February 19, 2020

It’s not difficult to imagine why a researcher on refugee resettlement and humanitarian aid advocate would decide to enroll at SIPA. How that same person came to design crosswords for publications like the New York Times and the New Yorker has a completely different answer.

Means of communication (8 letters)

“I think the entry point, honestly, is LANGUAGE,” said Natan Last MPA ’21, a first-year student who intends to concentrate in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy.

Last grew up in Brooklyn’s diverse Flatbush neighborhood and says that listening to a myriad of immigrants speaking in their native tongues enhanced his facility with words.

“My mom is an immigrant and grew up speaking Hebrew and a little bit of Spanish. She was learning English while I was a wee lad, or a tot even,” says Last, who sprinkles some common crossword answers into the conversation, albeit with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

Last says his father, a native of East New York, is also a lover of languages.

“My parents are both very talkative in many different ways, and also just have an interest in cultures, in things that come from different cultures,” he ventures. “I think it’s just an interest in language as a material thing. You have to sort of construct sentences out of it.”

Creators or solvers of crossword puzzles (15 letters)

Last began to solve crossword puzzles in high school, where  his teachers would sometimes give them out during free periods.

It wasn’t long before Last became involved in the world of CRUCIVERBALISTS.

“Crosswords were a really cool welding of languages and materiality,” Last offers. “People say that about constructing crosswords because you put many different words next to each other.”

There’s a “cultural curational aspect” of putting Beyoncé in the same puzzle as Franz Ferdinand, Last says. “People are into it.”

Draw, as in the margins (6 letters)

At age 15, having become quite adept at solving crossword puzzles, Last started to DOODLE his own by hand.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ And then I started to use graph paper, then it ended up being software,” he said.

What had started as scribbles turned into a full-time hobby as Last prepared for the college admissions process. At some point it dawned on him to submit one of his puzzles to the Times.

“I wrote a dorky cover letter that was like, ‘Dear Will Shortz, I’m in high school and high school’s cool. Here’s a crossword.’ And he wrote back and he accepted one of them.”

Shortz, almost certainly the best known figure in American crosswording, has edited the Times’ puzzle since 1993. He receives hundreds of crossword submissions weekly, but something about Last’s stood out,

“He’s like, ‘By the way, how old are you?’”

The answer was 16. The Brooklynite was about to become the then youngest constructor ever to place a puzzle in the Sunday New York Times.

Their conversation continued periodically, and Shortz published several more of Last’s submissions, until Last received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the summer after his sophomore year at Brown University.

Educational opportunity, mostly unpaid (10 letters)

“I did a summer INTERNSHIP at Will’s house, where he works—because he refuses to go to the Times building, sort of famously,” Last recalled. “His house, also famously, is like a shrine to the process. He has crossword-print PJs, and the clock in his study is a crossword.”

Last brought the experience back to Brown, where he studied economics and literacy arts. Along with several classmates he co-authored Word, a book of crosswords for younger solvers. He also saw more of his puzzle submissions get printed in the Times and realized it could be more than just a hobby.

“I remember missing baseball practice or something because I had to go to a crossword event. It was very much part of my schedule,” he explained. “You sort of get connected into the world of crosswords. There is a puzzle world; there are constructors that are mainstays in the field.”

Now 29, Last has become one of those mainstays. His periodic contributions to the Times total 31 puzzles, including most recently a Sunday puzzle last October. And, since the New Yorker introduced online puzzles in 2018, Last has been part of the small rotation of regular constructors.

Outside of the crosswording world, Last is a founding member of the International Rescue Committee’s innovation lab, an R&D lab that implements projects directly to the people the IRC serves. He’s spent more than two and a half years working for the IRC abroad in humanitarian settings in Tanzania and Jordan, and also in resettlement sites across the United States.

Last sees an intersection between his passion for human-rights policy and crosswords.

“I think New York is honestly really good for it. It combines culture and language,” he says. “There’s a lot of interest in how to use it as sort of a new medium for information.”

“Like the fact the Times crossword is or could be emblematic of a melting-pot ethos. That happened when I grew up, that happened in all my favorite memories in childhood it is a linguistic mixing and a cultural mixing, and the puzzle can be like that.”

— Catherina Gioino MPA ’20

 

If you think your crossword game is lacking, Natan Last offers a few tips for finishing that Saturday puzzle:

1. Look at fill-in-the-blank clues first.

“Those are often the easiest to solve… scan them for some theme or common words.”

2. Get familiar with commonly used words.

“Brush up on recurring words. For some reason, we always use Oreo. Well, I know the reason: it’s because of the vowels. But brushing up on those, it gives you a leg up so you’re not looking for something that’s this weird, obscure thing.”

3. Step away for a day

“Memory is your brain working when you’re not looking at the puzzle. Put it down, go to sleep, and come back the next day.”

 

Photo courtesy of Natan Last; photo illustration by SIPA News