How I solve Jigsaw Puzzles

Every year since my children were little Claudia and I have tried to find a jigsaw puzzle to put together around the Christmas Season. Most of them have been purchased on vacations and show something related to our travels. Last year I bought two while we traveled in the Badlands. One at Mt. Rushmore depicted a map of the US almost obscured by hundreds of bits of info on the 45 presidents of the US their homes and important events and places during their terms of Office. The other was a grand painting of four great Indian Chiefs painted over a background of Mt. Rushmore and representing, for the artist, the Native American equivalent of Rushmore.

That reminds me. We haven’t gotten a puzzle yet for this year. No big vacation just a lot of little excursions. Maybe I’ll go on line and find something.

The first person I knew to work jigsaws was my Father’s brother, Frank Welty. Every time we visited his cabin in Estes Park, Colorado at the gateway of Rocky Mountain National Park there was a big jigsaw partly completed on a table. He left them there for weeks as he putzed around with them an left them as an invitation for others to put pieces in place. I still recall the scent of the place a combination of the cabin’s pine logs and dusty Indian blankets from his families travels throughout the Southwest.

I don’t like to leave uncompleted puzzles around forever but I do like my family to put in time helping me. They rarely do or help for long. I try not to put a puzzle together overnight so that others can lend their hand but one to two weeks is a typical for one of our puzzles to remain incomplete. Once a puzzle is finished I have a harder time putting it away. I like to keep completed puzzles on our card table in the sun room to admire until after the holidays and the New Year.

I begin by sorting out the thousand pieces in the box while I turn each one face up. Every puzzle I’ve ever put together has large swatches of imagery that are similar. All the ocher color of the Faces on the Great Indians, The parts with their black hair, the sky above Mt. Rushmore, The little ovals with faces of presidents in them, the edge pieces with one straight line cutting across them. I place them in separate piles as I turn them face up. Lately I’ve taken to scrounging up flat boxes to place different swatches in that I can rearrange around my card table and then collect together at night in a tidy pile covered with a large sheet of cardboard to discourage my cats from helping.

The edge pieces are the first to be put together and I will subdivide these as well by whatever I can find that helps me categorize them into top, bottom, right and left. I try not to put too many of the remaining pieces into the completed frame because they would be like a box of popcorn obscuring the working surface. I might put a little pile of what might be Washington’s face where it would fit in the frame and then see what I can put together. As I go along I’ll discover that some of them belong to Lincoln or Jefferson and that some of George’s will be mixed in with little piles I’ve put together for other presidents or maybe just some of the bare rock below the combo at the top of the mount.

This seems quite rational to me even though it violates the rule I’ve heard that what you look for is shape alone when you search the thousand pieces for the only other jigsaw piece that fits the one you are holding. As a snow sculptor I’m reasonably practiced at seeing the nuances of shape but trying to find two matching pieces in a haystack of a thousand pieces seems irrational. Its much quicker to find matches if I’ve got the puzzle divided into first four or five little debris piles of related colors which I will further break down by even more subtle differences for instance those with bits of what looks like pine trees in them or large cracks in the rock. As the piles get smaller the quicker it is to find matches.

I often tire of sorting through one category of images to find matches. I’ll get 30 percent of Teddy Roosevelt’s face put together and then turn to some other pile of related imagery perhaps the pieces that are half sky and half mountain from which I can find the outline of Rushmore. I might sit down for hours and work on the pieces or just a few minutes during a commercial break. I might do it while watching the news or listening to public radio. Piece by piece it all gets put together and the many debris piles evaporate away as one portion of the jigsaw gets near completion.

A jigsaw puzzle is so small and contained its easy to approach and solve in this way. There are many similar activities that require a similar organization and that invite similar practices for efficiency’s sake. Cooking a turkey dinner, taking apart and putting a bicycle together again, building a house. In a more general sense life can be approached the same way.

I’ve struggled with organization all my life. I’ve taken on so many projects that never end and leave me with debris piles of papers and documents and often too little time to sort them out before the cats knock off a pile of debris stacked on a flat surface making the whole lot just that much more debrisier. I’ve got an attic that until last month you could barely walk through. My workroom and tools in the basement had no place to set anything bigger than a pair of pliers. My closets are crammed with boxes of photos. For the last ten years rubbermaid has been my salvation as I try to put related things together so that I can find them when needed. They include my children’s childhood stuff, Christmas decorations, my mother’s paintings, years worth of Republican Party memorabilia and old files from 15 political campaigns, File cabinets of old School Board documents or documents for my lawsuit against the School District and files for a prospective book about one of Minnesota’s greatest and nearly forgotten political scandals. I keep this stuff to write books that at least a dozen people might be interested in if only they don’t die of old age first. Its a long list and explains why Claudia always taunts me that when I die she’s going to get a huge commercial dumpster and throw everything I own out the window.

A co-worker of my wife who’s strong suit was organization once told me that when you have a seemingly insurmountable task you need to break it into small pieces and work on the separate projects one at a time. I heard this advice thirty years ago when my collections of stuff were growing faster than her advice seemed to leave any hope for me to follow. Its just hard when you can’t throw anything away. I just tried to keep related things bound together until I was a risk of becoming a hoarder. You might not see this in most of my house. I didn’t want Claudia to kill me but beyond the living spaces of our house lay a wasteland of things I didn’t have time to deal with today.

From the time I got married until quite recently I would often be so overwhelmed with my stuff that I would dig into chocolate and carbohydrates for a sugar rush that led to a low that took all my organizational drive away from me and made taking a nap to clear my head seem the most sensible thing to do. I considered this my procrastinator stage. It began falling away once we had kids, fell further once I finally got elected to the school board and shrunk even further when I began fighting the dictatorial imposition of the Red Plan. But my life never became a simple jigsaw puzzle. Every day handed me a new box of a hundred pieces to sort through, still does in fact, in addition to the tens of thousands of pieces that have accumulated from before that I daren’t let Claudia get hold of lest she wipe a decade of my life’s documents away.

Still, I’m getting better. My debris piles are much smaller. I can walk through my attic and for the first time since we moved in can sense the space it offers…..I want that office and before anyone can start nailing in two by fours for the sheet-rock I’ve got to give them space to move. I can open my car doors in the garage again without banging them into the myriad of old and often broken tools that I once haphazardly hung from lots of disorganized hooks. Hell, I finally painted the newer garage stall after looking at its bare stained sheet rock for twenty-seven years.

There are other piles of debris to attack. I have a hard time discarding email. I’ve got a couple thousand in my in tray. I’d like to organize my thousands of blog entries better and save them on thumbdrives before some computer catastrophe lays them low. The half dozen books I’d like to write are each their own jigsaw puzzle with their own separate debris piles. I won’t be able to get rid of the debris for each book until its written. Before this happens I’ve got family duties to attend to; a campaign to get a majority on the school board for a little transparency (My buddy calls it a colonoscopy)

Oh yeah, and I have to keep emptying my brain into Lincolndemocrat so I’ve got room in my head to think. There are another twenty posts tossing around up there now like so many kids in one of those air pumped jumping containers at school carnivals.

No way I’m going to go back and proof read or edit this.

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