To Bee or Not to Bee: Week #8 of 52 Mini-Essays Project

On puzzling through the pandemic, the persistence of rules, and unlikely bedfellows

My first column in 3 Quarks Daily!


Now that Americans are emerging, blinking, into the post-pandemic daylight (perhaps temporarily! let’s not get too excited), a certain amount of stock-taking has been taking place. Some of it is braggadocious (languages learned, abdominal muscles honed), some of it is tragic (loved ones lost, livelihoods curtailed), and some of it is chagrined (Netflix queues emptied, drinking problems acquired). I am one of the lucky ones: a knowledge worker who was able to hunker down at home, with no children to wrestle and pin down in front of Zoom cameras; I lost no people and no material thing of importance. But that doesn’t mean that I escaped entirely unscathed. I have been cultivating a shameful new addiction in the secrecy of my own home, one that overcame me during the pandemic and still has me pinioned in its cruel, vise-like grip. My name is Deanna K., and I am a New York Times Spelling Bee addict.

It started innocently enough. My partner Scott and I used to do the New York Times crossword together all the time; during the pandemic lockdown, we got into the habit of stumbling out of our studies after hours of Zooming in order to eat lunch at the kitchen counter, and I would bring my iPad so we could do the crossword while we ate. Then, one fateful day, Scott noticed the bright yellow-and-black bumblebee logo on the Puzzles page, invitingly twitching its plump little bumblebutt at us like a schoolyard pusher offering a free taste. We gave it a go, found it intriguing and just the right amount of maddening, and were completely sucked in. Only Zoom classes and office hours eventually pulled us away from the obsessive formation of new words that afternoon. The next day at the lunchtime counter, my mouth full of tuna sandwich, I hovered my index finger over the crossword app on my iPad and felt Scott’s shoulders stiffen slightly beside me. I moved my finger slowly over to the Bee logo and glanced inquiringly in his direction, he gave a slight nod, I jabbed the smiling insect, and we were lost. Lost. Each day we would clamber up onto our lunchtime stools, and while Scott poured us each a Kombucha (aborted pandemic project: improve our biomes!), I would go through the elaborate ritual of circumventing all the productivity software barriers I’d set up to keep me from playing games on my computer. (Scott: “We do this puzzle every single day, and every single day it takes you five minutes to jailbreak the damned iPad. You look like a jewel thief trying to break into a vault. Why don’t you just turn off the screen time limits?” Me: “No! Then we would have to admit how much time we’re spending on it!” Scott: “Well, it’s five minutes more than it would be without the lasers and the catsuit.”)

Here is the requisite portion of this short essay where I explain the format and rules of the puzzle for your edification. It is completely pro forma since I cannot imagine anyone other than fellow addicts reading this far—but as a literary scholar I am a stickler for genre rules so here goes. The puzzle consists of six letters arranged in a honeycomb shape (thus its name) around a seventh central letter. The goal is to make as many words with four or more letters as you can, always using the central letter; each word can repeat letters multiple times. Every puzzle has at least one pangram, or word that uses all seven letters at least once. And that’s it—sounds simple, right? But wait there’s more! As you construct more and more words, you gain new titles, clambering up the chipper ladder of accomplishment from Beginner through Good Start, Moving Up, Good, Solid, Nice, Great, and Amazing, all the way through to Genius, at which point the puzzle explodes in joy and your cartoon bee avatar pops up on screen with a little mortarboard on its head. As far as I can tell, the puzzle was designed by scientists at NIMH working feverishly around the clock in a secret underground laboratory, utilizing the latest research in human neurocognitive reward systems. As Scott and I sat at our pandemic lunch counter of sadness each day, punching away at my iPad screen like obedient rats in a cage, I could feel the little bursts of dopamine going off in my brain like showers of cerebellar fireworks.

But wait—there’s still more! The puzzle has an Easter egg. It’s not an official rung on the accomplishments ladder, and nowhere is it noted in the puzzle literature, but if you actually manage to form all the possible words that day, your puzzle explodes again in ecstasy and your avatar’s mortarboard is replaced by a little golden crown. You have reached Queen Bee status—the holy grail, the ark of the covenant, and Final Jeopardy! all rolled into one.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. (Because, again, if you’ve read this far, you are either already an addict or a prime candidate for indoctrination.) “What do you mean all the possible words, Doctor Waffle? There are probably thousands each day, if you include archaisms, specialized vocabulary, proper names and place names, etc.” First of all, of course proper and place names are not allowed; that was just a trick to weed out the unworthy. But if the first part of the objection immediately floated into your head, then congratulations—you have astutely identified the dark secret of the Bee, the hidden truth that Big Puzzle tries to conceal from you until you’re well and truly hooked. There is, in fact, a fallible human author of the puzzle, an Oz-like figure pulling the levers and pulleys behind each hive, a flawed fellow traveler who simply decides what words are acceptable in the puzzle every day. Yes, you’re absolutely right to think immediately of fascism. No, it is not an exaggeration to compare this mysterious figure, this evil genius whose final word is law, to a Bond villain. His name is Sam Ezersky, and he is 25 years old.

Of course I am kidding. (Not about his age, though.) By all accounts, Sam is a thoroughly delightful human being, and certainly a whip-smart wordsmith. But emotions sometimes run high among Bee-fiends, and when a perfectly acceptable word that you know in your bones should be allowed is instead rejected over and over again (my personal bugbear is “alee”), it’s easier to curse the faceless prodigy torturing you from a far than it is practice Buddhist quietism. Certainly there’s an intergenerational rage component to this dynamic: most of the Bee addicts I know are Gen Xers or Boomers, and it stings (sorry) to have one’s daily affirmation-cum-nostrum held hostage by someone your children’s age. Who knows—maybe the resentment runs both ways and Sam is also acting out some kind of perverse Oedipal drama: “You may have gobbled up the resources owed my generation and burnt the planet to a crisp, but I can and will deny you the satisfaction of scoring points for ‘dimity.’”1

The only reason I even know about the volatile emotions of my fellow Bee-keepers is because of the 6,000-member Facebook group “NYTimes Spelling Bee.” O what a roiling cauldron of passions is concealed behind this innocuous moniker! The group is, according to its self-description, “a place to talk about the NYTimes Spelling Bee and have fun with words and images and maybe occasionally vent about words not accepted in today’s puzzle!” People do indeed post amusing images of objects rejected by Sam, brag about how quickly they made Queen Bee, dissect the previous day’s puzzle, craft poems and jokes based on the words from earlier hives,2 commiserate and bond and support and affectionately tease one another.3 Of course a private language has developed, complete with zingy insider acronyms: “QB” = Queen Bee, duh; “ABM” = All By Myself (not the Eric Carmen song4 but instead an indication that you reached a particular status with no outside help); “GWOP” = Genius Without Pangram, a particularly frustrating state of affairs for most.

But there are also deeper, occasionally darker, dramas unfolding on the pages of the NYTSBFB group. Tempers occasionally flare over inadvertent spoilers (when a post about a disallowed word includes a clue to one that is kosher), but these are usually caught quickly by the moderators and don’t pose an existential threat to the group; everyone pretty much agrees that the purity of the puzzle-solving experience must be guarded at all costs.5 More troubling are the squabbles over what kinds of posts are acceptable. These threads always have the same structure and often the exact same wording: Complaint About Word X Not Being Allowed -> Response Complaining About People Who Complain -> Reminder from Third Party That It’s Just a Puzzle -> [optional] Reminder that Sam’s Decision Is Final -> Exeunt Everyone, Exhausted. Occasionally someone will appeal to the Constitution of the group, the “About” description on the Facebook landing page. Enormous interpretive pressure will be brought to bear on the key phrase “maybe occasionally vent”: What constitutes “occasionally”? What exactly does “maybe” mean? Perhaps not since “a well-regulated militia” have three words received so much scrutiny by so many, and with nearly as much at stake.

Part of the reason these arguments repeat themselves so often is that new people join the group all the time; the shared unspoken rules are thus in constant flux.6 The Facebook group is a perfect microcosm of the internet itself, where those who have hung out in a particular virtual space long enough tend to create “rules” that, by their very nature, are unknown to the newcomers who inevitably break them; cue howls of protest and dramatic flouncing.7 Over the course of the past year the Facebook spats became, for me, an integral part of the Bee experience; I found them almost soothing in their predictability, their preordained narrative arcs and cast of stock characters akin to Greek tragedy or medieval mystery plays, where the point is not novelty but rather confirmation of deep moral truths and a fixed worldview. In that sense, the daily lunch ritual and the repetitive nature of the Facebook posts came to resemble the rhythm of pandemic life more generally, where every day was exactly the same as the one before and the one after. When I hear people invoke the movie Groundhog Day to describe their quarantine experience, I immediately note that “groundhog” is a pangram and start forming other words from those seven letters.

If there is a moral to the Bee—or more importantly, to the rhythms and rituals of the groups that have formed around the Bee—what would it be? Surely not that god is in his heaven and all is right with the world; while some folks like to invoke the final authority of Sam as puzzlemeister, even they would not go so far as to affirm his divinity. At the risk of veering into Carrie Bradshaw territory here, I would say that the lesson is rather that people will find one another and form community over any damn thing, and when I think about that fact for even a second my screen gets all blurry and I have to stop typing to blow my nose. We’ve all been through a lot this past year and a half (even the lucky ones), most of the planet is still going through it, and even after the pandemic is “over,” there are untold horrors to come. It’s easy to be cynical and despair over how people treat one another in the final extremity, but in theory it’s just as easy to take take some comfort in our shared tendency toward kindness. It’s a deep instinct to form bonds with our fellow humans, and our (occasionally ineffectual) rule-making is an integral part of that process. The complainers and flouncers will always be with us, but so will the souls who reach out to congratulate one another, to offer a hint to those struggling, to cheer others with a joke or story, to reach out and just ... bee there.

1

That said, in a stunning reversal, Sam recently started allowing “dimity” as a word! The hearts of Victorian literature scholars—and, indeed, Victorians—were set aflutter across the globe.

2

Special shout-out to Tim Alborn, whose limericks (and occasional sonnets!) crafted from the previous day’s words are truly brilliant works of art. The whole archive is available here.

3

Apparently there is separate group of people who bond over the Bee on Twitter. I only recently learned this fact, and am still reeling. The simile of the Jets and the Sharks or the Capulets and the Montagues does not begin to capture my feeling of horrified clannishness; it’s more like I just learned there is life on Mars.

4

Did you know that song was by Eric Carmen? I did not, and would have guessed Paul Anka or similar. Also, good luck getting it out of your head now.

5

Except for the lunatics who hang out at the NYT Spelling Bee Spoiler Extravaganza Facebook group. Or the truly lost souls who regularly check William Shunn’s New York Times Spelling Bee Solver page.

6

Even as a couple sharing an iPad, Scott and I quickly developed a set of unspoken rules around our daily puzzle-solving: you can’t make too many words in a row without your partner vibrating with impatience beside you; no typing in a pangram without waiting for the other to find it first, etc.

7

I refer to rules of etiquette that remain unspoken, as opposed to the official written rules of an internet group. The latter is usually a desperate attempt to codify the former.