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THEME: NORSE GODS (58A: They're hidden in 17-, 25-, 36- and 47-Across) —
PANTY RAID (17A: College prank popular in the '50s)
MOOD INDIGO (25A: Classic Duke Ellington tune)
TRUTH OR DARE (36A: Slumber party game)
HELLO KITTY (47A: Japanese toon with a red bow)
Word of the Day: "TELL MAMA" (36D: 1968 Etta James album) —
Tell Mama is the eighth studio album by American singer Etta James. The album was released August 21, 1968 on Cadet Records and was produced by Rick Hall. Tell Mama was James's first album since 1963 to enter the Billboard 200 albums chart and contained her first Top 10 and 20 hits since 1964. It was also her second release for the Cadet record label. (wikipedia)
• • •
So ... this is gonna get a little (read: a lot) Inside Crosswords for a bit, but I think you'll appreciate it. At least I hope so. OK, so perhaps you've heard me talk about how I learned a ton about making crosswords from a single rejection letter I got back in '08 from Patrick Berry, when he edited the Chronicle of Higher Education crossword. That rejection is a touchstone moment in my crossword life—made me realize what a thoughtful and helpful editor Berry was, and made me realize what my standards ought to be for theme excellence. Honestly, the best rejection experience I ever, uh, experienced. Well, I just dug up that rejection letter. I'm going to reproduce for you now the entirety of my Patrick Berry correspondence from seven years ago. See if you notice anything ... familiar. (The first message is my puzzle pitch, the second is his response)
TRUTHORDARE (11) - *1991 documentary about Madonna's "Blond Ambition" tour MOODINDIGO (12) - *Duke Ellington composition originally titled "Dreamy Blues" HELLOKITTY (12) - *Iconic feline character seen on many pink products BETTYRUBBLE (11) - *Bedrock brunette AESIR (5) - They reside in Valhalla ... and in the answers to the starred clues of this puzzle [circled squares could be used as well]
Thanks for your consideration, Michael Sharp [5/18/08]
This is a nice idea, but unfortunately we've already run a puzzle very similar to it ("Leading Ladies," 02/01/08 -- the hidden words were all goddesses' names). So I'm afraid I'll have to pass.
If you decide to send it elsewhere, I might recommend replacing the first entry...I think hidden-word themes are always stronger if every word in the theme entry is involved in the concealment, which isn't true of DARE in entry #1. DRAFT HORSES or LOST HORIZON would be possible replacements.
Thanks for your interest in submitting to the Chronicle, and I hope you'll try me again.
Regards, Patrick [5/26/08]
So ... yeah. That happened. There's more. I also have an email from Joon Pahk, from August of '08, telling me that he, too, had submitted this theme to Patrick at the Chronicle, and that he, too, had gotten a rejection letter. Joon, however, persevered, and found a home for his puzzle with Peter Gordon at the then not-defunct, indisputably great (crossword-wise) New York Sun (RIP—man that puzzle was good; see Joon's puzzle of 8/27/08 here). Then—THEN—I learned just today (just now) that this theme eventually *did* run in the Chronicle after all, five years later (Oct. 2013), when the Chronicle puzzle was no longer edited by Patrick Berry, but by Jeffrey Harris. That hidden Norse Gods crossword was by Zhouqin ("C.C.") Burnikel (which you can see here; seems lovely). Oh, and it's probably worth noting, just to bring this whole weird saga full circle, that the *current* editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education crossword puzzle is ... [drum roll] ... today's co-constructor: Brad Wilber.
So I have a very strong, weird, personal relationship to this theme. Also, this is the fourth incarnation of this theme That I Know Of (three of which were actually published: Joon's, CC's, and now Brad and Kevin's). And Brad (co-constructor of today's puzzle) is my friend, so I have a strong, weird, personal relationship to him too. Weirder, I had lost all my old email correspondence back in '12 when I had a hard drive meltdown ... until about a month ago, when a family member restored all the data, which allowed me to go back down crossword memory lane, which allowed me to find the old correspondence with Patrick Berry and Joon, which Joon and I were *just* talking about last week ... and now this puzzle comes out. It's just an avalanche of coincidence and nostalgia for me right now. I just wrote Brad and told him all this. I showed him my old grid (also recovered in the hard drive data restoration). He said nice things, because he is Brad. Here, you can judge for yourself. This is my version of this theme from way way back:
[Note ACME at 1-Across—that's a nod to Andrea Carla Michaels, whose hilarious story about Will Shortz not knowing what HELLO KITTY was led directly to my making this puzzle.]
[Not sure why I thought I could put TYRE in a puzzle where TYR is one of the hidden gods ... that corner needs redoing anyway ... gah, why am I still mentally re-working a puzzle that I'll never publish that's already been done three times!!!]
Annnnnnyway, this is all to say that this theme has been done, though not quite like this. Brad and Kevin's puzzle is 74 words, which makes for some pretty wide open corners. Still, the fill is reasonably clean. I was mildly wincing at ITT and INATIE, figuring I might be in for a crosswordese/iffy fill-fest. But no. Once you get out of the NW (past SOU) the fill evens out considerably. Since it's not an Olympic year, I had trouble with SHANI. I also don't really know what a HEELTAP is. That is, if I saw that word, I would assume it referred to one's tapping of one's heel, not a material object. And I didn't know "TELL MAMA" was an Etta James album. But I picked all this stuff up easily nonetheless.
So thanks, Brad and Kevin, for the surreal solving experience, and the chance to go down my own personal Crossword Memory Lane.
These puzzle continue to skew old, staid, and safe. This concept is fine—sound progression is a time-tested theme. I've seen many of these before. This one seems reasonably original.Well, there's one problem. Kind of a biggie: uh, that river? It's not pronounced SAYn. It's more SENN. So, short e, not long a. But maybe it's some Americanism I don't know about. Even so, both RIVER SEINE and CUT AND SEWN both feel like stretches to me. What other SEINE is there? The SANDWICH SEINE? The DIVE BAR SEINE? I get that there is a convention (an olde one) of saying things like "The River Nile"—maybe it's a poetic convention? But it feels stilted. CUT AND SEWN, on the other hand, just doesn't stand alone well, though perhaps this is some inside baseball (or inside tailoring) term that I just don't know. Possible. Anyway, themewise, we move through the long vowel sounds in that last syllable. That's all. Fill is a bit cleaner than yesterday, but still ruthlessly uncontemporary, as is the cluing. Again, this puzzle could've come straight out of '80s, '70s, '60s, no problem. I knew it was not going to be my cup of tea with the first answer I put in the grid:
Is that an *inherently* bad answer? Well, no. But at 1-Across, I knew. I've done enough of these. I knew. It was a harbinger. A telling sign of what the puzzle's cultural center of gravity would be. I feel like the NYT has just decided that making inoffensive, familiar fare for Boomers and their parents is the way they're gonna go. FALA-lalala, HAHA ECRU. This is mightily disappointing, as well as mighty confusing. But maybe as a business model, this makes great sense. For now.
[The only thing that came up when I searched ["LORD GIVE ME A SIGN"] was this song. Literally all hits on the first page related to this song]
There's nothing here. There are only three themers, they barely hold together, the fill is from ... well not MEDIEVAL times, but olde tymes for sure. It's a mystery how something this ordinary and unplayful and unambitious is being run in the "greatest puzzle on earth" or whatever it's calling itself this week. The whole thing today is thin to the point of transparency. Pointless. Filler. I don't think there's even anything to say about this puzzle. I asked for help on Twitter and one of my Followers said "I guess the public pool is closing for the winter and the constructor is really sad about it?" Sure. Why not? Who knows? The longer answers are fine, so there's that. But yeesh. It took all my will to go on after I hit this bit, ten seconds in:
A HOER and his OLEOS are soon parted. I need a drink. Good day.
THEME:"Conflicting Advice" — adages that are clued via adages that say the opposite, i.e. ["this adage, but ..."] and then the answer is THIS OTHER ADAGE THAT CONTRADICTS THE ADAGE IN THE CLUE. Yes, I swear this is the theme.
OPPOSITES ATTRACT (3D: "Birds of a feather flock together, but ...")
FOOLS SELDOM DIFFER (6D: "Great minds think alike, but ...")
TIME WAITS FOR NO MAN (34D: "Slow and steady wins the race, but ...")
IGNORANCE IS BLISS (38D: "Knowledge is power, but ...")
LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP (24A: "He who hesitates is lost, but ...")
CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN (111A: "You can't judge a book by its cover, but ...")
Word of the Day: LOLO Soetoro, stepfather of Barack Obama (51A) —
Lolo Soetoro, also known as Lolo Soetoro Mangunharjo or Mangundikardjo (EYD: Lolo Sutoro) (Javanese: [ˈlɒlɒ suːˈtɒrɒː]; January 2, 1935 − March 2, 1987), was the Indonesianstep-father of Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States . // In his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, Obama described Soetoro as well-mannered, even-tempered, and easy with people; he wrote of the struggles he felt Soetoro had to deal with after his return to Indonesia from Hawaii. He described his stepfather as following "a brand of Islam that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths." In a 2007 article, Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent Kim Barker reported that Soetoro "was much more of a free spirit than a devout Muslim, according to former friends and neighbors." (wikipedia)
• • •
This just doesn't work. Not at the theme level, and definitely not at the fill level. It is mildly interesting that there exist this many adages that conflict one another, and that you can arrange them symmetrically in the grid, but I'm not sure the existence of such is a strong enough base on which to build and Entire Sunday Crossword Puzzle. They layout of the themers is probably the most interesting thing about this puzzle—highly unusual majority-Down set-up reverses the standard way of doing things, which I'm all for. Mix it up. But there's just nothing in the grid to overcome the dullness of the theme. No interest. No fun. No humor.
And this is a grid that has clearly been hand-filled without the apparent aid of any software—I am very supportive of the idea of novices hand-filling grids to get a sense of how they work, how they don't work, what the challenges are in filling them, etc., but that's for the learning stage. Not the prime-time stage. Grids *need* to be much, much more polished than this, and the cold truth is that the only people who can completely hand-fill grids to modern standards, with no digital assistance, are super-experienced pros. People who have 15+ years experience doing this stuff. People who learned to make puzzles in the pre-software era and then *upped their game* when the digital age forced their hands. (Most constructors I know work without computer assistance initially, but then rely on software to help them see the variety of what's possible, fill-wise, much faster and more completely than the human brain can; if you're at all confused about this process, I highly recommend Matt Gaffney's book Gridlock). This grid has been segmented like crazy in a way that increases drastically the amount of short stuff, and then the grid is loaded with "I've seen it before so it must be acceptable"-type fill. ADREM and ABO and ARA and SST and two -AE ending words and on and on. Only TOSHES is truly ridiculous, but the cumulative weight of uninteresting fill really causes this thing to drag. Here's the point at which I sighed because I realized I still had a long way to go and just didn't care any more:
Oooh, look, you can see the error that would eventually come back to haunt me. Had CHEF 44D: One on staff? because Barack Obama's stepfather was a giant ???? to me (and because, honestly, LOHO seemed like something that this puzzle would have in it ... I mean, it's got TOSHES, for &$%'s sake!). Also, there is a famous LOLO, which I figured would've been used if the answer was actually going to be LOLO:
But to be clear, I checked out on this puzzle Well before the end (when I realized I had an error). The DIPSO ARCED APORT because the AMAH would FAIN something something ADREM. It's brutal. My favorite part was right here, at 41A: Half-and-half, maybe—because I couldn't fathom any answer except one answer, which was the wrong answer, but it made me laugh anyway:
I mean ... a BUTT is kind of "Half-and-half," especially if you tack "maybe" on the end there. Like, there's one half ... and then there's the other half ... leading to the complete BUTT. Made sense to me. One last thing: If I check Yelp, I'm Yelping? Do I have that right? Just *checking* means I'm Yelping? That seems off. Yelp me out here. (40D: Checked online reviews of, modern-style => YELPED)
I'll be on the radio today (WMNF, Tampa), on the show "Life Elsewhere," talking about the late and also great Merl Reagle. You can catch it live at noon here, or in an archived version, which I'll post whenever it becomes available. (UPDATE: Here's an archived version—Listen Now) (my segment starts near top of the show, around 1:20 mark...)
Signed, Rex Parker, King of CrossWorld
P.S. the theme has been done before, and in the Shortz era. It was Jan. 3, 1999, too long ago for most solvers to notice (or care). Still ...
This played hard, then easy, then hard, then easy. So "Medium." Couldn't get started, then couldn't understand how I had failed to get started, as I knocked off well over half the puzzle without much effort. Then got badly stuck in the SE. Then figured out what the hell [Brown's follower] meant and went on to finish the puzzle somewhere in the SW, possibly at the "Y" in YLEVEL (59A: Surveying device with letter-shaped rests). Overall it seems pretty decent. It's not a showy grid—looks oddly like a weekday/themed grid in its segmentation. There are no stacks of longer answers—in fact, it doesn't contain any answer more than 11 letters long. But there's a bunch of good stuff in there: OXFORD COMMA (20A: Much-debated grammar subject) and "LAY IT ON ME" and SCARE QUOTES being my favorites. SEX APPEAL's not bad either. Next to no junk. Nice. I found it a little annoying at first (and this may explain the difficulty / frustration I had getting started) because there seems to be sooooo many &%^$ing "?" clues. When I finished the puzzle, I counted—there are only seven (7) "?" clues total. It's just that five (5) (!) of those originate in the NW quadrant, where my solving experience also originated. Anyway, once I figured out XBOXONE, I took off, and the whole "?" issue ceased to matter.
Not sure how I feel about crossing ICBM and IBAR at the "I." I think I'm against it. Something about having to say the "I" out loud (as a letter) in both seems ... like duplication, even though one "I" is an abbr. and the other is just the letter qua letter, the shape of the letter being the issue. I definitely object to the dupe at XBOX *ONE* and SIDE *ONE*. So, to be clear, the "I" thing would never bother me if those "I" s weren't in the same box. Like, if IBAR were way on the other side of the grid from ICBM, I wouldn't even have notice, let alone cared. But the crossing ... not sure why it bugs me, but it does. I don't consider that a dupe, though. A dupe is a duplicate word in the grid. Here's the thing I realized about dupes—if they are fewer than three letters long, I don't care (again, unless they're intersecting). Like, you could have four "ON"s in the grid, and I'm not sure I'd notice. I certainly wouldn't notice two. But once you get into longer words (3+), then I think you shouldn't dupe them. It's just an elegance issue. No one is harmed by the two ONEs. But ideally, you don't do that.
30D: Color (TINCT) — Had TIN-. Guessed TINCT. Worried it could be TINGE. This doubt caused some of the ensuing problems in the SE.
48A: "La Dolce Vita" setting (ROME) — this caused some more of the problems in the SE. I plunked down ROMA with no hesitation. The title of the movie is in Italian, ROMA is the Italian spelling, parallelism takes over ... ROMA. But no. I also convinced myself that ESTOERA was a word (39D: Things rarely seen), so I didn't get that, or TEXAN (44A: President #36, #41 or #43) for a little while there. That section fell because I finally realized the way "diet" was being used in 41D: Mideast diet (KNESSET).
5D: Unpleasant things to pass around (COLDS) — I had GERMS. So ... I was close.
23A: Battle of Isengard participant (ENT) — never saw this clue, which is how it should be with short / over-common fill. That stuff should be inconspicuous to the point of invisibility. It should also be scarce, especially in a themeless, which, as I've said, it is today.