Sunday, December 14, 2003

Asta, Oona and Me

It is a generally accepted fact among my friends that I am a certified nerd. I follow the National Scrabble Championship with the intensity most people reserve for the World Series. I have no clue who is playing in the Super Bowl next month; in fact the only reason I am even aware that this is football season is because the games pre-empt my nightly Jeopardy ritual on Mondays, which annoys me no end. But even my close friends might be surprised by the level of my obsession with crossword puzzles.

In college my roommate and I used to argue each week over who got to solve the puzzle in the back of the TV Guide. To tide myself over during the times when I lost the flip of the coin, I began attempting the dailies in the S.F. Chronicle Datebook. It was there that I became familiar with the basics of "crosswordese." I could barely find North America on a map, but soon learned to identify the EBRO, ODER and YSER rivers in a grid, as well as a number of other world landmarks from ETNA to the URALS. I mastered the subtle difference between OLEO and OLIO, and could even conjugate rudimentary Latin (okay, only the word “love” - as in “Amo, Amas, I love a lass”).

After I got married and moved back to the Bay Area, doing the Friday New York Times puzzle together with my dad became a key component of our Shabbat observance. We developed personal favorites among the various constructors, admiring the wide-open grids of Manny Nosowsky and the clever wordplay of Patrick Berry and Liz Gorski. Much to the irritation of the rest of our family, we began to pepper our conversations with phrases like “Please pass the EWER,” and “Alright already, I’ll empty the dishwasher, quit treating me like an ESNE!” From this, it was a short step to signing up for the NYT Crossword Puzzle Forum, installing AcrossLite on our computers, and eventually laying out the forty bucks to subscribe to the New York Times on the web, granting us access to new puzzles on the day they are published, rather than waiting a few weeks for them to appear in our local paper.

Sometimes my habit gets a little out of control, as when I spent a good part of our vacation in the Gold Country dragging my husband on a quest to find a working ADIT to photograph. And I’ll admit that I won’t win any parenting awards for my regular habit of plopping the kids in front of the TV, still in their pajamas with oatmeal-smeared faces, and forcing them to watch another round of “It’s a Wiggly Wiggly World” while I sneak off to Google the trickiest clues in the Saturday challenger. But doing the puzzles has enriched my life in many ways – and possibly staved off Alzheimer's in the process. For instance it was the constant mention of Nick and Nora Charles (and their little dog, Asta) that turned me on to the wonderful Thin Man movies, and I never would have picked up a delicious Perry Mason mystery if I hadn’t been so curious about the ever-present Erle Stanley Gardner. I even learned fun facts to show off at cocktail parties (that is, if I am ever invited to one). Who wouldn't be fascinated to know that Eugene O'Neill's daughter Oona later went on to marry Charlie Chaplin?

In at least one way, doing the puzzles has made me appear slightly less nerdy. When a new manger for the SF Giants was announced, I was gratified to see that the name was one I was deeply familiar with. “Oh yes, Felipe Alou!” I commented to my flabbergasted acquaintances. “Well that’s no surprise, seeing as how he and Matty and Jesus go WAY back with the team!” Turning my back on their gaping mouths, I took off to relax with the Sunday Times, where I like to tackle the puzzle while enjoying a cup of strong coffee and listening to the song stylings of the great "FIRST LADY OF SCAT" (Ella, that is).