Date: February 3, 2008
Byline: Kate Coleman
Crossword puzzles beat out cigarettes, candy addictions
My name is Kate, and I think I have a problem.
Although I enjoy an occasional glass of red wine and have drunk a few pints of Guinness on visits to Ireland, my alcohol consumption is more than under control.
I smoked cigarettes — the oh-so-sophisticated Virginia Slims — for about three weeks when I was a college sophomore. I never quite figured out how to inhale, and I hated the taste so much, I'd have to eat a Caramel Cream candy with each drag. So cool!
No, my compulsion probably isn't self-destructive, although it sometimes gets in the way of getting much done.
For the past couple of months, I have been hooked on crossword puzzles.
Yes, I'm even nerdier than I thought, and what's really out of character is that I like to work them on my computer. I'm typically old school, and prefer the newsprint-and-hand-smudging-ink version of my daily newspaper. But I find it easier and neater to try letters and delete words that don't work with a couple of keystrokes.
I've done crosswords from time to time through the years but never as obsessively as now.
I'm amazed at how quickly time can pass while I'm trying to solve a puzzle.
Recently, I decided to check e-mail before going to bed. While at the computer, I took a peek at a Sunday Washington Post crossword I hadn't attempted. When I stopped to look at the clock, it was two hours later, and I wasn't even close to completion.
Weekday grids are easier and have fewer squares to fill. I don't race to solve them, but my pace has picked up a bit. It still doesn't compare — and I'm quite sure it never will — to the speed at which contestants in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament sprint through puzzles.
That competition is the subject of the 2006 documentary film "Wordplay," which explores the event founded in 1978 by Will Shortz, crossword editor of The New York Times and puzzlemaster on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday.
The tournament will celebrate its 31st annual gathering Feb. 29 to March 2 in New York, having outgrown its perennial home in Stamford, Conn. Last year's match drew more than 700 participants ranging in age from 13 to 89, some from as far away as France and Switzerland.
The subtitle to "Wordplay" claims "50 million people do it every week," and the film features celebrity "puzzleheads" — including Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Bill Clinton, the Indigo Girls and New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, for heaven's sake.
I'm not alone.
"Wordplay" takes an up-close-and-personal look at the top contenders and features the 2005 contest's final rounds.
It's the antithesis of the body-bashing, head-crashing, hyped-by-screaming-broadcasters norm of American competition. It's fun.
The 2001 champion and self-described "Nerd Girl," Ellen Ripstein — who twirled a mean baton during a tournament talent show — says that doing a lot of puzzles and becoming familiar with the things that are in them can sharpen crossword-solving skills.
I've learned a few of those things and have figured out that the best approach for me is to let my mind kind of float and get into my own puzzle zone.
Of course I still find myself slapping my forehead at missing words I should have gotten. For example, a recent clue was "1985 Bruce Springsteen hit." The answer? "IMONFIRE."
I've never aced a serve in tennis, and I've certainly never scored a touchdown, but I can relate to a center court or end zone victory dance when I nail a tricky clue. It feels good.
I love words and language and I like a challenge. Crossword puzzles suit me pretty well.
Besides, they're good for me. Working crosswords is a way of keeping the brain active, according to the Alzheimer's Association. I'm not wasting time. I'm delaying dementia.
That's a good excuse for puzzling, and it's much cooler than cigarettes and candy.
Kate Coleman writes a monthly Lifestyle column and covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra for The Herald-Mail. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.