Catching Words With Crosswords

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 17, 2017

I like to imagine my conscious mind as a small boat floating on a sea of memories. Words I readily use swim in schools near the surface. I can  grab them quickly. Other words swim deeper, take longer to catch. Some words dwell in the darkest deeps of my memory sea, taking hours to reel in. Doing crossword puzzles helps me catch words I haven held in my mind for a long time. After I release them, they swim close to the boat for a while, making them easier to catch again.


For most of my life crossword puzzles had little appeal for me. I’ve never been good at games. But last year I started doing the mini-puzzles in the New York Times. I liked them because I could actually finish the grid, which I couldn’t with the full-size puzzles. The mini-puzzles provided positive reinforcement, and only took a few minutes. Which is the limit of my gaming patience. As my confidence grew I looked forward to doing the mini-puzzle each day. My wife Susan, who works out of town, does them too. We do them before our last phone call at night, and compare our completion times. I’ve only beaten her once.

Recently the New York Times sent me an sales pitch – get a year of the full-size puzzles for just $19.95. My new sense of crossword ability con my ego into pressing the buy button. As soon as I started the first full-size puzzle I had buyer’s remorse. They were way too hard for me. They were over my head. I did find it satisfying that I could answer many clues, more than ever before, but felt bad about leaving most boxes empty.

I’m not giving up. I just figured I needed more practice. Then my friend Linda told me about the Dell Crosswords puzzle books. I bought one called Easy Crosswords. And they are easy! Maybe too easy. But it’s very encouraging to complete whole puzzles, and they’re more practice than the mini-puzzles. I’ll get to the big puzzles someday.

I noticed something else. Doing the crosswords made me think of words I seldom used. Ones that swam deep in my sea of memories. This must be why the social security set love doing crosswords. I’ve already started my battle of recalling words (which I know I’ll ultimately lose but will fight the good fight anyway). Every year more nouns and names hang out on the tip of my tongue. Which reminds me of a poem by Bill Collins my friend Connell sent me, called, “Forgetfulness.”

The poem begins:

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

In my struggle to recall words, I’m not sure if they completely disappear, or merely sink too deep to be captured. I’m always surprised by forgotten vocabulary suddenly returning. Doing crossword puzzles churn the words in my sea, keeping them near the surface. One scientific study found that doing crosswords could delay the onset of memory loss by 2.54 years. Other studies show elderly minds can retain elasticity and even grow new brain cells and connections, although those studies focus on aerobic activity, and not games.

Then there is the issue of speed. I feel my mind goes slower than other minds. My wife Susan and my friend Linda can do the mini-puzzles 2-5 times faster than I can. That might explain why I’ve never liked games. It makes me wonder if people who think faster are attracted to games. When I first started doing the NYT’s mini-puzzles they took me 5-12 minutes to complete. I now do the easy ones in 2-4 minutes. Susan and Linda often finish in 1-2 minutes, with occasional times below a minute. I think Susan’s best is 43 seconds.

I’m wondering if I think slower than other people. My wife used to get very impatient with me, finishing my sentences before I could. I complained and she’s been more patient. Which is nice of her, but I can tell I’m slowing her down. Maybe that’s why I like writing better than talking. I can say what I want at my own chosen speed.

Anyway, the point of this story is to express my thanks for crossword puzzles. Hope I didn’t take too long in doing it.


14 thoughts on “Catching Words With Crosswords”

  1. Jim, my birthday present every year is my subscription to the NYT Crossword Puzzles.

    You do know that they are easiest on Monday, getting harder until Saturday, which is the hardest of the week? Sunday’s puzzle is bigger, but approximately on the Thursday level of hardness.

    Try doing Monday and Tuesday puzzles for a while and ease yourself into it. If you want to exchange contact info, I could give extra hints on things that stop you. I’m also in Classic Science Fiction Book Club, and did a couple of the challenges on WWE last year.

    1. Thanks, Carla, I will write you. I knew the puzzles got progressively harder during the week, but I didn’t know that the Sunday puzzle was about like the Thursday puzzle, just bigger. That’s probably another reason why I passed over the puzzles because the only time I would get the NYT’s in print was the Sunday edition.

      How long does it take you to the puzzle each day? Do you complete every puzzle of the week?

      1. I’ve been doing them for about 10 years, and I do every puzzle of the week. I do not allow myself to look up answers; I do them onljne, and thus avoid much erasing!

        I can do most Monday/Tuesday ones in 7-9 minutes, but it varies according to the constructor. I don’t watch much TV or go to movies, so the ones with many current entertainment names give me trouble. On the Thursday ones, it is about 11-14 minutes, and Friday/Saturday around 15-19, but again it varies, sometimes much slower and sometimes faster, depending on the constructor. On the easier ones, my times are higher because of my slow typing speed, which is less of a factor on the hard ones. I post my times on Game Center as “mamajulie”, if anyone else is on there.

    2. Jim, I downloaded an app on my Android Tablet called “crosswords” many years ago. It has free crosswords, you can link in your paid sites, like the NYT, and it lets you post your times to Game Center. That’s where I post times. It also let’s you compare your times to others. As I said, I post there under the name “mamajulie.”

  2. Oh my brother; I only used to do puzzles when I was visiting at my folks house (three hours from mine) and sitting on the “throne”. There was always a crossword puzzle book next to the seat. They never complained when I finished a couple pages, so I always assumed they either didn’t notice, or really didn’t care.
    My past practice at home was to have a book in process handy for such instances, although I never spent much time reading it due to real world constraints on my time.

    Apparently my internal organs have figured out that I retired and so they have become more insistent on my personal and intentional participation in internal housekeeping. I’ve been doing the local paper’s crossword puzzles for the past year or so, including the NYT – when I have the time. Sometimes those MFs (aka end-of-the-week) puzzles make me wish I could meet the writers for a mild discussion.

    I don’t use reference books, nor would I ever. It’s just a personal thing; I can look anything up, but where’s the fun in that? So, when I read through 10-20 of their “clues” and my mind is a complete blank I just fold up the paper and toss it into the recycle bin. Kind of like the current political issues in the papers.

    Well, that last comment should make my point of view in general pretty clear. As an old guy, I’m not nearly as open-minded as I could be. And yet, considering the time I have left I think that spending it exactly as I wish to is a better choice than pitching an argument about how a crossword puzzle should be built.

    1. Well, Jim, you’ve given me an idea. I’m going to buy a crossword puzzle book and leave it in my bathroom to see if any of my guests want to linger there. It will be amusing if they start wanting to go to the bathroom more.

      I generally don’t look stuff up either, but I will sometimes just because I’m curious of the answer. On the NYT mini-puzzles and the Dell easy puzzles, I can generally finish by working around the words I don’t know. But on the big NYT puzzles, I know so few of the clues that I can’t do that.

      I’m too much of a novice to comment on puzzle construction yet, but I am starting to see their cleverness.

  3. Jim,

    I’m very erratic in that at times I do them and ignore them at other times. I don’t think I’ve done one in years? now. I can see that they may be valuable in maintaining vocabulary, something I’m finding to be a problem, mostly in the retrieval area. “Use it or lose it” seems to be the theme right now. Maybe I’ll check into getting a puzzle book sometime. . .

  4. James, I became a bit fixated on this lyrical blog post of yours, and retrieved a little poem from the depths. Best if I don’t give a link, but you’ll find it on my blog Write Into Life, called Fishing The Grid. I hope you feel flattered rather than, well, anything else.

    1. Thanks, Denise. I learned something the other day. I saw an article about when we peak at different physical and mental abilities. It said for vocabulary, we peak at 71. So maybe I’m doing okay even with forgetting a lot of words.

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