crosswordEspecially since so much of my day is wasted updating spreadsheets and talking sales reps off ledges, I try to devote my free time to Things That Matter. Things That Matter include writing, reading, looking for a better job, and watching Hardball while reading Newsweek at the same time. Things That Matter should involve either learning something or creating something – things that either propel me toward one of my long-term goals or somehow make me smarter or more informed.

But then there are crosswords. I love them. I love them and I hate myself for it. Because where does a finished a crossword puzzle get you? If you finish one, then you have a completed crossword sitting in front of you. And that’s it. I see people doing them on the train, and I shake my head into whatever Timeless Piece of Literature I’m reading – what a waste of time, hairnet lady! But I’m lying to myself. Once my lunch hour rolls around, there I am, wondering what an 8-letter word for “vision” is – angry if the puzzle is too easy, equally angry if the puzzle is too hard.

I thought about why I needed them, and I think it might be about the process. Crosswords teach all of the major tenets of problem solving: Start at the beginning. If you get stuck, pick an easier place to continue (I’m looking at you, good ol’ three-by-three square cake walk). If you get stuck again, make an educated guess and then test it. Try to think about the clues in fresh and different ways. Take a break for a few minutes and then return to it.
Second, it’s grounding. For someone who is constantly worried about everything, a crossword makes you clear your mind of your career and relationship problems and fill it with other problems, like what “Solomon in his later years” means. It starts with a W. If I’m stuck on a problem at work or in my writing, I can escape to my crossword while my subconscious continues to parse out problems in my real life. Sometimes, I admit, I’ll write until I’m stuck, then work on a crossword until I’m stuck, then write until I’m stuck – slowly but surely, one foot in front of the other.

It’s often a good way to jumpstart real, actual work that I’m trying to do. If my mind is wandering or if I’m brooding about something, it’s a way I can turn on my computer and work on something before I actually work on something. A palate cleanser.

Third, I love to imagine the person who created the crossword. You can almost always tell a few things about them from the clues and answers they pick. For example, the one I’m doing now (when I’m not working on this entry) was created by a golfing Christian. Yesterday was a young mom with a soft spot for nighttime television drama hunks.

Yes, maybe I’m just trying to justify my useless habit (or, perhaps, nine letters, addiction). Maybe I should stop hiding and start doing them on the train in front of every paisley-covered hairnet lady there is. Or maybe I should join some sort of support group – perhaps a Crosswords Anonymous group where everyone chain smokes and secretly meets to play Scrabble afterward. Maybe we all need a few useless hobbies.