"What's a seven-letter word to describe a specialist in equine hoof care?"
After I typed "farrier" into the answer key, I sat back and surveyed my work. As the final clue in the custom crossword puzzle that I created for my state's equestrian association, it took a bit of coordination to get everything right, but I was able to create enough clues to make a puzzle of intermediate complexity, just as the client had requested.
Having a job creating custom crossword puzzles is one part trivia and one part strategy. Sometimes I get so into the client's request that I'll research a topic for hours, coming up with hundreds of possible clues on the specific subject I've been assigned to cover. But then when the time comes to design the "Across" and "Down" grids, I struggle to line everything up perfectly and have to scrap my well-established intentions and start over.
But that's part of the fun of being a crossword puzzle designer, which is how I describe myself on the business card that I hand out to pretty much everyone I meet. I started out making puzzles for fun, then I offered to make one for my brother's robotics team when I was 14. After that, his teacher asked if I could make one for his bowling league's Christmas party, and word began to spread from there. Before long, I had requests coming in not only from people in my local community, but from those in other states, regarding topics I didn't know existed.
For example, although I'd never considered how asphalt was made in the past, I learned phrases like "hot mix" and "aggregate" after making a crossword for a local paving firm. While pickleball had never been on my radar screen before, I picked up terms like "chop" and "backspin" while designing a crossword for the local seniors' community pickleball team. As my business grew, so did the skepticism from those who seemed to think I was pursuing an odd method of making money. Not only that, but people began offering opinions about how my self-employment would affect my free time.
"If you keep making crosswords for other people, you won't enjoy solving them anymore," my uncle warned me one Sunday as I completed the New York Times' crossword puzzle. But as I entered the phrase "Pick up the Pacer" in response to the clue "Give a ride to an Indiana hoopster," I knew he was incorrect.
For me, creating crosswords is just as fun as solving them – maybe even more so. When I look at an empty crossword grid, it must be the same way a farmer feels when viewing an open field. I see all of the possibilities and potential before me as a challenge and a gift. The world is mine to create, and each word that I put on the page is like a seed planted in the dirt. It doesn't have just one sole purpose. It feeds into the rest of the clues, providing much-needed vowels and consonants to the words that will intersect it.
Although I haven't yet found a way to work "cruciverbalist" into a crossword, I hope to make it happen someday, because that's the word that describes me. I'd like the clue for it to be listed first when I get to design the ultimate puzzle — one for a crossword enthusiast's association. I can see it now: "1 Across: A person who is skilled at solving or creating crossword puzzles."
Certainly the crossword enthusiasts will smile as they complete that clue, content in the fact that someone "gets" them. I'm smiling just thinking about it.
"It's a mammoth tusk," my friend said.
I held up the item that I'd just dug out of the ground and examined it against the light. It was only a few inches long, beige in color, and hard as a rock. "Mammoth tusks would be huge," I told him, stuffing it into my pocket to examine later.
When I got home that day, I set the item on a shelf in my room where I stored all of my artifacts. Even then, in second grade, I had at least 25 different things in my collection. Some of them were simple to identify: A marble, a plastic comb, some fake coins from Chuck E. Cheese. But all of them were mine – dug from the ground in the woods around my neighborhood and cleaned off by me for later inspection.
My tools weren't fancy. I had a small metal garden shovel that my parents no longer needed, an old paintbrush, and a metal tool that I assumed was a stainless steel chopstick (found previously in the dirt at a playground). My method was pretty simple: Use the shovel to dig a hole, and if it hit anything, I'd use the chopstick to pry it out. After that, I'd dust it off with the paintbrush and take it home.
My best finds were the things I couldn't identify. Did I dig up a piece of an old parachute? Or was it just someone's sock that fell out of a backpack during a hike? Is someone looking for this item, or was it purposely discarded? I would go over these unidentifiable objects repeatedly, touching and polishing them to try and get their history to flow into my body. Sometimes I'd have a dream where I definitively diagnosed my items. I'd wake up and say "Oh that's right, the rusted metal I found on Tuesday wasn't an old beer can – it was discarded war ammunition." Then I'd realize that this insight came from my dream, not from real life, and I'd be back to square one.
My hobby continued for years, and eventually my grandparents bought me a metal detector. I took it out on a dig in sixth grade, eager to bring up a tub filled with gold and silver coins, but the only things I detected with it were a belt buckle and an old crucifix pendant, which my brother assured me was cursed, so I put it back where I'd found it.
Even though those were decent finds, I felt like the metal detector was taking part of the fun out of my digs. After a few weeks, I put it in the garage and grabbed my previous tool bag. Armed with my shovel and other materials, I could once again dig holes throughout the woods, with or without my friends, and make discoveries.
My collection of archeological items is smaller now. When we moved, I had to part with a few things, but I was sure to keep the ones I couldn't identify. Into the trash went the marbles and belt buckles. Onto the shelf in my new house went the tusk, the parachute, the ammunition and other items that had been ambiguously ID'd by me.
Last year, while cutting through the woods to my friend's house, I lost a soapstone keychain. I looked for days, but never located it. Sometimes I wonder if a second grader out digging may have found it.
"Is it a tusk?" he asked his friend.
Then, in my dream, he proudly put it on a shelf to fuel his own sense of wonder, never knowing who left it there or why, only to create his own stories about it.
"Do you only own one shirt? Or do you have a whole closet full of the same one?"
Over the last 11 years, I have fielded this question hundreds of times. Although it's now common knowledge that Apple founder Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day of his professional life, I certainly wasn't aware of that when I created my "uniform" back in first grade. That was when my mom took me back-to-school shopping and I picked out just one white T-shirt and one pair of blue jeans. When she asked what else I wanted, I said that was going to be my outfit for the year.
We picked up two weeks' worth of the same shirt and pants, and that's what I wore every day, the whole year. When second grade rolled around, I changed up the shirt to make it a blue polo, but kept the blue jeans. I even slept in my uniform. Other kids may have thought it was weird, but other than asking questions, they never said anything negative about it.
Some school years, I was still so enamored with the previous year's outfit that I kept it a second year. Old class photos indicate that my black T-shirt/ light blue jeans combo endured for both fourth and fifth grades, but I shifted to a gray henley before moving to middle school. That helped me segue into the green henley I adopted in tenth and eleventh grades. Wearing a long-sleeved shirt in the heat of the summer may have seemed odd to some people. But I would even wear it to the beach without a second thought.
I have to assume my parents and teachers figured I'd outgrow this habit eventually. In pretty much every other way, I was a normal kid. But each August when the school clothes purchases were made, I went for just one look. One year, the school yearbook staff interviewed me about my fashion choice. Was it a comfort to have the same outfit all the time — almost like a pacifier or blanket?
No, I told them. It just made my life easier and gave me fewer things to worry about. I never had to decide what to wear — I always knew what the choice would be. But I also think it has something to do with my strong interest in art. As an artist, I like to express myself using the minimum number of tools. When I am trying to perfect an animation, I can tweak a character's eyebrow ever so slightly to convey sadness or elation. If I'm sketching an animal, the curve of its mouth can make the difference between it being relaxed or ready to pounce.
It's the same thing with me. The outfit is the one constant, so I can observe others while blending into the background. But if I want to stand out on a particular day, I have to consciously emote more with my expressions, my words and my movements. I can't rely on a snappy new pair of shoes to show people I'm ready to dance, since I wear the same maroon Vans on a daily basis.
As I write this essay, I'm already considering options for senior year of high school. Do I come into twelfth grade with a bang, sporting a silver jacket each day or an off-the-beaten-path pair of overalls? Should I really shock everyone and just buy a variety of clothes? As a student at an arts high school, I could probably wear a Batman costume every day with no issues.
Maybe that uncertainty every August is part of the joy of my uniform — I even surprise myself with each year's choices. Whatever prompted this decision over a decade ago is now something I embrace. I like that no matter what path I take in life, I won't have to decide which outfits to pack.