Family time is puzzling


I love any kind of game that you can play at a table. My eyes light up if anyone suggests a game of Clue and I have many cherished memories of playing games around the table as a kid, particularly a time at a rented beach house learning to play the card game hearts. 

But my fondness for games is gentle, a warm breeze that comes only in certain conditions that usually involve the wifi failing. Lately, others in the family have become interested in some new board games, which are pretty cool. I didn’t know there were games where you play collectively, instead of against one another. There’s one called Pandemic where all players work as a team to prevent the spread of a deadly disease around the world. Those games are fun, but sometimes hard to get the knack of for everyone in the famlily. There’s one thing we can all do, and spend time together in various pairs or groups and feel the sense of accomplishment (hopefully): puzzles.

We’re on our second many-hundreds-of-pieces puzzle right now. I kind of like looking over at our often unused dining room table and seeing a work in progress. 

Puzzles are weird. Everytime I sit down to work on a puzzle, I ride a waves of optimism and pessimism and usually leave because I’ve given up. It goes something like this

Phase one: The unboxing

At this point, the world is new and everything is coming up roses, or fireworks lit by Mickey Mouse in front of the Washington Monument, as our latest depicts. The glue holding the box together is proof that we will be successful, the plastic bag around the pieces further proves that right now, we have all of the pieces. We can do this!

Phase two: strategy

Here’s where your co-puzzlers come in. We usually start with finding the flat-edged pieces that will make the outside edges of the puzzle. There’s always a rogue actor in there, distracted by the red of a sparkling firework or the distinct shape of a mouse ear, say. They will not be sorting methodically by shape but will take what looks shiny and exciting. They also always seem to get the first two puzzle pieces together. Because that’s cheating!

Phase three: it’s all a cosmic joke

After some time, the pieces all start to look alike. That’s because they are all alike. There are huge monochromatic swaths to complete. And how many different types of puzzle piece could they manufacture? It always seems like there are so many with two tabs sticking out and none with any indents in which to put those tabs. It all starts to make one feel a little mad. Sometimes at this point my Apple watch tells me to breathe.

Phase four: Come together, right now

Maybe a little meditation is the answer. There ARE pieces with blanks to fill! They were just being eaten by the cat or traveling on the bottom of my slipper! Once that’s all straightened out, things start coming together. The pieces are reunited! And it feels good! It’s during these positively charged phases that conclusions about one’s own intellect, and the intellect of one’s progeny. It’s natural to see that your family works well together, and are really the people to take on any of the worlds problems

Phase five: except this problem

The honeymoon is always too short. An area of sky or part of a pond seems insrutable. There are just too many pieces that seem to fit into that spit which simply don’t connect. Here’s where the puzzle is really teaching you. That black line you were sure was a dog whisker is actually daisy duck’s eyelash. You were putting your perspective into to rigid a box. An excellent cure for this phase is to take abreak from the puzzle

Phase six: the final count down.

Once a few such problem areas are starting to resolve, it becomes so easy. Too easy. The end is near and that will mean there won’t be a reason to sit together at the dining room table. Or worse, you’ll have to start again from scratch! But all good things must come to an end. We only squabble a little these days over who gets to put in the last piece, but in it goes. We look at it. Marvel that there really wasn’t a piece missing as we’d all sworn many times during the process. We pause. Maybe take a picture (or not). And then we break it all apart, back to it’s original state. It feels like a defiant act, one that reveals our rules were just suggestions, our own little Burning Man.

Then we open another puzzle.