the puzzle, The Puzzle, THE PUZZLE!

Last year I started doing the city paper’s daily crossword. It was free to pick up on campus and I found it a useful way to occupy myself during long lectures in a manner less consuming than the internet i.e. it allows me to multi-task faithfully. Furthermore, being an English student, it was not a non-academic diversion and the pseudo-learning aspect gave my enjoyment of the practice more legitimacy.

And it was a simple engagement! Availability on campus was not only convenient and free but it also naturally set the sort of parameter a man of my appetites finds useful, nay necessary, by being a regimented dose so-to-say. One a day; no more, no less. It was indeed a finite source of pleasure that I looked forward to as a part of my day.

People would comment when they saw me doing it too. Saying things like ‘I don’t know how you do that’, which was all the reinforcement I needed to further associate joy with my crossword. This joy, however, was of a different nature than my own self-assertion, it was validation, it was recognition that I stood out and above and it was addictive. Hooked, I started directly affixing my identity to completing the crossword. No longer was it one of the ways I manifested my love of puzzles and games, it had become the way. Strategy games, video games, these things are nerdy. But the crossword, that’s smart.

In tandem with my developing social views on the puzzle, I was also just plain getting better at it. When I started I would be happy with, say, 50% completion. Then I started picking up more ‘crossword-words’ and completion rose to 75% and so did the standard. Then I was at 90% until finally I fully completed my first puzzle with minimal assistance (my rule is that, if all other avenues are exhausted, I may Google a biographical clue – the type that you can’t logic out – to give me some fresh ground to work with). Either way, it was a terrific feeling, one that redefined my relationship with crosswords, as now, as I’m sure you can guess, the standard became perfection.

Perfection(ism) has plagued me throughout life, starting in elementary school when we had weekly spelling tests. The feeling of teary Thursday nights where all I wanted to do was be done with school but was not permitted to leave the kitchen table until I could spell all the words accurately (and then again, just to be sure) stays with me. It was not a standard I imposed on myself but one levied by caring parents who just wanted the best for me. I learned that 100% is on the grading scale and so must be achievable and I learned that I was a special boy so 100% I must achieve.

It’s all well and good to strive for such a grade in the case of a 15-20 word spelling test where it’s not only achievable but also pretty reasonable (although I remember my teacher accusing me of cheating after a streak of perfection). Unfortunately, I did not take away from the experience an appreciation for knowledge as the reward of study or any other positive growth. Instead, what I had learned was that 100% was good – it met expectations – and anything less was not-good or, bad.

For grade 7 I moved from the public school system to a private school and this standard became crippling. It soon became apparent that I was not to be a standout in this environment, in fact, I was very average (if not a little below), and nothing I could produce would meet this engrained expectation. So I stopped. Stopped studying, stopped paying attention in class, stopped engaging with school altogether, because if I wasn’t putting in effort how could you hold my sub-perfect grades as being representative of my abilities. Alas, the point of this long tangent is that, that mentality took me years to break out of. I am indeed still working on it to this day (maybe one day I’ll be able to write without rereading and rewriting every sentence along the way) although it no longer impedes me quite so significantly.

So back to the point then: with the crossword I was beginning to find myself back in the spelling test space. Here was something 100-percentable, and I had just 100-percented it. Of course it took some time to achieve this reliably but the more times I did the more painful failure to do so became. Achieving far more than I was capable of just months before ceased to satisfy me. On particularly bad days where the clues just didn’t fall within my wheelhouse I’d get angry. Angry at my super fun puzzle game! But still, it just meant learn more, pursue more, keep at it and more 100s will continue to fall. And this is the way it was until midsummer.

For whatever reason part way through this last summer the paper stopped being delivered to the school – and yes I had still been going to campus over summer just to pick up my game damn it! I was made to adapt or let this newfound and prideful part of my identity die at the hands of unknown forces. Fuck that! The subway in my city has a free paper as well and it too has a crossword in it and that is where I started going for my fix. The crossword in this paper is markedly easier, thus providing a weaker dose of those feelings I was all too hungry for. In actuality, this was probably the worst direction for my pursuit to take at this time. Diminished was the feeling of accomplishment upon completion while heightened was the sense of failure if I couldn’t complete it. Furthermore, as with any poor quality drug, I started looking to quantity to make up the difference.

In my search I found that the city paper had an online daily crossword as well but this was not the end of my issues for the fiend in me had already been set free. The seeking nature, alongside the euphoric hit from completion, set me on a treadmill. Now whenever I complete a crossword the pleasure is immediately followed by a desire for more. I started recognizing problematic habits forming; it was no longer something I did just to get through class, now it was almost always my preferred activity. Many a time I’ve gone to the library with schoolwork in mind… but first let me just quickly tuck away that easy crossword – some mental flossing before the real work began – and two hours later I’d be chain smoking away the nagging feeling that comes when you take adderall and fail to apply its energy to work. And to make matters worse, it was about this time I found the holy land: the 5th floor of the library. Not only did it still got the paper daily, but it also held onto weeks of previous issues – a puzzle junky’s paradise!

I’d like, at this point, to analogize crosswords and working out. When I started my journey doing the puzzle, it was supportive and supplementary to my assigned studies. It was perhaps like physiotherapy, stretching or even the choice to take the stairs over the elevator whilst intentioning to better one’s shape. It did not impede the progress of my true pursuit but merely complimented it – like an extension of my English major lifestyle. However the occurrence of fixation has shifted this dramatically. I’d now liken it to obsessively flexing in front of a mirror. I go to the brain-gym and sit placated by the mirror of my intelligence, so engrossed and narcissistic as I am. No longer does it support my development but instead impedes it.

My infatuation is so, that, throughout writing this journal, there’s not been a moment in which I was unaware and un-wanting of the crossword waiting for me in my bag. For context, I’d also like to smoke a bowl, but the pull of the puzzle proves stronger… and this is after 4 hours of doing nothing but whilst in the library. Worse still, I’ve noticed the compulsion ramps in kind with the importance of the docketed work, confirming its position as an exercise in escapism – all this as I head into crunch time.

I’ll need to get on top of this soon or my semester will suffer. But before that happens, I have a paper to attend to, and I’m sure as shit not talking about my essay for Caribbean lit!

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