“Electric Slide”


Jessie and I recently cancelled our Thanksgiving and Christmas travel plans, which means 2020 will break my lifelong streak of 36 holiday seasons spent in New York City with my parents. This is a heavy blow, but it’s the right call.

We’re buoying our spirits by reframing this year as an opportunity to forge new traditions, which *is* helping, but my mind keeps drifting back to the old pre-war Upper West Side apartment where I spent the first twenty holiday seasons of my life.

I learned that the sun rises in the east because of how it would smolder behind the apartment buildings of the Upper East Side before emerging. We were on the 11th floor and my room had one large window that faced Central Park. The window went nearly from wall to wall, with a one-foot wide stone sill. There I sat, year over year, smelling the Thanksgiving smells wafting up from the kitchen… doing homework, or watching pinpricks of light take off from JFK, or trying and failing to blow all the smoke into the updraft above Central Park West. 

They sold the apartment when my brother left for college in 2006. A month or two after the move, my sister called me in my dorm room in Providence to tell me that our old apartment had been completely gutted by a fire during the new owner’s renovation. I asked how the fire had started. She explained that some oily rags had been sitting among sawdust and had spontaneously combusted. After some research, it turned out that this is a legitimate phenomenon. Given the right conditions, common things can just catch fire.

Nothing lasts forever, eh? But we’re learning in this household that the best traditions are the ones you begin with intention. And that you should attend to them as though you’ll carry them out anew forever, even when you know that–of course–you won’t.

Some thoughts on “Electric Slide” (spoilers ahead!) after the jump.

Speaking of change

Well, it’s probably plain where this puzzle started. I know that a TRANSFER OF POWER (15) is *likely* to take place on January 20th, but… I’m going to let the anxiety build merrily in my chest until we actually see it happen.

I spent a *long* time learning about the different ways one can transfer electricity for this puzzle. Microwaves! Who knew? In the end, it felt like the three methods represented here (CHARGING PAD, TESLA COIL, JUMPER CABLE) were distinct enough in terms of the actual physics involved…

And it ended up being another theme set that lent itself to mirror symmetry rather than rotational symmetry, which generally allows for a bunch more grid flexibility.

Oh, and I think my general exhaustion at the criminally drawn-out nature of our recent election has blunted my instinct to dial back some of my more extra clues. In 2021, I’ll probably have more energy to talk myself down from STUDENT [One who might get an academy award?], NICE [Word written atop a certain Yule log?], and PIÑATAS [They get bashed at some bashes].

Happy solving, friends.


“Train Your Brain”

[.puz][PDF][Solution] 🏋🏽‍♀️🏃🏾‍♀️💪🏼

Before COVID, I went to an indoor climbing gym five days a week. When we went into lockdown and I bid adieu to my favorite form of exercise, it quickly became evident that even more than the climbing, I was mourning the loss of that community. When this is all over, I strongly recommend looking into your local bouldering gym. Here’s why.

The scene will feel daunting at first. Heights–even with plush mats to fall on–are scary. And the climbers in front of you will seem prohibitively cool (they’re not; they’re dorks), lean and strong, lounging in an irregular row in front of and parallel to the 20-foot bouldering wall, creating a socially discouraging shoulder-to-shoulder barrier between you and the routes. But if you watch for a moment, you’ll notice how relaxed they all seem, their smiles, the comical streaks of chalk across their noses and cheeks. So sit down at the edge of the mat and chalk up. One of them will smile at you. And when they see your rental shoes, they’ll show you kindness. They’ll talk to you. Before long, you’ll start to understand three basic realities of bouldering that form the basis of why I sent you here in the first place: 

1. All the sitting around near other people. Bouldering, by definition, is climbing short, difficult problems that comprise only a handful of moves, taking you no higher than the point from which you can safely fall onto the mats below. Difficult problems require several minutes of resting one’s fingers between attempts. And while you’re resting, you’re sitting on your haunches with a Potential Friend on either side of you, and a built-in conversation piece straight ahead. 

2. The shared struggle and the common goal. While rope climbers climb “routes,” boulderers climb “problems,” so named because there often isn’t an obvious way to get to the final hold. The Potential Friends to your left and right are your de facto thought partners, and by watching each other’s attempts and sharing wisdom, together you might be able to come up with workable “beta,” or the sequence of hand and foot moves that will get you to the top. Such an exchange might sound like this:

You: Wow, I don’t even know how to grab the second hold! 

PF1: I know! As soon as I reach, I pop right off the start. I need better beta! 

PF2: Do you think it would help to move your foot to that chip out on the right?

You: I’m not sure I’m flexible enough to do that…

PF1: Me neither, but I’ll try a foot out to the right might make the reach doable…

You: Let’s see it! 

3. The failure. Completing a route is “sending,” which you’ll overhear and correctly assume derives from the word “ascend.” But there tend to be far more falls than sends, with you and your New Friends often needing several attempts to work out good beta. But the community has adapted to this reality, and on your second attempt you hear your New Friends and several other Potential Friends calling out, “Come on!” and “You got this!,” and after you fall, “So close!,” and “You’re right there!” 

Anyway. Go bouldering! One day. Some thoughts and spoilers on “Train Your Brain” after the jump.

how it started —> how it’s going

Honestly, I don’t normally love this kind of puzzle. There’s almost *too* much going on. Let’s unpack.

TOTAL [ABS]TINENCE is the first theme answer, clued as [What teetotalers have the stomach for?] The clue is pulling double duty here, indicating not only the base phrase of TOTAL ABSTINENCE, but also dropping in a gratuitous pun to signal the contents of the circled letters.

The trick here is finding theme answers that hide words constituting a WHOLE BODY WORKOUT (or, for a lot of people, ABS, HEART, ARMs, LEGs), while only using phrases that can be *reasonably* clued with a pun that gets at the meaning of the hidden word.

I think FOUR PART HARMONY, clued as [Easy lift for a barbershop quartet?] is the, ahem, strongest pairing of the bunch. And apologies to both my partner (and trained ballerina) Jessie and my collaborator (and trained yogi) Lucy, who will both doubtlessly chide me for not including a good long streeeetch in my routine.

Oh, and there are a couple #rosswordpuzzles in the wild for you to enjoy this week: The Atlantic’s weekend puzzle (11/15), and the New York Times puzzle on Wednesday (11/18, co-authored by Amanda).

Happy solving, friends.


Themeless Puzzle

by Amanda Rafkin & Ross Trudeau


When I opened my eyes this morning, it took me a few long, disoriented moments to realize that what I was feeling was relief. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, yes, and huge barriers to justice and the health of our democracy lie ahead… and yet. Relief.

I think the last time I felt anything like this way was when I was seventeen and a day or two removed from major back surgery.

The memory is of being sure that I was going insane. Of lying in a hospital bed believing very acutely that I would never think rationally again. I was with-it enough to marshal certain facts that made it terrifyingly plausible. I knew I’d had spinal surgery—yesterday? I knew that I’d had general anesthesia, two antibiotics, morphine, Benadryl for the itching, Zofran for the nausea. My own mother had gone bonkers because of one steroid. Why shouldn’t this medley have kissed me into oblivion?

I remember waking up crying in the dark. I had anticipated pain, and they told me I’d need days to regain feeling or movement in my legs. But I was not prepared for the isolation of insanity. Monitors beeped and whirred. Walls distorted. A giant Technicolor butterfly painted on the ceiling—it was a pediatric ward, but what were they thinking?—threatened not to attack me but to do my deranged bidding.

Then, my father stood up. He leaned over the bed and told me, “I’m here, I’m here, Rossy. it’s okay.” I wept and tried to explain that I was crazy, that I’d dreamed he was dead. But he touched my hair and finally I looked at him and saw that his face was wet. He was also dreaming about his father, just right then, he said, wiping his cheeks. And I stopped crying. I felt relief. Even though I was paralyzed from the waist down and my whole brain hurt, because daddy was there, he’d been there all night on the chair, and he’d been dreaming, too.

More on my latest themeless with dear friend Amanda Rafkin after the jump.

As per usual, let Amanda’s delightful cluing wash over you this morning. I’ve asked her for some insights into her cluing process, but she generally demurs. This is the sign of genius. [It’s often over angel hair?] for HALO. *mwah*

To be honest, I haven’t got too terribly much energy to talk crossword shop this particular morning. But I will say that generally I prioritize smoothness in themeless puzzles. I’ll gladly let go of a zippy seed entry if it’s forcing me into compromise words that inevitably draw my attention more than a nice marquee entry. That said, ZOOM MEETING and NERD ALERT were darlings that survived the editing process.

I hope you’re doing well out there.

Warmly, Ross

“Here’s Lookin’ At You”

[.puz][PDF][Solution] 😍😍😍

You know what’s making me say 53-Across this week? Reports of record voter turnout across the Sun Belt. I see you, Texas.

But as 53-Across has come into its verbal ascendancy–we say it around the house a lot–I’ve done some reflecting on its very specific point of origin in my own vernacular. On many days during my daily commute between 2010 and 2013, I’d mutter it to myself, alone in my car, about halfway home. That commute started just south of Oakland, and took me up 880 towards Berkeley, and over the Bay Bridge towards my home in the Haight district of San Francisco.

I was teaching English and creative writing to high school students, and while I loved my job, the days were long and taxing and often kept me at school past sundown. On some evenings I could plop down into the driver’s seat in the school lot and then get all the way to my garage without making a single conscious decision—turn, lane change, radio adjustment. But when I hit the road with the sun still in the sky, the commute regularly offered up a spectacular and restorative vista. Driving that east-to-west reverse commute at sunset meant you were driving directly into the setting sun, with the glimmering bay beneath you, and ahead of you the unpredictable form of the famous San Francisco fog.

“53-Across,” I’d often say to myself on the upslope of the bridge.

On some days the fog frosted the peninsula like twice-whipped icing. Other times it streaked over San Francisco’s hills in daring wisps that dissipated at the peaks, only gaining a bayside foothold down by Candlestick and under the Golden Gate. And sometimes it stood thousands of feet tall, rearing up above the city but somehow tethered to it. And sometimes it bombed forward between the buildings as though the bay were breathing it into the great lung of the city. Those were the nights I love the best—when at the downslope of the bridge I slipped into the mist, undetectable as I cruised back towards the electric evening ether of the Haight, where all my edges would be rendered indistinct.

Spoilers and discussion of “Here’s Lookin’ At You” after the jump.

You just love to see it

Don’t worry, solver. I’ve got a YOU HATE TO SEE IT puzzle waiting in the wings, too. But it’s November 1st, 2020, and I’d like to put some positive energy out into the electorate.

There were actually far fewer potential theme answers than I’d expected. The constraints were around phrases that were synonyms for SIGHT (i.e. things you SEE) that had an overtly positive connotation. So, A GOOD LOOK and other such answers are out, because that refers to the act of seeing, and not the object (IT) being seen.

YOU LOVE TO SEE IT also presents the irritating challenge of a 14-letter revealer. As a rule, you generally want to space your theme answers out as much as possible, but putting a revealer in the 13th, 14th, or 15th row of a 16×15 grid is either impossible or requires some awkward mass of cheater squares when your revealer is 12, 13, or 14-letters long.

So, in the 11th row it goes. And this decision generally means you’re limited to 3 theme answers. And 4th one–which you could stick in the middle row–would often leave you with an unfillable grid or some really icky pieces of compromise fill.

And since this puzzle’s raison d’être is, well, being nice to look at, it seemed wise to stop at 3 themers plus a revealer.

See you at the polls, friends.