★ A friend of mine once told me stories about his grandmother, an avid MAH JONG player. The world's best poker players and magicians ain't got nothing on her. She'd pick up an individual MAH JONG tile, never turning it over, and with one rub of her thumb on the underside, would know exactly what it was, without looking. Then, with as many as ten tiles left on the table, she'd foretell the winner, already knowing how the game would play out, rattling off exactly what everyone had in their hands.
That's how you earn a nickname like the RED DRAGON!
Erik continues to amaze, coming up with an approach I'd never considered. I'm envious that he nabbed a MAH JONG theme before me, but more so that he found three tiles that could be used in their entirety. I'd considered phrases ending in DOTS, WINDS, BAMBOO, but non-players would barely make the connection that any of those are MAH JONG "suits."
It's so perfect that PLUM BLOSSOM, NORTH WIND, RED DRAGON also evoke East Asian imagery, allowing non-players to easily make the connection to MAH JONG.
Tight theme, too. The only other tile I could think of that might have worked was BAMBOO SHOOT, but that would have confused the issue, since bamboo is not just a bonus tile but one of the suits.
Along with beautiful Monday gridwork — a couple of great bonuses in RHOMBUS, HATHAWAY, SORORITY — and clean short fill that's accessible for even the newbiest of newbs, Erik made my job today a delight. He even summed it up for me, with GOOD FOR YOU, OUTTA SIGHT, and ON A TEAR. Fantastic start to the week!
★ It's been so long since we've had a "warp" puzzle (words warp from the right side back to the left) that I was pleasantly bamboozled. "Name That Theme" quickly went off the rails, today. I guessed that MUS / LIT was MUSLIM ... with one letter changed for some reason.
LET/TOI … LETTOR? As in, a person who lets?
Okay, I got nothin'.
Even after hitting WRAPPING PAPER, it made no sense. Usually, this sort of "wrap" thing indicates that MUS and LIT "wrap" the row, meaning that they bracket the inner contents.
Great moment of realization when I finally figured out that the words started on the right and "wrapped" back to the left (LIT/MUS, TOI/LET, etc.). I also appreciated how Kevin chose four examples of well-known paper from different walks of life. All of them containing exactly six letters was a nice touch, too.
There was a lot of interesting fill. It's HALFTIME, BEER ME! SODA POP, AMULET, RICHARD GERE's full name, PRESTO! It's true that the theme allowed for more flexibility than most themes — ending in LIT and starting with SUE aren't tough constraints — but Kevin executed well.
There was some ACRO ASST ATOI (tough to avoid this one) ENE ANOWL, but it was mostly minor. Whenever you have so many overlap regions, you're bound to need some crossword uglies. Most important thing is to make them as unnoticeable as possible, and Kevin did well in that regard.
Entertaining debut. Newer constructors often ask me what types of themes they ought to work on, and my answer is the maddeningly vague "something different and interersting." I enjoyed how Kevin misled this veteran solver, but did it in such a way that all the pieces were there for me to inevitably figure out what was going on.
★ I love lofty attempts to do something new and cool in a Sunday crossword. Those five little boxes baffled me, the tricksy crossings remaining opaque until I hit the apt revealer, TICK ALL THE BOXES. A-ha! BOX in the Across direction, and TICK in the Down. Clever!
I appreciated the quality of the Down theme answers. I'm sadly familiar with PUTting LIPSTICK ON A PIG, as my daughter and book agent like to point out. TICKLE THE IVORIES, now THAT'S THE TICKET! And even though STICKY SITUATION and CARROT AND STICK use TICK in too similar a way, they're both fantastic entries.
The puzzle fell too quickly once I hit the revealer since once you figure out how one rebus box works, you can fill in the rest right away. That bothered me less than usual, though, since the rebus was complicated. What sense of relief to finally see the light!
I wonder if using an assortment of Across rebuses would have alleviated that issue? Aside from TICK, there's CHECK, X, MARK … SLASH? I'd have preferred the variety, but I can see how the notion of a rebus that works differently in Across vs. Down is hard enough for most solvers.
A bit too much dependence on usual crossword glue such as RIAS, ERGS, ORO, STLO, ALL, NNE, SENS, EPI, etc., but most of them are minor enough. Toss in the tougher HUS and LAE, though … I'd have asked for a round of revisions.
Thankfully, Laura worked in a couple of great bonuses. HERDED CATS is fantastic. NO RELATION, too, along with its mystifying clue on Elizabeth Warren vis-à-vis Earl Warren. SENIOR PROM as the "last dance" and SEAHORSE with a neat piece of trivia on males carrying the babies, and it's starting to feel like Laura had the HOT HAND.
The puzzle didn't 100% hit for me because of the repetitive nature of those five boxes, but I love Laura's audacious target and sizzling themers. I'd love to see more NYT Sunday puzzles aim this high.
★ I love it when a constructor does so much so right. I love it even more when said constructor does that while making their debut. Makes me go yodel from my rooftop that someone gets it!
(My neighbors hate when I do that.)
I looked into this theme a few months back, initially getting excited when I found JAMES K POLK, RISK PREMIUM, ASK PRICE, and best of all, FACEMASK PENALTY. I ended up junking it, muttering curses at Crucivera, the goddess of crosswords, for her cruciverbal cruelty. Lengths of 10, 11, 8, 15, 8 (ESCAPEES) — not even mirror symmetry could save that. I scraped up DESK PHONES and MUSK PERFUME to create symmetry, but that felt desperate.
How wrong I was. I did still think DESK PHONES was boring today, but it was easy to shrug off with so much else to love.
Newer constructors should study this grid; three points in particular:
Extremely well done, Sid. We'll be keeping our eyes open for more of your products.
★ Folks, do we have a special for you this week! It's Day 1 of the CUJO show (Cracking Up Jim with Overthinking), where Jeff unintentionally makes Jim Horne snort via OCD overanalysis. Today went something like this:
Jeff: Delightful theme. AU PAIRS = pairs of Os. But …
Jim: wait for it … (holding back a snicker) ... wait for it …
Jeff: … doesn't AU PAIRS in the plural imply at least two, not two and only two? Why not three pairs of OOs?
Jim: OO OO OO? What are we, the SCOOBY DOO team, chased by ghosts?
Jeff: And what's up with FIVE O in the grid? Is that a secret insider thing? Wait! Are there FIVE "AU"s? Huh. Let me do a letter count frequency analysis ...
(rest drowned out by Jim's cackling)
Overthinking aside, fantastic revealer. I was sure it was going to be DOUBLE O, as in James Bond's designation, but AU PAIRS is perfect.
At least for non-overthinkers who wonder if phrases like TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL or DOO BE DOO BE DOO — or SCOOBY DOOBY DOO! — would have been a welcome addition.
Solid gridwork; I appreciate that Olivia didn't try to do too much, sticking with the max 78 words in her grid. A Monday offering should have a couple of colorful long bonuses — SNAPDRAGON and SCRAP METAL, check — and little to no gluey bits. ARAIL isn't great, but it's easily gettable from the common simile. Overall, grid execution that welcomes newer solvers.
There are hundreds of OO pairs out there — use the search string *OO*OO* to see for yourself — so the theme is looser than I like. However, Olivia chose some of the best ones available. Along with the amusing and a-ha inducing revealer, I smiled enough to award this one the POW!
★ The first marquee answer delighted me, and it was highlight after highlight from there. PORCH SWING is a great answer in its own right, but when you elevate it with the mysterious [Option when one wants to move out of the house?] — that's literally move, right outside your house — it's Einstein-level brilliant.
WHAT'S SO FUNNY? UP TO SPEED. I AM SO THERE. FREE WIFI. All that, plus CROISSANTS? Heck yeah, I am so there!
If you haven't been watching Dan Feyer's weekly speed-solving adventures, you're missing out. A lot of it is him tearing through without commentary, but I like his short and sweet impression about each puzzle. As he says about Robyn, so many colloquial, catchy phrases — that's why she's one of the best.
Slew of great clues, too:
Although Will Shortz and his team contribute to clever clues, it's clear that some constructors spend much more time than others on their wicked wordplay. Robyn's themelesses always have more than a handful of clues that shine.
I wasn't thrilled to get TYRO in a 72-word themeless, or TOR clued to the mountain peak instead of Toronto, but I can easily overlook those minor issues, given the overall awesomeness.
★ This one brings me back to my days of high school French, attempting to memorize conjugations. I fail to remember. You fail to remember. Um … someone fails to … uh …
"Je ne sais pas" is one of the few phrases I do remember. Needless to say, my AP French exam didn't go well.
Neat to see so many "(pronoun) = (awesome)" phrases. I did wonder why I AM THE GREATEST didn't make the cut, but I imagine it wasn't the greatest for crossword symmetry. THEY'RE ... GRRREAT! is pretty great, anyway.
People will debate whether JEMELE HILL is a Monday-friendly entry. This sports fan didn't know her, so I appreciated that Erik was careful to make every crossing answer gettable. As long as an entry doesn't stand in the way of my victorious solve, I like a bit of learning. I AM THE GREATEST!
(Records of my AP French results say otherwise.)
Some beginning solvers have a ton of trouble figuring out where spaces should go, though, which makes JEMELE HILL even tougher — is it JEM ELEHILL? J.E. MELEHILL? Or a last name, JEMELEHILL?
Some solvers gripe that they detest when my puzzles shove learning at them, when they just wanted ten minutes of pure entertainment. Even if it's only a single entry, it seems to sour their experience, making them feel dumb.
Should crosswords be pure entertainment or a vessel for expanding solvers' horizons? There is no right answer, more a difference in philosophy.
I enjoyed this concept. I would have loved a progression of I, YOU, HE/SHE, WE, THEY (or a subset of those), but that's a minor ding, easily overlooked given the cool discovery of four superlative phrases that followed the same format.
★ I love it when a puzzle makes me feel smart. Whizzing through this bad boy 66-worder made me a SPRING CHICKEN once again. There was so much variety, something for everyone, yet so much of it struck a chord with me. It's like when Cliff Clavin went on Jeopardy!
As a father of two little kids, I loved CHOO CHOO TRAINS and its devious clue — there's a lot of milk being chugged at my house.
SPREAD TOO THIN? Me? During the pandemic, trying to manage kids, work, projects, sanity? You don't say.
Oil and a brush? Yes, it's a SHAVING KIT (gotta keep the blades brushed off and oiled) with great wordplay misdirection toward the arts, but it also hits the mark as I attempt to cut my son's hair as he jiggles continuously. Now, that's an art.
I've played "Rhapsody in Blue" dozens of times in orchestras, so GLISSANDO gave me a big pick-me-up. Ah, the good old days (when I used to be able to play well enough that neighbors didn't stick their fingers in their ears).
Who you callin' a CHEAPIE? Me, because on principle, I eat whatever my kids don't, no matter how much they've pre-chewed it? Okay, fine.
Even the things I didn't know didn't feel force-fed. "Maundy Thursday" was new to me, but it was easy enough to figure out LAST SUPPER. I'll happily learn something, as long as it doesn't get in the way of a successful solve.
And some great clues? STAMP as one "stuck in a corner"? Spicing up the otherwise boring NINETEEN via a novel clue, that all of its letters are Scrabble one-pointers? [Airdrops?] confused me even after solving MISTS, but what a delight to finally understand it. "Air drops," indeed.
Such great craftsmanship, too, nothing I gave the stink-eye (maybe BANC, but as a finance guy I think it's generally fine). That's a tough ask out of a 70-worder, and a 66-worder is a much, much tougher construction.
A pure delight from start to finish. Brian, I choo-choo-choose you!
BOOT CAMP …
HAT TRICK … Things you can wear!
THIMBLE RIG … Things you can wear!
Ahem. You already guessed that. Bzzzzt!
IRON MAIDEN … Things you can wear!
Well, technically you could wear an IRON MAIDEN. It wouldn't be comfortable, but you could—
Bzzt bzzt bzzt!!!
I love getting bamboozled by a Monday theme. Hitting the revealer—MONOPOLY tokens—I slapped my forehead. I should have gotten it. At least, I should have stopped guessing "Things you can wear."
The BOOT, HAT, THIMBLE, IRON, DOG, aren't a complete set, but it'd be impossible to include all the kooky items they've used over the years. A penguin? T. rex? Don't even get me started on the Pokemon collector's set. I choose you, Pikachu!
What's most important is that the theme set screams MONOPOLY, and this does just that. I'd never heard of THIMBLE RIG, but the THIMBLE is one of the iconic tokens. (The one I always got stuck with. Seriously, a THIMBLE?)
Maybe I'd have used WHEELBARROW RACE in there instead, paired with IRON SUPPLEMENTS. My brother always got infuriated when we landed on the same spot, and I invoked the wheelbarrow carry rule. Your token goes onto mine, and then you have to pay rider's fees, doubling with each step.
What, you never played Calvinopoly?
Stellar gridwork, as I've come to expect from Christina. She did everything right—squeezing BOOT CAMP and HAT TRICK together for smart overall themer spacing, wisely alternating her long down slots (DADS TO BE not interacting much with COWBOYS), choosing great bonuses (SHARK OIL and NO CAN DO!), and all the while, minimizing her crossword glue.
Making a crossword isn't rocket science, yet forcing yourself to work with only common short words and names is something that few constructors adhere to. The great majority give in and say "good enough" way too quickly. Not Christina, always putting in the serious time and hard work required.
Exemplary Monday offering. I'll be pointing newbs to this one, and that's the highest Monday compliment I can give.
★ You would think that a writer who locks himself in his writing cave day after day, pounding out words that are mostly crap but maybe just maybe a few of them are halfway decent and if he's lucky he'll one day have an OEUVRE of works that generations use as doorstops and/or toilet paper, would figure out this theme right away.
Of course! It's the story about a burglary in a SORORITY house, the job pulled off by a Scot named MAC, using knowledge of FIBONACCI numbers to crack the SAFE's code. Oh, and don't forget the HORSE that he uses in the complex scam.
HORSE D'OEURVE might just be the worst menu typo ever.
While I jest about the heist, the five minutes I strained, trying to figure out the theme, was no joke. There's an eternal debate, whether crossword constructors should bash their solvers over the head with a revealer, or if allowing them to work out the concept on their own is better.
In the end, I greatly appreciated working out the novel (ha) progression, PASSAGE to CHAPTER to BOOK to SERIES to OEUVRE. Tough to discover, though, and I wonder how many general solvers will toss the puzzle aside without ever understanding the clever concept.
The clue for EGS didn't help, either. I fixated on that, sure that it must be a revealer — especially since one of those e.g.s was in a clue for the last theme answer. Come on!
I finished with an error, with OPENENDED / AVEDY. Given its clue, I couldn't imagine that OPENENDED could be anything but that, and if Aveda and Aveeno are brand names, why not Avedy? Although the clue [Question whose answer can go almost anywhere] is both clever and accurate, solvers would be better served by something like [Broad question, slangily].
There's this tale about a fox and this bunch of grapes …
A revision would have been nice, to eliminate HAP and CIDE, as well as TOEJAM with its unnecessarily graphic cluing. And that crazy EGS, of course.
Overall, though, the writer in me loved the subtly-presented progression, and that trumps all. While I had enough reservations about the warts in execution to pause a long moment before giving it the POW!, the concept was something I'd never seen before. That's a rare occurrence, indeed.
★ I've seen a ton of plays on UNITED NATIONS, so I groaned when I uncovered the first themer. It was interesting that AD LIB connected CHAD and LIBYA, but I wanted there to be something more. Ah well, what can you do? At least this was a novel approach to this tried and true theme type.
I continued my solve, my interest piqued by some of the long finds, TRIAGE between AUSTRIA and GERMANY is a great discovery. Since there are so many possible ways to pair up two countries in the same part of the world, long finds like this stand out much more than shorties like SCAM connecting LAOS and CAMBODIA.
It wasn't until well after I finished that I got a nagging feeling in the back of my head. Did I miss something? Even after reading Adam's note, it didn't quite register.
To say my geography knowledge is poor would be offending the word poor, so I looked up CHAD and LIBYA. Curiously, they're right next to each other.
LAOS and CAMBODIA too?
Wait just a second …
Every pair of countries abuts!
I couldn't believe my eyes. I'd never have thought to try something like this because it seems impossible that there would be any longish words formed. To get something like TRIAGE between the bordering nations of AUSTRIA and GERMANY? That's brilliant!
Ah. The title. BORDER CROSSINGS. Double ah, Adam made it as clear he could in his note.
Little did Adam and Will Shortz count on my geographical idiocy.
Solid gridwork, too. I don't love seeing TED CRUZ in my Sunday puzzle, but it does give me a chance to talk up my buddy Craig Mazin's twitter, where he recounts fantastic tales of being TED CRUZ's college roommate.
There's not much else notable in the grid, but with a sprinkling of GOLD STRIKE, SWORD DANCE, EARTH DAY, HOT COCOA, and not much of the DAU (daughter?), ELOI, FRUG, OENO ilk (answer to Adam's question above: I say OENO), it's above average gridwork. I appreciate how well Adam spaced out his themers, wisely squeezing two together in rows 3/4 and 18/19.
This is a fantastic set of finds. I hope that solvers are more astute than me. What a shame if people put this puzzle aside before getting that OMG moment.
★ Caitlyn's gridwork is so strong. I struggled with the top corners of the puzzle, but I got into a groove as I continued, encountering so much great fill: ACTIVEWEAR, SARDINE, HOGWASH, HANGNAIL, NIHILISM, SIM CITY, NESSIE. And I had barely broken into the bottom half of the grid!
The good times kept rolling with AA MILNE, CAPITAL O (tricksy!), ZONE OUT, ESKIMO KISS, MINERAL / ANIMAL linked together. This, my friends, is themeless-caliber work. So much sizzle.
I eventually made the connection that CORNER KICKS hinted at rebuses in the four corners. (KICKS is slang for "shoes.") I continued to struggle, though, and the rebus squares weren't that satisfying to uncover. I had a difficult time figuring out why.
Part of the reason was that I don't know shoes that well, so WEDGE didn't come easily. Also, some of the theme phrases felt like they were too specific. PUMP FAKES, for example, is something I know well from being pump faked out of my Reebok pumps on the court, but if you're not a b-ball fan, that might be mystifying even after filling in every square.
Finally, there's something unsatisfying about all the rebus squares being at known locations. Part of the fun (and frustration) of rebuses is finding the sneaky sneakers. When you know exactly where you need to look, it takes away some excitement of discovery.
Overall though, the fantastic gridwork was more than enough to make up for these issues. I debated over giving this one the POW!, especially since Caitlyn's bar has risen so high so quickly (three out of her last four have won POW!s now). In the end, though, I judge a puzzle by how much entertainment it gave me. By that measure, this one was a big winner.
★ Phrases that morph into equally valid new phrases are my jam, so Yacob and Erik had me at BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD. What a beautiful discovery!
I have a feeling some solvers won't figure out what's going on, so here's a before and after:
None of the rest is as strong as BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD — it's so neat when there are multiple words involved. IN THREE-D did hit that mark, but spelling THREE out is a crossword-specific … "oddity" would be a generous description.
As I would expect from these two (Yacob giving us a smash hit on this last themeless), such a tasty grid! Constructors often fail when they try to go big — 72 words is in themeless territory — but there was no going home today. Even if you didn't enjoy the theme as much as I did, I'd give each of these entries a check (Will Shortz assigns checks and minuses in his grid-assessing process):
Between TACTILE, ANIMATE, and IMPEDED, I'd toss in another checkmark, taking the total up to 8. That's astounding for a puzzle built around five theme entries.
I'd have loved another stunner like BREAKING BAD to BAKING BREAD, but the four (RE)LOCATIONS worked well enough. It made me want to go search for more. I didn't have time to write the code, but I spent five minutes figuring out how I would do it — I love it when someone gives my brain a challenge. Along with gridwork that greatly enhanced my solving experience, these guys earn another POW! apiece.
★ Oh, that center. Ooh. Ooooh! If you add a googol Os to that "ooh," that'd be more accurate. I've worked with many big centers while developing themelesses, but nothing like this. It wouldn't even occur to me to try, so impossible does it seem. I might attempt it once, and then quickly place a black square at the very center, or maybe scatter two around, like at the A of CYBERATTACK and the R of LOTTERY PICK.
Stunning. I rarely open up a themeless and stare, slack-jawed.
My usual second reaction to something like this is to clench every muscle in my body in preparation for a slew of uglies. Short gloop. Mid-length oddities. Long curiosities. Everything under the Barnum and Bailey sun.
Not today. The middle is more Blaine than Bailey. There are strong feature entries, like LOTTERY PICK (term for a high NBA draft choice), CYBERATTACK, RAT TRAP, STAR STUDENT, SPY CAMS. And there's no short crossword glue — how could there be where there are so few short slots, period?
RADIUMS is ugly in the plural, but it gets a pass as the sole funky bit in the massive white hole that is the center. I laughed at Ryan's appropriate use of the word "vomitous," too.
Solid corners, too. CRY HAVOC, THE FORCE (think: "Star Wars"), SNO BALLS, the women's soccer powerhouse TEAM USA, and that wannabe COOL MOM we all roll our eyes at, ha ha ha ... hey, wait. One of my kids called me a "cool dad" the other day. Huh.
Some may miss the cleverness behind [Shrunken head?]. LAV is short for "lavatory," so there needs to be some "for short" or "Abbr." tag in the clue. Great use of "shrunken" to do that job, while introducing wit by using a fun phrase.
I'd still have given Ryan the POW! for this masterpiece if it had turned out 80% as strong. I might have to award him 1.25 POW!s today!
★ Huge kudos to Kevin Der and Finn Vigeland for putting together an impromptu online tournament — taking just over a week to do it! Kevin asked if I wanted to be involved, but I sadly had to decline because of two (toddling, loud, attention-seeking, messy, not-staying-away-from-my-computer) reasons. Although I missed out on the live event, I went back and watched parts of the live stream. So entertaining!
In a time when we all so badly need distraction, I salute those that make it happen. Because of that, I was predisposed to like today's puzzle. Then, the flood of fantastic entries and clever clues made it rise head and shoulders above any other puzzle this week.
This grid is a layout all budding themeless constructors should study. All sections are well-connected, making for fine solving flow, and to Byron's point, it's possible to (sort of) subdivide the five regions—the four corners plus the middle—by choosing strategic seed entries.
Once you land on a set of four long intersecting answers (WIFI PASSWORD, STEM PIPELINE, MARSHMALLOWS, HEPPLEWHITE) that test out well, you can work nearly independently on each section. Rigorous testing is critical, though, since some quartets of seed entries will allow for great fill in some corners but will cause trouble in others.
What beautiful entries everywhere. WIFI PASSWORD was my favorite, but every corner contained so much color. COP SHOWS, THEOREMS as those having something to prove, TINY TOON, VERY EASY.
Even better: there were so many clever clues that I stopped counting, amazed at the wealth of riches. Describing TSA as "wanders" — those who use wands — might elicit groans, but for me, it was clue of the year territory.
I can't applaud enough the work that Kevin, Finn, and everyone involved put in. Warms my heart to see such efforts in these trying times.
★ Every Wednesday, I have the pleasure of exchanging thoughts with Jim Horne about a full week worth of puzzles, and it's rare that we agree on which is the standout (if any). I prefer when we laud different puzzles, because Jim often presents a viewpoint I hadn't considered.
Groan, thanks a lot, Yacob, we both thought your puzzle was stellar. Now what are Jim and I supposed to argue about?
Yacob got in touch with me a few months before he submitted this one, asking for feedback. My first impression was that he showed a tremendous amount of talent and that his draft already had a decent shot at acceptance. It had a different SW, and a slightly different SE, though, and I thought it needed improvement.
Often, constructors don't listen to me and just submit. I'm not offended — I'm often wrong, after all — but why ask me if you're not going to at least consider critique? Yacob did everything right. He absorbed my comments, went away for a few weeks, and vastly improved the SW corner. I rarely tell constructors that they have a high chance of acceptance with Will, but this was one instance I was nearly sure Will would say yes.
Fantastic cluing, too. "Pen pals" for CELLMATES. "Barb" making you think about a verbal jab instead of a literal jab from a BLOWDART. I hope you don't [… incur charges overseas] ON SAFARI!
One oddity: the final grid Yacob sent me had a different — and better — southeast corner. As I solved, I noted the weirdness of BATE and LATEN, and confusion set in. I surely would have noted those and recommended he revise, since that region is somewhat flexible. Looking back upon his submission, I noticed that his corner was superior to what was run. Yacob doesn't exactly remember what happened, but he thinks he made a last-minute change before submitting.
Alas! Nothing's perfect. So close, though.
Jim: (wincing) You don't have to yell into your computer from two inches away.
Jeff: Oh. Sorry. How'd you magically get inside my TV computer monitor, anyway? And what's with TV RECEPTION?
Jim: You might not remember, but a TV is an outdated device used to display programming such as sitcoms—
Jeff: I may be a moron, but I'm not that old. I mean … I'm not that young. Wait. (brain overheating) I'm trying to say that I remember TVs, but I'm also older than a lot of the kids these days, so what I meant to say was …
Jeff: I'm a moron.
Once Jim and I got past the first theme entry, we both enjoyed the concept. My inner (and outer) nerd was delighted by a TRIG FUNCTION being a gathering of mathematicians. That entry won Olivia a POW! all by itself. I've used many a MEDICINE BALL but never thought of it as a party for doctors. And I'm married to one! A doctor, not a medicine ball. Just to be clear.
When an idea spurs me on to search for other examples, that's usually a sign it's a winner. I couldn't find many other theme options, which indicates that it's a tight theme. There was only one that could have worked: SOUND MIXER for us Puget Sound folks or CEMENT MIXER for construction workers.
There was JEFF SESSIONS, but no one may know about the top-secret society known as the Joint Jeffiez Jamz. This paragraph will self-destruct in five seconds.
It's a shame that TV RECEPTION wasn't buried in the middle of the grid. It didn't work as well as the others, because who besides me thinks about TV RECEPTION (the antenna I plug into my computer doesn't work as well as it used to) these days? Minor point, though.
I almost didn't give out the POW!, because the gridwork was far from smooth. It's tough to get past a pile-up of ENTR ETH GTE INE REL RRR TOI and the plural MARYS. And while EEG ENT and TSP are usually fine, they multiplied the feeling of this product still being in process. The root of the issue is in grid design, with the long acrosses mucking things up. TRIED ON, ALTER EGO, AGNOSTIC, I RECKON are all great bonuses, but they make gridding so challenging.
I appreciate Olivia's audacity, giving us STEROID, BRASSIERE, GENDER GAP, and BIG CAT as well. Trying to work in so much long fill — both across and down — is flying too close to the sun, though. It needed another round of revision, with major redesign, to better serve newer Tuesday solvers.
Overall, the theme was so delightful that my human side overcame my robot's technical analysis.
★ My memory for crosswords is long. After reading the title, I immediately thought of another of BEQ's Sunday puzzles, playing on As. I steeled myself, wondering if it'd be another A addition. Nothing wrong with that, but so many have been done that the resulting themers have to be spectacular.
Boy, was I wrong! What a playful way to riff on As, words that start with As, but become completely different words when the A sound is removed. APACHE to A PATCHY, ACQUIRE to A CHOIR, ATTACKS to A TAX — such interesting finds!
Best of all, the resulting phrases were amusing. A PATCHY APACHE as Geronimo with peach fuzz? That's a big winner.
Even the ones that weren't as surprising (not much of a spelling change), like A VOWEL AVOWAL, worked out well because of strong cluing. I had never thought of AYE and OUI being all vowels. That elevates a fine theme entry onto the Olympic podium's gold platform.
I wasn't as wild about the solving experience though, wading through such gloop as ALEE AMA ANIS CBER ENE REMS SERE etc. Nor was I excited to hit oddities like PENTODE and BLUE CAP and the outdated RCA DOME / TELSTAR. There was some strong material, like CSI MIAMI, SLIM JIM, RED BEANS, and PR FIRM, but the overall balance made the solve feel bogged down.
My preference is to have easier grids, where you don't even notice the short stuff, along with more strong bonuses. I do understand the perspective that a 136-word grid allows for bigger tracts of white space, making for a more challenging solve. Given how long it takes to finish a Sunday puzzle, I'd take funner over harder every time.
That's a minor issue, paling in comparison to theme quality, though. Some awesome finds, easily holding my attention through the full solve. I especially enjoyed how it seemed at the start like a theme I've seen before, only to slowly reveal itself as something different.
The grid art is so delightful that the crossword could have strangled and eaten a PANDA and I still would have given it the POW!. This might be my favorite piece of grid art of all-time. That's saying something, considering how long our list is — check out the collection.
Alex intended to have those two letters circled — like PANDA eyes! — but Will Shortz went back and forth on this, ultimately deciding that it might confuse solvers. I like that decision.
Ooh! Can you imagine if the lone P and A had some other function; some strong reason for being unchecked? That might have made it my favorite puzzle of all time.
Are there famous PANDAs whose names start with P and A? Researching ... drat, no. Stupid panda namers, get your priorities straight.
Yeah, there's some weirdness in MUR, way too many short words that broke up the flow of my solve, and INDENTER is an inducer of eye-rolling. That's all simply noise that hardly registered against the tremendous signal in this amazing graphic.
★ Before I found my literary agent, I'd read everything agents said regarding what they were seeking. More often than not, the number one criterion was "voice." (Besides "an NYT bestseller." Thanks, very helpful.) It was incredibly frustrating, considering voice usually got defined as "It's impossible to describe, but I know it when I read it."
Over the years, I've figured out that "voice" relates to how someone's work makes you feel. Does it make you happy? Confused in a great, tense way, wanting to read more? Maybe it even creates electric sparks. It's personal, of course, but the best writers' voices soar above everyone else's.
Caitlin has voice. There's so much distinctive personality built into this puzzle, from the expressive OH MY GOSH to I DON'T HAVE ALL DAY to STINK EYE. Something old (HAIR TONIC), something NEW AGERS, something BLENDED IN, something STAGE CREW.
Apparently, I still don't have voice.
Such fantastic use of her long slots, not a one I didn't like. STRAIGHTS could have been ho-hum, but not with a clever clue. [They're in good hands]? That's poker hands, that is!
Strong technical merit, too. I've appreciated how her prior crosswords have been so carefully built, avoiding crossword glue much more so than other constructors. Need to smooth out a region? Use cheater squares (the black squares in the upper left and lower right), absolutely!
(Note that not all editors are lax about cheater squares, especially those in the grid's corners. Rich Norris at the LAT frowns mightily upon them, for instance.)
(Also note, I'm fine with ADOS as a plural noun and MIROS as in "what did you think of the Miros on display?" I have no problem with IN ON or HAD IT, either, both of which can stand on their own.)
A couple of amazing clues rounded out the exemplary solving experience. My favorite was NOAH as famous for "seeing double." But close behind was the T.REX "bearing small arms."
A sparkling themeless, outstanding in every way. If I were a crossword agent, I'd sign her in an instant.
★ I dig Will Shortz's notes on Sunday puzzles. Sam is a cryptocurrency trader? What a cryptic job description! (Especially since this MBA doesn't totally get how cryptocurrency works.) A friend of mine participated in a stock-picking game a while back and won it all by heavily shorting Bitcoin. I like the innovative thinking.
Given that Sundays over the past year haven't been that interesting, Sam's innovative thinking today is much appreciated. I use the phrase GIVE THE STINK EYE all the time, but I've never considered interpreting it as "add an I to a synonym of STINK." SMEILL looks so awesomely bizarre, a bit like SMEAGOL.
BE IN THE MOMENT was another perfect example of this single-letter wordplay, a B inside a synonym for MOMENT (INSTANT) = INSTBANT.
Best of all, I enjoyed imagining what will happen to this puzzle in syndication, when overeager copyeditors change GAZACHO back to GAZPACHO. Prepare for befuddlement ...
Not every example worked well, GAZPACHO, for example. SPLIT P is a tortured way to describe "remove one P." Similarly with TEA EXTRACT hinting at "get rid of a T."
I was able to overlook those, though, since Sam did such a great job weaving in bonuses within the fill. For every themer that fell flat or didn't work, there was a handful of HOPE TO GOD, OREO OS, SHAMAN / OO LA LA. I'm usually happy with maybe six or so long bonuses in a grid, so getting a ton of KILL FEE SMOKE RING US SENATE WWI ACE was awesome. BARREL OF FUN and TRES BON are so appropriate!
NO LIKEY … that feels like something okay for me to say (I love how flushed people get when I shout ME NO RIKEY!). Not sure if Sam gets the same pass.
Overall, the conceit has a couple of clunker answers, but it's novel and entertaining, and that's exactly what the NYT Sunday puzzle needs.
(MEAN GIRLS — the main characters being Gretchen WIENERS, Karen SMITH, Regina GEORGE, Cady HERON. I wouldn't have figured it out in a billion years!)
★ The English alphabet offers so many opportunities for playfulness. Assuming capitalization, there are some letters that look like others when upside-down, ones that have reflective symmetry (A, H, I, etc.), splitsies, even some that become others when one half is lopped off. The possibilities for wordplay are endless!
I've seen several crosswords involving a letter or number split into two parts, so I wasn't wowed right off the bat by today's 8 -> double O. In fact, I was annoyed at first when I did the usual rebus schtick, entering OO into each square. Come on, Joe, that's an infinity sign, not an 8!
Nice shift of thinking when I realized my mistake and changed them into 8s.
There are so many touches I appreciated:
There are going to be folks on one end of the spectrum who think this is too easy; that they've seen stuff like this before. On the other end, some newer solvers will never figure out the connection between 8 and ATE. You'll never make everyone happy, but this one did a great job hitting a middle ground. All of Joe's time and effort showed through, both at making his theme feel elegant and at assembling a colorful, clean grid.
★ Oh, GROOOOOOOAN, yet another puzzle with gods hidden in phrases. And Rich Proulx couldn't even be bothered to locate them inside phrases, lazily resorting to circles higgledy-piggledy scattered about?
AND he drew from a mish-mash of backgrounds, Roman, Greek, Norse, and then back to Greek? Come on, at least be consistent! Make more of an effort to ...
I love being slapped upside the head with my ego and stupidity. This is a true WITT (Wish I'd Thought of That) theme, where LOVE CONQUERS ALL contains the god … are you ready for it … this is so awesome … oh my god(s)! … THE GODDESS OF LOVE, VENUS!
This might be my all-time favorite within the "circles spread throughout phrases" theme type.
CRUCIVERA EXTOLS SUCH WORK DEARLY, SIR!
★ Animal themes have been done ad infinitum in crosswords, so an extra layer is essential. Thankfully, that's what Michael has given us today. Note that it's hardly a loosey-goosey (ha) set of themers, but nice and tight — every phrase is an animal's part, expressed in a possessive format. I enjoyed the 50/50 approach of having two themers as "X OF THE Y," and two as "THE X'S Y."
Outstanding debut gridwork, too. Monday products ought to be newb-friendly, with the potential to convert those on the fence. One major tenet is to make your short stuff unnoticeable, allowing a solver to breeze through without having any needle-scratching-across-a-record moments. There were two blips in ALEE and ORY (the latter heavily globulous), but that's an admirable result for any constructor, much less a rookie.
I appreciate that Michael didn't try to do too much. Stick to 78 words your first couple of times, so you have the best chance of coming through with a beautifully smooth early-week product. Toss in a pair of bonuses like HEAR ME OUT and MY MISTAKE, and call it good. If you can insert a bit of SHA NA NA, DRY HEAT, and a Z in BREEZED, definitely do it! As long as you can do it with minimal compromises, that is.
Too often, experienced constructors hear the call of the dark side, aiming for an audacious product that newer solvers might end up cocking their heads at — or worse. Today's is a perfect example of a welcoming gateway; a crossword with a simple yet novel theme, and a grid that allows for a fist-pumping victory. Bravo!
★ I love it when artists combine two disparate concepts into something unique. I've participated in so many FINAL FOUR pools, created so many single-letter puzzles for crosswords, yet I've never thought of combining them. W X Y Z as the FINAL FOUR of the alphabet — and as final parts of the four themers — is so fun.
Glittery gridwork, too. For those who might not love the theme as much as me, how about some colorful OPEN MRI / TOPOLOGY and GROANER / GRANDEUR in those big corners? Lovely stuff.
Some may argue that TOPOLOGY could be tough for early-week solvers, but educated solvers should at least have heard of a topo(graphic) map, so it's inferable. And if you've never heard the term before, go check out Martin Gardner's work. His Scientific American columns fascinated me as a kid, and my shelves are chock full of his books.
HOODOO … okay, that might be tough, and I'd be more sympathetic to complainers. I'd lend even more an ear to those kvetching about the CANTOR / ORC crossing.
(The inner nerd in me says HA HA HA ALL THAT TIME I SPENT PLAYING D&D PAID OFF! Not surprisingly, I always had low Charisma scores in my character sheets. Even less surprisingly, I didn't care.)