I had a superpower for a while. Or maybe I didn’t. It was hard to tell.
A few years back, I picked up the habit of doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. Me and hundreds of thousands of other people. I started by sailing through Mondays and being utterly stumped by Saturdays. The puzzles get harder through the week, starting on Monday and peaking on Saturday. Sunday is actually a mid-week level of difficulty, just larger.
There was a long time that I would stare at a lot of white space on my grids.
The clues have moved away from names of obscure rivers to perfectly normal words with clever cluing. Most of the time, that is. No amount of cleverness will help you dig up the name of a sports figure or a movie star or the first name of a former U.S. poet laureate, RITA, as in Dove. Either you know it or you don’t. Usually, I didn’t.
The puzzle is well-edited. The more difficult words usually had kinder cross-clues to help. Or some days my brain was on stand-by and I couldn’t get any help from any direction.
Cue more staring at white space.
Gradually, I began to notice the puzzle at large in the world around me. At least the clues, particularly clues I hadn’t gotten yet. I’d be stumped by a short word and then a co-worker would tell me that they bought a new headset from Beats by DRE.
Or, a business news story would refer to the former rivalry between Sony and TOSHIBA.
When I’d get back to the puzzle, I’d be able to fill out the missing bits.
This didn’t work with other crossword puzzles. I tried. Blank spaces on the grid left me hanging in the wind.
Didn’t work with other word games. Ditto.
Sure, I know there are mundane explanations.
Perhaps it was a matter of numbers. The NYT puzzle is hugely popular. A certain percentage of society would be reading the same clues at the same time. The people, places, and things appearing in that day’s puzzle would be in the forefront of the hive mind.
Perhaps it was simple a matter of me noticing. When you live in the middle of a major urban center, thousands of facts pass in front of your eyeballs. I see advertisements in subway stations and and magazine covers on newstands, not to mention the firehose of factoids that is the Internet. Maybe I only noticed the words I needed. If hadn’t been wondering about ‘An Atlanta hoopster’, I would have glossed right past the poster advertising the New York Knicks playing the Atlanta HAWKs.
Perhaps it was confirmation bias. You believe something to be true. Or you want something to be true. So you notice things that prove it to be true. I wanted to be special. So, I noticed things that made me feel singled out by the universe.
If it was a superpower, what was the point? Aside from being flat-out weird.
Either way, it faded over time. As I did more puzzles, I got better at them. I began to develop a databank of repeating puzzle trivia. I recognized that any form of ‘Eli’ meant the puzzlemaker needed the Y from YALE. Eventually, I was able to finish the puzzle each day. I stopped seeing clues everywhere I went.
So, that was my superpower. Or maybe it wasn’t.