COLUMN: A nine-letter word for mortality

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, May 29, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

A nine-letter word for mortality
By Aaron J. Brown

I see these books lined up next to my grandpa’s chair, dog-eared and inherently factual. They are his crossword puzzle dictionaries. Various wings of the extended family conspired over the years to build his collection. Christmas. Father’s Day. Birthdays. Hospital stays. Each provided the opportunity to give him the one thing we know that provides him comfort, and that is the seven letter word for a Prussian general, or a French street, or a synonym for lollygag.

We all share the knowledge that if the dictionaries fail it will fall to us, by phone or in person. We will be called upon to know the four-letter word for the meaning of life. And though it’s not my job to know that information, I feel inadequate if I don’t.

To me crossword puzzles represent the solemn duty of an aging person. I know this because I recently started doing them. I don’t know exactly how it started. One day I opened the B section of the Hibbing Daily Tribune, paged to the classifieds and peeked at a clue in the NEA puzzle. I knew the answer. I filled in the squares and considered the merits of continuing.

On that day I stopped. I didn’t know the German word for man, the title of a particular film starring Doris Day or the acronym a librarian might use in Great Britain. I did however know that these facts existed. I knew that they could be found. I also knew that it would take a few minutes, maybe an hour, to find all of them.

I repeated this introduction several times over a couple weeks, each day a new puzzle piped in on the wire, fixed on the surface of the page by hearty newspaper professionals. My only previous experience with the crossword puzzle was when I worked at the paper and fielded complaints about them. These puzzles are serious business, their fans more rabid than even political partisans or sports loyalists. I admit I viewed these crossword people dimly at first. I am young, I thought then. I was.

In running through these recent puzzles it became evident that the puzzle was only one side of the coin. Somewhere, a puzzle maker – perhaps a human, perhaps a machine, most likely some unholy combination of the two – was tasked with creating these crosswords. That’s why “Tsk,” ends up being a clue. Or “Shh.” These odd little words create sinews to connect “Rosebud” and “Fated.”

After a few days of halfhearted attempts, I woke with the vision of picking up the newspaper crossword puzzle and completing it in one quick motion, like a savant might. I would feel validation. Years of reading eclectic books and websites, listening to informative podcasts and radio shows would bubble up in a terrific show of force somewhere in the vicinity of Page B6. I would set down my pen over the puzzle, still warm from my hot scribbles, and I would know satisfaction.

Soon after, on May 20, it happened. A loose moment of time quickly crystallized into an opportunity to complete a puzzle. I stormed past the halfway point like a six-letter word for a Roman army (L-E-G-I-O-N). I climbed the peak of an 11-letter word for tall African summit (K-I-L-I-M-A-N-J-A-R-O). I was on a roll, until I encountered a nine-letter word for massive Chinese barrier (G-R-E-A-T W-A-L-L). There were clues that, despite my massive, well-cultivated brain, I just didn’t know. The internet aided me to a cumbersome finish, but I thought of my grandpa’s dictionaries and had a sudden realization of how one comes to possess such a library.

Indeed, I have a nine-letter word for mortality: “Crossword.”

Oh, wait. “Mortality” also has nine letters. That would make a lot more sense. (Scribble, scribble).

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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