Experience mid-Sixties in shock (5)

I always wonder what came first, the cryptic chicken or the cryptic egg, by which I mean did was this clue built around “mid-Sixties” being a fun letter extraction indicator, or was this just a perfectly thematic find while working out the grammar for this answer? I like every bit of this clue: [Experience] is an open-ended definition filled with possibilities, [in] is a succinct container indicator that blends neatly into the overall phrase, and [shock] takes on a different part of speech when you parse it correctly. It doesn’t look ambitious, but it’s wildly effective: TAS(T)E. Similarly in that camp is End of Q-tip stuck inside of the ear—some nerve you’ve got (5), which deftly leaps from the ear to the eye, all while striking exactly the right nerve: O(P)TIC. I’ll close with a spoonerism, since they’re always good for a laugh: Treat Spooner’s finished, for example (6). I appreciate the use of [for example] here: SUNDAE /done, say/.

THEME: “The Circle Game”

Because Steve is so often working within the confines of a variety puzzle, which either makes certain entries ineligible for me to share without further instructions or requires a simpler surface, I get to talk about his work as much as I’d like. So I figured why don’t I just call out really fun themes? (Don’t keep reading if you don’t want spoilers from his May puzzles.)

To me, the best themes–like cryptic clues–set you up to expect one sort of thing with the instructions, but then deliver you another, like how #34’s “Spring Flowers” is really about things that flow. Here, we’ve got six “duck” calls around the perimeter, as if we’re playing Duck Duck Goose, but instead there’s a different sort of game. The “ducks” here are cries to essentially watch out, and the “circle” actually refers to a key element of what’s actually happening–in five clues, the “O” is missing because the participant has effectively gotten out of the way, the one instance where there’s a hit, a hit, a palpable hit, it’s appropriately found in Bang piano with pained expression (3)–that is, P+OW. (The unclued “duck” call in this instance? GOTCHA.) Anchoring the whole thing is one of those See instructions style clues, revealing as you go what people are playing (and actively doing in those clues): DODGEBALL.

Try-hards awkwardly swan around nabe (8)

The slang in this clue makes me so happy. You’ve got “try-hard” and “nabe” and the idea of “swanning” (according to Ngram) didn’t really get popular as a verb until the ’00s. In short, it’s a fresh sounding surface, all the better since it also points to a relatively fresh bit of fill: WAN(NABE)S* (*swan). Along the same lines, there’s this vivid and homophonic modernization: Discussed singer Janelle’s valuable paintings (6). No disrespect to classic artists, but I do long for the day when Janelle is the better known of these soundalikes: MONETS /Monáe’s/.

One of the X-Men goes bad, returns with Magneto’s head (5)

N.B. I’m no longer indicating that these clues are cryptic by putting an asterisk before them, especially since I wouldn’t put it past a cryptic to use an asterisk as part of the surface.

Thematic puzzles are fine and dandy, but I’m happiest with a very tight clue that is on-point. If you’re going to talk about the X-Men, why not keep the whole thing thematic, especially since there are a million ways or more to clue M? Constraints, in this regard, can actually be helpful. (Might even have gotten away with going a step further and saying “…returns with Mister Sinister?” with “sinister” being a particularly loose way of indicating the left of “Mister.”) At any rate, this is STOR<+M. Also super solid is “Master and Commander” likely written in third person (7), which I love because it assumes, as I do, that nobody’s actually read that long-ass book, but it’s probably in the third person. Extra points for “Master and Commander” being an utterly specific (in that context, too!) definition for C(APT)AIN, and wow, “third person” is doing the best work ever here.

*”This isn’t organic? What the fuck? Send it back!” (3)

I love multi-sentence clues, so long as they play by the rules of cryptic grammar, and this one certainly does. Surfaces are about telling a story, and if you’ve visited any sort of artisanal neighborhood or watched Portlandia secondhand, you’ve probably heard this one before. I particularly admire that there’s no beating around the bush to find a friendlier synonym than “What the fuck” (especially since it’s not WTF here): let the characters in your story (or cryptic surface) act as crassly as they need to, no apologies needed. The setters aren’t endorsing any sort of behavior, they’re just relating it as cryptically as possible. So yeah, great find on GMO<, one initialism becoming another in reverse. Special shoutout as well to the indicator in Small computer team securely deleting internal storage (4)–finding indicators that are subject appropriate to a surface is that extra flourish that goes beyond a weaker way to get SY (as in IT+SecurelY).

*Scared, very much like a rabbit, say (7)

One of the reasons why I’m a happy subscriber of both the AVCX and The Rackenfracker, both of whom are represented in this puzzle, is because they’re on top of language, rather than with it (or, worse, behind it). It’s very easy to find online lists of indicators that have been used in previous cryptics, and easier still to write around them–I know, I’ve done it! The best constructors though? They don’t settle for what’s allowed–they look to fillip in fresh new fill, they astoundingly defy expectations, and they make the most of every word. This isn’t to say cryptics that don’t do this are bad by any means: I’d say that Patrick Berry, for instance, and Hex, surprise and delight us in other ways, with theme or impeccable grammar. But come on! Look at this surface! You’ve got [very much] operating essentially as “as fuck,” and [like a rabbit, say] as a fun descriptor: AF+EARED. You want butt-related puns: they’ve got two! Pirate’s pointer: Give booty freely? (7) and A twerking bonanza? (9) yielding COMP-ASS and A+BUN-DANCE. You want an in-your-face-yet-somehow-smooth pop cultural reference? That’s Flemish excited for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s role in “Friends” (7), which seamlessly notes JCVD’s cultural roots and how he often appeared in comedies, as HIMSELF* (*Flemish). I could quote the whole puzzle: French fry? Loaded with salt, this can kill you (7) or Snitch after chemical company’s unorthodox geological surveying (7), which are super-solid definitions: POI(S)SON and DOW+SING. Look, do yourself a favor and just get a subscription already!

*Solution, essentially: 1/2 x 4 + n = 180 (1-4)

For many people, algebra is already pretty much a cryptic clue; you’ve got to figure out how to parse the equation (order of operations), what the bits and pieces (variables) are standing for, and in many cases, which half of the clue to work from first to balance things out. So what I’m saying is that this kind of clue lends itself joyfully to an actual cryptic clue, and if you’ll recall that means no part is extraneous, so you bet we’re doing something with [Solution, essentially] as well! [sol]UT[ion]+[-fo]UR+N. I want to cite so many more puzzles in this variety cryptic, but because there’s a mechanism that affects the cluing (“Extra words in twenty-three of this puzzles clues must be ignored when solving”), presenting them spoils the fun to a certain extent. I will just say that I love this convention, because it can turn familiar surfaces into extra puzzling ones, such as I give a hand for lingerie model (5), where if you can identify the extra word, you can more clearly spot I+DEAL.

  • Pixlate, “Casework,” Lemonade Disco #007

*Multimedia blockbuster “S?” (3,4,2,2)

In my live stream of this one, it was brought to my attention that “S.” is actually a novel from a bunch of multimedia stars (like J. J. Abrams)–I just forgot as much since I lost the slipcover and only have the found-object within it, the annotated old library book Ship of Theseus. That extra detail, whether intended by the setter or not, makes this exciting revenge clue even better, because of how well the surface sense works. (OK, I would have put the ? outside of the quotes, but that’s a tiny nit!) Anyway, in a revenge clue–that’s a sort of portmanteau of “reverse engineer”–the answer itself provides the cryptic mechanism to get the surface, which in this case is “S.” That’s a bit vaguely clued (though enumeration might help), but the theme of this puzzle–“Game Night” might help you narrow things down to THE LAST OF US, because, yes, the last letter of “us” is an S. If you’re looking for a more traditional trick, no worries: Its face changes after deception–appropriate (10) has you covered. This one’s all in the way in which you read/interpret the definition: that’d be “appropriATE” and not “apPROpriate,” as the surface suggests, leading to CON+FISCATE* (*Its face).

*Fighters boxing with energy for the audience (7)

Quick heads up: due to constant headaches with the functionality in WordPress, I’m no longer hiding the answers to clues, so if you want to try and solve a clue on your own, stop reading!

One of my favorite tricks from a setter is when they take a familiar indicator like “for the audience,” which usually suggests a homophone, and instead make that the definition (OK, well “for” is the connector). The constructor drives that home here with the use of “boxing” as a stealth container indicator–stealth because it naturally seems like something fighters might do–to suggest that one word is gripping “with.” (Surprise: it’s actually holding “energy” as well, which is where bits and pieces can really hold up when they’re carefully chosen to match the surface.) Put it all together and you get VIE(W+E)RS. Don’t sleep on the rest of this variety puzzle, which has an exquisite revealer (always pay attention to why you’re given such specifics in directions like “Across clues are given in normal order but their grid positions and enumerations have been withheld”) and a slew of killer clues like Yell “Way to go!” (4), Some are made from artichokes and spinach leaves (4), Where a speaker might deliver a piercing insult (4), and Old men lost in thought (4). (In turn, those are ROOT /route/ &lit, DIPS {dd}, D(A)IS, and [-m]USED.)

*Administrative level binder (4)

Today, I just want to admire some straight definitions, and how better to do that than by leading off with a double-definition clue? The two parts here are pronounced differently, but spelled the same, and the surface is a completely plausible object: TIER. Look at these other clues: Clipped the grain again and again? (6) and Thrown together, Tony and Abe jabber? (7). I’m not going to hide my love of ? clues: they’re a delight in straight crosswords and they’re a double-damn delight in cryptics where they’re even trickier. In the first, “Clipped” seems clearly like the definition–it’s actually an indicator (TH[-e]+RICE) and in the second, “jabber” seems like a compelling type of speech between Tony and Abe but in actuality, it’s an implement: BAYONET* (*Tony, Abe). I’ll sign off with a straight definition where the cryptic part presents itself as a clarification of the straight definition: Star in 1940s pictures—swamp pictures (6). That’d be BOG+ART, folks. I’ll see myself out.