Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jigsaw Puzzles

     It started three years ago when my daughter received a 150 piece jigsaw puzzle for Christmas—a fantasy scene with glitter sparkles, Bengal tiger and cubs, owls and owlets, and other large-eyed creatures with offspring in an idyll pond-in-foreground, forest-in-background setting—a bit hokey for my taste. But when she poured out the box's contents a month later on her dresser top, including the brown cardboard sawdust, and we began separating the few still stuck-together pieces, everything fell into place. I sorted the straight-edged pieces in one area, dark inner pieces with sparkles in another, tiger-striped ones in another, and pretty pinks in another, and placed the remaining mishmash of leafy sky, tree trunk bark, and owly feathers pieces back face-up into the brown, lower half box, in order to clear more space on our limited work surface.
     Penelope worked the borders—the easy part—while I worked the black water with sparkles.
     At first we worked by matching colors and patterns to find mates—the obvious pieces first. After accumulating a small block of two or three pieces, we sought to add to it, eventually building upon it as far as we could from our available stockpile. After that, we started new blocks of other distinctive patterns and colors, then made them grow. When patterns weren't so helpful due to an overabundance of similar pieces, we looked to shapes to help—the odd head-and-shoulders “male” piece; the ugly, asymmetrical “mouth”; the fat, loopy “leg.”
     Puzzles today are far easier than they were when I was a kid when all inner pieces were basically the same shape. Today's puzzle pieces are much more generous in offering shape clues with weird four-headed, three-headed, and one-headed monsters, one-mouthed, three-mouthed, and four-mouthed freaks, and some that don't even have male or female parts and are somewhat diamond-shaped with awkward, jutting angles.
     My mom was (and is) an avid puzzle-maker and it was a thing my siblings (mostly my older sister) and I got into, too. My specialty was picking out pieces with unusual, interesting looking designs and finding where they belonged based on the box cover's picture. It was rare that I couldn't find it, though it might take awhile since Mom usually got 2000 piecers. When mapped, I placed the piece within the borders exactly where it belonged and said, “Don't touch this—it belongs here.” At first they didn't believe, but then as I found more and more pieces—often bridge pieces that joined the border to the blocks they were working on—they caught on to the value of what I was doing.
     “Tim, I was looking for that piece! Ho, you spoiler!” or “No, you can't take all mine—how did you know it goes there?” Mom would often enough exclaim.
     “You gotta look at the picture,” I'd say.
     Jigsaw puzzles are a great family activity that anyone with patience and inclination can participate in—even my little one Jaren.
     That first one, Penelope and I did mostly on our own, standing there by her dresser. Braden helped out some when he saw our good progress and excitement over the ever-lessening “holes” within the puzzle's narrowing middle, and the fitting in of more and more “blocks” into the border's framework. The coming together of a puzzle is fun, remarkable work. From an impossible jangled mess to a decorative usable surface, it's something neither too hard nor too easy. And we do it side-by-side with intimate conversation when desired.
     Of course, this wasn't the first one they ever did. As three-year-olds, they had done large twelve- to fifteen- plastic or wooden piece story board jigsaw puzzles with Disney or Sesame Street characters, or sea animals, and so forth.
     But after that first traditional-style 150-piecer, they were hooked.
     Braden got a 250 piece round, ocean one that he and I did on his study desk, which was our former dining room table that we outgrew.
     After that, he got a 500 piece one (new) for fifty cents from his middle-school orchestra's rummage sale. We assembled that one outside in our carport upon a large plastic storage bin. The puzzle's thick, hefty pieces were finely ground along the edges and, assembled, depicted a high definition photo of a Japan fall scene. And it came with a tube of glue and small spatula for binding—an additional fun project that Braden undertook upon the puzzle's completion. The mounted work (held fast to the wall by Shoe Goo) now brightens an otherwise dreary corner of our carport.
     The puzzle's only weakness was loose fitting pieces that fell together almost frictionless, which deprived us of the sensual feel of well-fitted matings: the gentle yet firm slide without hitch or slip upon initial contact, the quiet “slish” of smooth surface contact, the emphatic “thunk!” of fingertip tapping piece down into place, and the convergence of color, design, and patterns with the slenderest of outlined gaps between conjoined pairs.
     As far as shapes went, this Japan-made puzzle was old-school—all inner pieces had two “heads”—one on each end, four “arms”, and two “mouths”—one on each side. This made it tougher because shapes weren't so helpful for clues to assembly—it all came down to color and design, pretty much, which to me, made it that much funner.
     Today's puzzles are much easier (so buyers won't get upset and give up in frustration, I suppose) also by their patterned designs. A 2000 piecer of Da Vinci's Last Supper that Mom gave our family was greatly simplified by light purple herringbone patterns superimposed upon the dark blue band that surrounded the painting and served as an internal frame. Even Jaren, once I told him where and how to attempt to fit pieces along a row, was able to do large portions of the border.
     Really, sorting is the only “hard” work in today's puzzles, though my back does ache sitting in a cramped corner on the floor in Penelope's room where the only available work surface to assemble our puzzles is now located: a hard plastic outdoor tabletop, salvaged from street-side, to which I attached short wooden legs so that the table slides easily beneath Penelope's bed frame when not in use. (See my earlier essay titled “Roadside Gems” for further description of this homemade table.)

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