virtual children by Scott Warnock

My version of the homemade gift

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For the holidays, a lot of us nowadays give gift cards, those serious plastic rectangles, packed with possibility. We give cash, which flutters out of the shaken, ignored greeting card, all beautiful and real. We Internet shop, where you never see and touch the thing itself. It just appears (soon, by drone!) on your step.

Gifts like these you don’t have to put too much of yourself into, even if they are sometimes just the perfect thing. I like gift cards, even though I lose or misplace many of them, and who can speak against cash? I also don’t mind buying stuff online, even though my poor online shopping behavior is only matched by my onsite shopping incompetence.

But if you want to resist the rush of virtuality/intangibility, a homemade present can still be a good way to go. This year, I’m making a crossword puzzle for the nieces and nephews. The crossword puzzle is my particular artistic medium. I’ve made a few in the past as holiday gifts for family and friends. The last family one I did featured everyone’s middle names as the theme.

Oh, I toil away in my workshop (my office) at night, using nothing more than a pencil and some graph paper — and the wondrous Internet, which can create meaning out of almost any three-letter nothing. I adhere to strict American crossword puzzle design. Diagonal symmetry. No two-letter words. No isolated letters (I haven’t always pulled this one off).

It’s tough! In the past, I created some clues and answers that would unsettle Will Shortz or Merle Reagle (who, sadly,  died in 2015). For instance, a seven-letter answer to 7 down?: “When you do this to someone, you leave his briefs showing?”* (all answers below).

Once I get going, designing is fun. Maybe it’s not the same as sewing a sweater or building a spice rack (see here for Homer’s shot at the latter), but it’s my version of blood and sweat. When all the kids sit around trying to solve their copy (except for one resistor: She knows who she is!), I feel the gift truly is in the giving. It’s kind of sneaky, really, because with the homemade gift, you do get more joy from giving than receiving. Especially, perhaps, in this case, when the recipients are battling through clues like this for a six-letter word at 45-down?: “Pick-up info for puzzle author’s flight to work?”# It’s a benevolently selfish endeavor.

(Of course, for me, keeping focused on puzzle creation also gets me through those rough holiday times right before the first day of winter, which happens to be my birthday. Just sayin’ in case you forgot.)

So, in the words of good ol’ John Greenleaf Whittier:

Somehow, not only for Christmas,
But all the long year through,
The joy that you give to others,
Is the joy that comes back to you.
And the more you spend in blessing,
The poor and lonely and sad,
The more of your heart’s possessing,
Returns to you glad.

Now, I don’t know how “poor and lonely and sad” my audience really is. When they are dealing with a puzzle full of things like the four-letter answer to 166-across: “Stringed Japanese instrument,”+ or the 16-letter whopper answer to 21 down: “Spookier spirit protection (three words)”$, they may be more “angry and confused and frustrated.” But that “Returns to you glad” stuff. I get it. In facet, I’m glad now just writing about it.

Happy holidays. See you in month.

* “unpants” (!)
# “ETAABE” — even I don’t remember what this was supposed to mean
+ “koto” — as in the sentence “He played the koto”
$ “eerier ghost armor” — of course! What else would it be?

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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One Response to “My version of the homemade gift”

  1. Cool….now I know some answers !! Can’t wait to do the crossword puzzle tomorrow morning….AWESOME homemade gift…thanks !!

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