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Puzzle fanatic

St. Cloud man has fun, finds online following with unique puzzle blog

It is no puzzle how Joe Young, of St. Cloud, got interested in puzzles. “When I was young, we were interested in family games. Word games like Probe, where you put cards face down with letters on the bottom, and people try to guess your word by guessing letters one at a time. Or the dictionary game, Balderdash, where you take a word nobody knows and make up definitions for it which are read aloud, including the real definition, and people try to guess which one is right. I also loved to do punny jokes, where you’d get a groan from the listeners.”

Joe Young of St. Cloud at work on his Puzzleria blog on his laptop. Photo by Bill Vossler

But Joe carried his love of games a lot further than other people. “It all started because of the Sunday Puzzle program on NPR radio on KNSR out of Collegeville. Will Shortz, crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times, has a weekly six-minute segment where he plays a puzzle game on air with regular people like me. I started submitting answers by email to the puzzles Will presents at the end of the segment. From all the right answers they choose somebody at random to play on air the next Sunday with Will Shortz, who is kind of my hero. He’s just an amazing person.” Joe was chosen three times to appear on the radio program.

Meantime, when he worked for the St. Cloud Visitor newspaper, he made up puzzles for his staff and pinned them on the bulletin board to see if they could solve them.

A Big Change

In May 2014, Joe’s life changed after frequenting a website called Blaine’s Puzzle Blog, where the Shortz show puzzle people go. “People get together and talk about the puzzles, and maybe give hints to them. So it’s a big community of puzzle freaks and geeks.”

While commenting on that blog, he formed a friendship with a geologist who had started a science/word blog called Partial Ellipsis of the Sun, which triggered the idea that maybe he could start a blog too, about word puzzles. After a few emails and telephone calls, she walked him through setting up a blog. That’s how Joe’s blog, came about.

“I called it Puzzleria because my theme is that you come into our little ‘pizzeria space’ where we offer our patrons a menu of puzzles to chew on and solve. At the start I just did two puzzles, but increased the number after that, so I’ve done over a thousand now in just over three years.”

He claims his notebooks are a mess, and he’s not organized, and yet he has been able to put up more than a thousand puzzles on his advertising-free blog. How does he keep track of them and not repeat himself? Not always so well.

“I absentmindedly ran a puzzle last October (involving Cypriots exporting apricots) that I had run only four months earlier. One of my loyal followers, a ‘Puzzlerian’ named ViolinTeddy pointed out my repetition in our comments section, so I apologized. She was understanding and commented back, ‘With all the puzzles you create, anyone would be bound to screw up once in a while.’”

Idea Man

How do his ideas come about? In a way his mind is always working on puzzles, and he’ll see something that will trigger a thought or a direction for a puzzle. “A couple of years ago my friend Mary and I stopped at a tire place and I saw the word ‘Michelin.’ When I looked at the word, I saw ‘inch’ and ‘mile’ within Michelin, so I made a puzzle about how miles and inches are words used in sales of tires. I’m always looking at words and listening for things.”

He might see a word at a grocery store, sparking another puzzle idea. Or seeing somebody else’s puzzle, which triggers an idea for one of his own. “After the idea, writing the text of a puzzle takes a little longer, but that’s a fun part of the whole process, getting the puzzle concept down into words.”

“I try not to make them too hard or easy, but rather somewhere in the middle. Other times, like now, I’m working on changing the words to a puzzle to make it a little tougher, because as it is it would be too easy. Sometimes I add a hint, like, ‘The lawyer’s last name is also the name of a criminal court that makes an appearance in an old Dickens novel.’ It all has to do with the wording.”

Joe adds new puzzles early every Friday morning, and on Wednesday he asks followers to submit their answers in his blog’s comments section. “If somebody is stumped, I’ll know on Wednesday because they haven’t yet submitted an answer. Late Wednesday night I post all my answers, the ‘official answers for the record.’”

Joe said he has a small group of regulars for his Puzzleria blog and would like more.

Joe’s history in doing the Puzzleria blog is that he’s always had a love of words. “It’s why I became a writer. I was an English and math major, and I remember as a really young kid writing a poem that I’m still proud of today. The first lines were: Santa’s sleigh from front to rear/is powered by eight cylinder,” he laughed. “My mom encouraged me a lot. She was amazing. She could spell any word in the dictionary,” the 66-year-old said.

The types of puzzles on Puzzleria include several varieties, he said. “What’s the next number in this sequence. Which one logically follows.”

Anagrams are another type, where all the letters of a word are rearranged to make another word, as “cinema” becomes “iceman.” Other words can be made from that first word, of course–man, mane, mean, etc., but are not anagrams.

Palindromes are another type, where words read the same backwards as forwards, like “Otto,” or even longer ones like, “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama.” And since Joe is creative, he makes others, which could be called “semi-palindromes.”

“I did one, for example, that involved Ypsilanti, Michigan, taking the last part of the city–‘anti,’ and then reversing the rest–‘lispy,’ to get a hyphenated adjective that might describe a speech therapist.”

There are also “spoonerisms,” transposing parts of two words by accident to create a new and usually funny combination, such as “blushing crow” instead of “crushing blow,” named after William Spooner, an English clergyman who was known for such slips. One of his was saying “The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take” instead of the actual name of the song, “The Conquering Kings Their Titles Take.”

Examples of one of Joe Young’s puzzles… Tigons and Ligers and Grolers, oh my! Hybrids abound in nature, including the animal kingdom. Examples of such interspecies critters are Savannah cats, wholphins, camas, beefalo, geeps, yattle, yakows, leopons, zonkeys, zebroids, pumapards, mules and (whinnying) hinnies. Consider the hybrid critter pictured here. What is it called? Hint: It’s name has four syllables.

What makes a successful puzzle, other than many people being interested in it? “I think the wording is the primary thing,” Joe said, “and that people learn something. Also, people have to think outside the box. A good puzzle makes you think outside the box, and an elegant puzzle is one that when you get it, you say, ‘Aha, that’s the answer!’ That’s neat!”

One surprising peculiarity of Joe’s love of puzzles is that “I’m not a great puzzle solver. I don’t solve others’ puzzles well.”

Time and Hard Work

Joe said creating the puzzles takes time. “It’s not really difficult at all, but it’s just that I’m slow at everything. I’m a slow writer, and to get a puzzle right, you have to get the words right, and I also write puzzles slowly because the process is fun too.”

At first when he started his blog he feared he was going to run out of puzzles. “But I’m never at a loss for puzzles. There’s nothing tedious about the process, which is why I keep on doing it.”

“I encourage people to try to make up puzzles to see if they’re good at it, and see if it’s a talent they have. If you do this stuff it gives your brain a better chance of being sharp, and not leaving you as you age. I really think keeping the mind active is like keeping the body active. Unlike quicksilver palmed off by some quacksalver, exercise seems to be good medicine, for both muscle mass and gray matter.”

Joe enjoys feedback he gets from puzzlers on his blog. “I like them to say that a puzzle was good. I’m a sucker for praise,” he laughed.

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