Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Marking Time”—Laura’s review
Sometimes, I get the WSJ meta immediately, and I’m super proud of myself — the grid is my oyster! Other times, the solving experience leads me to doubt my very existence and worth as a crossword blogger. This was the latter, only a week into taking over the WSJ contest slot from Dave.
Our title is “Marking Time,” and we’re told to look for a “famous fictional character” — hmm, not necessarily a literary character, so maybe a film or TV character? Or someone in a song or folklore? Let’s set that aside for now. Not much in the grid to suggest anything except this entry: [50a: Number of times it’s marking time (plus you could add a big one at the end]: SEVEN. But what is it? And in what way is it marking time? Is it marking the passage of time? Like the hands of a clock? Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives? Is there a famous fictional character who marked time seven times? Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years, so it’s not that guy.
At this point, I took a break and solved Matt’s other grid, over at this week’s MGWCC. I figured I would give my lateral reasoning skills a little break. No luck there either.
So I fished for hints from my solving group (pro tip, folks — solving groups are a great source of meta-solving support, and you can meet some fun, cool people). My pal Conrad suggested looking for entries in the grid that would remain valid words should one letter be swapped. Here’s what I found:
BIDET/LADY SUSAN = BIZET/LAZY SUSAN
CHAR/BOHO = CZAR/BOZO
URIS/KAROO = UZIS/KAZOO
HAMEL/DAMES = HAZEL/DAZES
DOSE/BESOS = DOZE/BEZOS
COPY/IPOD = COZY/IZOD
FATES/URBANITES = FAZES/URBANIZES
So, seven Zs, placed symmetrically. Zs can mark time as … sleeping? Back to Rip Van Winkle? That can’t be right. And the big one at the end … ohhhhhhhhhhhh. The replaced Zs in the grid are in the shape of a big Z. Whose “mark” is a big Z? This guy, a masked vigilante hero whose stories were set in Spanish California in the 1820s, and created in the 1920s by pulp writer Johnson McCulley:
I have to say, the title really distracted me. I was looking for something specifically having to do with time, not marking. I wonder if the title will also throw other folks off the path? I have a little notebook where I keep solving notes for each metapuzzle; it goes back a few years. Sometimes the title fits the solution in such a lovely way, and sometimes it is the source of an overabundance of frustrating rabbit holes. Zorro is Spanish for fox; he could’ve helped hunt down some of those rabbits. Your thoughts?
Zippo. Zilch. Total whiff.
What a wonderfully constructed puzzle and meta now that the Z is out of the bag. To come up with the interlocking changeable combinations and then lay out the swapped letters as a giant Z is astonishing.
I too looked for “it” and time related or music related ideas. How did Conrad know to look for a swap? Just by seeing the words that could be changed somehow? Even 50A was to me pretty oblique.
After hours of staring at the grid: I applied my Hail Mary technique of: look for weird words in the grid: they are probably there to support the meta.
LADYSUSAN jumped out: why not LAZYSUSAN? I found the rabbit hole.
Then: hey, KAROO should be KAZOO.
Staring at the grid on a 2-hour flight definitely helped.
Two hours? Well that definitely makes me feel better. Congrats to solvers. This was amaZing.
The title and hint made this an easy hard meta. Mark made me immediately think of Zorro but using mark to solve the meta muddled the water as I didn’t think of that as a clear description of the mechanism required to solve it. I would’ve sent in Zorro without having figured out the meta just based on the title but am happy I sussed it out. I’m sure LADY SUSAN was the opening for most.
While I now see Zorro, I think a strong case can be made for Apollo. 49 years ago in exactly July 20, 1949 the Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. The Moon obviously marks Time with its 7 phases, 8 if you add the BIG ONE. 32D starts with Times and the answer is SQUARE. Thus, 49 years led me to the Lunar landing on exactly the puzzle date. Also, adding 1 to 49 in birthday years, yields the big 5-O. Lots of other Moon references as well in puzzle not to mention OH words and OHIO, where Armstrong was from.
Unsuccessful rabbit holes I pursued included looking for all occurrences of “IT” in any direction, as well as looking for paths containing HARE, in support of the March Hare. But I found only 5, and no synonyms for rabbit either.
MOSSO in the NE corner bothered me, so when I discovered the lurking, implied Z’s, I had a feeling I was on the right track. I was relieved to find that it was near one of the meta clue sites.
Sam, my very first attempt was all the “hare”entries and was sure it was the March Hare. I found six so knew it was a no go.
Never occurred to me, and I’m not sure I do follow how Z marks time. Also wouldn’t have associated Z easily with Zorro or thought of him as fictional rather than an old TV show.
I started with a tough fill indeed. I didn’t know the Hill Street Blues actor, my last to fall, but the SE was brutal with TARO, MOSSO, and KAROO, as well as my starting with “scan” for SKIM. Ugly as hell. From there I looked for obvious theme entries, but nothing. Few all that long.
Of course, “it” marks time, but what is it, and how does it mark time? I found five occurrences of IT, whether horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, but they didn’t seem to mark time, and any way five isn’t seven. Then the central entry popped out at me: HAMEL is close to HAMLET without a T, which often stands for time, and he sure is a famous fictional character (well, theater, but that counts). But how the other seven? I could read BIDE as BIDE + T, perhaps referring to “bide one’s time.” But then, while sure I’d just missed the route to Hamlet, I gave up. As usual, I guess I should just conclude I’m not on Gaffney’s wavelength.
Number of times (that) it’s marking time (aka, time to make my mark).
Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the English language to me.
As a poster on the WSJ blog noted: Z stands for Zulu time. I also missed that connection while solving.
After three days of trying and realizing I was gong to whiff on this one, I picked it up one last time and Lady Susan caught my eye. I said to myself, “Lazy Susan”. Then I saw bidet/bizet and I was off to the races. Not sure if anyone else noticed that there are seven alliterative clues – upright umlaut, potential pipes, etc. I was down that rabbit hole for a long time. I liken that 50 across clue to “it’s clobberin’ time” – it’ marking time.
I was way off. There are exactly 7 answers in the puzzle that have 2 O’s : COLON, OHIO, TORO, BOHO, OHO, MOSSO, and KAROO. Time can be considered to be marked at the top of every hour when a clock shows :00 (I thought COLON was a “marking time” hint). The answer to 50 across was SEVEN for the number of times O appeared twice, and the clue said to add a big one (SEVEN, I thought?) at the end. 0-0-7 represents the fictional character James Bond. (Yeah, I know that it’s technically zeroes, not O’s; but everyone always says double-O seven as the name…)
Surprised no one has mentioned these red herrings:
STOPtime (a common soccer term)
Granted, some are a bit of a stretch, and it comes up one short of 7, but seemed a juicy possibility.
Or, these rather direct references to marking time:
Yep — that was my rabbit hole too. Like Laura my focus was on time-related things, not marking things. Total whiff.
I, too, looked for a time-related answer, with COLON and DIALS in the grid.
I noticed that there were seven instances of numbers in the clues (including the spelled-out “five” and “nine”), but that also got me nowhere.
If I only had more TIME, I would have….still not gotten this.
I figured there was some reason for KAROO/URIS instead of KAZOO/UZIS, and separately at some point I noticed that LADY SUSAN is very close to LAZY SUSAN, but somehow I never put the two together. I should have made some notes.
Somehow, minutes before going to bed last night, found LADYSUSAN, KAROO, and HAMEL, changed all the Zs… and from there didn’t have it after three more minutes and prioritized bed. I can’t imagine getting closer without actually getting it.
I didn’t see anybody say “the mark of Zorro” which would fit the meta perfectly. That’s just my 2 cents. Hats off again to Matt. You are a genius