I had intended to stay busy in retirement doing Important Things I Couldn’t Do Before, but it turns out my timing was bad. As I wound down, COVID wound up. And because of the pandemic shutdown, I couldn’t leave the house for days or even weeks at a time. I had to find things to fill the time while sitting at home.
I turned to a little gardening and cooking, to watching TV (thank you, Netflix) and to other hobbies I had set aside back in the days when work and kids demanded more attention.
One of those pastimes turned out to be jigsaw puzzles. I rediscovered the joys of puzzles before the pandemic, but once shutdown started, the idea of piecing together little squiggly-edged pieces of cardboard into some kind of picture became really compelling.
Why? you ask.
First, jigsaw puzzles are a huge time suck. You open the box, start fitting pieces together and then next thing you know, hours have passed. Sometimes, it seems like even days or weeks have passed. If I really get into a puzzle, I can forget snacks, naps, even TV detective stories.
Second, like most puzzles and games, jigsaws provide little bursts of happiness every time you get a right answer. I can sit there for long, anguished minutes staring at a pile of pieces and then – boom!– two squiggles of cardboard magically fit together and my brain releases a little spritz of the chemicals that momentarily produce elation. And with puzzles made up of more than 1,000 pieces, those spritzes happen a lot.
An eclectic mix
Over the past 15 months, I’ve assembled all kinds of jigsaw puzzles. I’ve pieced together pictures of seashells and trains, planes and automobiles. I’ve remade high art by assembling tiny pieces of paper into paintings of heaven and hell by Hieronymus Bosch and wheatfields by Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve created popular art visions of classic record covers and of posters advertising the National Parks. I’ve even traveled to big cities by conjuring a Paris street scene and New Yorker magazine covers depicting, among other things, summer at the beach, fall in Central Park and a street market on a busy city block.
I’ve learned a few things along the way. Jigsaw puzzles are great teachers. They impart patience, self-control, jolts of temporary self-esteem and can make you ponder deep philosophical questions such as, “Why am I still sitting here staring at these puzzle pieces when I could be watching detective shows on TV?”
Six life lessons
Here are a half dozen life lessons I picked up while puzzling.
- Don’t give up. The answer is in there. Don’t sweat it if things don’t seem to gel at first because every piece has its place. Unlike the real world, jigsaw puzzles make sense. You are bound to figure it out eventually.
- You’re probably going to be disappointed anyway. Nothing is perfect. Rule Number One applies only if you’re assembling a new puzzle fresh out of the box with the shrink-wrap plastic cover still tightly bound around it. If a puzzle has been through other hands, all bets are off. Some pieces probably already have been lost and the pieces that remain in the box may not even be from the same puzzle. (See Rule Number Three.)
- Some old puzzles will never be finished. Something is bound to have been lost. Once you place that last piece from the box, you’ll find an annoying hole smack in the middle of the puzzle crying out for one or two more pieces.
- Don’t worry about missing pieces. If they were in the box when you started, they’re on the floor somewhere or stuck in a shirt pocket and they’ll turn up eventually, weeks or years after the puzzle’s done and put away. When they do, of course, you won’t remember which puzzle they belong to, so you’ll just stick them in a convenient puzzle box for later. (See Rule Number Two.) If they weren’t there when you started, never mind. The whole process was doomed from the start.
- Enjoy the attention. When you’re working on a puzzle, everybody secretly wants to be you. No matter what people say about how you’re wasting your time, you can see how envious they are every time they stop by your workspace and, when they think you’re not looking, furtively stick a piece into the unfinished puzzle.
- Don’t fret about the time you spend on puzzles. That time cannot be spent better by doing something else, no matter what anyone tells you. To fill those long hours, you’d just watch more detective shows on Netflix. And that wouldn’t release nearly as many spritzes of those feel-good chemicals.