Issue 54

Solving Puzzles


                Is it rational to hate a piece of metal?

                I’ve got to put this puzzle down.  I’ve had it for months and while I’m no closer to solving it, I have considered using the jigsaw down in the garage to cut the sucker open.

                Puzzles are one of my secret addictions, although like most secret addictions, it is hardly secret from my family and friends.  When one of my friends get mad at me, it is a simple enough revenge to buy me a new puzzle “because I was thinking of you.”  You might think they’d take the answer sheet out of the box, but they know I won’t peek.  A puzzle solved by looking at the answer is the most unsatisfying victory I know.  So they leave the answer in the box to torture me, because I know it’s there and I won’t let myself use it.

                “Have you seen this one?” my friend Glenn said to me the last time we got together.  He had left the puzzle out on his desk, I know he did, just waiting for me to ask what it was.  He held the simple metal structure in his hand.  Then, making sure I could see everything clearly, he slowly took the puzzle apart.  Easy.

                As I stare at the unsolved puzzle on my desk, I wonder what I did to piss Glenn off so bad.

                I have to say that as far as addictions go, I could have picked much worse.  Some addictions drain all your money.  Some permanently change your personality.  Some completely destroy your life.  One nice thing about puzzles is that the high from a fifteen dollar puzzle can last for weeks.  In the meantime, I get to hone my analytic skills, skills which are useful, say, when tax season comes around.  And as for destroying my life, well, I would have to say that my quality of life has actually improved because of my addiction.

                Case in point: my son Skylar is just on the verge of walking, which means he can get anywhere in the house.  Already he can drag the kitchen step stool over to the counter and climb up on the stove.  He is capable of knocking books and precious knick-knacks down from the fourth shelf.  And he is clever.  The child-proof cabinet locks slow me down more than they do him.  He understands how to unplug the vacuum.  And he is able to pop open every compartment on my computer printer.

                The world is like a giant puzzle to Skylar.  He looks at a problem, like figuring out where the paper that spits out the front of the printer comes from, as a delicious and mission-critical challenge.  And this is where my addiction comes into play.  Puzzles.  I understand puzzles. With my printer, for example, there’s nothing like a few rubber bands to increase the challenge of opening up the paper bin to Master Class.

                At first whenever I change something, Skylar gets upset and frustrated.  The paper bin doesn’t open anymore and he can’t toss paper everywhere.  So he crawls away to do something else.  But I can see him looking back at that printer, oblivious to whatever he is currently sucking on.  His brain is working on the problem.  And whenever I’m not looking he relentlessly crawls over to the printer and takes another stab at it.  He has become obsessed with the challenge.

                One of the greatest challenges for me as a puzzle addict is in not helping my son.  I understand the secrets to puzzles like opening the dishwasher or unlocking the china cabinet.  But watching him struggle, like with the rubber bands on the printer, makes it so hard to sat back and not just show him how to do it.  I know I’m one who put the rubber bands on in the first place, but I do so want my son to succeed.

                But I also know that showing Skylar how to solve every problem he faces will eventually cost him dearly.  For life isn’t about knowing the secret to a particular puzzle.  Anyone can be taught a puzzle’s secret.  No, life is about the solving, about facing a challenge I don’t know the answer to and sticking to it until I figure it out.  If I give Skylar all the answers, then he’ll be good at learning answers and repeating them.  But what happens the day he encounters a puzzle he’s never seen before and there’s no one there to give him the answer?

                I suspect you expect this story to end with Skylar solving the puzzle that has me stumped.  Certainly he’s tried to get at it, to give it a crack himself, but I don’t want his help. Sometimes solving a puzzle with another person is enjoyable, but this puzzle has become personal.

                I can’t bear it any longer.  I pick up the frustrating but irresistible chunk of metal and give it another try.


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