I never saw my own father do anything poorly. Anything I ever saw him do, I saw him do easily, competently, with assurance. I never saw him fail at anything. It probably helped that I never saw him do anything he hadn’t done a hundred times before.
It’s Friday evening, March 7 as I write this, and failure is very much on my mind. I write tonight from Brooklyn Heights, on the eve of the 37th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. This tournament is a big deal. Roughly 600 people gather from all over North America, even from across the globe, to spend a weekend solving crossword puzzles. Will Shortz, puzzle editor of the New York Times, familiar voice to NPR Weekend Edition listeners, will host this weekend, as he has from the beginning. He’s a really nice guy, by the way, and very patient with fan-boys and -girls who are geeky enough to want to have their picture taken with him. I know, I was one of them two years ago, the first time I competed. I’m much, much cooler now that I’ve had a couple tournaments under my belt.
Like a lot of people here, I found out about the tournament from the 2006 documentary Wordplay. It’s a fun film, worth checking out if you get the chance. It’s structured around the fortunes of a few competitors of the tournament, but it’s mostly a celebration of the geeky good fun of crossword puzzles. What the documentary teaches you in a hurry is that the people who compete at this level are no dilettantes. Oh, sure, we don’t look like much. It’s not really hard to pick us out in the hotel lobby. Keep in mind that this is a competition that has age divisions in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s before you even get to the Senior division. But underestimate this crowd at your peril. The people who win these things literally finish these puzzles as fast as most people would if they were given all the answers. This is the big leagues.
Everybody has something they do that they’re the best at. Everybody has their thing. For you, maybe it’s something like woodworking, or baking. Maybe you have a great voice, or a fantastic serve. Maybe for you it’s impressions, or your knowledge of 1980’s punk bands. Whatever it is, there’s something you do or know that’s your thing, and everybody knows it. For me, it’s always been crossword puzzles.
Not that I ever spent a lot of time among the crossword elite. It’s easy to be the best at your thing when you’re the only one doing it. Oh, sure, everybody’s messed around with crosswords at some point, but it’s usually something you do when you’re bored and you see the newspaper lying open to one. But I’m one of those people who do crosswords puzzles in his spare time, and make sure I pack a crossword magazine while traveling. Solving crosswords is like a lot of other things; if you do it enough, you get good at it. Do enough crossword puzzles, and you’ll quickly learn that Mel Ott played for the Giants, Bobby Orr played hockey, and every crossword constructor’s favorite airline is El Al. You’ll learn about the aria, the etui, and every Latin abbreviation they got. All those funny little combinations of vowels and consonants, especially the short ones that live on the right wall and lie in the basement of every crossword grid become old friends.
It’s easy for people to confuse that familiarity with working intelligence, so if you play a lot at crosswords, people think you’re some kind of savant. As a nurse, I spent a lot of my career working night shifts, and on the nights when my patients were able to settle in, and after my charting was done, I’d pick up whatever paper was lying around and bang out the crossword. A lot of other nurses seemed impressed by this, but it wasn’t that I was smart, just practiced, at something most other people spent little time with.* But they’d tell me how smart I was. They’d tell other people how smart I was. After a while, I started to believe it.
So when I saw Wordplay, I’d heard enough of my own press to think that maybe I could be one of those people, too. Hey, I’m good at crosswords. Everybody says so. I’m smart. Everybody says so. I bet I could do well at this. Of course I won’t win (but maybe). There’s no way I’d even be one of those three finalists solving on giant whiteboard crossword grids while everybody looks on in awe (but maybe). I’ll just go and have fun (but maybe…). After all, this was my thing, right?
If I really was smart, I would have known going in that I was the small-town baseball star that’s coasted his way through Little League and high school on natural talent, but was now going to college, suddenly to play with other small-town stars. And quite a few big-town stars. But I’m not that smart.
How it works is you solve three puzzles Saturday morning, three more Saturday afternoon, and then a seventh puzzle Sunday morning. Each puzzle is timed, and you get points for finishing early, so the faster the better. You get points for correct answers, but you also get points taken off for errors, so accuracy counts as well. After seven puzzles, the three people with the highest score all compete on giant grids in front of the crowd, and a winner is crowned.
This I knew. But what I didn’t know is that the puzzles vary in difficulty, and they traditionally like to start you off with an easy puzzle. The second puzzle is one of the tougher ones of the tournament. Last year, Will Shortz introduced the second puzzle as “The Bastard” and, yes, he capitalized it with his voice. But my rookie year, I didn’t know this.
The first puzzle I plowed through. We were allowed 15 minutes, and I finished it in eight. I looked up, and I saw quite a few other people still working. Instantly, I embraced all of my good press from home. “This is easy! I really do have a shot at this thing! I really am as smart as everyone says!” It never occurred to me I was setting myself up for the sucker punch.
Which came directly. Puzzle #2 was handed out, this one I believe we were alotted 30 minutes to complete. I started my initial scan of the clues, going for my usual strategy of finding a few I was sure of and working from there. After my initial scan, I had a blank grid. Nothing jumped out at me. Nothing.
I was floored. All my confidence was gone. I meekly sketched in a few probable answers, and devoted the remainder of my 30 minutes to PANICKING! OHMYGOD I’M AN IDIOT. WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING THAT I COULD JUST WALTZ IN HERE AND TAKE THESE PEOPLES’ LUNCH MONEY? I AM A MORON. I AM A DULLARD A CRETIN A DOPEY DOPE AND HAVE LOST EVEN THE CAPACITY FOR PUNCTUATION AND LOWERCASE THOUGHT (I actually do think like this when I’m panicking). I WANT MY MOMMY TO TAKE ME BACK TO THE CHILDRENS TABLE WHERE I OBVIOUSLY BELONG.
Out of 600 people attending that year, my final ranking was in the mid-400’s. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but it was to me. Remember, crosswords are my thing. They’re what I’m known for back home, the guy everybody throws the newspaper to when they can’t finish the crossword puzzle. Because I can. IN INK. But here, more than four hundred people beat me – easily! – at my thing. Many were elderly. A few were teenagers. I hadn’t driven to Brooklyn for the tournament, after all. I had arrived on the short bus.
What does any of this have to do with The Knucklehead? We talked a lot about this in the week after the tournament. He, of course, had a much better perspective than I did. He was proud of me. He respected that I had finally decided to compete in the Big Leagues. The analogy we came up with was this: it’s like going to the US Open and getting washed out in the opening rounds. Compared to everybody else there, you suck at tennis. But compared to everyone who didn’t go? Well, that’s a different story.
As I told him more about how intimidating the weekend was, and how much I felt out of place, an odd thought came to me. I wanted to go back. I wanted to see if I could do better, knowing what to expect. I’ve never been a competitive person, so this surprised me. But especially in talking with Knucks about my experience, forcing myself to find something positive to give him, I actually, honestly found myself wanting to go back to the people who’d humbled me, and see how I could really do. I’m glad my boy got to see me fail. It gave me the opportunity to show him how I pick myself up and learn from that. Would I have done that if he hadn’t been watching for my reaction? I don’t know, but I’m glad he was there.
Last year I returned, and finished in the mid-300’s. Not too bad. Bottom third to middle third. I was proud of that. This year, I’d like to finish in the top 50%, but that’s a lofty goal with this crowd. I found last year, and this year, too, enjoying myself more. It’s fun, which was the whole point of the thing in the first place.
Don’t be afraid to let your knuckleheads see you fall, as long as they see you get up again. If you don’t risk, you’ll teach your knuckleheads not to risk, either, despite anything you say. Success, as a teacher, has its limits.
*OK, maybe a little bit smart.