Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Oct. 23 crossword, “Seasonal Downturn” (2023)

It’s getting colder up here in the Northeast. It dropped below 40 degrees in my neck of the woods, near Philadelphia, this past week. I imagine that in a week or two we’ll be hitting freezing weather just as we begin making serious preparations for the holidays. Oh, sorry, I’m talking about the weather, which isn’t always the most exciting topic to discuss … So, what better way to spruce up that conversation than to write a crossword about it?

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Five starred clues can be found in the puzzle, but their answers don’t seem to have enough room. 28A: [*Bygone alternative to Teen Vogue] is … COS? And 36A: [*Courtroom hotshots] is just LEG? Something is amiss here. You’ll also notice that five Down answers at 29D, 37D, 62D, 85D and 93D each have the same clue: [Example of 69 Down?] So that’s a good place to look for a key hint. 69D: [Autumn conditions, and a hint to reading the answers to the starred clues] is FALL WEATHER, and an more direct hint is at 25A: [Changed direction like lightning (or like five answers in this puzzle)] which is ZIGZAGGED. Those five starred answers proceed in zigzag fashion, with each answer “falling” (turning down) at a weather forecast.

  • 28A: [*Bygone alternative to Teen Vogue] is COSMOGIRL. It starts with COS, turns down on SMOG at 28D, then finishes with GIRL at 48A: ["The ___ on the Train” (Paula Hawkins novel)].
  • 36A: [*Courtroom hotshots] is LEGAL EAGLES. It starts with LEG, turns down on GALE at 37D, then finishes with EAGLES at 56A: [Golden birds, at times].
  • 61A: [*"Mother of the Blues” played by Viola Davis in a 2020 film] is MA RAINEY. It starts with MAR, turns down on RAIN at 62D, then finishes with NEY at 78A: [Napoleonic Wars marshal Michel].
  • 84A: [*"It can’t be done!"] is THERE’S NO WAY. It starts with THERE’S, turns down on SNOW at 85D, then finishes with WAY at 103A: [Far]. If that clue for WAY seems vague, imagine it like this: “The game was exciting but it was far too close for comfort” = “The game was exciting but it was way too close for comfort.”
  • 92A: [*Method of reading someone’s fortune on their hand] is PALMISTRY. It starts with PALM, turns down on MIST at 93D, then finishes with TRY at 115A: [Tax].

Rounding out the theme are two other symmetrically placed weather words with METEOROLOGY at 3D: [Climate change topic?] and FORECASTS at 117A: [Predictions about seasonal changes].

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When I was first building this, I must have said “there’s no way” several times — no way to maintain symmetry with this many turning answers, use legit answers throughout without resorting to strings of gibberish and keep the grid relatively clean and interesting. But I shrunk the grid by one row and landed on this placement of theme answers a bit by accident. In fact, THERE’S NO WAY ended up being the last theme answer that I found after at least a day or two of searching and it gave me a fully symmetrical set by pairing it with LEGAL EAGLES. It pays to be lucky, sometimes.

Some other answers and clues:

  • 16A: [Waits on tracks?] is TOM, as in the musician Tom Waits.
  • 30A: [Metal detector?] is EAR. This a music clue, too, referring to one’s ear hearing heavy metal or death metal.
  • 55A: [Level at a stadium?] is TIE. It amused me that if you remove the question mark, it could be a clue for TIER, which is just one letter off.
  • 64A: [Errors of comedy?] is GAG REELS. Back in January 2021, I submitted a draft of a different puzzle with the singular GAG REEL and this same clue, but I ended up needing to revise a large part of that grid such that it forced me to remove the answer. It was frustrating at the time to let that clue go, but I wrote it down in my notepad so that I could drop it in again at the earliest possible opportunity, and here we are. It just took 21 months, which was less time than I expected.
  • 77A: [When Juliet says “Romeo, I come! this do I drink to thee”] is ACT IV. There’s another version of this quote which is written as “Here’s drink — I drink to thee,” but the way it appears in the clue shows up in several sources, too. I dug a bit deeper and found a 19th-century version of the play with a footnote that suggests “Here’s drink — I drink to thee” may have originally been a stage direction but later became part of the line itself.
  • 106A is ADD and the next Across clue at 109A is STIR, both clued as [Recipe verb]. It’s mostly a relief when I can give two answers the same clue if only because it saves time from having to think of two different ones. When they’re consecutive answers, I feel obligated to do it.
  • 116A: [Drink “for One” in a Led Zeppelin song and “for Two” in a Vincent Youmans song] is TEA. Pete Muller recently used TEA in his Monthly Music Meta, but it wasn’t clued with a musical angle. He often goes out of his way to give common answers a music reference, so I suggested this as an alternative clue for that, and then it found its way into my puzzle a few days later.
  • 119A: [Media critic Johnson who co-hosts the podcast “Citations Needed”] is ADAM Johnson. Adam and his podcast co-host Nima Shirazi are two of the smartest media critics out there, in my opinion. I remember a few years ago when my colleague in words Ben Zimmer was mentioned on their episode about the history of the term “whataboutism.” Here’s a strong recommendation to give “Citations Needed” a listen if it’s new to you.
  • 125D: [Checkerboard ___ (Zion National Park landform)] is MESA. It has a neat checkerboard-like grid pattern on its face, so that seemed appropriate to mention in a puzzle with its own grid.
  • 1D: [He wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “O’Brien Flops!” on the day of his “Late Night” premiere in 1993] is CONAN. Yes, he wrote an op-ed panning his own debut performance before it even happened. You can read it here.
  • 16D: [Little big cat] is TIGER CUB. The clue seems like an oxymoron, but then I’m reminded that big cats, even when they’re little, are still bigger than my strange and fully grown little little cat.
  • 65D: [Street-racing path?] is SKI RUN. It’s a similar joke as with the clue for TOM, but this one refers to the skier Picabo Street.
  • 77D: [Company whose in-house newsletter was called The Gospel According to St. Pong] is ATARI. Here’s a copy of one of those newsletters from 1973.
  • 112D: [Ashley Hatch of the Washington Spirit won one for Best National Women’s Soccer League Player in 2022] is ESPY. I’ve only been to one professional soccer game in my life, and it was a Washington Spirit game back in 2019, when the player (and crossword solver) Joanna Lohman had her retirement ceremony. I hope I’ll get to go to another match someday.

Finally, here’s a heads-up that next week’s puzzle has a meta. Good luck conquering it.

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