Anagrams, Part I

Telluride Daily Planet, Thursday, October 22, 2009

It’s Sunday morning, the coffee pot is half empty, and I’m plugging my ears, trying to muffle the familiar voice of Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword puzzle editor and NPR Weekend Edition’s puzzlemaster.

Even through my fingers, though, I know exactly what the only person on earth with a degree in enigmatology is busy doing: he’s busy telling Liane Hansen where he’s been and where he’s off to next, whether it’s Philadelphia for the Sudoku Championships, Stamford for the big crossword thing, or Baltimore for Ken Ken (a game from Japan he fell in love with, mastered, and then wreaked upon us like an arithmetic El Nino). The point is, it’s all about Will — always has been. Am I the only one on earth this bothers?

Because I’ve been waiting, wishing — and willing even — that one day he’d lean out of his Clever Tower and stun some unsuspecting contestant with a personal question. “Miriam,” he’d say, “your sultry voice reminds me of a puzzle I once created. Do you remember the one based on doubling all the letters in the words voice box?” Miriam, mute with surprise, would falter. Enter Liane Hansen, whose brilliant role is to steady the players before hoisting them onto the raging bull of puzzle solving. To whisper soft, sweet words before lifting the gate. Liane is the interface between the common quick-witted, left-brained person and the blinding light of a 33rd degree puzzlemaster.

Anyway, this irritating and transparently needy notion that Will should take more human interest in humans is interfering with my game. I miss the last few easy clues, and then, deflated, hasten to get myself out of the room so that I won’t have to hear the words “Weekend Edition lapel pin,” which seem to swirl, trapped in my brain for hours before finally exploding in a small puff. Is it the rhythm of the thing? Dah-didi, dah-didi, dah-dah.

I refill my coffee cup and — dumping the heavy cream in — remind myself that people don’t change. That it will have to be me doing the changing if I want to move forward in my relationship with Will Shortz. Especially since he doesn’t even know we have one. How, though, exactly?

Well, I’m crediting that same pot of free-trade psychoactive stimulants for my fingertips dancing their way, a little later in the morning, to the anagram server at What’s in a name, you ask? Plenty. I’ve dabbled here only once before, but not seriously, and never as desperate for answers as I am today. I type it in. W-I-L-L S-H-O-R-T-Z.

(For the uninitiated, anagrams are the underwords of words, what lurks inside them, unmanifested yet alive. For instance, internet anagram server, is also I, Rearrangement Servant.) When the results pop up for Will Shortz, I stare at them, disbelieving. Two answers? Unheard of. There are indeed only two for Will Shortz: whiz trolls and whiz stroll.

Even my red-headed cat, Willa, turns up three, including “a will” which is pretty much what she asserts every waking second of her nit-picky day.

Liane Hansen has 634 including “hale nannies,” which is obviously the race to which she belongs. For years, I’ve suspected that every single name at NPR was made up, but now I don’t know. Steve Inskeep : 980, including “evenest spike.” Renee Montagne: 4,174 including “a neon emergent.” Robert Siegel : 5,807 including “terrible egos.” Iras Glass, Flatow (whom I’ve always maintained are one and the same) wins with 66,667 entries and incontrovertible proof that the two Iras are one: “alias’s slow graft.”

Now, you see, it becomes evident why Will, being a whiz (strolling, trolling, or otherwise), should not be expected to reach out with warm radio fuzzies to the world. Whizzes just don’t. People flock to them.

So when Sunday comes again, I arrive with a fresh attitude. Some pitfalls and tests are thrown at me. I mean, when Liane starts talking about herself and her trip to the U.P., I think I’ve stumbled upon some topsy-turvy Twilight Zone version of the puzzler where she’s morphed into a poltergeist of Will. Then, when Will reads a challenge based on the letters P.S.U. — Portland State University from whence he has just returned — I’m dangerously close to an eye-roll at his predictable me-me-me-ness. But then I realize even the word-nerd contestant knows to accept Will for the whiz he is. And if he can, I can.

I credit this new comprehension to the anagram server, as inscrutable and even as the I Ching. I go there for solace (a close). For answers (rawness). When I need something solid (misled soothing). When the words themselves have lost their meaning (enigma hinter). Or, as in the case of weekend edition lapel pin, when the words simply need fleshing out (answer far too suggestive to print here).

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