Snafu! or, Should Writers Avoid the NYT Crossword Puzzle?

I’ve always been bothered by the New York Times crossword puzzle. Normally, I win at word games. I love words. I write words, read words, play with multiple meanings. If I were a dog I’d make myself a pile full of words and roll around, paws up, in ecstasy.

So why is the New York Times crossword puzzle so difficult for me and so easy for, say, my husband?

Now my husband is a pretty bright guy. Electrical Engineering degree followed by an M.D. But words…they are my greatest love. (Oh! Yes. Um. Of course. I mean after my husband, kids, other family members, and pets.)

Why do words fail me every Friday and sometimes even on Thursdays? Okay, I admit it, even the occasional Wednesday puzzle has a few empty squares. And, notice I don’t even mention Saturdays.

Recently I came across a Thursday puzzle where the clue was “a mess.” My penciled-in answer was chaos.

I have a particular love of the word chaos. I first came across the word ‘chaos’ while reading, and figured out the definition on my own. Chaos was, for me, a black roiling cloud that obscured the landscape and scattered and broke apart everything it brushed against.

When I left my home town of 1500 people and arrived at the University of California at  Berkeley, I tried out my beloved word in one of my freshman classes.

“It was chayoss,” I said to my professor and class. Blank looks. Finally I spelled it.

“C H A O S.”

“Kayoss” my teacher repeated.

“Oh, I said.” I knew that word too. I’d heard it. Kayoss meant a mess.

I discovered then that I had two vocabularies, one learned from living and one learned from reading. The same word could have different meanings in each sphere.

Back to the esteemed Thursday New York Times crossword. After much frustration, I puzzled out the correct answer to ‘a mess’: ‘snafu.’

That stopped me. An online dictionary agreed with the puzzle. One of the meanings of snafu is a mess.

I went to ink-on-tree-pulp dictionary. Snafu was listed right after ‘snaffle.’ Snafu was defined as “in characteristic disorder or confusion; mixed up as usual.”

I don’t quite agree with that one, either, but it’s better then “a mess.” (And yes, I do know the origin of the word, which I’m not going to repeat on my blog.)

In my head the word ‘snafu’ is related to ‘slingshot.’ For me they are sister words. ‘Snafu’ means you take aim at something, pull back the large rubber band, and when you let go all hell breaks loose. Nothing is as you expected. The rock hits a car window or gets stuck in the rubber band and snaps back into your face. Your carefully planned shot is ruined and life is a lot more painful and confusing after you executed the plan that was supposed to make life a little less painful and confusing.

Back to my super-smart husband. He went to a large Los Angeles high school, and took English classes that I can only dream of. I’m someone who learned vocabulary less in a classroom and more by reading. My rural high school had no college prep courses. By junior year I was writing my own curriculum.

So when the New York Times’ Thursday crossword defined ‘snafu’ as ‘a mess’ I finally connected the dots and understood why I’m struggling with these puzzles.

The dictionary in my head has often ignored even ink-on-tree-pulp definitions. Standard dictionary definitions are narrower, drier, and haven’t been tempered and expanded by the elation you feel when you pull back a slingshot or the confusion you feel on a dark cloudy night. Dictionary words are on-the-shelf clean. They were once lived by humans, but have been sanitized.

I’m slowly getting better at the New York Times crossword puzzle, and now find that worrisome. (Worrisome is my mother’s wrinkled forehead, a slightly sad look in her eyes.)

There are some obvious benefits to the puzzles; there are new words to learn (some of them ridiculous repeats like ‘tam’ that don’t show up much in literature). I’ve revived my interest in Roman numerals and have picked up some Greek.

But by learning someone else’s definitions, an ‘authority’s’ (police officer with arms crossed), I may be strangling my own, experiential, in-mind vocabulary.

Writing is a combination of precision (just the right word) and elasticity (exploring meaning). If I lose that careful balance between the two then, well…I’m just a dictionary. (Black book, dogeared pages, red underlines, sitting on the shelf behind me.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this new realization. The New York Times crosswords are addictive. Maybe I’ll continue, but beat myself up a little bit less about empty squares.

Or maybe it’s the filled-in squares that I should be worried about. When I, finally, complete all of the squares in a Saturday puzzle, does that mean that my own metaphoric definitions have been overwritten?

A Girl from the ‘Dummy Class’ Wrote an ILA Award Winner

Maddi’s Fridge has just won the International Literacy Association’s Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for Primary Fiction.

MaddisFridge9781936261291

A picture book is a collaborative effort. In addition to myself, Maddi’s Fridge is the result of the hard work and exceptional talents of illustrator Vin Vogel and our editor, Shari Dash Greenspan.

The ILA award is especially meaningful to me because I did not learn how to read until late in 3rd grade.

lois 12 maybe

I vividly remember the day that my 3rd grade teacher discovered I’d been faking reading. She yelled at me that I was lazy. Over the next few days she got quieter, which was dangerous. She decided that something was wrong with me.

I knew my alphabet forward and backwards. I could easily sound out words and could read out loud like the other kids in class. But when I read, the words didn’t connect to form any meaning.

Rabbit horrible laughed widget coffee.

Imagine that everyone in the world except for you reads the above words and gets a clear and meaningful sentence. I could not read and get meaning. Even words that I knew became gibberish in my head and sentences never came together.

My 3rd grade teacher kicked me out of her class and transferred me to the ‘dummy class.’

The five of us sat in a row at the front of a large empty classroom. We didn’t have a teacher; we had a district employee. My fellow classmates and I were given worksheets and math problems that looked like they came from 1st grade. Before I had been removed from my class I was in advanced math. Now I was adding single digits.

Our vocabulary words were single-syllable. Our texts were Dick and Jane type mimeographs that made me despise books and reading even more.

A tubby boy with freckles and messy blond hair, who I’d seen on the playground but never talked to, leaned towards me. “You don’t belong in the dummy class. You’re smart.”

During recess my close friends commiserated with me for the first few days, but the rest of my former classmates drifted to other parts of the playground. No one played with the kids from the dummy class.

Fortunately for me, my mother was a Tiger Mom long before the term existed. She wanted my 3rd grade teacher to tutor me. I refused. I suspect the teacher refused too. By now I hated that woman. My mother then asked a friend of the family who taught kindergarten to tutor me after school. I agreed. I’d loved kindergarten and kindergarten teachers: no reading and lots of art projects.

I don’t remember how long I was in the dummy class, maybe a few weeks or months. It was long enough for all of my former friends to start snubbing me on the playground.

I do remember the day that my mother busted me out. I was making progress with my tutor, and Mom struck some sort of deal with my 3rd grade teacher. On a Friday the district employee announced to the five of us that I was being moved back to regular classes. The tubby kid with freckles and messy blond hair told me “I knew you were better than we were.”

Even as an eight-year-old I paused and looked back at him as we filed out of class. He hadn’t struck me as particularly stupid. I remember wondering what it would be like to be stuck in the dummy class forever.

I left the class thinking that I would play with my new friends at recess, but over the next week or so I drifted back to my original friends and classmates.

When people fantasize about time travel they often talk about stopping an assassination or, conversely, assassinating a bad guy, etc.

I’d go back to my elementary school dummy class. I’d give the tubby kid and every kid in there a hug and tell them that no one is a dummy. That children learn at different speeds and that the speed we learn at is natural and right for us.

Time travel is not possible, but our world has changed for the better. The over 300,000 members of the International Literacy Association are performing little miracles every day as they guide reluctant readers into the transformative world of books.

I thank them with all of my heart for this wonderful award.

I can only hope that the fellow members of my dummy class somehow made it into the world of books. I know they had help. My mom went back to school and got her teaching credential. She became one of the first special education teachers our district ever hired.

Diverse Books as a Basic Need

I remember vividly my first love, The Moon of Three Rings by Andre Norton. The book was on display at the top of a bookcase at my local library. I was already a fan of Saturn, and here was a beautifully colored drawing of a moon with rings.

moon of three rings 2
Yes, I took home a book because of its cover.

I began reading. The main character was quickly turned into a cat-like creature. This was my secret dream, to become a cat. I talked to cats nonstop and believed that they understood me. Here, finally, was an adventure ready-made for me.

Up until that moment I still didn’t see what all the “reading” fuss was about.

I had read other books, of course. I wept my way through the ending of Charlotte’s Web, so hysterical that my mother had to come to class to comfort me. Nancy Drew was insipid. Dr. Seuss scared the bejeezus out of me so badly that I refused to touch picture books.

The Moon of Three Rings turned me into an avid reader. My entire allowance, which I earned helping at the family business after school, was now spent on the Scholastic book order.

It only takes one book to make a life-long reader.

When you become a reader you travel to other planets and magical worlds. You also become a young girl hiding from the nazi’s, a boy raised by dogs, an artist cutting off his ear, a soldier who forgets for one moment that he is at war and raises his head to look at a beautiful bird. You live other lives. Even cat lives.

Your world expands.

When someone tells me they don’t read, it’s the same as telling me they don’t breathe.

So what is it like to grow up without books? When I visit elementary schools I already see a few children, some as young as 8 or 9, who have an empty look in their eyes like nothing in that school is for them. Not the colorful drawings on the walls. Not the laughing kids. Especially not the books in the library. Somehow, they have been shut out of the stories that can buoy a life.

I recently asked a group of teachers to imagine growing up in a world where libraries were full of books, but only books about football. Football being played by aliens in science fiction stories, historical novels featuring early attempts by the Greeks to develop football, etc.

I asked how many of them would have become avid readers.

Imagine how hard it is to read when there aren’t any books that touch your heart. The reason we need diverse books is to help all young readers find the one book that will set them free.