Three weeks ago, I wrote an article announcing a small adjustment to one of the two crossword puzzles we run in the BayLink section. Readers had been complaining that some clues were too obscure. I said we were going to fix that, and as a result the puzzle would be slightly easier some days.
The reaction was immediate and intense.
"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," Karin Lee Stephansky wrote. "I just turned 47 years old. I started doing the puzzles back in 1992. … I've never had a problem until the last few weeks. I thought I was developing Alzheimer's; I was literally losing my mind. I was scared to death. And now, huh! It wasn't only me. Thank God for that! I mean it."
Carole Murphy, of New Port Richey, described her frustration: "When I could get just a few words (a few words!!!) out of the whole thing, I'd just look at my husband, say 'I'm pathetic!' and put the page in the recycling bin."
The most poignant e-mail said, "I feel like a second-grader trying to do seventh-grade homework."
Others readers were furious with me.
"Simplifying the crossword puzzle will only contribute to the additional dumbing down of the population," one caller said on my voice mail.
I plowed through dozens of messages like those before I realized these people weren't talking about the crossword puzzle at all. They were talking about themselves.
The crossword puzzle, it turns out, is not just a grid that people fill in to pass the time.
Reliable estimates say 50 million people do a newspaper crossword on a regular basis. For devotees, it is a sacred ritual, the way holy communion is for Catholics. The breakfast table is the altar, the coffee cup the chalice. I talked to a lot of Times readers about their habits. John Hlivyak told me he does BayLink Crossword No. 1 over breakfast at his home in Spring Hill, eating with one hand and solving with the other. He does No. 2 over lunch, on the lanai. Harriet Browder, of Pinellas Park, also solves No. 2 at lunchtime, with a pen, in the break room at work.
I do the puzzles in my own paper from time to time, to check in on them. But my sacred ritual is to work the New York Times Sunday puzzle in bed for a few minutes each night, in pen, with the goal of finishing by Sunday morning, when I retrieve a new New York Times from my driveway and check my answers, circling the ones I got wrong.
For people like us, the puzzle is a thread in the fabric of our lives — not the most important one, but still a thread, like the nightly walk, the drink before bedtime. Recently the St. Petersburg Times ran an obituary of Beverley B. Gumbley, who died in Largo at 84. It said she was born in Providence, R.I., and worked as a key punch operator during World War II. Then: "Beverley enjoyed crossword puzzles, reading and quilting." Loved ones of the departed mention the crossword in our obits about twice a month, and it always humbles me to see it. When I make even a small change to the puzzle, I feel like I'm attempting that trick where you jerk the tablecloth out from underneath the dishes, except the tablecloth is the size of the bay area and it's the whole region's dishes.
• • •
Fifty million people, fifty million cups of joe, fifty million papers folded in quarters. Catholics go to communion to be closer to God. But why all this ritual puzzle solving?
Radio journalist Dean Olsher gives an almost mystical explanation in his new book, From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords (Scribner, $24).
"I solve crosswords because they bring on a feeling of emptiness, and paradoxically, that feeling seems to fill a deep hole inside," Olsher writes. "Crosswords bring about a focused state of mind, the elusive 'flow state.' "
My friend Merl Reagle of Tampa has spent his life as a puzzle constructor; he made his first one for the New York Times when he was 15 and his Sunday puzzle appears in 60 papers. He is the kind of guy who, upon meeting you, can anagram your name into something funny before he's done shaking your hand.
"There are basically two kinds of solvers," he says. "Those who think of crosswords as a test and those who think of crosswords as a game — you know, 'What have they got up their sleeve for me today?' "
My experience tells me Merl is right. For many readers, the crossword is a specific kind of test — a mental health checkup, a way to count their marbles. Remember Karin Lee Stephansky, who thought her struggles with the puzzle were a sign of Alzheimer's? I must have received 25 e-mails just like hers.
John Hlivyak, the Spring Hill solver, says he does the crossword "to test my knowledge and recall ability." He'll be 80 in August. "My sister in Connecticut is five years older than me and she's starting to lose it. That's been kind of a flag for me to keep things going."
Olsher writes well about crosswords and senility in From Square One. Just about everyone believes doing puzzles helps in the war on Alzheimer's, but there's not much evidence to support that idea. One study showed that activities such as reading and playing board games are "associated with a reduced risk of dementia"; crossword puzzles aren't on the list. It may be that John Hlivyak is still sharp at 79 because he volunteers with third-graders and old folks ("most of whom are younger than I am"), not because he knows the three-letter word for "Bruin Bobby."
"Crossword puzzles," Olsher concludes, "will not keep you from losing your mind."
• • •
They may, however, make you act like a smarty pants.
BayLink Crossword No. 2 is a graduated difficulty puzzle, meaning it's easy on Monday and gets harder each day, with Saturday being the toughest. The changes we made to the clues are subtle, and the end-of-the-week puzzles remain extremely challenging.
But oh, the outrage! When we ran that short article talking about the changes, I got dozens of messages from solvers accusing me of lowering the intellectual standards of the community. It was as if I'd suggested that henceforth, King Lear be performed exclusively in baby talk.
"Good grief," one woman wrote from South Pasadena. "All I could think of when I read today's article was: Wimps!"
It was fitting that she used a word with a disparaging sexual connotation, because I had begun to feel we were really talking about adequacy. I am Thor! See me solve!
• • •
So many feelings to lay on a 15-by-15 grid! I'm pathetic. This isn't fair! I'm losing it. I still have it. Damn, I'm good.
I wish I could say that for me, a puzzle is just a puzzle, that my ability to solve it has nothing to do with my self-esteem. And yet you'll find me at my breakfast bar every Sunday morning, checking my answers to the previous Sunday's New York Times puzzle, ruefully shaking my head at each wrong answer. Once, when I got them all right, I wrote a little note at the top of the page and showed it to my wife.
Mike Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2924.