Sunday Mornings With the Puzzlemaster

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A highlight of early Sunday morning while walking with Sam the Dog is listening to the “Sunday Puzzle” on National Public Radio. I listen to Red River Radio, of course, (89.9 FM in Longview, 88.9 in Lufkin/Nacogdoches), since they have been kind enough to air my commentaries every Friday morning for nearly five years. You can also listen at redriverradio.org. Red River Radio is a jewel. If you are not listening you are missing out on fine non-commercial programming and real news.

That concludes our shameless self-promotion. Now back to our regular programming.

Will Shortz is both the NPR Puzzlemaster and Puzzle Editor for the New York Times. Each week he issues a puzzle challenge, such as: Rearrange the 15 letters of COOL HIT FARE IN L.A. to name a famous song that’s appropriate to the given phrase.”

The answer, if you have not figured it out already, is “Hotel California,” by the Eagles.

Given a few hours, it is possible I might have deciphered that one, since anagrams are one of the few word games at which I am relatively proficient. If memory serves, about 1,200 listeners submitted correct responses. One person is chosen by chance to participate in the on-air challenge. The on-air challenge is more my speed, because it is usually fairly easy. If someone walks past me about 7:40 on Sunday morning, and I am mumbling to myself, odds are strong I am playing the on-air puzzle challenge.

This leads to delusions of trying to solve the harder puzzle and submit my entry in hopes of getting on the “Sunday Puzzle” so I can rake in all that NPR swag participants receive, regardless of how successful they are. I have never actually tried to solve the puzzle, since when Shortz gives it after praising the on-air participant — no matter how poorly the performance was — I invariably realize I do not have the slightest idea how to solve it.

Take this week’s puzzle: “Think of a famous quotation with 8 words. The initial letters of the first 4 words themselves spell a word, and the initial letters of the last four words spell another word. Both words rhyme with ‘jab.” What quotation is it?”

Good grief. My mind does not work this way. Since the deadline to enter had passed, I Googled by copying-and-pasting the puzzle in the search bar. That took me to a site where enough hints were dropped for me to ascertain the answer: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” boxer Muhammad Ali’s famed description of his pugilistic skills. The first four words form “flab,” the latter form “slab.”

I am quite confident that if I sat with a legal pad from the moment the puzzle was issued until the 3 p.m. (ET) Thursday deadline, I would have never solved that puzzle. A monkey hammering away on a keyboard would have as good a chance as me.

One would think that someone who has made a living of sorts with words since Jimmy Carter was president would be more adept at word games. Not me. I am terrible at crossword puzzles and only marginally better at those “Find The Words” in the jumble of letters on the back side of the children’s menu at Cracker Barrel. Or maybe it is Denny’s.

I have decided, in my quest for self-improvement (it is a part-time endeavor), that I am going to start trying to solve the Sunday Puzzle. This will involve a lot of Googling in hopes of getting hints from people more adept than me. Someday, perhaps my correct answer will be chosen from the hundreds entered and I will get to play the on-air puzzle.

If that happens, I hope Will tosses me a softball puzzle to solve. Or that Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the Sunday morning host of “Morning Edition,” will be ready to step in to help when I become tongue-tied.

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