Danger lurks behind the squares

    People pick up the Guardian for two reasons: to hunt for mistakes and inaccuracies, and to do the crossword puzzle.

    Until recently, I didn’t understand all the fuss about the crossword puzzle. I was content to pick up the paper, laugh at the mistakes and inaccuracies I found, and then take it home to line my cat’s litter box, leave it in a lecture hall when no one was looking, or strew it over the nearest sidewalk. I enjoyed the occasional game of Scrabble much more than the average person, but the crossword puzzle? Nah.

    That all changed one day when I found myself in biology class, having browsed the paper all the way to page 16 without spotting any misspelled photo captions or uproarious grammatical errors. The crossword taunted me, its blank squares seeming to wink lasciviously.

    So, like a 14-year-old trying her first bong hit, I tried it. “It’s what all the cool kids are doing,” I assured myself, glancing around at my classmates, who were all hunched over the same puzzle, ignoring the lecturer at the front of the room. “It can’t do any harm — I’m just trying it once.”

    The clues beckoned — so simple, but so complex. Was a four-letter word for “a large number of” tons, lots, or gobs? Which “occasion to use good china” did the puzzle want from me? And who the hell composed “Over the Rainbow”? I got high off the success of filling in half the clues on an initial pass, but was haunted by the clues I didn’t immediately know. On the bus, walking to class, eating lunch — I clutched my puzzle, sweaty fingers smearing the ink, poring over the defiant clues, going over and over potential answers in my head. Completing all of it was damned near impossible. I felt like a failure for not knowing the name of Nigeria’s currency or the capital of Bulgaria. But worst of all, I knew I was hooked.

    Casually filling in clues during class was cool; it made me look hip, rebellious and knowledgeable. But doing online crossword puzzles in the evenings, with no one but me to admire my success? Well, that was just pathetic, even if doing puzzles in Flash was quicker and neater than scribbling on newsprint. But, I painfully reminded myself, the point was not to finish the puzzle. Oh no. The point was to be forever working on the puzzle, thoughtfully penciling neat block letters in the view of as many people as possible. It’s not socially acceptable for adults to do other word games, like the Jumble. But crosswords? Why, if you do a crossword, you must be literate, learned and clever. And if you do them while you should be doing something else? Oh-ho-ho, we’ve got ourselves a winner!

    Like any addict, I found I had to increase my stakes to attain the same buzz: I started filling in the puzzles in ink. Soon I was caught in a destructive cycle of depression, despair and messy cross-outs. I became estranged from my family after calling them just to ask, “What’s the last name of ‘Chicago singer Peter’?” I would wake up in alleys, bruised and dirty, half-finished crossword puzzles draped over my face. I began hoarding pens, paranoid that I would be caught without a writing implement when the answer to a clue came to me. I needed help.

    I told myself I’d been earmarked for addiction since birth, for word game-mania runs in my family. I have terrible memories of waking up to the comics, only to see — day after day — the page brutally folded back to give my mother easy access to the crossword. The puzzle was always completed by the time I woke up — a clear sign of my mother’s terrible, terrible battle with addiction.

    At such a numbers- and facts-oriented university, it seems curious that, when faced with a blank crossword puzzle, UCSD students suddenly appear to gain such an appreciation for wordplay. But, at a more basic level, our infatuation with crosswords is easily explained.

    Doing crosswords, like hanging out in coffee shops while wearing trendy eyeglasses, is all about image. And Southern Californian college students are obsessed with image. Having a head crammed full with random knowledge is, in itself, useless. But channeling that random knowledge toward crossword puzzles? It’s validating! It’s brilliant! And best of all, it’ll keep you from ever having to interact with the person sitting next to you in class!

    Secondly, the basic priorities of college students are as follows: food, sleep, hedonism, “Simpsons” trivia and the avoidance of studying. Crosswords are a great way to avoid studying and — should you find yourself in a lecture by some terrible accident — an easy way to avoid being tainted by the knowledge of professors and lecturers. And crosswords even include the occasional “Simpsons”-related clue.

    After having gotten my own crossword puzzle addiction somewhat under control, and being able to objectively analyze the situation, the truth is clear: Crossword puzzles are a threat to all we hold dear as Americans and as college students. One minute you’re an innocent kid idly working on the Jumble on a Sunday afternoon; the next minute you’re in college, furiously filling in crosswords — avoiding what you should be doing, like having lots of casual sex and drinking until you forget your name.

    Crossword puzzles break lives. They break families. And they will break you, too, unless you resist them with all your force. Now would you please give me a four-letter word for “Swan lady”?

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