Mind Games

Get a clue.
Get a clue.

What do flightless birds and shy nerds have in common?

Both soar freely in the abstract realm that is crossword puzzledom.

Yes, I know, puzzledom is not an actual word, although if it were you could score a gazillion points with it in a game of Scrabble. But in crosswords points are not the point. Each puzzle is a unique mystery, or rather, a collection of small mysteries bound together in a two-dimensional grid. Not exactly a concept that sings like a winning contestant on “The Voice.” Yet, from its modest, unsung beginning as a novelty item in a December 1913 edition of the New York World, the crossword puzzle has hummed its way into the heart of our culture, converting skeptics from all walks of life.

In this past Sunday’s The Washington Post, crossword puzzle guru Merl Reagle wrote a fascinating article about the inventor of the crossword puzzle, Arthur Wynne, and how his clever idea stormed the country while not earning him a dime. In honor of the enduring popularity of crossword puzzles, the Post is sponsoring a special 100th anniversary contest which features four linked crossword puzzles and some other nifty surprises. The winner will get a thousand dollars, a sum which might inspire even scoffers of the humble word puzzles.

I admit, there was a time when I viewed crosswords as a waste of time, an occupation fit only for those who had nothing better to do. How little I knew. I learned a bit about the mania that crossword puzzle enthusiasts share from watching “Wordplay,” a funny, enlightening 2006 documentary film directed by Patrick Creadon. It features Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, Merl Reagle, Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and other notable puzzle enthusiasts. After watching that film I decided to give crosswords a try.

I was also motivated in part by the sort of quiet dread of, you know, losing my mind. When it runs in your family, you start to grip the wheel a little tighter as you approach the curves in the road. So, although I was raised to consider doing crossword puzzles a waste of time, I read scientific articles documenting evidence suggesting that mental acuity, like muscle tone, improves with regular exercise. And a crossword puzzle is nothing if not an exercise in cogitation: a ten letter word that means thinking.

Of course, not all thinking is productive or constructive, but thoughtless action is unreliable in most situations, unless you are a Zen monk. I mean, sure, we can all learn something by trying to figure out “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” But in my life I seem to be confronted more often with questions where the answers are true or false, multiple choice, or none of the above.

The beauty of the questions in a crossword puzzle is that there is always a correct solution. And, if you can’t figure it out, there’s a new puzzle the next day, or the next week. This system offers a soothing contrast to the baffling hydra-headed conundrums of modern life.

So if, like me, you find that neither yoga, nor meditation, nor even kick-boxing delivers the relief you seek from the stress of modern times, you could do worse than to pick up a crossword puzzle and give it a go. Just remember, all emus are flightless birds, but not all flightless birds are emus.