Sunday, May 22, 2016

In Praise of the Jigsaw Puzzle

There are two ways to pursue a jigsaw puzzle. You can be intentional about it, maybe even plan to do it with a group of friends, and then it’s social and part of a good time. I know friends who do a new one every New Year’s Eve. You can also back into doing a puzzle because you’re in task avoidance mode and feel like all you can manage is wasting time, but you need distraction that’s engrossing and enjoyable enough so you can avoid noticing how much you’re avoiding. The puzzle is a cut above empty-headedness and self-medication, but in your mind not as bad as … playing solitaire, for example.

Everyone has his or her personal prejudices as to what constitutes really degenerate time wasting. To me, playing online games probably takes the cake, but I’m sure there are some people who think it helps their reflexes or memory or whatever. Everyone’s poison – or antidote, I guess – is different.

I like a good jigsaw puzzle. It meets all the requirements for absorbing one’s attention without requiring any preparation, knowledge, or brain sweat. You pull out the box and before you know it, you’ve abdicated any responsibility for completing any chores. You’re gone.
In our house, the jigsaw puzzle goes on the dining room table so doing one also means you’ve disrupted dinner times. Maybe that means you don’t really cook dinner. You say, “Everyone for himself,” and go back to the puzzle.

Recently, a friend and I have been comparing what our brain does on jigsaw puzzles. We both notice how we can pick up a piece and “sense” where it goes. We don’t know if it’s a response to the shape or the picture, but we know it happens without too many synapses jumping. Something in us just responds to the piece, knows its place in the puzzle. It’s very gratifying.

I’m sure the solitaire players say that solitaire does something for their brains, too.

But this being our Third Thirds, I’ve had to modify my jigsaw puzzling. Those big 1,000-piece ones take up too much space on the table so I have to lean way over. After a couple hours, I begin to notice the lower back fading. An hour more, and a spasm might begin. If I don’t quit – but how can I quit when I’ve just made so much progress on the sky?? – I can be stuck with a heating pad for the next couple of days. I’ll walk by the table, reach for a piece, and feel a jab as I lean out. And I keep leaning out, unable to stop puzzling the puzzle.

Recently, I’ve discovered smaller-piece puzzles (the pieces themselves are reduced size). And I’ve tried 500-count puzzles instead of the big 1,000s. That means the whole puzzle doesn’t take up the whole table. I can do it sitting down. Once we even found a four-sided puzzle so everyone could work on it from his or her own side of the table.

I get my puzzles at the local thrift store. It’s a little chancy because they might be missing pieces, but folks are getting pretty sophisticated and write on the bottom whether it’s complete or not. When I finish a puzzle, I pass it on to Judith. She gives me hers, and when we’re both done, it goes back to the thrift store.

I anthropomorphize the pieces. I look for a stubby head with a fat right hand. I look for a skinny neck with a sloping shoulder. After working on a puzzle for a few hours, the Zen of it takes over. Then I just hover over the pieces and the right ones start to jump into my hand. Yes, it happens, and that’s the thrill of the whole undertaking. The universe is lining itself up, putting all its pieces in place. (sigh)
When I was in college, I worked a summer job on the assembly line at the Aurora Plastics factory. We assembled plastic models: planes, cars, monsters. Occasionally, we’d drop one, pick up a few pieces, put them in the closest box – any box – and keep the line moving. At the end, the box would get shrink-wrapped, and some poor kid would think that meant his model would have all the requisite pieces.
What if a jigsaw puzzle came off an assembly line like that? You’d be trying to fit houses into landscapes into general stores into street scenes, and you’d be tearing your hair out. But I don’t think that puzzle would show up in a thrift store. I think that puzzle would end up in the trash. My universe is safe.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting how many people in my bridge club love jigsaw puzzles. They always have a difficult one spread out on a table, and people head over there between hands to see if they can add a piece or two. I think bridge is like a puzzle and appeals to the same part of the brain.


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