I've always been a crossword person, even if I couldn't finish the Sunday (or even the Friday) one in the New York Times. Since I got teased as a fifth grader for using big words in the schoolyard, language has always been the most inviting area of the playground, the place to develop mental strength and agility. Numbers were my nemesis. Growing up in the days long before calculators, I learned to be arithmetically reliable the hard way. I still use my fingers, refer to deeply memorized multiplication tables, and add columns two or three times (in different directions).
How peculiar, then, that I have become addicted to the KenKen puzzles along with my morning coffee. It happened a while back – couldn't say exactly when – and I found myself trying to figure out what was expected of me in the easy version, just four squares across. Cute! Not too hard. Very satisfying when after a few obvious clues were solved, the answers tumbled into place. I began working on the daily six-square puzzle and could successfully complete Monday through Wednesday after a few weeks of practice. Then I moved up to the big league, seven-squares on Sunday.
My style, as with the crossword, is to work in pen, lightly filling in the possibilities until they are certain. In those tiny, unforgiving squares, it is sometimes necessary to use white out – or even to copy the whole grid on lined paper after a really a messy start. How embarrassing. Let’s not even discuss the nearly pathological compulsion that has driven me to work a Sunday KenKen puzzle until the Magazine Section appears on the stoop with next Saturday’s paper. But it calms me, settles my mind, and kind of clears the decks for other issues and problems I need to sort through.
What profound life change has made me a numbers person after all? I ponder this while figuring out in which square the last “5” can reside, or what combinations can be eliminated to fill in the third row down. What am I doing? Testing a double “3” and a “7” to make “63X” resolves the connecting horizontal and vertical, and I experience a pleasurable tingle in the brain.
My neural fibers crave this activity. I need this exercise – now. I don’t need to be told that “Mental Stimulation Staves Off Dementia,” although I’m pleased as punch they’re doing studies to confirm what my mind and body are already whispering in my ear. All I have to do is listen. I’m sure that’s always the best place to start.