Best Beach Puzzle

I love a good puzzle. I love the innies and outies of varying size, bulbousness and depth, and the super pointy corner spades you get sometimes. But I was not prepared for these pieces. Do you see what I see?

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One piece near the middle looks fairly normal – more or less rectangular in shape with two innies and two outies opposite each other. And then there are lots of nonstandard elements about the other pieces – curved edges (curved edges!), odd angles, random jut-outs. For example, that one with one outie, one innie, some white coloring and two straight-ish edges (bottom left area of photo) – which edge is the straightest edge and does that mean it’s an outer edge? If there are two straight-ish edges, the puzzle makers have thrown convention off the 14th-floor beach hotel balcony. Maybe one of them is an outer edge, maybe neither.

I knew we were in for it. Our Sarasota beach puzzle was a doozy.

Under the following conditions a beach puzzle will call my name. 1. A fun design that is challenging but not too challenging (the trip was five nights, not five weeks), 2. A surface to work on (let’s assume we are willing to not eat at that table), 3.  A few willing, interested and capable people (Debra, you were amazing!), and 4. The ability to break it down when it’s time to go home (the hardest part, so I say, best to let someone else do it when you are out of the room!).

Our doozy of a puzzle was a great pick by Dina: beachy theme, not too many pieces, numerous colorful and distinct objects — and “not too much sky” as my grandmother used to say – or in this case, not too much water!

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You see five starfish, two clown fish, two angel fish, two dolphins and some random other sea life – all different enough from each other to give you confidence that it can’t be that hard. (Ha!) One angelfish is more orangy than the other (I think those are angel fish), and one of the starfish is purple, one has dots, one is more brownish, one has little white mountains on it (that’s what they looked like to me) and one is, well, other.

Standard puzzling starts from the edge and works inward. I have never put one together in which we started on the inner sections and did the edging last. Until this one. You see the edge on the box cover image. Crazy!! The pieces were oddball shapes with sorta-straight or downright curvy sides – yeah, no way was the edge happening first.

Let’s do a starfish. The one with dots. And sure, a few edge pieces, but not many.

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Onward. Group like colors or patterns together, one creature at a time, one fin or flower or ill-defined squiggle at a time. Little by little connect the creatures. Now (below) you see five starfish (four connected), two angelfish and some other pretty fish in between – and only slightly more edge than before!

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But it’s okay. There are no rules to puzzle-making. You can put it together however makes sense to you. Kind of like life when you think about it. Like food. Like friendship.

I take that back. There are some rules. With a puzzle, the pieces have to fit together, duh, which is harder than it looks. With food, the ingredients have to work together and the flavors have to play off each other in such a way as the outcome is delicious and hopefully appealing. With friendship, well, we all know what happens when fun is not had and mutual benefits (disparate as they might be) are not forthcoming.

Night after night, when we all had had enough beachy sun for one day, enough fishing, enough shelling, enough exploring (note I did not say enough eating or drinking!), some of us headed to the puzzle table. It came together nicely. There is a sense of triumph only puzzlers know when a piece that has been hiding suddenly calls your name. Here I am, and I have been here all along! Kind of like discovering that someone you have been working with for years or the quiet neighbor down the street is way nicer than you ever knew, and you also happen to have a lot in common. Been here all along!

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Puzzles come together piece by piece, step by step, bit by bit, the way you weed a garden or iron a shirt or make a cake or write a poem. You start with the decision to do it, knowing full well that it will take time and patience. You pay attention to detail if you want to end up with the puzzle whole, the garden gorgeous, the shirt pressed, the cake delicious, the poem meaningful. You try and try again, sometimes the same wrong piece in the same spot where it didn’t fit before over and over. Oh, right, that one doesn’t work there! You smile a little, inside or outwardly, when someone notices your diligence and progress. Hey, looks like a starfish to me!

You keep going until you finish or you decide it’s enough or you run out of time. We all know it’s not the end of the world if you don’t finish, but there’s something enormously satisfying about finished, completed, done – even if weeds will grow again, the shirt will get wrinkly, the cake will be eaten (oh, yum!) and the poem will be unread by many who would enjoy it so very much. Even if, difficult as it is, you break apart those puzzle pieces you spent so much time putting together.

We finished!

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Debra, have fun doing it again, this time with your grandson!

Puzzling Puzzles

On Christmas Eve I spent hours bending over the coffee table trying to see the difference between pieces as alike as these. I know, I know – you can see plainly that the one on the left has a little bit of dark on its top outie.

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If you’ve ever done a jigsaw puzzle, you know that the difference is not so easy to see when the table looks like this.

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The pieces below give you a little more to go on because clearly the very pale green (which makes you want to have a stern conversation with the artist who painted this picture or the marketing person who decided that it would make a good puzzle) – if you can see the very pale green under artificial light when people are walking around making intermittent shadows – is going in two different directions. Do they fit together?

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It could be hours before you discover that they do. In the meantime there are several hundred other puzzle pieces competing for your attention – Pick me! Pick me! – and you can look through all the as-yet-unplaced pieces a thousand times and not see the obvious. Of course they go together.

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Sometimes I think I have a disorder, you know, the kind that has to do with not being able to sit still. I keep pretty active in general and have been known to forget what I’m doing because I get distracted doing something else. Is this a human characteristic or a disorder? I don’t know, but I have also been told that I should relax more.

For the record, doing a puzzle like this is totally relaxing for me and I did not jump up and down away from it every time I thought of something else I should /might be doing. In fact it was so relaxing I forgot about the scalloped potatoes I should have made, which in the end Samuel made and which were fabulous. And now he knows that this is a recipe.

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He made this dish on Christmas morning (with some supplemental verbal instruction), and naturally we were doing a bunch of other things, and I forgot how we did the onions last time – on top or mixed in – so we thought it best to put them on top, which trust me was a very good decision. This is how it looked on the table — that white dish between the wine bottles with the golden brown, soft, sweet onions on top. You will have to imagine how good it tasted.

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My point is that I was so absorbed in the puzzle on Christmas Eve that we were scrambling to do the scalloped potatoes (which were none the worse for the scramble) on Christmas Day. Does this sound like a person with a disorder? Okay, maybe a disorder of forgetfulness rather than a disorder of distractibility. Never mind about the disorder discussion!

Puzzles are challenging! Why do we do them? For me and my family they are a holiday activity, and I do not remember ever keeping a puzzle in its finished form beyond a few weeks. Sooner or later we break it all up and put the pieces back in a box. All that work! All those hours! Why do we take time to do something that in the end goes away? It reminds me of what my mother used to say about Thanksgiving – you do all that food prep, days of food prep, and in ten minutes they’ve eaten it all up! My Airbnb cottage guest, Rob, was saying last night that the different sweeteners you use in mixed drinks react differently (and make a different drink) depending on the temperature of the liquid. There is a whole chemistry behind mixed drinks that he is clearly an expert on, but why does he take the time to study this?

Why does Trish make amazing little appetizers like this to bring to a holiday gathering? Why does anyone take time to make food look like adorable little mice? We don’t eat mice! But when they look like this and we know they are sweet, we eat them!

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We do these things because they bring a certain kind of satisfaction. We use our brains and our hands and put them to work alongside creativity, competence, curiosity and confidence. We love knowing we can do a thing that not everyone can do — even if we couldn’t do it ten years ago and had to learn. Rob had a succulent turkey going inside a foil pan inside my gas grill. He showed me. I smelled it and knew that he and Kelsey would be having a fabulous Christmas dinner. He said he loves to cook but can’t bake anything. Kelsey, on the other hand, can bake! Why? Who knows?

Does it matter? We share our strengths and in the end there is both entree and dessert. There is both passion and reason, strength and flexibility, activity and rest. We need all the components that make us human, but we don’t each need everything all the time. The unboring joy of life includes a little of A, a little of B, some of R sometimes, some of Q another time, learning M this year and N the next, one person doing X, another person doing Y (and it all gets done somehow!). It’s like one big puzzle in which no two pieces are exactly alike yet they all fit together to make a satisfying, wonderful whole.

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