Gobsmacked by a crossword puzzle | TheUnion.com

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Gobsmacked by a crossword puzzle

I’m not your average newspaper reader.

When making the long walk down the driveway to pick up the morning The Union, page one gets a once-over to see if the authorities have “harvested” another marijuana farm, if our politicians have done something odd, or who might have murdered whom.

But once at the breakfast table, I search for the comics page, read Dilbert and start working on the crossword puzzles.

This fascination began when I heard that doing such puzzles exercises that part of the brain that falls prey to Alzheimer’s disease. “Use it or lose it,” has taken on new meaning.

Normally I’m able to complete the less-complicated puzzle every day without much difficulty.

And as a result, although I could pass either of them on the street without recognition, I am constantly using the names of actresses Uta (Hagen) and Uma (Thurman) and 1950s Peruvian soprano Yma Sumac to fill in blank spaces. I know a “sea eagle” is an erne and Ria is an estuary.

Although it’s possible to use the dictionary, thesaurus or the computer to help solve the puzzle, that’s no fair. Sometimes, though, I ask my wife for a mental boost when it comes to culinary clues, French or Latin terms or anything to do with horses.

Reading her eyes, I realize it was long ago when she struggled with French and Latin. And she says, “Oh, that’s right” when I am able to fill in the blanks.

The New York Times puzzle, though, is a challenge I’m usually able to meet only on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday the creator of that puzzle steps into another world with clues like “Gobsmacked.” which even my Webster’s New World Dictionary doesn’t define. (According to http://www.ask.com it means “being in complete awe.” Like when a politician says something that makes good sense.)

Once I completed a Wednesday puzzle and was ready to call Mensa for a membership application. Alas, the steel curtain fell the following week and I wasn’t up to the task.

It was probably about 30 years ago, working as a feature writer for The Sacramento Bee, when I was able to do a telephone interview with the original creator of the NY Times crossword puzzle. (Whose name now eludes me.)

“Have you ever had the opportunity to help someone when you saw them struggling with your puzzle?” I asked.

“Once,” he laughed, “I was sitting beside a man on the New York subway who was working one of my puzzles, and I said, ‘Excuse me, but I’m the creator of that puzzle. If you need some hints, just ask.’ He looked at me suspiciously, folded his newspaper, moved across the aisle and got off at the next stop! I never did that again.”

Actually, I save the puzzle page from one day to the next, and if time allows I look at the answers to yesterday’s NY Times mind benders like, “Rightmost column in the periodic table.” (It’s “gases” silly! Everyone knows that. Don’t they?)

It was exciting to find that the venerable Wall Street Journal also has a crossword puzzle until I read the clues, said, “Oh, brother!” and turned the page.

Let’s say I was gobsmacked.