The Crossword is My Grad School
“I should have NEVER gotten my PhD!” she screamed over Olivia Rodrigo while fumbling a red solo cup to its tipping point. “This is the most stressed I’ve EVER been in my ENTIRE life!”
“Oh, that’s SO interesting!” I screamed over Olivia Rodrigo. “Why did you do it, then?”
“Why did I go to grad school?” she asked with a pop of indignance.
The music began to fade.
“I guess I just love to learn,” she said blankly.
I gazed. Somehow, somewhere — in the tiny moment of respite between songs at a party you should’ve NEVER gone to — this tipsy PhD candidate in neuroscience ascertained a remarkably lucid level of certainty. And defensiveness. The line was drawn: Those who’ve never been to grad school are not allowed to incite doubt about grad school.
I inhaled chocolate croissants and typed goals in untitled Google Docs. For a few hours, I felt satiated. But eventually the sugar would crash and I just wouldn’t go to grad school.
“That’s SO interesting!” I screamed over the rising tide of Jessie Ware.
No, I’ve never gone to grad school, and I doubt I ever will. Like many, I went through the “maybe someday” journey. I of course did the usual mental-dabbling — waking up early on Sunday to go to the coffee shop to Google non sequiturs like “Best Writing Program,” “Joyce Carol Oates” and “Tennis near Iowa City.” I inhaled chocolate croissants and typed goals in untitled Google Docs. For a few hours, I felt satiated. But eventually the sugar would crash and I just wouldn’t go to grad school.
For a long while I beat myself up for not sticking the landing. Friends ebbed and flowed out of various programs — some wildly impressive, other wildly impressive that money was being exchanged for such a thing. My twenties climbed upward like fingers scaling piano keys. Slowly but unsurely, I drifted further from academic viability. Education started to feel like a distant identifier that was better suited for types brainier than me.
In my ego-driven self-deprecation, my thinking was airtight:
Other people go to grad school. Therefore, other people enjoy school. Other people dive deep. Other people just love to learn. I, in turn, am a dumbo. I am materialistically motivated. Impurely sedated. Ignorantly elated. I snuck through undergrad without anyone flagging my severe lack of luster for learning. Now I am a copywriter robot, using my hollow steel limbs to tread the shallowest depths of digital trash. (One time my copywriting partner and I ghost-wrote for Kris Jenner, who was sponsoring a popular browser extension that finds you paltry deals on hair dryers (Honey. It was Honey)). No, I am not one for the books. Loving to learn will forever be my greatest charade.
That was my understanding — until I found the crossword.
It started off innocuous, as most obsessions do. My boyfriend and I would hibernate in quarantine around the screen, intermittently impressed with our fleeting recollections and extremely flat learning curves. It felt like a game at first (due to it being a game), but over time the puzzle started to feel more like a metric of our own mental capacities.
The small wins felt nice. We quickly picked up that ASP is a snake and APSE is churchy. We remembered OMAN because it’s always OMAN. HAVOC ends in a C because it does. Harry’s aunt is named PETUNIA, but we of course already knew that.
The puzzle puts rigid bounds on endless potential. It provides order to mayhem, affirms systems. It crams all the knowledge of the world into concise and meaningful focus. The crossword takes you to grad school.
Over time, the trivia tidbits evolved into broader subsections of knowledge. Every clue lent itself to a wider collection of familiarity, or at least association. It was as if little ISOMERS and ISOTOPES were swirling around larger, stickier concepts. With every passing day, I felt more and more encouraged that the hours I spent playing the game could actually be fruitful — as though the crossword were ENVENERATING my will to learn.
This was true until I learned that ENVENERATE means to “deprive of strength, not to give strength as is commonly believed.”
Many people have written about the frustratingly transfixing quality of the crossword. Most recently, Anna Shechtman, a puzzle constructor, described why its central conceit appeals to the brain: “The puzzle’s delights continue to reside in the contradictions of the grid, holding the limitless signifying power of language in temporary abeyance.” To me, this explains a lot. The puzzle puts rigid bounds on endless potential. It provides order to mayhem, affirms systems. It crams all the knowledge of the world into concise and meaningful focus. The crossword takes you to grad school.
I had to look up “abeyance.”
It’s been a few years since I started routinely crossing. As I comb through an archive of completed words, I can’t help but feel pride. There are things we do, often silly things we do, that build our self-esteem, and inherently are worth investigating. What we learn to do rewards us, no matter the scale — be it solving a crossword, trying pickleball, baking cardamom cookies, or applying newfound therapeutic coping strategies when your cardamom cookies end up tasting like literally nothing. (Was the cardamom supposed to be the sugar?!)
The crossword has immersed me in everything from contemporary geopolitics, to feminist history, to VH1. It has taught me culinary differences within continents I often ignorantly lump together (ASIA. It was Asia). The crossword demands abstract thinking and application. It demands that you bend your mind backwards to isolate something true… or effectively true… or probably true so as long as the intersecting word doesn’t fuck this one up for us!
Even though the crossword attempts to be universally approachable, we all come at it from a different MILIEU. Recognizing that some clues are obvious to some people and not to others is a major facet of the crossword’s eye-opening effect. It’s almost like meeting new people. It’s like getting a business degree for the network.
Above all else, the crossword has taught me to be open to being wrong.
The crossword teaches you that your first instinct is good — really good! But it’s also possible that it has holes. The only way to approach the crossword is with a strange swirl of humility and confidence — two traits that describe grad school students’ brave openness to drop their career and get to learning. They’re smart enough to know they don’t know everything — but if they muster up some courage, they’re capable of intentional growth every single day.
And perhaps I am too.
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