Start with the first mini-grid. As with all 20 of the mini-puzzles, I tried to throw some gimme clues your way as much as possible, but as you’ll see later, that wasn’t always possible. The easiest two might be at 17A: [Never to be repeated], which is ONCE and 4D: [New drivers, usually], which is TEENS. You may recognize that 2D: [Oscar winner for “Brokeback Mountain”] is ANG LEE, but that entry has only five squares. So there must be some rebus element afoot, and indeed there is. Here’s the solution to grid no. 1:
The rebus square is the bigram LE and the circled letter is R. Hold onto those for now. Now try grid no. 2. I’d peg 30A: [Hotel keycard opening] as the easiest of the clues; the answer is SLOT. 8D: [Take a military recruiter up on their offer] seems like it should be easy; when you sign up to join the military, you ENLIST. But, again, there are only five letters. A rebus square is hiding there, too, and it crosses 22A: [Nameless hero’s portrayer in the martial arts film “Hero”], which is JET LI. The bigram LI forms the rebus square in this grid, and the E of JET LI is circled.
Could there be a two-letter rebus square in every one of these grids? Yes! Here is the solution to all 20 grids, as shown online and in the Magazine:
Now we have to rearrange these grids in the proper order, first to find “my advice to you” and then to find “a hint about two other messages (and their speakers).” The rebus squares are a prominent feature of the mini-puzzles — do you notice anything about the way they’re positioned? They occupy different spaces in each 4-by-5 grid. Indeed, no two grids have a rebus square in the same position, so sort them in order where the positions of the rebus squares match their position in the overall 4-by-5 puzzle. In other words, the grid with a rebus square in the first row/first column goes first, the grid with the rebus square in the first row/second column goes second, etc., like so:
In this order, the rebus squares reveal a 10-word, 40-letter phrase: “TAKE SOME TIME TO ENJOY THE LITTLE THINGS IN LIFE.” That’s my advice to you, and taking the time to solve 20 mini-crosswords — each featuring a rebus element — is a sign that you heeded it.
Now let’s turn to the other part of the meta. What’s the other prominent feature of these 4-by-5 grids? The circled squares, of course. Rearrange the grids using the same method we used for the rebus squares but instead with the circled squares:
Read the circled squares in order and they spell out FIRST LETTERS ALL CLUES. Do what the hint says and read the first letter of every clue in order. The first letters of the Across clues spell the following message and its speaker:
“Ain’t nothing in the whole wide world like the peace that I have found in the little things and the joy they bring.” — India. Arie
That’s a lyric from India.Arie’s song “Little Things.”
And here are the first letters of the Down clues:
“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” — Andy Warhol
There you have it: Two messages about enjoying the little things in life from two people who did big things in their lives.
If this felt like a long journey from the start of one mini-puzzle to the end of the 20th for you, it was that way for me, too. Just finding two suitable quotations to hide in the first letters of the clue was a difficult task on its own; the quotation that I wish I could have used was this gem by Vincent van Gogh: “For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.” The number of letters just didn’t work out, though I guess I could have mad-doctored it into existence by deleting a word from the quote here and there.
Then there was the constraint of the first letters of the clues. While I have made puzzles before where the first letters of the clues spell relevant messages, I somehow completely forgot how tough it can be to start a clue with the letter N, and there were a bunch of clues starting with N. It’s a bizarre fact of life that the letter N is one of the most common letters found in the English language and yet it’s terribly inconvenient if you need it to start a crossword clue. The clues beginning with I were no picnic, either; the biggest temptation there is to start the clue with “It” and I did resort to that a few times, as in 5A: [It’s paired with “wine”] for DINE, 105A: [It gets set by a judge] for BAIL, 152A: [It may be free] for RIDE.
This puzzle went through at least one major overhaul during the testing phase. Originally the grid with the first rebus segment (the letters TA) would also contain the first segment of the clue hint (the letter F), and then you would read the circled letters in that order only after noticing the pattern of rebus squares proceeding by position through each 4-by-5 grid. But amazingly, a few testers got the correct meta answers despite never seeing how the grids were supposed to be rearranged. They anagrammed the key letters through brute force. I decided I preferred it if you could rearrange the grids in two different ways using the rebus squares or the circled squares and come up with a part of the meta solution either way. I may never know if that was a better choice than just leaving the puzzle in its original state, but I’m hoping you at least a few a-ha moments along the way.
Next week we’ll return to another normal crossword. Well . . . “normal” maybe isn’t the best word, but it’s not unprecedented at Puzzle Headquarters.