And now Jim Hilger's one of my tight bros from way back when.
Since Jim's retirement he got into crosswording, and now has a handful in the hopper with Will Shortz. For those who don't his work, he happen to drop one of the more impressive crosswords that appeared in the Times recently (spoiler). He tells me he's a record collector, cartoonist, avid Twins and Vikings fan (with a soft spot for the Cubs), a fairly decent tennis player, and a dangerous golf player, but in a bad way. If that's what retirement is, sign me up. Today.
All right, let's do this interview.
BEQ: I hear you’re recently retired. Is the crossword bug something you picked up to take up your new free time?
Jim: Sort of. I think there was a boring, bad weather stretch in the Winter of 2007 where I decided just to find out what happens when you send a crossword to the NY Times. I had seen the “Wordplay” movie, so knew it could be done. Did a freeze frame on the DVD and got the mailing address. Submitted two really ham-and-egg puzzles; the first two I’d ever attempted. Will Shortz wrote an email back, and was very nice and very helpful getting me started. Then it became a relentless, possessed, personal challenge, to see if I could get one crossword published in The Times. Seems like about my fourth or fifth submission generated some interest, and after a few failed attempts trying to get it right, I got a “yes” on it in March 2008. Then, gee, this was fun --- and well, I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder.
BEQ: You told me you also taught a class in crossword construction. When I did that this past fall, I picked up tons of new tricks. Has anything like that happened with you?
Jim: Putting together the course materials really made me think a lot about the whole process. Before that my construction routine could have been described with phrases such as “how sausage gets made”. Teaching forced me to get organized and think a whole lot about what worked and what didn’t, and why. Plus, to make sure I wasn’t going to lead students totally astray, I read Patrick Berry’s excellent book, which was extremely enlightening. A pretty cool in-class revelation was that one of my construction students had attended U of Va the same time as Will Shortz! Something I continue to learn a lot from: seeing what an editor does to my puzzle, before publishing it!
BEQ: You call yourself a "computer techie," but you make all your puzzles by hand. What gives?
Jim: My pre-retirement career did touch on about every area of computers. And I’m sure computer construction software would have plenty of advantages. I guess I was looking for a hobby that wasn’t all about computers, so I’ve stayed away so far. If I ever feel I’m really getting comfortable doing the work by hand, I might well take that next step. Right now, filling the grid is my favorite part of the exercise, probably because it’s the biggest challenge for me. Don’t want to lose that “buzz” too soon. But, on the other hand, I’d sure like to make my puzzles as entertaining for everyone else as possible.
BEQ: What's the most expensive/rare/hard-to-find slab of vinyl you own?
Jim: I’ve got a couple of Elvis Sun 45’s: “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Mystery Train”. They’re getting way up there. Of course, the ones you value most are the ones you plop down and listen to over and over. For example: “Linda’s Tune” by The Rancheros; “Chapel Bells” by The Fascinators. Good stuff.
BEQ: How about that Metrodome collapse?
Jim: Yeah, pretty emblematic of their season this year. As a big Vike fan, I’m hurting, but I still bleed purple.