Feb 20, 2008

Invasion of the Irate Puzzle People, Kristin Tillotson, Star Tribune

I laughed a lot while reading this article. Hope you will enjoy it too.

Kristin Tillotson is the Source Editor for Star Tribune. I edited her original article to fit in my blog format, but I am not good at this. Maybe someday the Star Tribune will archive it on line, you will then get a better version.
Date: 02/04/01
Byline: Kristin Tillotson

Invasion of the irate Puzzle People
Crossword aficionados resent change to their daily
ritual - and affirmation

Like the alien pod creatures from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers,"
we recognize each other everywhere. On buses, airplanes, over
lattes at the coffee shop and under tables during marathon
meetings, we exchange defeated glances and sharp pencils. We
call each other, long distance and way too early in the morning,
to demand,"Gimme something that flows through the Lake of
Thun in four letters."

We are the Puzzle People. Those who are not of our kind deride or
pity us. They say we're obsessive-compulsives, idlers, avoiders of
more constructive pursuits. We forgive them. Knowing that they'll
never experience the self-actualizing thrill of completing the last
square on a New York Times acrostic is the best revenge.

Revenge? That's not a very high-minded desire. But then, when
riled, we Puzzle People can turn from sedentary scribbling to
hysteria in a hurry. And we're a powerful bloc - forcing, in the
Star Tribune's case, a split decision, and double the puzzles.

On Nov. 26, this newspaper dropped its longstanding crossword,
syndicated by the Los Angeles Times, and replaced it with the New
York Times puzzle. Reader protests were intense- from people who
thought the new puzzle was too difficult, and from two-paper
subscribers accustomed to solving the New York puzzle in the St.
Paul Pioneer Press and the Los Angeles puzzle in the Star Tribune.

On Dec. 8, the paper began running both puzzles during the week,
and on Dec. 17, both on Sunday.

According to industry estimates, one-quarter of all newspaper
readers consider the crossword a part of their routine.

Judging from the intensity and volume of reactions to changes or
errors in puzzles, I'm guessing they're the most vocal 25 percent.
Consider the following sample comments from Star Tribune
readers after the recent switch:

"You -$$#&¢¢%@@!!! I have been through four pots of coffee
and five crossword dictionaries, and I can't get more than three

. . . This puzzle makes me feel very, very stupid. I am not
stupid. I am a physician. . . . You have ruined my morning.
You have ruined my ritual."

- "I tried to do this crossword for a week, and I called my
doctor because I was sure I was getting Alzheimer's disease."

- "The Twin Cities is just not smart enough to do these puzzles.

. . . What's wrong with being a normal person? I am not that
smart. I am not that proud. Fix this!"

- "I do this puzzle on the can on my break. People are complaining
because I am in there too long . . . now it is impossible to do two
things at once."

The newspaper's reader representative, Lou Gelfand, said that
tallying the number of complaints would be "like counting the
leaves in a 30-pound bag. And we're still raking them."

And it's not just the retiree set vocalizing on this seemingly
benign subject: Fortyish real-estate broker John Livingston,
who regularly has coffee with a group of business-owning
friends, said that on the first day of the switch, the crossword
"was all they could talk about for two hours."

For a daily newspaper, trying to please all the readers all the time
is a daily struggle. When it comes to puzzles, trying to be one-size
-fits-all can go from daunting to quixotic: "Readers want a puzzle
that is a challenge but not demoralizing," said Tim McGuire,
executive editor of the Star Tribune. "The tough part is what's
challenging for some readers is impossible for others."

Gelfand offers three succinct reasons for why people pick up the

The first is medical: "They're supplements to anti-depressants."
The second is social: "People do them together over the phone,"
and the third is dietary: Puzzles "go with coffee and they're not

But what is it about the puzzles that gets people so passionate,
cranky and opinionated?

Will Shortz, who edits the New York Times' puzzles, confirms
the reader complaints above: "Partly it's because few things
make people more angry than having their daily routine upset.
Also, working a daily puzzle is a daily confirmation that you still
have what it takes, mentally. If you're suddenly thrown a harder
puzzle, it makes you feel bad."

Not long after Shortz started the job, one reader wrote him that
getting used to a new crossword editor and his puzzle choices was
like adjusting to a new lover: "It's not necessarily unpleasant, you
just have to think through the relationship and get used to the

Shortz (see related story on page E1 of today's Variety section)
looks for puzzles with "consistent themes, fresh, colorful
vocabulary and a good sense of fun." He likes to see a balance of
old and new references, and especially "names that everyone
knows, but rarely appear in crosswords "like Fuzzy-Wuzzy."

As for that Lake of Thun clue from the New York Times puzzle
running in today's Variety, the answer is A-A-R-E. It's a river
in Switzerland. Now go solve already.

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