Four-Letter Word for Cutting Your Son’s Penis
Indie crossword king Ben Tausig’s delightful re-invention of the puzzle keeps the form alive in its 100th year
On a recent Saturday in March, Will Shortz, the director of the 37th annual American Crossword Puzzle tournament (ACPT) and editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, stepped up to the mic inside the Grand Ballroom of the Brooklyn Marriott. Behind him a digital clock the size of a large oven door showed “15:00” in neon red, ready to pop.
“On your mark.
Five hundred and eighty solvers flipped over puzzle No. 1 as though the wrist action were the main event. The room became silent, save for a cough here and a scratch there, as the competitors worked their brains to finish as quickly and as accurately as possible. The first to finish, five seconds later, was Dr. Fill—a computer program created by Matt Ginsberg, whose entry was outside the competition. Nearby, Dan Feyer, who would go on to win his fifth straight ACPT the next day, ripped through it 2:25.
Outside the ballroom, briefly away from the action, was Ben Tausig, 33, the founder and editor of the American Values Club Crossword (AVCX), a not-yet 2-years-old independent puzzle that is distributed to subscribers weekly via email. The posters at his booth in the hall, which showcased Americana like a bald eagle and Macaulay Culkin, were a tip-off to what his customers could expect. Tausig said the subscriber base is around 3,000, with sales swelling around holidays. This makes AVCX something of a leader in the independent crossword puzzle movement, which casts itself as an alternative to puzzles like the Times crossword. The Grey Lady’s puzzles are aimed at a wider (and likely older) audience that might not be cool with a theme that is, say, based solely on monikers for the penis. “I have great respect for him,” Will Shortz told me, of Tausig.
Tausig uses the crossword puzzle as a lens through which to examine knowledge, humor, and acceptable language—and by default, what is censored. His puzzles are clearly identified with the indie puzzle movement that began in the early ’80s with Stan Newman’s self-published Crossworder’s OWN Newsletter, “a premium product for serious enthusiasts” that was created, in part, due to Newman’s unhappiness with the Eugene Maleska-edited Times puzzle, which Newman felt had declined and relied too heavily on deep geographical knowledge. (Crossworder’s Own ceased publication in 1994 when Newman took over editing duties of the New York Newsday puzzle.) The indie puzzle did not return to significance until the turn of the millennium with Matt Jones’ feature, Jonesin’, edited by Matt Gaffney, whom Tausig deems the Otis Redding of crossword puzzles: “gifted, unparalleled in execution, and lively, but also soulful and serious.”
According to Gaffney, Jonesin’ was created because the editorial content of numerous alt-weeklies in the United States, and the content of the syndicated Times puzzles, now edited by Will Shortz, did not overlap. “Jonesin’,” writes Tausig, “intended to fill a gap by providing funny, pop-culture-laden themes about marijuana, tattoos, sex, and other subjects routinely covered by papers in alternative markets … and was the first successful independent of the young century.”
As part of Tausig’s demographic, I can testify to the specific appeal of his work to a new generation of solvers, for whom more traditional puzzles were often, well, puzzling. When I was a kid, my grandfather would hand me the New York Times crossword puzzle when he recognized he’d reached an impasse—apparently hoping that I could make a connection he couldn’t. But when he’d come back out onto the patio, and into the wet Floridian air, I’d hand back the puzzle, same as it ever was. I wasn’t much help to my father either, who primarily tackled late-week Times puzzles—ruthless pains in the ass, or the brain. (How was a 20-year-old frat boy supposed to tip him off to an entry like ONFURLOUGH?) The learning curve seemed steep. Still, I plugged away, a symptom, maybe, of a subconscious desire to overcome the fact that I’m a youngest child, hoping to prove that my aptitude was up to snuff. I worked puzzles constantly: inside in-flight magazines (fairly difficult, and never completed), Syracuse University’s The Daily Orange (done stoned, typically, and incompletely), Chicago’s public-transit rag, Red Eye (easy), and, of course, People magazine (intellectual Viagra). I continued to scratch away at the Times crossword, but it was rare that I’d complete anything past a Wednesday unaided. (Times puzzles increase in difficulty beginning on Monday, through Saturday.)
A couple of weeks before the tournament, at a restaurant in Harlem, near Tausig’s home, he ordered the Acapulco breakfast platter and told me about an email he once received from a woman who believed she knew that he was Jewish based solely on his puzzles. “It’s happened more than once,” said Tausig, who is Jewish. “Of course I tell them.”
The opportunity to include an entry like BRIS in his weekly puzzle excites Tausig, who said that the Times, in general, would shy away from an entry like that. “[The Times doesn’t] really do dick jokes,” he jokes. “To them, some people are going to know [what a bris is] but a lot of other people will only vaguely know. To me that’s gold.” In a 2007 Inkwell puzzle, Tausig clued BRIS as “Cutting ceremony.” Nearly five years later he clued it as “Event that is very difficult for new fathers, let me just say.”
He spoke from experience, as his readers already knew from previous puzzle clues: Tausig and his wife, Serena, had recently given birth to their first child, Julius. Tausig said he chose “Julius” because he feels an affinity for the type of 85-year-old Jewish man that the name recalls. “You know, just Jews with their glasses, with their attitudes, with their big hands,” he said. “It’s a very pleasant association.”
By breaking down the fourth wall between constructor and solver, Tausig welcomes solvers (should they have the brainpower) into the intimate details of his life. Tausig also enjoys poking fun at “ridiculous” politicians like Sarah Palin (a source of “amazing idiotic quotes”) and adding tinges of apologetic, self-aware sarcasm: “Your clue is ‘Pope who reigned from 987 to 984’,” said Tausig, referring to LEOIX. “And then in parenthesis—‘Oh, as if you know anything about a 10th-century Pope.’ ”
Tausig grew up in Akron, Ohio, and ran cross-country—“a nerd sport”—in high school. After graduating from University of Michigan he moved to New York on a whim. He met his wife-to-be, who also attended Michigan, through Friendster, a defunct social networking site that was popular before MySpace and Facebook. Tausig asked her out on a date to Jackson Heights to take in a Bollywood movie and a meal at Jackson Diner. “[Serena] claims that I ate half her food,” he said. On the way home she asked Tausig if he’d ever been to Roosevelt Island. He hadn’t, so they hopped off the train near midnight in the dead of winter. They married in November of 2009 and soon moved to Thailand where Tausig recorded and analyzed the music and sonic environments of the Red Shirt political protests in Bangkok as part of his doctoral research in ethnomusicology at NYU.
When he became interested in constructing puzzles in 2004, he never imagined that his idiosyncratic interests would combine into the DNA of an actual career—one in which a wide variety of knowledge and experience probably helps. His wildest dream was to land a puzzle in a serious daily newspaper and then hang it on his wall as a novelty. Soon, however, he became near obsessed with creating workable themes and puzzles. So, he sent an email to CRUCIVERB-L, a discussion forum for crossword constructors associated with Cruciverb.com, asking to swap puzzles for mutual feedback. He received a reply from Nancy Salomon, “a prolific constructor,” who agreed to be his mentor (Will Shortz said that “I think [Salomon] probably has the record of collaborating with more constructors than anybody else”).
As Tausig’s aptitude grew, so did his confidence; eventually he found a voice. “I would write [Salomon] multiple times a day, and she never seemed to mind,” Tausig said. In their final mentor-mentee exchange, Tausig, “in a combative mood,” defended his work to Salomon, whom he felt was being harsh. “Nancy replied,” writes Tausig, “that given how I replied she now knew that I was truly ready.”
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