Taking ‘Puzzle’ to heart

They say there’s nothing like hitting a good golf shot, and I suppose they’re right–though having never hit one, I wouldn’t really know.

Come to think of it, I have hit one good one I can remember, a birdie putt on a Par 3, and I think it’s because we smoked a joint on the way to the green. It was like I could see a path in bluish green curling 10 feet from the ball to the hole and I just stroked it along the guiding line.

I guess it’s the intense satisfaction we get, maybe instinctive, when achieving something requiring a refined skill, like sinking a putt, swishing a basketball into the net, kicking a soccer ball or driving a puck into a goal, pitching a ball into a catcher’s glove, hitting a target with a dart, bow-and-arrow or firearm.

Or even fitting that final piece into a jigsaw puzzle. I’m reflecting on this now after seeing Puzzle, the wonderful relationship/self-discovery movie about a repressed Connecticut housewife who finds herself after getting a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle gifted to her for her birthday. Played beautifully by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire fame, Agnes then visits the puzzle shop in New York City where it was bought and answers a plea posted at the counter for a playing partner for a champion competitive puzzler (the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan).

The remainder of Puzzle—which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles–deals with Agnes’s relationships with Robert (the Khan character), her family, and the puzzles that take her out of her safe but stultifying life via the self-awareness, expression, exploration, fulfillment and empowerment she gains from them, much as one gains from any artistic or enriching diversion. Of course in her case, it also leads to a lot of painful confusion, such that at a pivotal point of self-realization, Agnes demeans it—and by extension, herself and Robert–by calling puzzling “a childish hobby for bored people.”

No, says Robert, “It’s a way to control the chaos. Life is messy, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you: Life is random—there’s nothing you can do to control anything…but when you finish a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices.” Even after making many mistakes along the way, “at the very end, everything makes one perfect picture.”

I used to love jigsaw puzzles as a kid. We had a big dining room table that was perfect for assembling them. Now, when I go to the annual Toy Fair trade show at the Javits Center in February, I always make a point of dropping by the puzzle suppliers.

Of course, there have been big changes in jigsaw puzzles in the last 40-some years since I’d worked on one, though basic ones are still the same—lots of little cardboard pieces in a box. But 4D Cityscape, for instance, makes these great three-dimensional puzzle maps of famous cities, where you locate and place key buildings on the maps. Nervous System, whose booth I visited in May at the ICFF furniture fair at Javits, showed its new Geode Puzzle: a jigsaw puzzle inspired by the formation of colorfully banded stone agates created by a generative computer design process that mimics nature in each unique puzzle’s variations in shape, pieces and image.

Ravensburger is one of the biggest puzzle players at Toy Fair, and a few years ago they showed an immense 32,256-piece (!!!) puzzle entitled New York City and featuring a panoramic view of Manhattan, from the top of Rockefeller Center, if I remember correctly. The pieces were packaged in eight separate bags altogether weighing 42 pounds and measuring 17 x 6-feet when completed, which at Toy Fair it was–and displayed in its own specially built room within the big Ravensburger exhibition area. Last time I checked, Amazon had one for $369.99 (and free shipping).

But at this year’s Toy Fair I became fascinated by White Mountain Puzzles, a company known among other things for its 1,000- and 500-piece “collage” jigsaw puzzles, new releases shown at Toy Fair including Things We Collect (everything from baseball cards to model trains and vinyl records), Betty Crocker Cookbooks and World War I Posters. They even have a “puzzle panel” of puzzle enthusiasts on Facebook and an email list, who submit ideas and participate in regular surveys to gauge the appeal of potential puzzle images.

A new series of White Mountain puzzles shown at Toy Fair was tagged “Seek & Find,” and using the example of the thousand-piece Retro Kitchen entry in the “Seek & Find” series, contained 22 “hidden” images in the puzzle that were not pictured on the box, that image depicting a well-stocked mid-20th century-themed kitchen in full party preparation mode (a list of the hidden elements–including a spatula and thermometer–was provided inside the box).

As these collage and “Seek & Find” puzzle examples suggest, many of White Mountain’s designs are nostalgia-related. They also have an “American Pop Culture” collage series, titles including Television Families (including the Flintstones, Beverly Hillbillies, Munsters, Simpsons and Bundys), Candy Wrappers (Cracker Jack, Mike & Ike, Sugar Babies, Jujubes), Fill Her Up—Old Service Stations (Texaco, Sinclair, Shell, Mobilgas) and Route 66 (vintage artwork of picturesque scenery along the historic highway).

But the American Pop Culture puzzle that caught my eye was The Sixties—my decade. Illustrated by artist James Mellett, the 1,000-piece, 24×30-inch collage had so many of my heroes, key events and cultural representations growing up: baseball card replicas of Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, a Green Bay Packers helmet, JFK, MLK, RFK, LBJ, Khruschev, Castro, The Beatles, Joplin, Jagger, Hendrix, Woodstock, drugs, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Rolling Stone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Flower Power, Black Power, a VW bug and hippie van, the moon landing. Oddly, I had a hard time with two of the bigger likenesses, of two of my bigger heroes: Muhammad Ali and Clint Eastwood.

So I wrote a little piece about White Mountain and sent it to Sean Minton, one of the company’s partners, whom I interviewed, asking him at the same time if he might send me the Sixties puzzle—along with a bottle of puzzle glue and a frame. The puzzle and glue arrived a few days later, but not the frame, so I figured maybe I’d asked for too much.

Now I live in a tiny studio apartment, filled to the brim with the detritus accumulated after 40 years of freelance journalism. In other words, I don’t have any space for a dining room table—let alone a dining room. The best I’d be able to do would be to clear some space on the floor for the puzzle assembly, but that would have to wait until the day came when I’d buy a frame, and that day was far away.

But to get a head start I did go on Amazon to see what price they had on frames, only to find a whole lot of other puzzle-related accessories I hadn’t even imagined.

Besides various frames and glues there were sorting trays, roll mats and other devices for carrying or storing finished or unfinished puzzles, large Portapuzzle carrying cases that likewise keep pieces in place while providing a work station, spinning Lazy Susan puzzle bases, puzzle “work surfaces” with sliding storage drawers, even dedicated folding puzzle tables and tabletop easels. If only I had the room!

So all I could do was hold the Sixties puzzle box, unopened, and stare at the picture, until one day, some weeks later, I got a big, 24 x 30-inch box in the mail, maybe another four inches deep. I had no idea what it could be until I saw White Mountain’s return label. Sean had sent me a frame after all! Now what would I do?

I waited another couple weeks or so, getting more and more anxious over the prospect of actually putting it together—and how I could do it without realizing my greatest fear: losing pieces. Eventually I had to give in, and managed to create enough floor space to lay out the box that the frame came in, opening it up vertically to twice the frame size, then taping the four-inch flaps at the corners to contain the pieces. I opened the box, tore open the clear plastic bag holding the pieces, and dumped them into the center of the box.

It was like the beginning of an acid trip. Suddenly everything was blown apart and disjointed. Nothing made sense.

In the movie, Agnes can put a puzzle together easily in an afternoon. When she meets Robert, he shows her how to assemble a puzzle efficiently as a partnership: Sorting the pieces by color, he says, is “the Number 1 rule of competitive puzzling”–among other tried-and-true team strategies.

In my case, I probably didn’t do anything different from what I did the last time I did a puzzle some 50 years ago. While turning over the upside-down pieces I separated the border pieces, then did the same with the right-side-up ones. I then went ahead and constructed the border. All this took most of a Sunday afternoon, at least; Agnes would have had the whole thing put together by then.

But I really didn’t have enough space in the box to work with—though that wasn’t the worst problem, which was the tremendous pain in my knees from kneeling on the floor, not to mention my back and neck from hunching over the puzzle for many hours.

Once most of the border was done I could start dealing with the obvious and major images—Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE pop art image, for example, or the big “Top Songs of the 60’s” LP record or the many representative ‘60s buttons and badges (“Make Love Not War,” “Support Our Boys in Vietnam”)—working on several areas at once, forming floating “islands” within the borders that grew as more pieces were found and added, impinging upon others until that magic moment when the one piece was found that “anchored” the island to the border.

But “island” and “anchor” are my terms, same with “feet”—the varied appendages of pieces that I kept telling myself I was searching for during the endless endeavor to focus on specific shapes, with and without colors matching the holes they would fit in. After a day or so of said talking to myself it dawned on me that there must be a time-honored jigsaw puzzle nomenclature, and sure enough, I found online that what I called “feet” were also known as wings or ears, though there was no universally accepted comprehensive classification of puzzle piece shapes. Other terms for piece-parts employed by both manufacturers and puzzlers include, when paired, loops and sockets, knobs and holes, tabs and slots, keys and locks, and my favorite, denoting the knob that fits into the hole of the adjoining piece, “bobble.”

Besides the pain–which required regular breaks for stretching and repositioning–I was hindered by the lack of adequate space to spread out the many small “puzzles within the puzzle” with their presumed loose pieces, and since I didn’t have any of the sorting tray systems, I made one of my own out of the puzzle box and a couple plastic food containers. But there was no solving the other major problem: hopelessly lost track of time.

I was in the middle of auditing two college courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I was able to pull myself away from the puzzle to go to the Monday and Wednesday classes. But that was it. I stopped going to the gym, stopped eating, stopped taking medication, answering the phones, returning emails, tweeting and facebooking. Forgot about the news online and TV and recording my usual shows and movies. Aching and exhausted, I’d finally lie down around 2 a.m. for a few hours, then bleary-eyed, resume my obsession.

The good part was that with every piece properly placed, there was one less one to find. And after so many hours—and days—of trial-and-error, I eventually started remembering where some of the unplaced pieces were, once their mates were in position—kind of like the old Concentration game show and card game.

But by now, totally addicted, I was having a hard time seeing straight. Luckily, pieces were starting to miraculously appear, and some that I picked that I though I knew where they went I suddenly found fit somewhere else. Everything was starting to speed up: As the acid trip started wearing off, the dust of the initial explosion settling, the slow rebuilding of consciousness and control gave way to clarity.

Still, there was one final, nagging fear, going all the way back to the last time I did a jigsaw puzzle at home on the family’s dining room table: Did I lose any pieces? This time there would be no cat or dog to blame if I had—only my nasty habit of setting a piece down out of the way amidst the surrounding clutter and forgetting where I set it. And the faster I was finishing it up, the bigger the empty spaces yet to be filled seemed to be.

I was sure I was missing anywhere from five to 20 pieces, yet lo and behold, when I put in what I thought was the final piece, I had one left over! By now I was both so exhilarated and delirious that I actually freaked out–to use another acid trip metaphor—then had to pore over the completed puzzle and finally run my hand on it slowly and methodically until I sensed the one missing hole.

I don’t know if it was joy or exhaustion, but I was drained emotionally upon completing the puzzle, incredibly, in only three days. I was just so driven to get it done and out of the way—and not lose any of the pieces in the process. Of course, it wasn’t over, even then: I still had to glue it—which wasn’t a problem after watching a few YouTube videos—and then get it into the frame, which was a problem in that even with all the glue, some sections popped out while transferring it to the frame and had to be reset.

As for the “problem” of the jigsaw puzzle pursuit as a whole, I found a pretty good quote while researching competitive puzzling, which I didn’t know even existed until seeing Puzzle.

“It’s a problem where you know there’s a solution. If you just work at it you know you can solve it and when you’re done you know you’ve solved it completely and correctly,” said Mike Helland of the championship four-person team The Collectors, to CBS Minnesota, on the eve of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, home of the country’s biggest jigsaw puzzle contest, in January of last year.

Or as Robert says in Puzzle, “What other pursuits can give you that kind of perfection? Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love? No. Not even love can do that. Not completely.”

By this time in the film Agnes, by way of puzzling, has stepped out of her marriage and family, and has become so bold in her newly achieved sense of self that she even casts away Robert’s puzzle rules, and wins—with him—on her own terms.

As I always stay until the end of the credits, I was able to catch Sean Minton’s name in the closing thank-yous, along with another puzzle trade contact, Paula Jo Lentz of Ravensburger. And now I must note that while White Mountain doesn’t offer a golf puzzle as such, its Things to Do in Naples FL features a colorful road map with the location of things to do and places to see, bordered by 40 or so squares singling out posh resorts and popular attractions like The Caribbean Gardens Zoo, Everglades Excursions, and Naples Grande Golf Club–one of the top 100 resort courses in North America.

2 thoughts on “Taking ‘Puzzle’ to heart

  • October 9, 2018 at 1:24 pm
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    Awesome read Jim…..

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