Friday, February 23, 2007


Existential Friday: Diane Keaton

I am second to no one in my sympathetic understanding of the mid life crisis as a huge part of the human condition -- the impulse to cling desperately to whatever lingering traces of youth we still have. And so I don't begrudge the leading-edge baby boomers -- 60-somethings, forsooth! -- their big-budget romantic comedies, so long as those don't entail Jack Nicholson or Harrison Ford or Bill Murry macking and smooching on the likes of Scarlett Johansson.


My question is this: who appointed Diane Keaton to the position of National Commissioner for Aging Female Sexuality?

Don't get me wrong: I am a strong believer in Aging Female Sexuality, because (a) it exists, (b) it's only right and fair, and (c) I'm an aging male. I'm perfectly capable of seeing the hotness in a 61-year old woman. And I'm all in favor of having a National Commissioner, in the form of an actress who gets all the "I've still-got-it-after-all-these-years mom" parts, like 61-year old Keaton's latest, the mom of Mandy Moore in Because I Said So.

But does it have to be Diane Keaton? Who could never act? Who was never really hot at any time, Woody Allen's thing for her notwithstanding? Who now looks weirdly like a 38-year-old who's had wrinkles superimposed on her by the studio makeup artists so she could play a grandma?

Is the problem a lack of suitable alternatives? Goldie Hawn (also 61) has had too much work done and looks too creepy. Michelle Pfeiffer is too young (48) and maybe too beautiful to be the archetypal sexy mom.

Your nominations please! We need a candidate to unseat Keaton!!!

Saturday, February 17, 2007


This is not going to become a crossword puzzle blog...

... yet I can't help but notice that my last post (ten days ago!) was also about crossword puzzles.

B and I are in the "it gets interesting around Thursday" phase (see Althouse's comment to my previous post) and getting just a bit cocky, when today we get totally stumped!

We overcame what I consider to be a couple of lame crossword tricks -- words like "rearousal" (clue: "further stirring") and "amusers" (clue: "toys, for tots") that are technically words but that no native-speaker would ever use in speech or writing. And we rolled our eyes at the seemingly inevitable repeat words -- [boxer Lennox] "Lewis" for the second time in a week!

But then we were stumped.

9 Down -- "givers of unfriendly hugs"
9 Across -- "one using the metric system?"

Both four letter words.

The "giver of unfriendly hugs," I guess right away as "boas," but if that's correct, then 15-accross, "less likely to reconcile" is "sorer." Yet another one of those technical words -- who says or writes "sorer," for god sake? -- but there it is on, meaning more sore or annoyed.

So it is "boas," meaning that "one using the metric system" is either "bard" or "barp," the last letter forming the first letter of 12-down, "valets, sometimes" -- since valets could be "dressers" or "pressers."

How is a "bard" a user of the metric system? Sometimes, many times, the trick is in the clue, not the answer. And sometimes you have a blind spot. Duh!

Thursday, February 08, 2007


A cavil about crosswords

A couple of weeks ago, B and I rented "Wordplay," the delightful documentary about crossword puzzle enthusiasts, featuring New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz.

In addition to following the scarily talented puzzle geeks, the film interviews such celebrity crossword enthusiasts as Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls. It basically makes you want to do the New York Times crossword puzzle yourself.

Which B and I have done almost every day for the last couple of weeks.

The NY Times Crossword is, of course, famous for its pattern of increasing degree of difficulty, starting with easy on Monday to extremely challenging on Saturday. (Sunday doesn't seem as hard as the end-of-week puzzles, it's just bigger.)

There have been a few interesting movies about word games in the last couple of years. Two about spelling bees (Akeelah and the Bee, and the documentary Spellbound), and Word Wars, which is strikingly similar to to Wordplay except that it deals with Scrabble geeks.

All four of these surprisingly entertaining movies had a major thematic unity: word games really aren't all that much about words. At least not about "words" in the sense of "a large vocabulary." The top Scrabble players have mathematical minds inclined to letter patterns and able to memorize those letter patterns that form word-entries in the official Scrabble dictionary. Yeah, it's in the scrabble dictionary, but you want to say, "okay, you just got 32 points for that word... now, use it in a sentence."

I like crossword puzzle clues that call on you to know interesting words or, even better, that have a clever pun that snaps into place when you get it right. But I guess it's just too hard to make puzzles with lots of words like that, and so you find that crossword puzzles have their own irritating tricks and shortcuts, and you can get good at them by learning the rules of the game.

B and I breeze through the Monday and Tuesday puzzles, filling them in a continuous, machine-like flow of right answers like the puzzle geeks in Word Play (though it takes us 10-20 minutes, compare to their 2-3 minute completion times). By Wednesday, they start to insert clever puns and puzzle themes, and we find ourselves having to fight through sections that stump us. By Thursday we are cheating a lot -- looking stuff up on the internet -- and we can't always finish the Friday and Saturday puzzles even with the cheating.

What disappoints me about crossword puzzles is when they ratchet up the difficulty simply by making clues for easily retrieved words and phrases purposely obscure -- either vague or misleading. By vague, I mean that they give a clue that is one of the more remote definitions of the word. Today, for instance, the clue was "more remote" (5 letters). Answer: "icier." Often, to get these words, you have to disregard connotations, which will mislead you.

Also a tad disappointing is the shameless repetition. As there are Scrabble words, there are also common crossword puzzle words. "Erne" (clue "sea eagle") has appeared 2-3 times in the past couple of weeks, as has "roan" (a type, or color of, horse). Abbreviations of military rank (sgt = sergeant, col = colonel, etc.) are ubiquitous. "Tesh" as in "new age composer John" appears in an ungodly number of puzzles relative to his cultural importance.

It would be sort of fun, though in an extraordinarily geeky way, to come up with crossword answer trivia questions, like this:
Q. What is the most commonly-referenced TV series in crossword puzzle history?
A. Bonanza.
I'm not sure why... I think the double-s in "Hoss" is useful to puzzle makers, as is the "r-n-e" in the first name of the actor who played the dad (Lorne Green).

These quibbles really haven't undermined my enjoyment of the puzzles. But I was truly outraged last Friday. I was totally stumped by this puzzle: a three letter word for "start of a Tennessee Williams title." I immediately assumed "Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof]," but then that didn't work, nor did the others, "The," "Not," "You," "Now," and "Out." (I looked those up after "Cat" failed me.) Nor could I think of a 3-letter word for "basic teaching."

It turns out that the trick to this puzzle was that the words "cat" and "dog" could be used in a single letter square. Thus, "Cat-on" occupied only 3 letter-squares, as did "Dog-ma" for "basic teaching." Nothing on the page indicated this dramatic alteration of the rules of the game. I'd never have figured it out -- not because I'm not clever but because I'd simply never heard of 3-letter words getting to count as a single letter in a crossword puzzle. It wasn't until I cheated by looking at the answer in the Saturday paper. Once you knew that trick, the puzzle was actually quite fun and clever. Grrrr!

UPDATE: Puzzle insiders know this as a "rebus" puzzle. (See Bitch PhD's X-word puzzle blog, Diary of a Crossword Fiend.) Live and learn.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


My life as a rock star -- continued

Today I thought my Evidence class was, as Larry David would say, pret-ty good .... pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty good.

For two hours -- two hours! -- I had moved smoothly around the large classroom with my portable clip on-mike. Teaching the class. Nobody was surfing eBay, as far as I could see. And I was wearing my best suit. I thought I looked pret-ty good.

Until, just after class, out in the hallway, one of my colleagues touched the cuff of my suit jacket, to show me that a pink laundry tag attached by a safety pin was visibly sticking outside the edge of it.

"You lost a few cool points there," he observed.

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