Just when I thought I was nearing the end of my useful life – all kinds of little mistakes, like asking the gate agent when the equipment for our outgoing flight would arrive (‘it’s right there,’ she said, pointing to a Boeing 737 that I had somehow missed) or like, an hour before, suggesting that my friend get into the left lane to avoid the famous and inevitable traffic jam as we approached the airport exit (ah, but he had taken I-395, not I-195, so if he had paid me any attention we would have missed the right-lane airport exit entirely) – I find that I have completed, all by myself, without resort to Google, or to Charles’s brother Kenneth (who is frighteningly good at these things), both the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle and (are you sitting down? I am, in 6E, upgraded to first class, and happily typing away at 37,000 feet) the Acrostic.
This is a matter of some significance. Having been quite bright as a child, but increasingly less so as my clusters fragment . . . (can you tell that a birthday looms? and a prime number birthday, at that, divisible only by itself and 1?) . . . I am aware that for some decades now I have been getting, well, dumb and dumber (my not having sold at least half my FMD at $56, and, worse, my not having suggested you sell half your FMD at $56, being another example).
And yet here I sit, the Magazine on my lap, laptop on tray table, every square of the puzzle correctly lettered and, as I say, the Acrostic – the Acrostic! – completed. And the significance of this is not just that the crossword puzzle was uncommonly easy this week (that’s really not the point at all) but that I had never even attempted an Acrostic before last summer, when Stephen Hawking came to visit us at the beach (okay, not literally Stephen Hawking, but a man with an intelligence almost as intimidating and well known), and did one himself.
I had never theretofore seen anyone attempt, let alone complete, an Acrostic. I know there must be people who do. English professors, mostly. Scary people. I know they must exist or else the Times wouldn’t keep printing Acrostics.
But – old dog, new trick – I have now completed one, all by myself (did I mention that?), and it’s all I can do not to elbow the guy in 6F and show him what I’ve done. (And then find out whether he’s a Democrat and, if so, whether he actually paid for his first class seat, hitting him up for a five-figure contribution, if he did, but I digress.) The Acrostic instructions never vary: ‘Guess the words defined below and write them over their numbered dashes. Then transfer each letter to the correspondingly numbered square in the pattern. Black squares indicate word endings. The filled pattern will contain a quotation reading from left to right. The first letters of the guessed words will form an acrostic giving the author’s name and the title of the work.‘
The instructions don’t italicize that last sentence. I have, because it just dumbfounds me how neatly all this fits together.
You start out with the few seemingly easy clues you think you just might have guessed right – could ‘comeback from a wag’ be ‘rejoinder’? – and you figure that the single-letter words in the quotation are probably ‘A’ or ‘I’ (unless it’s really poetic – O, Joy!), which may help a little in guessing some of the other clues (eventually, you realize that ‘clown shoes or a fake arrow through the head, e.g. (2 wds.)’ might be ‘sight gag’) . . . and you just keep at it, consumed by the hopelessness of the pursuit, until – what’s this now? – it actually becomes increasingly, and then all but giddily clear, and you have: ‘The qualifications of a good jester included the ability to extemporize verse and trot out retorts or cringe-inspiring doggerel. Poetic skill was a vital part of the jester’s ragbag of tricks at all times.’
And, sure enough, when you read down the first letters of all the words (like REJOINDER and SIGHT GAG) that had provided the letters for the quote, they spell: OTTO: FOOLS ARE EVERYWHERE. (So some guy named Otto must have written this, about fools.)
And then you realize – oh, my, God, how perfect is this? – that the puzzle appeared the week of April Fool’s, which was itself yet another little wink from the author.
I will never try one of these again. I am quitting while I’m ahead. (At least until next week.)
You want money? Here, in the same Sunday Times Magazine, is former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill in a quick and breezy Q&A on Bear Stearns, sub-prime, Dick Cheney, and John McCain (‘Q: How do you feel about John McCain, who claims to be a straight talker? A: I don’t want a straight talker. I want a leader. And a straight talker is one dimension of a leader. Q: McCain recently confessed in public that his grasp of economics is limited. A: Yeah. That’s a great place to start from, isn’t it?’).
You want politics? Here, in the same Sunday Times Magazine, is a lengthy cover story on the political pendulum shift in progress from Red to Blue. (‘What has been startling is how thorough some of the shifts have begun to look.’)
Tomorrow: More of Your Thoughts on Macs, Safari, Mozy and All That