Part 4: "Xebu"
Things get a little blurry after "lunch" (which I didn't really eat). I know I did 3 more puzzles in the afternoon, but my meaningful interactions with actual human beings fell off precipitously. I am used to getting to bed early and waking up early and eating lots of fruits and vegetables and getting some exercise and None of that was happening (well, much) in Stamford. So almost 24 hrs. into the experience, I was definitely off, at least socially.
Sat down in nearly the same spot in the ballroom for the afternoon puzzle sessions. But my nearby solvers were not nearly as chatty, warm, or easy to look at as the ones I'd been sitting by in the morning. Not only that - about two minutes after I sat down, I noticed that the dude sitting across from me was chomping gum like a cow chewing its cud. I realized instantly that this would be a problem, and that I had to make a decision right there about staying or fleeing. I walked over to where some empty chairs were tilted up against the table and asked the woman sitting nearby (on the very end of the table) what the tilted chairs meant. She said that she thought that meant that they were saved. I said "that's a pretty sorry way to save a place. Don't people normally put stuff down at a place they want to save? Isn't that normal protocol?" She wasn't sure. I told her my gum dilemma, which, I explained, could become a violence dilemma if I didn't find other arrangements. She understood - seeing no one nearby who might lay claim to the tilted seat, I took it. Best Move I Made All Weekend. Woman on the end was lovely and interesting, guy across from me was much more reticent, but at least vaguely pleasant. We were sitting Directly under the giant antiquated digital countdown clock (numbers in bright red), which apparently people had some trouble seeing in the morning session, and so it was placed higher up for the afternoon. This entailed putting a very heavy, large metal clock on top of a fairly feeble-looking side table ... on top of Another fairly feeble-looking side table. Woman next to me was directly underneath this death-trap, and she and I made many jokes about "Woman dies in freak Crossword Tournament accident" headlines. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Favorite bit of pre-solving patter that I heard around me: "Isn't the arctic explorer RAE?" Yes, yes it is.
Before I discuss Puzzles 4-6, I wanted to say that in the death puns puzzle (Millhauser's Puzzle 3) there were two controversial answers, one because it was hard as hell (for many) and another because of the variety of ways in which people answered it. First the tough one:
21A: Store that carries foreign-made caskets (Bier 1 Imports)
I talked to several people (some very good solvers) who could Not get this one, even after all the characters but the "1" (which I entered as capital "I" - not thinking non-letters could go in the grid in a non-rebus puzzle). The Down cross was a bit enigmatic there too: 22D: 60-min., as photo-lab service (1-Hr.). I had the -HR for a while and had No Idea what abbreviation I could possibly make out of that.
The other memorable answer from Puzzle 3 was
91A: Prequel to "Six Feet Under"? (Morgue & Mindy)
First, the one TV show has nothing to do with the other, so there's that. Second, people varied Wildly in terms of how they filled in the "ampersand" square. I, thinking that only letters were allowed (again, in a non-rebus puzzle) was teetering between "A" (which is the first letter of "and" and thus would have worked on the NYT website), but then decided that looked totally ridiculous on paper and went with "N" - even though I knew that the TV show was not "Mork 'N' Mindy" - I just thought it was the best single letter to represent what I wanted there. The Down cross was 88D: Popular candy in a bag (M & M's). The very top solvers (or some of them anyway) apparently wrote out AND in the space provided. Whatever. As far as I can tell, all versions of these answers were accepted. But I heard some people (well, one person in particular) ranting out loud, in earnest, about how terribly written the puzzle was, how it was unfair and bad etc. He was like a (thankfully) Very Small percentage of puzzlers at the tourney, who have some kind of social affective disorder and take all forms of failure or perceived failure really, really badly. Or maybe he was just an asshole. Did he think anyone else was enjoying riding in an elevator with him griping loudly and indignantly? Jackass.
Puzzle 4 had a TO DO buried in its theme answers. It also had the answer REBUS clued via a rebus. Very cute. The most embarrassing moment for me in this puzzle was getting to 54A: 1968 film with a famous car chase (Bullitt) - a film that I love and own - and totally and completely blanking on the title. It would be almost like my blanking on Grampa Simpson's first name. Unbelievable. Got some crosses and got it and would have hit myself if I hadn't been racing forward.
Puzzle 5, the alleged back-breaker, was actually easily crackable, though still tough. The title was "Gender Bender" (by Merl Reagle) and you had x's going to y's and y's to x's, both in the answers and, wickedly, in the clues. So you'd get a seemingly normal clue like 10A: Sox fan, perhaps. But when you get the answer VEGAN, unless you've cracked the theme, you have to wonder what the hell is going on. Some people, like me, got the theme but still kept forgetting to do the switch Everywhere there was an x or y. Some people (I'm looking at you, "?") never ever got the theme at all. The best thing about this puzzle for me was that I deciphered the theme off of a completely wrong answer. 6A: Ox's cousin had as its correct answer ALAS (Oy = ALAS, I suppose). Not knowing the theme yet, and thinking the puzzle was going to be all kinds of vicious (like Byron Walden's 2006 Puzzle 5) I guessed the most absurd animal that I could think of that would fit: XEBU. What's great about this is that the animal in question is actually spelled ZEBU, but if I'd known that, I would never have seen the "X" and thought "Oh, it's an X-for-Y switch puzzle ... somehow." Of course YEBU wasn't anything I'd heard of, and eventually I had to scrap the answer altogether. But still, I thank the mythical XEBU for entering my brain unbidden and helping me solve Puzzle 5 in very decent time.
Hate to leave you hanging between Puzzles 5 and 6, but I have to run to a student presentation.
The Great Discontent: Michael Bierut
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