Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 5)

Part 5: "Breakin' the Law"

Alright, this is the final installment of my Stamford recap - events I'm writing about are now a week old and my memory is starting to get fuzzy. Luckily, this fuzzy feeling exactly mirrors how I was feeling right at the time I left off in the last installment - the middle of the afternoon on Saturday, just after Puzzle 5. I was happy to finish Puzzle 5 in a good time, but I thought it would be impossible for me to do yet Another puzzle, so late in the afternoon, after five reasonably tough puzzles. I was flagging. Plus, the end of Puzzle 5 was sad for me because my one faithful puzzle companion, Violet (aka "Ultra Vi") had to leave to get back to a concert in Boston later that day, and it wasn't clear whether she'd even be able to return for the final puzzle, Puzzle 7, the next morning. In the mayhem following Puzzle 5, I never actually got to see her or say goodbye. So that was a little depressing. Depression + tiredness -> didn't bode well for Puzzle 6.

The puzzle came from Maura Jacobson, the only constructor to have a puzzle featured in every Crossword Tournament since the event began in 1978. The theme was "What Are They?: Fictional people and what they stand for" and the theme answers were italicized names, none of them recognizable to me. The gimmick: the first name was that of a celebrity and the second was a synonym for an object, and you had to convert celebrity first name to celebrity last name and the synonym to the object it signified in order to get a familiar phrase, e.g.

82A: Edith Romano (head cheese) => Edith HEAD is a designer, romano is a type of CHEESE, hence HEAD CHEESE

89A: Geena Stein (Davis Cup) => Geena DAVIS is an actress, stein is a kind of CUP, hence DAVIS CUP

So despite the fact that the clues were utterly unfamiliar, once crosses allowed you to get the theme, you could whip through the whole thing with relative ease. I had one major problem with this puzzle, one that caused me to voluntarily eat up an extra minute of my time searching (in vain) for what I was sure was an error. For the clue 4A: Unkosher I had TREF. I had to keep it, because nothing else was making sense, and I'm glad I did, because it was right. Luckily, the first person I talked to when I left the room (a guy I'd sat with earlier in the day) was Jewish and could confirm that yes, that was the answer. Turns out my wife had heard of the expression before too, and she's not Jewish at all, so apparently I'm semi-alone in my ignorance. Wish I could get that minute back.

So that was it for puzzling on Saturday. It was chaos outside the ballroom, with huge crowds waiting for elevators to their rooms and scads of people making various dinner-type plans. I got overwhelmed and decided I would hide out and rest rather than foist myself on some pre-existing dinner party. So I retreated to my room only to find that at that Exact moment, of all the moments in the day, the cleaning crew was working on my room. So I sat down in the hallway like some kind of oddly placed panhandler and scribbled notes about my day in my Little Black Book. Two interesting things then happened. One, I smelled pot. The faint but unmistakable smell of pot. Two, Howard Barkin walked by - turns out not only was he on my hall, his room was only one number different from mine. So we chatted a bit and then he was off to his room and then god knows where. Once the cleaning crew left, I went into my lair, thought briefly of ordering a pizza so I wouldn't have to move, then decided moving might do my brain and body good, so I decided to take my chances and walk into downtown Stamford. I had no idea where I was going, but I figured I'd just follow people and cars and I'd be able to ferret out somewhere to get food. The most awkward part of this otherwise pleasant journey was seeing Amy and Byron cross the street about 100 yards in front of me. They were off to have a private dinner together and were headed in exactly the same direction I was. I didn't want them to feel in any way awkward about seeing me out by myself, scrounging for food, so I hung back and slowed down and pretended in every way like I didn't see them. God they walked slow. I had to keeping looking at various storefronts to keep from looking like a creepy loiterer. "O don't mind me, I'm just looking in the display window of this tacky furniture store. Ooh, here's a theater. Joy Behar is coming to town? How, er, interesting." Etc.

Finally found a rather delicious Thai restaurant, nearly empty. Walked in, ordered food to go, sat down at the bar and had The Best Tasting Beer Of My Life. Seriously, if I needed anything at that moment, it was silence and beer. Thai Beer. I drank it slowly, sitting there for many minutes even after my food had been brought out to me. I tipped everyone heavily and headed out.

I was going to just stay in my room all night, but I figured the least I could do was go down and watch the mini-movie of "Wordplay" out-takes and promotional stuff that director Patrick Creadon was screening for conference attendees. And so I did. I had seen much of the promotional stuff already, including Will and Merl's brief appearance on Oprah - which makes me cringe for some reason. Oprah doesn't usually make me cringe on her own, and crosswords certainly don't, but something about having something I love subjected to Oprah felt all wrong. Plus, the puzzle they did for her was so non-standard and so ... ridiculously clued that it gave a horribly skewed notion of what x-words (especially Shortz-era x-words) are all about. Not that the O-shaped puzzle wasn't clever in its way. I just wish it had been something closer to standard in format. And that Oprah hadn't done that horrible voice-over where she alleges that we are known as "puzzle-heads." W...T...F?!

OK, so the little movie was fun, especially the part where the adorable Maura Jacobson is shown just outside the ballroom listening in when her name is announced as the puzzle author and the room Erupts in applause. The pleased look on her face was very sweet. The worst part of the evening for me was when Will did his radio puzzle live for the room - but since there were like a billion super-fast puzzlers in the room, doing the regular puzzle was kind of pointless, so he did it backwards. I can't remember the format exactly, but I believe that he gave a synonym for a 7-letter word wherein removing first and last letters would result in a new 5-letter word. So when he said his word people were supposed to call out a definition for that resulting 5-letter word. I know I'm not relaying this very well. The one example I vaguely remember had Will giving a synonym for "abandon" and the clue that the audience was supposed to shout back was "Monopoly railroad" or something like that (for B AND O). I would have shouted "Slugger Sal" if I'd been anywhere near as fast as the Rain Men who surrounded me. Seriously, freakishly fast puzzle people. Not like sitting in on a game. More like sitting in a very crowded special disease ward of the hospital. Compulsive answer shouting. I was siting near a woman who not only shouted the answer to practically every question, but who earlier could not keep from interrupting the conversations of people around her if there was anything they appeared not to know. Under ordinary circumstances I would have thought this rude - but at Stamford, it's just puzzle people being puzzle people. Oh, I almost forgot - before the movie screening, Vic Fleming presented a musical number, which was: opening scenes of "Wordplay" if "Wordplay" were adapted into a musical. Very cute, if mildly painful. Loved his song "If You Don't Come Across I'm Gonna Be Down" from "Wordplay." Very talented guy. Apparently he knows Bill Clinton.

And so to bed.

Got up early on Sunday for the 9am puzzle. Got down to the lobby and who should come rushing in the front door of the hotel but Violet, who had driven all the way Back to Stamford from the Boston-area just to be able to do Puzzle 7. She and Dave Sullivan and I all sat together in the Pavilion area (not a closed room, open to the lobby) of the hotel. On Saturday I would not have wanted to sit with friends, but on Sunday it was just what I needed. I panicked a bit when I realized that it was 15 minutes to 9am and I had had Nothing - absolutely nothing - to eat. Brain needs food. So I decided to grab a couple of apples at the little shop off the lobby. And I did grab them. And then I waited in a sizeable line. And I waited. And waited, and assessed the line, did some math ... and then ... realizing I didn't have time to buy the apples, I sort of ... walked away. With the apples. Well, one was already in my belly by that point. And the other was half way there. I had every intention of going back after the puzzle and paying for those apples. And, as far as anyone knows, that is just what I did.

I smoked Puzzle 7 - a big 22x22 puzzle from Bob Klahn. But, as Dave will be only too happy to tell you, I made a mistake and therefore ended up with a worse score than Dave himself even though I beat him to the finish line by something like eight minutes. Ugh. After I finished, I sat there solving lame puzzles out of some book we got for free from "Kappa" publishing (I inserted an "R" between the "K" and "A" on my book - because sometimes I enjoy acting like I'm 10). I liked looking around and seeing other people solve - we were all at round tables as opposed the long rows of rectangular puzzles in the ballroom. My favorite moment came when I watched David Quarfoot finish his puzzle, raise his hand, and get No reaction from the judge standing ten feet in front of him - DQ didn't appear to see the judge approaching him from behind, so he began anxiously signaling the judge in front of him, including snapping his fingers as if he were an impatient customer in a French restaurant commanding the "garçon" to come and deal with the fly in his soup.

I was going to check out, put my stuff in my car, and then rush back in to get a good seat for the Finals, but Vi convinced me just to ask the hotel to extend my check-out time, which they did, so no rush. We got OK seats for the Finals (somewhere in the middle of the room, near the central aisle). We were all given copies of the C, B, and A versions of the puzzle (same grid, very different clues for each puzzle). I solved along with the C folk and beat them all (easy to do when you are Not the one on stage, I realize). Byron Walden won the B Final, which was pretty exciting. Neal Conan was commenting on Byron's solving strategy and suggested that solving on the left side of the grid first might make the puzzle open up more readily since you'd be revealing the first parts of answers that would then cut across the grid. Is this a real strategy? It sounded good. Anyway, it was close for a while, but Byron won, hurray. Of course Howard Barkin should have been in the Finals, and then who knows what would have happened. But I was (and am) very happy for Byron.

The A Finals were exceedingly exciting and very very tight. Tyler Hinman got a two second head start on Al Saunders and Francis Heaney. In the end, Al finished about five seconds (or so it seemed) ahead of Tyler, but Al had an error on an very hard crossing - an error that Everyone on stage had at some point; Tyler eventually caught his. The crossing was

28A: Secesh (reb)
30D: Carpenter's tool (bevel)

Everyone on stage at some point had LEVEL for the carpenter's tool. It took me a while to figure out what "Secesh" meant (short for "secessionist," I guess). Anyway, super rough crossing. Francis was unable to complete the grid in time, so Tyler won, Al was second, and Francis third. The End. I gave Violet a big hug goodbye and went back to my room and got my bags and got in my car and drove off. Didn't really say goodbye to most people. Don't really like goodbyes at all. Thankfully, with my x-word blog, it's like all my crossword friends are my damned neighbors anyway. Squawk squawk squawk.

I canNOT wait for the tournament in Brooklyn next year. I will parlay it into a grand NYC vacation and a visit to my good friend Kathy (who lives in Brooklyn), and on the drive out I will listen to The Beastie Boys' "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" over and over again to psyche myself up.

Until then,


Friday, March 30, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 4)

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.

More later.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 3)

Part 3: "It's Like The Super Bowl"

OK, where was I? Oh, right. And so to bed. Woke up and decided the IHOP trip was impossible and so breakfasted with everyone in the Marriott restaurant instead. When I got down to the lobby (8-ish), there were many people already milling about. The first set of three puzzles didn't get under way 'til 11am, so all was still calm. The puzzle organizer folk (or fairies, I don't know for sure) had made copies of that day's actual Saturday NYT puzzle, and when I walked in to the lobby Amy and Howard were already busily working on it. I thought a little pre-tournament puzzle action would be good for the ol' brain and so started in on the puzzle myself. Minutes later I had filled in nothing. Thankfully, at some point during my failed attempt to solve, Amy said something about how brutal the top half of the puzzle was, so I didn't feel so bad. Maybe she was just being kind, who knows? Finally I got down to a clue about the PINA COLADA song and managed to finish a whole quadrant of the puzzle off of that. Then I said "screw this, I don't need the stress" and put the puzzle away to finish later.

Once everyone got over the disappointment of missing out on IHOP, we entered the restaurant and sat ourselves, as there appeared to be no hostess on duty. Only there was a hostess on duty and so we sat without menus for a while until I went and alerted the hostess to our presence. The menu was limited. I got the breakfast bar with omelette option - the omelette cook was nice and managed to keep five different orders in his head at once, AND (more importantly) managed to produce a vegetable omelette that was not at all runny. One thing Amy and I have in common => runny eggs = vomit. My favorite moment of the breakfast was when the food came and Amy's side of scrambled egg, singular, arrived as scrambled eggs, plural (what were there, like a dozen eggs in that thing?) and a huge mound of hash browns to boot. "But I just wanted a single egg." "That's how our side of eggs comes." Etc. I was a little afraid Amy might hurl the whole plate at the unyielding and only semi-competent waiter, but luckily for us all, that didn't happen.

Between breakfast and the competition, I perused the vendors who were camped out in the Pavilion hawking their wares: puzzle books (including "x-rated" ones - no offense, but gross), pencils, coffee mugs, unappealing T-shirts (something like "Crossword Constructors Think Outside the Box" and "Crossword Solvers See the World in Black and White" - hackneyed phrases, the latter of which is not something I'd ever be proud to say), other games, a print of a desk with a NYT puzzle on it and pencils and pens and what I believe was the most ridiculously used and abused-looking dictionary in humanity - artful enough, but only the most pretentious person in the world would be caught dead with that in his house - a crossword coffee table that Will had signed, proceeds from which were going to some charity I forget ... eventually the "Wordplay" people were there, selling promotional mugs or something. Fewer vendors than I would have imagined. I bought nothing. As I said in an earlier post, the highlight of the vendor section was seeing the little promo poster for Amy's book. I only wish I'd known her earlier so that I could have found a way to get myself mentioned in it ... somehow.

At 11am, the competition began. There were so many participants that the Grand Ballroom would not hold us all, so 1/3 of the contestants were down in some mythical underground lair I never actually saw because I was with the end-of-the-alphabet people, and we were in the Grand Ballroom all Saturday long. Then, when it would have been our turn to go to the mythical underground lair (Sunday morning), that lair was occupied by some other group so we solved in "the Pavilion," which was open to the whole downstairs of the hotel, which was horrible, but that's later.

Choosing seating. I figured I didn't really want to sit with friends - needed to stay focused. Imagine row upon row of skinny rectangular tables with giant pieces of folded yellow construction paper at each seat acting as makeshift dividers (you know, so you don't cheat). I hated these dividers as the triangular space they created did not fit the rectangular shape of the puzzle well, if at all. So I pushed my triangle wide open and invited everyone around me to cheat away.

I was surrounded by very affable people: an older gentleman, a youngish guy who looked Just like a very good former student of mine, and then, across from me, a very nice young woman from, I'm gonna say Long Island, who had been given a trip to the tournament as a gift from her brother (because she's "the one in the family who's good with words"). She was chatty and friendly, but her pre-game patter was unintentionally hilarious to me. My favorite bit of commentary from her, which I made a point of scribbling down seconds after she said it, was the following:

"The games here have been tight, down to a 10th of a second - it's like the Super Bowl."

I think she was just nervous. She made this and other random utterances as she manically anointed her eyes with Visine. She would later explain that she'd awoken on Friday morning with "blocked tear ducts" and her eyes swollen shut. She said it as if this was just bad luck, something that might have happened to anyone, as opposed to one of the most freakish medical mysteries I've ever heard of.

She had been given "Wordplay" as a gift, too, but hadn't watched it, so a couple of us pointed out the stars of the film (several of whom, including Trip Payne, were seated right behind me). And then ... Puzzle 1, by Paula Gamache. Now, I went in thinking "Monday," as in, "You will ace this one." So I had so much nervous energy that I was Racing, but then I hit some words that were Not Monday, and ... well, I got panicky, and then with most of the puzzle done I had a tiny little section in the far North that just would Not come into view. And then people around me were finishing and getting up and leaving. O My God. I eventually hacked my way through it, finished, and exited the room Utterly demoralized. I realized instantly that I had to Stop worrying about time and Just worry about doing the puzzle correctly. Be methodical and relax. Actively trying to be speedy Really worked against me.

And that brings me to my first bit of advice for future rookies: it may seem counter-intuitive, but don't worry about time. Be methodical, keep moving forward, don't get discouraged, cross your i's, dot your t's, and you will actually optimize, rather than compromise your speed (not to mention your point score). My experience bears me out on this, because I tanked, Absolutely Tanked, Puzzle 1 (froze up, had a poor time, and had not one but two squares wrong!), and yet the technically more difficult puzzles 2 through 6 I totally aced, and in pretty decent times. All because I stopped caring. Woke up on Sunday morning in a shocking (to me) 149th place, started caring again, and ended up making an error, sending me plummeting to 166th. Two of the three squares I had wrong during the weekend were actually BLANK SQUARES, and the other was one I knew the answer to but had simply failed to correct or revise adequately. So, be methodical, and relaxed. But back to our original chronology...

The big killer in Puzzle 1 was, as I've said, the Due North, which looked like this

E D - M
- - - - A

As you can probably tell, it's all pretty ordinary fill except for one word: ETYMA (9D: Early sources of modern words). I knew ETYMOLOGY, but have never seen the word ETYMA in my life. Now, I could, and did, eventually, piece it together, but for the longest time 6A: Sidewalk eatery (CAFE) and 15A: Parting words? (OBIT) were eluding me. I had DELI and [nothing] respectively. DELI would NOT go away, no matter how much I tried to sweep it from my brain, despite the fact that CAFE is clearly the better word. The VERY part of VERY ANGRY was also troubling, because VERY seemed too innocuous or ordinary a word to be part of long phrase (I had not yet figured out that the theme was YIN AND YANG - or rather, I had, but I had not yet figured out what that meant; namely, that YIN and YANG were embedded in long theme entries, as in VER-YANG-RY, ugh). So that little section broke my back, slowed me down and flustered me so badly that I didn't bother to check the puzzle adequately, resulting in two errors.

Puzzle 2, by Patrick Merrell, was SO much better. A bigger puzzle with a trickier theme (a theme you Had to get to solve the puzzle) and yet I sailed through it fairly smoothly. I need to tell you that before Puzzle 2 started, I Swear To You that before we'd been told to begin, the man next to me on my left, clearly very anxious and high-strung, armed with a massive cache of pencils as well as a weighty Martha Grimes novel, Picked Up His Puzzle (which everyone else had face down on the table, like good girls and boys) and Held It Up To The Light To Try To Read Through It. Cheater! He then coolly put it down like nothing had happened. I literally laughed out loud at this guy, but he was oblivious. He appeared to be the most humorless man on the planet. I wasn't gonna bother calling him on his cheating. I figured I'd just write about it later. And here we are.

Somewhere between Puzzles 2 and 3, Tear Duct Girl lost her writing implement, and so I "lent" her a spare mechanical pencil (but not one of my beloved Pentel E-sharps - nobody touched those but me). I think I gave her some crappy Bic pencil. Anyway, when I'd finished Puzzle 3 and began leaving the room for the lunch break, she looked up at me and held out the pencil - as if I would take it away from her MID-SOLVE! Yeah, and I like to kick puppies, too. Come on! I told her she could keep it, with my compliments. She comically kept trying to give me the pencil back throughout the weekend, but when she'd look in her bag: no pencil. I kept saying "I can afford the 89 cents to buy a new one" but she wouldn't listen. In the end she accepted that the pencil was hers to keep (or lose, apparently) as she saw fit. She acted like I'd given her a kidney. Very sweet, slightly nuts. But back to Puzzle 3.

Puzzle 3, by Cathy Millhauser, was touted as one of the two "hard" puzzles of the tournament - theme answers were all death-related puns. I was so focused on its alleged level of difficulty, that I didn't get that the answers were simply puns for a while - I thought there had to be something more sinister at work (not that puns aren't sinister, but you know what I mean). Once I realized that it was only puns that I was up against, my brain unclenched and I tore through the puzzle. I TIED HOWARD BARKIN ON THIS PUZZLE. This will likely never happen again in my lifetime. It was Howard's worst puzzle (he had errors, I didn't, which is the only reason we tied) and it alone kept him out of the A Finals (scoring errors would keep him out of the B Finals, as you already know). After Puzzle 3 I was feeling good but tired, and went to my room to decompress. Later I would force myself to eat a protein bar and drink a Snapple, just so I'd have some energy for the grueling afternoon, which would include the dreaded PUZZLE #5. More on Saturday afternoon tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 2)

Part 2: "A Beautiful Piece of Norway"

Our first taste of competition came on Friday night, when we amassed in the grand ballroom and were presented with a Norwegian-style crossword (or "Kryssørd," I think). This was immediately following a mini-lecture on Norwegian crosswords, and the crosswording habits of Norwegians, by a very nice lady (Berit Veiset) whose English was not very good - but it was better than my Norwegian, I guess. My team - me, Vi, Dave, and Howard - mostly tuned her out and talked amongst ourselves. It was all weirdly high school, actually; like we were at some assembly where we were supposed to be learning about fire safety or not doing drugs and instead we were whispering and giggling. We did learn that "Ø" is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the shortest proper noun in the world (it's the name of three rivers in Scandinavia, I think). And we learned that - and this is a direct quote - "Norwegians are the most newspaper-reading people in the world." Anyway, I think we should have been paying better attention, as at least some of what Ms. Veiset had to say ended up being relevant to the puzzle we then had to solve (specifically, we had to know how to spell "Kryssørd"!). Rather than spend a lot of time describing how Norwegian crosswords are different from American crosswords, I'll just tell you that Norwegian puzzles are a lot like "Pencil Pointers" such as one might find in Games magazine, and then I will direct you to a page with a definition of "Pencil Pointers." There, done.

The puzzle was in color - Norwegians need something to keep them happy during the long winters - and this one had a large color photo in the NW quadrant of a happy older couple in full traditional garb posing proudly in front of what we later decided was a fjord. Some in my group initially said "river," but eventually we agreed - fjord. The couple looks silly, standing there all alone in nature ... like they got separated from the parade and this was the last known photo of them. The long theme answer in the puzzle, which ran away from the picture in an "L" formation, down and then across the puzzle, was clued something like [What this picture shows], and the answer was "A Beautiful Piece of Norway." I assume that the "piece" refers to the countryside, because that would be an awfully disrespectful way to refer to the woman in the photo. The phrase reads like it was translated from the Norwegian - it's not terribly idiomatic, in English - but the puzzle was written by Frank Longo, who I'm pretty sure is fluent in English, so he has no excuse. Actually, overall, the puzzle was surprisingly fun, and I tore through it. It was nice to get a taste of timed puzzle action before the real event began.

When all the slow pokes had finally finished, it was on to the team competition: 30 "snap" puzzles (one for each year of the tournament's existence), to be completed within an hour time limit. Each puzzle was related to a specific year, beginning with 1978 and continuing through 2007; solving the 2007 puzzle was your final goal, but you needed to solve 1978-2006 (or, as we discovered, most of 1978-2006) to do it, because the code in the 2007 puzzle was clued to the answers for the other puzzles - you needed those answers to crack the code. So we went at the puzzles like sharks after chum, only with perhaps somewhat less efficiency ... there was a lot of flailing, though, so the metaphor kind of holds up. Here's one puzzle, cutely crafted in the form of a Trivial Pursuit card - note how I got GHOSTBUSTERS from "NY," "Bill Murray," "Phantom," and "Marshmallow," but then Howard went back and dutifully (and I might add, unnecessarily) answered the questions I had neglected to answer:

So each puzzle had an answer related to its particular year. For instance, the 1978 puzzle was all about the Sundance Film Festival, which debuted that year, and the answer derived from the puzzle ended up being "Garfield" (another 1978 debut). Some puzzles were easy - the 1978 puzzle just had eight former Sundance films written out, each with one of their words changed to mean its opposite, and then a number followed the fake title, and that number told you which letter of the real word would contribute to the answer you were looking for - So "The Day Listener (3)" ended up being "G" because the real word is not "Day" but "Night" and "G" is the THIRD letter of night. The next title provided "A" and on down until you had GARFIELD. Other puzzles - not so easy. There was one puzzle where two headlines from The Onion were encrypted, and you needed to decipher them in order to solve the "FINAL ANSWER" at the bottom (a "written work first published in 1988" - answer ended up being A Brief History of Time). This was where having Howard Barkin on our team came in handy. When I took a stab at those damned headlines, the only letter I could decipher was "E" - not a lot of help. Howard managed to figure out that "VJNJ" (all caps) had to be NASA, and steadily cracked it from there. This was the last puzzle we solved. However ...

There was some confusion about what being "done" with the puzzle meant. For instance, I had SOUT- in the 1997 puzzle when I realized that the answer was going to be SOUTH PARK - so I didn't bother figuring out why; I just wrote down SOUTH PARK and moved on. I mean, it's not a calculus test - I don't have to show my work, right? Well, not according to Dave and Howard, who were far more fastidious and wanted every detail accounted for. Vi and I were far less punctilious - get an answer, move on! But Howard in particular wanted all ducks in a row. So even when we Had The Final Answer Solved - an imaginary 2007 headline that read something like "Record Attendance at Crossword Tournament Causes Graphite Shortage" - we went back and bothered to solve the two stray years we hadn't figured out yet before turning our puzzle in. And you know what - turns out I was right and it Did Not Matter. Only the correctness of the Final Answer mattered. Thank god, because there's no way I could have showed my work on the 1980 puzzle, where I guessed "Who Shot JR?" with only the fragments R, SH, and TJ in front of me. 1989 was the easiest, as it involved spray-painted phrases that had been broken up and spread all over the page. The author of the graffiti was the answer to the puzzle - the font alone told me at a glance that the answer was BART SIMPSON. But was that good enough for my (male) teammates? Nooooo, they wanted every "i" dotted and "t" crossed. So we lost, I don't know, at least five minutes, probably more, doing work that didn't need to be done. And we still did better than most of the room. The great part was that we didn't have to rely on Howard for everything - each of us completed a significant amount of work, and the whole experience was actually a total blast. Howard was especially happy when one of the first puzzles we unearthed was Douglas Adams-related. I think he had it done inside a minute.

The rest of the night was spent in the bar with Amy and Vi and ... was it Dave? Maybe it was Howard? One of them, but not both. I forget! You'll forgive me for remembering the women who were present better than I remember the men. I hope. I was gonna have a Guinness but Vi ordered Johnnie Walker Red and despite the fact that it came in a fruity-looking snifter, I knew I had to have one. We chatted until just after 1am in this hipster-looking bar with walls that changed colors, and then it was time to try to sleep before the tournament really got underway the next morning. I had a trip to IHOP planned for a pre-tournament breakfast with Amy, Vi, Dave, and Howard, but Amy got me worried that I would lose my space in the parking ramp and then what would I do and would time be an issue and blah blah blah so I decided that night to cancel the IHOP trip (I get sad just thinking about it) and bought everyone breakfast at the hotel restaurant the next morning instead. And that's where Part 3 of "The Stamford Experience" will begin...

PS I've reconfigured this blog so that anyone can post a comment now, not just registered members...

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Stamford Experience (Part 1)

Part 1: "Arrival"

I drove out to Stamford from the made-up town of "Confluence, NY" at about 1pm on Friday, hoping to make it there by just after 4pm, which would give me more than enough time to check in, unpack, perhaps have a shower, and then get down to the lobby to find Amy Reynaldo, with whom I would be sitting at the special "Cru" dinner on Friday night (The "Cru" are just a sizeable group of solvers who frequent the NYT Puzzle Forum, I believe).

The drive went smoothly - superfast, except for the last five miles, which were a crawl through early rush-hour traffic on northbound I-95. Mapquest was perfect ... until I actually got into Stamford, and then the wheels came off. I got lost and had to call the hotel from my car. A very nice woman at the front desk reeled me in, staying on the phone with me and directing me back to the hotel (this was the first time I'd ever driven while talking on my cell phone, as I think it is possibly the most assholish activity that otherwise decent people engage in on a regular basis). With my car safely ensconced in the hotel parking ramp, I wheeled my suitcase through the front doors of the Marriott and immediately recognized Merl Reagle among a gaggle of folks schmoozing in the lounge. It was an odd feeling - walking onto what was essentially the movie set for "Wordplay." Despite the fact that I write in a rather confident, even imperious voice on my crossword blog, I am in reality quite shy and not that great at socializing with folks I don't know at all. Adding to the weird butterflies in my stomach was the anticipation of being "recognized" by "fans" of my blog (sounds preposterous, I know, but it happened). I found myself mildly embarrassed that I had created this fake name - the whole conceit started feeling somewhat juvenile to me all of a sudden. The idea of having this weird, very minor celebrity was stressing me out a bit.

I settled into my room and finally made my way back to the lobby to find and introduce myself to Amy for the first time. She walked past me in the hall and I said "Amy?" but she didn't hear me. So I went to get my name tag (with my real name on it) and then found Amy in a little circle of people in the middle of the lobby. I walked up and introduced myself and there was this very, very awkward moment where she looked at me like I was some random stranger and then it was unclear whether we should hug or shake hands (we had never met, but we talk via email literally every day). So we ended up shaking hands with all the warmth and comfort of, I don't know, let's say Sadat and Begin before Carter got involved. Conversation was a bit awkward, and for the first few seconds there, I felt generally like Quasimodo at a cocktail party. I can't remember if Amy introduced me to Byron Walden or if I just turned to my left and he happened to be there, but he and I started talking and things got very normal very quickly. He was quite easy to talk to - very charming, and quite handsome, especially for a mathematician (no offense, Andrew).

The rest of Friday night was great - in fact, I'd say Friday night was the most enjoyable part of the tournament, in that the tournament hadn't started yet and there was nothing to do but socialize and have fun. Even the games later that night were more like play than serious competition (though some people did "win" those games, I guess - more on that later). Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was talking to Byron, Ellen Ripstein marched right over and introduced herself and was very chatty and kind and told me she knew that I was "Rex Parker" and that she found out about my blog because she had heard Will laughing while he was at his computer once and she had asked him what what he was laughing at. Very flattering. It was so nice to be greeted so warmly, especially by fairly well-known crossword types (Ellen is one of the featured contestants in "Wordplay," in case you didn't know; and Byron is one of the greatest crossword constructors around, and the author of last year's infamous tournament Puzzle #5, which was so brutal that most people could not even finish; I solved a bootleg copy of it earlier this year and it took me 80 minutes - tournament contestants were given only 30).

As for Amy - any awkwardness in our interaction was my fault. I am overly sensitive, and if people aren't actively, demonstratively solicitous of my attention, I tend to think that they wish I would go away. And so I do. As I told her later, I was concerned that I would be an annoying hanger-on (she's quite a star in the world of crosswords, after all), and so eventually I became a conspicuous hanger-off - disappearing shortly after Saturday night's screening of "Wordplay" outtakes and missing my opportunity not only to socialize more with Amy and others, but to socialize with Captain Shortz himself. The next morning Amy said "Will was asking where you were last night." But I'm getting Way ahead of myself. The truth is that Amy looked out for me and repeatedly sought me out during the weekend to see how I was doing and to pass along news / gossip / scandal / horror stories / etc. She gave me access to the inner world of the tournament that I Never would have had otherwise. Ooh, and at the St. Martin's table in the vendors' area, there was a cool little promotional display for Amy's forthcoming book on how to conquer the NYT crossword. We took multiple pictures.

So, the "Cru" dinner on Friday night was adequate, food-wise, and ample, dessert-wise. While waiting in line to get into the dinner, a very gregarious man named Michael (last name now forgotten by me) accosted me and said "Hey, Rex Parker." He was very warm and welcoming and said nice things. Most people I met were like this - just very decent, kind people. That was the overwhelming impression I got of the tournament crowd. There were some noticeable exceptions, but not among any people I spent any significant amount of time with. Had dinner at a table with Amy and Ellen among several others, including two people I'd end up spending a lot more time with that weekend: Howard Barkin and Dave Sullivan.

Howard is one of the greatest solvers in the country - he had the same scores as 3-time champion Tyler Hinman on five out of the seven puzzles, and he had the highest scores in the "B" category, though a judge's error meant that he was erroneously excluded from the "B" finals! Scandal! Error was not discovered until after the 3 finalists had been announced. But Howard is happy with how the whole fiasco was settled - because he is Howard, and while he is a very driven solver, he is amazingly gracious, conciliatory, and shockingly non-competitive. He gave me lots of helpful advice throughout the weekend, both about solving and about enjoying the whole tournament experience.

Dave Sullivan - a friend of Amy's and a (very) proud member of the Cruciverbalists of Boston - was another supernice person, as well as a great solving companion. He was more in my league, solving-wise, than Amy and Howard and Byron, so talking with him about my struggles with the various puzzles felt less ... what's the word? ... oh, yes: humiliating. We both ended up finishing in the top half of contestants as rookies, so hurray for us.

After the "Cru" dinner, we made our way back to the lobby where there was much milling about before the night's main festivities - a Norwegian-style crossword (I only wish I had a scan of the puzzle, because it was Rich) and a team game competition featuring 30 "snap" puzzles (in honor of the tournament's 30th year). Before the festivities commenced, I looked across the gigantic ballroom and noticed Howard directing a woman's attention my way. That woman was none other than Violet Ray, a constant commenter on my blog (as Ultra Vi) whom I'd been eager to meet. I recognized her from a picture I'd seen earlier that day on her faculty webpage (she's a professional violist with a well known quartet as well as Chair of the Music dept. at a major university). I went over and gave her a big hug and somehow, within seconds, we had ourselves a "team" for the night: me, Vi, Dave, and Howard. More on our awesome team in the next installment of "The Stamford Experience."

End Part 1

Tomorrow, Part 2: "A Beautiful Piece of Norway"

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Blueprint

Tom the Dog put forth the following challenge (a music- and movie-related meme that has been making the rounds, apparently) at his website, and having never in any way had anything to do with a meme, I couldn't resist. It was surprisingly fun, if awfully self-indulgent and time-wasting. Here it is:

If your life were a movie, what would the soundtrack be?

1. Open your music library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc).
2. Put it on shuffle.
3. Press play.
4. For every category (see below), type the song that's playing.
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button.
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool.

Here are the categories, and my results / responses:

Opening credits: Duran Duran, “New Religion” - It’s very coolly moodily 80s and quite groovy, almost danceable, but not quite. Crockett & Tubbs might dance to it. Very believable for a period-piece noir film, which is what I want the movie of my life to be. I believe this should be playing over shots of me driving a nearly empty I-10 at 4am: the perfect place and time to appreciate the horrid beauty of Southern California (where I used to live). I’m liking it so much I actually don’t want to press “next”; but I do what I’m told.

Waking up: Liz Phair, “May Queen” – hang on … I’m letting it sink in. Great clangy, loping indie sound and a fabulous chorus. This is when she was in fine mid-90s form, before the album cover where she’s fucking the guitar. I can imagine waking up to it. I think in this montage, my sometime girlfriend is packing up and leaving and I could give a shit. I’m brushing my teeth.

[apparently we flashback to my childhood now...]

First day of school: Ralph’s World, “Emily Miller” - Woo hoo! I actually hit a children’s song! (downloaded for my daughter two years ago). No music. Just the following lyrics: “Emily Miller has fur on her belly and nobody seems to be worried / Emily Miller is bouncing and pouncing and leaping about in a hurry / She climbs on the table and jumps to the sofa / She’s running all over the house / She sits in the window and won’t go to school …” Long story short: “Emily Miller’s a cat.” Perhaps this is a song that my teacher sings to us while I sit in the back of the class, ignoring the song, silently honing whatever skills would eventually make me a competent grifter.

Falling in love: Beethoven, “König Stephan” overture, Op. 117 - for So Many reasons, this does not bode well for my love life. Actually, it begins a bit ominously, but then it has a lilting airiness to it. Very energetic. I think I will travel way back in time to woo an 18th-century girl … or I will fall in love in springtime in New York after hearing the Philharmonic. Maybe I can figure out how to do both.

First love song: James Brown, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – HELL yeah. I am not making this shit up: 5000 songs, and THIS one came up. My movie Rules.

Breaking up – Chopin, “3 Ecossaises,” Op. 72 Nos. 3, 4, &5 – short and sweet! Under 2 minutes of gorgeous, playful solo piano. This suggests that my breakup is traumatic only to her. Score! No attachments, baby. I’ve got grifting to do.

Prom – Wayne Newton, “Danke Schoen” – This is truly a dream soundtrack. I wouldn’t change a thing so far. I think this song DID play at my prom, as my prom was only 1 year after Ferris Bueller came out (and if you saw that movie, you know this song). It’s got the lyric “I recall / Central Park in fall,” so clearly we’re still in the City (how do I end up in L.A.? – let’s find out!)

Mental breakdown – Sonic Youth, “Disappearer” – seriously, some magic genie in my iMac is picking Perfect songs. Again, I’m pretty sure I actually DID break down to this song, circa 1990. From the album Goo. Jebus, the first set of lyrics actually has the word “insane” in it. This should be everyone’s mental breakdown anthem! I think this is the moment NY sours for me, and I decide to seek my fortune / demise out west. I swear to god that the moment I typed that last sentence, the following lyric played: “head on out to Western Starland.” I’m freaking myself out.

Driving – Shawn Colvin, “Round of Blues” – a little sweet for this movie, but fitting: “On a lost highway”; yeah, I can dig it. It’s wistful, so maybe my gritty, devil-may-care exterior is cracking a little bit on my epic drive out West. I am listening to this song as I drive across the Nevada desert. “I see lights in Fat City.” Yes, it’s working. “It’s a new breakthrough / It’s an old breakdown” – sorry Shawn, “breakdown” song is taken.

Flashback – Jim Croce, “Time in a Bottle” – by now you must think I am cheating like crazy to get these songs to make sense. Again, I Swear I’m Not. This song is making my life flash in front of my eyes right now! At this point in the movie, I am clearly drinking myself to oblivion somewhere in Ventura, missing the sweet girlfriend I left in NY, who is no doubt now dating a future dentist named Dwayne.

Getting back together – Bach, Variation 26 from “Goldberg Variations” – what is it with this chick and the classical music she inspires. It’s all chaotic piano playing with her. She is clearly way, way too good for me. Like our relationship, this track is beautiful but brief. She goes back to Dentist Dwayne. But since the next scene is a wedding, I guess she comes back to me after Dwayne dies in a Novocain-related accident, leaving her just enough money to help me start a P.I. business. She becomes my sassy, smart, and exceedingly hot secretary. Don’t be fooled; like Velda from the Mickey Spillane novels, she can and will kick your ass if you try to grab hers.

Wedding – Beatles, “Octopus’s Garden” – What the hell!? Apparently we are married in some kind of grotto, or maybe just offshore, by a salty sea captain.

Birth of child – Indigo Girls, “Andy” – a flat-out gorgeous song. I have no problem naming my little girl Andy. This song sounds almost like a lullaby, though it’s kind of dark … what’s this about a “graveyard” … oh, it’s just part of the scenery – although Andy apparently has beer cans on his/her dashboard, so I don’t know what that means for my daughter’s future. But for now, the song is sadly beautiful.

Final battle – The Decemberists, “Shankill Butchers” – fucking perfect. It’s so slow and creepy: “They’re sharpening their cleavers and their knives / And taking all their whiskey by the pint.” Awesome. This will be playing over alternating shots of me and my enemy (a mob assassin named Travis) prepping for the final showdown. This all has to end on the beach, somehow. My wife takes a bullet intended for me, and I pull a throwing star out of her gorgeous chignon hair-do and flick it with ninja-like precision at Travis’s jugular. I try to save my wife, but it’s too late. With nothing to live for, I walk into the ocean, carrying my wife's body, never to be heard from again … The End?

Death scene – Jay-Z, “Blueprint 2” – “I got my mojo back baby / Oh behave!” Clearly I was faking my own death and will be back in the sequel, which will, as the song title suggests, be called “Blueprint 2.” Which makes this movie’s title: THE BLUEPRINT – Perfect.

Funeral song – Everything But the Girl, “Ugly Little Dreams” – wow, what a downer. ‘There’s some ugly little dreams for pretty girls to buy / and it’s enough to make you mad / but it’s safer just to break down and cry.” Perhaps I am in the background of my own funeral, trench-coated, and weeping that single Indian tear like in the old anti-littering ads. I mourn my dead self – and now, clearly, I must have my Revenge. Fade to black!

End credits – Mono, “Hello Cleveland!” – I guess when I return from the dead, I will do so in Cleveland. Didn’t see that coming. This song is far more somber than it sounds. It’s perfect, actually. Like a very downbeat and jazzier version of the opening credits. O yeah, this will work. This is the kind of dark jazz-electronica hybrid that could easily have been the closing credits for, I don’t know, Mission: Impossible or something. No lyrics. Seems to have elements of various crime drama themes in it. Goodbye California, Hello Cleveland!

I'm now going to burn this CD and play it nonstop.

Happy spring,

Monday, March 19, 2007

So Sweet

I just wanted this URL. Who knows what I will do with this blog!?!?