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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Deeply Puzzled…

B-17 Flying FortressA friend of mine lives in Stehekin, the small wilderness town at the head of fifty-two mile long Lake Chelan. The little hideaway is accessible only by air or boat. Winters in Stehekin can be harsh…they certainly are long. My friend told me during the “off season,”when not hibernating, he passes some of his time meditating and practicing yoga. He and I are the same age, and while our winters in Western Washington are seldom harsh, they always seem interminable. But meditate? Isn’t that what you do when you awake at 1:30 a.m. and can’t go back to sleep? Yoga? I have trouble stooping to tie my shoelaces. I’ve heard that auditions for Cirque de Soleil require the applicant to perform at least intermediate level pretzel-like positions. Yoga? If I tried entry level asanas, I’d make sure my phone was set on 911 speed dial so the the local EMTs could come unknot me.  So what do I do when I look outside and the outside is fogged in, rained on, frosted over? I puzzle my way through it.

Once the demands of the holiday season are met and the bustle of Christmas has subsided, I clear off my project table, roll out the puzzle mat, and spill a thousand pieces of this year’s challenge in a heap. “The “challenge,” hopefully, is a gift from my Christmas list, one the members of my family know I’m anticipating. Dead OpheliaI allow myself the luxury of one puzzle a year: post Christmas and the first month of the new year. The only criteria are that the puzzle must be a 1,000 piece and its subjects appeal to me (I’m partial to lighthouse scenes, by the way). As my project table has many uses throughout the year, I need to free it up for subsequent use. My goal is to have the table puzzle-free by January 31.

Granted, puzzling might not be the most productive way to spend one’s free time, but it’s a great stress-reliever; puzzling reduces decision-making to its lowest common terms: the piece either fits or it doesn’t…simple as that. A bit of caution, though: puzzling is certainly addicting. I can’t pass a puzzle in progress without coming to a screeching halt, giving the layout the once over, even pausing long enough to fit in a piece. For instance folks at my mom’s Senior Center had a 6,000 piece puzzle going last spring. It was a triptych, a puzzle in three panels. For their puzzle table the Seniors had balanced a standard house door on two sawhorses. I vowed that on one of my visits, I would insert just one piece and help them out a bit. That visit finally came and a brief hour and a half later the Sr. puzzlers had one fewer piece to install.

Puzzles. They come in all shapes, sizes, number of pieces, 3-D, cardboard, wood, metal…there’s a puzzle for all tastes, ages, and personal preferences. All present a challenge (that’s why it’s called a “puzzle,” isn’t it?)…and an alternative to playing Solitaire, video games or cruising Facebook. I prepare a cup of hot tea and set to work at meeting my quota of fifty pieces per day (one I rarely achieve).

Puzzle strategies: how does one attack the puzzle at hand? Borders first, of course. Rectangles and squares, find the four corner pieces and then connect them. Color and design are important considerations. Keep the puzzle box picture handy ( just like the message imprinted on your vehicle’s side mirrors: “Objects in mirror are closer than they seem,” the seasoned puzzler knows that space in any puzzle is compressed). As each puzzle piece is unique, shapes, too, are an important consideration. 

A perfunctory study of puzzle piece nomenclature does not reveal much. The “in’s and outs” of a puzzle piece are thusly described as “inzies and outzies.” Both terms, to me, conjure up images of midriff anatomy. I prefer to call the irregular parts of a puzzle piece “tabs” for the extended parts and “bays” for the notches. Regardless of name, these puzzle piece configurations are important clues in puzzle assembly. The puzzler proceeds with all these components in play: color, design (mini-components sprout up on serving trays, in puzzle box tops, on the edges of the puzzle board…), and the configuration of tabs and bays per piece. As the puzzler proceeds toward the end, say two-thirds finished, (the puzzle becomes a teensy bit easier with each piece installed, and every new piece added provides a clue for the next), he can eliminate like-configured pieces by trying to fit them. If the piece doesn’t fit, it’s inverted to prevent rehandling the piece countless times: the sought after piece turns up through the process of elimination. Then flip the inverted pieces and press on.

Once in a while a puzzle comes along where extreme measures are called for. For example, my son-in-law whiled away a winter’s doldrums by tackling a two thousand piece puzzle, the subject of which was Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting “ Starry Night.” The pieces were small; the pieces were all the same color, mostly starry, starry night colors. No help there, so son-in-law segregated the pieces by shape: similar tabs and bays and protrusions were accorded their own plastic bowl, seven or eight of them.When a certain configuration presented itself, the puzzler went to the right “well,”so to speak, and thusly reconstructed Van Gogh’s whirling heavens. 

This year I was gifted with a round puzzle featuring a cloud of exotic lepidoptera, butterflies that never existed in the real world. puzzling in the round“Puzzling in the round” was a first for me, and in spite of the departure from the norm, I don’t believe the circular geometry made the puzzle any more difficult. The big issue with this puzzle was mechanical: the fit of the pieces so loose that sections of the puzzle lifted up whenever a new piece was installed. One of my approaches to a puzzle is to piece together prominent scenes or subjects, set them aside, and then incorporate the finished section into the puzzle map. Because of the loose fit, I had to dismantle these islands piece by piece and reconnect them in the puzzle. Time consuming, yes, but isn’t that the point of puzzling?Jan. 9

There comes a point in each puzzle project (the halfway mark ?)where I become frustrated. “I’ll never finish this thing,” I groan. Some pieces you’ve picked up so many times you can see them in your sleep. But that’s when things start to click: you begin to feel at one with the puzzle; pieces that have eluded you suddenly stand out in the crowd; and before you know it, you can see the holes at the end of the puzzle.Jan. 24

January 29th and 30th were marathon puzzling days, over 100 pieces installed each session. Mid afternoon, January 30, I slipped the last three pieces into place—finished a day early.

It’s become a tradition over the years to gift my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L something to puzzle on over the holidays. I spend considerable time and thought selecting  just the right puzzle, one that in her words qualifies as a “real stinker.”  I’m always disappointed on how quickly Nancy, with the help of husband Jack, assemble my puzzle gifts. Out of exasperation one year, I gave her a puzzle but held back one piece. I’d keep track of her progress by emails. One day I received a frantic message from Nancy L announcing the puzzle was finished—except for one piece, which they’d looked for high and low…even in the vacuum cleaner bag. The next day I popped the “missing” piece in an envelope and mailed it to her.

This year I found Nancy L a 1,000 piece puzzle of the Titanic. I gloated as I looked at the picture on the box: the dark hull of  the ill-fated super liner Jan. 29becalmed in the black waters of the North Sea under a starry, starry northern sky, a myriad of white dots sprinkled like grains of salt on a calm ocean, dancing and flickering amid reflections from a thousand glowing portholes. “Ah, ha,” I exclaimed, proud of my discovery…this one’s a “super stinker” for sure. I saw Nancy L less than a week later. She and Jack had already pieced the Titanic puzzle together. I’ll bet they completed the task in about the same time it took the unsinkable behemoth to slide beneath the icy waters of the North Sea and plummet to its final resting place on the  ocean floor. Next year, Nancy L, next year….just wait. I’ve got my eye on a REAL stinker this time.Jan. 30

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  1. So now I know what I can look forward to what when I am truly retired.. I enjoy puzzles, but never seem to have the time to do one. Besides, I have so many young grandchildren that I would never be able to complete the assembly without a number of pieces going missing. I have a really nasty "stinker" that I was given several years ago and have never assembled. It is a picture of a big pile of fish hooks.

  2. Puzzlers, it seems, are partial to scenes with a lot of the same thing: pencils, wine corks.... I put together a 500 piecer at Mom's, of nothing but candy hearts, various sizes but many with the same sentiments. Took awhile and would have taken longer but twenty-two pieces were missing. Now a puzzle with all fly hooks...that would be a challenge. Thanks for reading, Jim. TMJ