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  • Melissa Westemeier


I've been a fan of the Sunday puzzle on NPR for years. When the boys were little, we'd play it together on the way to church, shouting out our answers to Will Shortz and his host and feeling superior when we'd come up with correct answers before the person playing on-air. I've never entered to play the puzzle, so I'll never win that lapel pin they award each week. Lately, though, I've been thinking about the people who design the weekly challenge. If you're unfamiliar with the Sunday Puzzle, each week Will gives listeners a new challenge and you can send in your answer. Players of the Sunday Puzzle are chosen out of the correct answer submissions. Will always credits the designers of the weekly challenges, this week it's Jim Humphreys of Northampton, Massachusetts. He designed this challenge: Name a well-known U.S. city in four syllables. The first two syllables, with a letter inserted will name an animal--that might be found in the place named by the last syllable. What city is it?

I've concluded that it's easier to play the Sunday Puzzle than it is to design a weekly challenge. Sure, you have to be smart to play the puzzle, but you have to be so much smarter to come up with a challenge of your own. I wonder if Jim Humphreys gets a lapel pin for contributing the challenge? I think he should.

In musing about this, I realized the word "change" is central in the word "challenge." And then I began to wax philosophical (the school of transcendentalist thought, if you must know) as I considered the truth of my observation. Change happens all the time. Our bodies change, seasons change, cultures change. Sometimes people are really excited about change (see: pumpkin spice, autumn leaves, wool sweaters, gourds). Our neighbor kid turned 16 and got her drivers license, my friend's grandchild has started to pull up to stand on her own, another friend gained a daughter-in-law last week. Sometimes change is necessary or things go south real fast (see: wet diapers, starting quarterbacks, batteries). Sometimes change makes people crabby or sad. They don't like new things, they don't like adapting, they want to dig a hole in the sand for their head and reject the reality that change is baked into our universe so good luck denying it or rejecting it (see: giving all people equality, daylight savings, Common Core math instruction). Sometimes people's resistance to change is understandable because the experience is painful, losing a job, getting a divorce, losing a loved one sucks.

I can't stop change from happening, but changes are just challenges. How do I face challenges? Can they make me grow? Do they require me to alter something about my behavior or my environment? We saw during COVID how some businesses willing to adapt and change came out ahead as they faced the challenges of different traffic patterns, consumer habits, and safety protocols. I'm faced with the problem of an aging body--my behaviors and habits need modification so I can maintain my mobility and strength. The challenge of getting older involves choosing exercise that won't damage my wonky knee. Several years ago I took up hiking regularly at a local nature preserve because the terrain is more varied than walking on a sidewalk and the view is prettier than walking through neighborhoods. Then I started hiking year-round, sometimes it's buggy and muggy, other times it's icy and freezing on the trail. Lately it's made treacherous by a bumper year for acorns, cleverly concealed beneath a carpet of colorful leaves. I constantly have to adapt my stride and my clothing to meet the seasonal challenges of hiking outside. Recently I read about the benefits of rucking. If I want to keep a step ahead of the challenges aging presents my health, I need to level up the weight bearing end of my exercise regimen. Now I carry a backpack loaded with ten pounds--and let me tell you, my body feels the difference after an hour of hiking! Sure, I don't love being sore and more tired after hiking, but I do love the idea of building strength and staying fit. When carrying that ten pounds gets easy (someday), I plan to add more weight to my backpack.

Changing my exercise is a proactive response to facing a challenge. I guarantee you, the challenge of my body aging won't go away until I die. If I deny this and don't do anything different, I'll end up worse off for it. Another thing I notice is how spending time in a place always changing makes me more accepting of change. I appreciate how nature looks, smells, sounds, even feels different week to week. (I'm guessing it tastes different, too, though I haven't checked.) I won't quote Thoreau here, but getting out there is a balm to my mind and soul and it puts everything back in perspective for me. I experience fresh surprises regularly, which keeps me paying attention and makes me more aware.

Changing up what I write produced different results for me, too. I've been a lifelong reader of mysteries, but never attempted writing one until about a year ago. Two days ago I finished my second one! This summer I signed with a literary agent to represent my mystery series, and I've learned some techniques and habits as a writer to improve my skills and make the challenge of tackling a new genre less difficult. Choosing a new challenge pointed my work in a different and more productive (and, hopefully, more profitable) direction. Constantly taking on new challenges in any area will make me more creative, strong, and adaptable--and this positions me to handle challenges I don't expect to face and can even result in better things happening than if I keep doing the same old, same old.

Sometimes I've challenged myself with a change and it hasn't gone well. I won't lie, mistakes have been made, reader, and my time and energy has been wasted (see: taking a pottery class, bringing my family on vacation in the Florida Keys, starting college as a dance major). But mistakes are how we learn, right? And mistakes make us grow and give us insight so we can avoid them in the future. It's a truth of Sunday puzzles, transcendentalism, and life: I can't have change without challenges and I can't face a challenge without change.

Also, I have NO idea what the answer is to this week's Sunday puzzle challenge. Did you figure it out?

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1 Comment

Oct 07, 2023

I'm stumped and will need to know when you find out.

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