California Dreamin'
"Midrash" by Christopher Adams and George Barany (June 2016)

GB: Before turning over the forum to Chris, a few quick words of introduction. The two of us started communicating about a year and a half ago, in conjunction with the Engima Variations crossword metapuzzle contest, and first met in person at the fourth Minnesota crossword puzzle tournament. It's now June 2016, we've both completed very challenging semesters at our home institutions, and the Twin Cities are providing Chris a home-away-from-home while he attends two more tournaments and works with me on our crossword website overhaul project.

As Chris will tell you, he pitched this particular idea to me during a break from other activities, and I was quite befuddled from never having heard of 24-Across. The New York Times and other venues have published water rebus themes and change-direction themes before, but I had never quite seen the package put together quite this way before. Moreover, a little due diligence revealed the political timeliness of the puzzle, including connections between the fictional 24-Across and the {supply-your-own-adjectives} 73-Across. Click here, here, here, and here to draw your own conclusions. There were still some pesky technical details to work through on the cruciverbal side, but through the rigorous give-and-take and peer review that is the hallmark of our collaborative group, the final product you see here was developed and optimized over a few intense days.

CA: Recently, I've had the pleasure of collaborating with George on a number of politically themed puzzles based on events from this year's primary campaigns. As a result, every time I see something new and outlandish, I start to wonder whether it could work as a puzzle theme. I had heard the quote regarding the drought in California (hence this puzzle's title), and seen the comparisons to Mad Max: Fury Road [the image on the puzzle's main page shows IMMORTAN_JOE, the villain from the much acclaimed 2015 action film, with its post-apocalyptic vision of a drought-starved Australia], but it took me a few days to notice that the two names were both 11 letters.

Now, a few weeks prior, I had been working on a puzzle with rebuses that read HHO one way and WATER the other, but had put the idea aside after seeing a New York Times puzzle with that theme [click here for a blog review of that published puzzle]. But with TURN_ON_THE_WATER as a theme connecting the two names here, I decided to interpret it literally and have the answers do just that. I decided to go with the rebus to make the water (or, rather HHO, that being the chemical formula) easier to spot. So I was able to repurpose parts of that old idea, but in a new way that worked with this theme.

The original layout was 15x16, and had the reveal going horizontally across the middle, with the names in the top right and lower left corners. I could only fit in two rebus squares—not enough for a theme by itself, but paired with the semi-political theme, it worked well enough. Unfortunately, there were a few problems with this rough draft. One, some of the shorter fill [FTH, SEY, MYA, SFW, YRLY] was just awful. Two, I had 83 words, a bit on the high side for a puzzle that size. Three, I had the water words stack on or cross the reveal, which made for a bit of a trap—one needed the reveal to figure out those words, but needed those words to figure out the reveal. But worst of all, it wasn't until the grid was completely finished that I noticed a major dupe involving two of my theme entries (HIGH_ HORSE and HIGH_HOLIDAYS).

Still, I liked the idea enough to show it to George for feedback. As it happened, I made the puzzle on the same night that I had arrived in the Twin Cities to help George with the website migration, so I got to see him solve this puzzle the next morning in real time. This was rather helpful, because I could see exactly what worked and what didn't.

Problems aside, George was very encouraging, and so over the next day or two, we discussed the particulars for the revision. It was fortuitous that the two names crossed TURN ON THE WATER symmetrically (in fact, they do so in two different ways), which made it easy to design a grid with enough room in the corners for theme entries that didn't dupe each other. We gave the puzzle enough room to breathe and ended up at 16x19, a little on the large side, but better, I think, than cramming everything in there. With such room, I decided to minimize word count as much as I could, and ended up with only 97 words and 44 black squares. In particular, the visual of opening a puzzle with a stack of three eight letter answers was appealing.

A side note: the two rebus squares are symmetric, as are the entries going through them. This required ENGLISH_HORNS and HIGH_HOLIDAYS to be pluralized. One could have made the latter of these singular by using FRENCH horns instead, but the puzzle, I think, turned out nice as is.

The filling process took a few hours after that, as could be expected with a puzzle of this size and word count, and was sent out for beta testing Friday morning—a rush job, as the Indie 500 crossword tournament was the next day, and we hoped to get this puzzle out by then to promote this web site. Additionally, I was flying to DC that day, so it was a bit difficult to coordinate revisions while away from my computer, and dashing through airport terminals (to say nothing of the general lack of free airport wifi). But I would definitely like to thank everybody who came through and offered suggestions and feedback; we did get the puzzle out before the tournament, and it was well received by those who solved it there. [Special thanks to George Barany and Alex Vratsanos, who from Minnesota and Pennsylvania, respectively, coordinated the file edits while I was in transit, and who got me the correct files to print.]

Below is further commentary on individual words that appeared in this puzzle [some with links that might provide further enlightenment].


  • 1-Across: A strong entry to start the puzzle. The first fill had a dupe with TAKE CARE at 53A, but a) it was easier to change that entry, and b) CARE BEAR is indisputably a better answer to have.
  • 12-Across: This corner originally had EGRET, FLOOD, and EFRON. But George (rightfully) pointed out that EFRON was just too much, so the corner was refilled. No EGRETS there.
  • 18-Across: This clue is much more tasteful than the original: "an udder thing coming?"
  • 24-Across: This is one clue where the beta solvers were incredibly helpful: the original clue was pretty much useless if you didn't know the unorthodox name. Hence the hint that it "sounds like" (i.e. is almost, but not quite) he's immortal. (See also 8-Down.)
  • 35-Across: In an amusing moment of synchronicity, the first puzzle at the Indie 500 also had this answer, with an almost identical clue. Several folk mentioned to me later that they were able to fill it in immediately only because they'd solved this puzzle some 20 minutes before.
  • 43-Across: I clued this as the only Koenig known to me...and many test solvers pointed out that there are a handful of other ways to clue this. So I definitely learned something. This is emblematic of the puzzle on the whole: it does skew towards pop culture and indie stuff (and generally, to my interests) a bit more than, say, a NYT puzzle. Maybe not the best for general audiences, but at least for the Indie 500 tournament, it was the right vibe. [The link is to Koenig performing at a Bernie Sanders rally at which I was present--I'm in the grey hat (with sunglasses on top) at the bottom of the video in the second link.]
  • 53-Across: As noted above, originally TAKE CARE. TOXICANT isn't the best word in the world, but I hope it's not terribly awful. It can, I think, be inferred, and I hope the clue makes up for the rest of it.
  • 80-Across: Normally erne and tern are in the grid, clued as "SEA EAGLE" or some it's the other way around.
  • 87-Across: For the longest time the only thing I could get to fit here was "ASSESS AS", which is just an awful entry, and clearly a bottom row crutch. Glad I was able to find something much better.


  • 1-Down: A timely reference, what with the NBA finals going on around now. Credit to George for this clue.
  • 2-Down: The final track is a musical narration of sorts--Coltrane "reads" a poem, as detailed here.
  • 8-Down: This caused consternation to most test solvers; not exactly a household name, and not a gimme even if one follows sports. And since it crossed IMMORTAN JOE, another tough to parse answer, the anagram clue really helped there.
  • 13-Down: This, and the next clue, are both courtesy of George, and were huge improvements over the original clues.
  • 16-Down: Possibly the only good clue that came from me.
  • 18-Down: The wording on this one was tricky to pin down, but I hope this works. One problem is that while there is the comparison between 24-Across and 73-Across, the circumstances are different: the first doesn't really turn on the water to help the citizens, while the second would have no qualms in doing so. Hopefully the "unrealistic" part of the clue works--neither are likely to actually do this, nor would it be likely to help.
  • 22-Down: Again, more pop culture on my part, but somewhat famous (and in the NYT puzzle a few days before this was published).
  • 27-Down: Tricky if one hasn't been through that airport, but the crossings are all pretty fair.
  • 30-Down: Between this, 43-Across, 37-Down, and 49-Across, probably the hardest part of the puzzle, what with so many names and pop culture references (and, well, the theme answers).
  • 36-Down: An inside reference to Brendan Emmett Quigley, a constructor I quite admire (and who also tends to include pop culture in his puzzles). Not the best clue for a general audience, but in fairness, the last two letters have nice crossings, and the U can be guessed from the fact that it's a school.
  • 37-Down: Once again, clued w/r/t pop culture rather than to something else. This answer was actually the one that gave me the idea for the HHO rebus theme (before scrapping it and then reviving it), so it was nice to include it. Also, once the theme has been discovered, it is hopefully easy to figure it out. To quote one solver: "I liked seeing BEACH HOUSE at 37-Down get clued as the band - since their name is also a common noun, itŐs gettable even if most people have never heard of them. (This seemed to be a trend a few years back - for a time there were a lot of indie bands choosing ungoogleable names (Girls, Tennis, Real Estate, Holy Ghost)."
  • 74-Down: A classic Peter Gordon style clue for an otherwise random Roman numeral. I was lucky enough to meet Peter at the tournament (along with quite a few other crossword folk).
  • 77-Down: I originally clued this with Minnesota, for George ... who changed it to Iowa, for me.

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