★ If I can Name That Theme in one entry, I'll usually wonder what's the point of doing the rest of the puzzle. After hitting CURDS AND WHEY, I figured it had to be either WHEY homophones or "things that nursery rhyme characters ate." After uncovering AI WEI WEI, it was clear which.
To my surprise, I loved the rest of the puzzle! Acme's first three themers alone would have felt boring, since this theme has been done before (many times across different venues), but adding in AI WEI WEI helps, and ZIMBABWE is a stroke of genius. I'd have never thought there could be five different WAYs (ha) to spell that sound, all in fine words / phrases.
I did hitch on AI WEIWEI, a tough name to piece together. I'm sure there will be grumblings that he's not "Monday-accessible," and I'd usually be right there. The theme does help with the final WEI, at least. And all the crosses are unambiguous and fair. Still, polling a bunch of my (highly educated, well-traveled) friends, some of whom are Taiwanese or Chinese, only one had heard of him.
The fill was hardly a SNOOZE. It's easy enough to impress with long downs, and THE ALAMO and WIIMOTES do just that, but it's the mid-length material that dazzled. I loved starting with ABACUS, especially with that fun clue. I don't expect to see clever wordplay on a Monday, much less something that doesn't require a telltale question mark. [Something you can count on] is both entertaining and accessible.
Following that with WATUSI, ENTRÉE, IAMBIC, EL NINO, BOGART, AZORES, LADY DI, DAY SPA = top-notch work. Doing all that with only minor ATTN IOC ISR makes it even more impressive.
This isn't rocket science but more a matter of careful layout, adjustments based on testing different skeletons of black squares, and heavy, heavy iterating. Acme / Doug did it extremely well today, helping prove my case that even with five themers, nearly every crossword should be held to this highest standard.
If you like Doug's work, BTW, maybe check out *cough cough, shameless self-promotion* one of his latest releases.
★ It warms my heart that at least one younger person remembers HE'S DEAD JIM. I can't describe how ecstatic I'd be if some Millennial or generation Alpha constructor used REDSHIRT, clued as [Poor sap destined to die in a "Star Trek" away mission].
I loved, loved, loved the summery vibe, with BOSTON POPS playing its annual July 4th concert, SPARKLERs eliciting I'M AMAZED, pounding in TENTPEGs at a campsite, eating MACARONI salad at a picnic. I enjoy mini-themes in my themelesses, but most of them are simply two related entries. I'd love to see more like this, with so many connected elements!
ROBYN FENTY was a complete mystery, so I was relieved that every single crossing was unambiguous. I'm curious how many Rihanna fans could correctly spell (or even name) her birth name.
The PRESS BOX clue … it's getting at the press corps covering the field (of sporting action). I like the intent, but it wasn't as satisfying as [One with a train, maybe]. Once you uncover BRIDE, it's not hard to make the connection to the train some brides trail behind them.
What a fantastic way to clue TIL! I have some N.K. Jemisin on my TBR (to be read) list, but "How Long Til Black Future Month?" is such a provocative title that it's now at the top of my queue.
For a 70-word themeless, the bar is so high that I'd usually balk at even the minimal ATA DIA STD TELE, but there was more than enough color to offset these minor blips.
★ I might have given this puzzle the POW! based on one clue alone: [A child who's lying might make one]. In my house, that's EXCUSE. DIVERSION. PUPPY DOG EYES. LIE. Yes, LIE would duplicate the lying in the clue, but some kids double down on the lying, based on the theory that the emphasis makes it more believable. Great moment of discovery (and relief) when it turned out to be SNOW ANGELS, something my little angel-devils love doing in winter.
Jim Horne and I discussed the puzzle, and he commented that END IN TEARS didn't sound like an in-the-language phrase.
*sounds of muffled laughter*
In my world, things END IN TEARS roughly 62 times a day. Play a game? End in tears. Eat some food? End in tears. Start to cry? You get the picture. Perfectly pitched to this parent's psyche.
There wasn't quite as much juice in the grid as I wanted, with TAKES AIM AT and OVERRATED a bit overrated. So much great cluing, though, the wordplay with [Hardly a long shot] hinting at a PUTT = delightful. Even better, my brother and I were discussing hot pot meals last week, so the misdirection away from the KILN gave me a huge smile.
★ You know a puzzle is a success when you walk around mumbling to yourself, trying to figure out other possible theme answers. Knee toes … tooth knuckles … wrist nostrils …
Tess: Mom, dad's finally lost it!
Mom: Best to ignore him. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Jeff: Hand butts ...
I've solved dozens of body-part crosswords, even made a few, but I'd never considered this BODY DOUBLE approach — phrases comprised of two body parts. What great finds in RIB JOINT and BACKLASH! If I had put together a lengthy list of body parts for brainstorming, I'm not sure I would have thought to add these. I'm impressed by the level of detail and completeness.
Excellent gridwork, too. Notice I didn't give the qualifier "for a debut," either! Two vivid long downs in SERVICE DOGS and STAKE A CLAIM, as well as mid-length bonuses worked in all over. CONSENT, YUCCAS, PLACID, BLAME ME, PLATEAU, PB AND J, LATINAS — so much to enjoy, and all so accessible to even newer solvers.
It is unusual to have so much mid-length fill in the Across direction, which did cause some difficulties with short fill. For example, CONSENT reduces flexibility when sandwiched between MOUTH ORGAN and RIB JOINT. MGRS isn't terrible, but along with ISO SNO UTIL, it's a TSP too much. Still, there's a case to be made that so much mid-length bonus material is worth those prices to pay.
It's hard to debut memorably, and even more so on a Monday, where my expectations for smoothness and accessibility are sky-high. I can't wait to see what Adrienne brings us next.
★ I love the aesthetics of the unusual black square "canes" — reminds me of a CANDY CANES puzzle Mary Lou and I did years back. And from a constructor's point of view, it also allows for juicy quasi-sectioning of the grid. Once you get a rough idea of what the middle might look like, you can start to work on each of the four corners independently. That's so valuable, allowing you to segment the grid into smaller, much more manageable chunks.
There were so many fantastic long entries jam-packed in, starting with FILL ME IN, hearkening to the great Ryan and Brian podcast. Check it out when you can; they're fun to listen to.
I just finished "Money Heist" and am going through serious withdrawal, so I loved uncovering HEIST FILMS. EVIL EMPIRE nearby could have made the puzzle's tone too dark, but cluing it to the sci-fi trope made it sing.
I had to laugh at my sheer stupidity, putting in UMM for a sound chewing on a pencil and thinking that GENERATION ALPUA was some gen-alpua term that made fun of people like me. HMM, indeed. I didn't know that they moved from Gen-Z to Generation ALPHA, but I have to admit that it's just a hair more logical than my thinking.
Speaking of making fun, BOOBOISIE's clue felt ... bad. The term amused me to no end years ago, a flagrantly offensive portmanteau of boob and bourgeoise, but I worried that it could feel like it was thumbing its nose at solvers, so I made sure to clue it to the source (Mencken). The clue today felt ... insulting? Condescending? It's okay if I call myself a boob, but not if you do. So what if it's true?!
DONK gave me a smile, as my son often donks his sister on the head. I shouldn't laugh, but if you can't laugh, you cry. Hopefully, the DONK / TRINI cross didn't bam-boob-zle anyone.
Although I had a few reservations, there was so much to love; so many vivid long entries are carefully woven together, a feat of construction. Even when you lock down a possible middle like EVIL EMPIRE / GENERATION ALPHA / HEIST FILMS, one or more quadrants don't cooperate. Amazing that Sid and Matthew were able to wrangle them all so smoothly.
★ I've done a lot of work with colors in crosswords, and I'm kicking myself for never coming up with today's theme. It's so perfect, four examples of two-word foods whose second words are pluralized colors. I've even used HASH BROWNS in a previous color puzzle. How could this have not occurred to me?
(Might have something to do with my eating habits. Given that my lunches are "whatever the kids refuse to eat, mixed into a bowl, it's mostly grays.)
What's most impressive about this theme is its tightness. I could hardly believe that there were four perfect examples of common foods/ingredients fitting this pattern, and I couldn't think of a single other one. Sure, there are variations like VALENCIA ORANGES or MIXED GREENS, but no other color worked. That tightness makes for such elegance.
I'm a huge fan of mirror symmetry, partially because it allows for bizarre sets of themer lengths. Thank Crucivera, the goddess of crosswords, for her benevolence in gifting constructors with this option! Some silently curse her because they don't like mirror aesthetics, but I say a pox on them!
(Mostly because I'm petrified of invoking Crucivera's wrath.)
SPORCLE and PLACEBO! Excellent use of mid-length slots; so important in a layout that doesn't feature any long extras. I'd personally remove the black square between ERICA and PERE to generate a pair of long bonuses, but I can see how some solvers might mistake those lengthy slots as theme related.
(Now accepting proposals for Jeff's punishment. The more painful and ironic, the better. --Crucivera)
★ I've seen plenty of FEE FI FO FUM puzzles, even one with a neat vine visual, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed today's. What a creative way to hide those syllables — I would have thought it impossible to camouflage FUM at the end of a phrase. Not only does the phrase have to end with the letters F U M, but it has to exhibit the FUM (not "foom") sound too? Ain't gonna happen.
I'll admit, I was skeptical at the pronunciation of PARFUM. Given that my five years of high-school French resulted in approximately 2.3% mastery of the language, I thought I'd better look it up. Sure enough, it's absolutely perfect. It's so elegant when a themer has one and only one option.
Top-notch gridwork, as I'd expect from a gridmaster, such snazzy bonuses in ORGANIC FARM and MYTHBUSTERS, along with A PRIORI (don't worry, I don't know what it means either, but like you, I pretend I do), HOT BATH, ATHENA, PUEBLO.
Ross hasn't been submitting solo puzzles for a long time now, so I bet that
I don't mind them since they enable MYTHBUSTERS and HOT BATH, but I'm sure the perfectionist in Ross could now find an alternative fill that was almost as sparkly without any early-week prices to pay.
Jim Horne and I discussed whether GIANT as a revealer would have generated a bigger a-ha moment, but given the potential confusion around PARFUM's pronunciation, I like the Monday overtness.
I appreciate the new and clever way of executing an established theme.
★ Such a regal theme, WHITE CASTLE, DAIRY QUEEN, and BURGER KING all members of a FOOD COURT! I'm kicking myself, having never noticed this connection. I haven't had such a strong feeling of being outWITTed in ages. (Wish I'd Thought of That)
There is a bit of a moat, with ANGE mucking around with ADIN, TENN, RKO. I had a long moment of hesitation before giving this the POW! because there are so many trouble spots that could turn away newer solvers.
Pinching DAIRY QUEEN and BURGER KING inward one column might have helped (then placing black squares at the Y of YALE and E of URGE). Filling cleanly around two adjacent long downs can be such a bear.
However, I did enjoy the bonuses of JANE AUSTEN and ROSE GARDEN. They didn't offset all the hitches I experienced through the short fill, but they did make up for some of it.
All in all, a fantastic theme — so fun, elegantly wrapped up with a perfect revealer.
★ A much harder than usual Weintraub Friday puzzle, but I still loved it. There's so much playfulness, so much to enjoy in evocative entries like SLEEPOVER PARTY, WHATS FOR DINNER, HOT APPLE CIDER. I spend a lot of time thinking about great phrases to add to our word list, but none of these three had occurred to me.
(Maybe when my kids enter that dreaded age of losing-sleep sleepovers. I can already sense the impending crankiness …)
Why was this puzzle so difficult, and more importantly, why did that make me enjoy it a tad less than a typical Weintraub Friday?
One reason was the unusual grid layout. Instead of having most of the snazz squeezed into the four corners, it's spread throughout. I love how SLEEPOVER PARTY, WHAT'S FOR DINNER, FRONT ROW SEATS, and HOT APPLE CIDER build an open skeleton, with so much EARLY FROST, TEDDY BEAR filling the perimeter. It does make it harder to gain traction, though.
Another reason was that some of the wordplay cluing nearly went over my head. Jim Horne and I had to spend a minute figuring out why a CONE is a cup alternative (neither of us has gone out for ice cream for roughly a year — what else have we forgotten about?). I often admire "directive" clues, but [Snap out of it?] for CAMERA (you get a "snap" or a pic out of a camera) made my tiny brain snap.
I like it when puzzles make me feel smart. When I can rip through a themeless in under-record time, I often feel strongly positive about it. The opposite can also be true.
Thankfully, there was more than enough to delight me. The clue for POEM, getting measured in both feet and meters, is both genius and smile-inducing; absolutely perfect wordplay.
I appreciate that there are (equally valid) constructing philosophies out there, but I so love Robyn's pure fun-and-enjoyment approach. It's by far my favorite.
★ I love the audacity, stacking a whole lot of HAY around a hidden NEEDLE. I've considered doing something similar with a DOGPILE, but any time you get more than three themers piled atop each other, you're begging for pain. To get six (!) HAYs with a NEEDLE in the middle — without that many fill compromises around them! — is amazing.
(If only there were a famous SHAYNE ...)
When I got to IT'S A LOST CAUSE, I thought it might refer to "losing one's marbles," and the grid looked vaguely like a pachinko machine. That could have been cool! Then, the black squares lent a Tetris-like appearance. I finally figured out the concept and mused that the HAYstack looked like a falling Jenga tower. The games we play!
Although it doesn't look like a traditional haystack, the literal stack of HAY is eye-popping.
IT'S A LOST CAUSE is such a punnily apt phrase for this concept. GRASPING / AT STRAWS is almost as good since HAY can be described as straw-like in appearance. This concept could have felt like a one-trick pony, but Johan did such a great job turning up punnily-related phrases.
Fantastic job with the cluing. I ticked off half a dozen skillful pieces of wordplay, so important to help in holding solvers' interest. [Subway fare] is outstanding, misdirecting innocently to tokens or money. That's Subway, the fast-food chain, and their FOOTLONG sandwiches.
I'm often not a fan of debut short fill, but there's something so kooky about MM HMM — can't decide if I love or hate it. I admire how it has no vowels, though, while OUI has no consonants. Excellent "clue echo."
Not everything worked perfectly, but I admired that a debut constructor shot for the stars. These kinds of brave ideas are what the NYT Sunday needs.
★ Whoa Nelly, it took me fifteen minutes of searching to find even one more exclamation that could fit into this theme! I so badly wanted "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" to work because I love "Derry Girls" so much, but sometimes the powers that be don't cooperate.
Clever grid design, utilizing mirror symmetry to accommodate the frustrating 14, 10, 10 / 10 lengths. Not all editors or solvers love mirror sym, but I find it so pleasing. Smiley face of black squares; that's my jam.
Beautiful gridwork, too. The middle columns of mirror sym grids can be tricky, but Amanda and Karl did so well. DWELLERS is a fine entry, BAR CAR is fun, and even though I'm terrible with pop music, it's hard to avoid Demi LOVATO's name if you scan headlines.
Great use of mid-length entries, too, MAHLER lending a classical feel, APOLLO clued to the famed theater, and TAYLOR Swift — a little something for everyone.
I wasn't keen on the trio of BFFS, DEETS, TOTES (as "totally!"). But Erik Agard, editor of the USA Today crossword, said something smart, that puzzles should contain answers that people already know — but some days, those answers are for people that aren't you. This is a perfect example of that, executed in a way that even a crank like me can still successfully finish.
Jim Horne expressed another sentiment with an apt opera analogy. As a conductor, you're pressured by opera diehards to perform the standards. But if you don't try newer compositions aimed at younger crowds, you'll never create a new generation of opera fans.
I didn't know what a NET CORD sensor was, but it's common tech in that world. Much more accurate than a human, I imagine.
Another delight from an up-and-coming constructing duo.
People ping me so often with various TO BE OR NOT TO BE ideas that it's hard for me to be impressed with any of them. That leaning made me shrug when I hit today's revealer. Rhyming words, one with a double B, one with a single B … not impressive, since there should be a big handful of these. Dozens. Hundreds, maybe!
The fact that HABIT / RABBIT and TREBLE / PEBBLE don't just rhyme, but their endings differ only by a single vs. double B, makes the set so tight. I couldn't think of a single other pair that would work like this.
My appreciation for this concept grew and grew. There's something so impressive about the theme tightness.
And there's Lynn's beautiful gridwork, perfect for newer solvers. It's not technically perfect, but entries like ESE are easily figure-out-able. Plus, they're fine prices to pay to allow for the fun long bonuses, THIN MINT, BELGIANS, ENTR'ACTE.
Not only a strong Monday grid, but a crossworthy addition to the TO BE OR NOT TO BE genre.
★ So amusing to think about Mario going down the runway, trying to out-pose the Minions. I didn't fully appreciate the concept at first since it seemed like you could pick any costume and find dozens of toons that wore it. As I drilled down, though, how many toons wear denim overalls? I'm deep in the midst of cartoonland — for my kids, not me! — and I could only come up with Wreck-it Ralph and Bob the Builder.
(I admit, I have an affinity for Wreck-it Ralph. So misunderstood.)
The others were even tighter. I couldn't come up with anyone but Popeye and Donald Duck for the SAILOR SUIT. All I could think of was Buster Bluth, who will sadly never win WHO WORE IT BETTER, but who's a winner in my book.
Fun echo to the theme in [Runway model?] = AIRLINER.
Great bonuses in BLIND SPOT, WHITE SEA, STRESS OUT. It's amazing what a megastar GAL GADOT has become in such a short time — she blew me away in her 2017 "Wonder Woman" role. A shame that the reviews for the sequel have been so negative.
Also appreciated were the fun touches in the clues. LAT confused me for a long. time, until I realized that there was a period after long. As in longitude! And I know a lot of people who can blow a lot of hot air, but VENTS do that as well.
Neat concept, one that grew on me. It kept calling me back to take a second and a third look, which is one trait of a great puzzle.
★ What do GOLDEN EAGLE, RATTLESNAKE, and PRICKLY PEAR have in common? They're all on the MEXICAN FLAG? What a delightful discovery! This is an instance where I'm ecstatic to be stumped at "Name That Theme." Now that's an A+ a-ha moment.
All four themers being exactly 11 letters, how fortuitous! Perhaps Crucivera, the Greek goddess of crosswords, has a Latin(a) counterpart.
I appreciated the other touches echoing the MEXICAN FLAG, too: PINATAS — with an awesome misdirection clue, [They get smashed at parties] — and SIESTA. It's rarely easy to work in mid-length material that reinforces theme without muddying it up. Philip's efforts here are a big success.
I did hesitate before giving this the POW!, since AWN and ALEE are entries called out on editors' spec sheets. They're the glue types that I often hear newer solvers complain about, giving them a reason to ditch the crossword and do something else.
I'd also have liked fewer 3-letter words — Rich Norris over at the LAT rarely allows constructors to go over 20 since these shorties can make a solve feel choppy. I'd have asked if Philip could take out the block between AWN and ERE while upping the smoothness factor. I'm not 100% sure it's possible, especially without losing the color of BOHEMIA and BASE HITS, but it'd be worth the effort.
★ Fantastic debut! Will Shortz isn't taking many "hidden words" puzzles these days due to oversupply, so you must present an amazing one to catch his attention. It has to go above and beyond, and that's exactly what Simon did:
Length of finds. Four letters is about the minimum since three letters are too easy to work with. To find a six and two fives is fantastic work. Even the three …
Quality of phrases. The consecutive vowels are a bit tricky, but AIK is much less daunting than URABUS. When you can fit AIK into KUBLAI KHAN, one of the most auspicious leaders of ancient history, that makes up for the shortness.
Spanning across all words within the phrase. HAD NO HOPE isn't terribly exciting — not as much as FALSE TEETH, with its delightful clue about coming out at night — but when you span H ON DA across all three words, that made me stare in admiration.
Revealer. REVERSE works, although it's more overt than clever. I'd have loved to brainstorm for something more playful, like around cars having to BACK IT UP or something.
Tightness. Not 100% necessary, but when you can make people realize that there are virtually no other themer options, that makes your puzzle stand out. After 30 minutes of searching, all I could find was PORCINI MUSHROOM and HYDROFOIL, and the latter doesn't pass the "spanning" criterion.
All this with amazing gridwork. I eternally pound the table, yelling that with four themers and a short revealer, you're obligated to present a fantastic grid with an excess of bonuses and zero glue. There's no reason not to. Simon wove in FLEABAGS, THE BOXER, PLACEBO, TENTACLE, SNEAKER, all while demanding that his short fill never be compromised.
Tremendous debut, making me appreciate a tried-and-true theme type all over again.
★ I used to hate Chinese New Year as a kid. The red envelopes were awesome, but when the teacher would make the Asian kids stand up and say what year we were born in, I cringed. Year of the dragon was the dream, followed closely by the tiger. Heck, I'd gladly take horse. Dog. Even rooster or snake would have been passable.
After all the laughing would subside, the teacher would clear her throat and try to research what wonderful traits Zodiac pigs exhibited. Let's see … the emperor summoned all the animals, and 11 showed up. Just as he was about to call it quits, the pig squealed in. Turns out the rascal got hungry, ate some trash, then fell asleep. Lazy, disgusting, boorish. Great.
Things would always go downhill from there, until I realized I could fool the throngs of non-Asian kids by telling them I was born in the year of the T. Rex.
Fantastic to see the Zodiac honored today with a well-disguised set of OX terms. I did wonder if STEERS was the proper plural of STEER, but Dictionary.com says it's correct. Solid job obfuscating STEERS, BULL, and CATTLE in colorful phrases.
Also great is the tightness factor. What other themers could work? There is STOCK OPTIONS, but what else? No phrases start with COW that use it in a different sense.
Extremely impressed with Ann's gridwork! With four themers, I expect constructors to deliver at least four pieces of strong bonus fill, along with little to no glue. Ann hit on both counts, going the extra mile with CHEESE GRATER, FIRESIDE CHAT, along with SCENARIO, ELOQUENT, ENIGMAS, GALILEO, and more.
A 72-word grid is not for the faint of heart, usually requiring some themeless expertise to make it work. Beautiful big corners in the NW and SE! No secret to executing on a FIRESIDE CHAT / ELOQUENT / REDSTONE (not a Minecraft player, but the two words were easy enough to figure out) triplet. Few constructors have the patience for all the iteration needed, though.
I would have preferred this puzzle to run on Chinese New Year, but it's still an impressive debut. While the theme is tried-and-true "hidden synonyms," I thoroughly enjoyed the nod to the heritage that I've slowly come to accept, as well as the outstanding debut gridwork.
★ This is the PARADOX puzzle that I've been racking my brain for. Years have gone by, and I've explored two separate "docs" in single rows, two docs spread through long entries, and dozens of other executions, but I'd never considered looking for long entries fortuitously containing two (non-spread-out) docs. That seems impossible, given the limited number of doctors who 1) are famous and 2) have short names. You're not going to have much luck with ZHIVAGO or JEKYLL, after all.
Excellent presentation, too. One of the problems I always struggled with: PARADOX is an awkward length for a revealer, hard to tuck away. I like Andrew's solution, using mirror symmetry so he could put PARADOX in a perfect location for a revealer. The constructor in me also appreciates Andrew's clever solution to the layout problem of themers being 11, 13, and 11 long. That may seem trivial, but each one of those forces black square placements, making the layout a bear. Andrew's skeleton is one of the few ways of making this set of awkward-length themers work.
Work in some TWEETSTORM, HOME DESIGN, VAPE PEN, GEN XER snazzle, all the while carefully minimizing short gluey entries, and that's a perfect balance. It's not trying too hard with a 74- or 72-word grid, and it's not taking the easy way out with 78 words.
Great REVENUE clue, too, playing on "cash in." It might be too literal for accountants, but this finance guy gives it a bonus.
Fantastic puzzle. I don't even mind that Andrew stole my intended thunder. When a product is this strong, all you can do is stand up and clap.
★ Two POW!s in one week?! Hey, sometimes you gotta break the rules. I loved that combination of ALPHA FEMALE and DEMIGODDESSES. I hadn't heard the latter, but it's an easy extension of "demigod," which came into popularity with the "Percy Jackson" series). How did I not know Helen of Troy was a DEMIGODDESS (father = Zeus, mother = either Leda or Nemesis)?
Along with the awesome phrases MADE BANK, MANI PEDI, AWKWARD AGE? Talk about I CANT RESIST!
Plus, a stellar clue for CEREAL AISLE, playing on "way of Life" (note the capital L in the clue)?
All this, while enjoying BAHAMA MAMAS? Make mine a double!
I could stop here, but check out [Protrusions near a trunk, maybe]. It had me groaning, because it was going to be some obscure Maleskan entry like KNARS. No, that's an elephant's trunk. Delightful!
Add in a FRACAS to the fun? Don't mind if I do!
I didn't understand [Hair pieces] for HANKS. I thought it must be some cultural reference I was missing, Tom Hanks in ... Saving Private Rapunzel? That Thing You Hairdo? Nope, the dictionary says it means "coils or skeins of yarn, hair, rope, or other material." Huh.
LACUNA was tough, too. I learned the word from making crosswords, researching potential fill a LAC??A pattern and thinking LACUNA was some sort of South American animal. It's a shame for constructors that the Barbara Kingsolver book, "The Lacuna," wasn't better received. That alternating vowel-consonant pattern is so friendly.
All in all, so much to love, such a fun solving experience; POW!-worthy indeed. Great week for the NYT crossworld.
★ I'm a dog person (don't tell the ghosts of my RIP cats, Sam and Riley), and this theme scratched my belly. It was a much slower solve than usual, and I had to admit defeat in my "Name that Theme" game. I was sure that BUDDY, BARNEY, MAJOR had to be related in some way … but how? I spent way too much time sweeping the corners of my brain for details on the movie "Elf." His name is BUDDY; there's probably a BARNEY character ... wasn't Major MAJOR from Catch-22 in that movie?
This is why you should never listen to me.
WHITE HOUSE DOGS! I don't know that I would have gotten such a great a-ha if it hadn't been for MAJOR's Putinesque shenanigans. I'd hate to be the Secret Service agent assigned to MAJOR duty, that troublemaker.
I couldn't remember dogs from bygone eras, so I was glad to get a hint from the clues ... and that's when I realized the genius of this puzzle. BUDDY from POTUS 42. BARNEY from 43. BO from 44. (45 didn't have a dog.) MAJOR from 46.
They're all in order!
If you're not as wowed as I am, think about how difficult it is to get everything to work with crossword symmetry. You have some flexibility with BUDDY and MAJOR, but not much with BARNEY. (I don't remember BARNEY FIFE, but I imagine older generations will.) It's hard to believe that the crossword gods allowed the stars to align.
I wouldn't have hesitated to give this the POW! if it had run later in the week. However, I don't think it's a great puzzle for newer solvers, as some crossings felt treacherous. BUSK / KAILUA … I've had the fortune to visit Honolulu a handful of times, and I debated, was it KAILUA or HAILUA? "Busker" sounded vaguely familiar, though. And Jim Horne told me a great story about BUSKing in Montreal, where it's an art form. You have to audition for a busking spot in the Metro alcoves!
I appreciated the rhyming clue for YUBA, giving me a much-needed nudge. There's no way I'd figure out YUBA crossing KAILUA without it. And thankfully, I remembered Obama's adorable BO, as the BO TREE didn't ring a bell.
Some trade-offs, but well worth the novel and delightful theme. Plus RHUBARB PIE! Such an impressive debut.
★ For years, I've been pounding the table that the NYT Sunday crossword is missing a huge opportunity to take advantage of color printing in the magazine. I love today's concept, incorporating the color red to represent RED rebuses in the print version. It's so smart to have the first rebus be REDR, as in "red R." I've spent a ridiculous amount of time brainstorming color concepts with lots of folks, and this is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That).
Not only that, but the letters tacked on to RED change, spelling out a meta answer. RUBY LIPS doesn't feel like a jump-out-of-your-chair-and-praise-the-heavens final answer, but it's solid enough and appropriate for Valentine's Day.
Five years ago, I would have never picked this as a POW! There would have been way too many execution flaws that would have disqualified it many times over. It's fantastic that Joel helped Lisa along — Sunday 140-word puzzles are challenging to create. I wish he'd had more time to push her to revise a few more times. There are so many partials, abbreviations, tough foreign words, prefixes — everything that editors call out to avoid on their specs sheets.
I also wish RUBY LIPS had formed the shape of lips. That would have been mind-blowing. I'm not sure that's possible to do with a perfect set of lips, given the stringent constraint of placing eight crossing themers in fixed places, but even a rough shape of lips would have given this some Puzzle of the Year consideration. Along with much stronger execution, of course.
All those qualms are from the technician in me, though. That annoying blurghole sometimes has to take a swift kick in the pants from the solver in me who adores innovative, audacious ideas, especially those that take advantage of the NYT Sunday Magazine's huge advantage of color printing. Fantastic concept, Lisa!
★ A great man, JOHN LEWIS. Last year, I read the "March" trilogy, awed by his strength and courage in the face of so much hatred. It's a gripping read; highly recommended.
I was curious why this puzzle came out so long after his passing — usually, some constructor scrambles to put together a tribute so it can run a week or two afterward. I do like that it's running during a week where all the NYT constructors are African-American, though, as well as at the start of Black History Month.
The FREEDOM RIDERS ... it's hard to imagine how frightening that must have been. I hesitate to go into parts of our country today because some folks have out and out said they don't like people "like me." To get on those buses in the face of vitriol a million times more intense is bravery beyond belief.
GOOD TROUBLE is a fantastic phrase. That's well worth highlighting, evoking the subtly powerful smile Lewis often gave people.
I wasn't a huge fan of some aspects of the work today — GEORGIA'S FIFTH felt forced into being a theme answer to observe symmetry, stacking themers resulted in OOLA, Lake BIWA is a deep cut. It would have been awesome if the themers had told the story of his life more, rather than being an assorted collection of themers. I'd even be fine ditching symmetry to achieve that.
Overall, though, a welcome celebration of an amazing man, someone who continues to inspire and make a difference even after his death.
★ Incredibly well done! Great long entries, a wealth of clever and/or amusing clues, not much short glue (although SERE, I sere you).
So many of the marquees resonated with me, a PARENTHOOD vibe running throughout. I'm in the midst of a PICKY EATER period, where our kids won't even touch a potato even though they love fries. Sometimes I wonder if my life is a giant SATIRE, with our living room ACCENT RUG accented by Lego booby-traps I have ZERO CHANCE of avoiding. Reaching CRISIS MODE …
I was sure that "something you can't get in a restaurant" would be ANYTHING THAT MY KIDS WILL EAT, but that's slightly too long.
BERT AND ERNIE — surprisingly together for 50+ years! — unfortunately haven't worked themselves into my household, which is more filled with ASH AND THAT FREAKING ANNOYING SQUEAKY PIKACHU. I don't care if that's too long, that's my answer, and I'm sticking to it.
Jeff Foxworthy is studying me for his next "You Know You're a Parent" bit.
Robyn does such a wonderful job of weaving joy and delight into both her grids and her clues. Aside from CRISIS MODE, there's so much to uplift — EXTRA SPICY OVER THE TOP SECRET RECIPE is right! And such great clues for a bunch of otherwise ho-hum short entries, my favorite the innocent [Union deserters]. After plunking in REBS, I couldn't figure out my error. That's a marriage union, ha!
Okay, maybe a bit of a downer, but it's worth the cleverness.
It's been a while since I've given Robyn a POW! (four whole months, the horror!), mainly because my standard for her is so sky-high. This one gave me so much delightful diversion that there could be no question about it. No sad TROMBONEs today.
★ Notoriously difficult themeless layout, featuring 7-letter entries — 36(!) of them. It's not a difficult grid to fill in, but doing so with color is another story. Looking at the whole set of possible 7-letter entries, the ratio of sizzling ones (two-worders like LIP RING or evocative one-worders like GEYSERS) to neutral ones (DISMAYS, LARAMIE) is low — I'd estimate roughly 1 sizzler for every 4 neutrals. It's tough to avoid so much blah filler.
(8+ letter entries have more possibilities in forming multi-word phrases, so you might get 1 sizzler for every 3 neutrals. Much easier to select colorful entries!)
Given these technical issues, an average grid might have only 20% of its 7-letter slots converted to great material. And given the competition in themelesses these days — especially in 72 worders, the easiest of all themeless tasks — I'm not impressed unless that figure is upwards of 40-50%.
That's all a long-winded way of explaining why the constructor in me enjoyed this one so much. BALL HOG, ER NURSE, GET LOST, HASHTAG, HOME GYM, IPAD PRO, the list went on and on. Well over 50% — bravo! All the word list groundwork clearly paid dividends.
The solver in me enjoyed the cluing even more. I've been critical of Daniel's puzzles, some of which have felt drab in their cluing. Much improvement today, for example, OPEN BAR a place for "free spirits." TRIVETS as "Pot supporters," too — neither needing a giveaway question mark! Excellent work.
My one big hesitation before giving this the POW!, though: the AGONIST / ARGOT region. The gridwork isn't the problem, but the cluing made the area near unsolvable. I'd much rather get a dictionary-ish biochem clue for AGONIST (it's a commonplace word in the pharma R&D industry). Given the region's toughness, you have to clue ARGOT in an easier way than [Cant].
I spent so many frustrating minutes feeling like Daniel was my antAGONIST that I initially disqualified this puzzle for POW! consideration. After a day of reflection, though, I decided that was petty.
All in all, careful gridwork selecting for color and a big step up in cluing fun earn Daniel his first POW!
★ Welcome back, Josh! It's been over two years since his last NYT puzzle, so it's fantastic to see that one of the themeless greats has picked up right where he left off. A friend recently asked me what makes for a colorful piece of fill — all I have to do is point to SQUATTERS RIGHTS. Awesome phrase that evokes all sorts of imagery. Even if you don't know exactly what the phrase means, it's self-explanatory after you muse over it. However, it's not perfect, given its straightforward clue. (I'll get to perfect in a few paragraphs.)
LOOKBOOK is a similar case. It didn't hit me strongly since I'd never heard the term, but I'd so much prefer this to ABOUTNESS. Both are two regular words, so at least people can figure out how to fill them in (as opposed to a name they've never seen), but LOOKBOOK has a quality of simply making sense. A portfolio is a BOOK that people LOOK at, what's not to understand?
SCHMALTZ / QUEER EYE / USED CARS headlining, STARTER PISTOL, MOVIE SET, BIGWIGS doing THE ROBOT. That'd be close enough to garner a POW! alone.
But wait, there's more! MAIDS OF HONOR, what a fantastic entry, and its clue STOLE THE SHOW. I was baffled by [Shower heads, perhaps], first, because an S at the end didn't work. Even after uncovering HONOR, I still had no idea. Finally, after three pained minutes, a brilliant a-ha gobsmacked me. That's a bridal shower, not a bathroom shower!
That, my friend, is the definition of a perfect themeless entry: a colorful phrase that everyone will know, that's clued in a devilishly clever way.
I wasn't hot on the plural DAHLS, since Sophie sadly hasn't achieved the same level of fame (yet!). And LAMBO stuck out; not the type of debut I'd strive for. It is figure-out-able — short for Lamborghini — but wow, does it sound pretentious. I know, how ironic, coming from me, the king of pretension!
Along with everything else, I ticked off half a dozen great clues, like Frost accumulation = POEMS. Beautiful way to disguise Robert Frost. So, so, so much to love; a nearly perfect themeless.
★ I solved on computer, confidently typing in FELT HATS, then quickly realizing I had to put Xs in for some reason. Easy enough change. Hitting STRIKE THAT, everything made sense, and I enjoyed the concept. Colorful and colloquial revealer; a perfect explanation for what was going on. Probably not a standout Thursday, though.
Or was it? I continue to have the privilege of weekly conversations with Jim Horne, my XWI partner, and listening to his experience elevated this puzzle in my eyes. He's a great solver, so eschews pencil (I imagine a $5,000 fountain pen requiring hourly oiling and silk cloth massaging). I hadn't thought about the solving experience from an old-school perspective. Like me, he confidently penned in FELT HATS — and then he had to literally strike THAT, using Xs to X out those four letters. Awesome!
Jim asked if I had noticed the different ways THAT was broken across phrases. He thinks he knows me so well that I would be one of the five people in the world to know and care. Ha! I did notice, so there!
I mean, I did notice, but in a way he didn't expect. Some constructors would insist on breaking up THAT in different ways, claiming that it's elegant to do so. I wouldn't totally not be not one of those negative-positive asserters, no sir! In today's case, it led to DEATH AT A FUNERAL, which is so much less interesting than many of the other THAT phrases out there. I say, constructor's elegance be damned!
That one nit aside, I highly enjoyed my solve. Neat concept, cool to see a ridiculous number of Xs integrated more smoothly than I expected, and hearing about the pen and paper experience drove it over the top. Well done!