“What’s a five-letter word for…”

It all started simply enough. The clue was on the page. And I was clueless about it.


1. “Aladdin” antagonist

This is how my first attempt at the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in more than a year began. I used to subscribe to the Sunday Times and do the Sunday crossword religiously. Sure, I would look at some of the other stories in the paper, but there was no doubt as to why I was paying $5 every Sunday for what was once called The Old Grey Lady, and that was the crossword.

The result of my Sunday efforts...Thanks to an assist from Maddo.
The result of my Sunday efforts…Thanks to an assist from Maddo.

As soon as I would get up in the morning, I would turn the coffee maker on, then go outside to see if the paper had been delivered. If that rolled up doorstop of a newspaper was out front, I would rip the delivery bag open, head straight for the Sunday Magazine, where the puzzle is located, sit down with my coffee and pencils, and spend at least a good two hours attacking the latest creation by editor Will Shortz and his wordsmith author of the week. If I hadn’t finished the puzzle by then, I would take a break and do whatever my wife had planned for the day. Inevitably, I would come back to the thing and pick away at it. More often than not, I would leave the puzzle unsolved, but, occasionally, I would master the monster and feel like Patton after he ran through the Germans in Sicily.

Then, we had kids.

And with them came all of the attention and time that they demand. Because there still remain just 24 hours in a day, something had to give, and my crossword time was vacuumed up by my daughters’ non-stop need for me to do, well, everything for them. I let my Sunday Times subscription lapse. And as it vanished, so did my weekend battles with the crossword.

Part of what had been my Sunday crossword time was exchanged for taking my daughters out for donuts in the morning. Not a bad trade, mind you, but…The crossword never came charging into our bedroom before the sun came up, shaking me awake and asking if we could make it a Donut Day. Still, you never heard me complain once I had a cinnamon roll in front of me.

It was on one of these recent Donut Days as I was walking with my daughters with our donuts in hand that I came upon two stacks of newspapers and a box with some prices on it. The local newspaper seller had set things up on kind of an honor system so if someone wanted a paper they could throw the appropriate amount of cash into the box and be on their way. One stack was the local San Francisco Chronicle, the other the New York Times. I don’t know what came over me, but before I could say “Plain Maple Bar”, I was stuffing a fiver into the hold and making off with plans to do the Times’ Sunday crossword.

Which brought me to that first clue:


1. “Aladdin” antagonist

Now, I am a semi-purist when it comes to doing the crossword. I do it in pencil because I am smart enough to know that I am not smart enough to make it through the thing without having to fix a few errors along the way. Also, while I never consult any reference sources online or on my bookshelf, if someone is nearby, and I am having trouble with a clue, I will ask them if they know something such as a five-letter word for ‘”Aladdin” antagonist.’

And on this particular morning, the person I sought out for assistance was…My six-year-old daughter, Maddo.

The fact that I went to Maddo for some help says pretty much all one needs to know about the state of my brain these days. Since having kids, I like to say that my short-term memory has gotten worse than your typical bong-huffing stoner. I once actually asked my wife to hand me “You know…That thing you use to eat soup with.” because I couldn’t remember the damn word “spoon”. I am always calling my kids each other’s names. Half the time, I freeze in the middle of saying something because I can’t remember something like the name of the “Aladdin antagonist”, even though I have probably read “Aladdin” to my daughters about 400 times by now.

But Maddo? She has the brain of a six-year-old and thus, there is not as much everyday crap crammed inside of it. Her memory is amazing. Out of nowhere she’ll blurt out something about the time when I had her wear that one pair of purple pants to school and she fell down in them and came home with a Cinderella Band-Aid on her knee. I, of course, have no recollection of any of this, which could have happened the day before or eight months prior, for all I know.

So, it came as no surprise to me that when I asked her about who the bad guy was in “Aladdin” [I tried to keep the vocabulary around her kindergarten level and didn’t use the word “antagonist”], she was spot on with the answer:

“Oh, Daddy…That’s Jafar!”

Of course she was exactly right. And the answer fit into the five-letter space provided. And that one answer started me on the path that led to victory in my first Sunday crossword of the year. Ninety-nine percent of that win was mine, as I couldn’t expect Maddo to know what a “Bit of cosmetic surgery” was [which was “eyelift”, by the way].

But it was her that got me on the right path with that first answer. Were it not for her six-year-old knowledge, I might still be staring at a bunch of empty spaces.

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