Piecing Things Together, Part II

(Guest Post From the Spouse)

I’ve always liked puzzles. In high school I was one of those nerdy kids who enjoyed the extra credit geometry problems. Figuring out how to complete a geometry proof – when successful – was extremely satisfying and, well, elegant.

Being out of practice with geometric theorems, however, makes solving those mathematical puzzles impossible. But I still like puzzles so, in my advanced age, I have moved on to those less specialized forms of puzzling – namely crossword and jigsaw.

If you are a puzzler, you’ll know what I’m talking about. For others of you, I’ll try to explain why puzzles are so satisfying.

A crossword puzzle requires a modicum of trivial knowledge and some word skills. Having a decent vocabulary and a fair repertoire of synonyms is advantageous. In some puzzles it’s necessary to figure out the “trick” in the puzzle. In Sunday Times puzzles there’s always a trick. Are words inserted backwards? Maybe they turn corners. Two letters in a single square? Some clues may lead to puns or mangled clichés. In the not-too-distant past it was handy to have a crossword puzzle dictionary to look up, say, the definition of a roadside inn on the Silk Road (caravansary), who got the supporting actress Oscar in 1953 (Gloria Graham), or who was Martin Van Buren’s vice president (Richard Mentor Johnson). I guess some people know those things without a reference book; I’m not one of them. So these days it’s equally useful to know how to use the Internet. One doesn’t have to know every answer to every clue in order to complete a crossword puzzle; some of the answers emerge when words around them are completed. When a difficult word or phrase finally “fits” into a crossword puzzle, there must be a spritz of dopamine that bathes the brain. One experiences pleasure at the reasonableness, symmetry and completeness of the puzzle. Moreover, when it “fits,” there’s no more mental agitation. It fits; it belongs; it no longer jars the mind. There’s an aaaah moment.

Jigsaw puzzles are similar but require a different skill set. Here it’s a visual one. Like crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles come in varying degrees of difficulty. In the New York Times, crossword puzzles get harder as the week goes on. Friday’s puzzle is way harder than Monday’s. Saturday’s is impossible (at least for me). While jigsaw puzzles don’t come with a notice of difficulty, it’s safe to say that more pieces mean greater difficulty (we always opt for 1000 pieces), but even though puzzles come with a picture of their completed selves on the box cover, sometimes the difficulty isn’t quite clear until the puzzle is begun. The NBP and I have done many, many puzzles together. The NBP is exceptionally good at them having both a good sense of color and spatial representation. Me? Not nearly as good. The hardest puzzle we have done together was of a polar bear mother and her cub in a snow bank. I, who rely heavily on color, was at a severe disadvantage. White was not necessarily white; it came with subtle shades of gray, green, blue, even pink. Recognizing shape was essential. I would have been lost without the NBP.

The most fun puzzles (to me) are those from Ravensburger. They are fantastical with names like “No. 2 Curious Cupboard” and “The Bizarre Bookshop, #2.” Little pink creatures hide in corners next to giant flowers or old photographs. There’s always a bulldog or two, maybe a kitten. Sometimes there are quilts with beautiful patterns or candlesticks in front of a moon-shaped cookie, stairs leading up to a giant tomato. Books are everywhere with silly titles. There’s a cookbook entitled “2 FISH PERCHance 2 BREAM” or another entitled “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Pie.” Rulers, dolls, witches – well, they’re just delightfully strange. I love them.

We have also done a puzzle shaped like a fish that had kaleidoscopic colors and various geometric designs for the fins and the body. We did a puzzle of a New Orleans scene with many cascading flowers and wrought iron balconies. Flowers – particularly those entangled in wrought iron filigree — are surprisingly hard. My most recent “solution” was a picture of an old postcard of the New York Public Library in the 1940’s. It’s almost impressionistic, the people emerging as mere smudges of charcoal. The library itself is surrounded by buildings with windows, windows, and more windows, and all those windows looked alike. It was a challenge. I confess to having given up on a puzzle from the University of Chicago Alumni Association. Too many leaves with too many branches, and the NBP wasn’t available to help. No fun. No way.

Jigsaw puzzles are not as cognitively challenging as crossword puzzles, and they take a lot longer to complete. However, they share the same aaaaah moment when the piece fits and the church steeple comes into focus or the staircase reaches that tomato. And when the entire puzzle is complete, it’s almost like closing a good book; you’re sorry that it’s over.

Yes. I like piecing things together.