Monday, July 25, 2011

Everything I never needed to know, I learned doing crossword puzzles

I've always thought of myself as a pretty smart guy, in a "technically proficient, know what I need to know" kind of way. Throughout my professional career I was the "subject-matter expert" on every aspect of knowledge required to perform my occupation; I was the "go-to" guy for my co-workers when they had a job-related question or problem. Being "smart" in this regard served me very well during my career and enabled me to advance and to garner the respect of my associates. And of course staying "smart" required constant growth to stay current so my education was continually on-going. But now I think maybe I'm not so smart, after all.

When I retired a few years ago, all of the "essential" knowledge that I had accumulated and that made me so "smart" in my professional life became totally irrelevant to me, unnecessary to my day to day living. Oh, I'm competent in most aspects of normal life - I'm reasonably well informed of current events and I can carry on a more or less intelligent conversation on a wide range of topics, but it's becoming painfully obvious that there are a whole host of things of which I am totally ignorant. This sad fact is made painfully obvious to me every day when I sit down to do the NY Times crossword puzzle.

These puzzles are marvelous, ingenious creations that require a broad range of knowledge on topics ranging from "The Simpsons" to Greek literature to quantum physics to solve - well, that or a lot of crosses and lucky guesses. So every day I come face to face with my ignorance and have to find a way to overcome it if I am to solve the puzzle. And the fact is, just about every day I am able to do that and in the process I learn something - some days I learn a whole lot!

So now I know things like the river that runs through Florence is the Arno; Painter Chagall's first name is Marc; a Yenta is a busybody; some herons fly with their necks retracted; the New Jersy hockey team is the Devils; Teslas are magnetic induction units and Euler is an eponymic mathematician; and a Kraken is a monster of Norse myth. And those are from puzzles early in the week; they get progressively more difficult each day!

I understand that I don't really need to know any of these things and I recognize that knowing them does not make me "smart" but it makes me feel better that each day I learn something that I did not know before (or maybe had long since forgotten); if nothing else it reminds me of how much I do NOT know which can be a pretty humbling experience - and humility is something which I definitely DO need to know.

Like I said, everything I never needed to know, I learned doing crossword puzzles but I've also learned a little about myself in the process and I think knowing one's own self is pretty important. And there's that humility thing...


  1. Well said! The main reason I do these puzzles is because I find it FUN, and the knowledge I acquire is a secondary and most enjoyable benefit.

    I have always been fascinated by words. I majored in English at University and have always loved putting words together in a unique, poetic,clever or amusing way. I get a thrill when I read some sentence that an author has written that moves me in some way and I think "I wish I could write like that!" Reading a good book is like having a wonderful meal, satisfying in almost physical way.

    I have found huge holes in my knowledge since I started doing the NYT crosswords, especially in the realms of professional sports and American history. Americans seem much more aware of their own history than we Canadians are. As I have said before, the age and gender things also contribute to my ignorance of some answers. But I always enjoy trying!

  2. @Pippin, I'm thrilled that you made a return visit and took the time to leave a comment! You are right, words are truly fascinating and choosing just the "right" one to convey what you want to say can be a challenge. Whenever I write I have a dictionary ready at hand so I can make sure that a word means what I think it means and is right for the context. I don't claim to write in a way that is "unique (well, maybe), poetic (definitely not!), clever (I wish) or amusing (I hope, sometimes)" but I think I usually manage to convey my intended message - and if I manage to entertain anyone, including myself, in the process that's a good thing. If "Reading a good book is like having a wonderful meal", I hope I can provide at least a snack for you to enjoy (and I won't even mention the "satisfying in almost physical way" part).

    Those are not "huge holes" in our knowledge, they are "learning opportunities"! (As a retired career bureaucrat I am a master at relabling, euphemisms, gobbly-de-gook and "double-speak". Oh, I forgot "obfuscation".) ("I'm kidding - I'm kidding!") Bonus points if you get the crossword reference for the last parenthetical comment. Dirigonzo

  3. Well, it was actually "I kid!," but I got it. ;)

    It's really rather astounding to me how much I "know" simply from doing the NYT crossword. In quotes because, yes, I can tell you that an erg is a unit of work, but I have no idea why or where it comes from. I know an etui is some sort of receptacle for sewing accoutrements, but I've never seen one, even though I learned to sew more years ago than I care to divulge. I know the names of so many rivers! I trump your Arno with the Yser, Aare, Oise and Ebro! But... damned if I could point any of them out on a map (or even tell you in what hemisphere to look). <--NICE PARENTHETICAL PUNCTUATION, EH? ;)

    I'm one of those sorts who loves to grab onto a stray thread and see where it leads, so the NYT crossword - or, more often, comments about same on Rex's blog - are like candy to me. However, I will never, ever remember where the Arno (or Yser, Aare, Oise and Ebro) are, or which state hosts the Devils or Dingos. My brain will break if I try to stuff all of that into it.

    (Hi, Pippin!)

  4. @Deb - If my education in esoteria (don't bother to look it up, it's not a real word - I just made it up) comes from doing the crossword puzzle then my advanced degree will definitely be earned by reading the comments on Rex' blog. The breadth and scope of knowledge on display there every day amazes me. It's remarkable what a diverse, intelligent and sociable following has congregated around RP's daily commentary.

    And yes, that was excellent parenthetical punctuation.

  5. Hi Deb (and Dirigonzo of course!)

    Just to add my two cents' worth - I LOVE the blog. I learn from it every day and laugh at it most days as well. On many days I enjoy it almost more than the puzzle.

    And, Dirigonzo, your "esoteria" sent me running to my dictionary, with the result that I now know 'ESOTERIC, ESOTERICA, ESOTERICISM and ESOTERISM'. That last one sounds like what happens at the local gas station on a long week-end when they hike the prices! But, you see, I am learning from this blog as well!

  6. @Pippin - ESOTERISM, I get it, and I love it! It's a perfect description of what the oil companies are doing to us. Of course south of the border they have changed the name, but it still works for me - great definition! My own personal favorite from your list is ESOTERICISM. but I can't explain why, exactly - I think my subconscious has replaced the first "s" with an "r", but I'm still not sure what it means. It's a little troubling to me that there's anything to be learned here.

  7. Of course you are right but she said "sounds like" so I think it still works.

    Nice to see you are still checking in and keeping us honest!