Nary A Cross Word

I never took a course in time management when I was in school. It’s a good thing, too, because I would have failed.

When I was teaching, my time was planned for me. The life of a public school teacher is fraught with bells and calendars and deadlines and due dates. You have to account for every minute if you’re ever going to fit everything into a school day—and that includes grabbing a snack, returning that urgent phone call from your lawyer or opting out of both so that you can steal five minutes to go to the bathroom. When I got a little time off, I’d spend the first half of it sitting and staring and the other half catching up on the laundry.

Now that my time is my own, I find I have no talent for managing it. I stare less and my clothes are always clean, but I have discovered that I am more prone to distraction when left on my own than I ever knew. There’s just so much out there and, unless I am deeply involved in something, I tend to lose focus and flit from thing to thing. Yes, I’m a flitterer. For a writer without a deadline, this is lethal.

The first stop on my daily flit is the crossword puzzle in the morning paper. When I was working, doing crosswords was one of those activities that was restricted to summer vacation (along with drinking gin and tonics and staying up late to watch David Letterman). But now that my mornings are mine, that crossword is a temptation I cannot resist.

Every morning I wake up, grab my phone, read my email, scroll through Facebook, get out of bed and tell myself that TODAY, right after a healthful breakfast, I will head DIRECTLY BACK UP to my desk to work on the writing project of the day. Then, I tell myself, once that is done, I can sit down at the kitchen table with my favorite blue ball-point and tackle the day’s crossword. It will be a reward for all my focus and discipline.

But then, I think, why not kill two birds with one utensil by starting in on the crossword while I’m eating?  You know where this leads, right? Exactly. Through the crossword and down to the Jumble. And before I can stop myself, my breakfast is cold, my writing focus is fuzzy and another day of flittering is in full swing.

I don’t know what it is about crossword puzzles that I find so addictive. But when I see the newspaper on the kitchen table, my resolve dissolves. I grab a pen and find the page, fold it back and get to work as if it were my job. Monday is my favorite day because it is the easiest. Puzzles get incrementally harder as the week progresses. It’s not generally the solutions themselves that are more difficult, but rather the clues that get craftier, punnier and less direct. I do appreciate the challenge of the late-week puzzles, but they take me longer and then I feel guilty for giving them all that time.

Since I work in ink, my personal goal is to finish a puzzle without a crossout. This means that I have to strategize a little differently than people who puzzle in pencil. I only write down answers that I am damned well sure of, so I look for the easiest answers first. This is not fool-proof but you have to start somewhere. Then as I fill in, I try to hold possible harder answers in my head as I check to see if any intersecting words might have the same letters. Sometimes I can fill in three or four words in a single swoop this way, certain that they are all correct because they share key letters. The satisfaction that I get from this reinforces the fact that I am really just a nerd—and an old one at that.

Why ink? Not to show off, believe me. I just love the feel of a ball-point pen on newsprint. The paper cradles the tip of the pen in a way that I find comforting. At first I only inked on Mondays, but then it was hard to revert to pencil unless I could find one with exactly the right lead softness and a tolerable eraser. Also, the crazy risks you can take puzzling with a pencil began to seem frivolous and undisciplined to me and so now I do all but the hardest puzzles in blue. Inky crossouts are infuriating and can really mess up the grid, but they are part of the game. A perfect blue ball-point puzzle, when it happens, is an accomplishment—and a sight to behold.

Does this make me a better writer? No. Does it get the laundry done? No. Does it exercise my brain to keep it sharp? Not really, no. Is it a major life distractor that helps me to justify procrastination? Bingo. It is pure pleasure, baby. And I think I’ve earned it.

And now it’s time to get to my desk and start writing.

But first, let’s see how fast I can do that Jumble.






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