Note: This was written for ChicagoNow’s BlogapoloozHour. It’s a monthly exercise where we’re given a topic and one hour to write about it. Tonight’s task: Write about something you learned or experienced since you woke up this morning.
I told a friend I was working on a Christmas puzzle and she said, “Ohhh, those are good for keeping your mind sharp”. I’d never really thought of a puzzle as something utilitarian until then, but I’d been thinking about it recently and today I revisited that idea after working on a puzzle a little bit this morning and noticing with my slight hangover I wasn’t doing very well.
On my latest puzzle I did the border already ( I always do those first, a habit I learned from my mother) and then I finished building the subject (for lack of a better word) of the puzzle. Since the subject is relatively tall and is wearing a green bathrobe, one could argue he’s the easiest part of the puzzle to finish, and I think that’s why I started with him. His robe is a shade of green that makes it very easy to immediately identify all of the pieces that make him, and since he’s sorta tall, he takes up a lot of pieces, so it was nice to get him out of the way early. I used up all the bright green pieces (the other green pieces are for the Christmas tree, which I’ll do last) and finished the guy and was feeling good that I got him out of the way.
After completing him I didn’t know what part of the puzzle to do next. The Christmas tree is gonna be a pain in the butt because it’s huge and had a ton of candles on it, and it’s gonna be monotonous. The wall, ceiling and fireplace mantle ought to be kind of a chore too as a lot of those pieces are monochromatic, and not particularly fun or easy to do. I figured the logical choice was to finish Santa next. He’s big and in the foreground, and once he’s finished I’ll be roughly a third of the way done, and I’ll be able to get rid of all of the red and fluffy-white-looking pieces.
Once I decided to work on Santa I started hunting and gathering all the aforementioned red and fluffy-white-looking pieces and put them into a surprisingly large pile. All the pieces looked the same- red with a little shading to let you know that part of Santa’s outfit was bent, and then some white fur trim. Looking at each piece individually it was difficult to ascertain whether it was Santa’s sleeve, legs or a front panel on his suit.
When I started complaining to myself about the apparent indistinguishably (turns out that’s actually a word, who knew?) of the Santa pieces I realized why doing puzzles was good for me: I’m resistant to change and moving on with things. It’s not that I don’t enjoy trying new things, I definitely do, but if there’s too much uncertainty with a new endeavor, I’d rather just sit it out. I’ve never particularly great at starting something new where I have no clue where it will take me.
If I’m not 98% sure I’ll enjoy a book or a movie, I won’t check them out. I’ve read half of dozens of books only to put them down and never pick them up again. To most readers, that would be admitting defeat. Not to me, though. Every time I do that, I think to myself, “See! I thought I wouldn’t like that book and I was right! Good thing you quit reading it before it took up more of your time! Quitting in the middle of things is a great idea because it saves you from the doldrums of actually completing a task! Now think of all the things you can do other than read this book. This policy of quitting the second you’re not 100% positive you love it really is genius.”
Except for when it’s not. If I get invited to an event that sounds ok, but I’m just not sure what it’s gonna be like, I’m likely to find an excuse why I can’t go. As a firm believer in the maxim, “You regret the things in life you DON’T do”, these to philosophies can be at odds with one another. I’ve turned down very generous invitations from friends to have holiday meals with their families, or to spend time with their new significant others, and turned them down for no good reason at all. I just “wasn’t sure”, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what “wasn’t sure” even means.
But puzzles don’t let me get away with that sclerotic thinking. Yes, I was unsure about how easy it would be to assemble Santa but I did the puzzle last year, and I know puzzles aren’t all that hard. They’re just a function of time. All the pieces are there and the puzzle is intended to be do-able anyway. It’s not that it’s difficult, it’s just that it wasn’t super easy so I felt trepidation about starting it.
Earlier in the puzzle, right after I finished the border, I remember not wanting to start assembling our main subject in the green robe. “This was a pain in the butt last year. I couldn’t tell which direction these white stripes were going, I remember. Look at all these stupid green pieces all looking the exact same. Good lord. Well, I guess we’ll just get this over with….” I remember thinking.
But after I finished him, I realized I liked it. It was easy, all the shades of green were the same, so I knew just which pieces went to him. I realized I didn’t wanna move on from him because he was fun to do and his pieces “made sense”- with the color uniformity and all that. When I’d get frustrated with my constructing of Santa, I found myself looking back at the guy in the robe and wistfully think, “Is this guy 100% done? Maybe I missed a tiny piece of his shoulder or hat or something. If there is a piece of him missing, it will be super easy to find since it will be the only green piece left. Oh he is 100% done. Nothing more left to do with him. Ok then, I guess I really do need to keep working on Santa then. Ok, let’s get this over with I guess….”
Then I finished Santa and was hesitant to move on to my next challenge because Santa made so much sense and was easy. Those thoughts felt oddly familiar.
Puzzles are good for me because even though I don’t like the uncertainty of all the multiple little challenges in each puzzle, I know there is a greater overall order to the puzzle and I’m gonna be fine. It may get frustrating or seem stupid at some point, but eventually I’ll figure it out and get good at it until it’s done and time to move on to the next challenge that I’m going to be afraid of for no good reason. I never finish a portion and think, “That was shockingly difficult. I can’t believe I did it. I’m not doing this puzzle again.” It’s always the opposite, “That wasn’t so bad. In fact, it made a lot of sense and I bet I could take all the pieces apart and do it over again in 2 minutes, max”.
I think that’s a lot like life. Most people were a little nervous about starting middle school, but by the middle of 6th grade you get the hang of it. In 7th grade, you’re an old pro and you start to figure out how to game the system a little bit. You’re just better at being a middle schooler. Then when 8th grade rolls around you’re a savvy veteran, and you just want to enjoy your last year in middle school before you get thrown to high school wolves- where you’ll repeat the same process of nervousness, acceptance, comfort, budding sophistication, full-on mastery, getting nostalgic because time’s running out, and then finally, moving on to the next thing.
In a life where change is the only constant, it makes a lot of sense to be good at changing.