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Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Oct. 2 crossword, “Building Blocks”

Since you know I like metapuzzles, I wanted to point your attention to a fun metapuzzle suite by super-solver and friend-of-the-show Paolo Pasco called “Remedial Chaos Theory.” It’s six puzzles, each with its own meta answer, leading to a final seventh puzzle and overall mega-meta answer. Some of the metas are trickier than others, but trust me, the whole set is really cool and made me legitimately laugh out loud a few times while solving. If you get stuck, feel free to sign up for a free account at the XWord Muggles Forum, where you can reach out to others if you need a hint. Paolo might be able to give you hints, too, if you ask him.

Today’s puzzle has seven starred answers whose first words grow or shrink by one letter at a time:

  • 23A: [*Subject of Russell Miller’s biography “Bare-Faced Messiah”] is L. RON HUBBARD.
  • 39A: [*Thomas Malory work about a legendary king] is “LE MORTE D’ARTHUR.”
  • 49A: [*Squat, e.g.] is LEG EXERCISE.
  • The revealer is at 66A: [*Building block that may be inserted into or removed from a set one by one (as seen in the starred answers’ first words)] which is LEGO BRICK.
  • 89A: [*Confidence builders] is EGO BOOSTERS.
  • 95A: [*Finish spectacularly] is GO OUT WITH A BANG.
  • 119A: [*Short story prize won by Alice Munro and Alice Walker] is O. HENRY AWARD.

When I first started this theme idea, I was going to work by building the letters of two different building-toy brands, LEGO and K’NEX. The letters of K’NEX won’t yield any phrases that start with a two-letter word KN, or a three-letter word KNE, so I would have had to contain those letters in other phrases like KNIFE FIGHT and KNEE SLAPPER and end with something like KNEX INDUSTRIES. But I thought it was amusing that LEGO could produce phrases whose first words could be any combination of those consecutive letters, so I built a LEGO set up and then tore it down. Sorry, K’NEX, for leaving you out of this. I promise Lego didn’t pay me to erase the competition.

Some other answers and clues:

  • 25A: [Jazz musician who was inspired by what he called “Astro-Black mythology”] is SUN RA. “Astro-Black mythology” was a line from one of Sun Ra’s poems that reflected his interest in both ancient Egyptian culture and futuristic societies. Hua Hsu wrote an essay for the New Yorker about this that you might find interesting.
  • 26A: ["How do you do, fellow kids?"] is MAA. The way to understand this is that MAA is the sound a goat makes, and the clue is my playful way of imagining what a small goat (a kid) might be saying to other small goats (fellow kids). I figured this could be the most confusing clue in the puzzle, but I’ve been dying to use it for at least a year. I joked recently on Twitter about what it feels like when you run with a clue some solvers might find hilarious but others will be completely mystified by, and this was the clue I was talking about. My constant exposure to and amusement over the Steve Buscemi meme from “30 Rock” made it impossible to resist.
  • 30A: [Unusual insight check] is ESP TEST. A little nod to D&D players who have to do insight checks every once in a while. I imagine it’s a little like an ESP test except you have to roll dice instead of actually reading the dungeon master’s mind.
  • 84A: [Things improving one’s world view?] is GLASSES. Originally I wrote this as “ … your world view” instead of “one’s,” but “your” made it sound like it was applicable to all solvers when not everyone out there needs glasses. The vague pronoun “one’s” gives it a bit more leeway in that you (the Royal You) may not need glasses, but another person might. Just a little bit of inside baseball when it comes to writing clues for you.
  • 94A: ["Hard Target” actress ___ Butler] is YANCY Butler. I watched this movie for the first time last year with friends. It’s a fun ride, if you consider Jean-Claude Van Damme punching a snake and Wilford Brimley racing on a horse to escape an explosion to be a fun ride.
  • 8D: [Letters that may convey urgency] is ASAP and 83D: [Word in 8 Down] is SOON. Weirdly enough I had this same pair of answers two weeks ago (at 9A and 48D).
  • 79D: [Circular symbol featuring a serpent eating its own tail] is OUROBOROS. One of my favorite symbols. I once clued the word ITSELF as [What the snake in the ouroboros symbol is depicted as eating].
  • 105D: ["The ___ Family” (BBC sitcom about a family living in Manchester, not Buckingham Palace as it may sound)] is ROYLE. I hadn’t heard of this Britcom until writing the puzzle.
  • 107D: [Nassib who was the first openly gay active NFL player] is CARL Nassib. He made the announcement in June 2021 while he was a member of the Las Vegas Raiders. He now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

What did you think?