Offering With a Blessing

FRIDAY PUZZLE — For people first starting to solve crosswords, there is often a feeling of trepidation when they are confronted with a blank grid.

That makes sense if you think about it. A puzzle is perfect before you start scribbling letters. There’s the pristine grid in stark black and white, with sharp lines and perfectly aligned squares. The clues have been written and edited by professionals who surely know more about this than you do. These same clues are double-checked by other experts who are certainly not cackling maniacally about how quickly this will take solvers down.

It also has that “new puzzle” smell — the heady scent of possibility and soy-based ink — that is detectable even if you solve in the app. Go on, raise your phone to your face and take a deep whiff. If you are outside, explain to the people around you that you are just smelling the daily crossword puzzle. I’ll vouch for you.

I bring this up in order to reassure people who are working up the courage to try the harder puzzles that no matter how long you’ve been solving, there will always be one that you struggle with. On the surface, this doesn’t really sound comforting. But it may help to remember that while you are struggling to solve a Tuesday puzzle, someone else — someone more experienced — tried their mightiest to conquer a Friday edition. You are not alone in your trepidation.

In fact, I found Kyle Dolan’s engaging puzzle to be difficult, and I’ve been solving for a long time. Some solvers call this “not being on the constructor’s wavelength,” but in my case, it’s just a matter of not being warmed up.

I hope this is a good analogy, but this is how I imagine it feels to be at bat in a baseball game. If I’m not warmed up and feeling sharp, the balls — the crossword clues — that the pitcher throws at me go whizzing past my head, and I start feeling discouraged. Upon reading the clues a second time, I will take a couple of swings in the hope that I will connect with something. At this point, I’m beginning to recognize some of the clues, and I might be able to write in an answer or two. Now I’m warmed up and starting to fill in more answers, but it doesn’t happen all at once. In my opinion, working the crossings and rereading the clues carefully are the best ways to stay warmed up.

What are your go-to methods for breaking into a puzzle like this? And what do you do when you’re stuck?

18A. Even if you are not sure who her great-grandfather (8D) was, if you see any indication of lyre-playing in the clue, the answer will be ERATO, one of the nine muses in Greek mythology.

Can’t tell Eos from Erato? Here’s some help:

24A. This is what I mean by not being warmed up. I misinterpreted “Drugstore brand named for its target area” and smacked myself on the forehead when I finally got the answer. At first, I thought the clue was talking about a brick-and-mortar drugstore (brand or maybe chain) and its geographical location (“target area”). The answer is TUMS, which, of course, targets the tummy. Moral: When in doubt, reread the clue. Again. OK, one last time. Perfect.

33A. Very clever clue, and I knew this one. I really did. I just couldn’t think of the answer because — say it with me — I wasn’t fully warmed up. “Offering with a blessing?” sounds as if it were hinting at some sort of religious offering, but that question mark indicates there is wordplay going on. What other kinds of blessings are there? How about the “Bless you” we say when someone sneezes? I knew that the offering had to be some kind of cloth you might lend to the sneezer. It turns out that the answer is KLEENEX.

38A/45D. Here’s another solving lesson: When the clues ask about presidents or first ladies, don’t assume that these are leaders of the United States. That information was left out deliberately in order to make the clue trickier. The first lady in this split clue is EVA Perón, nee DUARTE, who went on to star on Broadway as Patti LuPone.

4D. Clues such as “Representative” are tricky because there is no information telling us whether the word is a noun or an adjective. It’s an adjective here, and the answer is TOTEMIC.

7D. A QUBIT is a portmanteau of the words “quantum” and “bit.” Based on information from the Wordplay research department, a quantum bit is just like a classical bit, except that it is more… quantum.

Huh! Just kidding. The people with the pointy sticks would like me to elaborate, so according to the website Quantum Inspire: “In classical computing, the information is encoded in bits, where each bit can have the value zero or one. In quantum computing the information is encoded in qubits.” As far as I can tell, QUBITs are also depicted as zeros and ones, but with fancier punctuation.

9D. This “Book agent?” is not someone who promises you fame, glory and riches beyond your wildest dreams in return for 15 percent of the money you are not yet making. It’s someone who makes books, or takes bets, on sporting events. The answer is ODDS MAKER.

23D. The word “inclined” in the clue “Place to drive, if you’re so inclined?” should set off alarm bells in your head. This is not about doing things if you want to. It’s about driving onto something, and that would be an ON RAMP.

50D. I have been owned by dogs my entire life and spent a good amount of time as a canine behaviorist, but I had never heard of a BITON. The BITON is a hybrid, designer dog that is a cross between a Bichon Frisé and a Coton de Tulear. I thought it was interesting that the entry had not appeared in the New York Times Crossword since before Will Shortz became crossword editor in 1993, and it turns out that this is a debut for the entry as a dog breed. It was formerly clued as the awkward phrase BIT ON. I can understand why the editors went in a new direction.

Following a period of constructing themelesses with black squares laid out in advance of filling (including the SPREZZATURA themeless from April), I changed my approach, starting with STATUS QUO at 1A and letting the grid design emerge organically as dictated by the fill. This required a lot of manual filling without the use of computer aids.

The northeast and southwest quad stacks were serendipitous, and I’m especially happy with how they turned out.

I’d like to acknowledge Sam Ezersky, whose notes from his Jan. 15, 2021, puzzle served in part as an inspiration, as well as for his helpful discussions about themeless construction philosophy. I hope you find the puzzle a fun start to your solving weekend!

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By ll07v

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