MGWCC #251

crossword 6:27
meta about 3 minutes 

hello and welcome to episode #251 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Papal Conclave”. in this oversized (17×17) puzzle, matt celebrates the election of pope francis i by asking us to name a recent pope. well, what are the theme answers? these nine clues have an asterisk:

  • {Gray Jay*} is a harsh but accurate way of describing LENO.
  • {Major “cougar cage”*} PICKUP JOINT.
  • {King legend Wayne ___*} GRETZKY. i believe the oilers have some claim to him, too.
  • {Denver waters*} is the SOUTH PLATTE river.
  • {Carpenter hurt*} OWIE.
  • {Darling brown doe*} is AUNT ENA of bambi.
  • {Woo “candy”*} SWEET NOTHINGS.
  • {“Bull!” (Henry Ford)*} is the quote “HISTORY IS BUNK”, which, if i’ve heard it before, i’d forgotten.
  • {Harvard Law Kennedy*} is justice ANTHONY kennedy.

yes, that’s right: this one’s not in the theme answers at all, but in the theme clues. the tipoff is the oddly clipped, terse wording of the clues. in fact, literally every word of every starred clue is the surname of a famous (or somewhat famous) john:

  • {Gray Jay*} john gray is a very, very common name; perhaps the most famous john gray is the author of men are from mars, women are from venus, and i just gave my book a run-on title. john jay is a founding father, the author of some of the federalists papers, and the nation’s first chief justice.
  • {Major “cougar cage”*} john major is the recent british PM; john cougar (sometimes mellencamp) is the singer of “jack & diane”; john cage is the celebrated postmodern composer of, among other things, 4’33”.
  • {King legend Wayne ___*} john king is the CNN swipe-screen guy; john legend is a decorated R&B singer; john wayne is the famous actor of westerns.
  • {Denver waters*} john denver is a folk singer; john waters … i don’t know any of the people named john waters. hmm. maybe the weird baltimore filmmaker?
  • {Carpenter hurt*} john carpenter is the horror movie director; john hurt is an english actor i don’t recognize but who’s been in lots of stuff i’ve heard of.
  • {Darling brown doe*} john darling is one of the darling children from peter pan; john brown is the violent abolitionist who raided harpers ferry; john doe is a generic anonymous or unknown-identity dude.
  • {Woo “candy”*} john woo is the director of those movies where lots of people shoot at each other; john candy is the late canadian comic actor.
  • {“Bull!” (Henry Ford)*} john bull:UK :: uncle sam:US; john henry is the owner of the boston red sox and also the “steel-driving man” of american folklore; john ford is the four-time winner of the oscar for best director and also the elizabethan playwright of ’tis pity she’s a whore.
  • {Harvard Law Kennedy*} john harvard is the namesake (but not founder) of noted NCAA basketball powerhouse harvard university; john law is the personification of law enforcement; john kennedy was our nation’s 35th president.

were you counting? yup, that’s twenty-three johns, so the recent pope in the meta is pope john xxiii, a.k.a. angelo roncalli, whose brief but momentous pontificate included the convocation of the second vatican council in the 1960s. if you weren’t counting, but still noticed the johns, well, you could hardly go wrong, as pope john xxii (1316-34) would hardly qualify as “recent”, and there hasn’t yet been a john xxiv.

i can’t really tell how impressed i’m supposed to be at this construction. it couldn’t have been easy, by any means. even allowing for the fact that some of the theme clues awfully strangely due limited wording, that is a ton of material to cram into one puzzle (which is why it ended up being oversized; nobody ever sets out to write a 17×17 puzzle). many of the theme clues are truly ingenious, like the henry ford one and the darling brown doe. and yet, the puzzle wasn’t all that much fun to solve, and it does always feel a little weird when the grid has nothing to do with the meta. so i dunno. what’d you all make of this one?

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44 Responses to MGWCC #251

  1. Paul Coulter says:

    This took impressive skill to construct, but for the solver, didn’t it seem very easy at month’s end? As Joon’s noted, the awkwardness of the theme clues gave away the trick. Perhaps Week 5’s a killer and we’re being softened for the kill. Matt had to place his much craftier First Quarter puzzle last week, of course, but I’d prefer to see metas of this difficulty at Week 2. I understand our amiable host likes to offer the breeze-throughs at Week 1 as encouragement to beginners, but I wonder how many of us wouldn’t miss them if he moved his simple Week 2s to that spot. Not that any of us can complain — where else can you get such dependably enjoyable treats each week? What does the group think?

    • Jed says:

      Consider this month’s correct entries (from the website)

      Week 1: 588
      Week 2: 482
      Week 3: 285
      Week 4: 253

      Perhaps Week 4 is SLIGHTLY easy for the month trend, but it follow the curve Matt is presumably going for. I’m frightened for this week 5, though…

  2. Matt says:

    260 right answers, which is fewer than last week (299) but not in the 125-175 range I was aiming for.

    • HH says:

      Aining for 125-175? If it was me, I’d aim for maybe 6.

    • Elaine says:

      Oh, it wasn’t brutal enough for you?
      My heart bleeds!
      No, seriously, I feel your pain.
      I am putting you on the prayer list Right This Minute because your intense suffering brings tears to my eyes!
      See the tears?

  3. Matthew G. says:

    I shouldn’t criticize too much when I manage to solve a Week 4, but I’m still not a big fan of MGWCCs where the grid plays no role at all in the meta. Solving such a meta just feels a little less satisfying and complete. I’m sure it was hard to construct this, but it did less for me than most recent late-month metas.

    @joon: Baltimore filmmaker John Waters is super-famous. In fact, “Denver waters” was the clue I was looking at when the meta clicked for me.

    • Matt says:

      The sports analogy I use for these “turns out you don’t need to solve the grid metas” is when a penalty kicker just shoots it calmly down the center as the goalie (hopefully) leaps to one side in mistaken anticipation. Can’t try that trick too often since if the goalie just stands there you’re screwed, but occasionally and well-concealed it’s a good arrow to keep in your quiver.

      • Victor Barocas says:

        I played goalie on an intramural soccer team in college (they called me “Rick Aguilera” because I was good for one save per game!). Someone tried the easy-down-the-middle PK against me, but I was so slow that I didn’t have time to dive out of the way. Ended up being the easiest play I made all year.

        As to the meta, I thought that it was absolutely amazing, one of my favorites in some time. Impressive and still fun. Yes, the weird clues and the limited number of possible answers made it easier, but it was nevertheless great.

      • Debbie says:

        I found that since the clues were used last week, it made it much easier to jump to the clues this week (not that I shouldn’t be looking at the clues every week, but I may have stuck with it longer than I usually do). Agreed, it’s a little blue ball-y to not get to use the grid like I want to (oh baby), but that said, I’m extremely impressed by the inclusion of all clue answers (23 at that). I only actually noticed the first word of each clue, and chalked up the short cluing to needing a certain word at the beginning.

      • Matthew G. says:

        That explanation makes sense. It’s true that the more varieties of metas we know you could try, the harder every variety of meta becomes, which is a good thing. And admittedly, here I did go back to the grid for a little bit because I initially only noticed that the first word of each starred clue could be paired with a John. I thought the grid might point to something suggesting one of the two John Pauls. Then my eyes strayed across {Denver waters} again and the 23 names began to jump out.

      • John says:

        Kick at the goalie – in hockey? Couldn’t be that. What is this “sport” you speak of with kicking and goalies? I’ve never (thankfully) seen it. :vp

  4. Bob Kerfuffle says:

    With nine starred clues, I thought there might be one of Matt’s “who’s missing?” metas, but looking at the ten most recent popes turned up too many Piuses and other odd names which obviously weren’t there. After noting that the first word of each starred clue suggested a “John”, i caught on that each word in the clue also clued “John.” Relatively quick solve.

  5. DannyBoy says:

    I agree with Paul. The very easy metas leave me disappointed. The hard ones that I can’t solve leave me in awe. All you can do with a sitter like this is go for speed. But then you risk missing if you submit before finishing the puzzle. I did that with the pig one and it turned out to be right, but with this one, you might have answered John Paul after the first long answer, for Paul Gray and John Jay. I only went on because that came out Paul John, and which one, JP I or II?

  6. Amy L says:

    I really liked this puzzle, partly because I completely missed last week’s “First Quarter Action.” First I thought only the first words in the clues were JOHNs, then I saw JOHNs everywhere. It was a lot easier than last week’s and the weeks could have been swapped. But now I feel more confident about the upcoming puzzle.

    Note to joon: John Waters is a very well known filmmaker. You should have a look at “Polyester” although it won’t be the same if you don’t have a scratch and sniff card to watch it with.

    • Matt says:

      “Polyester” is great. I’ve seen in probably 10 times.

      • Amy L says:

        I think I scratched and sniffed too many times. I still feel queasy when I think of “Polyester.”

      • John says:

        Polyester is great, Pink Flamingos quite weird. I think I have seen all his early stuff and going from the early stuff to Hairspray is like watching a schizophrenic recovering.

    • Dave says:

      I was a huge John Waters fan (Pink Flamingoes, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester, etc.) and I actually have a couple of unused scratch and sniff cards from Polyester because some day, just like all my old lp’s, they’ll be worth a lot of money :).

      As far as the meta goes, I’ve been doing Matt’s puzzles for a little over a year and this is the first time that I’m four for four in a given month. It’s strange being in uncharted territory.

  7. Pam says:

    Here’s why I didn’t submit an answer:
    Joel Gray
    Lee Major(s)
    Alan King
    John Denver
    Karen Carpenter
    Wendy Darling…..
    Plus, I’m probably considered a “beginner” since I rarely (only once or twice in the years I’ve been participating) get all of the puzzles in a month correct. But I still enjoy trying and really appreciate the first 2 weeks of the month.

    • Dan Seidman says:

      You might as well have guessed Pope Karen or Pope Wendy.

      • HH says:

        I hope to live long enough to see a Pope Wendy.

        • Paul Coulter says:

          Amen. I’d settle for Pope Tinkerbell. It would delight my granddaughter — that’s what she named her horse. (Not the Pope part, though she does think Tinkerbell is the next best thing to God.) And we both think Pope Francis seems a helluva guy so far.

  8. hibob says:

    I only saw the John’s in the first word of each clue. I figured it wasn’t John IX because that couldn’t be recent. So I counted the words in the clues and got 23.
    My favorite John waters movie is Hairspray (both the original and the musical) very witty.

  9. Wayne says:

    I was side-tracked for a day because I looked at the count of rare letters in the starred clues and their answers and convinced myself that it was a very long anagram about John Paul II. (“Look at all those ‘W’s; it’s got to be the Pole!”) But after removing the letters from his birth name, regnal and place of birth, I still had an ugly jumble of letters that didn’t seem to spell anything. Fortunately, I abandoned that line of attack before expending too much effort on it.

    It was interesting to spend some time with the List O’ Popes wikipedia page. (Those early popes didn’t fair very well, did they?)

  10. Noam D. Elkies says:

    There *is* a John in the grid too. Or at least a john (63D:LOO).

    NDE I

  11. Mutman says:

    Here is my alternate solution to the meta, since I didn’t know a lot of those Johns.

    If you consider each clue number a year, with all being 20th century years, 1901, 1919, etc and only 9 being the twenty first century (2009), then you uniquely have a year in each pope’s reign dating way back to Leo XIII, except for the meta answer of John Paul I.

    This excludes Francis who may or may not have been appointed at the time of this construction.

    • joon says:

      this is a bit much. even aside from the fact that there is nothing to indicate that we should treat clue numbers as years, or to arbitrarily sort some into the 20th century and some into the 21st, or to exclude francis—are you suggesting that the meta is neither in the grid nor clues (nor any other aspect of the puzzle), but rather only in which clue numbers were *ed? that is not a meta at all. surely there must be some reason for the crossword itself to exist?

    • Amy Reynaldo says:

      I had Karen Carpenter on the mind and also went the YOTP (year of the pope) route. I used the clue number 13 for 2013, covering both Benedict XVI and Francis. Ah, well.

  12. Mutman says:

    Joon. I did write this with tongue firmly planted in cheek. I struck out on the meta, but found the year thing a neat coincidence. One thing about these metas, as someone alluded to, is that you get to do some research and learn stuff you never knew. At least I do.

  13. Evan says:

    So, I just started tackling these weekly meta contests. Here’s my philosophical question of the day: If you solved the meta correctly, but had a wrong square in your grid (I had PICK-UP POINT), did you finish the puzzle?

  14. Jeff G. says:

    I really enjoyed the meta. Was thinking Karen Carpenter and Larry King before finding all the Johns. 23 in 9 clues is amazing. I don’t mind having the answer hidden in the clues. One more way that Matt keeps us on our toes.

  15. Karen says:

    I saw that there were Johns in the clues, but I only saw one per clue. I’m impressed today at the construction. (I knew there was a twenty three in there somewhere.)

  16. Andy says:

    I think this would have been perfect week 4 difficulty if the theme clues hadn’t been starred. They are symmetrically located, after all, so that would help finding them, and several of them were for the longest entries in the grid. Then perhaps a few of the more prominent ones (Denver or Carpenter, for example) would stand out and you’d be off and running.

  17. Thomas says:

    I only noticed the first John in each clue, and I unaccountably didn’t bother to remember how often pope names are recycled, so I submitted JOHN without the number.

  18. Howard B says:

    Figured out that the first word of the clues was a John, that was all. D’oh.
    Amazed at the construction, but don’t personally enjoy clue metas in general. Mostly because I never solve them ;).

  19. Garrett says:

    Late reading all this, and doing it on the iPhone, so I really did not parse it all.

    Did anyone point-out that if you add the word count of the theme clues you get the same tally?

  20. Garrett says:

    How brilliant is that?

  21. Garrett says:

    @Howard — until Matt we did not know what a crossword Meta was. He still continues to define what this meta-space is.

  22. Pete Rimkus says:

    I counted wrongly (so much for that Masters degree in Math) and only came up with 22 “John”s from the clues.
    Then Wikipedia told me that there never was a Pope John XX ( so I knew I had nailed it…

    All this despite the presence of “Antipope” John XXIII in the early 15th century….the nuns never told me about no Antipopes…

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