The Puzzling Family

On March 5, 2021, the spouse posted here “Piecing Things Together, Part II” about the “work” she and NBP do assembling jigsaw puzzles. Below is a small sampling of the results. The first one is a Ravensburger puzzle, their favorites. Immediate below it is a detail of the upper left corner. With the last puzzle you are allowed, nay required, to go “Awww.”

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.

Piecing It Together

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Piecing It Together

A guest blog from the spouse.

I’m not certain when I started making baby quilts. It was probably when our friends from college started having babies. I thought my first one was truly amazing, and I was inordinately proud of it. Looking back on the photo of it now, it was a simple affair, but colorful and vaguely competent. It wasn’t “quilted” (stitched from front to back through the sandwiched batting), nor was it “bound” (having a neat binding around the outside). That was long before the days of the Internet, so who knew from “quilting” and “binding”?  

I picked it up again when my students, post-docs and younger colleagues started having babies. There came a time when four of them were due within weeks of each other (my colleague was having twins), and I made five quilts for a joint baby shower! – none of them was quilted or bound. Somewhere along the way (thank you, Internet), I learned how to do both. However, no matter how many times I watched YouTube videos on binding (and I had to re-watch one every single time I made a quilt), it took me well into my tenth quilt to get it right. In short, I’m not much of a seamstress, but there is something satisfying about making a baby quilt even when it is imperfect.

Why? One starts by picking out the fabric. Fabric designed for babies is comforting. It’s routinely made with lovely, soft pastels or bright, cheerful primary colors. There are tiny flowers, idyllic scenes, or slightly goofing-looking animals. These animals peek around corners, cluster in goofy groupings, smile, and look for all the world as though they would like to play with you. What’s not to like?

Then there are the designs one can make: Stars, pinwheels, bright patterns of color. One can also clip out those precious little animals, highlight them, build a structure around them. But what needs to emerge from that structure is a crisp rectangle even if the animal clip-outs are of different sizes. It’s a challenge in measuring, piecing, measuring again, adding a piece here, a square there. One designs one’s own puzzle.

I volunteer with an organization that collects day-old flowers from grocery stores and florists, freshens them up and assembles them into small bouquets that are then distributed to residents of nursing homes and women’s shelters. On the day of assembling, there may be as many as thirty or thirty-five different kinds of flowers available for the bouquets. Volunteers fuss over their little creations, but the truth is there is no need for fussing; a bouquet of flowers is simply pretty. There is no way to make a mistake.

Making a baby quilt is similar. There are a hundred ways to make a mistake, of course, but given basic competence, the result of the piecing and measuring and assembling, the colorful fabrics, the animal smiles, even the jumble of pieces almost always make a satisfying bouquet.

The NBP (non-binary progeny) and I are also into a different kind of puzzle-making – jigsaw puzzles. When the NBP was just a little tyke, they liked puzzles, and liked creating fantastic cities from Legos — a different kind of puzzle. As they got older, they became adept at putting together complicated three-dimensional puzzles of The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, The Capitol.

This interest lapsed only to re-emerge in adulthood. After my retirement, the puzzle craze took hold of us both. They and I are particularly fond of Ravensburger puzzles with 1000 pieces. The puzzles are quirky, colorful, filled with phantasmagorical figures, mysterious black and white photographs, whimsical structures, dreamscapes, exotic flowers and books, always many books. Tiny pink shmoo-like beings hide out in nooks and crannies. The puzzles are a joy to assemble. We have assembled, disassembled, and re-assembled at least seven of them.

These assembling exercises have become essential to us during the recent stay-at-home orders caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But thank goodness for babies! In the past year, four of the NBP’s friends, two of my dear friend’s daughters, and a past student of mine are about to have or have had babies.  I have been busy all year making quilts, but I have made three since March…labors of love and labors that have a visible product, a reason for the exercise, and, frankly, a reason to get up in the morning.

So: quilting in the morning and jigsaw puzzling in the afternoon. The NBP and I have sat in companionable silence for at least two hours a day working on a completely useless product that has given us both calm satisfaction. We have completed four puzzles, the hardest one was a polar bear mother and cub in snow. The NBP did most of it; I found it difficult indeed…and truly not that much fun. I know now why Inuits have 100+ words for white!

One of my friends says that I must enjoy putting things together. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but in times when the world seems to be unraveling at a frightening pace, maybe putting these things together has been an unconscious effort to gain some control over what feels like a chaotic present and an uncertain future.

Could you kindly let me know if you or one of your friends or relatives is about to give birth? I could use another baby to swaddle.

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