One final reminder to sign up for Lollapuzzoola 13, the first virtual crossword tournament on a Saturday in August. It’s on Saturday, August 15, which is fast approaching. The organizers recently announced the constructors: Rachel Fabi, Brooke Husic, Joon Pahk, Sid Sivakumar, Robyn Weintraub, and Stella Zawistowski — a stellar lineup.

Today’s puzzle features a tried-and-true “letter change” theme, though it goes a little bit further in a subtle way (I’ll get to that later). The letter string IT has been replaced in various phrases with either ME, OK, ON, or UP to make wacky phrases, with four separate revealer answers hinting at the changes:

  • 22A: [*Loaf stuffed with cocoons stuffed with insects?] is PUPA BREAD, based on pita bread, and 38A: [*Young dogs led by a maestro?] is ORCHESTRA PUPS, based on orchestra pits. They’re explained by IT’S UP at 85D: [“The kick’s in the air …" (and a hint to two starred answers in this puzzle)].
  • 24A: [*Actor Danson in rare form?] is UNCOMMON TED, based on uncommitted, and 120A: [*Shindig for small horses?] is PONY PARTY, based on pity party. They’re explained by IT’S ON at 32D: [“This means war!” (and a hint to two starred answers in this puzzle)].
  • 57A: [*Defame athletes?] is SMEAR PLAYERS, based on sitar players, and 116A: [*Jolly Roger pirate, when he’s building a home made of twigs?] is NESTING SMEE, based on nesting site. They’re explained by IT’S ME at 126A: [“I’m here” (and a hint to two starred answers in this puzzle)].
  • 79A: [*Chinese cooking competition?] is BATTLE OF WOKS, based on battle of wits, and 101A: [*Fully understand one’s choppers?] is GROK YOUR TEETH, based on grit your teeth. They’re explained by IT’S OK at 13A: [“No worries” (and a hint to two starred answers in this puzzle)].

BATTLE OF WOKS was the seed entry for this theme. Originally, I’d hoped to just work with an IT’S OK revealer (or a title), but I had quite a tough time finding other words where you could switch out IT for OK and get something plausible. Another thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to settle on a phrase that switched SITE to SMEE. There are many potential phrases that could work, like WEB SMEE or CONSTRUCTION SMEE, but either they felt too short or they just didn’t tickle me enough. “Nesting site” is perhaps not the most common base phrase out there, but when I mentioned NESTING SMEE to my wife, it made her laugh. That was enough for me.

There’s another feature of this puzzle that’s not so easy to notice and was less easy for me to implement. The letter strings IT, ME, OK, ON, and UP don’t appear anywhere else in the grid. I figured that if the name of the game was “IT changes to several other two-letter strings,” it might look slightly odd if IT or those other two-letter words showed up in other answers. Avoiding a stray OK wasn’t too demanding since K isn’t the most common letter. Avoiding UP and ME was harder. Avoiding IT and ON everywhere outside the theme answers was an absolute nightmare. It’s one of those little details that probably wouldn’t affect many people’s solves but I put an irrational amount of concern into it anyway. As Matt Gaffney once told me several years ago, “Ah, I see you’ve got the crazy. Congratulations.”

Some other answers and clues:

  • 60A: [“The ___ of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together”: Carl Sagan] is BEAUTY. I’m a big fan of this quote. Sagan said it on his old “Cosmos” show and it’s long been in my memory.
  • DASH and JET are adjacent to one another at 88A and 89A and both are clued as [Move quickly]. A bit of serendipity.
  • 91A: [Seawater discolorations caused by algal blooms] is RED TIDES. I hadn’t heard of this phenomenon until writing the puzzle. It makes the water pretty in its own way and also quite toxic.
  • 103A: [Toon sister of 79 Down] is LISA and 79D: [Toon brother of 103 Across] is BART. Had to go for the cross-reference when they were both in the grid.
  • 28D: [Cell count?] is APPS, as in a number of things you’ll find on your cellphone. I used this clue for my lone American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzle last year and wanted to bring it back.
  • 36D: [Alternate-universe counterpart of Clark Kent] is ULTRAMAN. I wasn’t familiar with this particular character until writing the puzzle. Among alternate versions of Superman, I’m more familiar with Bizarro Superman.
  • 76D / 56A and 76D / 56D are THE / END and THE / EYRIE, respectively, clued as [With 56 Across, final words … or with 56 Down, “Game of Thrones” castle on top of a mountain]. Crossword editors have tended to avoid EYRIE since it’s typically been clued as a variant form of “aerie,” but “Game of Thrones” gifted us with a new angle for that word. That I had THE in there was a stroke of luck; that END crossed EYRIE at the same clue number made me snicker.

What did you think?