A Tribute to N.C. Wyeth Midrash

Tribute to N. C. Wyeth:
The 40th Worst Crossword in the Universe
"Midrash" by Michael Hanko and George Barany

As any solver who has made it to this page has figured out, the honoree of this puzzle is not actually illustrator and patriarch N.C. Wyeth, but "Rex Parker," who by day is Michael Sharp, Lecturer in the English department of Binghamton University of the State University of New York, and by night is author [avatar reproduced below on the right] of the daily blog "Rex Parker does the NY Times Crossword puzzle."

We were pleased to discover the book illustration included on the main puzzle page, a work by N.C. Wyeth that depicts a king—"Rex" in Latin. And not just any king, but one sharing the first name of the inventor of the crossword puzzle [the centennial of which was recently celebrated, to much hoopla and with amazing creativity.]

We—the co-constructors of this puzzle—composed it as a way of expressing our gratitude to Mr. Sharp for creating the online community in which we met each other in 2012, after a comment left by Michael Hanko on Michael Sharp's blog piqued George Barany's interest. Since then, we (GB and MH) have collaborated on a considerable number of crossword projects and have forged a friendship both online and in the real world.

Before Mr. Sharp began blogging about the NY Times crossword in 2006, solving these puzzles was for us, as for most people, a solitary experience. Since then, we and a growing group of passionate solvers have come to consider "reading Rex" an essential part of the solving process. We look forward to poring over Rex's raves and rants and to bandying about our own opinions about the puzzles and about life in general. Geek thus meets nerd in this congenial online community. We've finally found a home among like thinkers!

To express our appreciation for Mr. Sharp's outstanding daily dedication to his blog—now in its 8th year—we created this puzzle using a theme that invokes a concept first identified and named by Mr. Sharp—the Natick Principle. In his words: "If you include a proper noun in your grid that you cannot reasonably expect more than 1/4 of the solving public to have heard of, you must cross that noun with reasonably common words and phrases or very common names." The crossing that originally inspired this concept was NATICK/NCWYETH crossing at that elusive N (1-Across/1-Down).

Digressing for a moment, more about the real Natick can be found here and here; it is a suburb of a historic American city that once headquartered a biotech company that GB consulted for in the 1990s. History books will confirm that this puzzle was released on the 140th anniversary of a great conflagration, shortly after the quaint photo to the right was taken. Nor does anyone wish to besmirch NC_WYETH per se, whose name has graced three New York Times regular puzzles as well as two acrostics, all by renowned constructors. [Closing the loop, we show to the right a historical picture of Natick, MA, as well as an N.C. Wyeth illustration evocative of the aforementioned catastrophe.]


Returning to the task at hand, it is commonly agreed that Naticks are just about the most egregious sin that any crossword constructor might commit. For our " 40th Worst Puzzle in the Universe ," however, we decided that we would actually feature the very phenomenon that our honoree so thoroughly disparages. Then, in the spirit of fairness, we added a bonus puzzle that would actually un-Natick all nine of the Naticks by giving solvers an alternative means of filling the absurdly difficult circled squares.

In the bonus puzzle, we spelled out a phrase that pays tribute to our honoree: REX PARKER is SHARP. The word “sharp” comes from a rebus in the puzzle, in which a musical sharp sign (♯) represents the letters S-H-A-R-P. We hope that solvers will realize that this word refers to Mr. Sharp's surname, to his mental acuity, and to the edgy tone of his prose.

We believe that the words we chose for our Natick pairs—at least as clued—are quintessential Naticks insofar as they are unlikely to have been heard by more than ¼ of the solving public:




We also submit that the above nine are the only Natick pairs in the entire puzzle.

Other nods to Mr. Sharp in our puzzle include the following:

•  The title includes both the aforementioned N.C. WYETH, part of the original Natick, and a corruption of Mr. Parker's blog tagline: I am the 40th Greatest Crossword Solver in the Universe! [a reference to his standing at the 2013 ACPT.]

•  Two clues (44-Across and 53-Down) include "king," which in Latin is "Rex."

•  Various features (other than Naticks) which Mr. Sharp has frequently railed against have been included here as gentle japes: making our puzzle a pangram [see a later bullet point for more on this], including circled letters, including a non-basic German word, and cluing with reference to musical theater, famously outside Mr. Sharp's wheelhouse. We regret that we were not able to get at least one RRN (random Roman numeral), or a variant spelling (Var.), into the grid.

•  The last sentence of the introductory note alludes to the first FAQ on Mr. Sharp's blog.

•  The word "keen" in the bonus puzzle instructions is both a synonym for "sharp" and a description—on many levels—of Mr. Sharp.

•  The bonus puzzle instructions continue by noting that the main puzzle is a pangram.  Near the bottom of the Rex Parker FAQ, he lists "Some helpful vocabulary" and defines PANGRAM as a "puzzle that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once." So, Rex, how do you really feel about pangrams? This quote is typical: "But I want to use this puzzle as an example of why no one should ever make a pangram puzzle ever again ("pangram" = using every letter of the alphabet). First, it's been done. A million times. It's no great accomplishment, so why go out of your way (as this puzzle certainly does) to get every letter in there? Makes No Sense. I love a Scrabbly grid, with unusual letters and strange-looking words, but I do not care if every letter of the alphabet is in there, and neither should you."

•  32-Across is a term from a pastime—baseball—that is centrally placed in Mr. Sharp's wheelhouse.

•  57-Across is an allusion to the often ironic tone of Mr. Sharp's blog, which delights as many as it enrages, but which seems always to keep everyone coming back for more.

And finally, for a refreshing bit of silliness, the scene from This is Spinal Tap referred to in the 52-Across clue for VOLUME: "These go to eleven..."

If you want to tell others about this particular page, refer them to http://tinyurl.com/wyethpuzmidrash

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