, especially with that clue using "loaded" in the "boozed up" sense. Single-worders often don't do much, but PHILISTINES will convert even the single-word-pooh-poohing philistines.

INATTENTIVE and TIDES OVER are on the dull side, but the latter is elevated a touch by its eating-related clue. What can I say? I like snacks.

It's an unusual grid, which I appreciate since I see so many of the "four triple-stacks in each of four corners" grids. The central scattering of black squares is pretty.

The rough edges weren't as pretty, though — it's tough to avoid some ALTE DESC MAI ORIN seams when you interlock so many long answers throughout the entire grid. When you cross SPIN ART INATTENTIVE NAVEL GAZERS EGOSURF BANANAS, a dab of ALTE is almost inevitable.

I enjoy hearing constructors' thoughts on their process, and Aimee's note piqued my attention. I don't know the right answer, but I have definitely soured on the Potterverse. Not to the point where I won't read it to my kids, but all of Rowling's vitriol sure was a bummer.

Great collection of feature entries. I also liked getting an insider nod to Aimee's former CS career in SAFE MODE. Transitioning into full-time writing is anything but safe, so kudos to her!

Sat 11/7/2020
SMOOSHDRAGGED
HEXAPODSOURALE
INERRORLATERON
NUNIHOPNOWAIT
SNAPINPUN
WEIGHTLOSSPILL
SAMOSHETTYMOE
PLANSEDANNAAN
ELICUMINMOLTS
CELEBRITYCRUSH
AIRCOMEIN
BALSAMNODSADO
AGENDASRACEBIB
HEREIGOERASURE
ARTROSSSNOTTY

CELEBRITY CRUSH, a fantastic marquee answer! It's colorful, and even if you don't know the term, it's easy to figure out. Give it a clever clue like [Star attraction?], and it's nearly perfect. (The telltale question mark wasn't necessary, so removing it would have taken away that "nearly" qualifier.)

Speaking of hard, a constructor's most critical job is to set up solvers for a victorious finish. You want to leave people with a feeling that in a 2020 world full of plagues and woes, you can still claim a moment of victory.

Saturdays are a gray area, though. Just like not every top-notch athlete can complete the flying bar, not every top-notch solver should be able to fill in Saturday's last square. It is important, though, to give everyone a sense that it is at least possible; that maybe with enough work, they too could achieve total victory.

I got lucky today, guessing on a few squares correctly. There was so much tough material that could trip people up, though: ELOI, SION, BAHA, HETTY, SAMOS, GARANIMALS, EISNER, ART ROSS. I don't mind BAHA crossing ART ROSS, since ERTROSS or ORTROSS looks odd, but SION/SAMOS = a big yikes.

Along with a NW corner whose cluing difficulty was turned up to 11 — OXEN as "travelers"? OAR as a "sporting blade"? — it wasn't the type of challenge I prefer. I'd have loved more difficulty stemming from wicked wordplay, like [Rubber production?] producing an ERASURE.

Still, a couple of excellent feature answers to buoy the solving experience. Not quite a DROP THE MIC showing ... PILED IT ON is more appropriate.

Sun 11/8/2020WAIT, WHAT?
MICROLOANPATELSILO
ADHERENCEELUDEIKNOW
YOUGOTTHATSTRUTDEUCE
ALMSHAYROOKSERENA
SAPCUSSSENSITIVE
MORALWOEROTSSOL
FOLEYCHIMIATADORM
WHYTHELONGFUSSTBONES
IAMIDEEREDSHERO
WIPEGALPALUFOADD
RUDDERSOFTHELOSTARK
SUELEISEDAKADOES
CARYSPARTAMEPGA
ACCEDELOADEDTHEBUSES
HAHSCSINYIOSBAILS
EPALIMAIMPBEETS
MUCKUPARTISTSROD
CHASERHOPELEOLADE
SHIFTTHENUMBOFTHEGUM
KINKSTURINFREEAGENT
INGAVNECKFIREWORKS

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.

Mon 11/9/2020
PAWROAMSGEAR
USAENTOMBOLGA
PALLBEARERELON
IDEASELAPSE
LASSPELLGRANT
IRANSHOPPER
COCKAPOONEATO
ANOPILLBUGGOO
STRIPEASEMENT
HAPLESSLEDE
POLLTAKERTOTE
RESOLEMOTHS
SWAGPULLQUOTES
IOTASTPAULERA
PEELESTEEREY

Playing "Name That Theme" is a great way for experienced solvers to have fun with a Monday. Uncover the first theme answer, PALLBEARER, and see that ENTOMB is atop it. Huh. Is it National Graveyard Day already?

Ignore your ridiculous brain, then jump to the next long slot: ___ GRANT? Even if you don't know ENOL — and why would you? — once you guess PELL GRANT, you're off to the races. It's so satisfying to fill in PILL POLL PULL, bam bam bam, feeling smug as a PILLBUG in a rug.

I did feel HAPLESS, though, trying to complete the theme phrases. POLL … I cycled through POLLSTERS and POLL WORKER (stuffing the last ballot box with ER) before pulling the plug on my smugness.

Hey, PULL THE PLUG! I'd heard of PULL QUOTES before, but it took a while to place exactly what that was (a descriptive term for a giant block of text inside an article that immediately pulls your eye.) Solid entry, but not as smugness-inducing as PULL THE PLUG.

I'm usually against injecting long bonuses into a puzzle because they 1) tend to distract from theme, and 2) cause filling problems. The first issue isn't a problem today since "vowel movements" make it easy to pick out the themers. COCKAPOO doesn't muddy the waters as much as it usually would.

I would have pared back the gridwork audaciousness, though, since COCKAPOO forced ENOL, which was aptly clued using "unstable" — I can imagine ENOL destabilizing newer solvers' confidence.

It's a shame that a single entry can be so jarring, since the rest of the product was aces, with only minor KELPS (weird plural) and ATA, along with the easily accessible and interesting mid-lengthers: GOES APE, RAPPELS, SHOPPER, ST PAUL.

I was going to end with an analysis about consistency, why it's better to avoid having a single plural theme entry (PULL QUOTES), but I realized that 99% of people would say that level of critique is pure cockapoo.

Tue 11/10/2020
SNAFUWOOLSPEW
COLONHAREIOTA
ONEOFATITFLAX
PORTAUTHORITY
ESTIMONIBEGO
DRAFTSPERSON
NAIRSIRTITUS
ANNASTANDCEDE
INDIAIORERAT
FOUNTAINHEAD
SYLNCOACTSSA
GROUNDSKEEPER
IDEARIOSAVERT
BUMPAZULSECTS
MEETSEREESSAY

What a fun concept! The broad theme type of "kooky interpretations" — taking a regular phrase and defining it humorously — has been tapped for crosswords so many times that it's important to do something extra. Robert did exactly that, giving his themers entertaining definitions related to people in charge of drinks. Although I've heard PORT AUTHORITY defined relative to a wine connoisseur before, I loved the collection of four apt ones for four different beverage types.

At first, I wondered if GROUNDSKEEPER didn't belong since PORT and DRAFTS hit directly on the drinks in question. Given that I live in coffee-central Seattle, though, it's not uncommon to see coffee snobs tasting grounds, swishing them, rubbing them into their gums, etc.

You think I'm joking.

There are grounds for GROUNDS to be considered even more important than the coffee they brew, so I gave this a pass.

It's a fantastic Tuesday theme. If the gridwork had lived up, this would have been in POW! territory. I do love the bonuses — INDULGE ME and WHAT OF IT are fantastic, and POLYESTER is strong — but SERE is old-timey, desperate crosswordese. Toss in some partials (AT NO, ONE OF), a weird suffix (IOR), tough abbr. (SYL), an initialism that's hard to figure out (SSA), difficult foreign word (AZUL), and you've hit most every no-no called out on editors' specs sheets.

There's almost always a balance, trying for snazz while maximizing smoothness, but with just four themers, it's usually possible to achieve both. I'd have taken another look at the FOUNTAINHEAD / GROUNDSKEEPER overlap, which forced so much unsightliness. Moving FOUNTAINHEAD up one row would likely have helped, creating better spacing overall.

Still, amusing early-week themes don't come around that often, so this one is commendable.

Wed 11/11/2020
COKEDXFLATMOST
ABILITIESPOORER
HOLYFIELDPIRATE
NEOEXOLATIN
WEDDINGPRESENT
GOAPEEYELETS
ANTEEDRIAFOE
VETERANSMEMORIAL
ESSYUKSHINTO
PONTIUSICAHN
BUSINESSSCHOOL
ELWESTOOENG
STOPITDOUBLEDAY
ERRATAOURSAVIOR
TANNEDERSBATHE

"Both words can precede X" themes largely fell by the wayside about three years ago, not long after Will called a moratorium on simpler "words that can precede X" ones. All established theme types go through this life cycle — they start with a bang, grow mature, wane in popularity, feel overdone, and die out. However, it's nice to see a throwback to the past every once in a while.

DOUBLEDAY is as reasonable a rationale as any. While it's not exciting — there are a ton of words that can precede DAY, so there should be an ample number of possible themers — it does the trick. HOLYFIELD = holy day, field day, etc.

I did hitch on VETERANS MEMORIAL — it's no surprise that this is a debut phrase. It Googles well, pointing to dozens of different memorials honoring vets. It's not something I'd strive to use in another crossword as fill, though, since it feels too general of a term. VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL evokes much more vivid and specific imagery, for example.

As a constructor, I often hear the siren song of long across bonuses, particularly where ABILITIES and OUR SAVIOR are today. Usually, you'd have a black square at the S of OUR SAVIOR, but you can sometimes do without it, thus adding in more pizzazz. Why not? Let's do it!

When it forces something rough like XIE XIE crossing XFL and EXO, though … it's not quite a FELONY, but you're usually better off putting that black square back in.

Among crossword makers, variant entries are one of the most hated types of crossword glue. ANTEED looks so horrible, so desperate, that there's no way I'd let it through. It's a tough call, though — it is something solvers can reason out, much less so than XIE XIE. Does it look better or worse than HOBS or GYRE? Hard to say.

I enjoyed reviewing some crossword history today. Although this theme type doesn't (and shouldn't) show up much, an exemplary instance once every few years can be fine.

Thu 11/12/2020
LAMAMOSTDPLUS
ICONAMISELIDE
AASKYLARKRUMOR
MISHEARDIMGONE
SNLULNAS
SKATALKUULATER
TASHAYETIWADE
ARTISANITBANDS
FORTPDASEYDIE
FLOATSOUTCCYET
NOENDAKC
RANDOSIMPOLITE
ABORTBBORNOTBB
REVUEALAIVISA
ELANDDEBSESPY

To be, or not to be … well, there is no question. The famous quote has been played upon over and over and over, not to mention time and time again outside the NYT. There have also been a number of double-letter homophone themes, the most recent only last week.

However, there's usually room for interesting combinations of already-done themes, and Kristian produced a different spin: TO (letter homophone) = 2x that letter, i.e. TO A SKYLARK = AA SKYLARK. I'm tired of plays on TO BE OR NOT TO BE these days, but that phrase made for a perfect end to this theme. How apt is it that a doubled homophone letter theme has a double-double grand finale!

I did wonder about TO A SKYLARK. That is a famous poem (or so my more eddicated friends tell me), but it didn't provide the same kind of click as the others. Perhaps because TO A began the phrase, making it harder to figure out? With so many ___ TO A ___ phrases out there, I'd have much preferred one that made the a-ha sharper.

Interesting that today marks the second instance of SERE this week. It's much more passable in a late-week puzzle since most Thursday solvers will at least have seen the word, but it's still undesirable, to say the least.

I don't mind ALAI, since Jai ALAI is incredibly popular in some countries (and cities). It does point to how subjective this all is, though.

I enjoyed PLUGS AWAY so much as a bonus that I might even have accepted SERE as a price for it. However, this is a case where you can have your cake and eat it, too — I bet a cheater square in that upper right corner would have made that possible. A different long bonus than PLUGS AWAY might have been just as good, too, and made for friendlier letter patterns to work around.

Given how well-trodden these two theme types have been, I'd have liked something even more to elevate the solve — perhaps always having the two letters in the middle of the phrase or presenting them in alphabetical order? — but I did appreciate the consistency of always playing on a TO phrase (not using TOO, say).

Fri 11/13/2020
LETSDANCESTUBS
IMONAROLLTUPAC
NOWORRIESASTIR
ETANORANIKOLA
AIWAWONTONYOW
ROASTNERFSOUL
ANYWAYDEEPCUTS
EMAJYEAH
WHOLEHOGSINGES
HALLWHOANOONE
AVEDENOVOZETA
TEMPEHDEBTSEW
ANIONHEREWEARE
MOSESEASYASPIE
ITSMEPRESSSEND

Colloquial phrases are among my favorite themeless marquee entries. IM ON A ROLL and NO WORRIES, with LETS DANCE playing in the background? Sawyer (congrats on your debut!) and Ashton are indeed on a roll!

When I first hear the term LINEARA, I could not wrap my head around that sequence of letters. I knew it had to be right, especially since all those vowels would be useful to constructors, but it's tough to decipher the space (LINEAR A) if this language isn't something you've already deciphered.

The grid layout ... it's tough to make mid-length material sing, and stuff like ENTER IN, EMOTION, TOWAWAY didn't provoke much dancing. There was also so much short material (4-6 letters) concentrated in the middle that I bogged down while trudging along the center diagonal.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this themeless, especially what with SCHNOZ, EASY AS PIE, WHOLE HOG, and the awesomely bizarre PRESSSEND as highlights. So many ESSes blurring together!

POW Sat 11/14/2020
GOESINTOSASHAY
EUROPEANASTUTE
LIAISINGGEISHA
TENDONACHES
WARSODINKENT
AVOCADOHOLYDAY
ROBOTARMHES
MNEMONICDEVICES
ENDSOLITUDE
UMPTEENGPSUNIT
PALORIGGAYES
WRATHPEEKAT
ANTHEMERICIDLE
RETINANEWMONEY
DRESSYALIENATE

★ "My Violent Evil Monster Just Scared Us Nuts"? I had M____VI?ES in place — MONSTER MOVIES! No, that's not long enough. MONSTERRRRRR MOVIES, said in a zombie drawl?

Wait. It starts with MN? Clearly, I had something wrong. D'oh! MNEMONIC DEVICES. It's a fantastic entry/clue on so many levels, but best of all, I'll remember the order of planets much more strongly now. I could never remember the usual planets device, My Very Educated Mother … Jubilantly … Spewed Up Nincompoopery?

Apparently, you don't know my mother.

Two more grid-spanning entries to boot? STICKY SITUATIONS is solid, and SO ITS COME TO THIS is wildly amazing. Can't you just visualize someone giving you the stink-eye while wryly grumbling that phrase?

Oh, so you do know my mother.

Themeless constructors rarely start with so many grid-spanning entries because they quickly ossify a grid. You can often use black squares to (sort of) separate the marquee entries, but there will always be regions that lose precious flexibility. I was impressed by what Emily and Eric did in the west region, with ROBOT ARM threaded in so carefully. On the other side, SOLITUDE isn't as snazzy, but it is peaceful. Toss in a GPS UNIT, and I'd call that a success.

As you fix more and more into place, though, rigidity sets in. Once you decide on ROBOT ARM, you're not going to have much choice for something ending in RI. Then, the tops of SO IT COMES and TANDOORI constrain that NW corner. GOES INTO is a fine entry, but it's hardly a marquee 1-Across.

ON GOD felt strange. As with most of Erik's puzzles, I sheepishly go to Twitter and search for that term, as it's usually something the kids say these days. On God, it is!

Maybe.

Overall, the headline entries packed incredible punch, and the supporting material did enough to elevate this product to POW! territory. Well done!

Sun 11/15/2020THEME SHMEME
BARTABDRAWBBALL
IVORIESCRASHCOURSE
NATURALSTRICKORTREAT
ALOETEALEAVESATBAT
COURTREPORTERAWLS
ANTRIPWRENJUDEWWE
MAXWEIRSUGARCOAT
FORAYGARBTUNEDHURT
AVERMOILIENORSALMA
DELETEDSCENESSPENDS
ERASERTHINNEDRECIPE
SYNCEDADESTEFIDELES
RITESARTERYTIMSILT
AGESGRETAWHENWIELD
THATSOKAYSEARPIT
ATMHUEDSPEDARMDUA
DERNSKINNYDIPPING
ALARMSHOESTOREREBA
SLUMBERPARTYWEBSITES
PLANETEARTHPUMMELS
FAUSTDYESSHORTI

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.

Mon 11/16/2020
FAKEDBBCDECAF
ICIERLEOORATE
JELLYROLLGAMER
IDOOBITSTEIN
HOUSESITRNS
ASSORTNADA
REPROPUBCRAWL
TARAATRIAMOOD
MICSTANDLARVA
NEATRISKED
EGGCAKEWALK
NOTCHELECWOE
AFIREBABYSTEPS
CADETATMPOPUP
TREESBEDANTSY

Jennifer is right; babies are cute. Once you get past the interrupted sleep. And the poop. And so much crying. Then there's the baby's crying, too. Did I mention the poop?

Let's call it cute-ish.

In all seriousness, I was on my way to a "huh, another WALK to RUN movement progression" reaction when I hit BABY STEPS. Squee! Thankfully, the many highlights of raising a kid — the first time they roll over, the tentative teetering steps, the mixture of elation and fear when they become mobile — make it all worth it. Mostly.

I don't know that this puzzle will have as much of an impact on people who haven't gone through parenthood since observing this highs-and-lows process from the outside is much different than living it. Even so, all solvers can appreciate the step-wise (ha) progression.

One aspect you might not have noticed is the unusual themer placements. It's usually best to alternate far left / far right for proper spacing, but the way Jennifer arranged her phrases is perfect for today's theme — look at the beautifully stair-like appearance of ROLL to SIT to CRAWL to STAND to WALK. It's an elegant touch, and better yet, one that Jennifer made work without severe compromises. ELEC is a direct result of it, but that's acceptable for such a pleasing overall visual.

I did wonder if the aggregation of ASSORT, DAMASK, SACHETS might be a turn-off to newer solvers, but it's reasonable to expect solvers to at least have heard of these words.

It's unusual for a six-themer Monday puzzle to work so well, especially given their unusual layout. A fun start to the week — at least for those parent-solvers who aren't still traumatized by those tough early years. (Check back with me in 2021.)

Tue 11/17/2020
ISLAACIDSMGM
BOATIONICPORE
MOTHERMAYIETAS
STEELELKBLISS
RASHLIFEOFPI
OHGREATTAGS
PERTSRAJAILER
ERAHAIRPINAYE
COMBOSCOTCURE
BRIODAMAGED
BACKSPINSIKH
ALLIELOGCELEB
LOANGROWASPINE
SUNGMINERONIT
ADSAGENTPEDS

I've seen a couple of these "letter building" puzzles before, and I've even brainstormed something along the lines of I KNOW RIGHT? to PA KETTLE to PAI GOW POKER to PAIR OF JEANS …

Ahem. Probably safer to go with GROW A SPINE.

I'm not sure that newer solvers will pick up what's going on here, so we've highlighted the relevant words. I'm impressed by how deliberately the SPINE grows, starting in the middle, then picking up a letter on alternating sides. You might even say it's neat as a HAIRPIN.

I'll be here through Sunday, folks!

It's a fine theme, but the grid is outstanding. Such fantastic use of so many mid-length slots! Constructors often end up with a ton of boring, overlookable mid-length material. Check this out: CAKE POP, FAJITAS, BB KING, DIY KIT, OIL RIG. OH GREAT is right, and with no sarcasm!

I wasn't as wild about LATERGRAM. I bet the Twitterati will be all aflutter about this, but …

Darn it, I just heard a resounding "ok, boomer." Apparently, no one says "Twitterati" anymore, and LATERGRAMs are more apt for Instagram. Which apparently is mainly called Insta.

Later, gram(pa) is more like it.

Some fantastic clues, too. I love clever wordplay, and when you can make it as newb-accessible as a MINER = a person who "digs working," that's a big win. Entertaining way to describe MOTIF, too, referring to the distinctive "da-da-da-DUM" for Beethoven's Fifth.

Odd clue for PEDS, although the way I usually think about it — performance-enhancing drugs — is even less appealing.

ADDED NOTE: reader Gerry Wildenberg points out that PEDS (pronounced "peeds") is pointing to the medical discipline of pediatrics, not the meds themselves. Makes much more sense!

A fine example of the "letter building" theme type. And in some weeks, it'd earn a POW! for the grid sizzle alone.

Wed 11/18/2020
ROTCREVEISAAC
OHOOILERMELBA
STRIPOKERHATER
THENETSOVATE
RANDRWRAPARTY
ATTITUDELYCEES
GONEARGEL
TWOPEASINAPOD
DOHLEGATO
EROTICLASTNAME
VIPASSESACTOR
EXLAXMACHONE
AERIEFLIPHONES
NYJETBELLEATT
NERDSIDLEDLSU

Spot-on representation of TWO PEAS IN A POD, two Ps crammed into a circle. I appreciated the zesty theme entries, too — STRIP POKER, WRAP PARTY, VIP PASSES, that's a great story right there! Even FLIP PHONES seem to be making a return.

I thought I'd be the only one who noticed the consistency of all the Across themers having PP split over two words, while all the Downs having PP within a single word. Not so! Jim Horne, who usually doesn't care about things like this, noted it as a mark of elegance. He also (correctly) predicted that I'd note it too.

However, today was one of the rare occurrences where he appreciated consistency more than I did. While I do like the tidiness of all the Acrosses working similarly, and the Downs too, there's no reason why they should. It'd be one thing if there was a reason for PP to split across Across entries, and another reason for Downs to work differently. As is, the consistency for consistency's sake didn't wow me as much as it did Jim.

I'd also have liked a less audacious grid layout. It's almost impossible to avoid compromises with a theme-dense, 72-word grid. The SE corner is telling. Anytime you have to resort to the common-letter-heavy ERESTU on an edge, it's not so great.

In the opposite corner, ROSTRA is an odd duck but reasonable. Less so: TO RENT? OHO crossing OH THAT? R AND R, never written like that outside crosswords? I understand the desire to make the puzzle feel heftier, but I'd prefer scaled-back gridwork. Maybe even run this on a Tuesday. Yes, it's rare to get a Tuesday rebus, but the circles make it an easy rebus — too easy for a mid-week puzzle.

Thankfully, Amanda and Ross did a great job selecting themers that snazzed up the joint, WHOPPER JR such a fun entry. Some sparkly bonuses, like MACH ONE, WEASELS, ALTER EGO (Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie? Blows my mind!), helped balance out some tougher entries like LYCEES and CREVE.

Thu 11/19/2020
BLISSPHISAP
READMECOGSNNE
AERIALARTBOOKS
MRVGRFFNVNNWHT
PSATIEINSST
SEEDBEDTIDY
RSTLNUAEIRMA
EPEEIDYLLLEAN
FIXESEAPTSJK
SNAPUPVOTES
REOPOSITCSI
BNKRPTWHLFFRTN
FEASIBLEDIEOUT
FANNAILESTADO
SPAERESHAKY

I stay away from Vowelless puzzles (VWLLSS, as they're known to fans) because I have a hard time making sense of them. I'm sure they're like crosswords — the more you do, the better you get. Still, it's hard to overcome inertia and jump in.

Thankfully, today gave me a great reason to dip my toe in the water again, CAN I BUY A VOWEL an apt revealer. Linking it to WHLFFRTN — that's WHEEL OF FORTUNE — is so much fun! I appreciated that Derek found so many iconic Wheel phrases that fit symmetrically.

Best was RSTLNE. I know those letters by heart, so not having enough room for the sextet was infuriating at first. Great a-ha, realizing that, of course, the E shouldn't be included, given the theme.

Solid fill, given the extreme constraints. Some solvers might feel like they have to slog through too much ISU, NNE, OSH, PSA, and the crosswordy SST, but consider:

  • Seven themers. Even though many are on the short side, seven is always tough to work with.
  • Long central revealer, intersected by two themers. Filling around crossing regions is usually difficult.
  • So many consonants. A mix of vowels and consonants facilitates construction, while a big imbalance either way makes things maddeningly difficult. Zero vowels in (almost) all the themers is an extreme.

Given these issues, I'd expect about twice as much crossword glue. Fitting in a couple of ON STILTS, PET FISH, ART BOOKS = icing on the cake! Excellent work from a new constructor.

I also liked the grid art. If you squint (really hard), you can (kind of) see a wheel of black squares in the middle of the grid. Okay, maybe if you're Dali. Hey, I still enjoyed the subtle hint toward Wheel.

Entertaining debut that made me rethink my aversion to VWLLSS pzzls!

Fri 11/20/2020
AYCARAMBAMILD
TROUBADOUROBIE
GEODESISTSBANC
INHDASTORNGO
FOOLEDSNACKED
TOETAGSWHERE
BARRAGEARID
TRUSTEXERCISE
GRIDSWORNIN
AANDPNESTLES
BIGYUKSTIERED
BLTGNARSTHRU
AMOROCEANSTATE
NINETHEGENERAL
AXEDSAFEWORDS

TRUST EXERCISE is a fantastic central marquee. It's something most everyone can recognize, and it evokes vivid imagery. Who hasn't told their brother to trust them, of course, you'll catch them, and then let said brother clonk to the cement, necessitating a trip to the emergency room?

Um. I haven't either.

It's also apt for crosswords, describing the constructor-solver relationship in a nutshell. If solvers can't trust the constructor to set them up for a victorious win, they won't be as interested in solving future puzzles.

CUDDLE BUDDY is a perfect example of strengthening that trust. You might not have heard this term before, but what's not to understand? CUDDLE and BUDDY are two words you know, and putting them together is a 2 + 2 > 4 proposition. Love it; fist pump!

GEODESISTS is tougher. Yes, regular solvers should be able to figure out that GEO means "Earth." You might even feel smart, remembering that in Greek mythology, GAEA is Mother Earth.

-DESISTS, though … wait. What are you, stupid? Of course, it means "ceases." Therefore, GEODESISTS are people who want to blow up the Earth.

The trouble with these types of entries — besides causing idiots like me to think we're funny — is that they can make solvers feel stupid. I got eviscerated (rightfully so) a few years back when I thought (ironically, as it turns out) that including CLERISY was smart. A case can be made, though, that these entries will educate; broaden horizons. It's a tough balance.

I haven't seen THE GENERAL, so it didn't do much for me. The much more worldly Jim Horne loved it, though, which shows how much personal experience affects one's themeless solving experience. Oppositely, this MBA loved IBANKER (Wall Street term slang for investment banker), while Jim wondered if this was a ridiculous-sounding banking app for an iPhone.

I enjoyed a lot of TROUBADOUR, edgy SAFE WORDS, TRAIL MIX, CHAIN LETTER, which helped outweigh the weird AANDP, GNARS, plus the smattering of AMOR NGO (non-governmental organization) RAS SNO. So much of themeless construction is about that delicate balance.

Sat 11/21/2020
WEIRDHUHFLOORS
ALOEVERARINGUP
NEWSDESKENERGY
TMANLAUREATES
ECIGENESCO
INAKITASPTABS
BTUBUBPINENUT
MACABREIRONORE
PRUSSIANIHTNN
CYSTNUMTOPHIT
RAGTAGWREN
SHORTSTOPERGO
DOOBIEATOMBOMB
NOLOSSTHESINAI
ANDYETASTUDENT

IOWA CAUCUS is such a standout entry! I love that a small state underestimated by too many wields such influence every four years. That clue, too — something both Bill and Hillary won once? Now that's the way to entertain with trivia!

Perfect 1-Across for this puzzle. I give a thumbs-up to WEIRD, HUH?, since I've said it many a time, but I bet some will describe the phrase as "weird," which to my kids means "you smell terrible, dad."

Similarly: THE SINAI (Sinai Peninsula, more commonly), ASTROBOY (it's two words put together, thankfully, but even this cartoon maniac didn't know it), TURING TEST (more passable since "the Imitation Game" came out, but still niche).

I wasn't so hot on a couple areas of the grid. I'm a physics dork and even interned at NASA but never heard the term LINAC (short for linear accelerator?). That doesn't bode well for the general solving population, not even the regular Saturday folks. Cross it with the composer ENESCO — in twenty years of orchestra, I never played one of his compositions — and that's a death cross. I applaud the attempt to make it fairer, but UNESCO is a toughie too.

Judith RESNIK crossing the partial-sounding IN A KIT wasn't as unfair. At least you should be able to piece together IN A KIT — that is, if you can get past the notion that this is a (verboten) six-letter partial.

Thankfully, Sam worked in several solid phrases/clues to keep my interest. Will Shortz is careful not to do much shameless self-promotion in crosswords, but NEWSDESK was a highlight. Hiding Times — as in the New York Times — at the beginning of [Times table?] is brilliant.

POW Sun 11/22/2020IT ALL ADDS UP
MENURAGUCAPOICICLE
UNITATOPOARSNOONAN
SONEOPOOLTHELASONERD
EKERANDOMSMILEETA
IDBETGATSANACIN
ELSHADAKIDSUNTRAP
BADEAIMRISESREHIRE
ALBASTEFANITHERULES
HEARTHSTROTTEDTRENT
TERSERERATOPTSTSA
DAYSOTWOLIVES
CAMMOTOOVENPEOPLE
LOGANREPUTEDATECROW
ILIKEIKEREROUTECEDE
SOLEMNMODELNITUSES
PRESETSOUTOFITGPS
WAHWAHHOOTBUYER
OAFEARLSKRAKENVAC
FRFOURTRAINBREAKZERO
USAUSAOLGAEDENANEW
MORROWWANTSSNSCTRL

★ Last week, I mentioned that I'd love to see Will Shortz hire a Sunday squad tasked with invigorating the flagging NYT Sunday crossword. Alex Eaton-Salners is one of the first people I'd tap. He has such a wide range of creative ideas, and today's worked so well.

I didn't have the greatest first impression since the concept fell quickly from the title and the first instance. S(TEN)O POOL isn't the most exciting answer, either. However, stepping back, I admired the creative way Alex played on sums.

Ah — then I noticed that the crossing numbers look like plus signs! What a great extra element. Granted, you can't have two words cross without having them look at least a little like a plus sign, but that's okay. Alex still gets credit.

The themers kept getting stronger and stronger, DAYS O(F OUR) LIVES and I(T WO)N'T HURT fantastic. SKIN O(F OUR) TEETH and MAKES W(EIGHT)? My momentum built like a runaway FREIGHT TRAIN.

I enjoyed the theme concept well enough but felt it might be too simple. Then, the coup de grace. I knew BREAK(S EVEN) had to include SEVEN. Based on the number of circles, it had to be FOUR plus THREE. Drop the mic; I'm done!

Wait. GPT isn't "something helpful in a dash." Is it? Maybe it is. Kids these days have all kinds of tech devices. No … it has to be GPS, as in a unit helpful in a dashboard. But then—

SEVEN plus ZERO. Dang, that's a clever trick! It made me wish Alex had tossed in a NEGATIVE ONE plus ONE to make ZERO, but good luck finding a phrase containing NEGATIVE ONE.

All this, while obeying crossword symmetry? Gridding around five crossing themers, AND weaving in GOOD GAME, I LIKE IKE, IN THE RAW, MT ARARAT, THE RULES? Yeah, there were a couple of entries some could classify as weird — BAHT, ALEE, BLEARS — but that's way better than an average Sunday. Considering how much tougher this theme is to pull off than usual ones, this is exemplary gridwork.

#SundaySquad. Will, please make Alex an offer!

Mon 11/23/2020
CLAWSCABCHRIS
HAZEOHNOPEARL
OPALDIDGERIDOO
ITLLDOYONDING
ROEUMPTAPIOCA
SPADEOBAMAIAN
OSAKAORINGS
MIDOCEANRIDGE
EATOUTEASEL
ALSTRADETEMPE
SLASHERSKAAIR
TOGASADULSTER
BRIDESMAIDEZRA
ACRIDINDOWORN
YALEUSASSSHED

You want two forms of ID? Why? The PRESIDENTIAL BIDs were free and fair! Do I need to PROVIDE EVIDENCE? Sigh, I'm going to need some more ROLAIDS ANTACIDS, which have more than PAID DIVIDENDS during these past two strange weeks.

See what (I D)(ID) there?

I would have loved TWO FORMS OF ID as a revealer today. IDS by itself at least points out what's going on, but it doesn't give adequate rationale why there are two of them in each theme answer.

Stan's such an old-time pro, having done this for decades. I was impressed by how smooth the solve went (mostly). True, there are only three theme answers, so I expect nothing less than an exceptionally colorful and clean grid, but incorporating EAST BAY (anyone remember J.R. Rider?), DUE SOUTH, IT'S A GIRL (no gender reveal parties though!), MATZOH, while only relying on a bit of YALE U (do Elis say that?) is solid.

The one knock: PARIETAL crossing ULSTER. Man, those are tough words to expect newer solvers to know. Hopefully, you've gone to med school or been reincarnated from the Victorian days.

I would have liked a stronger revealer to tie everything together and a snazzier set of themers — especially given that there are dozens to pick from — but this one mostly worked as a newb-accessible Monday.

Tue 11/24/2020
STABCHARTBRA
LARVAYAHOOBLOW
ASIANCLASPAIDE
WHALEILLBEDARNED
NADAWESOPED
NCISCAGEDUD
JUICESARTBABY
OHTHEHUGEMANATEE
TUDESEWLITERS
SHEHUESSAPS
PLANTARIRAN
GREATCODALMIGHTY
RENDOBAMAONION
ADDSOOZEDNANNY
DOSLEERSSLOE

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.

Wed 11/25/2020
LOBOWAGIGIVE
IVANWRYVORTEX
MALEHEIRANOINT
ELLIEDOORONTO
GLITZAIRMAIL
SHOGEOKEYS
TOWPLANETEMPE
ULNAMESSYEACH
ASSAMPLAINTOE
TREEOCDINN
TEETIMEUTILE
OGREBLOCOINKS
ORANGETHYMETEA
LESSERTEDSLEW
STEELODSLYNN

I can't resist programming problems, and John challenged me with a doozy. How hard could this be?

It didn't completely break me, but it took some trickery to figure out a combination of manual sifting and automated processing to rake through the search space.

Matching results: 0.

Bah!

Well, except for the trivial closed chains of AIR MAIL to MALE HEIR and TOW PLANE to PLAIN TOE. Even then, I had to think whether I'd use PLAIN TOE as a theme entry — it's definitely a term used in shoes, but it's rather … plain.

Maybe if we could figure out a third pair, we could create something interesting? Off to the computer to generate lists of phrases based on switched homophones! Thankfully, it didn't take long before THYME TEA emerged. I didn't have it in my list because I'm not much of a tea drinker. Reading up, it felt solid enough to include — hundreds of thousands of hits with all sorts of reputed benefits.

Maybe I should become a tea drinker.

It's not easy to work with a bunch of mid-length theme answers, but we eventually figured out an arrangement that would let us work in some sparkly long downs. Hopefully, things like BALLGOWNS crossing GLITZ will keep you interested, if the theme isn't your cup of (thyme) TEA.

(I happen to know a certain six-year-old princess-loving daughter who would squee for the combination of those three things)

POW Thu 11/26/2020
GATENALASOFTG
UNIXATOMOLLIE
ROMPVOWEL
UNEASYSKAADD
SNOBSRAISES
ISLAND
ODIEULNAHOFFA
NEGFEASTEDLOX
SANTAMOANPINE
WINDED
DUMONTTOURS
ONOCIAROUSTS
JOHNSSOON
OASISKNEEALOU
SMELTSAWSLONG

★ Neville! It's fun to be around incredibly sharp people, and Neville is right up there. We shared a cab to the ACPT one year; I enjoyed hearing about his math dissertation. Contrary to popular belief, mathematicians are some of the funniest people around. Who doesn't like derivative humor … about derivatives!

I should integrate more humor into my write-ups.

This is far from the first time we've seen this concept, the most recent about a year ago. I remembered a few from way back, too, one that cleverly used breaks and splits, and another that took "go big or go home" literally.

As with all mature theme types, though, there's room for a standout, and Neville executed this one well. I appreciated the consistency; that all the LONG themers were recognizable, two-word phrases starting with LONG.

I thought I had guessed the conceit right off the bat, so I appreciated that the dastardly first themer threw me for a loop. Having seen this theme type many times before, I was reasonably sure I should put only one letter in the elongated boxes, but [Oboe sound] had me wondering if this was something completely novel. Perhaps musical in some way? Nope, that's "oboe" as in O-BOE; two long O sounds. Great way to throw us veteran solvers off the trail.

I also appreciated how the presentation made my solve more challenging. I tended to print a normal-sized letter in the middle of the long boxes (similar to how it's shown in the grid here). That made it hard to catch those special letters as I was solving the down entries. I like a clever challenge on Thursdays, and trying to make the D and S of ENDORSES snake around in my head was a fun problem to tackle.

There were a few hiccups: DUMONT and NATANT didn't ring a bell. Shall we say they were on the tail of the bell curve? These were easy to forgive, though, since the solve was so much fun, and there were more than enough clever clues. I was sure [Gets behind] was a literal clue, not ENDORSES.

ADDED NOTE: reader Jesse Witt shared that the NYT app's displayed solution is cool. Fully agreed, they did a great job with that!

Fri 11/27/2020
AMONGIGAASAP
POKERFOOLDULL
STONEHENGEBRIO
EEKAMOUSEBLEEP
LSDTHROWN
CARRIESATORCH
ARIANALEGKYLO
LENDSHERTENAM
MAGIMIXCORONA
BANANASFOSTER
SELECTILL
STATEHULASKIRT
NORIBILLTHECAT
OVERANTSENEMY
WEREMTADORAL

I love it when Jim chimes in. Sometimes people complain about entries like C FLAT as arbitrary, but I don't mind them. And I love them when they have a special significance — at least if you're as worldly as Jim. Fascinating to hear the neutral CFLAT elevated to a natural entry, all the way to a sharp one!

I love Robyn's themelesses, so much so that she suffers from the curse of high expectations. While I did find STONEHENGE and its innocent [Classic British rock group] clue fantastic, there wasn't as much to excite me as usual. Along with some tough crossings — ULTA/MTA, KENO/DORAL, KYLO/OMAR, NENA/EEKAMOUSE — I can't call it among my favorite Weintraub creations.

Still, enough fun entries, SURE WHY NOT, RING BEARER, HULA SKIRT, BILL THE CAT (I wonder how many Millennials will even know who this is?) to make it an enjoyable solve, overall.

Sat 11/28/2020
TIMETRAVELESTA
AREYOUGAMEXMAN
POWERSUITSPAST
SNLTHANTARTT
TOEBLOTTER
FAIRSFAIRMBA
DRESSCODESOUP
PROBEORCSANDS
LOGOAUTOTUNES
APPPITYPARTY
CARRELSBEA
ELIOTGPASOCT
BINSOVERSHARES
ONCEPINACOLADA
SEENTEETOTALER

I haven't ripped through a Saturday this fast in ages. It made me feel smart, and boy, do I enjoy feeling smart! It almost made me feel too smart …

It's always something, ain't it, Jeff?

Saturdays are supposed to be challenging, and it's even more challenging to select/edit them so they're the right kind of challenging. You don't want them to be a slog, filled with obscure dictionary definition clues, but you also don't want them to be hard because they feature people/proper nouns that some solvers have no chance of knowing.

My ideal Saturday themeless is composed of all recognizable entries that are clued in wickedly clever ways. [Move to a later date, say] for TIME TRAVEL is perfect. It's impossible to figure out without any crossings, and once you do get enough letters in place, it's such a brilliant a-ha moment.

Same for [Study pills]. I wondered, is that a verb, as in "investigate pills"? Ah, PLACEBOS, as in pills taken by study participants!

On the other hand, PINA COLADA is a fine entry, but [Official drink of Puerto Rico] makes it guessable. [Alters, as a pop …] I don't need to read the rest, since what else could it be but AUTOTUNES?

Overall, I had a great time solving this puzzle; every long entry so well-chosen, no obscurities or tough proper names that might make me feel old, out-of-it, and/or dumb — kudos to Nam Jin for an excellent construction.

I wish that great time hadn't been so short, though.

Sun 11/29/2020SIX-PACK
GMAILSWEEPSTINKO
EROICABEAGLECUEBALL
NACRESRANGINUPDATED
EPHEMERALDSPEPERAPS
SHADEHISSBADPRSTA
ALVINGILGAMESHOW
DEALTINORELSEATLAS
ETTEPEPPILLRINSE
SHARDREMINISCEESPN
ANTEBENDYSINAPILE
INECHIVASETCETCDUE
PONTIACITEHEREWES
ALDOMETRONOMESIMON
OOMPHREBUSESSANE
DANTEARAMISLIVENED
FIRSTRATEGYTIBIA
ESCIRISEARIZSCRIM
SLAVNESTOBAMACARENA
TIDINGSARRIVEAVENUE
EKESOUTREADERMISERS
RESAVETYLERESTEE

Eric! His "Winston Breen" series has been out for over a decade now, yet my daughter's elementary school library still has a copy of the set. That's a testament to how fun they are. Fans of puzzles should pick up a copy!

I enjoy the "mash-up" theme genre, and I appreciate that Eric featured so many multi-worders. EPH(EMERAL)DS and HAM(MERING)UE are fine, but GILGAMESH + GAME SHOW = GILGAMESHOW shines. There's something about the space in GAME SHOW that makes the discovery stand out. AIREDALE + RED ALERT = AIREDALERT is excellent, too.

These findings might feel incredibly impressive to non-tech-oriented folks since they appear hard to uncover. That isn't the case since a strong wordlist will contain all of the component entries, and a simple program can uncover lots of possibilities.

Conversely, I've heard some complaints from techie solvers, who say that these types of puzzles reek of computer-assistance. That strikes me as odd; like complaining that a book feels like it was written on a computer, not a legal pad. Of course, constructors should use all the time-saving tools they can in their quest to make the best puzzle possible.

Even with computer assistance, a Sunday 140-word puzzle is no walk in the park, and a 136-worder like today's is a Herculean task. There's not quite a deluge of gluey bits today — about 18, including AREST, IRISE, DECI, ENES — but today's puzzle could have been a smooth, elegant 140-worder. Maybe even POW! material.

I understand the allure of the challenge, though, constructors wanting to tackle something seemingly impossible. Tough to resist sometimes.

Even with the rough edges, the array of fun finds was enough to keep my interest over the entire solve, which isn't the case on most Sundays this past year.

Mon 11/30/2020
HATHBAHOTTAWA
EROOARTSAUNAS
MARCTIMHORTONS
BAKESALEDDE
SHELBOXSEAT
YEATSCIA
SCENARIOANYONE
HOPICOLASIVAN
ENIGMAALIENATE
HENREORG
STUTTERISSA
URNAPRICOTS
MAPLESYRUPREPO
ALIGNSETARAIN
CANADAPHDYMCA

Jim Horne, XWI's resident Canadian, and I have weekly conversations about puzzles. They're always fun, but this week's chat put a huge smile on my face. It's not often that you hear someone talk so reverently about so many things!

There's some great material in today's grid, woven all throughout: BAKE SALE to BOX SEAT to ALIENATE to APRICOTS to STUTTER (cool that Joe Biden can talk about this openly, helping other stutterers!) to ENGIMA to SCENARIO. That's way more than I remember in any recent Monday.

It led to an unfortunate amount of crossword glue, though. I don't mind a bit of EROO here, DDE there, since those are easy(ish) for newb solvers to piece together. OSO, not so. ELEA = "el-e ... whaaa?" HEB might make solvers ebb.

I understand the allure. So much meaty fill! Any time you start with a themer like TIM HORTONS and then flank it with BAKE SALE and BOX SEAT, along with ALIENATE down below … it's hard to resist.

Fun concept for a debut. It's a rare puzzle indeed that inspires Jim to write, and I love that.