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Alex Beam

Crossing over to join the Puzzle People

It started innocently enough.

Last year, my son and his ninth-grade cronies discovered the Washington Post crossword puzzle online. It has a lot to recommend it. It's free, and it isn't very hard. The Post is handing out the gateway drug to full-scale crossword puzzle addiction.

Michael and I enjoyed ourselves, for a while. I had always shied away from crosswords, because my mother used to solve the gnarly British ones, from oddball papers like the pre-Murdoch London Times and the Manchester Guardian. Sample clue: "Bearing a flower in spring." Answer: "Easter." E or east is the bearing; aster is the flower. You can understand why I grew up feeling stupid.

But soon my son and I were whipping though the Post, and a decision loomed: Are we going to play Notre Dame? Meaning, are we going to take on The New York Times crossword, which both of us regarded as way out of our league.

Well, here is an interim report. We do do the Times crossword, when we have time. The Times crosswords become harder each day of the week. We are pretty solid through Wednesday, and after that our record is spotty. A friend explained over dinner that the Sunday crossword isn't any harder than the mid-week puzzles, just bigger. I am three-for-three on the Sunday puzzles so far. Michael has better things to do on the weekends, thank heavens.

It's always nice to sample a new drug, and I'm pretty well hooked. Now, instead of socks scattered around the house, there are half-finished crosswords. (Well, there are socks, too.) I like the Sunday Globe magazine puzzle and the Friday Wall Street Journal puzzle, which are generally not too difficult. My cousin sent me some Merl Reagle puzzles from the Seattle Times. They are distinctively funny, and hard. Sample clue: "So, Tarzan, how come you and Jane aren't skinny-dipping anymore in the backyard?" Answer: Neighborhood watch.

Puzzle People inhabit a very special planet. One where it really helps to know the moons of Uranus and Saturn, for instance; they are always cropping up in puzzles. One where a lot of people seem to have attended Yale, as "Eli" is a prized world combination that seems to have helped many a puzzle composer out of a jam. Everyone listens to Abba, yet another helpful consonant-vowel combination, and eels, known as "congers" in puzzle-speak, are everywhere. Herman Melville's greatest novel is not "Moby-Dick" but the spelling anomaly "Omoo."

On Planet Puzzle, an eye is always an orb, Nabisco's only product is an Oreo - The Wall Street Journal created an entire puzzle around the cookie - and "olio" is a common word, although I have never encountered it outside the little white boxes. Emus and ernes are everywhere, especially in Eire, another ubiquitous, short puzzle word.

Here are the key "boxers or briefs" questions in PuzzleWorld: Pencil or pen? I say pencil, though Michael prefers pen. Online or offline? Offline; print rules! I don't subscribe to the Times, so I sneak across the street to the public library, tear the Arts section out of some senior citizen's hand, and Xerox the puzzle. It sounds cruel, but I need my fix! Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says 52,500 readers solve the puzzle online.

"Research" versus cheating? I'll do research. If the clue is "Remote command," I'll find the TV remote and look at the various options. My mother uses the almanac - no wonder she solves those double acrostics! I have Googled my way out of some tough spots, usually on Thursdays, prompting much scorn from my son. That's cheating. The problem with Googling is that you often end up on a solution site, with the entire, solved puzzle staring you in the face.

To time or not to time? We don't time; who's in a hurry? Pro- or anti-Will Shortz, the Times's puzzle editor? We are agnostic. He seems like a hard-working fellow.

In his memoirs, New Yorker writer E.J. Kahn Jr. relates how fanatical, puzzle-solving commuters whipped out the crossword at Manhattan's 125th Street station and competed to finish before their train pulled into Grand Central, just eight or nine minutes away. (I've heard a similar story, except the commuters had to solve the puzzle using only Down clues.)

By Kahn's metric, Michael and I are starting the puzzle somewhere around New London, Conn. But we are getting closer to 125th Street every day.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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