Monday, August 2, 2010


The number FIFTEEN is to the crossword world what TEN is to the Dewey Decimal System.  FIFTEEN is the stealth number that's always on high alert -- agile, ninja-like, crouching in the shadows, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.

I'm always happy to meet experienced solvers who've never noticed or cared that the daily crossword puzzle represents a 15 x 15-box landscape. As long as the solving is fun, who cares about the stats? No need to know.

And why would one need to know that CROSSWORD PUZZLE itself is a 15-letter word?

Or that grid-crucial IDES refers to the 15th day of the month?  This comes in handy only if your name is Caesar. (He should have called in sick that day.)

If you spilled your first cup of extra-hot morning coffee on your laptop -- thus rendering you caffeine-deprived (very dangerous) and puzzleless (tragic) -- it's useless to note that the spill originated from your FIFTEEN-oz. "Blogging" mug that says: Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.

And so, you stumble about your day and play a friendly after-work tennis game with your boss.  He wins the first point, FIFTEEN . . . and then game, set, match.  Afterwards, at the pub, you rack up FIFTEEN billiard balls in a pick-up pool game with the same boss.

He demolishes you in pool (I have to let him win, right?) and wins the friendly 15-dollar bet.  As you hand over the cash, your boss drags you onto the Karaoke Night stage and makes you perform FIFTEEN -- the Taylor Swift megahit that, when listened to repeatedly, has medical applications as a pharmaceutical-grade purgative.

It wasn't always this bad. I never noticed FIFTEENs back in the day . . . until "it" happened on a warm summer night in 1995.  On my way home from rehearsal, after a 1 a.m. visit to the all-night market . . . I swung by the news stand to pick up the early edition of The New York Times.  On the corner of 110th and Broadway, I paused to peek at the crossword page, hoping to see "it."

I'd been looking for it for months. Finally! There it was, my first puzzle in The Times.  It was July 31, 1995 . . . fifteen years ago.


Ask any constructor about their first byline, and watch his/her face assume a post-coital glow. Be prepared for a detailed account. You never forget your first newspaper byline. That's graduation day. It marks your transition from the murky "anything goes" self-published arena to an established literary space where people (other than your biological parents and the person who received one of your donated kidneys) like your work, and are willing to pay for it.

Suddenly, you're legit. Manny Nosowsky writes nice things about you on the NYT Forum. You feel a goofy thrill just knowing that the 15 x 15 idea started in your nerdy brain. It doesn't matter that a only a handful of folks noticed your FIFTEEN minutes of low-impact fame on that day . . . that was your first byline. You earned the right to make a scene. That was you, jumping up and down at the news stand, on a summer's night in 1995, holding the newspaper high above your head . . . as you tossed your virtual mortarboard into the skies above B'way and 110th Street. Cool.

If one is to write and construct puzzles for any length of time, it helps to be a little bit "off" . . . slightly nutty and out there. My soul brother and favorite songwriter, Rob Thomas, says it best:

I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell . . .  


Joanne said...

I've done the Times Puzzles many a time and I'm ashamed to say I never counted the number of spaces in the grid. Oy.

It's funny how one number can play such a large role in your life. Congrats on fifteen years of puzzle making!

Theresa a/k/a Terry said...

Happy Anniversary!

Orange said...

Happy puzzleversary, Liz! What a treat to have another of your puzzles during your anniversary week.

Elizabeth said...

@Terry and Orange, thanks so much for your puzzleversary wishes!

This is a good time to introduce Joanne, who writes an amazing food/life/everything blog, "Eats Well With Others." Joanne is 23, super-intelligent (in the PhD/MD program at NYU) and plans to do cancer research.

Joanne, I'm elated that you never noticed the number of spaces in the puzzle grid. You've proved a valuable point -- some stats don't matter. I'm glad to learn that you're an NYT solver . . . yay!

Elizabeth said...

Oops . . . my bad! I meant to write that Joanne is part of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD/PhD program.

I apologize, Joanne. I'm so impressed by your achievements!

Joon said...

congrats liz1 today's puzzle is a fittingly elegant tribute to 15 years of wonderful puzzles.

Elizabeth said...

Many thanks Joon! I enjoyed the Facebook photos of Sarah -- absolutely beautiful. Congratulations to you and Caroline.

DK Fennell said...


Congrats on your anniversary. Hard to believe you started puzzling 15 years ago when you must have been around 12.

Anyway, my anniversary present for word geeks: 15 is the largest number of letters in an English word that doesn't repeat a letter: uncopyrightable and dermatoglyphics. I don't know this for a fact, only from this site. Everything I know is from the internet.


Elizabeth said...

Darrell, I'm glad you set the record straight; people think that I started at 11 . . .the truth is, I was a late bloomer. I started at 12.


You taught me a new word -- DERMATOGLYPHICS (the scientific study of fingerprints). Somehow they seem connected . . . is the scientific study of fingerprints copyrightable? Hmmmmm ....

Elizabeth said...

. . . or UNcopyrightable?

Gareth Bain said...

Wow, 15 years! I was 8 then!! Sure you've seen this: It confirms you're number one!

BTW, always jealous of people who've actually held a newspaper in their hands with their crossword in!

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Gareth! It's funny how much has changed in 15 years -- the NYT published an early edition; we'd buy the next day's paper at 10 PM, off the news stand. No more!

But on-line is so much better -- larger audience for puzzles, no?