I have only two distinct memories of my father insinuating I couldn’t do anything I put my mind to. He was an overwhelmingly supportive parent, but just twice he suggested I lower my sights: first, when I announced my intention to join my high school cross country team after many years of dismal PE mile times, and second, when I told him I planned to compete in the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics League’s 2009 season with an informative speech about crossword puzzles.

“That doesn’t sound very interesting,” he said. “And you don’t even do crossword puzzles.”

I don’t remember how I responded in the moment, but I know I was deeply indignant. And there is nothing quite like the suggestion that I won’t succeed to make me absolutely determined to prove someone wrong.

Here’s what I remember from my speech: Arthur Wynne originated the crossword puzzle in the now-defunct New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster, the publishing company, made its first money selling crossword puzzles. In 1925, a man shot his wife when she refused to help him with a difficult clue. The New York Times became the dominant force in crosswords during World War II, when they began running a regular puzzle to amuse the beleaguered nation. 

On tournament Saturdays, I trotted out each of these facts while wearing an ill-fitting suit from the juniors section of Kohl’s, putting key words from each anecdote on an interlocking foam core crossword puzzle that served as my visual aide (and which I had spent hours carefully x-acto-knifing so that the magnetized words would snap onto the background decisively as I spoke).

It was, admittedly, a very weird extracurricular pursuit.

But I showed my dad. The competition judges were very interested in crossword puzzles, or at least impressed by the intensity with which I conducted my well-rehearsed hand gestures. I amassed a small collection of trophies and took second place in the state that spring. A year or two later, I knocked my state competition trophy over while vacuuming. The torch my plastic lady liberty was holding broke off at her hand, so now it just looks like she’s fist pumping. (She’s also been relegated the closet, because I’ve decided it’s not very dignified to prominently display in my home a prize I won when I was sixteen years old.)

These last few days, I’ve done about a dozen crossword puzzles, several over Zoom screen-sharing with a friend under lockdown in New York. It’s nice to have a problem to solve: 

  • March 17, period during which a throne is vacant, 11 letters – INTERREGNUM. (A call back to my AP European History class, also c. 2009.)
  • March 20, sporty/casual fashion trend, 10 letters – ATHLEISURE. (What I am presently wearing.)
  • March 23, run ____ (go wild), 4 letters – AMOK. (How everything feels.)

It’s nice to be distracted from the internet.

  • March x to present, my main activity, 13 letters – DOOMSCROLLING.

It’s nice to be doing anything, right now, that isn’t the quagmire of “virtual work.” It’s nice to connect with another person over a conversation that isn’t just how many cases in your area? When did you last leave your house? How is your grandma? How’s your anxiety level? What’s the latest from your doomscrolling? 

Instead: what is “A constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy,” per Benjamin Franklin”? 4 letters – WINE. (Something I am consuming regularly these days.) 

It’s tempting, as the writer, to make a trite connection here to challenges I have previously risen to (a potentially boring speech about crossword puzzles) and overcome (second place in the state and a now-broken trophy). It’s tempting to end by drawing a neat parallel to the crossword’s popularity in another time of (inter)national crisis (WWII and the crossword reign of Margaret Petherbridge Farrar). But it’s most tempting for me to just pause, for a moment, inside my memory of sitting in the passenger seat of our Chevy Venture minivan with my dad, telling him about my grand plans, then quietly resolving to prove him wrong and knowing he’d be proud when I did.


  1. Avatar

    Hugely enjoyed reading about proving your dad wrong, as I’m sure he hugely enjoyed the same thing.
    So good to know too that you are pursuing a career in English education (as did I) and at the right place, though sadly interrupted now.
    Stay well!

  2. Avatar

    Hugely enjoyed reading about proving your dad wrong, as I’m sure he hugely enjoyed the same thing.
    So good to know too that you are pursuing a career in English education (as did I) and at the right place, though sadly interrupted now.
    Stay well!

  3. Avatar

    I loved this! It’s fun to know I’m not the only one coping with quarantine by solving puzzles, and that fifth paragraph is a terrific mental image.

  4. Avatar

    Katie, thanks, I enjoy reading your writing. I had a good laugh and thought of the sound of your parents joyful laugh. What love and wisdom a father has! His doubt was intended to make you shine, don’t you think? I cherish the counsel and friendship of your parents, but know you only as a diapered toddler. Now, I feel like a know you a bit because I can read your thoughts. Time for me to find a good crossword puzzle! God be with you.

    • Katie Van Zanen

      That’s so kind of you, Cheryl! I hope you enjoy your crossword. 🙂

  5. Kyric Koning

    If you have the mental gumption to prove you can do something when others doubt you, you can probably survive these trying times (or should I be saying you won’t make it during these times…?). A crossword puzzle doesn’t hurt, either.

  6. Gabe

    Katie, you get that fist-pumping trophy back out right now! We worked hard for that! (At least until this is over. No one will be coming to your house asking questions anyway.)

    PA pride!

  7. Avatar

    Love how you told this story with vivid details and brought it into our experience of today. “Doomscrolling” is my new word of the year.


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