By ice rivers
Way back in another lifetime, when I was teaching kids how to write, my class used to do the New York Times crossword puzzle together every other Monday. The puzzle gets more cryptic, arcane and oblique as the week continues. Monday is fair game for high schoolers working in tandem. Tuesday's puzzle maybe. Saturday's forget about it. Maybe that's why we don't have school on Saturdays except for Breakfast Clubbers who are puzzled and puzzling enough with or without crosswords.
I always told my writing students that writers need to know something about everything and then need the vocabulary to articulate what they know by choosing the exact right word for the right place. Close is good but no cigar. Crossword puzzles serve as an exercise not only in vocabulary and exactitude but also in breadth of knowledge.
Crossword puzzles are to writers what shadow boxing is to boxers or what ping pong is to tennis players or driving ranges to golfers, a truncated version of a more pervasive obsession. Aside from their value as literary barbells, crosswords teach one of life's most valuable lessons. If you have one wrong word or a right word in the wrong place, it screws up the rest of the puzzle. We can't insist that a word is right if it is wrong. Will power only extends so far. It can't be right simply because we want it to be right and we're good people. That's called willfullness. In the words of Johnny C, "if it don't fit, you must acquit". Somewhere in all puzzles, before we abandon original thinking or stick with our misconceptions, we confront wavering allegiance to a shady word choice. Since most of our lives are spent re-inforcing our own biases, wavering allegiance is a frightening flourish of vulnerability. In America, especially in politics, it's all about being "right" first and then sticking with that righteousness in the face of hell or high water, fire and fury.
Wavering allegiance is a forerunner to change. All change includes loss and all loss requires mourning. Who wants to mourn? Who wants to admit a mistake? In politics, to flip is to flop.
So when we stick with wrong words in Crosswords, we never solve the puzzle or the problem contained within the puzzle, a problem that grows more pressing with every passing day. Usually national problems come in the form of dollars and cents, bread and butter, black and white , war and peace, red and blue.
Hey if we come to a cross roads where we should turn right and instead turn left, don't worry if we drive completely around the world we'll end up going the right, right way.
Once upon a time on my way to Iowa from South Dakota, I made a wrong turn and drove halfway through Minnesota.
With a crossword puzzle, we can just take out an eraser. With a war, with poverty, with racism, with recession, with division we need something more than rubber at the forgiveness end of a pointed stick of lead. Every day seems like a Saturday crossword.