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.