Noe Valley Voice September 2008

Crossword Wiz Conjures Up a Noe Valley Puzzle

By Corrie M. Anders

Quick, what's a two-word solution for "emerging U.S. cruciverbalist"?

No, the answer is not Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times. Nor is it Merl Reagle, the riddle writer featured in the San Francisco Chronicle. Shortz and Reagle are both stars already.

Okay, here's a somewhat easier hint--"witty Noe Valley Voice puzzlemaster"--and it takes 12 letters.

You don't have to turn the page or wait till next month. The correct answer is Michael Blake--a Sanchez Street resident who is making waves in the up-and-down, black-and-white world of grids, squares, and numbered clues.

As some may have deduced, Blake is a crossword constructor (or cruciverbalist, from the Latin amalgamation of cross and word). Building puzzles is a playful counterbalance to his more strait-laced career as a professional money manager.

Starting this month, Blake will create puzzles specifically for the Voice. Noe Valley residents who work the puzzles may have a slight advantage: the brain-twisters will be sprinkled with neighborhood idioms, landmarks, and personages. Blake's first contribution, "Noe Valley North and South," appears below.

"I wanted [the puzzles] to relate to Noe Valley in some way," says Blake, who turned 57 in August. "And I'd like them to tickle your funny bone."

If you're new to puzzle-solving, Blake has a couple of tips for you. Select an area of the puzzle and work on both the "Across" and "Down" clues at the same time, thinking about which vowels or consonants might fit both ways. If you come up short, move to another area of the puzzle. Should you reach a dead-end, "walk away from the puzzle for a while," Blake says. "A lot of solvers find a puzzle quite easy after returning to it, particularly if they've had some sleep in between sessions."

Blake's puzzles will run in the Voice on an occasional basis. This month's offering is rated "moderately easy," though future ones could become more challenging as he picks up the quirks and rhythms of the neighborhood.

A Relative Newcomer

Blake moved to Noe Valley two years ago after his bride-to-be suggested he might want to give up his downtown bachelor pad. Barbara Howald, whom he married in June 2007, found a place where she could garden and Blake could pursue his hobby.

"I live in a world of numbers, and it's great fun to come home and deal with words after dealing with money," says Blake, who handles the endowment for the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, a private foundation in San Francisco.

Once he's produced a puzzle, he can't wait for someone to try it--and that's usually Howald. "Fortunately, Barbara is always ready to give me immediate feedback. She will tell me where I have been unintentionally obscure with either a clue or a particular cluster of words in the grid."

New York Times Debut

Blake started designing crossword puzzles 25 years ago, and his works have appeared in books, magazines, and many newspapers around the country. But it wasn't until earlier this year that Blake achieved national recognition with an appearance in the New York Times, the Holy Grail of crossword venues.

The theme of his Times puzzle could be found in a trio of highbrow clues: the author of Future Shock, the name of a famed Nazi hunter, and the author of Sister Carrie. The surprise fourth clue was decidedly lowbrow: a musical group suggested by the first three answers.

"I'll always be fond of my New York Times debut," says Blake, laughing about the clues for Alvin, Simon, and Theodore--the cute critters who comprise the 1950s singing group the Chipmunks.

The Times published a second puzzle Aug. 25, which Blake co-constructed with Nob Hill resident Andrea Carla Michaels.

Trials of a Word Wizard

Constructing a puzzle can take anywhere from three hours, "if I'm really lucky," to 20 hours, "if I have to fight over it," Blake says. That can occur if he writes himself into "one little corner'' and can't match up the words.

Blake says he tries to avoid puzzles with inane or arcane clues. "Twenty, thirty years ago, it was perfectly fine to have ridiculous words for a two-toed sloth or obscure words such as 'anoa,' which is a pygmy buffalo indigenous to Indonesia. My biggest goal is to create crossword puzzles without any garbage in them."

It's not always easy, so he enjoys the camaraderie of a fraternity of prominent local constructors who pun their way through lunch every two or three months. They include Michaels; Diamond Heights wordsmith Manny Nosowsky, who Wikipedia asserts has landed more puzzles in the New York Times than any other constructor; and Byron Walden, a math professor at Santa Clara University.

During one lunch, Blake says he, Howald, and Michaels "were riffing on bending the genders of film titles," and the banter "led to a puzzle we called 'Chick Flicks.' It had answers like 'Goodbye Mrs. Chips,' 'To Ma'am with Love,' and 'Little Big Woman.'" He and Michaels collaborated and sold the puzzle to the Los Angeles Times, which ran it earlier this year.

Peaceful Preparations

Blake's own background in finance and education provides him with a wealth of material for his wordplay. He has degrees in economics and business from Duke University and U.C. Berkeley. He's been a professional money manager for the past 15 years.

He served two separate Peace Corps stints in Africa. He initially taught English in the Central African Republic, and later returned to oversee all operations there. His efforts so impressed the president of that French-speaking country that the leader knighted him a chevalier de l'Ordre de Mérite.

Blake has also served as an executive with the Hesperian Foundation, a Berkeley-based publisher of books and newsletters on community-based health care.

With those plums, Blake would appear to be a natural constructor. He wasn't. He doesn't remember trying to solve crossword puzzles as a youngster and didn't pick up the habit until college.

"I used to attempt to do it from time to time. It was not a mania," he says. "I don't know what bit me."

When the game finally piqued his interest, Blake mimicked patterns that others used. "I'd get a book of crosswords and steal the grid, and I'd write clues to fit the crossword," he says. "It's frightening to go back and look at some of my [early] constructions."

200 Puzzles in His Pocket

Blake's first square of squares was published in the mid-1980s in a small local newspaper in East Palo Alto, where he was then living. The puzzle theme was fashioned to encourage residents of that unincorporated area of San Mateo County to support cityhood.

Since then, he's constructed more than 200 brainteasers, but he doesn't plan to quit his day job. He says puzzle pay is pretty skimpy, and most publications retain the rights. The Los Angeles Times, for example, shells out $65 per puzzle, according to Blake. "The New York Times is at the top of the heap," he says, and it pays just $200.

Such meager compensation conjures up an eight-letter word meaning "labor mantra."

"Constructors should unionize," says Blake, only half-jokingly. "They're among the most downtrodden of artists."