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Puzzling summer

| Friday, September 14, 2018

“I have measured my life in coffee spoons.” — T.S. Eliot

Much as Eliot felt the need to verbalize his frustration with his place in the universe through the minute lens in which his anxious protagonist was forced to view his own life, I would like to try and summarize MY recent experience with the edit “I have measured my life in crossword puzzles.

Like many a college student, this summer was spent in the toils of the Summer Internship Experience. Regardless of your major or career path, chances are you also wasted your last summer of youthful ignorance in such an internship. This “necessary step,” this crucial piece of the post-college employment puzzle, mostly involved me sitting in front of a computer — actually, two computers (don’t be jealous, we can’t all be high rollers) — doing absolutely nothing. After the first three days, when I had read every article ever published online and attempted several times to get onto Netflix despite the company block, I was in trouble. Faced with 9 1/2 weeks of being alone with my thoughts, I sought drastic action. I bought a subscription to the New York Times crossword puzzle.

I like a good word game as much as the next kid, but this summer the NYT puzzle became more than an idle mental exercise. It became a lifeline. Through that puzzle, I was assured that my brain, thoroughly numbed by boredom and silence, was not actually dying on me. I still have a year of school left, after all. Every morning, I walked into my office, stealthily averted eye-contact with my colleagues — lest they get ideas that I have a strong desire to see more pictures of their children or chat about the weather — settled into my chair and logged in.

The greatest thing about this puzzle is that it is both consistent and ever-changing. From week to week, you can expect easy puzzles on Monday, and then progressively more challenging games throughout the week. There is always a gimmick to each puzzle, a certain rhyme or reason to the clues given, and once you can figure that out, it is usually smooth sailing through the rest of the game. At the same time, you can know with certainty that you’ll be faced with new words and clues every day, and there is a particular artistry behind the way the author chose how to fit the words around each other. Side note — I’ve always wondered if the creators come up with the clues and words first and then arrange them, or if they have an arrangement in mind first. Is there any method to their madness?

The only problem with such a distraction is that, without fail, each puzzle ends up containing certain words or clues that strike a nerve in my fragile psyche. This inevitably results in me spiraling into deep thought — the enemy to someone who is lacking a firm grip on reality and has no idea what she wants to do with her life.

Take, for instance, a lighthearted clue such as “a setting in ‘The Return of the Jedi.’” Rather than simply enter the correct answer, my brain is on the fast-track to dangerous thoughts: “Gosh, ‘Star Wars’ … what a great concept. Why didn’t I think of that? Why am I sitting at a desk when my dream is to write or produce film? What will it be like when I become a famous celebrity? Will I donate enough to the poor and be nice to my adoring fans?” This clue was actually followed by another clue, to which the answer was “showbiz.” See the problem? The fact that I have the ridiculous dream of making movies makes my reality of wasting precious time sitting at a desk watching the clock tick seem even more unbearable. It seems I can find a way to tie any answer back to my current state of senior-year existential crisis.

There are typically a few impossibly difficult questions thrown in there, usually involving foreign geography, classic literature or famous figures from centuries past — these, I tend to skip. It’s always a breath of fresh air when I get to pop-culture clues. Except, of course, this inspires a bout of self-admonition induced by the fact that I can name any film that features Tom Hardy or any One Direction song ever recorded, but I can’t name a single Nobel Prize winner. Not a single one. I wonder if anyone can answer those pretentious-type questions without Google or if the New York Times staffers just relish in making their readers feel ignorant.

Then we get to the adjectives. Nothing does my mind dirty like a few adjective clues. For instance, “senile” (elderly) brings to mind the terrifying image of my face on a decrepit, immobile body, still sitting at my desk, drinking awful coffee. On the other hand, “quirky” (one outside the box) takes me in the direction of possibility — it’s not too late to defy standards, stick it to corporate America and hit the road less travelled. Writing stories or telling jokes for a living — this fantasy is usually interrupted by a coworker calling me by the wrong name and telling me how nice the weather is today.

Day by day, square by square, each puzzle takes me down a different path of thought. If I’m lucky, at least an hour will pass before I finish and am forced to find something else to online shop for. I think I’ll keep up with my crossword habit. It’s good at keeping the brain sharp, and if nothing else, helps at O’Rourke’s on a Monday night. Besides, since I am no longer chained to a desk by the luminous façade of a lucrative corporate career, I can always shut my laptop and turn on the TV when my thoughts begin to wander toward the uneasy. I wonder, if J. Alfred Prufrock had Netflix as an existential escape, would he have been such a mess?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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