SUNDAY PUZZLE — Joon Pahk is one of those fearsome productive polycreators who solve competitively, invent new games, dominate on Jeopardy and so on. Solving a puzzle by a mind like this, in my opinion, gives us a little window into the creativity within, and always causes a great deal of envious admiration in me as I’m filling in the grid. I found this puzzle graceful and elegant as well.

This was a slow solve for me; some of the names weren’t in my bailiwick, like THAYER, ENSENADA and ELSIE. There was a little sprinkle of difficult terms as well, including some watery ones like SHELF, SHALLOWS, RILL and SEA LEVEL. I enjoyed many of the puns in the fill immensely: THUMB and TAT were laughers.

22A: I recognize the term APOLOGIA, but over time I’d drifted away from its meaning as a “formal defense.” There’s a fine line between regret and resolve, I guess you’d say.

25A: I loved this deceptive double pun and spent a big chunk of solving this corner committed to the use of “force” somewhere in the entry. At one point I decided it might be a more advanced notation — Faraday? Friction? — but it turned out to be way more basic. If you MISSPELL “physics,” you might use an “f.”

88A: This entry is mythological, and practically a debut — the only previous appearance of LETHEAN was in 1942! I love words getting brought back. The reference is to the river Lethe, one of the five rivers of Hades, the Greek underworld. This river figured in Dante’s “Purgatorio” as a conundrum — the writer needed to immerse himself to absolve his sins, by forgetting them, but in order to narrate his journey he had to remember having sinned.

78D: We’ve had some old galley ships in the puzzle this year, and I’d stumbled on “biremes” at one point — I was sure enough of this fitting here that I looked for a rebus for a while. My seafaring vocabulary is spotty and I’d already considered BRIG to mean a naval prison cell, as it has so often been wittily clued (“clink on the drink?” “water cooler?” etc.). A BRIG can be a two-masted ship, though, and is also different from a brigantine. People are quite impassioned by this nomenclature.

83D: I filled this in easily but didn’t get it — “Heading in the right direction,” assuming you’re facing north, is indeed EAST, as a label (“heading”).

96D: I found this to be another clever little clue that took me a few go-rounds to appreciate. A “Person who’s hard to take,” someone who argues about everything, or is just a general wet blanket, earned the nickname PILL a long time ago — something unpleasant and hard to swallow. I haven’t heard this reference in ages, though.

There are nine theme entries today, sprinkled through the acrosses and downs at 23A, 38A, 67A, 93A, 115A, 3D, 16D, 46D and 81D. The trick boils down to a simple little silent “E” that, on paper, changes the whole meaning of a word, and therefore makes a common phrase into something else entirely, something that giddily fits its cryptic clue.

As an example, right at the top and pretty straightforward: 23A, “Photo caption for the winning team’s M.V.P. being carried off the field?” The answer, A STAR IS BORNE, answers this question perfectly: The star of the game is being carried, or borne, away.

Nearly all the theme entries find that “E” at the very end of the phrase; a few, though, sneak it into the first element, which did make it trickier for me. One of them was at 16D, “Two things you might find in Sherwood Forest?” Think Robin Hood: our hero and his righteous band of thieves in the woods, or COPSE AND ROBBERS.

If you’re the type who notices the title on Sundays, “Silent Finale” is really quite brilliant and explains the puzzle perfectly.

It’s hard to put my finger on it but if I were to use a musical analogy, we usually have pretty dynamic, noisy puzzles on Sunday, and this grid felt very pianissimo, in an enjoyable way. Even though this theme is clean as a whistle, I made a lot of missteps and wrong assumptions along the way, including looking for a rebus at one point, and struggled to come up with any of the phrases without a lot of help from crosses. And I also found the fill super tough! But after the fact, once everything fell into place it seemed a lot simpler than my solve felt — I like grids that do that.

The most interesting behind-the-scenes story about this puzzle is that it began with an idea that didn’t end up in the puzzle. It occurred to me that HEARING AIDE could be clued as a person who helps out at a trial, perhaps {Court stenographer?}. The “add a terminal E that does not alter the pronunciation” wordplay mechanism then seemed like the way to go, so I came up with a whole bunch more possibilities. Looking over the whole list, I noticed that I actually preferred the ones where the changed word and the original word were not just versions of the same word, like AID/AIDE are, so the seed entry ended up on the cutting room floor. I do still like that clue, though.

Cluing a 140-word puzzle is always a big job, but on this one, I think I wrote something like 90 percent of the clues on the first sitting, and then spent several days trying to think of a good clue for MISSPELL, which seemed ripe for a fun clue. I’m pleased that my clue was kept in, both because it reminds me of my days as a physics teacher and because I enjoy at least thinking about the possibility that somebody might be double-double-crossed, thinking that “F in physics” might refer to force.

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