The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
There is something vaguely romantic about crossword puzzles. Perhaps it’s the fact that just sitting down to do one is an indulgence the majority of us don’t tend to afford ourselves in these time-strapped days, iWhatever days.
Next year, the beloved brainiac institution turns 100. The first-ever “word-cross” puzzle was created by a Liverpudlian journalist named Arthur Wynne and published in the Dec. 21, 1913, edition of New York World. There were some early tweaks (originally the puzzles were diamond-shaped), but for the most part the grid-based mind-bender has remained unaltered.
And it has endured in an increasingly competitive market – word game apps are all the rage these days, many of them designed to suit shrinking attention spans and less-than-impressive vocabulary skills. Crosswords, on the other hand, require concentration, commitment and a willingness to resist the urge to just Google whatever our brain doesn’t spit out in two seconds.
Maybe it’s just me, but in our ideal lives don’t we all spend Sunday mornings lying in bed, sipping a French-press coffee and noodling away at The New York Times crossword? Soft lighting, silk pyjamas, Édith Piaf playing on an antique gramophone … okay, the reality isn’t quite so rose-tinted, but I decided to spend a week puzzling over the daily crossword.
Pencil is another word for cheater
Because each day tends to get away from me, I decided that attacking the crossword would be the first thing I did every morning – before e-mail thrust me into the realities and obligations of the hours ahead. I also set a time limit, since I couldn’t ignore said realities altogether.
On day one, I poured a coffee and grabbed a pencil, thinking that was the most appropriate writing instrument. Apparently not. My boyfriend, who is a seasoned crossword solver, explained that doing the puzzle in ink is all part of the experience. Apparently, the actor and puzzle devotee Jerry Orbach used to say that using a pencil qualified as cheating. Who was I to argue with the moral compass of Detective Lennie Briscoe?
I’d love to say this was one of those fish-to-water experiences where I excelled from the get-go – I am a writer, after all, so it stands to reason that I should be halfway decent at word games. Instead it was a battle punctuated by periods of extreme frustration (eight-letter word for askew?) and moments of extreme elation (cockeyed!). When I was stuck on a clue, I could actually feel my brain operating like a rusty old crank, but as the week progressed, the wheels churned a little smoother.
Giving the cerebrum a workout
Puzzles are a form of cerebral exercise, so I suppose all these mental pushups were building muscle. I was also enjoying myself, and not just for the dopamine rush. Devoting the first part of my day to a single, solvable activity was the intellectual equivalent of eating my Wheaties. After doing a puzzle I felt calm and capable of facing the workday ahead. I may have been behind on a deadline and buried under a pile of laundry, but at least I had solved 13 across.
According to Dr. Marcel Danesi, a University of Toronto professor who authored a study called The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life, creating order in the midst of confusion is a key part of the appeal. “It’s all about you, using your own mind, without any method or schema, to restore order from chaos. … And once you have, you can sit back and say, ‘Hey, the rest of my life may be a disaster, but at least I have a solution,’” he told The New York Times. Another great argument for becoming a puzzle person involves ritual mental exercise as a way to stave off brain decay and maybe even dementia. Scientists continue to disagree about this connection, but common sense tells us that a half-hour spent mentally engaged in a crossword has to be preferable to an episode of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
In a week, I never completed a puzzle. I came close, though, and already I can see how regular people turn into the junkie-type figures featured in the 2006 crossword documentary Wordplay. (Wow, do those people take their crossword completion seriously.) Fact is, I would never drink coffee in bed and I don’t own a single Édith Piaf album, but I would dearly love to fill in the last clue on a crossword. In pen, of course.
The next challenge: The mayor of Newark, N.J., just pledged to spend one week living on a food-stamp budget (under $5 a day) to raise awareness of poverty and hunger. Can you do the same? If a week is too long, try just a day. Let us know at fb.me/globelifestream.