Life is like a (2 words, 15 letters. Begins with ā€˜cā€™)

Friday, January 16, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 3

“Life’s a puzzle. Let’s fill in the blanks.” That’s the title of a speech I’ve been giving of late. Without being too literal, I find parallels between crosswords and everyday existence.

An obvious point of comparison is that, just because the clues and answers are numbered, and arranged in orderly fashion, I don’t have to proceed accordingly. Scanning for something I know, then building on that, usually results in more effective use of my time.

On a related note, common sense tells me that three-letter answers are probably the easiest to get. And fill-in-the-blank clues are comparatively easier than other clues because they spell out part of something that’s supposedly known.

How many times before noon of a given day do you have the opportunity to start with what looks easy rather than what looks hard?

How often do you find yourself grappling with an unknown, only to discover that if you’d started with what you already knew, the mystery would be easily solvable?

In making puzzles, I find more principles that cross-apply. If I have a chance to use LAS VEGAS or HOSTELRY in an eight-letter answer with E in the fifth spot, I’ll choose Las Vegas every time.

People know Las Vegas. It can be clued by its nickname (“City Without Clocks”), its geography (Seat of Clark County, Nev.), its place in pop culture (“The Hangover” setting), and any number of other ways. It’s a fun answer.

Hostelry, however, an old word for a small hotel, is not well known … and it’s boring.

How often in life do you find yourself wondering why someone with a choice between two things opted for boring and obscure when they could have taken modern and exciting?

A third parallel is that crosswords have no rules, as such, regarding how the solving experience must be undertaken.

Yet some will tell you that it’s “cheating” to get outside help from any source. These folks toil away solo, eschewing Google, onelook, and anything resembling a dictionary.

Others take a different view and routinely get help throughout the experience. Still others look to folks like me and ask, “What’s the law of the puzzle?” I reply, “What do you believe it should be? Are you in it for fun? If so, then what gives you the most pleasure?”

As you might imagine, answers to my Socratic put-back run the gamut. But I confidently advise people to allot a time that they wish to spend on solo-solving.

Whether it be 10 minutes or an hour, stop at the appointed time and then invite others into the experience. Group solving is lots of fun. And effective, like brainstorming a problem in the workplace.

If you must look up the answers, don’t just glance. Write them into the grid, pronounce the clue and answer out loud.

And make sure your brain is connecting the two.

Don’t settle for “I still don’t get it.” My theory (and I’m no brain doc) is that by using vocal cords, hearing and sight, one enhances the chances of remembering a clue/answer combo the next time around.

Good luck and happy solving on this week’s I Swear Crossword.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at