A Puzzling Sunday

When I was a kid, I asked my parents for a Star Trek puzzle I saw in the toy store. I think the image was taken from one of the Gold Key comic book covers. I don’t remember how many pieces it was, but it wasn’t an “easy” puzzle because a lot of the pieces were black with stars. Even as a kid, I was obsessive enough that I stuck with it until it was finished.

From that point on, every time a distant relative or family friend asked what kind of gift they should give me, my parents would say jigsaw puzzles. As a parent myself, I can see why. They often have nice pictures and they’re relatively inexpensive, so it doesn’t feel like you’re imposing on those relatives asking for suggestions. The problem is, after doing that first jigsaw puzzle, even though I stuck with it and completed it, I discovered that I didn’t especially like doing it. What’s more, many later puzzles I received had pictures I didn’t even like that much. Oh, they were often pretty enough, but I’d rather see a mountain valley than put together a puzzle with a photo of one.

My wife, though, loves puzzles. She does tell people that she wants puzzles with photos or illustrations she likes, but she is very good with any jigsaw puzzle. Even without looking at the box lid, I’ve seen her pull out random pieces and start putting them together and I’ve seen her put 500-piece puzzles together in under two hours. My daughters have also inherited some of this puzzle skill. So, when our local comic shop started having puzzle tournaments, I suggested to my wife that she should enter. Up until a week ago, she competed in four tournaments with one of my daughters and a friend or two on the team and they’ve won all four. So, it surprised me this past weekend when my wife asked me to join them for the puzzle tournament.

The way these tournaments work is that every team is given the same puzzle. The team gets two hours to work on the puzzle. The first team to complete the puzzle wins. If no one completes it, the team with the largest number of assembled pieces wins. We were given a 1000-piece puzzle featuring an illustration based on John Carpenter’s The Thing. The illustration was largely shades of red and gray. On the team with me were my wife, my youngest daughter and a friend of my daughter’s from school.

Although I’m not altogether a fan of assembling jigsaw puzzles, I’m not bad at them. I’m a sufficiently old-school astronomer that I had to become really good at pattern matching to identify star fields in a telescope eyepiece or on a computer monitor. That old Star Trek puzzle way back probably helped me hone that skill. As an editor, I look for misspelled words and bad grammar. I can see how things fit together from seemingly random patterns. I went along to the tournament for the sake of family together time.

At the end of two hours, we had 261 pieces assembled, a little over a quarter of the puzzle and we were the tournament winners. Our prize—another puzzle. This one was a Scooby-Doo puzzle, that looked a little more to our taste. My wife is now five-for-five at the local comic shop’s puzzle tournaments. She plans to return for at least a couple of more rounds and will compete in the final round at the end of the year. Whether I go back and compete again will depend on how the tournament days line up with my schedule.

This was probably the most fun I had working on a jigsaw puzzle and from what I saw, all the teams had fun. I think for me, the most fun part was spending time and collaborating with my family. I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished. Stories are not unlike jigsaw puzzles for me in that they often start with flashes of scenes and moments of characters doing something and I really want to see how they all fit together. I think the reason they satisfy me more than puzzles is because I’m the one who created the picture that appears when it’s all finished.

Another fun thing that happened on Sunday is that author Stephanie Kato interviewed me at her blog. Click here to read that interview and learn a little more about me.

11 comments on “A Puzzling Sunday

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    What a wonderful Sunday! I wonder how many of these Digital Virtuosos we’re surrounded by will never experience a day like that.

  2. I’m glad you had a good time working on a contest puzzle with your family, and I’ll check out that interview.

    “I did come away realizing that the obsessive part of me that sees a puzzle through to completion (or until a time limit) is a necessary part to me being a writer. When I start a story, I need to see it through until it’s finished.”

    If I can be forgiven for playing “long-distance amateur psychologist,” I would suspect on the Myers-Briggs personality type one of your aspects is Judging, which doesn’t mean judgemental but someone with a drive to complete things.

    I tend to be Perceiving, meaning I can work on something indefinitely without ever finishing it. Fortunately, my writing was shaped by my work as a journalist where there were almost always deadlines and they had to be met or I’d be looking for another job. If an editor doesn’t give me a deadline and I’ve worked on something long enough, I often set a deadline for myself.

    Perhaps the biggest puzzle is our own mind.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Alden. I’ve taken a few of the online Myers-Briggs tests for fun and judging does turn up as a common result.Over the years, I’ve known many people who claim to want to be writers and they do write. Sometimes they write a lot, but they never finish anything. I suspect many of those people are more “perceiving” on the Myers-Brigg category and I think you give good advice for those folks about setting deadlines.

      • Sure.

        I am curious if someone who’s Judging has to deal with a tendency to finish things too quickly. I have a good friend who’s highly creative, who creates fascinating characters much faster than I do, but who very quickly gets to “I’m done.” He’s had pieces professionally published, including articles and stories and a chapter of a book, but in each case the piece was rewritten by a friend or co-worker.

      • I think there’s a danger in interpreting too much from a tool like the Myers-Briggs which really should serve, at most, as a starting place for understanding personality and not the end point. There’s also a real risk of assuming that everyone who exhibits a trait or a tendency responds to that trait in an identical way. What’s more, how quickly is “too” quickly is extremely subjective and depends on the results.

        I do tend to finish my stories in a day or two once I start them. I also have learned to set them aside and then review them before I send them in to the editor. The amount of editorial intervention has varied. Often its none at all to a few spelling catches or a slight suggestion to rephrase a sentence or two for clarity. What’s more, Ray Bradbury used to talk about writing stories quickly.

        So, I don’t see finishing stories quickly as a negative in its own right or any more fraught with peril than finishing them slowly. I do think a person can convince themselves a story is more finished than it really is — but I’m not certain that has anything to do with the speed of creation.

  3. I certainly agree that you can’t pigeonhole every human being into one of 16 Myers-Briggs boxes. As a personist, I’m opposed to pigeonholing people.

    But Myers-Briggs isn’t intended that way, but to me is a useful tool. While working in education or as a director, I’ve found it’s a good way to help me reach a particular student or actor. It helps me to more quickly find what might work better for them. And I often use it to design my characters.

    And even though I tend to take “forever” to work on something if I don’t have a deadline, I’m not always that way. From first concept to completed first draft, i wrote my first produced 30-minute-long one-act play within 48 hours. So I don’t completely fit in my M-B box.

  4. I do puzzles when I feel too stiff from sitting at my computer. No speed puzzling for me, though. Just relaxation.

  5. dm yates says:

    I’ve never heard of a puzzle tournament, but I buy a new jigsaw puzzle every Christmas. Love ’em.

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