March 2nd, 2009

storyteller doll


The first thing on the list of things I said I was going to write about here is the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Yes, I'd seen Wordplay but I actually knew about the tournament before that because there had been a Wall Street Journal A-head (the frivolous article in the middle column) on it some years earlier.

My history with crosswords is sporadic. I grew up in a household where my parents each bought a copy of the NY Times so they didn't have to compete over who got to do the puzzle on the train. I could always drive my mother nuts by getting to the Sunday magazine section before her and filling in answers. And there were the Dell puzzle magazines we got at the stationery store at the corner after going to the dentist, though my favorites in those were the logic problems and the cross-sums (what is now called kakuro), not the crosswords. I did like cryptics, not that I was particularly good at them, and was part of a group at work for a while who collectively worked on the puzzles from The Atlantic and Harper's.

Over the past few years, my crossword solving has been limited to doing the Sunday puzzle in the Washington Post and sporadic purchases of crossword books to take along while traveling. For example, a nice thick NY Times collection was very helpful for whiling away the hours in Madagascar, which I think of as the land of the crossword animals, though I only saw zebu and not any aye-aye! (Speaking of traveling, I suspect I've probably done the puzzle in United's Hemispheres magazine damn near every month for the past 20 years. However, those tend to be less than challenging.) Somehow, the idea of the tournament was buried away on one of the back burners of my mind and, as most things there do, it eventually simmered over and I said to myself, "why not?" So I signed up and made hotel reservations and bought train tickets and so on. I also stepped up my crossword solving some, which had the down side of making me realize how intimidated I was by Saturday NY Times puzzles. (If anybody is reading this who doesn't know, the puzzles get harder as the week progresses. I can finish Monday through Thursday easily and Friday most of the time, but I don't think I have ever actually completed a Saturday puzzle without having to look something up.)

I had to satisfy certain other personal New York requirements, so got to the hotel a bit after things had started on Friday night. (A panel on blogging versus eating decent pickles? I can skip the panel.) I did hear the talk by the inventor of ken-ken (a type of puzzle I don't find particularly interesting for the same reason I don't do sudoku often. Namely, neither of them reveals anything about the personality of the creator) and was not all that thrilled with the first Friday evening puzzle being a choice between 4x4 ken-ken or 6x6 ken-ken. The choice for the second puzzle was split decisions, diagramless, or cryptic. I have to admit I have no idea what split decisions is, but I'd choose a cryptic over pretty much anything else. Alas, I got hung up on a couple of clues and didn't finish it. Of course, looking at them again in the light of morning, I got them immediately. Cryptics are a very good example of the "aha" moment in nonlinear thinking!

On Saturday morning I was a bit surprised that there was a lengthy delay while they set up more tables. I suppose there could be last minute entrants, but surely not enough to make up another two rows of tables. I tried to focus my mind by doing something mindless and working on my nalbinding project. At last we started and I was pleased that I got through the first puzzle pretty easily. I got through the second one reasonably well, though I made a mistake. I'm not going to kick myself over not having known a Mexican salamander, but I did realize that one letter from a crossing word made something else not make sense. I did better again with puzzle 3 and puzzle 4 was a breeze, especially as I caught onto the theme very quickly.

Puzzle 5 is the killer and, indeed, it lived up to its reputation. I didn't come anywhere close to finishing. I got the lower left and most of the center, but just a few other words here and there. I do admit I was relieved to hear so much erasing around me and see so many other people left in the room when time ran out.

Puzzle 6 did work out far better for me, so I wasn't horribly depressed as Saturday's competition ended. There was a game show night event for Saturday night but, again, it's not like I get to New York nearly often enough. Going to the theatre was a higher priority, but that's another subject for another post.

I really enjoyed Puzzle 7 on Sunday and did decently well on it. Overall, I ended up finishing 265 (out of 684) and was 37 (out of 179) rookies. The significance is that I did meet my goal of finishing in the top half. Further implications of meeting goals will also be written about separately.

Watching the finals was more exciting than I'd expected. It was painful watching Tyler Hinman struggle through the last few clues before finishing - and learning that both his opponents had errors. (In fact, the same error - not something I can really comment on, since I'd have been staring blankly at that set of clues for weeks.)

The award banquet had a puzzle aspect, too. It involved Food Network's Dinner Impossible and dishes that suggested particular phrases or cliches. Those tend to be the sort of thing you either get right away or not until you hear the answer and groan at how you missed it. I had to leave before the actual presentation of awards since I had a train to catch.

I should also mention the social aspect of the tournament. I was apprehensive about that - the whole insecure "nobody is going to talk to me" script going through my head. I got over that pretty quickly, particularly since the first person I happened to talk to at the reception turned out to be the sister of somebody I know from my storytelling guild. It was also nice to meet jeffurrynpl, who is just as nice as I expected. In general, people were reasonably friendly and it didn't feel particularly cliquish.

Overall, I had a great time and definitely plan to go again. Next year might not be possible since I have a likely conflict. Of course, if I ever master that being in multiple places at once thing ...
storyteller doll

NY vs. DC

I'm not quite taking the "what I said I'd write about" in order. But here are some quick observations about New York vs. Washington:

1) When New Yorkers in Washington ask me where to go to get good deli food, my answer is, inevitably, "New York." Actually, the deli counter at Wegman's in Fairfax isn't bad. But only in New York can you get great pickles. I like half sours, but full sours are the pickles of the gods.

2) I did not, alas, have time to stop on the Lower East Side on the way back and pick up a bialy or twelve and/or an onion pletzel. But you can't get either down here. (You can sometimes get things that call themselves bialys, but not ones worth eating. Trust me on this - my mother's family is from Tykocin, just down the road from Bialystok.)

3) No buskers inside
the D.C. Metro system.
New York has music.

In particular, coming back to the hotel on Saturday night, there was a guy playing a kora on the platform. And on the way back to Penn Station, a mariachi band was playing on the A train. All three of them, including the bass player, moved down the car (and from one car to another - a major taboo in the eyes of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority), which reminded me of the scene in Take the Money and Run in which Woody Allen plays the cello in a marching band.

4) New York has better pizza.

5) New York has a theatre district. Washington has theatres, but they are more scattered about. What that means is that Washingtonians have to do more planning.

6) Sadly, the tourist herds in both cities move just as annoying slowly.

I meant to write something here about walking around Brooklyn, but I don't have anything in D.C. to really contrast it with. Maybe I can find some similarity between the way that the monuments just mesh into the residential part of the Hill and the way you cross the street from Borough Hall in Brooklyn and you're right into a pleasant residential neighborhood. I think I'm trying to get at a broader statement about the Northeast since what I like about Boston (and Philiadelphia) is how people still live in the city. I'll have to ponder that more. At any rate, I was surprised by how much I liked the neighborhood around the hotel which had yuppie amenities (e.g. a Trader Joe's) and businesses that meet real needs (an actual hardware store!). I wish I'd had more time to browse the used bookstore on Atlantic or to shop at Sahadi's (a Middle Eastern grocery supplier).