Los Altos puzzle players find connection in solitary pursuit

Frozen Puzzle

A few stolen moments of relaxation, maybe over a lunchtime sandwich. A shared ritual during the slower moments of the 3 p.m. “Newshour.” Readers of this newspaper turn to its puzzles page to fill an idle minute, or mark a ritual moment in the day.

Los Altos Hills resident A. Richard Jones ranked the mental challenges in various styles – cultural references that require trivia skills, cryptic games in English that require reverse engineering. Crosswords require breadth of knowledge, while any Sudoku is solvable, at least in theory, given only the principles of the game. Find-a-word requires more visual skills than cognition.

“Although the format of Sudoku is invariant, the techniques needed to solve it vary a lot. The fun is applying all you can until it is either solved or guessing seems required,” Jones noted.

Jones is one of the readers who calls the Town Crier to task when the print edition omits puzzles due to space constraints. He isn’t alone – a reader rebellion occurred this spring, when the shelter-in-place order upended businesses, advertising and print newspapers, placing the Town Crier’s puzzles in peril.

Los Altos Hills resident Eduardo Arias has a ritual of capping every perusal of the paper with the Sudoku and said that though you can find them online, the tactile experience of working in paper is a pleasure.

“I do it because it is good for the mind,” he said.

The directness and simplicity of the puzzle – the digits 1 through 9, oriented in endless variety – adds intrigue.

“All I can tell you is that it feels good,” Arias added.

Los Altos resident Dr. Edward Cohen remembers watching two aunts do the Sunday New York Times crossword in ink (not a task for the faint of heart). He started the puzzles himself a few decades ago, learning to “plumb the depths” of his vocabulary to think through an obscure or tangential clue.
He reminisced about reading “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” as a young teen, dictionary at the ready, and credits the mysteries with increasing his vocabulary as well as nurturing an appreciation for mysteries and deductive reasoning.

“It may be part of the reason that I became a physician ... gathering clues and trying to solve problems, Cohen said. “Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes tales, was trained as a physician, and his protagonist was based on one of his professors.”

Cohen said he generally does the puzzles when he gets into bed at night.

“I find they are a good way of leaving the daytime goings-on and starting the process of relaxation necessary for a good sleep,” he said.

Advice for first-time creators

Longtime Town Crier puzzle creator Myles Mellor created his first puzzle 20 years ago as a way to connect with his dad after the death of Mellor’s mother. Starting with a black felt-tip pen and some pieces of paper, Mellor started writing in words and coloring in black squares to produce “amateurish” puzzles he would mail across the Atlantic to his father in England.

Looking back, he respects the themes – architecture, cooking. With paternal encouragement, he started trying to get them published as well. The enterprise required dogged persistence, with an assist in the form of patient mentorship from David Hoyt, one of the top puzzle inventors in the U.S. Mellor’s first paid gig was in the 911 magazine for dispatchers and emergency personnel, and since then he’s placed custom, themed crosswords in magazines, books and newspapers around the country. He said though it is true that there is a huge following for puzzles among older readers, he doesn’t see the future of crosswords falling off a generational cliff.

“People who are 40 and above are teaching their kids to solve crossword puzzles, like my dad did,” he said. “You just can’t rule out people who are young.”
Mellor has created custom puzzles for events like marriages and engagements, and suggested that a first-timer could commemorate a holiday, birthday or anniversary by sourcing puzzle clues from the recipient’s family and friends. Nicknames, traditions, life events and beloved locales are all fair game.

Gather the information into a spreadsheet, with the words in one column, and the information that will become clues in the other. Sort the spreadsheet by alphabet, and then find your blank grid – maybe using Los Altos resident Viresh Ratnakar’s Exolve software or Crossword Compiler, Mellor’s paid program of choice. A typical crossword dimension includes 13-by-13 or 15-by-15 squares.

“I’m going to take an alphabetized list and scan down and something will catch my eye that’s a great word to start off with and put it in the top left-hand corner,” Mellor said.

Check the alphabetized list for a word beginning with that same letter that can descend from that top-left position, and then keep scanning your list for alphabetical intersections.

“You’re not going to be able to do a quote ‘standard’ crossword puzzle – it’s not going to have every letter connecting to every other letter,” Mellor noted.

“You’re going to start weaving your words into the grid; you just keep going and use up as many as you can.”

Los Altos resident and puzzle setter Viresh Ratnakar created a special cryptic crossword for Los Altos readers – and fortunately also provided a primer on the world of "cryptic" crosswords. For more puzzles from Myles Mellor, visit the Town Crier's puzzles page and each week's print edition.  

frozen solutions

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