Saturday, April 25, 2009

Double Crostic

I love words. I love examining them, fighting about them, and playing with them. I may be addicted to crossword puzzles. In a pinch I'll do the Jumble. I used to subscribe to New York Times Puzzle Master Will Shortz' Games Magazine until I discovered that he had another magazine called World of Puzzles that didn't waste space with articles merely talking about games. It is just cover to cover puzzles. Albeit some of them involve numbers or logic or other non-verbal challenges. Sometimes I pick at those like a child with a plate of peas, hoping to hang in until dessert arrives.

Some puzzles in World of Games truly are tasty. There is the Siamese Twins--not a particularly PC name--where two identical grids are provided with two sets of clues. The added challenge is to determine which clue goes to which grid. There is also a crossword in which every box has the potential of receiving one, two, or three letters--very yummy! For some reason I get a kick out of the monthly Crypto-funny--a cartoon written in code that one breaks by intuiting the likely words in part from the drawing.

All these are great appetizers and side dishes, as well as desserts. The entrees to be sure are the standard crossword puzzles, graded by difficulty level with one, two, or three stars. The entree of all entrees, however, is the double acrostic. I have vivid memories of my youth when my mom would be attacking the New York Times Sunday crossword as my dad savored the double acrostic. Everything my dad did was a mystery to me back then. It stands to reason that as I approach him spiritually and chronologically I also come to appreciate his particular fondness for these puzzles.

There truly are days when I turn the page of World of Puzzles, see the double acrostic, and quickly turn the page again. At times they are much more work than I want to do. Then there are days or as in the case just now at three o'clock in the morning, when I can't put them down, especially in the final frenzy of completion after its seemingly impenetrable secret suddenly reveals itself.

It's probable that you have never done one of these. At least I never met anyone, other than my dad, who even knows how they are solved, much less actually has attempted to solve one. So I'll briefly explain the concept. There are two distinct parts to a double acrostic. Hence the phrase double, I suppose. Above there is a rectangular grid with around 200 mostly blank and occasional black boxes. The blank boxes stringed together represent the words of what eventually will be revealed as a quote from a book. The black boxes are the spaces between the words. One determines the letters that go into the blanks by solving a set of clues below.

Below there is a list of 20-odd clues of words, phrases, proper names to be solved. The answers to these are entered above little dashes to the right of each clue. The number of dashes tells the solver the number of letters in the answer. Beneath each dash is a number corresponding to one square in the grid above. After solving for a word below, the solver transfers the letter above each dash to the corresponding box in the grid above. When a critical mass of letters is transferred above it becomes possible to guess how to complete partially revealed words in the grid. For instance if you were to see five boxes with a black square on each side, the first box blank, the next four boxes with the letters "o,u, s and e", you might figure from the context provided by other words in the grid that the missing letter was "H" to form "house" as opposed to "L" or "M". Since each box in addition to being consecutively numbered also has a letter corresponding to one of the lettered clues below, you would then go to the respective row and insert the letter "H" above the dash with the corresponding number. Eventually, by working back and forth between the grid above and the clues below, the full quote, usually humorous or provocative, is determined. The acrostic is the name of the author and the title of the book which is spelled out by the initial letters of the answers to the clues below!

It seems complex, and it is. Sometimes the clues below are easier than other times. The difficulty does not always correspond to the star rating. Often the secret of the double acrostic seems impenetrable. I pick away at it bit by bit, put it down for a day or two, or a month, and come back with fresh insight and get maybe another clue solved. Or a word above becomes apparent and either helps me discover an answer below or proves to me that I have previously guessed wrong at one.

What I truly love about the double acrostic is more than the thrill of finally solving it. I love the metaphor it provides every time as if for the first time. The lesson that with patience, perseverance, blind faith, determination, and plain work, the most dense enigma may be solved. It reminds me of capabilities and qualities that I posses and can apply in other areas of my life. Also, there are the puzzles that never reveal themselves. They do not provide the thrill, just the realization that some of life's mysteries will always prevail.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour 2009

Alone in the company of a chorus of candles.

A smiling crescent in the Western sky looks down on Palo Alto with bemusement.

As in any power outage I wonder--is it just my house? Is it the neighborhood? I was there when the whole East Coast went down in ’65. We had no idea how far the darkness had spread. Tonight is different. This darkness sheds light.

After throwing the main breaker and walking gently into the still house, my first response was--we must do this more often. Why not each Shabbat? What true freedom that would engender. Experience Shabbat as did our ancestors. The quiet. The calm. Much of which must have been common to all their nights. Nights not dominated by power--thousands of superfluous lumens, computer tasks, washing machines, and the most dreadful of all--television.

Ahhhh. So sweet to have this precious time for reflection.

Debbie, off to theater with Karen, undoubtedly knows she is missing a unique evening at home. The sounds of cars rolling down Ross Road tell me many others are missing this as well. I wish they were not.

I sit to embrace this space.
At once the tick tick tick of battery operated clocks announce themselves. Shall I pull the batteries? Are they a violation of this night?
Nah. I will let them be. There’s something profound about storing energy for later use.
I sit.
I chant.
I open my siddur.
I set the ritual objects before me--wine cup, spice container, braided candle.
I utter ancient words of praise--
for sweetness of wine
for aroma of spice
for separation of darkness and light, of the profane and the holy
I bless the week ahead.

Just as the fragrant spices symbolize our prayer for the spirit of Shabbat to permeate our week, I pray that this Earth Hour too lingers on, that its quiet beauty, the awareness it brings, pervades our consciousness in the days and months ahead.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Time to Breathe

I haven’t written in months. And my nervous system is feeling the ill effects.

There are certain lessons I have to keep learning over and over again.

The fundamental truth, as it relates to my general well-being, is that there are four essential elements that I must integrate into my life in order to stay on an even keel. In no special order: writing, meditating, healthy eating, exercise.

To the degree that I am out of balance in most if not all of these areas, it has taken its toll. I am doing a lot of doing, in spurts at least. Being out of balance causes the amplitudes of my emotions and energy to fluctuate to greater extremes than would otherwise be the case. I am wildly enthusiastic, creative and energetic; and periodically much less so.

It’s time to breathe.

I must take time to breathe. Breath would be a very welcome first step to performing all the requisite functions listed above. I used to stop and breath to meditate, to commence writing, to eat consciously, to engage in rigorous exercise to be sure. Starting with a breath. It gives me the pause I need. It fills my lungs, my blood, my brain, my heart with oxygen, with life, with connection to the divine spirit--ruach.

I am happy simply reminding myself to breath. Well...there is that other little thing (not so little). Like what is the nature of life post-Israel Ride? What is the next great thing? I keep looking for it and waiting for it to appear. It reminds me of Peter Senge’s parable about the foundation of existence. Once thought to be fire, air, earth, and water. Then thought to be the elements, then molecules, then atoms, then sub-atomic particles. Eventually scientists found that everything is composed of bits of energy moving in relationship to one another -- no “thing” -- nothing but relationships.

Perhaps my next big thing is also no thing, just relationship--with the Universe, with the planet, with others, with myself. If I keep taking it down to finer and finer levels, like Senge suggested, there is no thing and there is everything. I turn far enough inward I touch the Universe again.

To breath I must slow down. Stop doing, doing, doing.

I love the words of Wilferd Arlan Peterson.


Ease the pounding of my heart by the quieting of my mind. Steady my hurried pace. Give me, amidst the day's confusion, the calmness of the everlasting hills.

Break the tensions of my nerves and muscles with the soothing music of singing streams that live in my memory.

Help me to know the magical, restoring power of sleep. Teach me the art of taking "minute vacations"...slowing down to look at a flower, to chat with a friend, to read a few lines from a good book.

Remind me of the fable of the hare and the tortoise; that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than measuring its speed.

Let me look up at the branches of the towering oak and know that it grew slowly and well. Inspire me to send my own roots down deep into the soil of life's enduring values...that I may grow toward the stars of my greater destiny.

Slow me down, Lord.