Tag Archive | whimsy

Evolution of a Jigsaw Puzzle Addict

This essay first appeared in the Montrose Mirror in 2013. I’ve been addicted now for almost four years, and I still can’t wait to start the next one. 

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The challenging pepper puzzle in Ajo, $2.50 from Dollar General, starts my slide down the slippery slope from passing interest to obsession.

Jigsaw puzzles, I’ve heard, are good exercise for your brain. I hadn’t had much experience with them since I was a child, when I could get absorbed in them for hours at a time on vacation at Virginia Beach or in the Blue Ridge Mountains; in my adult life I haven’t considered them worth the time. But on a recent trip across the country they popped up everywhere. Admittedly, after the first two, they did not appear spontaneously; I sought them.

The night after I arrived at a friend’s house in Ajo, Arizona, she pulled out a dollar store jigsaw puzzle. Diagonally striped fields of many colored tulips converged at a windmill against a blue sky.

“If we finish this in…let’s say, two hours, we get a million dollars,” she announced to her sweetie and me. This was, for me, a new approach to solving a puzzle. I played along. It was something they liked to do for their own reasons, among them that this was her family tradition.

At first I wasn’t comfortable with it. I felt rushed, and distracted by my sense of incompetence, as she fitted sections together one after another and I sat there dazed by her alacrity. I couldn’t see as fast as she did, or I couldn’t discern the specific relationships among colors and shapes as quickly. Eventually, I let go of that resistance and settled into my own pace. After all, what did it matter? The two million was imaginary anyway. I was pretty sure I’d get another cocktail whether we made it in time or not.

The next day we agreed to start another puzzle on the condition that there be no deadline; we’d leave it up and drop in together or alone to work on it at our leisure. This was the tradition I grew up with. I ran out to Dollar General and spent seven dollars on five more puzzles to choose from. I told my aunt on the phone about my renewed interest in puzzles, and my bargain purchase.

“Mary Pat loaned me a puzzle that cost a hundred dollars,” she said. I was incredulous. “We can do it when you come.”

That evening in Ajo, we ceremoniously disassembled the Netherlands landscape. Before we took it apart, each of us said a few words of appreciation about the puzzle, and what it meant to us.

 

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Ritual disassembly of the Windmill puzzle.

“I’m grateful to this puzzle…” began my friend, and as she continued with heartfelt sentiments we began to giggle, then to chuckle. Our improvised tributes built one upon the other until, by the time the three of us had each had our say, we couldn’t stop laughing. We rocked in our chairs and doubled over, gasped and squeaked, tried to catch our breath and laughed again, practically wet our pants, in one of those exhilarating, exhausting fits of uncontrollable mirth that only happen when you’re completely at ease with your companions, or sometimes when you watch America’s Funniest Home Videos.

We cast secret votes to choose which puzzle to start next. I confess to voter fraud— I cast an extra ballot—I couldn’t choose between the peppers and the jellybeans. Both were 1000 pieces and looked devilishly challenging. The peppers won.

Three days later it was time for me to hit the road, and we weren’t halfway done. But we were having fun with it, and I could feel my brain getting in shape. I asked for photo updates as I drove across the continent to Virginia to visit my aunt.

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My first wooden jigsaw puzzle since I was six years old opened a new door to art and obsession.

The day after I arrived at Auntie’s, she produced the hundred dollar puzzle, a “Classic Wooden Jigsaw” from Liberty Puzzles, 506 pieces, and just over 12×18 inches. The image was appealing enough, an antique print of an American Express Train smoking through an imaginative landscape, but I couldn’t see the point of paying all that cash for a puzzle that small just because it was made of wood and came in a nice box with tissue paper.

As we started unpacking pieces and sorting out edges, I became enchanted. The pieces felt good, in the first place. Then, instead of the standard innie and outie pieces in a few basic shapes, we found intricate representations of couples dancing, cowboys on horseback, ballerinas, mermaids, shooting stars, bison, birds, pinwheels, horse-drawn carriages and more, and connecting pieces of complex curves and squiggles; every piece was unique.

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Whimsy pieces include starbursts, people, animals and other recognizable things, often related to the puzzle image.

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A whole new aesthetic world had just opened its door. I looked on Amazon, just out of curiosity, to see what wooden puzzles I could find. I never intended to buy one. But when I found a print of hummingbirds (actual, astonishing, and some extinct) by Ernst Haeckel, the nineteenth century polymath who coined the phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” I succumbed despite the price tag. I know this puzzle will be assembled many times by many friends, and more than pay for itself in entertainment value.

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Liberty Puzzles arrive prettily packed and continue to please from there.

The big day arrived! We saved the puzzle til happy hour, then sorted the edges. There weren’t enough edges! Amazingly, there weren’t even any corner pieces. We had advanced to another level of challenge. Auntie held up the box top, with its small image, and said, “Take a good look.” Then she whisked it away. What! This was the tradition of her friend
Seymour, who let you have one long look at the box top then took it away for good. I put my foot down.

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Edge pieces don’t look like edges, and corners don’t look like corners. More than one puzzle to this puzzle.

With this puzzle, my brain really kicked in. We had it close to complete before we could even finish the edge; many edge pieces simply came to a point between two others. We reveled in the assembly every spare minute for three and a half days. We were building art. The last night we worked til we were falling over sleepy. We didn’t want to finish, yet we couldn’t stop. As you get close to the end of any jigsaw puzzle, pieces find their places faster, the tempo picks up; we forced ourselves to quit til morning. Then, sleepy-headed in pajamas, we dove back in and finished. The satisfaction of completion only slightly outweighed the longing for another wooden puzzle.

I looked up Liberty Puzzles online, and found a small business in Boulder, Colorado, that offers hundreds of wooden puzzles, with hand-drawn whimsy pieces and puzzle-cut patterns. For a little more money, you can get your own image turned into a custom puzzle. (Uh-oh.) From their website:

“Before the advent of cardboard puzzles, almost all jigsaw puzzles were made of real wood and cut by hand. The United States has seen two prolonged jigsaw puzzle crazes, one in the early 1900s, and the next in the late 1920s and early 30s during the Great Depression. Jigsaw puzzle collectors prize old wooden jigsaw puzzles for their intricacy, craftsmanship, and the “heft” of the pieces. For the serious jigsaw puzzler, there is nothing quite as satisfying as plunking a wooden piece into place.”

And it’s true. Searching the table for a particular color and shape, then finding one that doesn’t look anything like you expected, and dropping it into the perfect spot, does feel pretty great.

Also from the website: “Traditionally, jigsaw puzzles came without a picture of the puzzle image on the box. Most simply had a title to tease the puzzler about what the image could possibly be.” I guess Seymour was on to something. Liberty offers customers the option of no image on the box.

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Artist/naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s print becomes a stunning, difficult, and gratifying puzzle.

Of all the adventures I anticipated in crossing the continent, developing a jigsaw puzzle obsession was not one of them. Yet it has been one of the more gratifying results of this journey. I’ve broadened my horizons, learning different styles of puzzles and puzzle doing; I’ve resurrected the pleasure of conversing and laughing over a puzzle with dear friends and family. Collaborating on puzzles has not only sharpened my brain, it’s also helped me to cultivate generosity and patience. I can’t wait to start the next one.

 

Puzzling Proverbial Politics

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It doesn’t matter what the puzzle is: clicking that last piece into any wooden jigsaw puzzle is supremely gratifying.

Puzzle season is upon us! We are trading them amongst ourselves as we did last winter, and emailing each other images of which one we might buy this year. In our informal club each household seems willing to contribute one puzzle per winter. I borrowed this one from a friend none of us suspected had puzzles. “Netherlandish Proverbs,” a 16th century oil-on-oak painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder, depicts Dutch proverbs of the time.

Artifact Puzzles includes a key to 60 of the sayings, several of which (To cast pearls before swine) are familiar to me, and many brand new to me seem particularly relevant to our times, like To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ.

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Pieter Breughel’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” as rendered by Artifact Puzzles. The painting is 400 years older than I am. The proverbs… timeless.

Our favored wooden jigsaw puzzle maker is Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, but Artifact will do in a pinch. I’ve only done two, and I don’t like them as well because they have fewer whimsy pieces, and the cut of their pieces isn’t as intricate or interesting.

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Whimsy pieces in the two Artifact puzzles I’ve done are both fewer and less intricate than in Liberty puzzles.

Liberty puzzles trick you on the edges; Artifact puzzles differ in the nature of the deceit. While  all of the edge pieces look like edge pieces, there were at least seven corner pieces in this puzzle, and numerous flat-edged pieces that are not edges, that abut each other various places in the center of the puzzle.

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The painting’s original title was “The Blue Cloak,” from the proverb “She puts the blue cloak on her husband,” meaning she deceives him. Notice the three pieces in the upper right, where one seeming-corner meets two seeming-edge pieces. This particular trickery seems unique to the Artifact brand.

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“To carry the day out in baskets” means to waste one’s time, as some might think I am, doing these puzzles.

Last winter I sat at my table on a cold afternoon and a neighbor crept inside the front door without knocking, without calling first, without the dogs noticing his arrival. In the second after we all heard the front door squeak, they crashed open the door to the mudroom nearly smashing it into his face. “What are you up to?” he asked, then peered over my shoulder. “You’ve got too much time on your hands,” he said. I was alarmed by his entry and annoyed by his judgement.

These wooden jigsaw puzzles are a meditation for me. The mental agility required to assemble them gives several aspects of my brain good exercise, pattern recognition, color discernment, and memory top among them. Then the image itself offers another layer of awareness: is it a classic painting, like this one, or a Hiroshige waterfall? Or is it a contemporary image, is it an antique print (and of what? butterflies, or a historic locomotive?), does it conform to a rectangular shape or take the organic shape of a jaguar; and what thoughts does that image stir, what feelings, both when I first see it, and as I move through the pieces over time? There is never nothing to think about when working one of these beautiful puzzles, each a work of art in its own right.

And it affords, above all, the gift of concentration. For while my mind may roam pondering proverbs, or mulling mythology while assembling a mermaid, or considering the effects of climate change on the Netherlands, or the plight of jaguars; while a memory may be sparked by a porpoise-shaped whimsy piece or a prairie dog (or is that a meerkat?), the rest of the world falls away. The mind is given the exercise it loves, and the spirit is free to to untether and rest beyond thought, observing the layers the mind plies while it fits together cleverly cut pieces of wood and color.

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“To tie a flaxen beard to the face of Christ” meaning to hide deceit with Christian piety. The proverb feels relevant to our current situation on several levels. Beyond the obvious, it tells us that 16th century Christians clearly did not see Jesus as a blond man, touching off in me thoughts about racism, xenophobia, and hypocrisy. 

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Five proverbs listed on the puzzle key are represented here, and at least one more discerned only from researching the painting online.

The central proverb in this image is To be unable to see the sun shine on the water, meaning to be jealous of another’s success. The fellow above is throwing money into water, i.e., wasting it. To his left, the bottoms poking out a hole in the planks represent a couple of proverbs, one stated on the puzzle key, It hangs like a privy over a ditch: it is obvious; and one uncovered hereThey both crap through the same hole, meaning they are inseparable comrades. Heehee! Under the privy (and the money) is Big fish eat little fish, meaning that whatever people say will be put in perspective according to their level of importance, or “Those in power have the power.” This makes me squirm a little as I consider the looming transfer of power in Our Nation’s Capital. Add to that the crumbling brick wall, A wall with cracks will soon collapse, or Anything poorly managed will soon fail…

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“To have the roof tiled with tarts” meaning to be very wealthy. Perhaps soon the White House will be tiled with tarts. Hmmm. At whose expense?

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While doing the puzzle, I noticed a few images not identified on the key, like this fellow kneeling at a fire, so I looked up the painting online. The central proverb here is “To not care whose house is on fire as long as one can warm oneself at the blaze,” meaning to take every opportunity regardless of the consequences to others. Hmmm. 

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Like the above man at fire, the fellow “sitting on hot coals” wasn’t in the key either. He is being impatient. Above him is one “catching fish without a net,” meaning he profits from the work of others. 

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“To bang one’s head against a brick wall.” We all know what that means!

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The details of expression in the painting are particularly well captured with this poor, morose boy. “He who has spilt his porridge cannot scrape it all up again,” or as I learned it, don’t cry over spilled milk: what’s done cannot be undone.

“Netherlandish Proverbs” was a fast, fun and thought-provoking puzzle, however burdened with nincompoops. I’m glad to have passed it on. I look forward to the beauty, surprise, and complexity of the next puzzle, next year, something bright and wild and full of life.