starts out like a dream. You're wandering through an old house, somehow
familiar yet larger than any house you've ever seen — one room leading
to another, trap doors, secret passages. Or you're in the woods and someone
is chasing you and you run and run and stumble and then you start to fly.
Or you just can't think about that research project for another minute
— you're thinking about it too much. Why did you say, "Yes, of course"
to a market research project on mayonnaise consumption in Argentina? You
are such a fraud. And the next thing you know you're digging through the
hall closet looking for jigsaw puzzles.
The first step
is the hardest. Have I done this puzzle before? Does it matter? Even if
I've done it, I won't put it together any faster the second time. No. Be
sure. Look at the box. Yes, I remember now. The bridge was the easiest
part, then the buildings. . . I remember looking for the tiny faces at
the cafe, I remember that each of the parked cars were almost one puzzle
piece. I remember there was one piece at the edge with a tiny straight
edge and I didn't find it until the very end. No. Do a new one.
Okay. Here's what's
important: Do I want to look at this picture for 3 days or a week?
Now the ultimate
act of faith. Dump the puzzle out on the table. There won't be any rewards
for a long time. You're in this for the long haul. Here's the plan:
Separate all the
straight edges from the rest of the pieces. (This is boring, why am I doing
this? This is going to take forever.) Turn on some music. Get a cup of
coffee. Sit down again and go through the rest of the dusty pile.
An hour passes.
Puzzle pieces everywhere. (Man! There's a lot of them.) How many pieces?
A thousand. The box says "1,000 pieces." It's okay, it's okay, you've done
thousand piece puzzles before. (Should I count them? What if a piece is
missing?) That's crazy, the puzzle is new, the box was sealed...how long
would it take you to count them all? Besides, once they're counted you're
no closer to finishing. Stop worrying about how many pieces there are and
finish that big pile, look for more straight edges.
That's all the
straight edges. (Doesn't look like enough. Should I go through the big
pile again?) No. Look. There are cobblestones, that has to be the bottom
edge. Just put all the cobblestone pieces together. Oh, there's a corner.
There's another one, and another! We're really moving now. Maybe I'll be
done in record time?
(What if I could
get this whole thing done this afternoon? That would have to be some kind
of world record! No one will believe it. I could go on the puzzle circuit.
I read an article once about people who do puzzles competitively. If I
can finish this afternoon I could qualify. I wonder how you get on the
puzzle circuit? How much money could you win? What a great way to earn
a living — especially when you're as fast as I am. Yes, I am really good
What about the
last corner? It's not here. Look again. It's not here!!! Go through the
big pile and look for it? If you missed a corner, which, after all, has
not one but TWO straight edges, what else did you miss? You're just not
paying attention. You think you're paying attention but you're not. If
you're not paying attention, you'll have to do everything twice.
(Why am I doing
this? I can't do this. I've never been able to do puzzles. Look at all
that blue. That's all sky, too much sky.) You won't be able to do the sky,
there's too much of it. If you can't do the sky, then you can't finish
the puzzle. You'll get it halfway done and then quit. Do you want to spend
all this time only to fail? (This is too hard.)
(Why am I doing
this anyway, I have work to do. I'm sick of work. I need a break. Well,
what about a walk?) Or you could wash the kitchen floor, take those clothes
to the dry cleaner, weed the garden. (Maybe I should? Oh look, there's
the doorway and the arch. Do they fit together?)
Is there more doorway?
Look, there's a window to the left and a flower basket above — are any
of those pieces here? No, they must be in the big pile. Let's look through
the big pile and see.
No, no, no. Just
put that doorway over there and keep working on the edge.
(I don't want to
work on the edge. I already did the easy part: see? There's about 7 inches
of cobblestone. But there aren't any more cobblestone pieces...what's next?
I won't be able to even finish the edge. This puzzle is hard.)
Okay, calm down.
Get another cup of coffee. Wait, maybe tea is better. Now just sit and
look at the box. (I already saw the box.) No, look at it again. (Why am
I looking at it? This is stupid, a waste of time. Remember that scene in
Kane? Marion Davies in that big mansion, bored out of her mind, doing
one puzzle after another?) Are you THAT bored?
No, really LOOK
at the box.
Over by the left
edge there's a big area of shadow and a little pool of light from the window.
The pool of light is about 3 inches from the corner. Are there any dark
pieces in the edge pile? Pull them all over here. Look at the pieces. Some
are real dark and some are lighter. Try the lighter pieces together. Here
and here and here — wow! Now you're moving again. And the darker pieces?
Those go to the right: BAM!
Do they hook up?
This way? No, this way.
(Hey! The bottom
edge is done. I got the bottom edge done!!! Let's compare it to the box.
Yes. Perfect. See that little line there? That's where the second door
is. Is that little thing a foot? Looks like there's a person about 5 inches
from the right, that must be his foot. I bet I can find that piece if I
look through the big pile real quick.)
Okay, while you're
looking for that piece, separate out all the sky...you can put those back
in the box and ignore them 'til later.
(How long have
I been here? No way I have been sitting here for 3 hours. Better stop now
and start making dinner and return some phone calls. Yes, I'll stop now
and come back and work on this tomorrow. Is that the flower basket? And
that must be the window above the flower basket. SNAP! Can I connect it
to the door? YES!!! There's some leftover soup in the refrigerator. It'll
only take a minute to heat that up. Just a little longer, I'll just do
this a little longer.)
I love puzzles.
I hate puzzles. Mayonnaise, here I come!
Thoughts on the Lessons of the Puzzle
(Or What to
Say When You're Caught Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle When You're Supposed to Be
Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective.
Basic Books, 1995, p. 110.
takes [the] untrained, everyday mind as its natural starting point, and
it requires the development of one particular attentional posture — of
naked, or bare, attention. Defined as 'the clear and single-minded awareness
of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of attention,'
bare attention takes this unexamined mind and opens it up, not by trying
to change anything but by observing the mind, emotions, and body the way
they are. . . This is what is meant by bare attention: just the bare facts,
an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen
for the first time, distinguishing any reactions from the core event."
Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life,
Basic Books, 1998, p. 30.
to occur when a person's skills are fully engaged in overcoming a challenge
that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine
balance between one's ability to act, and the available opportunities for
action. If the challenges are too high, one gets frustrated, then worried,
and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one's skills
one gets relaxed, then bored. If both challenges and skills are perceived
to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched
with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary
life is likely to occur."
Wallace, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Poems by Wallace
Stevens. Vintage Books, 1959, p. 12 [http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/stevens-13ways.html].
The only moving
Was the eye
of the blackbird.
Gary. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, The MIT Press,
1998, pp. 141-2.
"There are two
primary sources of power for individual decision making and problem solving:
provides us with a sense of reasonable goals and their attributes. It gives
us a basis for detecting anomalies and treating them with appropriate seriousness.
It helps us to notice opportunities and leverage points, discover relevant
analogues, and get a sense of how solvable a problem is. The judgment of
solvability is also responsible for letting us recognize when we are unlikely
to make more progress and that it is time to stop.
(the power of intuition)
is the engine for diagnosing the causes of the problem, along with their
trends. It plays a role in coalescing fragmentary actions to find a way
to put them together."
Marvin. "Negative Expertise," International Journal of Expert Systems,
1994, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 13-19 [http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/minsky/papers/NegExp.mss.txt].
"We spend our
lives at learning things, yet always find exceptions and mistakes. Certainty
seems always out of reach. Except in worlds we invent for ourselves (such
as formal systems of logic and mathematics) we can never be sure our assumptions
are right, and must expect eventually to make mistakes and entertain inconsistencies.
To keep from being paralyzed, we have to take some risks. But we can reduce
the chances of accidents by accumulating two complementary types of knowledge:
"We search for
'islands of consistency' within which commonsense reasoning seems safe.
"We also work
to find and mark the unsafe boundaries of those islands."
Free online jigsaw
puzzles (no software to download). Puzzles range from 6 pieces to 247 pieces.
Interesting puzzle shapes compensate for the limitations of the interface:
All puzzle pieces are presented in correct orientation. Puzzles are timed
and, should your frustration reach its limit, you can ask the puzzle to
solve itself while you watch. Turn on your speakers for a very satisfying
clicking sound when you make a match. You may never play solitaire again.
Mort's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.