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Cross my heart, I'm going to finish the Monday puzzle

Every morning over my summer vacation, I would get up, pour myself a cup of coffee, and give a cursory glance to the day's headlines. Next, I would carefully remove the crossword from the Style section and begin the project that would become of paramount importance to me for the next several hours: completing the puzzle.

The outcome of my attempt to solve every clue thrown at me by the folks at Tribune Media Services Puzzles affected my whole day. If I was successful in my mission to leave no letter-box unfilled, I felt this great sense of pride and accomplishment that carried over into everything I did that day. On those days when the name of a certain type of salmon eluded me I felt that I, like my puzzle, was incomplete.

In an effort to never let the crossword stymie me and to avoid my feelings of inadequacy, I would pour over my dictionary and thesaurus. I went to the library and got a book of movie and television trivia that I continually renewed all summer in case a clue demanded I be familiar with the oeuvre of a director from the 1920s. Desperation once led me to call the 1-900 number that promised to aid the perplexed puzzle enthusiast. It was during this three minute, $15 telephone call that my crossword dependency became painfully obvious.

Crossword fanaticism wasn't always a part of my life. Before last semester I rarely even glanced at the puzzles, let alone set aside time to do them. If by chance I did happen to peruse the crossword, the clues seemed so esoteric that I wouldn't have even the vaguest of ideas as to the answer. The kind of arcane knowledge the puzzle seemed to require was too much for me.

Before most classes I would look around the room and see a large number of people diligently filling out the crossword. I marveled at their intelligence and remarkable ability to retain trivial knowledge. Walking around Grounds I would always overhear people comparing notes on the crossword, trading answers, and remarking upon the level of difficulty for that particular day. After several years of puzzle exposure, I began to wonder if I could ever master the word game.

Encouraged by a friend and veteran of The New York Times crossword, I decided to try out a Monday puzzle (universally acknowledged as the easiest day to solve a puzzle). One Monday morning I opened up my paper and began to try my hand at puzzle solving. I worked on the puzzle between my classes, before club meetings, and finally at home. That night, as I sat at my desk staring at the crossword in which I had filled out six clues, one thought kept going through my head, "What kind of sadist came up with this stupid game?"

So I did some research. Arthur Wynne of Liverpool, England is considered to be the inventor of the crossword puzzle. His first puzzle, which he called Word Cross, was created on December 21, 1913. A decade later, in 1925, the puzzles began showing up in London's The Sunday Times paper. Since then, the puzzles have only grown in popularity. An estimated 40 million Americans play the crossword regularly. In 1978 the American Crossword Puzzle tournament began inviting devoted riddlers to Stamford, Connecticut to play for a high stakes prize -- $1,000.

People are attracted to crosswords because they think it keeps their minds sharp. We view the puzzle as a game for the scholarly. A pastime best suited for the brilliant. It's true the puzzles aren't a completely mindless form of entertainment, but I'm not convinced they can increase one's intelligence or even just maintain one's current IQ. They certainly do make one feel intellectual, though.

Bragging rights is what compelled me to pursue my goal of being proficient at the crossword. I couldn't stand the feeling my inability to solve a puzzle left me with.

I forced myself to try the crossword every day until I finally filled one in its entirety. By the time I achieved that, the puzzle had become a way of life. A way for me to continually reassert myself as an intelligent person. A person who knew that loam was a mixture of sand, salt, clay, and other sundry materials. A person who could fill in the spaces of the puzzle designated for the capitol of Yemen (which, by the way, is Sana). The fact I couldn't find Yemen on a map didn't faze me in the least. It didn't matter that I'd never seen an Otto Preminger film, so long as I could name a few when the puzzle makers asked me. The only thing that mattered was that I could answer the clues.

There's a validation that the crossword offers me and the 40 million other Americans like me who enjoy the puzzles. Completing the puzzle gives me a sense of fulfillment that compels me to pick up my pen day after day and attempt to once again fill in the blanks.