Monday, July 22, 2013

Our Olympic Adventure, Part V: End of a Streak


Lo, how the mighty has fallen.

My uninterrupted streak of New York Times online crossword completions had been in the top ten for close to a year when we left for Washington nine days ago. In fact, I completed the Sunday puzzle in the car (relax, Amy was driving) as we left I-5 and headed northwest to the Olympic Peninsula. That gave me, I believe, 988 consecutive puzzles. I was still solidly in seventh place. I had high hopes of maintaining my streak as we hiked: when I made reservations at the Elk Meadows B&B, Joy Baisch assured me AT&T had coverage at least in the high places throughout the national park, and we were planning to hike up to passes on both Monday and Tuesday. That might put me a few hours behind my usual completion time--I almost always submit puzzles within a couple of hours of their release, at 7 p.m. Pacific time the night before they appear in the Times--but I'd stay on track, and Wednesday we'd be out of the park, enjoying an early dinner in town, allowing me to finish that day's puzzle with at least an hour to spare.

At our campsite, my phone gave me the dreaded "no signal" warning. No problem, I thought, turning it off; we'll be at Anderson Pass tomorrow. Monday our hike took us steadily up the Dosewallips. I checked my phone regularly: still not signal. Finally we reached Honeymoon Meadow: no signal. We walked a few feet beyond the Honeymoon camping area, into the meadow, and to the trail sign that pointed the way up to the pass--by fording a rushing, icy creek. At one level, I eagerly hoped to make it all the way up there, desperate to find the elusive signal and spend the 6 or 7 minutes I would need to download, complete, and submit the Monday puzzle; but in my heart, I knew it was over. After 7.7 miles, our bodies had barely enough stamina left in them to get us back to our campsite, let alone wading across Icicle Creek and climbing a mile and a half of steep switchbacks. My streak was over.

Tuesday, climbing up toward Constance Pass (another summit we were ultimately unable to reach), we again never came near a signal of any kind; so even if we had made it to Anderson Pass, my streak would've ended the next day.

I have some seriously conflicted feelings about this. First and foremost, as claims to fame go, being on the leader board of a phone app is among the flimsiest; and yet, to my knowledge I've never been nationally ranked at anything, so I was proud of it. Tempering that pride, however, was the knowledge that, but for a single mistake made on a Sunday puzzle the day before this streak began, I would have been first or second rather than seventh. That's right, I had maintained a streak for over a year when I came up against a Sunday puzzle I just couldn't submit. I became convinced the puzzle was flawed. Only when the deadline passed, and the solution became available, did I discover a single word I had misspelled. So I could've been number two, maybe even number one. But I wasn't; I was number seven.

Third, my position varied from time to time due to glitches in the server where the puzzles reside. There have been times when it just booted me, despite a proper solution. Only with appeals to support was I able to get my position restored. I know it did that to others, as well: at one point, I rose as high as fifth, only to see the missing streakers restored one by one, pushing me down to eighth within a week or two. So placement in the top ten was a largely arbitrary accomplishment, dependent to at least some extent on how well one could leverage the support team.

Fourth, and perhaps most telling, I had come to feel trapped by the streak. Think of it: for almost three years--no, make that four--I have always finagled my way into a 3G or 4G connection, even while camping at the foot of the South Sister. I have forced myself to complete puzzles when I should have been interacting with others, exercising, reading, writing, playing music, engaging in far more rewarding activities. Working on puzzles has distracted me from fully experiencing some high quality television--my brain really doesn't multitask as well as I think it does--missing key moments in Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, and others. It has pushed me to back corners during parties, taken me out of family time, filled me with anxiety when, for one reason or another, I couldn't submit, turned me into an obsessive compulsive shadow of my better self.

When I think about it, doing this puzzle has fed an addictive part of my personality that has always made me uncomfortable. I've written about how, as a child, I spent vacations with my nose buried in a book, rarely seeing the beauty around me. Once video games entered my life, some of that compulsion transferred to them, and I was driven to complete them. In the early days, that meant playing the same levels again and again, because running out of lives meant restarting the game. More recently, as games have evolved to permit players to restart levels rather than entire games, this has become less of a problem, but still there is that need to beat the level, to reach a stopping place that feels like a satisfying conclusion, even if it means staying up until two or three in the morning. Interestingly, I seem to have finally exhausted this impulse in myself: last fall I eagerly purchased Assassins Creed 3, but soon found that I had lost interest in the endless cycle of achievements and trophies. It's gathered dust for eight months, unplayed.

Other pastimes have consumed my attention over the years: photography, collecting license numbers (long story, not to be told here), reading the newspaper. Whenever I find myself compulsively indulging one of these pursuits rather than interacting with people, I feel a twinge of embarrassment, and over time, most of them have fallen away, or at least have dropped below the level of compulsion. Being on the puzzle leader board was, after all, just a number I was chasing, an arbitrary number awarded for showing up and having the persistence to finish what I started, even if it took me extra time to look up some of the more perverse answers--or (and this is the most embarrassing part to my pride in my own knowledge) turning to Rex Parker's puzzle blog for the answers I just couldn't find myself (he always posts his solution within a few hours of the puzzle coming online). So maintaining my streak didn't even demonstrate I was any kind of crossword master. I wasn't particularly fast: my times rarely cracked the top hundred, so I would never have been competitive in an actual crossword competition. I just did whatever it took to finish the puzzle on time, day after day, year after year, until finally I happened to be away from the internet for a few days.

And really, isn't that the best reason of all for me to let go of the number? Granted, the days we were in the wilderness corresponded with the easiest puzzles--Monday and Tuesday--but really, should I have spent even a minute on this electronic doodad rather than exulting in the air, the breeze, the trees, the water, the mountains, and most of all, the company of my beloved mountain wife?

So RIP, New York Times Crossword Streak. You were a fun bit of trivia for the ComedySportz preshow slides, and I enjoyed bragging about you; but in the long run, you were superficial, arbitrary, and at your worst, abusive and dictatorial. I'm better off without you.

Though the Tuesday puzzle did just come online...

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