We Are Family
"Midrash" by George Barany (May and June, 2014)

Release of this puzzle was scheduled for August 28, 2014, but since construction was handled in the month of May, the midrash was written while everything was still fresh in my mind.  The puzzle was spawned in the aftermath of some contentious goings-on at the Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword Puzzle blog.  In brief, I made the cyberacquaintance of Jill McMahon, who goes by Gill I. P. on the blog, and soon learned that she wanted to surprise her son Jordan with a custom crossword puzzle on the occasion of his birthday.  Following our posted policies, I learned in short order the names of the birthday boy's parents, sister, wife, and three lovely children, as well as other information about his career—a U.S. Marine currently stationed in Bahrain [after multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq], interests, childhood jobs, embarrassing anecdotes, etc.  Some of these were encapsulated in "code words" like FLORENCE that I was assured would elicit a knowing guffaw from the honoree but might draw a blank stare from solvers outside of the immediate family. In an iterative process that went through several "big picture" concepts and half a dozen versions of filling and cluing, what emerged was a puzzle that would provide names of every key immediate family member over three generations plus some of the auxiliary information, all symmetrically laid out and clued according to the conventions of the field. Finally, I decided that for the puzzle to be the most interesting and fun, every single answer word needed to be clued in a manner that could be solved by someone who had no inside information about the individual and family we honor herein.

As you meet the McMahon family, keep in the back of your mind the popular song by Sister Sledge that provides the puzzle's title (and soundtrack), as well as the exploits of basketball legend Michael "Air" Jordan. First, I share with you some photos, following which I list key answer words along with the McMahon family connection first, followed by the "general interest" explanation.  While I have tried to make the puzzle on the easy side, as judged by average word length, number of black squares, and clue difficulty, there were a couple of rather tough words needed in order to pack in such a high degree of theme density. While I originally tried to make words such as NEL, BMI, and NOA just a bit easier on the solver by also providing anagrams as parts of the respective clues, Jill felt that such hints detracted from the elegance of the puzzle so they were deleted. This "midrash" closes with explanations and commentaries (some rather rambling and far afield) about additional answer words in the puzzle.  We hope you like it!

Left to Right: Jill, Jordan, Paul, and one-week old Danielle (photo taken May 2, 1987)   Left to Right: Victoria, Jordan, baby Gavin, Alaina, and Denise (Jordan family photo was taken in Albuquerque at the grandparents house in 2012).
Left to right: Alaina, Victoria, Gavin (photo taken Summer 2013 in Winchester, California)   Danielle (photo taken Christmas 2013 in Sacramento, California)
Danielle and Jill (photo taken sometime in 2013 at Danielle's new apartment)   Jill and Paul (photo taken Christmas 2013 in Sacramento, California)

Theme answers/clues:

  • 9-Across: PAUL, father; our clue refers to legendary musician Paul McCartney
  • 16-Across: DENISE, wife; that clue is for real, as per the link. A photo of Denise with our honoree, taken February 2014 in Bahrain, graces this puzzle's main page.
  • 27-Across: MARINES; as already indicated, our honoree proudly serves in the United States Marine Corps, a branch of our nation's military whose members are nicknamed (for motivational purposes, it is said) "devil dogs." This benchmark entry into the puzzle was the subject of much discussion as to how it should be clued.  Other ideas were to refer to their mottos, like "The few, the proud,""Honor, Courage and Commitment," or "Sempre Fidelis" (the latter, interestingly enough, shared with Wikipedia).  Also, note that the Marine Corps emblem is "The Eagle, Globe and Anchor," abbreviated as "EGA."
  • 29-Across: BAHRAIN, where our honoree is currently stationed.  Click here for more about the "Tree of Life."
  • 34-Across: JORDANSBIRTHDAY; Jordan (age 36) is the first name of our honoree, and also the last name of Michael Jordan.  Click here for a 5 min video clip of highlights from Jordan's basketball career, and here for a 3 min video clip of lowlights from his baseball career. Also, click here for an entertaining blogpost from one of our friends who actually met MJ. 
  • 43-Across: SUNBIRD; refers to a Pontiac vehicle.  Family members will understand why this particular entry appears in our puzzle, but that story has been embargoed to spare our honoree some embarrassment.
  • 60-Across: ALAINA, middle child (age 5); our clue refers to an American Idol runner-up, from a few seasons ago, i.e., Lauren Alaina.  Not the ONLY (26-Down) time this puzzle uses a last name to clue a first name.
  • 6-Down: GAVIN, youngest son (age 3); clued for actor Gavin McLeod

Other answers/clues:

There follows a highly selective subset of other material from the puzzle that we thought might be deserving of commentary.

  • 19-Across: HISLE.  Hey, I've lived in Minnesota for over thirty years.  You'll have to indulge me with a shout-out to one of the stars of the local baseball team, albeit at a time that preceded my moving up here.
  • 31-Across: NO_I. The clue refers to a well-known motivational mantra.  Click here for a LOL counter-argument. By the way, I expanded the joke (and some other material) into a full-size crossword puzzle entitled King James Version, which I wrote in a flurry of inspiration on Father's Day 2014.
  • 42-Across: ICE. As a chemist, I live for the opportunity to creatively clue the solid form of water, but my co-authors insisted that I refer to this rap "artist" (quotation marks mine!).
  • 61-Across: RHEA Perlman, who played the title role in a relatively short-lived TV show called "Pearl." Of course, Perlman is best known for her long-running earlier role as Carla Tortelli on "Cheers."
  • 63-Across: GANESH.  Not part of my working vocabulary, but I trust that you too will recognize the image (click on the link).
  • 12-Down: Mauna LOA; a little bit of standard crossword ambiguiety, since KEA also works.  Last summer, I saw both volcanos
  • 28-Down: NOA.  Good opportunity to LAUD (24-Down) the only survivor among the original Mercury Seven.  Just like this puzzle's honoree, all heroes in my book!  
  • 34-Down: JESU. Click on the link for a 4 min video.
  • 36-Down: RENE. With several good male choices available (click here, here, and here), we opted for the actress.
  • 44-Down: BURIAL. A word not normally found in crossword puzzles, but with a clue that fills us with patriotic pride. 
  • 57-Down: DR._J is Julius Erving.  If you can spare 2 min, click here for a highlight reel, and compare to the one we provided above for Michael Jordan.  
  • 59-Down: NEL blu dipinto di blu. Who hasn't heard Volare? Click on the link for a 4 min video.

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