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Puzzles for December, 2021
with Jeff Chen comments

Wed 12/1/2021
CZARCACTIFETE
LOCOATHOSARID
ERRONTHEGSTRING
FRIDAEWEEMCEE
SODPWNTORE
CLEANHEIRACT
SOLOEDEERSHOO
IRONSMIRSTAIN
FELTMUGUNABLE
TOAIRISHUMAN
NECKNATTWA
DEIGNEOSCORAL
EYRETOTHETHRONE
MEANARIASAPEX
ISNTKYOTOLEDA

If you haven't read Jasper Fforde's "The Eyre Affair," it's well worth your time. If only it had been about Brontë's descendants, it could have been "The Eyre Heir Affair"!

Entertaining homonym plays. I've played Air on the G String many times and ERRed frequently. (I'm that cellist who hides in the back of the section.) TO AIR IS HUMAN describes my three-point shot. And I enjoyed the image of lil' ol' Jane EYRE rising to the monarchy.

Following which homophone went where confused me, though. It's something that not everyone (probably no one) will care about, but I was hoping for a cycle, where the first homophone word moved to the second themer, that one's homophone word went to the third, and so on.

Just as Christopher mentioned, it is inelegant that two of the base phrases use AIR, and poor Jane EYRE didn't get one. Perhaps JANE HEIR could have worked.

Kooky puzzles are all about the kook factor, though, and these four results are all winners. Along with solid gridwork, a smattering of entertaining wordplay — I hadn't ever thought about the Three Musketeers and their lack of MUSKETRY skills — it's a great debut.

Thu 12/2/2021
SWATPASTAAVIS
RICHELFINMARE
INTERNLOCKATON
CIOLATINA
JAMAALAMERICIT
AMOSOCTETSICE
MINTNOESORB
BETRAYSMINERAL
ROWIBETLACE
ABEANGERSARMS
DRAGKINGSAYYES
VOLOESOAR
EGANSALTSHAKER
RUDEAGORACITE
BEARNOTEDEXAM

Rebuses typically generate two "a-ha" clicks, when the solver 1.) figures out the compressed string of letters, and 2.) why they're compressed. In a recent rebus, for example, figuring out COO in KEEP A (COO)L HEAD was satisfying, and PIGEON COOP gave solid rationale for the squeeze.

INTER(NAL C)LOCK ... no a-ha click, because I had no idea what NALC might mean. Did I have it wrong somehow, misspelling an undercover NARC?

My bafflement increased as I pieced together AMERI(CAN L)IT. CANL? I (CAN L)ie by saying that I knew what was going on.

Beautiful firework explosion of a-has when I got to SALT SHAKER. That's a fantastic rationale to justify anagramming NACL.

Why the rebusization into single squares, though? (This is the point where Jim Horne had his usual cackling "oh, Jeff" moment.) I liked today's approach much better than the typical MIXED means to anagram letters theme, but it would have been world-class if there had been some extra element that gave the typical second rebus click, too — a word indicating crushed or box or something.

CRYSTAL could have been interesting.

Better yet, a line drawing of a salt crystal in each of the rebus squares!

(Yes, I would have complained that whatever crystalline representation they used wasn't 100% accurate.)

My ridiculous issue aside, this is a memorable rebus, which is tremendous praise considering how many hundreds of rebuses we've had over the years.

Fri 12/3/2021
BOTHOSIRISHBO
RHEAUPTONOGOOD
AIMSSECONDWIND
TOPNOTCHDESKS
TONESGLINTS
IFFIERLOAN
READSBABYGATES
KATETAPASSURE
STEADYGIGDIXIE
EKESDEFEND
RAFAELVALID
WORLDGAYICONS
ADIOSAMIGOACAI
RESPECTFULRAID
MOETEASEDETRE

TOP NOTCH is right, an excellent 72-word grid. Claire filled nearly all of her long slots with colorful, multi-word entries, and what IFFIER short glue could you point to? MTA will be tough for some non-New Yorkers, but it's otherwise squeaky clean.

If you're going to make a 72-word themeless (the max allowable), this is the level you must achieve. Great gridwork.

The icing on the cake was the multitude of clever clues for shorter entries. [Giant in chip manufacturing] wasn't Intel or Acer, but the potato chip company, LAY'S. I might seek forgiveness for … uh oh, Claire knows what I did last summer!

Oh. Loan forgiveness? That's what I was talking about, too.

Best of all was the innocent [Challenge while sitting]. This clearly is about my kids and their inability to sit still while I attempt to engage in teachable moments. (Thankfully, our kids behave better with our babysitter than they do with us.)

I wonder if Claire and the NYT team shot themselves in the foot with the deluge of cleverness, though — specifically, the type of cleverness. I struggled mightily to finish this puzzle because of the sheer quantity of innocent-yet-wickedly-near-impossible clues. Taking twice as long as usual for a Friday made me feel ... well, slow. The level of cluing brillince is exemplary, but it'd have been great for the sound engineers to amplify the Friday frolic while diminishing the Saturday struggle.

POW Sat 12/4/2021
CHEFSKISSCLIFF
YOGAPANTSHENRI
BORNAGAININDEX
EKEYARNANDIE
RAGANOTETOSELF
CHICKWELLSBAA
ABODESDIASANK
FAUCETSASKANCE
ERSPARESANDES
SITINETS
BIDETSGOTASEC
ACRIDHABANEROS
SAYNOMOREAROMA
ELLEWOODSSIDED
SLYNOFEEFETE

★ CHEF'S KISS is right! Perfect Saturday puzzle. This further establishes Nam Jin as a preeminent themeless constructor. Hard to believe his debut was only about a year ago.

Did you notice the diagonal symmetry along the NW to SE axis? Not only is it different — this long-time solver appreciates different — but it's purposeful. Running triple-stacked long entries through each other often makes a themeless constructor's life doubly agonizing because even if you can achieve greatness in one corner, you have to do it again in the opposite.

Not so with diagonal symmetry! Check out how much easier the SE is to fill than the NW.

And what excellent results in the NW. The horizontal stack is the star, with three marquee entries. The vertical stack isn't nearly as strong, but with HOOKAH BAR, it's so much better than a typical triple-stack-intersecting-into-triple-stack result.

Something unusual and cool about two long entries with a terminal F. Both SANS SERIF and NOTE TO SELF didn't come easy because I couldn't convince myself that this might happen. So many long entries in themelesses end in common RSTLNE letters.

Such entertaining cluing, too — material that made me feel smart. Great mix of giveaway question marks ("overdrawn account?" = YARN) and brilliant misdirects that you don't necessarily need to understand to solve. I missed why ERS were transcript omissions until Jim Horne mentioned that it's not a college transcript but a spoken one.

I love it when a constructor sets me up for a smashing victory, like an en fuego game of pool where each shot leaves the cue ball with a perfect angle for the next shot, culminating in slamming the eight-ball home. It's rare that I'll want to see a themeless byline repeated more than once a month, but I'm adding Nam Jin's name to that list.

Sun 12/5/2021 COME AGAIN?
CBSASLEEPUPSETGMC
LAIDNEURALNOONEOAR
ALLANEVERENDINGSTORY
USEDCARUAELONE
SANSABEARSREPEATING
EMTMARIMBADRAGSEGA
PERPETUALMOTIONSOY
KANYEWESTAGENTS
FARMSEOSASPCA
ETTANANAPOPARTISAY
TANSADINFINITUMKERR
INESGOLDENGEEZHUME
DAREIWEDTIDES
SHARPEIMPOSESON
NBCRECURRINGDREAMS
ORALRAFENAMASTECIT
NONSTOPFLIGHTSGUIDO
CIAOACRALGREEN
CONTINUITYOFCARESNAG
ODELETMEURCHINACLU
YESSTEPSPOSIESESE

Appropriate that Chase and I spent an eternity filling this one.

I hope you noticed the infinity grid art in the center of the puzzle. If not, we've highlighted it in green below.

Why green, you ask? Well, duh! Because green represents the Time Stone from Marvel's Avengers movies — the stone that has the ability to rewind events while simultaneously splitting the multiverse's timelines into particulate tachyon matter that both exists and does not exist within the minds of millions — and also the minds of none.

(It's because green is shiny. I like shiny.)

I didn't add one word to Chase's commentary.

Okay, it was more like seventeen.

Mon 12/6/2021
SHAGSORALTAMP
TABOODEMIAREA
AREAROLIGARCHY
BILLOFRIGHTS
IRACOTEDOE
INTEARSEUREKA
CARLETTERPRESS
ETATYAYSMUT
PACKAGEDEALERE
ONTOURSMOLDER
PTSTOEDMSU
YOUVEGOTMAIL
SAFESPACEABODE
AWOLEDAMRENEW
PEELREFSTREAD

Two years ago, I moved our mailbox because the carrier would always leave it ajar, thus soaking everything in even light rain. Seemed like a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, he decreed that he would no longer deliver our mail. I spent over ten hours on the phone attempting to sort things out. I learned that 1.) moving a mailbox is a complicated procedure that requires multiple approvals, and 2.) it was ultimately up to the mail carrier, who smugly passed our house every day. I finally gave him five giant chocolate bars plus an apology for my libertarian behavior, and he relented.

YOU'VE GOT NO MAIL is not a romcom.

Neat that Emily found a tightish set, things that (most) mail carriers deliver. I couldn't think of any other major categories, only things like coupons and political flyers. Hard to hide those in common phrases.

Great job disguising the mail meanings of BILL, LETTER, PACKAGE. I wasn't familiar with LETTERPRESS so I would have loved something like LETTER OF THE LAW or LETTER GRADE, but it turns out that Seattle has a letterpress community. Also, crossword symmetry isn't always the kindest, so LETTER OF THE LAW would create alternate trade-offs.

YOU'VE GOT MAIL's length already makes construction awkward, too. Twelve-letter revealers have to go in row 12 instead of 13, thus compressing the themers together. As much fun as is it get OLIGARCHY and SAFE SPACE, it's not ideal that they come with big corners filled with "this is a word?" entries like SORORAL and AREAR.

Overall, though, fun debut delivery!

Tue 12/7/2021
TONLOGINSAND
AVEOUNCESTRIO
DECPICKLEJUICE
ANKLESPENDER
PIZZAJOINT
SKIPILANAMMA
OYLSTEMHEARS
POLITICALJUNKIE
STONYISEEEEL
OWSDECAFWILL
PRIVATEJET
ACREAGEEDWIN
MATCHINGPJSODE
FRETTIPOUTREX
MESSFACTSKAT

I loved uncovering MATCHING PJS. When I was single, I vowed never to subject my friends to this sort of nausea-inducing sight, but these days, I might never take off matching footie PJS (much to the chagrin of my neighbors, who are already taking up a collection to replace my 20-year-old-more-holes-than-clothes wardrobe).

Initialism puzzles are overdone so it's important to add some extra level. P* J* alone has been employed many times, a quick search for some possible themers turning up a similar 2009 puzzle. MATCHING PJS has such potential to do more; such life in it. There are surprisingly many P* J* phrases, so brainstorming ways of having them all match would have been tremendous fun.

PETER JENNINGS, POPE JOHN, PRINCESS JASMINE, and PETER JACKSON in matching footies?

Holiday card of a family eating PAPA JOHN'S with PAPAYA JUICE on a PRIVATE JET?

Neither does the theme poetic justice, but it'd be so entertaining to work toward that perfect way of playing on "matching."

Great clue for PRIVATE JET. The wordplay might not be readily apparent — the 1% refers to a one-percenter by wealth. Neat to see such cleverness early in the week.

Although this didn't rise from the initialisms pack, MATCHING PJS is a memorable entry; so fun.

Wed 12/8/2021
SWABTWANGEDIT
HOSEAIRERAIDA
OMITINTROSAAB
ABATTLEOFWITS
LAGEROSLOPAC
STORIEDSNOOTY
BOARDEROS
SARGENTPORTRAIT
AREAAMOCO
GOBLETMARIMBA
EDURUSTSNEAK
TSARNICHOLASI
ANTEBATHEANET
WRAPOILERITSA
SALTSLEWSDOTS

WRAP / ITSA. Debut puzzle by … Yoda?

Because his robe is a type of wrap?

Stop shaking your head at me!

I was so stumped at "Name That Theme." All the circled letters were anagrams of something, displaying a tidy progression of 1 2 3 circles at the beginning and 3 2 1 at the end. I couldn't wait to find out what I was missing!

Hmm. ITSA does wrap around the end to the beginning of the themers. It does consistently progress in that consistent 1/3 2/2 3/1 series. But … why?

At this point in our conversation, Jim Horne casually referenced C3PO, the uptight protocol droid.

I loved many of the clues today, varying in a range of fun genres:

  • Cool trivia. WOMBATs have cube-shaped droppings? Now I feel the need to replicate the feat.
  • Question mark wordplay. [Hookup that might get kinky?] in the starting corner is joyous. That's a HOSE hookup — wasn't that what you were thinking?
  • Clues that make you think. [Like the Tower of Babel, in two ways]? I couldn't even think of one way. STORIED? Ah, yes! Legendary, as well as possessing many floor-type stories. Genius way to elevate (ha) a not-that-exciting entry.

Fun debut concept, but I found it difficult to wrap my mind around—

(sounds of Jeff being force choked)

Thu 12/9/2021
ASADAMPPEYOTE
MTNEVERLOANED
OAKLALALANDING
NILLADOCITTY
GREENBOOKING
STORMIDEFBI
ACTSANAAARON
JURASSICPARKING
ABATECUEISEE
RAPALEGRONK
KNIVESOUTING
OBOEPIETONER
KILLBILLINGECO
ADDLEDESAUSKA
YESYESDOWNSSN

Alexander! I've had the pleasure of working with him on a few constructions. He comes up with interesting seed ideas that are fun to develop, including one full of witty come-backs and another that we morphed into subway doors. Great to see him get his NYT debut.

Film adaptations … adding ING? I spent five minutes trying to suss out the rationale for this before Jim Horne gently suggested turning off my pesky brain so I could enjoy. Perhaps come in for a LA LA LANDING. It's true; the results overall are amusing, especially the image of a triceratops maneuvering in a PARKING lot.

Bonus points for featuring some recent movies. I haven't seen anything in years, but even this movie moron has heard of LA LA LAND, GREEN BOOK, and KNIVES OUT, award-winning major releases. Amusing changes of meaning, with GREEN BOOK given a cheeky redirection to an ecohotel. Even funnier to take the edge off (sorry) of KNIVES OUT's violence, turning it into a dull (sorry not sorry!) shopping trip.

Even with five themers, two long Downs are almost always possible, and Alexander did well with ANKLE STRAP and FRISKINESS. Well worth the price of a bit of minor MTN.

Smooth short fill, too, although ANA crossing ACC exhibits why Will Shortz generally hates initialisms that aren't known by virtually everyone. If you don't know All Nippon Airways or the Atlantic Coast Conference — and it's reasonable if you don't — that cross is a trap. Cluing ANA using "palindrome" would at least have made it fair.

Entertaining letters-addition debut, even if the reasons for adding ING to movies weren't quite clear.

Fri 12/10/2021
BEDINABAGMALAR
ENROUTETOALONE
LEANRIGHTGOTTA
GISTEOLITHIC
PRIZERITAAFT
RENEPUSHUPBRAS
EATMONTEREY
PRONOUNREDUCED
GENERALSHAY
SHOOTCRAPSTIRE
AOLESPYPOOLS
CHIRASHITERM
ROVEDINDIAPERS
AHEADGONEROGUE
LORDSHEARTRATE

Fantastic clue for RUNNERS HIGH, that rush you get after a few miles of racing. [Rush while racing?] is such an interesting way to combine those words. Doubly fun to have it intersect HEART RATE! I used to wear a heart rate monitor back in my half-marathon days ... back when my pace was more than "slug."

Also amusing was the clue for PUSH UP BRAS. I was sure that [Garments that sound like you'd exercise in them] would be SWEAT PANTS, especially considering Jill and I have gone full sweaty with our Uniqlo wardrobes these days.

There was so much I struggled with today. I've had dozens of CHIRASHI bowls over the years, yum! I had convinced myself that it was SHIRASHI, though. Embarrassingly, I stuck to my guns with the French-sounding SASMAL, as either MOVED and ROVED felt it could fit [Was peripatetic]. (They couldn't.)

MALAR? (It's a word, according to the dictionary.)

There's such a thing as a BED IN A BAG? (There is.)

Who says "GOTTA boogie!"? (People who are cooler than you. Also, people who are less cool.)

LOTHAR is who? (Mandrake's sidekick, didn't you read the clue?)

Yes, but who is Mandrake? (You got me on that one.)

Ah well. We expect to encounter some-to-many things we don't know in a Saturday themeless.

Huh? It was a Friday themeless?

GONE ROGUE is right!

POW Sat 12/11/2021
AIRGPASTEPTO
PREQUELSHATERS
TAQUERIAALANIS
QUESTWIKICOO
ISSUESUSHI
AGRARUMORMILL
BLEDBRATATSEA
LEDINORONOHOW
EARLEZINEPANE
MELATONINFRED
AARONCHEAP
DODSEEMARDEN
ORISITLENIENCY
DENADABACKSEAT
DOGLEGTEARAD

★ Themelesses featuring grid-spanning 15-letter marquees can be tough to pull off since these long entries take up a lot of real estate. Often, the rest of the grid isn't juicy enough. Not today! Fourteen long answers (8+ letters) is about average for a themeless, so hitting the norm while featuring great REQUIRED READING and PENCIL SHARPENER is an excellent result.

Standout clue for PENCIL SHARPENER, too — making good points in the classroom, heh. I love these types of themeless entries because not only are they colorful, but they lend themselves to such delightful wordplay.

The marquee entries were solid, but Hal hooked me at TAQUERIA crossing QUESADILLA. The former mystified me until I remembered how much I love mole sauces, and the latter made me crack up, remembering Marshawn Lynch's cameo on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

AND a QQQ staircase, with the Q of IRAQ / QUEST? I love it even more, considering how well QQQ has treated investors over the past two decades.

I worried about wastage when I encountered ISOTONIC and NEAR SIDE, but everything else was thumbs-up. I've jumped to work in EUROZONE in some of my constructions, only to realize that it's boring because it's hard to riff on. Wish I had thought to play on "tender union."

I also enjoyed the freshness of HI TOP FADES. I attempted to give my neighbor's two-year-old a HI-TOP FADE last year, to disastrous results. Good thing hair grows back quickly.

Icing on the cake was RUMOR MILL, a great entry made even better by its amusing clue. I didn't know what a dirt farm was, but that didn't stop me from loving the wordplay.

Sun 12/12/2021 JOB SHARING
ATOMTALEMASHUPTART
CORAALOTARCANAODOR
LOCKSMITHMOUSEROLAY
UNSEATRENAULTTVDADS
MWAHLABSPECIALIST
COPEMOBDIETPELE
ORONOSIRFIREOPAL
BAGGAGEHANDLERTOOLE
SLOUGHODEAXILSLIP
SLUEDALPACABYTE
OUTPATIENTCOORDINATOR
URISTOMCATSLASH
NBCONEAMSTSOVIEDO
CAKEDNAILTECHNICIAN
ENSNAREDORATESTY
TREEWISEVANSTAX
CIVILENGINEERPORE
ANORAKREALTORPOETIC
TATEICANSOBASECOACH
CNETNAVIESEGOTFLEE
HEDYGREECESEWSFLEX

Using one job title to punnily describe another profession is a great Sunday theme concept. Some of today's work well, with BAGGAGE HANDLER as a therapist (who handles people's mental baggage) outstanding. NAIL TECHNICIAN as a carpenter — technically proficient with hardware nails — also hit the mark.

Others didn't give me as much of a rush. LOCKSMITH does have the word "lock" in it, but how many people go to a hairstylist to get their singular lock done?

Another "hmm" issue: are LAB SPECIALIST and OUTPATIENT COORDINATOR common job titles? Jill, my wife, had to slap me upside the head about the latter since it's an ultra-common thing. In retrospect, I should have known that, and an anesthesiologist as someone who coordinates "out patients" is funny.

I hit some speed bumps along the grid, with AXILS, SLUED, OVIEDO, NAVI not coming immediately to mind. (Or ever.) Crossing the last two made for an outright guess. I'd much rather encounter more minor EEN STS UNE kinds of glue that are easier to piece together if you don't already know them.

Thankfully, Daniel and Doug did a nice job injecting fun into the clues. LIP as something glossed over (think lip gloss), BYTE as part of a gig(abyte). TOMCAT as an avid bird-watcher. These add so much pleasure to a solve.

Plus, a bonus themer with VALET as a [Park supervisor?]! Nice.

I wouldn't say Daniel and Doug nailed it (either as carpenters or manicurists), but it's a lot better than the typical Nailed It! result.

POW Mon 12/13/2021
EBBSCRABDETER
AEROFOIEIMAGE
RAILROADSTATION
STEVEMETALLSD
LEAPICET
ANAMARKETCRASH
FARSWANTONYA
LOSSSPORTTORT
AMOURWIRETIE
CINNAMONBUNHAD
SPANEDGE
PAZIWISHEUROS
STOPDROPANDROLL
STOOLNILEUNDO
TASTYSNOWSEEP

★ I haven't been so happily stumped by "Name That Theme" in ages. RAILROAD STATION … MARKET CRASH … CINNAMON BUN? Could it be a "words that can follow X" theme ... nope. Their first words aren't synonyms, nor are their last. Perhaps there are words hidden in the middle of the themers? Nuh-uh.

I give. Tell me the revealer!

STOP DROP AND ROLL?

How does that …

Ah! RAILROAD STATION is a STOP, MARKET CRASH is a DROP, and CINNAMON BUN is a ROLL. Elation as the lightbulb finally flicked on!

I love that each of the three theme phrases is strong and in the language, plus they're all nouns. Verbs might have worked for any, like COME TO AN END, TAKE THE PLUNGE, or SHOOT CRAPS, so it's elegant to connect the themers further through consistency.

Solid gridwork, especially for a debut. With four themers, there's always room for at least two long bonuses, and BRIE LARSON and ANOTHER ONE hit that mark.

Most importantly for a Monday puzzle, Tomas took such care to avoid sticky globs of glue. Bryn MAWR might look unfamiliar to some. AERO is easy enough to figure out from etymology. Given such excellence in gridding, I'd suggest that Tomas try adding another set of long Downs in the SW and NE next time.

This finance guy never likes hearing about a MARKET CRASH, but he loves it when a theme crashes joyously over him. No CRABs today.

Tue 12/14/2021
WONKCHANGSASK
ERSEROBERTMIA
SCANDINAVIAINN
KOBEEGGIEST
ESSEXRIG
LOWNESSFINLAND
ODEDETERGOLOW
PODSCOMETOGRE
EPEESCURIEOWL
DENMARKENTHRAL
IVEHUEYS
PERSISTPAIR
AXENORDICCROSS
LILGREENEARIA
STYSTEWEDHAMM

After decades of staring at country flags for various puzzlehunt puzzles, I'm embarrassed to have never realized that NORWAY, SWEDEN, FINLAND, and DENMARK's flags have something in common: the NORDIC CROSS. Fascinating to read up on the history behind it. I had no idea how many countries used it, either.

I'm still unclear why the NORDIC is a cross turned on its side, though. Don't our SCANDINAVIAn friends know about crossword rules? You can't make a sideways cross in black square grid art using regular symmetry unless you also include a reversed image (we've colorized the crosses below). The reversed cross is how 50% of flags appear, but it does look ... reversed.

Mirror symmetry (left-right) won't work, either.

Up-down symmetry would allow for a perfect NORDIC CROSS flag image, but Will Shortz does not care for up-down, saying it "just looks weird." To that, I say, turn your head 90 degrees, squint, get your eye drops, hop on one foot …

Okay, it is a bit weird.

However, I would have loved an exception today. Featuring a single middle NORDIC CROSS to mimic the flags would have been incredible.

FINLAND / NORWAY and DENMARK / SWEDEN interlock almost symmetrically. Not quite, though, so I wasn't enthralled by the prices to pay, notably ENTHRAL in an early-week puzzle (where there's already some oddballs like LOWNESS and EGGIEST).

I appreciate being gently nudged to learn more about the NORDIC CROSS. Cool idea, and with a central cross of black squares, this would easily have been this grid art fanatic's POW!

Wed 12/15/2021
ALLSHASATEUP
ROOTHELPLEDGE
ACREAREABEIGE
BADINVESTMENTS
LINEAARC
APTONEWAYTRIPS
CROWALITAUDEN
TIVOSILTSSIRI
ADELASLITHOST
SERVICEACESTIS
ERAVESPA
SORRYNORETURNS
JULIAUDONLOCI
OMANILEASFOAM
TOYEDLSDAFTS

SORRY NO RETURNS … how did Jessie and Ross know about my tennis game? I thought I was halfway decent until ten years ago when a 6'6" friend with a wicked 100+ mph spin serve set me straight, in straight sets.

After that, I decided tennis was a racket.

ONE-WAY TRIPS worked as well, although it has a similar meaning to the tennis aces. (I should have written a witty comeback here, but that wouldn't go with today's theme.)

BAD INVESTMENTS never sit right with me, so these days index investing (supported by the SPIVA studies) is my jam. This themer also didn't land as squarely as the others since most BAD INVESTMENTS have returns that are less than the benchmark but aren't exactly zero. Even in bankruptcies, investors often scrape out pennies by negotiating haircuts on the—

(Jim Horne interrupted to suggest that I hit RETURN.)

Great bonuses, as I've come to expect from both Jessie and Ross. Adjacent long Downs are usually easy if they run through one themer, but two is a different story. LOCAL PRIDE / LORD IT OVER with no surrounding glue is an A+ result. Carefully placing SERVICE ACE so the friendly E and R could end those long Downs was smart.

Not as stellar in the opposite corner, with SULFA / LOCI a tough crossing. Still, IDIOT-PROOF / PERSIAN CAT is worth that price, given this is a mid-week puzzle. At least, it's worth it to those who got that square correct.

Not a standout of its genre, but a fun "different meanings" theme elevated by so many delights in the fill.

Thu 12/16/2021
AGREESALOTIRE
BREATHBEWILDER
BEMUSESONNETEER
YEAGNUSIDED
TREEBOAGUNS
RELIEFMAPSROB
MAINISSUESBARB
OBEYDEWBERRIES
BEDHARDLINERS
POSYILLYRIA
SHEDSSNLNFC
OPERATINGBOGGLE
BEFUDDLECASUAL
EXTSAKEERUPTS

I never understood why they named it BOGGLE. There are so many ways to hint at mixed-up letters, much to the chagrin of this bafflingly bad cryptic crossword solver. With so many possible ways to more accurately describe a game that has so many possible ways to link different letters, it boggles my mind how …

Ah. Never mind.

BEWILDER and BEFUDDLE are excellent descriptions of my solving experience. A pinch of BEMUSEment, too. Why are we looking for synonyms for BOGGLE? And does BEMUSE not mean to amusingly confuse? (Still boggled on that, and no.)

Bonus points for using almost every letter in the central 4x4 in the search (upper-left E and upper-right A/S only ones not needed to spell out BEWILDER, BEFUDDLE, BEMUSE). Penalties assigned for a ton of compromises in short fill, plus oddities like SNAFUED. Such a meta word.

I have no idea how to score this puzzle. BOGGLEd is right! I applaud the originality, though.

Fri 12/17/2021
BIBIMBAPVISAGE
ORATORIOIMPROV
BESTRODESOLUTE
ASSYRIAMINIBAR
BILJOGTATS
SEMISGENOA
ICETHOTSTREAKS
THATHITSTHESPOT
HOLYSMOKESTOFU
TAPIRSAPID
APRSLESLET
FREEGANLINEMAN
LOVELYSABOTAGE
ANEMIAAVERAGES
CELEBSGALAXIES

Given his picture (above), Evans should have featured the GIMBAP roll at 1-Across, not BIBIMBAP! I've binged so many K-dramas during lockdown that I'm constantly craving both. Images of sizzling dolsot bibimbap with rice crisped in a stone pot … contrasted with the reality of a soggy paper to-go container. Sigh.

Speaking of sizzling, HOT STREAKS + HOLY SMOKES = aah, THAT HITS THE SPOT! The kids these days might even say that that center is lit.

Is that a fireable offense?

Big quad-corners (8x4) are a tough ask. It's appropriate that the lower-right contains AVERAGES. SABOTAGE and GALAXIES have a lot of potential for clever cluing, but as a whole, there's not enough chili oil to spice things up.

And if you didn't know BIBIMBAP (order it now, if you can eat at the restaurant safely), crossing it with ?OBA and ?ORRIS, along with ORATORIO and ASSYRIA might light some IRES. Perhaps moving the "finger" of black squares up to the ASS of ASSYRIA would allow for improvements, as well as open the bottleneck into the NW corner.

Clever clues make or break Fridays, and today's is a make. HIMALAYAS is already a strong entry, laden with images of climbers and Sherpas clinging on to dear life during their ascent. Wordplay like [It's all downhill from here] — as in the world's highest altitude — mightily elevates (talk about going downhill).

Even better are clever clues for the short, boring entries like SEMIS. [Quarters feed into them] misled this former arcade dweller; "quarters" as short for quarterfinals is used to brilliant effect.

Meaty overall offering, although the rice around the edges could have used more seasoning.

Sat 12/18/2021
ACTSRANTSADDS
RAVEALOHATOOT
INSTANTWINATTA
WELLDAMNBLINI
PERIODOKBOOMER
ANISETRAINSETS
POETBEEGEES
ITSNOSTARSCPA
DIGTHISBRAY
FRYINGPANSUITE
LEAVESINBEGETS
ETHERLEMONADE
TIERCOVERSTORY
CRAGSTERETUNA
HEREISREDITSY

Debuting with a themeless offering is quite a feat. Acceptance rates are at an all-time low, averaging roughly 4%, and themelesses are the most supply-glutted category. Bravo to David for making the cut!

The grid contains so much colloquial fun — NOW MORE THAN EVER, THINK AGAIN, CAN WE NOT, OK BOOMER, DIG THIS — WELL DAMN is right! I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of an old hippie saying DIG THIS, with Gen Alpha collectively giving an OK BOOMER.

Neat grid layout, too. At first glance, it looks like three mini-puzzles — NW, center diagonal, SE — but there was more than enough connectivity to maintain solving flow.

The innovative grid design did cause some problems, notably in the south region. That's understandable, given how constraining it is to weave TEST PILOTS / NOW MORE THAN EVER into LEMONADE / COVER STORY. There was a high price to pay in the awkward IS RED and tough STERE.

Considering how challenging it is to get an acceptance, I'd have suggested revising. Perhaps a black square at the D of BORED could have opened up possibilities.

Great misdirect on the "Britain's first family of harmony" clue. I used to be a big Wade BOGGS fan so that B had to start BEATLES. THINK AGAIN is right!

Too much RANDD BIERS oddballs for today's ever-rising themeless standards, but such fun in the spoken-word entries.

Sun 12/19/2021 SEASON TO TASTE
ACTSARIPJSHAITIAN
THRUBUSROUTEUNNERVE
PEANUTBBUTTERDEGREES
FINNANIARPNORA
SLITSSNICKERHDOODLE
INITSMOSDEFDRYAD
GINGERTSNAPLETSORG
ENGATANYTOLLAHOUSE
ANATDANEREMTOAD
RAWRARCKERNSPETS
STAUBTHINSMINTETHER
EYEROTOESORBTELE
SAGSTWAFRAUABES
FIGENEWTONOLEICENO
ILECLEOSHORTCBREAD
DINAHLOGJAMSELES
OATMEALMRAISINRACKS
RADSYESMEASINE
COINOPSCOOKIECUTTERS
DRFAUCIONIONDIPAERO
CRYSTALSLOYDSLSAT

For a puzzle all about COOKIE CUTTERS, it's hardly cookie cutter! Neat meshing of rebus, space-skipping, and visuals to create something unlike anything I've seen before. I'm a huge proponent of utilizing the Sunday Magazine's glossy color printing for crossword innovation, and printing cute COOKIE CUTTER shapes as rebus hints is a step in the right direction.

Get it? A step in the right direction? Because after GINGER, you have to step right over TREE to get to SNAP, thus making a GINGER SNAP?

I know that joke wasn't a cut above, but—

What do you mean I'm on the naughty list?

Having to work with pairs of crossing themers is rarely straightforward. Laura's task was somewhat easier than usual since each entry in a crossing pair is independent of the other, but it's still not a walk in the park when you have so much theme material.

Although there is a liberal amount of short glue, I appreciate that Laura worked hard to keep the crossings fair. If you don't know the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), at least you can piece it in through crossings.

Neat to get DR FAUCI featured in the lower left for a feeling of nowness. Also great to uncover THE BEES KNEES, a delightful entry.

There was something unsatisfying about the pre-printed shapes giving away the rebus in the Downs, but figuring out the "cutting" of Across answers still made for a solid a-ha.

There's so much potential in the NYT Sunday Magazine print format. I'm looking forward to what creative ideas 2022 will showcase.

Mon 12/20/2021
WELCHDAMPANAL
OMAHAAMIECURE
ROYALRESPECTED
STITCHINTIME
TENYEATUSHIE
HOESEASENT
HEMANDHAWLAH
ALASSOLESUGLY
RIDDARNITALL
STARWADODE
HETEROARTPHI
COMMONTHREAD
THROBBINGEERIE
HOURALESFLORA
OPEDTESTTONYS

Figuring out "Name that Theme" in one phrase can be deflating. After uncovering STITCH IN TIME, I was 75% sure this would be a sewing theme. HEM AND HAW ironically took away my remaining hemming and hawing.

However, I love being surprised by a great revealer. Even though I knew (roughly) what to expect, COMMON THREAD gave me a big smile: perfect phrase to tie together (sorry) STITCH, HEM, DARN.

I wondered if DARN was inconsistent with the other nouns, but my ignorance in this area is apparent given my kids think socks with just a single (foot)hole are weird. DARN IT ALL? More like darn nothing.

Tough vocab for a Monday puzzle. I've had several newer solvers wonder about entries like EWER, such a constructor-friendly yet newb-confusing word. I'm a big fan of PEPITAs, but cross it with AMIE and then off-the-air DARIA, and that could give an inexperienced solver reasons to do something else.

I often don't like long Across bonuses since they muddy what is theme and what is not, but given the overtness of today's concept, I respected that RESPECTED and THROBBING obfuscated things a bit.

Such a treat to get an accessible wordplay clue on a Monday! I loved thinking about a SALAD getting dressed for lunch. That telltale question mark would sadly give away the game on a Friday puzzle, but for a Monday, it's a perfect alert.

I enjoyed COMMON THREAD, an amusing and spot-on revealer for a sewing theme. Along with a bit of extras in HALCYON and ID THEFT, a fun debut.

Tue 12/21/2021
TSARKISSNASAL
OTTOINCHYETTO
GRABAJARCROON
AERIEURALAPP
WINTERSPORTS
SATENOTEDLY
SPOOLSBETSEYE
EARNMELBARN
EARWEEDSPADES
KRISHNADOOR
SPOONBENDING
URLSTABSTORE
SPOILIRONOVER
TOONSMENUNEER
ANTEDEDENELKS

SPOON BENDING! As a kid, I was obsessed by the Amazing Randi and his quest to debunk paranormal claims. I even bent some spoons — much to the chagrin of my mother. It's apt that OOPS is hidden backward at the start of SPOON.

Neat to see the range of bent SPOON shapes. After the second one, though, it was too easy to fill in the rest — Will Shortz often cites this problem with repeating circled letters. The rest of the puzzle felt like an afterthought, filling in squares for the sake of completion. It'd have been great to add more meat to the theme, perhaps by including the AMAZING RANDI or PARANORMAL.

Better yet, wordplay phrases, perhaps playing on WARP or CURL. How about FLEX TIME as the name of the Amazing Randi's TV show?

Dare I suggest spoonerisms?

STOPS DEAD is right.

It's not simple to grid around turning entries, even with the flexibility (sorry) to use virtually any shape you want. Guilherme's grid-building experience showed through; such care in filling around CROON and STOPS DEAD. Five SPOONs and only minor NEER STA (RTS = right tackles might be tougher) is a great result.

Neat to hear about a Brazilian constructor — the NYT's first one, to my knowledge! I can't imagine switching to a different language — and more importantly, to new slang phrases like "in the MEANTIME", which are important in elevating a crossword.

And what a cool pic, with that giant Rubik's cube! Looking forward to seeing what other mind-bending tricks Guilherme has up his sleeve.

POW Wed 12/22/2021
RATSOCTALSYFY
ECHONAOMIKOBE
CHRISTMASSPIRIT
ALKAZONK
LOSTOPPORTUNITY
OTHERADOTYPEA
ARESBIOTADORK
MARTIANMISSIONS
SNLDAP
UHFTEAROOMNOM
MORBIDCURIOSITY
BREAMTIEANGIE
YANKEEINGENUITY
ECCELIEONBRIE
EHSDIDNTSIS

★ I loved Andy Weir's latest book, Project Hail Mary. It's so inspiring to imagine humankind achieving the impossible.

Also inspiring: today's fantastic theme phrases! I would never have guessed that OPPORTUNITY, CURIOSITY, and INGENUITY could be incorporated into sizzling phrases (SPIRIT is easier). MORBID CURIOSITY is incredible.

I wasn't as wild about the revealer, as MARTIAN MISSIONS felt clunky; not nearly as strong as MARS MISSIONS or MARS LANDERS.

More importantly, the revealer gave away the game much too quickly. I love the moonshot at grid art (although I squinted so hard my glasses broke), and using left-right symmetry can easily allow for the revealer to go at the end of the puzzle, where it's supposed to. Singular MARS MISSION or plural MARS LANDERS in row 12 would have been perfect.

Dreaming big is admirable. It gets people thinking beyond their limits. Trying to build around five grid-spanners with only 72 words, though … there must be a balance between dreams and reality. The bottom corners show the most strain, not a surprise given how many Down answers had to weave through two themers.

As with space missions, continuous improvement is critical, and another 10 or 20 revisions could have turned this into a tremendous lift-off puzzle for two new constructors.

Even with the rickety elements, though, the quality of the theme phrases + the inspirational nature of the concept + Lawrence's space exploration background added up to win me over. Can't wait to see what Noki, Lawrence, and Andy Weir put out next.

Thu 12/23/2021
BLAHETRADEZAP
EASENAILITEGO
ACHRISTMASCORAL
NEEDNOTCHROME
SHRIMPEDGES
ERICAEUROS
VITALARGONSINE
EASTERCOTTON
RAYSCAFFEMACHO
LOYALETHOS
AMORESTAPLE
SONATATHEHEAT
TAKESTWOTOTONGA
ONEBOWMENODOR
NAYEMIGREDOGS

I can hear so many solvers grumbling about yet another anagrams theme, which would be a shame. Even after reading Stephen's comments, it might not be apparent that:

  1. each theme word has exactly two vowels: one A and one O, and
  2. when you switch the two, it forms another valid word.

I've even used TONGA TANGO in an anagram crossword for an upcoming book, and I didn't notice the pure vowel swap!

The concept piqued my curiosity enough to write a quick script to see what else was out there. My favorites that Stephen didn't include: CASTOR/CO-STAR — COSTAR OIL for a bodybuilding movie? GRAB ON, Josh GROBAN! RAMON/ROMAN, SONYA/SANYO. And if you relax the "only two vowels" constraint, OCTANE/ACT ONE. Something neat about the addition/deletion of a space.

Stephen and I discussed if a revealer would have been helpful. I'm 100% on board, although his thought of VOWEL MOVEMENT didn't work for me. It'd be fun to brainstorm what sort of "swap" or "switch" phrases might have worked.

None of the themers made me burst into laughter, but I appreciated that Stephen chose all five-letter keywords. That consistency kicked things up a notch.

Fully agreed with Stephen's self-critique, the grid flow is not great. It'd be interesting to explore connecting up ZERO-G and ITCH in a full revision attempting to improve feng shui and also include an extra-long Down bonus entry.

I favor trickier Thursdays, so even realizing that this was more than simply anagrams wasn't enough to scratch my itch. I flew through today's, which is a testament to Stephen's care in gridding, but it also points to it being more Tuesday-Wednesday.

Fri 12/24/2021
DREWBACKOMIT
NEURALNETMEME
AFRIKANERSATON
LIEGESPATNAVY
ANKHSLACESDEE
BEATBOCKTIARA
COWLSASTIR
YEAHABOUTTHAT
POSSEASIDE
HUCKSLETSGASP
SAOSOLESTOSCA
TWOSREYTASSEL
RATEGREWASPINE
IKEASOILTESTS
PERMNICELIST

What a perfect way to end a Dec. 24th puzzle, not only a great entry in NICE LIST (think "who's naughty or nice"), but a festive wordplay clue. [Yule log?], using a different definition of "log" (as in journal entries), is so merry.

Also fun: imagining kids poking each other at 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve, asking YOU AWAKE?

Not so fun: being parents of those kids.

I spend a huge amount of time adding to and curating our word list, so I kick myself when something like NICE LIST or KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON I haven't kept a close eye on. Not as much for LOWBALLERS, which sadly makes me think of a "Jackass" stunt involving an old man costume involving prosthetics and short shorts. Ahem.

Themelesses are so much about one's personal connection to the entries or clues. I enjoyed the clue for TOSCA — referring to TOSCAnini, the maestro who conducted its La Scala premiere — but I delighted in hearing a conductor's elation, Jim Horne's effervescence bubbling over as he told me stories about both TOSCA and Toscanini.

E-SCOOTER is no longer a debut — Evan himself took care of that earlier this year. Back when he was first getting started, Evan showed me a grid corner he'd built around EWASTE. My reaction was, what's next? E-BINOCULARS? E-SHOES? Then again, I'm a big fan of Kindle's E-INK technology and the common biz lingo ETAIL. As mentioned, sometimes personal connection is everything.

For those of you celebrating, hope you're on the NICE LIST for tomorrow!

Sat 12/25/2021
PHOTOAPPS
THENEWBLACK
SHORTSWEATHER
PLINTHSTSELIOT
IONIZETSETSE
TALCRAIMIPEEN
ANYJAMPACKLSD
GODFORBID
OOHIMSCARED
RHINOGIVES
TEENSMAPNICAD
ATMSMOMOAALLY
MEGACORPORATION
ELENADELLEDONNE
SLEEVELESSDRESS

Grid art! I squinted as hard, and the spirit of St. Nick allowed me a Christmas tree for Dec. 25th. It's not nearly as tree-like as other grid art, unfortunately. Jim Horne mentioned that it looked more like an old-timey phone, not unlike the one that old man Potter used in his plot against George Bailey, eh, Jim (and Johan) Scrooge?!

I kid. My weekly conversations with Jim have been highlights of this pandemic era. We had a lot to discuss today, both of us enjoying SHORTS WEATHER as a great entry, but why feature it in a wintertime puzzle?

GOD FORBID and SLEEVELESS DRESS both stood out as well, the latter doing an impressive job of both being an evocative entry and a constructor-friendly one, placed wisely at the bottom row. Those Ss and Es are so flexible.

Both of us did feel like old men, saying OMG to OH EM GEE. Jim was going to mark that as "bogus" for our word list, but apparently, it's a thing.

We debated if OOH I'M SCARED felt like an asset or not, too. I started by saying it needs a SO between I'M and SCARED, at which point Jim burst into laughter over my ridiculousness.

I had heard of ELENA DELLE DONNE, definitely crossworthy with her two WNBA MVP titles. I sweated each crossing, though, questioning whether or not DEVIATOR was an actual word (it is in the dictionary) and trying to recall if the physics unit was DYNES or DYNOS.

Merry SHORTS WEATHER for those who celebrate!

Sun 12/26/2021 PEST CONTROL
ORDAINAPACHEIMIGHT
COULDAUSOTOURMOTHER
HORSEBACKRIDEROPPOSE
OMAHAPLSTIVOSRUSE
ATSEANORTHPOLE
REGRETTWIGYEAS
PREPATRAINGERMGEO
MITTPUBLICHOUSESOAP
SCHOOLTIESEWEBOOZE
INSETBRISKOBGYN
ARTTRUEFALSETESTLES
BOCCETRACTNICHE
ABHORIVEMAINTHEMES
COEDSPEARHEADEDDATA
ITDTEESENHALOGPAS
ANNASPASWRESTS
SOFTDRINKNANAS
PAIRLOOIETOPCANAL
ICLOUDWORKOUTTHEBUGS
CHEESEANTENNAAMENRA
SADDENNESSIEGETSAT

WORK OUT THE BUGS is such a great revealer, pointing at bugs — ANTs, TICKs, FLYs, LICE, etc. — that need to be removed from clues for their entries to make sense.

The italicized clues read so strangely that I knew something weird was happening. For instance, you'd never see a clue like [Malice, more formally] in a regular crossword. Fun to finally figure out that it meant [Ma, more formally], or MOTHER.

[Antarctic coordinate] was my favorite, as I had a vague sense that NORTH POLE wasn't quite right, yet I shrugged and moved on. Later, Jim Horne mentioned that he loved this one because he thought all the clues reversed meaning somehow. Who wouldn't possibly realize that Antarctica is on the South Pole, not the North?

I quickly changed the subject.

I'm glad that Christina didn't end up going with gobbledygook entries in the grid, as those types of puzzles aren't often satisfying. However, Will Shortz rarely takes puzzles where all the wordplay is in the clues instead of the entries because then the grid entries are supposed to play feature roles. It's often a letdown if they don't. For example, I'm not a huge fan of PUBLIC HOUSE as a marquee theme answer.

I did enjoy the creativity of such bizarre phrases like [It has many beet or beef options], but it would have been nice to get more regular-sounding clues that 1.) clearly led to "wrong" answers, and 2.) used more dramatic transformations than "pop fly" to "pop."

Still, the unusual type of a-ha moments made for a pleasant crossword page, if not quite a page-ant.

Mon 12/27/2021
ILLSAYSTIRCOY
PEOPLEARSEAVA
AABATTERIESPEN
SPECAAMEETING
EMITNIT
ALEKEGAARDVARK
TAXTUSSLEOLIN
RUGAAMILNEOVO
IRONNODSTONAB
AAVERAGEANGELS
ERAELSA
AARONPAULSHEA
SUNDOUBLEATEAM
IDOOGREPHRASE
AIRSOARSHORTS

This puzzle was brought to you by the Fonz!

Wait. Who's the Fonz, you ask? You know, the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-driving cool dude whose catchphrase was "Aaaa"? Played by Henry Winkler!

Oh. "Happy Days" is too far in the past for you? Then I'm sure you'll recognize Henry Winkler as Barry Zuckercorn, the lawyer on "Arrested Development."

That's a show your parents used to watch, back in the day?

Appropriate that I'll be eligible to get my AARP CARD in a few weeks.

I enjoyed the DOUBLE A TEAM theme, especially given the author. If you ever wonder where constructors get their inspiration, you might read Adam Aaronson's Constructor Notes today ... eh?

I also appreciated the variety Adam included. Thing, double-A group, animal, person's initials, single-A term, capping it off with a life-imitates-art AARON(SON). It's not a tight set in that there are many other options available, but for the life of me, I couldn't think of another major way to use AA to start an entry. It was so frustrating, I yelled out AAUGH!

Huh? I did it! What a feeling! AAH, THAT'S THE STUFF.

Impressive work, laying out seven themers. Squishing two entries atop each other can create filling difficulties — ERIES of AABATTERIES over the AAMEE of AAMEETING can ruin you with just one unfriendly combination. Luckily, Adam had much flexibility in themer placements and order of presentation, and he found a great meshing. Short glue, my ARSE.

Interesting choice to use ELL / ELSA vs. ILL / ILSA. Yes, ELSA the princess is everywhere, but for the price of ELL? Why not go with ILSA Lund, famed "Casablanca" lead …

What? That's a movie you remember your great-grandpa rambling on about?

AARGH!

POW Tue 12/28/2021
ZESTCHAPCHEST
ARTYHARELONER
GRIPIBARULTRA
LOGCABINSYRUP
ALEPANSOTEMS
COTTAGECHEESE
TOTEORUSRO
STORMABCSATUP
RINEERKALE
RANCHDRESSING
CHEDAYAPPLAS
HOMEMADEMEALS
ANODERAINAPES
NOVELASSTRIGA
TRENDSETSKNOX

★ It's a pleasure to encounter a set of connections I'd never thought of before — especially when it involves items that are in my fridge. I have a full bottle of RANCH DRESSING and a container of COTTAGE CHEESE that have been sitting for a month because my kids thought they sounded delicious ... and then they spurned both after tasting a fraction of a molecule. Stupid marketers; so annoyingly successful.

I wasn't impressed by the first themer, since there's a picture of a log cabin on the bottle — so much for subtlety. Then, I realized that it wasn't just LOG CABIN SYRUP that was named to give it a rustic feel. The words RANCH and COTTAGE are also employed to get at their foods' humble beginnings.

And HOMEMADE MEALS is a great way to tie the three foods together, plus make it all work with crossword symmetry. Love it.

I wasn't as wild about the gridwork. Four 13s is no joke, as each one forces two black square placements. Almost any four-themer grid can be executed with some long Down bonuses and a completely clean grid, though.

I appreciate the effort to work in great bonuses like MIND MELD, HABANERA, STILETTO, but even a single crossing like ORU (Oral Roberts University) / HABANERA can leave newer solvers in a TAILSPIN.

Okay, that is a ton of bonuses. I prefer a cleaner product to serve the NYT's broad range of less-experienced solvers, but I can understand the opposing philosophical viewpoint.

Most importantly, an excellent theme is an excellent theme. I spent an hour trying to come up with a single other possible entry but failed miserably. (KOZY SHACK PUDDING was the closest I got.) That element of tightness made this theme stand out.

Wed 12/29/2021
ORALBOATCHEST
PITAARCHHILLS
EMMYEMCEEITSOK
CESARYOGAMATS
NARCAPE
SHOECAGEYENEMY
WINGALLSETLEE
OMEGALOPSALES
LOUMEMOIRRITE
EMPTYTEPEEMESS
OATSPAR
SLAMDUNKBEARD
CIRCAEASYESSAY
ATEAMALOETAKE
BEATSTEXTSPED

Gramograms or "grammagrams" are a common crossword theme, with hundreds of pages dedicated to them. My first encounter with them filled me with FXN for them. Over the years, doing more and more of them has left me more MT, but a new twist can spur me on to write an SA with XPDNC.

I spent soooo much time analyzing today's made-up phrases. Did their gramogram letters spell words? Wow, that would be awesome! MEMC, KGNME … nope.

Were they alphabetically next to each other in the gramograms list?

Was one word an anagram of the other?

EASY ESSAY ... each word formed by the same letter bank?

Each theme word was crossed by its gramogram letters?

Maybe the themers were all related in subject matter?

Huh. If it's randomly-paired words, I'm looking at them with BDIs.

I did appreciate the RA of grid bonuses: ARMRESTS, CHIA PETS, YOGA MATS, AMY ADAMS, SLAM DUNK. Even though the theme didn't wow me, all these extras meant the puzzle didn't LAY AN EGG. Doing all that while keeping the entire grid to a single dab of ACEY gluey is impressive.

Gramograms are tough to make stand out. Simon and Judge Vic were heading the right direction with their clue-initials-matching-gramograms angle, and I would have loved to see that brainstorming process pushed farther.

Thu 12/30/2021
ROTIGRADEATHA
AHABREPEALHAD
BYTEADULTTEETH
BEATSMEOARED
IAMIMACOSCAR
THIRTYROCKHVAC
YESEOSEDU
APSESXXXSANER
SETWIIDIP
HEADKISSESBUTT
PYROSTICSNRA
OHWOWGAYICON
BOOZEHOUNDNOUN
ILKTIPTOENOPE
TEEOTTERSSLED

Curious that XXX can stand for so many things: ADULT movies, Roman numeral THIRTY, KISSES at the end of a letter, and markings on a jug of BOOZE. It made me wonder, what other possibilities are there?

I also thought of the TURKEY in bowling, but that might be a deep cut. TALKS TURKEY could be a fun entry — I wonder what percentage of solvers would make the connection.

A shame that there are no good XANDER CAGE phrases. You know, Triple X? No? Okay, me neither.

My kids X over eyes for drawings of dead people. Therefore, XXX could represent a slain triclops. (Reading "The Odyssey" to a five-year old has no connection to his shrieking nightmares.)

Long story short, John did a great job pulling together four different uses of XXX, and more importantly, not stretching to do more.

John did stretch to work in a ton of great bonus fill. Smart placement of black squares to isolate XXX in the center didn't leave many black squares to deploy around the perimeter, but that's okay — the shortish themers allowed John plenty of gridding freedom. THE RAVEN / HATERADE is fantastic (for those of us — okay fine, those of you — cool enough to know what HATERADE is), and PEEPHOLE / STAY WOKE make for a curious juxtaposition.

BOOZEHOUND and similar terms make me uncomfortable these days (I downgraded its score), given what a serious problem alcoholism is. STAYing WOKE is tricky ... it's a shame that it's being used to turn the tide. A noble ideology is achieving the exact opposite of what its supporters want. Man, I hate politics.

Neat that XXX can stand for so many things, and each one of them can be worked into a solid phrase.

Fri 12/31/2021
FRUITTARTGASPS
OOMPAHPAHADORE
TUNAMELTSRUBON
OXOAPATORLESS
XRAYLABTREE
APPEALELSAS
BEEREASIERVIM
LETSTHINGSSLIDE
ERAWOMANSANNA
BARAKELWOOD
JOELSTEPDAD
INROMEBLOTFEW
LEICAVIAVENETO
TACKYATTENUATE
SLAYSREARTIRES

LETS THINGS SLIDE is a great marquee entry. Usually, I'd categorize OBSESSED OVER as more neutral than an asset, although crossing it with LETS THINGS SLIDE is fun — Type A personality crossing Type B.

REAR TIRES doesn't stand out, but its clue sure does. [Couple in the back of a car], heh.

I hadn't heard of THE PALE HORSE, but the clue did a nice job nudging me toward it. I'm sure there are Agatha Christie zealots who are composing murder notes to me for not knowing this one.

Often, I'd point out the awkward -S entries in ELSAS and WOMANS, but you wouldn't argue if you had just seen eight-hundred eleventy-nine ELSAS at Halloween, your daughter among them. And that quote, "A WOMAN'S place is in the House, and in the Senate," is excellent.

If you've never seen Shaquille O'NEAL and Charles Barkley go at it on Inside the NBA, they're brilliant. Outstanding NBA stars who are even better as TV commentators.

72-word themelesses need to 1.) utilize every long slot to max potential, and 2.) have near-zero short glue, so neutral ATTENUATE and excess of VAR entries — especially THS as a suffix — isn't great.

However, some excellent clues, especially innocent wordplay like [Novel content]. If you're looking for great PROSE, both Jim Horne and I enjoyed The Plot — a novel about not-novel prose!

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