It could have been worse.  To arrive at my happy place, I could have turned to drugs or alcohol.  Or consuming entire packages of Fig Newtons in one sitting.  But instead, I was drawn to something far less expensive and much lower in calories.  Over time, I’ve evolved into a crossword puzzle junkie!

We all need our moments of Zen, a time of peace and tranquility when we can make the world disappear.  For some, it’s a warm bath with scented candles, or a relaxing massage.  For others it might be meditation and\or yoga.  Or any combination of the above, like meditating while immersed in a warm tub surrounded by scented candles and doing water yoga.  Personally, I prefer showers, and not having to clean the tub after achieving the desired state of grace.

I’ve been drawn to word puzzles since I was a child.  Growing up in cramped quarters with little opportunity for privacy, even back then it was a way to get lost inside my own head.  I remember using my allowance to purchase books of rebus puzzles.  You remember those, the brain teasers that use a combination of pictures and letters to arrive at the answer, usually a common phrase?

But since college, it’s been crosswords.  I would hide the newspaper behind my notebook and work on the puzzle if I was bored.  I did this until I was outed by my economics professor, who smirked at me, and then gave me the answer to 5 Down.

Since retirement, my appetite for solving crossword puzzles has increased proportionately to the additional spare time I now enjoy.  I just love tuning out the world and focusing all my cognitive energy on the black and white squares of a fresh challenge.  Even when I’m being tested to come up with the name of some obscure saint from the 11th century, I’m completely and utterly relaxed.

Crossword puzzles aren’t just recreational but are highly educational.  Over the years, I’ve learned so many interesting things.  For example, do you happen to know the national bird of Hawaii? Well, I do.  Or the alternative to a truncheon? Or what to call a small whirlpool? Or a chalcedony variety?  I know these concepts hardly ever come up in casual conversation, but I’m so much better prepared if they ever do.

Some puzzles are more difficult than others.  For example, the New York Times puzzles increase in difficulty from Monday through Saturday.  (The Sunday puzzle may be bigger, but equal in difficulty to, let’s say, Thursday.)  The progression of difficulty in The Wall Street Journal is the same.  Some Saturday puzzles can be particularly daunting.  I’ve often put the paper down and returned to it later.  Even the next day, at times.  I stare with intense concentration at the blank squares, and it is then that some cognitive alchemy occurs.  And suddenly, I know what I didn’t know before.  It’s like staring at the pieces of a crime board in a police procedural.  If the detective stares long enough, and hard enough, he will suddenly know who did it!

But inherent in not knowing an answer is an ethical dilemma.  I have stared for two days, and still nothing.  Is there any research regarding the maximal time for staring before it no longer produces a result? In that case, may I consult Google? Or is this (gulp!) cheating? At least when you look something up, you learn something.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

Not all puzzles are fun.  Some are downright annoying.  Like the creator was trying too hard to be cryptic or clever.  Too many cross references or overused reliance on Brian Eno. (I wonder how he takes to being a common crossword clue just because his last name conveniently has three common letters?)  Those, I will give a shot, but if I’m really bothered, I admit I do walk away, silently chastising the author.  Which is about as productive as yelling at the TV screen, but it’s all part of the game.

I don’t see my addiction to crossword puzzles abating any time soon.  Nirvana is staring at a string of empty boxes, getting one or two letters, and suddenly being sure of something you know you didn’t know.  That, my friends, is a crossword puzzle moment, and I’m always looking forward to the next one.

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