In Praise of the New York Times Spelling Bee
The New York Times crossword puzzle is seventy-five years old. Happy birthday to the king of all daily newspaper word games. Nothing against the Jumble or cryptoquotes, but the first time you complete a full New York Times puzzle by yourself is a rite of passage.
With regular practice, you learn the week gets progressively harder. Thursday’s the clever puzzle. Saturday’s the hardest. Sunday is a hard Thursday, with more cleverness. I don’t bother with Monday through Wednesday anymore.
But recently there’s been a new kid in town, the weekend Spelling Bee. It’s available Thursday nights online, sometime after eight PST. What I like about it is it’s sort of the anti-Times crossword puzzle. Six outer letters in a wheel with a seventh letter at the center. Very simple rules. Common words of 5 letters or more. Center letter must be incorporated. Letters may be reused. No proper names or hyphenates. Using all seven letters is worth three points, any other entry a single point. That’s it, except for the rating: what score qualifies as good, excellent or genius.
“The Spelling Bee’s up,” Janet will announce most Thursday evenings and go down to her office to print two puzzles from her computer. We find, as with fine books, a challenging puzzle needs to be taken in hand. Most weeks while Janet’s climbing back upstairs, she happily trills, “Found the three-pointer!”
I am already behind before I’ve even begun. We’re not competitive about things unless we’re competing against each other. She hands the paper over and all I see is a flurry of stingy one-pointers: quiet, quite, unquiet, quint, quaint, equine, quinine. I don’t announce them. There’s no glory in a one-pointer. Oftentimes, Janet will have found a second three-pointer by now. She doesn’t rub it in. “You’ll find it,” she assures me. “I can give you a hint.”
“No hints,” I always insist. I have my own private set of rules for attacking the Spelling Bee. If you ask me, the Times doesn’t have enough rules. Such as no dictionary fishing. You have to do the puzzle all in one sitting, preferably in a half hour or less. Isn’t that the way a true genius would do it? Another rule: one puzzle per person. There’s no such thing as a group genius, which is too bad. Our current administration could use one.
I’ve come to look forward to the Spelling Bee more than the Times crossword. It appears only once per week, and what’s true in love is also true in puzzles, absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. I find beauty in its simplicity. The crossword is a marvelous achievement of architecture. It looks complicated on the page even before you peruse the clues: the Rorschach arrangement of the black boxes, the complex symmetry of its composition. It often reminds me of a health club outfitted with the latest equipment: all that up and down, back and forth. The Spelling Bee by comparison is simple as a yoga mat. Seven letters. You can write the letters on your hand and draw a circle around the center letter. Try drawing out the crossword puzzle on your hand.
The Bee, as we call it around the house, is harder than it looks. (It looks like something out of a leftover Highlights magazine from the pediatrician’s office.) Achieving “good” on its scale of ratings doesn’t require too much mental heavy lifting. “Excellent,” you break a sweat. “Genius,” in one half-hour sitting, requires a feat of concentration. I have to close out everything, including whatever’s going on around me. The theater of the comedic absurd of our three dogs. Those words Janet is uttering to me right now. She could be speaking some obscure dialect of Xhosa. She could be informing me my hair is on fire. I don’t care. I’m not listening. I’m too busy doing the Bee.
Invariably, Janet will lose interest. Or something will take her away from the page. An email to be answered, an ignored pet to be petted. Her spectacular start will fizzle between excellent and genius. Meanwhile, I’m painstakingly building my ladder to genius, one yeoman rung at a time.
Perhaps this is what I like about the Spelling Bee most. That circle of words is a lens through which I see our—Janet and my—true personalities. She, extravagant and gaudy in her intellect and quickness. So smart that she loses interest in things. Me, I’m much more of a stubborn plodder, less nimble of mind, a grinder. The words come harder, slower. Janet’s the gifted one. People might not see it as regularly because it’s not important for her to show it off.
I’m still toiling at the Bee. Janet has dispatched five more emails and taken the terrier out for a last walk, while I’m set in my ways like an old antique. Antique, the three pointer I’ve been hunting. Then antiquate, another, and just like that, and the only time all week, I’m a certifiable genius, at least according to Frank Longo, who authors the Spelling Bee. I imagine Longo must be a very brilliant individual.