Homegrown gridlock is delightfully puzzling

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2010 - 9:58 PM

1 across, 13 letters. Clue: Should be working today.

9 down, 6 letters. Clue: Slang for quodlibet.

If you got "NICE JEWISH BOY" and "MASHUP," you are nothing short of a holiday miracle yourself. Here's another:

A crossword puzzle created by Twin Citians Jay Kaskel and Dan Kantor is running Friday in the New York Times, the pinnacle of bragging rights for wordplay warriors.

The puzzle will be reprinted in five weeks, on Jan. 28, 2011, in the Variety section of the Star Tribune. I won't spoil it by giving away any answers, although I really, really want to.

This isn't the first New York Times puzzle created by Kaskel, a St. Paul-based freelance advertising writer (and nice Jewish boy), or Kantor, a composer and co-owner of Edina-based Kantor Group. Kantor has soloed on four New York Times crossword puzzles, with one in the New York Times queue. Kaskel has had two of his own published (www.tinyurl.com/26og9q4 or www.tinyurl.com/25a3wgj),

But this, their third collaboration, is their first Friday NYT puzzle, which means they had to toughen up, since the Times puzzles get progressively more challenging throughout the week. There is, however, "a whole cult of people out there who can do a Saturday puzzle in 10 minutes," Kantor said. "They blog about it. Our job is to stump those people."

They've been guided by none other than Will Shortz, the Times' veteran crossword editor. Shortz's feedback, always via e-mail, has evolved from an early, "You might want to consider reaching out first to the more experienced crossword puzzle community ... " to a heady note several months back regarding today's puzzle: "I'd like to run this one on Christmas Eve. Can you make it harder?"

Neither man imagined making this particular creative contribution to humanity until recently. Kantor, in fact, was certain he couldn't solve them, "let alone construct them." But all the women in his life, including his wife, mother, mother-in-law, sister and grandmother, were crossword aficionados, so he tried solving a few. Then he saw the movie "Wordplay" in 2006.

As a composer, he said, "my brain was wired to think vertically and horizontally, with chords and melody. It made sense. I just had to do this." This, meaning construct his own.

If Kantor's name isn't a household word, one of his compositions likely is. He wrote the exquisite hymn, "Night of Silence," which he calls "an ode to the darkness of Advent." The song, published in 1984 and now performed by church and chorale groups around the world, weaves lyrically and harmonically with "Silent Night," in what is known as a quodlibet, Latin for "what pleases." Or, for the Glee generation, a mash-up.

His first puzzle, on the other hand, was ... "so bad," he said. "I was totally out of my element."

Kantor reached out for help and landed crossword guru Nancy Salomon as his mentor. He learned, among many things, that a puzzle can have too many black squares ("who knew?"). He was challenged to try lesser-used letters, including J, Q, X, Z, K and W. Winning themes were "modern, smart and filled with wordplay," he said. "Puzzle themes had to be more than good. They had to be better than the other 150 puzzles Shortz considers every week."

After a few successes Kaskel, "who shares a similar artistic sensibility," asked Kantor to mentor him. Their first collaboration was themed, "Whine and Dine." What's a 12-letter restaurant complaint? MY SOUP IS COLD.

"Jay is a rare friend who understands the joy and insanity of intense creativity," Kantor said. "Hanging out with him over coffee and pondering puzzle possibilities is one of life's simple pleasures for me."

Creating a puzzle takes a few weeks to a few months, working around families and day jobs. Kantor often creates in his head on long runs through his neighborhood in west Bloomington, pounding his fingers feverishly against his chest to count letters. Kaskel thinks in the shower.

Competition, not surprisingly, is fierce. "Getting three puzzles published in a year is huge," Kaskel said. Puzzlers are paid $200 for dailies; $1,000 for Sundays.

They often wait four or five months for initial feedback, then months more to find out if revisions are acceptable to Shortz. "Never assume anything with Will," Kantor said.

It's worth it. "The New York Times is like the major leagues," Kantor said. "I wanted to bag an elephant, not go squirrel hunting."

Kaskel, married with an 14-year-old son, appreciates the reactions of people when they learn about his avocation. "People who do the New York Times puzzle come up to me and say, 'Oh, my mother is going to be so thrilled that I know someone who is making the puzzle!'"

To keep the thrill alive, I'm staying silent about today's answers. (That's a clue.) And one more thing. Kaskel and Kantor are a very happy team on this quiet Christmas Eve day. "It's such a thrill to build them," Kantor said, as Kaskel nodded in agreement over cups of coffee. "On this day, across the world, people will be doing our puzzle."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

  • related content

  • Jay Kaskel

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions
  • 29°
  • 42/29
  • Cloudy

The Drive: Metro traffic

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close