Too Soon?
"Midrash" by George Barany (started November 2013 and completed May 2014)

The signature traumatic event of my childhood—indeed, the defining trauma for just about everyone of my generation—was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963. My memories of what happened on that day and the onseveral that followed, and how my naive and confused eight-and-a-half-year-old mind processed it all, are deeply etched and highly personal, and this is not really the right forum to share them. Nor do we propose to take a position on any of the myriad of conspiracy theories that contrast the Occam's Razor-like clarity of the Warren Commission Report. The paper of record ran any number of 50th anniversary retrospective articles and video clips [please sample from them by clicking here, here, here, here, and/or here (articles) and here or here (videos)], which I devoured thoroughly, right down to the readers' comments, with renewed remembrances as well as the perspective that only time and repeated exposure to the cruelties of life can bring.  Then, keeping in mind the adage that "comedy is tragedy plus time," I was able to laugh along with this wonderful blog post from The New Yorker, which includes several memorable video clips.   I even devoted parts of several meetings of my Freshman Seminar course at the University of Minnesota to explore with my students the various ramifications of the assassination, including to have them interview their own parents or grandparents and mine those memories across a range of cultures and geographic locations.

But the real question we want to address here is posed by this puzzle's title, "Too Soon?"  Our sophisticated solvership is well acquainted with the "breakfast test" for crossword puzzles, and knows that we tread carefully whenever the occasion arises to traipse anywhere near the boundaries of good taste [click here and here for examples].  My hackles were raised by a rather scathing blog review of a "tribute" puzzle, written by a constructor whose work I admire (Peter Collins), that happened to appear in the New York Times on Wednesday, December 12, 2012.  While many of were fully expecting a 12/12/12 puzzle (a year and a day after 11/11/11), Will Shortz served up a theme relating to the debut of the Acadmy Award-winning film Lawrence of Arabia [and the 50th anniversary in question was even off by a few days].  After revealing his "Word of the Day," i.e., the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king EGBERT [complete with a faux picture that was really of beloved film critic Roger Ebert], Michael Sharp, aka the "king" of NY Times crossword puzzle doing, wrote this (emphasis mine):

  "So now you have everything you need to make your 1200th anniversary EGBERT tribute puzzle. If you're seen this movie, then you could just fill in the answers. They're that easy. The rest of the fill was less easy, because of cluing. Theme answers intersect at a couple points, which is vaguely interesting in an after-the-fact kind of way. Fill woulda/coulda/shoulda been a lot more interesting. I'll let you hypothesize why it's not. No idea why something this straightforward, marking something of such dubious import (and not even marking it on the right day), was deemed NYT-worthy. But it was. Shows what I know. Looks like if you want to publish puzzles, you should google 1963 or 1964 right now and see what the hell happened. Note: I'd advise against a Kennedy assassination tribute puzzle. But then again, I'd've advised against *this* puzzle, so clearly my instincts are not to be trusted."  

So, with the gauntlet thrown, how could I resist setting up on my crossword computer a working folder entitled "Dallas" and churning out two draft puzzle grids (with non-canonical dimensions) over the next couple of days.  I ran these by my trusted inner circle, and decided to abandon the the initial grid, which had as its theme entries PRESIDENT_KENNEDY (16), LEE_HARVEY_OSWALD (15), WARREN_COMMISSION (16), and the (unfortunately inappropriate) ASSASSIN'S_BULLET (15). However, with an elongated grid, I was able to salvage the first three of those, add GOVERNOR_CONNALLY (16) and ABRAHAM_ZAPRUDER (15) for crossword balance, and even get in the name (8 letters) of the policeman that Oswald killed about 45 min after the Kennedy assassination, as well as the name (also 8) of the night club owner with Mob ties who murdered Oswald on national television just 2 days after the assassination, while the alleged lone gunman was in the custody of the Dallas police. In response to feedback from my friends, I tweaked the grid somewhat, and then set it into a drawer for the next ten months.

With the anniversary approaching, and rumblings about it in the print and electronic media, my cruciverbal energies were initially directed elsewhere. It is quite astonishing that two major 20th century literary figures, the author of the dystopian novel Brave New World, and the novelist/poet/Christian apologist responsible for The Chronicles of Narnia, also passed away on the exact same day as the President.  However, Noam Elkies suggested to me that it would be more uplifting to focus on the birth centenary of arguably the premier English composer of our time, whose full name is conveniently 15-letters long [click here for that puzzle, and here for its "midrash"].  Meanwhile, two puzzles appearing in November of 2013 were called to our attention, one a promotional effort (paid advertisement) in the Sunday New York Times magazine in support of a PBS "American Experience" program called "JFK," and the other a puzzle entitled "11/22/63 From Different Angles," constructed by none other than Michael Sharp, that was commissioned to complement this off-Broadway play that premiered on November 20 and then ran for about 4 weeks. I recommend that you try both puzzles.

But what of my JFK assassination tribute puzzle?  I reconvened my cyberspace advisory panel, which was bolstered by new friends who were seeing my draft for the first time, and the puzzle was further improved (including correction of an embarrassing error with respect to the Dallas policeman's middle initial).  We also decided to include a "SOMBER CONTENT" warning.  But as November 22, 2013 came and went, I couldn't get myself to (please please forgive terrible bad-taste puns) pull the trigger/bite the bullet and post it. Too soon?! 

I did use the 50th anniversary to yet again draw people's attention to the amazing Executive Decision puzzle by Tom Pepper.  If you haven't tried it yet, now is your chance, and be sure to read the "midrash" once you finish it.  So when to post my puzzle?  I decided that maybe we could pick a somewhat happier occasion, like May 29, 2014, which would have been JFK's 97th birthday.  Was that the right decision? 

P.S. As luck would have it, May 29, 2014 was an awesome day for puzzles, including a chess theme by David Steinberg for the Los Angeles Times, and Anna Shechtman's New York Times opus (much beloved by Michael #) that introduced to the Gray Lady the Yiddish word SHTUP.  Reflecting on JFK, how appropriate!  A little over a year ago, it was my bittersweet duty to pay tribute to a deceased colleague, with One of a Kind.  That puzzle's honoree overlapped with JFK when both were Harvard undergraduates, and had a few tales to tell about how the future President would smuggle young ladies into his dorm rooms, post-curfew.  Discretion prevents me from speculating on whether or not any shtupping ensued.

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