Thursday, July 08, 2010

The quest for perfection

This is my computer desk. (My children don't usually sit there, but they saw the camera come out and insisted on being included in the picture. Kids!)

Since only one of my readers has ever been inside my apartment, all the rest of you wouldn't have any way of knowing what has changed most recently, so I'll tell you. It's that crossword puzzle hanging on the wall.

When I lived in Minnesota, the St. Paul newspaper carried the Sunday New York Times puzzles (a week delayed), and I grew rather addicted to them. At first--some ten years ago--I could never finish one without consulting various references books when I got stuck. Then finally, FINALLY, I had the joyous day when I was able to get one completely done, with no mistakes and no outside help. That is, by the time I was done with it I had all the right letters in, though there had been a lot of scribbling and revision along the way.

Of course, I continued to get better with time, and was able to finish a higher and higher percentage of the ones I tackled. Since moving to Nevada, I no longer subscribe to a newspaper, but I have purchased books of old Sunday NYT puzzles, so I don't even have to wait a week between them. I do at least part of one most nights before going to sleep.

For the past few years, I have had a new goal: Get one done perfectly without making any mistakes or corrections along the way. Although my grandmother chided me for it repeatedly when I was young, I always do crossword puzzles in ink, so when I realize I have made a mistake, I scratch it out, and the result can be rather ugly.

The rules I set for myself were these: No outside help (human, book, or computer); no tentatively writing guesses in little itty-bitty letters; no using the page (or other piece of paper) to write out the possibilities. In short, it had to really be perfect, start to finish, no second-guessing myself; every stroke of the pen had to be right just as it first went down.

This turned out to be a lot harder than I thought at first. I went years without accomplishing it. Until recently, I hadn't even told anybody it was something I wanted to accomplish, because it seemed out of my reach.

Perfectly finishing a big, advanced-level puzzle like this is, for me, more difficult than winning a poker tournament. It's more akin to trying to win a poker tournament without ever losing a single hand. Or maybe it's like pitching a perfect game in baseball, or bowling 300. There is no room for error. I know that the best puzzlers in the world can knock off one of these almost effortlessly, but I'm a long, long way from that level of talent and experience.

Within the last year, though, it started to seem possible. I was sometimes finishing the puzzles with only three or four squares where I had had to make a revision. Early this year, within the space of just over a week I did one that looked perfect, but had two errors in it when I checked the answers (I had had to make a lot of guesses, so I was not surprised to find the mistakes), one that had just two corrections, but no mistakes when I checked the key, and, most tantalizingly, one that had just a single square in which I had erred. That one was the real heartbreaker, because it was completely avoidable. I was down to the last few words, and just made a stupid mistake and put the present tense of a verb, even though the clue was past tense--something like DANCES instead of DANCED. I wanted to scream in frustration.

Shortly after my series of close calls, Cardgrrl, who shares my enjoyment of crosswords, arrived for a visit flashing that week's NYT puzzle, which she had done on the plane--perfectly. I confess that I was not a good enough person to celebrate her accomplishment as I should have; my pride for her was tainted with envy, because she has not been wrestling with these things nearly as long as I have. (I apologize again, my friend.) That experience spurred me to change how I was going about it.

I didn't try to achieve a perfect result with every puzzle I tackled. Sometimes I would do one for speed (my record is a hair under an hour), sometimes trying all of the across clues before any of the downs, etc. When I would set out to try for a perfect one, I would tackle one section at a time, making sure that I knew all or nearly all of the answers for that part of the grid before filling in any of them. It's a much slower way of getting to the end, and, for me, less enjoyable, because I don't get to write in my brilliant deductions as soon as I make them. It's actually a bit agonizing because of the need to be painstaking, never getting distracted, triple-checking everything before setting pen to paper, etc. And I kept falling short. I couldn't seal the deal. But at least I knew I had found the method that would work eventually, if I kept at it.

About a month ago I sort of did it. I did one start to finish with no blemishes and no errors when I checked the back of the book. But the achievement was tainted, because this was a puzzle that Cardgrrl had tackled and had gotten stuck on, and I had helped her figure out the last dozen or so clues. That meant that I had some advance knowledge of some of the answers. So it didn't feel like a clean win for me; I had to put a dreaded asterisk next to it in my mental record book.

But last night, it finally all came together, and I got my first-ever untainted, uncompromised, uncheated, perfect puzzle--and I did it all in one sitting, in just under 90 minutes. (That was not one of my requirements for myself, but it was a nice added bonus.) Its degree of difficulty was on the less-challenging side, though far from the easiest I've seen; there were several words and names that I didn't know (SER, PHAR LAP, LORCA, VARESE, SEDGE, ENA, the ASHCAN school of painting). And I had a bit of luck--I had to guess in two spots, and I nailed them both.

Before I knew it, there it was--my own personal Holy Grail sitting in front of me, with no killer rabbits, no nasty kaniggits, no chopping down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring.

I had long ago told myself that if I ever actually attained this goal--and, trust me, there were long stretches in which I felt positive I would never make it--I would frame the result and hang it on my wall. So today while I was out on errands, I bought a cheap ($7) document frame, and this evening I did just that.

I think I will enjoy having a tangible reminder that (1) I really do get better at things with practice, and (2) with enough effort, perseverance, strategy, and luck, I can, sooner or later, achieve even the most difficult goals that I set for myself.


bellatrix78 said...

WOW! Congrats. I'm horrible at crosswords, but I'm sure you would enjoy "Wordplay"

Rakewell said...

Yes, I've seen it twice. It's how I know that while I'm feeling pretty tall in the saddle now, compared to the best in the world I can only say, "I'm not worthy."

Michael said...

Congrats, for finishing the perfect puzzle and for working to grow in understanding in your mention of the puzzle Cardgrrl finished. Both are impressive achievements.

NT said...

Congratulations! Never doubted you'd do it.

phrankguy1 said...

Wow, quite an accomplishment! I used to attempt this one regularly, but couldn't even come close to completing it without some sort of assistance, and sometimes even with assistance I'd throw in the towel. I can see why you'd put this accomplishment above things like winning a tourney - this seems alot more difficult.