Puzzle

The coronavirus targets everyone, but I fall into that most vulnerable segment of the demographic: people over 65. My contemporaries and I are the ones everyone was looking out for in the beginning of the quarantine with slogans like, “Please don’t kill my grandmother.” But as this lockdown drags on, I’m sensing a weariness that might make them willing to barter their grandparents for a night out at a restaurant. I don’t blame them — who wouldn’t enjoy a good early bird special and a movie?

But who expected the lockdown to last so long?

I watched a lot of news in the beginning, feeling part of a national mission to “flatten the curve.” When two weeks turned into two more and then another two, I set up a 6-foot puzzle table for the duration. What began as a self-medicating jigsaw journey soon became my life’s work. Whenever someone asked how I spent my day, I’d say, “Well, I have this puzzle…”

The first puzzle of Christmas stamps was a welcome distraction; before I knew it, another day was almost over. Part of the attraction of a puzzle is the sense of order and control it provides in solving it. There’s the satisfying snap of the correctly placed piece, the gradual reshaping of a chaotic mound of pieces into the picture it was meant to be.

Then a friend loaned me a 1,500-piece puzzle of Van Gogh masterpieces. Van Gogh’s bold colors and brush strokes make for beautiful art but an impossible puzzle. The sky looked like water, the fields like a beach of seashells, the faces were green. Was that an eye or a bird? So much blue on blue, distinguished only by the texture of the brush strokes. Van Gogh’s chaos helped to shut out the larger chaos, and finishing this puzzle two weeks later left me feeling accomplished.

My friend Suzanne received a gift in the mail in the early days of the lockdown: a 500-piece puzzle of the first Women’s March. Suzanne has many talents and interests, but puzzles have never been one of them. She finally turned to it in desperation for something other than cleaning closets and Netflix. Hard to believe, but this was her very first puzzle … in her lifetime! (She’s 70.) I instructed her in the basics. When she finally sent a text with a photo, I assumed she’d finished, but it was a picture of the completed frame with a request for how to treat a sore neck. Later, Suzanne proudly showed off the frame to a family member who discovered quite a few misplaced pieces she had force-fit by pounding them into place.

So here we are nine weeks into the lockdown, and still there’s nothing but uncertainty in sight. Speaking as a representative of the most vulnerable segment of the demographic, I hope we find an antidote soon — your grandparents are running out of time. In the meantime, puzzles structure our days as we impose some order from chaos. Puzzles reinforce our appreciation for the scientists who rely on logic and patience to solve problems. Force-fitting a piece is a common mistake for a puzzle novice, but the doomed force-fit solutions of the Trump administration show their belief that being forceful is more important than being right.

In the back corner of my closet, I’ve got a puzzle that was once given to me as a joke. It’s supposed to be a banana — nothing but yellow except for a red and white Dole label in one corner. Finishing it could occupy my time for weeks to come. I’d really rather not have to start it.