Back when I was editor of the erstwhile Hibbing Daily Tribune, the most passionate phone calls came after printing errors on the daily crossword puzzle. At the time I compared these angry puzzlers to junkies. I rationalized our error by telling myself that perhaps these lost souls needed a wake-up call just like this to realize the depth of their addiction.
Then, years later, I started doing the crossword puzzles and became one of the very monsters I once mocked. When I was a kid I skipped straight to the sports page. As a young adult I focused on the news. But now, both are just protective coverings for the puzzles. The fact that my Mesabi Tribune column now appears in the same section as the Sunday crossword is a high honor.
Over the last few years I’ve gotten pretty good at crosswords. The New York Times puzzles start easy on Monday and then get harder through the week. I can knock down everything before Thursday pretty easily, and can do the rest when I have time to really focus. My personal rule is to complete the puzzle without aid of the internet or books.
Crossword puzzles follow a strange code. Certain words remain in use only because of crossword puzzle clues. Oleo. Shea Stadium. Jai Alai. Eos, the Dawn Goddess. Somewhat notable people with short, vowel-laden names might live forever in crosswords. Just like eels.
Some clues are really just riddles. I get mad at the Times when they throw in double-letters, symbols and numbers. I don’t like gimmicks. The whole enterprise is only possible because the English language is so weirdly overloaded with puns, euphemisms and idioms.
But this whole time I’ve been visiting the puzzle pages of this and other newspapers, I’ve always steered clear of the Sudoku. Those puzzles involve numbers, and I’ve never been one for math. But in truth, Sudoku doesn’t use math at all. It’s just a logic game.
Every time I’d ever tried to do a Sudoku I felt like a kid trying to use The Force to move his backpack. It just didn’t click. But then this year I had a breakthrough. I finally looked at a Sudoku and saw some of the patterns that help solve the puzzle.
I started to see symbolic connections between the numbers 1-9, and how they must appear in every row and column, and within each of nine square boxes.
For instance, I thought about how Sudoko was like local politics. Each little number became one of the good old boys you have to line up in the right place. Certain numbers can’t be in the same box together, but when that happens you can get what you need from another box. That helped.
I also thought about how Sudoku was like science. You set a hypothesis like “The 2 goes there,” and then test the results. Sometimes you go along and realize your theories were all wrong. Then you are denied tenure.
Sometimes, on one of those one-star easy puzzles, I felt like one of those math geniuses, scrawling an elegant solution to some complex equation on a massive chalkboard. Perpetual motion machine? It IS possible.
However, my newfound success came with a dose of humility. While I can complete easy and medium difficulty Sudoku puzzles, harder ones remain out of my reach. Every effort to complete the most challenging puzzles has ended in failure.
Furthermore, I noticed how my state of mind — stress, alertness, distraction — dramatically influenced how well I could do the puzzle. My brain is like a computer, alright, but one that could probably use a RAM upgrade to run better.
It’s one thing to accept that you’re not the world’s smartest person in the abstract. After all, you can still walk around thinking you’re smarter than the people you meet. Most people feel this way even though half of us are, in statistical terms, below average.
But knowing that there’s a puzzle in the newspaper that marks the clear delineation between what your mind is capable of and what it isn’t? That’s heavy. That’s like knowing the date of your demise, not just the rough idea that it will happen eventually.
I’m only kinda smart. That’s what Sudoku taught me. And perhaps that’s a reminder we could all use.