August 9, 2021


Constructors: Mark Valdez & Brooke Husic

Editor: Erik Agard

Theme Answers:
CASHMERE SWEATER (25A: Soft top for cool weather)
CHECK YOURSELF (38A: "Maybe take a step back...")
CARDBOARD CUTOUT (53A: Flat, life-size replica of someone)

Theme synopsis: A form of PAYMENT is found UPFRONT, at the beginning of each theme answer. You may pay with CASH, CHECK, or CARD.

And now a word from our constructors:
Mark: As I write this, I'm enjoying a 24-Across and listening to 37-Down. Thrilled to be making my USA Today debut with my amazing mentor and co-constructor Brooke Husic. Thanks a ton to Erik Agard for connecting us. This was my first puzzle ever, and it was a blast to learn crossword constructing while I was based in Canada the last four months. Brooke and I are planning to meet in person to celebrate our budding partnership and toast to a new friendship.
Brooke: This is the first puzzle Mark and I wrote together and it has such a special place in my heart! Mark is super attuned to what makes a great crossword puzzle and I love his fill choices here particularly in the southeast of the grid. It was a blast to clue together and I especially love Mark's clues for 16A, 43A, 37D (of course), and most of all 54D. You'll definitely be seeing us again!

Things I learned:
  • LEONA (65A: "Bleeding Love" singer Lewis) In 2006, LEONA Lewis won series three of The X Factor, a British reality TV music competition. "Bleeding Love" is the lead single from her 2007 debut album, Spirit
  • ACORN (54D: Scrat the squirrel's nut in "Ice Age") This is an enjoyable clue for ACORN. The answer is definitely inferable, even if, like me, you have not seeN the 2002 animated movie Ice Age, and are not familiar with Scrat. I had fun learning about this character. Although I haven't seen the movie, I have seen Scrat, (although I didn't know his name) in the trailer for Ice Age. The movie opens with Scrat, a saber-toothed squirrel (voice by Chris Wedge), looking for a place to store his ACORN. According to writer Michael J. Wilson, his daughter, Flora (who was three years old at the time), helped him come up with the character Scrat, who is a combination of a squirrel and a rat. When he asked his daughter what Scrat wanted, she replied, "Dad. Hello? Scrat wants the ACORN."
Random thoughts and interesting things:
  • STEEL (16A: "___ Magnolias" (film starring Dolly Parton) Ah, here is a movie I have seen! The 1989 movie STEEL Magnolias starred not only Dolly Parton, but also Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, and Julia Roberts. The movie is an adaptation of a 1987 play of the same name by Robert Harling, and tells the story of a group of women in a small southern town, facing life's challenges together. Dolly Parton plays the role of Truvy Jones, a beautician and the town's gossip. It is in her shop that the women often gather. I won't reveal more of the story, but remember if you ever watch (or rewatch) STEEL Magnolias, have tissues handy. In my experience, this movie excels at making you laugh and cry.
  • ALI (29A: Comedian Wong) ALI Wong is a stand-up comedian, actress, and writer. She has two Netflix comedy specials: Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. She co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the 2019 movie, Always Be My Maybe, with Randall Park. (I previously wrote about Keanu Reeves's role in this movie.) ALI Wong's 2019 book, Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets & Advice for Living Your Best Life, is written in the form of letters to her daughters, discussing "everything they need to know in life, like the unpleasant details of dating, how to be a working mom in a male-dominated profession, and how she trapped their dad."
  • TWO (43A: Number of Oscars won by Jane Fonda) I had the T filled in when I reached this clue, so I knew the answer was either TWO or ten. Jane Fonda's TWO Academy Awards (aka Oscars) are both Best Actress awards, one for the role of Bree Daniels in the 1971 movie, Klute, and the other for the role of Sally Hyde in the 1978 movie, Coming Home. Although she has only won TWO Oscars, Jane Fonda has received numerous other accolades
  • SARA (45A: "Grey's Anatomy" star Ramirez) SARA Ramirez played the role of Dr. Callie Torres in seasons two through twelve of the TV series, Grey's Anatomy.
  • CARDBOARD CUTOUT (53A: Flat, life-size replica of someone) At some point, my parents acquired a life-size CARDBOARD CUTOUT of Albert Pujols.
    Appropriately for this puzzle, it was when he played baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals (STL). I cannot tell you how many times I have walked by this cutout and done a double-take because I thought someone was in the room!
  • INTO (71A: "So ___ You" (Tamia hit)) "So INTO You" is a song from Tamia's 1998 self-titled debut album. 
  • GLAMOROUS (37D: Fergie song that mentions "gold and diamond rings") "GLAMOROUS" is a Fergie's 2006 debut album, The Dutchess. The song features rapper Ludacris. I like this clue, because even if you are unfamiliar with this particular Fergie song, you can deduce the title from the mention of "gold and diamond rings."
Geography review:
  • STL (73A: Andy Cohen's hometown (Abbr.)) Andy Cohen is a radio and TV talk show host. He hosts the late night talk show, Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. As the clue informs us, Andy Cohen grew up in St. Louis, Missouri (STL). I also spent some of my growing up years in St. Louis, but as far as I know, Andy Cohen and I never crossed paths, though he's just a few years younger than me.
An enjoyable theme today. CHECK YOURSELF is my favorite theme answer - such a great phrase, and I got it immediately from the clue. I noticed a mini-theme of debuts in today's puzzle, as the songs "Bleeding Love," "So INTO You," and "GLAMOROUS" are found on the debut albums of LEONA Lewis, Tamia, and Fergie, respectively. That seems appropriate, as this crossword is the debut puzzle for Mark Valdez. Congratulations, Mark! In addition to the answers highlighted above, I also enjoyed the answer OVERSIGHT, and the clue for SAFARI (49D: Trip that's Swahili for "journey"). This puzzle was a delightful way to begin my Monday.