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Evan Birnholz’s Sept. 22 Post Magazine crossword, “Animal Tracks”

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(Warning! Spoilers about the New York Times puzzle from Sept. 8 to follow.)

Two weeks ago I wrote “Nickname Calling,” a puzzle where you re-parse familiar phrases as though they were nicknames of celebrities (for instance, [Actor McKellen’s nickname when he gives a dazzling performance?] was ELECTRIC IAN. Imagine my shock when I found out that Joe DiPietro wrote a puzzle for the New York Times on the same day with the same basic theme idea. He and I even shared a re-parsed name; he clued “WHAT A DIS” GRACE as [ … the gal who delivered the greatest put-down ever] where I clued DIS GRACE as [Rocker Slick’s nickname when she insults people?]. Chalk it up to “great minds thinking alike,” I guess.

I mentioned this eerie similarity to Brian Cimmet and Ryan Hecht the other week, and they talked about it for a little bit on their podcast “Fill Me In.” You can listen to that episode here; the discussion about the two puzzles starts around 31:16.

Eight songs get the homophone treatment by replacing one of the title’s words with an animal. I’ve thrown in some links to the original songs so you can give them a listen.

  • 23A: [Elvis Presley song about a legendary bird that’s locked up?] is “JAILHOUSE ROC,” based on “Jailhouse Rock.”
  • 35A: [Train song about greeting a flatfish sibling?] is “HEY, SOLE SISTER,” based on “Hey, Soul Sister.”
  • 41A: [Celine Dion song about her persevering deer?] is “MY HART WILL GO ON,” based on “My Heart Will Go On.”
  • 63A: [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song about nearly wounding their long-eared pet with a knife?] is “ALMOST CUT MY HARE,” based on “Almost Cut My Hair.”
  • 70A: [Louis Prima song ’bout a leap plus hepcat slang plus a marine mammal?] is “JUMP, JIVE AN’ WHALE,” based on “Jump Jive an’ Wail.” Note the shortened “about” in the clue; I couldn’t think of a better way to hint at the shortened “and” in the song title.
  • 91A: [Kinks song about being completely stumped by a sheep?] is “EWE REALLY GOT ME,” based on “You Really Got Me.”
  • 100A: [Huey Lewis and the News song about desiring medication for a wildebeest?] is “I WANT A GNU DRUG,” based on “I Want a New Drug.” This seems like one of those song titles that you can’t put in a crossword with a clue that mentions the band’s name because of the repeated “New,” but one way to square that circle is just to replace that word altogether, like “Gnu” does here.
  • Finally, a triple substitution at 117A: [Byrds song about three shorebirds?], which is “TERN! TERN! TERN!,” based on “Turn! Turn! Turn!"

This puzzle gave me one of the luckiest titles that I can remember. I started with a more broad idea without knowing what the title should be, and it’s much harder to find a good title for a puzzle after you’ve built it than to start with a title and build the theme from there. Originally, the theme answers would have just been a clearinghouse of music homophone puns (like a B-52s song about Shaquille O’Neal called “Love Shaq”), but then I noticed that many of the song titles I wrote down had animals (I’m drawn to animal puns much more strongly than other kinds of puns for reasons I can’t entirely explain). Anyhow, I spent a while toying with other half-baked titles like “Beast Rock,” “Pet Rock,” and “Where the Wild Sings Are” (as seen in the blurb to this blog post). Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning — “Animal Tracks.” My wife was in the room and can confirm that I actually pumped my fist when I thought of it. Crossword constructors get aha moments too, just like solvers.

Some other answers and clues:

  • There is an assortment of animal-related and animal-adjacent clues elsewhere in the grid, like ABE at 26A: [Vigoda of “Fish”], EMUS at 52A: [Omnivorous birds], EMBLEM at 67A: [Great Seal, e.g.], RAJAH at 1D: [Pet tiger in “Aladdin”], STIES at 3D: [Pigs’ pads], EEL at 4D: [Flexible fish], EERIE at 9D: [Like “Pet Sematary”], and most notably GIANT PANDA at 16D: [Tian Tian at the National Zoo, e.g.].
  • 34D: [Milk bath locale] is SPA. Every time I go looking for SPA clues, it never fails to surprise me what kinds of treatments they offer that I’d have never considered otherwise. A milk bath, you say? Sure, why not?
  • 45D: [AquAdvantage salmon and Arctic apples, e.g.] is GMOS. I’d read that Arctic apples are designed such that they won’t turn brown after they’ve been cut or bitten into. I didn’t read too much about AquAdvantage salmon, but for some reason I’m imagining they’re salmon with big beefy muscle arms. I think the reason I’m drawn to animal puns much more strongly than other types of puns is probably the same reason I think salmon with big beefy muscle arms is funny.
  • 72D: [Protagonist of Meagan Spooner’s book “Sherwood”] is MAID MARIAN. Good to center her rather than just as a love interest for Robin Hood.

Next week’s puzzle will mark a milestone for me and — heads up — it has a meta. I’m told from test-solvers that it’s going to be a more challenging meta than I’ve done recently. You can do it. I have faith.

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