A practical vehicle for social interaction


Today was my 1,184th day in a row to complete the New York Times Mini Crossword. Over three years ago, when I was a student at Duke University, two friends and I set out on this quest to solve the Mini every day. From the start, we’ve kept a spreadsheet of our solve times. And what started out as a friendly competition for victory for a few seconds of each day has grown into an exciting project spanning our time in college – and beyond.

Some columns on the spreadsheet have annotations that bring back memories of a particular Mini, such as a frustrated “Sheesh” after a two minute resolution and a “Get out of here!” »Gratified. when I finished in less than 10 seconds for the first time.

I can’t name another habit that I have willingly maintained for so long. There is something about the Mini that makes it irresistible. It’s alluring, accessible and perfect for putting me in a state of creative flow.

Still, I wonder why my generation craves this need for speed.

Could it be because we can do it quickly, take note of our accomplishments and move on – not just on the Mini, but in all aspects of our overbooked lives?

Perhaps it is the culture of competitiveness on college campuses that turns every hobby into an opportunity for personal advancement.

Or maybe it’s because we’ve been trained to visualize and organize every part of our life in the most digestible way possible, whether it’s a low-character tweet or a viral video. We were told that productivity should trump everything else.

Spending more time than necessary on a five by five grid? Unthinkable.

But my constant desire for speed came to a screeching halt when I noticed, to my surprise, that a crossword craze had blossomed across campus.

One Saturday evening, during a pre-pandemic party, the 10 p.m. dopamine surge that accompanied the release of the Mini the next day was triggered. Someone I didn’t know asked me for help with the Mini, and at that point it wasn’t about fingers typing furiously on the keyboard or browsing for clues to beat up my friends. Instead, this joint resolution was a way to get to know someone better. It offered a quick glimpse into this person’s thought process. For the first time, I spoke of How? ‘Or’ What I had solved the puzzle, rather than the speed at which I had solved it.

After a congratulatory high-five, I returned my attention to the rest of the room. In small groups around the apartment – sitting on the sofa, leaning against the wall – other people engaged in the same collective task: solving this Mini. Surprisingly, a newly released Mini was tempting enough to distract their attention from the party and into collaborative mental exercise. For these students, it has become a different vehicle for social interaction.

With our hectic lives and busy schedules, the Mini provided students with a fleeting yet inspiring outlet to work our intellectual muscles in a way that it wasn’t possible to sit in a lecture hall. This allowed us to appear knowledgeable without “reading”, as is common in college. More than anything, the Mini is powerful enough to bring us together as we await the unknown challenges that lie ahead.

One evening, at the start of my second year of solving, a good friend pulled out her own spreadsheet, which was formatted a little differently than mine. Hers was filled less consistently with daily resolutions, but involved a lot more people committed to the Mini cause. Yet another friend loved crossword puzzles so much that, for her birthday, her friends gave her a pillow printed with the first puzzle they had solved together. I even know a few people who put the New York Times crossword on their resumes in hopes of striking up a conversation with a potential employer. For so many people, crosswords are a glue, able to forge new relationships and strengthen old ones above a common passion.

Now I’m just as grateful for the social crossword puzzle experience as I once was for the quick resolution. During a solve, I often missed a humorous clue or witty pun because I was completing the Acrosses puzzle on my own. Still typing without thinking, I missed the pleasure. And the camaraderie.

Now that I’m out of school, maybe my next 1,184 days of crossword data should focus on this part of the process. Rather than trying to save time, why not reflect on what I’ve learned about resolution, the world, and myself? Crosswords are a rare opportunity to disconnect from the outside world and concentrate deeply, if only for a minute.

As my spreadsheet grows, I will endeavor to ask others not how long they took to solve the puzzle, but what they discovered while doing it. When the coronavirus quarantine is over and Zoom’s weekly resolutions revert to in-person activities, I will gather with my friends to revel in the feeling of being together, learning from our resolutions and from each other. No longer running to finish, but cherishing the shared moment of accomplishing something wonderful – and doing it together.

It will be my mini revolution. I will continue to strive to fix the problem, but with a new intention: to slow down and enjoy what – and who – I encountered along the way, one empty white square at a time.

Ben Thier is a recent graduate of Duke University and lives in New York. He and his fish, Gill Shortz, share a deep appreciation for Robyn Weintraub Friday’s crossword puzzle.

Illustrated by Christina Spanò.

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