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Pandemic Life: I Guess We’re at the Crossword Puzzle Phase

With our previously-scheduled pandemic reemergence on pause, the beautifully dull crossword puzzle has somehow become the most thrilling thing in my life.

Tony Wilson

I don’t know about you, but until writing this blog, I’d sort of lost track of precisely how long it had been since the pandemic and the “lockdown” “began.” It’s not like I’d stopped paying attention or caring, but sometime after the one year mark, when the promise of vaccines gave way to news of the Delta variant, surging cases, and the persistence of anti-vaxxers in the face of them both, marking time started to feel a bit useless. The 2020 panic became a 2021 state of being. All that said, if we’re using March 2020 as a rough starting point, we’re now in month 17 of this. 

It’s been a long, frustrating, and devastating 17 months, and despite the very real joy that came with vaccinations, we are now once again finding ourselves receding as numbers nationwide rise to where they were in January. This was supposed to be “Hot Vax Summer.” Instead:

I know this isn’t true for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s even entirely true for me. (And all of this is said with the acknowledgment that I have been deeply lucky regarding coronavirus.) Those of us who are recently vaccinated are seeing friends and family with far greater frequency and intimacy than we did all of last year, and the mental health boost that comes from knowing your loved ones are vaccinated and safe is huge. But the sorrow of 2021 is quieter and different.

For me, last year was trauma and survival mode. This year, it’s fatigue and acceptance that getting “through this” might not look how I thought it did, and that whatever it will look like might take years. Many of my friends and coworkers have found themselves in a whole new kind of depression this year, ranging from complete burnout to full-blown existential crises (hello). 

As such, our pandemic selves continue to evolve. And my pandemic self has entered the crossword phase. I’d dabbled a bit in crosswords over the years, but sometime in July, my husband and I took a deliberate and direct detour in the deranged (I say it with love!!) world of word puzzles. In conjunction with a few days off and a social media break, we started doing the iconic New York Times crossword. A couple of days in, and $40 later, we’d found ourselves identifying as subscribers and straight-up fiends. 

Now, six-ish weeks later, the practice has become something of a compulsion. We’re not very good if I’m being honest, but it also truly doesn’t matter. We’re learning the ways of the puzzle, and with each passing day, allowing it to teach us how to approach it with greater wisdom and efficiency. We’re delighting in oft-used words like GNC, PTA, SNL, era, dodo, Oreo, iris, (Kate) Upton, Hmong, “ah ha,” Nas, Otto, thresh, oboe, and “psst.” We’re scoffing at the frickin’ unrelenting presence of French words and the near absence of any other words from any other language?? We’re whispering “good one” over and over again at a glowing iPad screen.

Is this completely boring? Yes!! That is the point!!! Never in my life have I so relished a means of being completely in the moment with such incredibly low stakes attached. I guess that’s what a hobby is (??), but as I’ve said before, I haven’t fared too well with those during pandemic times. As with any video or card or board game or a literal puzzle, the crossword presents a problem we can solve in anywhere from mere seconds (for the minis) to uh, a couple of hours (like I said, we’re not very good). For true heads, I hate to admit it so publicly here, but the insanely popular Spelling Bee is a constant source of shame and as such, I hate it. 

As I became entrenched in this newfound sense of identity and purpose over the last few weeks, I started reading more about the craft and history of crosswords, and nearly cried when I learned that my reliance on them during this time of global trauma is itself part of its storied tradition. The crossword was invented in 1913 by Arthur Wynne, the British-born editor of the New York World, just seven months before the start of World War I as a way to fill space in the colorful, so-called “FUN” section of the newspaper. The idea, originally called “word-cross,” was a hit and caught on in papers across the country, but the absolute snobs at The New York Times thought the whole thing was a craze that was beneath them and their very high brows. 

The paper resisted for years, and it actually took World II for the Times to relent on its anti-crossword stance. After Pearl Harbor, Margaret Petherbridge Farrar—who was the first Times crossword editor and was foundational in refining the form as we know it today—wrote to the paper’s then-publisher: “I don’t think I have to sell you on the increased demand for this type of pastime in an increasingly worried world,” she wrote. “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword.”

Whew. It was true then and it’s true now. Aside from the very real opportunity the crossword offers in detaching from reality, it has also become a surprising source of socialization. I now have full on conversations with friends and family in person, via text, and in the DMs about the damn puzzle. We compare times on the app’s leaderboard. We did a particularly hard puzzle with my dad, a longtime crossworder, during a recent visit home—my first one since the pandemic hit. The whole thing has become a welcome brain disease that we actively wish upon our most beloved. 

The other day my dad actually called me while we were working on Sunday’s puzzle. 

“Did I wake you up?” he said. (He always asks this.)

“No, we’re doing the crossword,” I said. 

“Ah, I’ve been doing them more recently too,” he said. “Doesn’t it just feel great when you finally get a tough word? Doesn’t it just feel great?” 

“It does,” I said.

It does.

What else are you doing in the (spiritual) 1000th month of the pandemic to feel okay? Any tips or suggestions for a relative crossword newbie? And also, would you like to join my crossword cult? I could really use a French speaker.