Journeying through life with a puzzle person

July 15, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Recently on a glorious summer afternoon, my wife and I were driving through the Maryland countryside. We had floated across the Wicomico River on the quaint three-car Whitehaven Ferry. Verdant fields flanked the scenic two-lane stretch of country road we eased along. Magnificent trees swayed in the wind. A large hawk, perhaps an osprey, soared above us.

In the midst of this pastoral splendor, my wife turned to me, gave me a long, meaningful look and said, "I need a four-letter river in Italy."

That is how life goes when you live with a puzzle person. This is person obsessed with completing the crossword puzzle printed in the morning paper. You might be this person's partner in life, but for a few hours on weekend mornings you exist only to provide an occasional answer, to fill in a blank spot.

This summer, like many before it, we have developed a routine for our long weekend drives. I drive while my wife puzzles, working with the Saturday or Sunday crosswords.

From time to time, I am asked to confirm sports information. Mostly I strike out, but sometimes I have provided information that was deemed helpful. En route to the ocean, I once verified that Rosey Grier, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones were indeed the "Fearsome Foursome" who played defensive line for the Los Angeles Rams.

Another time, as the car crossed the sparkling waters of the Chesapeake Bay, I recalled correctly that Dick Martin was a host of Laugh-In. Somewhere in the fields of Somerset County, it was determined that Arno was the four-letter Italian river.

I do not share the puzzle passion. Some weeks ago I saw a trailer for Wordplay. This is a documentary that centers on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., presided over by Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles.

According to Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, the film shows that to be a crossword-puzzle champion you have "to be incredibly intelligent; be capable of intuitive, lateral thinking; know everything, and focus your knowledge into a narrow and ultimately meaningless pursuit."

Right away I figured Wordplay fell into the "her movie" category. This meant that my wife would either see it without me or, if I did accompany her, she would then "owe" me attendance at a movie that I wanted to see.

Last weekend, we went to see what I call a "compromise" movie. It was The Devil Wears Prada. My wife was interested in the story. I was interested in watching Meryl Streep. The film was about to start when my wife realized Wordplay was showing in the same movie house. For a moment, I thought she was going to bolt to chase the brainy bunch down the hall, leaving me in the dark with Meryl. The only thing that stopped her, I think, was the fact that the crossword flick was not going to start for about another 40 minutes.

I grew up in a home that had a puzzle person. At the end of the day, my mother would put her feet up and fill in the crossword puzzle in The Kansas City Star. I tried once or twice, under her tutelage, to fill one out. But I never got the hang of it. The clues seemed to be written in code.

"What's this clue about a Polish river?" I would ask her. That is just one of those crossword-puzzle tricks, she would explain, as she penciled in "woda." In addition to the many things she taught me, my mother also passed along the fact that "Po," another crossword-puzzle favorite, is a two-letter river in Italy.

When my mother came to visit us, she and my wife would function as a crossword-puzzle team. One would start a puzzle, set it down in frustration, then the other would pick it up and fill in more blanks. Now that my mother is gone, my wife is pretty much on her own as she tackles The New York Times puzzle. My sons and I have learned that until the puzzle is solved, we can be asked any question without any preamble.

Yes, we say, as we eat breakfast, Brooks Robinson played 23 years for the O- R- I O- L- E- S. That is right, I nod, an E-M-U has lean meat.

They are a strange breed, these puzzle people. Their ranks, according to Wordplay, include Mike Mussina, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole and Jon Stewart.

When they figure out the critic's pan of a Jim Morrison rock concert is "stand clear of the doors," they howl with delight. The rest of us just keep driving.

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