Autumn Phillips: Puzzle machine

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In posters advertising Steamboat, smiling, well-dressed people lean forward on their skis, letting the snow carry them into a perfect turn. The sun glows in the background, capturing one of those incredible days when the sky is blue and the ground is covered in a thick layer of the lightest snow.

I'd like to propose a new poster. In this one, the sun is shining on a man wearing Carhartts and work boots. A Snickers wrapper and an empty Tupperware container sit next to him. He sits at the edge of a dormant construction site at lunchtime.

In the photo, his back is hunched, and all his attention is on the folded newspaper in his lap. He's doing the crossword puzzle.

I can't picture anything more Steamboat -- besides enjoying the outdoors and arguing about Triple Crown -- than doing the daily crossword.

Every town has its quirks and its collective obsession, and this is ours. And just as I have slowly conformed in so many other ways to the Steamboat ideal (I drive an enormous vehicle, I have a knee injury, I'm more addicted to coffee than I've every been in my life and the changing of the seasons usually means I'm about to drop a couple hundred dollars on some piece of gear), I now also have a bad crossword habit.

I have been absorbed.

Once a day, I adopt the posture. I fold the newspaper in quarters so nothing is visible but the puzzle. My back hunches. I start to chew on the pen cap and begin considering No. 1 across.

I always thought crossword puzzles would be a pastime for when I was older. People say they help stave off Alzheimer's disease, which isn't a big worry of mine at the time of this writing. But here I still am, filling in the empty squares as if I'm just passing the time until the shuffleboard tournament starts.

Let me say that doing the crossword is not the sexiest thing you can do. More than once I've noticed my boyfriend standing in the doorway looking at me as I struggle to fill in one of those stupid, 20-letter answers with "the opposite of 34A" being the clue.

Bent and squinting, I look nothing like the vivacious, twenty-something girl he fell for all that time ago. I try to convince him there's nothing sexier than a woman who does the crossword in pen.

This ridiculous obsession is not something we talk about -- my friend's don't ask if I know a three-letter word for teapot while we're out for breakfast -- but if I look around at the detritus on the surrounding tables, I'm sure to see copies of the Steamboat Today sitting next to writing utensils.

Since plugging into the Steamboat puzzle machine, I have analyzed my compulsion. I think it's the illusion of: 1) accomplishing something; and 2) being intellectually stimulated. When I complete an entire puzzle, I am a winner, if only for a second and if only in a very nerdy way. I also get smarter. Everything I know about golf I learned from the crossword. How else would I know about Ernie Els?

On Saturday, I was ready for some of that illusionary ego rub when tragedy struck. Consider my horror in the moment I now call "The Bamboo Market Incident." It was one of those lazy, beautiful days. My companion and I were on our way home from a leisurely stroll along the Yampa River and a stop at Howelsen Hill to watch the skateboarders. As we passed Bamboo Market, I reached into the store's foyer and grabbed a copy of the paper, imagining myself on the porch of our house later that day pouring my accumulated trivial knowledge onto the crossword page.

When we got home, I read through the headlines, pausing to read the stories that interested me. I stopped at the horoscopes to see whether Capricorns should avoid confrontation that day. I read Doonesbury and Dilbert. Then I uncapped my pen.

Alas, I realized that someone had torn out the crossword puzzle and tossed the eviscerated corpse back on the newsstand. It was a cruel recycling job.

The void crept over me. I was feeling so smart that day.

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