»  The Straggler, No. 51

February 12th, 2007

  Flow Ho Ho


Santa in his goodness brought me a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. It is quite a splendid one: a color photograph of Schloss Neuschwanstein, the alpine folly of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, and inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. The picture is beautifully reproduced "on fine papers and thick premium board" (I am quoting from the underside of the box), with fall foliage in a score of shades from yellow to green, and some faint cirrus streaks in a blue sky over distant mountains. The castle itself is a glorious fantasy of turrets, spires, terraces, arches, balustrades, and crenellations. The whole picture is divided into 2,128 pieces, precision cut by the makers, Buffalo Games of Buffalo, New York. Is this a fruit of Senator Clinton's promises to revivify the commerce of our upstate regions? If it is, then so far as I am concerned Mrs. Clinton has paid her debt to society.

There is a phenomenon that psychologists call flow. I quote from an internet dictionary: "the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." For me, the most reliable portal to flow is a jigsaw puzzle. Set me up with one of these things and I am lost to the world until that one last piece clicks into place.

Unfortunately this is not a thing to be much desired. I have a living to earn, a wife to please, children to raise, and an old house to maintain. I don't have that many free hours to give up to flow — not, at least, until I have figured out some way to generate revenue by doing jigsaw puzzles. I therefore ration myself to one jigsaw puzzle per annum. This is my Christmas treat. Santa, of course, knows that.

As with all great enterprises, planning is the key. I make a first pass through the pieces, tipping them all out on the table, then returning them to the box one by one, but setting aside all edge and corner pieces and all skyline pieces (pieces, that is, that are sky, but with some visible fragment of mountain or castle). On a large piece of black oak tag, four feet by three, I set out the perimeter of the picture and the skyline.

Second pass: all sky pieces. Sky is a chore, to be disposed of early in the proceedings — repetitive matching of shapes, aided only by barely-detectable differences of tint. Then will come the castle — eight or nine hundred pieces, the locations of which can in most cases be determined by careful scrutiny of the picture. After that, the mountains — harder than the castle, but not so bad as sky. Finally, the foliage. If Satan ever gets into the jigsaw-puzzle manufacturing business, His productions will be all foliage. (Capitalization intentional there. One can never be too careful.)

With perimeter, skyline, and most of the sky done, twenty-four full hours have passed. Somewhere in there were meals and phone calls, sleep and ablutions. These events, however, were taking place on a different plane of existence, remote and inconsequential. Flow has well and truly set in. I feel like someone on a diving bell at the bottom of the ocean, the outside world making itself known only by occasional muffled tappings and thumpings on the wall of the bell. For goodness sake come to the table, your dinner's getting cold, I hear some woman's voice call from a far place. Be right there. Just got to place this one piece …

As far back as I can remember anything, I can remember doing jigsaw puzzles, and even particular cases: that 500-piece reproduction of Frans Hals's Laughing Cavalier I conquered in my Aunt Muriel's parlor at age eight, for example. In the 1970s, my tradition of a Christmas puzzle already well established, Santa brought me a succession of the strange or jokey puzzles then current: a Maurits Escher visual paradox, one of Bridget Riley's black and white Op-Art paintings, two-sided puzzles, puzzles whose perimeter pieces had no straight edges, puzzles that were pictures of puzzles, and so on. Each was fun and challenging in its own way, but as conservatism set in, I returned to plain art work or photographs.

I suppose I ought to acknowledge that jigsaw puzzles properly belong at the beginning or end of life, in the idleness of childhood or retirement. They are an extravagant indulgence, timewise, for a working family man. Certainly they enriched my own childhood; and I should be happy to think that I shall go out while doing a puzzle — like Calvin Coolidge, who left one (of George Washington) unfinished when he died. That was in 1933, a peak year of the early-Depression jigsaw-puzzle craze, with sales reaching ten million per week.

Attempts to interest my own children in jigsaw puzzles have failed. They cannot see the point. Today's child has his own way of attaining flow, and we all know what it is. I tried to co-opt my son's preference by getting him a jigsaw-puzzle computer game, with hundreds of puzzles built in. He did work through a few of the easier puzzles — made yet easier by the software, which, with a single mouse click, instantaneously sorts the pieces by shape or color — pah! Then he discovered that the game itself had an option to assemble any puzzle automatically, the pieces flitting into place across the screen at a speed set by the user, who need only sit back and watch. At that point I knew I had lost this particular round in the parent-child bout.

It would be satisfying to make some large case for the jigsaw puzzle, as an aid to mental improvement, or as a metaphor for life or the management of worldly affairs. Not much comes to mind. Certainly there are things worth nurturing here: forward planning, the division of tasks into sub-tasks, persistence and careful observation, faith in the possibility of bringing order out of chaos, flow. There is, though, an underlying futility to the business of spending many hours assembling something with which there is then nothing to be done but to disassemble it and return it to its box. Underlying futility? No, there is no large life lesson here, none at all, absolutely none …