bad at puzzles.

I did jigsaw puzzles with my niece last week. We have different strategies for puzzles. Did you know that there were strategies? If not, you don't do a lot of puzzles.

Both our strategies, as all correct puzzle strategies do, start with the edge pieces. That was easily done, because these particular puzzles had been given to her by her grandmother, who always separated the edge pieces out into a little plastic baggy after finishing a puzzle. After we finished the edges, I dumped out the rest of the bag and started turning them all face up. This was how I was instructed to do puzzles when I was five by my brother Knocker, to whom most everything has a strategy. However, this was not part of Sarah's strategy, because she despaired that I had just dumped 300 minus 66 pieces onto the table. She said that seeing so many pieces overwhelmed her, and she preferred to get small handfuls out one at a time, putting things in place as she went.

Sarah's strategy is stupid not ideal, because if there are 66 edge pieces, then there are only 54 pieces that connect to one of those edge pieces, and they could be anywhere in the bag. Also, Sarah does not look at the picture, which seems akin to not accepting free ice cream. Me, I look at the picture of the completed puzzle and pick out areas of distinct colors or patterns. Then I find those pieces and I assemble that area. There, one whole section done. I also look for borders, places where two colors or patterns meet. If you pick out the pieces that are partially one color and partially another, you can connect them and form a frame for another small area, just like you did when you put together the edge pieces first. I put together smaller sections within the greater puzzle, and then fill in the spaces between with what is left. Divide and ca-zonquer.

So self-indulgent is this blog that I have just written out my personal strategy for doing jigsaw puzzles. Some of you thought it was interesting.

I don't know if most people even have puzzle strategies. A lot of people seem to be running around without ever using strategies for anything, which seems foolhardy, maybe even dangerous. But they seem to get by, although I don't know how those people put together puzzles. Like word searches, it is an activity that begs for methodology. Maybe those people don't enjoy methodology and therefore don't enjoy puzzles. They probably would choose an afternoon of cliff-diving rather than sitting down with a nice segmented picture of kittens in a basket of colorful yarn. Those people may feel free to use my puzzle strategy the next time they spend a rainy afternoon with their grandmother. If she is anything like mine, she will cherish the time spent together and be sure to mention how good you are at puzzles the next three times she sees you and also in your birthday card.

I am not like those people, but I've always liked puzzles. I have one of an Intel chip hanging above my desk, framed and held together by puzzle glue. It may just be the dorkiest puzzle in the history of both dorkdom and puzzleness. And I have a puzzle of myself at ten years old, holding my favorite cat, given to me by my brother Sid. It's one of my favorite gifts ever. When I had to bring a gift to be given away in the class Christmas drawing, my mom would go pick out a puzzle, because she too assumed that everyone likes puzzles. I probably had a reputation for being a crappy gift-giver.

I have only a little experience with paired puzzle-solving. When I was little, I used to have to tag along with my dad sometimes in the summers because I was too little to stay home alone and there were no convenient relatives to dump me on. Once, at the community college where he worked, I was in the library, where a huge 1000 or so piece jigsaw puzzle was sitting half-completed on a coffee table. Another little girl about my age was working on it, and I sat down on the floor to join her.

This little girl was a stranger to me, yet after only a few minutes, I knew at least one thing about her, and it was that she was not good at puzzles. I wasn't even aware that putting together puzzles was something you could be bad at. Obviously, some people are good at it, and they finish puzzles quickly. But it would not have occurred to me that anyone could possibly be bad at it. Maybe you were slow, but as long as you kept at it, you'd finish in the end. As long as the graph of puzzle progress approached the completion line as time approached infinity, no one could say that you were bad at puzzles.

I was wrong. This girl was just...bad at it. She couldn't seem to fit in any pieces. She thought she did, but anyone could see that she was mistaken, because the piece that she jammed in there did not quite fit in the hole, stuck up slightly, and was not quite the same color as the pieces immediately around it. Her graph of puzzle progress approached zero. In case you didn't know it either, let me share the lesson I learned at ten: it is possible to be bad at puzzles. Not just slow, but actually failing.

Let's break this scene down into two parts: me and the other little girl.

First, me. I was seriously confused about the other little girl's failure at puzzles. They came easily to me, and at that age, I not only assumed that everything that was easy for me was easy for everyone else, but also that everything was and always would be easy for me (ah, youth!). I was impatient with her, because not only was she not helping us get closer to glorious puzzle completion ecstasy, she was actually taking us backwards.

But hey! Guess what! Unlike many other stories on this here website, I'm going to report that I was not a jerk. Despite my interal frustration, I was patient and nice to her. When she proudly pointed out a piece that she managed to strong-arm into the too-small hole of another piece that was a different shade of gray, I congratulated her. When what I wanted to do was to rip that piece out and maybe make her eat it, asking whether she was trying to piss me off. It's refreshing to look back and not have to be ashamed of oneself. In my mind, the adult me stands next to the little girls doing the puzzle and pats the little girl me on the head, beaming, because she knew that being a good person was more important than finishing the puzzle. I have to relearn that lesson in some form or another several times a year.

Confession: I think that little girl me thought the other girl was retarded. Not slang retarded, not like "retarded" the way a stupid-looking hat is retarded, but actually mentally disabled. So I was nice to her, because you should always be nice to retarded people. Was there any other indication that she was at all developmentally delayed? No. She was just bad at puzzles. Adult me is sighing now, struggling not to pop little girl me on the back of the head before settling for a slightly heavy-handed hair-tousling. By accident, and sheer force of arrogance, I managed to be an okay human being. Surely this is cause for celebration.

And now to consider her. Never until this day, until the act of writing this very entry, have I ever pondered what the other little girl might have been feeling. Did she know that she was bad at puzzles? Was her futile effort to force pieces an act of desperation to contribute to the shared goal? Was she nervous about meeting a girl her age who also had a rural community college library for a baby-sitter? Is there another way to use the jammed gray piece as a metaphor for the sad and lonely life that I assume she had because of her lack of puzzle skills? Is she now working as a professional cliff diver?

Of course, I have no idea at all, because she played a bit part in a scene in my life that would not make the thrilling movie version. If I met her again, I wouldn't even know it (unless she happened to start reading the blog, found this entry and recognized the incident, and then promptly unfriended me, preferring to hang out with her other cliff diver friends anyway). I don't even have a tidy conclusion here to act as the moral of this ridiculous jigsaw puzzle fable. But I hope you learned something today, be it a useful puzzle strategy, the fact that I consider moments when I accidentally was not a jerk a reason to rejoice, or that people can be bad at puzzles and they probably don't even care.

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