Everything I Know I Learned From Jigsaw Puzzles


I grew up with a jigsaw puzzle on the dining room table more often than not. Certainly there were more puzzles than meals in the dining room in our house on Stewart Avenue; the room was more of a workspace/project room/Girl Scout meeting room. I’m pretty sure we had a couple of Thanksgiving dinners on that table, and several birthday parties, but that’s about it.

So it was with great joy that I opened up a Marilyn Monroe jigsaw puzzle last week, dumped the contents out on my dining room table and started working on it with my daughter.

Seeing a puzzle on the table as I pass by our dining room makes me feel warm, fuzzy and homespun. Makes me want to put on an apron and whip up some biscuits. Right after I get this one corner piece. Goddamnit, now I have to do the whole corner. Did I mention that I tend to become a competitive hot mess over jigsaw puzzles on the dining room table?

I slipped into jigsaw puzzle zen immediately. After completing the entire light green grass-in-the-background section of the Marilyn puzzle, a section that to the naked eye seemed like just a big block of plain light green puzzle pieces that stretched on forever, my daughter was amazed.

“How did you do that?” she said, secretly grateful that the boring part was done and she was left free to work on Marilyn’s face, white dress and cleavage, which were easy in comparison.

While explaining to her about how I worked on it long enough to start to see the nuances in the shading, the little differences in the shape of the protruding parts (otherwise known as the “male” parts or “sticky-outy parts”) that made it  easier once you really concentrated on it, I came to two conclusions:


Always do the framework first.

You’ll always be tempted to do the colorful, detailed parts first, especially faces. There are some sections that are so easy to match up they practically jump off the table and pair up themselves in mid-air. Doing those first is fine if you’re 8. As an adult, you need to suck it up and do the hard parts first. Build the edges and frame it out, so that the entire thing is laid out and organized. And if you really want to be the hero, take on the task of spreading out all the pieces and turning them face up. You won’t get any extra credit for it, but you’ll know you’re that guy.

The piece either fits or it doesn’t. Wanting it to fit doesn’t make it fit.

You’re sure the piece fits; you want the piece to fit; it looks like it fits; all the colors match up; it looks exactly like it fits. You’ve run out of options and it would sure be nice if this piece fit. But sometimes the piece doesn’t fit. Don’t waste time whining and looking at the box for an 800 number to call to complain that there’s something wrong with your puzzle. Move on. When you find the piece that does fit, you’ll have that Aha! moment and you’ll understand that it had to be this way. Sometimes you don’t get the moral of the story until the show is over, and then it all makes sense.

Sometimes you have to walk away.

Puzzle work is easier after you’ve been working on it for 10 or 15 minutes. You hit a groove and become comfortable with the pieces and the spaces and you’re really into it. But after a while, when you can’t find squat, you have to walk away and give it a break. If you’ve gone 20 minutes without getting one piece in place, walk away, shake it off, have some iced tea, make a sandwich, watch a Will & Grace rerun. When you come back to the dining room, don’t be surprised if you get a piece right away! Everyone needs a break. A refreshed mind is a more productive mind.

You get what you pay for.

Quality is quality wherever you go. Cheaper puzzles are not as interesting and not as much fun. The pieces are all shaped the same and lack imagination. I once did a puzzle that had an extra piece, which is just mean-spirited. (Never buy a jigsaw puzzle from a company called 网络孔子学院简介.) When you want to get satisfaction out of something, you have to be willing to spend more and go with a known brand.

Be flexible.

Sometimes I get all caught up in a plan for the puzzle. First I’m going to do the fence and then I’m going to do this bird on the edge and then I’ll move onto the door. (See previous comment that suggests that I might be just a little autistic.) That’s fine. Do that, but take in the whole picture; get a feel for the entire puzzle and then when you’re all into your plan and working on the fence and you see a piece that is light green with a bright red sticky-outy part, you’ll go, Hey! I know where this goes! Drop the fence like a slutty ex-boyfriend and work on that light green bright red thing like a mother. You’ll be a better puzzler for it.

Your eyes will deceive you.

When my kids are looking for something in the house and they claim that they’ve looked everywhere it could possibly be, I tell them to look in places it couldn’t possibly be.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” they’ll tell me.  “Why would my black sweater be in the silverware drawer?”

Because you’ve already looked in all the places that make sense and that sweater exists somewhere on the earth right now, so it must be somewhere that doesn’t make sense. Yes, I intend to take this analogy to a jigsaw puzzle and all of life. And, no, the sweater is not going to be in the silverware drawer, but it will be somewhere equally as bizarre.

Puzzles can be sneaky little bastards. You’ll be searching for the piece that is a certain color and shape and you’ll have exhausted all possibilities that make sense. Try the pieces that don’t make sense and you’ll find that sometimes the piece that you’re sure has white fur on the tip doesn’t have fur on the tip. The fur is mysteriously absorbed into the crevice and another piece entirely fits in there. It’s all very complicated, but, again, move on.

Sometimes the piece you’re looking for is on the floor under the dining room table.

No explanation needed. Sometimes shit just happens.

Labels: , ,