Soundings: Man of Letters

I came late to the game, but my recreational Wordle habit gets the synapses firing before the occupational wordsmithing begins.

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I started playing Wordle at Christmas. My sister was here for a holiday visit and she played with her morning coffee. I guess I was late to the game. My teenagers had been breaking the daily five-letter code with friends at school months before. I had heard references to Wordle for a while, but had never bothered to see what the buzz was all about.    

Now I play every morning.

The kids were on their phones at breakfast, and my attempts at conversation sounded as lame to me as to them. Who wants to talk at that time of day anyway? Better to quietly check ball scores and sports gossip. So I, eating my cereal in silent contemplation, turned to my phone and Wordle.

It gets me thinking at a leisurely pace. Gets the blood flowing through the brain with idle musings. Is a fine distraction from the day’s awaiting downers and all the weighty thoughts that have been echoing in my head since I first woke up.

I wrangle with words for a living. So I figure I fail the Wordle test if I don’t discover the secret word by the fourth line. But I don’t carry a sense of failure for very long, and I don’t mind that no one else cares when I announce that I got today’s word in three lines. And will not now regale you with my favorite Wordle exploits. Like the time I started with MOUSE, then got the right word on line two: MOOSE.

Actually, when I ran to show my wife that I had landed four letters, all in the proper boxes, on line one, she blurted out, “Oh, Moose!”

A team win, I guess.

My wife and I also team up on the weekly crossword puzzle from the New York Times Magazine. It (and a pencil with a good eraser) moves from table to kitchen counter to couch and back again to the kitchen island as we go about our lives day to day, the squares slowly populating over time. It may linger as a companion for a week or longer. We complete maybe half the puzzles that we start; sometimes we bail. We never consult our phones or Google for answers. We delight in the clever word play, the subtle misdirections of certain clues. She is much better than I at the cute, thematic phrasings.  

Felt like the king of Wordle yesterday.

Wordle, crosswords and other games apparently keep the mind sharp, the circuits running smoothly, synapses functioning efficiently, firing with semi-lightning precision. Of course.

In trying to remember, you may also forget for a while the other wages of aging, the wolves waiting at the door. Trying to recall the author of Don Quixote takes your brain on a search down other pathways, on a kind of mental scavenger hunt for the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime. Victor Hugo? No. Doesn’t fit.

In their retirements my parents played the puzzles that came with the daily paper. My dad did the word jumble after he read the comics. My mom really got into the cryptoquote, would work on it for hours. Sometimes in phone conversations she would proudly announce the day’s quote she had successfully deciphered. When I visited them, she tried to get me to try my hand at the mental gymnastics required. It was too much for me; it made my brain hurt.

My dad, an accountant all his life, preferred Sudoku — getting the numbers to line up in order, top to bottom, left to right. Long ago I would tease him — with the sensitivity of a teenaged son — that his job was nothing more than putting numbers in boxes and getting them to come out right.

It was years later I realized that I did the same, except that I used letters, arranging, rearranging, spending my days trying to get them in a proper order so that they came out right.

We both, in our own ways, found happiness in exactitude, fussing over details that matter to few beyond ourselves. The labor toward precision brought its own kind of satisfaction. And escape.     

In time my dad, as the fog of dementia rolled in, stopped playing such games, even the relatively simple word jumble. I am grateful I can only now imagine what it must feel like to realize your brain just can’t do it anymore. My mom played right up to the end, turning to the cryptoquote when she lived alone — for the comfort, challenge and distraction it brought to her days. She kept on.

Another thing I like about Wordle is that it resolves itself in a pleasant passage of time. I only play the New York Times version; I have not ventured into foreign lands that may offer more words, more possibilities, an endless line of boxes to be filled. Restraint is a virtue — although I have been caught at my desk with the incomplete Wordle on my phone as I was still deliberating the day’s word, unsolved, after arriving at work.

I think of it as professional development.

Kerry Temple, editor of this magazine, has completed Wordle by the fourth line about half the time.