500 Pieces

When life hands you a puzzle, it tests your ability to be a player.

The 2020 pandemic is what one might call the ultimate puzzle.

What do you do when life puts you on indefinite hold? When it orders you to go home and stay there? When you lose your office connection, job security or the job itself? When your favorite shops, theaters, restaurants and sports venues are closed? When even your golf game is prohibited? When a mask and gloves are the fashion essentials of the day?

“Well, it beats losing your life,” said an acquaintance at the grocery store where we waited in line to enter, eyed our fellow shoppers uneasily and used antiseptic handwipe before we dared touch a cart.       

For those of us fortunate enough to have escaped the coronavirus, there’s the curse we can’t escape. How to live indoors without dying of boredom or television fatigue. 

You’d think a guy who spends the majority of his time reading, writing, wiggling his feet to classic swing from the big bands of yesteryear, and practicing his version of meditation in a fully-equipped recliner (the kind that can charge your phone, house your paperwork and store your drink) would have a leg up on the problem.

It’s not that easy. Thanks to knee surgery, I did arrive on the early side of the park-yourself-at-home game and learned the house rules for staying in place without severely annoying your housemate. On the other hand, I expected to be walking in short order, believed in a perpetual bull market, anticipated a full baseball season and Olympics, and contemplated an ocean voyage aboard an overcrowded liner. 

What a dreamer. But it wasn’t only naïve optimism. I was lulled into a false sense of security by early assurances from a high authority who declared that the pandemic was (a) a hoax (b) an exaggeration (c) nothing to worry about. 

And now? You wouldn’t happen to have a spare Halloween face mask to loan me, would you? 

Had I been less optimistic and more astute, I would have read the danger signs and invested heavily in streamed movies, bathroom tissues, video conferencing services and home-delivered burritos.   

And here we are. Another day indoors. Another day in domestic confinement. Another day under house arrest.

Welcome to the pandemic lockdown.

And how is this day different from any other? It all depends on how you plan to fill your too-abundant leisure. Arts and crafts?  Baking? Cooking? Gardening? Yoga? Books? Videogames? Cable TV movie binge? Virtual travel? Virtual social gatherings (with or without virtual cocktails)?  

With so many options to choose from, housebound householders have plenty of resources to relieve staring at four walls or counter the feeling that the walls are moving in on them.  It also helps to have friends and neighbors who are kind enough to check on your state of sanity and ask how you’re coping with the stress of covid-19. One of them arrived on my doorstep the other day with an anniversary bottle of choice white wine. My wife and I intend to sample same with our leftover ravioli and a toast or two to our benefactor’s health.

Recuperating in my ace recliner, ice pack wrapped around the surgically replaced joint, I’m in good position to kill some time. I’m free to remember interesting incidents and personalities of my unexpectedly long life and unlock memories upon which I can now reflect like one of those wise old gents I used to read in my college days. Always wanted to be a wise guy, in the best sense of the term.

In my spare time, of which I have abundance, I’m conceptualizing an online game that can capture the upside-down times in which we live and maybe make me a fortune. Naturally, you want to know what I have in mind. Naturally, I cannot trust you with the details of my invention. Please do not whine. Note the sign on my wall: “There is a five-dollar charge for whining. A five-dollar penalty will be imposed for whining about the whining fee.”

You brought me a deli delight? Oh, well, that changes it. Place your hand on your heart and solemnly swear not to steal or otherwise divulge my concept. I will now share the secret with you.

The game is called Supermarket Scramble. Players compete in a mad, no-holds-barred race to see who can hoard the most paper towels, toilet paper, hand sanitizers and Clorox wipes in heavily overloaded shopping carts before the alarm sounds. When it does, anti-hoarding security officers will converge on the crime scene to halt your heist and send you to the far, far back of the shopping line.  

A little too close to reality? You may be right. Cancel that bright idea. Back to the drawing board.  

On second thought, it’s now time to read the newspaper. All those pandemic politicians, researchers, scientists and scoffers deserve more study than a 30-second, TV sound bite can possibly deliver.

Ah, here’s an item of interest. It seems social scientists are noting an interesting phenomenon in our current national lockdown. A surge of interest in games and puzzles is helping to combat indoor confinement and isolation, reduce uncertainty and fear, and mitigate helplessness and hopelessness. 

Checking the latest sales figures to corroborate this trend, I note that jigsaw puzzles have gained so much popularity of late that they are now ranked among the top ten of most desired household items.

Talk about fortunate coincidences. Our thoughtful daughter Courtney has brought us a 500-piece jigsaw to help thwart our sheltering-in-place shudders. It’s just what we need. After all, we can’t go on sipping Chardonnay and binging on episodes of “The Crown,” “The Royals,” and “Harry and Meghan Go to America to Masquerade as Obscure Commoners.”

Our new jigsaw is a visual treat as well as a mental challenge. A reproduction of a 1979 painting by American artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley, it colorfully depicts a springtime yard sale in a rural Georgia setting full of new flowers and blooming trees. You can almost smell the blossoms and hear the bees. 

Notes suggest that the little girl seated on the front step of the two-story farmhouse may be Mattie Lou herself. If so, the artist has captured a moment she holds dear from childhood when friends and neighbors gathered to shop, snack and socialize. 

The sale is taking place on the front lawn of the family farm. Signs on a nearby barn advertise the scope of the sale—clothes and firewood, fresh eggs and toys, tables and chairs, oranges and marmalade, lamps and sofas, and the odds and ends that defy easy summary. And yes, refreshments are served.

What’s odd about this scene to our 2020 eyes?

People attending the sale are not practicing social distancing. They are practicing social bonding. The reason is that the original art for the puzzle was painted 40 years ago—a time when people were free to come and go, gather as they wished, shake hands, embrace and otherwise interact. They took such social customs for granted back in the good old days.

The browsers appear healthy and happy, without a care in the world. Pandemic is not a word they’ve heard since 1918. Maybe sixty years has been long enough to forget the deadly Spanish flu. Maybe a fine day like this with affable friends and cordial neighbors is an ideal way to feel human and savor the blessings of life. The longer I stare at it, the more I sense that Mattie Lou is on to something here. 

Our jigsaw is brightly colorful, thoughtfully conceived and engagingly intricate. Puzzles like this are more than a resource to relieve the sensation of domestic imprisonment. They enable players to take their minds off the fact that the world has changed overnight and that life may never be the same after authorities give us the all-clear signal to come out of our homes again.            

In these dire days, it seems like every professional psychologist and amateur do-gooder is busily dispensing advice on how best to cope with the 2020 malady of “sheltering in place” (translation: how not go nuts at home). 

Based on my jigsaw experiment, I can now recommend 500 (or 1,000, depending on your level of stress) pieces of do-it-yourself puzzling to shake the staying-too-long-indoors syndrome. It’s a practical  remedy to have at hand when a friend or loved calls to say “I’m going stir crazy!” or “I’m so bored I could scream!” or “I want to do something, but I don’t know what I want to do!”  

Two words here: jigsaw puzzle!

But how to assuage anxiety and defeat depression when away from the puzzle table? I urge my fellow inmates to enjoy a daily interlude of quiet reflection. Let your mind wander over the past. What have you learned from the lessons of your life? How can you apply them to the problems of the present? 

I have found that a daily discipline of thoughtful contemplation can soothe nerves as gently and surely as fitting together the random pieces of a jigsaw. After all, isn’t life itself a puzzle to be solved? 

Of course, no prescription is foolproof. One never knows where such meditations may lead. Sometimes they lead you to the unexpected. A recent reminiscence on my part is a case in point.

The other morning, comfortably adjusted in my recliner after morning knee exercises and with a hasty glance at the first signs of spring in my garden, I opened my newspaper. A very small item on the bottom of an inner page informed me that Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah was the latest park to close its gates to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It seems the flow of visitors to the park noted for its spire-shaped, red-rock formations made it too difficult for authorities to assure proper social distancing and maintain crowd control.

Yes, sir, that closure ought to teach rowdy nature lovers a lesson in manners. From now on, they’ll be hiking in their homes and grousing that the view of their living room is, well, overly familiar.

The Bryce closing was a brief to which most readers paid scant attention. But it made me sit up despite my ice-packed knee. Bryce was where I had one of the most illuminating moments of my life. It all came back to me the moment I saw that miscellaneous bit of information.

I had climbed off a tour bus that parked at the start of a hiking trail overlooking the canyon. Most folks decided to remain on the bus for a ride down to the nearest village; a small group, including myself, got off for a closer look-see at one of the wonders of the West. 

About halfway down the trail, I found myself alone. The group had gone on, leaving me behind as the solitary straggler. There was a reason for my straggle. What I saw was like nothing I had ever seen. The red rock columns rose like towers from the floor of the canyon. A solitary hawk floated above the formations as if deciding whether or not to land atop one. The view as a whole made you feel you had been transported back to the beginning of the world. 

Awed, I stood in absolute silence, eyeing the depths of the canyon and the hawk gliding in widening circles overhead. In that moment, I became aware that I was marveling at what had endured long before I arrived and would endure long after I departed. I had come face to face with eternity. It was a humbling reminder of mortal brevity and a sobering realization of human insignificance. So much for a fun hike! 

I hastened down the trail and on to the village, where the bus had parked. And there I encountered a second wonder. On a stretch of green at the edge of the village a full-antlered moose sat contentedly, with Mrs. Moose and the kiddies behind him. I had my camera. I couldn’t ignore the opportunity. 

Noting the moose was at peace and reasoning that his presence so near town must mean that he was at ease with humans, I slowly approached the moose family for a photo to capture the moment. Just as I prepared to take the photo, urgent cries from the bus across the road told me there was trouble. Maybe big trouble. There were shouting my name. It sounded like disaster had struck and left emergency in its wake. Had something happened to my wife or friends?   

With apologies to Mr. Moose, I withdrew and ran across the road to see what I could do to help.

“You’re in big trouble with the ranger!” someone shouted, pointing to the agitated official up the road who was waving her hands and arms at me as if I had just committed a technical foul. 

It seemed I had ventured too close to a dangerous animal. Not that there really was danger. The moose was quite content, I explained, and given his position so near town, obviously comfortable with tourists and therefore with the idea of having his photo taken. My only wonder was that he didn’t have a commercial sign perched near him reading: “Moose photo. Five dollars. Do not pet or ask for autograph.”

Having recently rescued a tourist gored by a bison he assumed would be as docile as a Disney toy, and having to arrange the animal lover’s delivery to the nearest ER for critical surgery, the ranger was in no mood for my camera bravado.

The fear and concern of my fellow passengers summoned me back from what they were sure was the brink of oblivion. It wasn’t necessary, I assured them, adding that I knew a thing or two about animals.    

When that got a laugh, I explained my moose was perfectly content, at peace with human beings (unlike the temperamental bison) and offered no warning via moaning, groaning or antler shaking at my approach. The clues were all there.  

My fellow passengers weren’t buying my wildlife smarts. From then on, they took to calling me “the reckless cowboy” or “Cowboy Howie.” I had to live with that for the duration of the Western tour. 

Although I never again approached a moose—or any other wild critter–with my camera, I must admit that for some time I have secretly nourished the fantasy of going to India and taking the photo of a tiger from the safety of a seat atop an elephant. I canceled that bucket list item when I learned that an apparently healthy tiger at the New York Zoo tested positive with the coronavirus.

If even a tiger can’t be trusted to stay healthy, I’m staying in and staying put. After all, I only have 488 pieces left to play before I solve the jigsaw mystery. And given my turtle-pace of puzzle-solving, I can’t estimate how long it will take me to complete.  

And so I’m isolating and playing the waiting game. I’ve even learned a few jigsaw puzzle jokes to entertain those who care to join me in the pleasures of puzzlement. If you’ve never heard one, here’s an example of jigsaw comedy:

Grandfather: “Guess what! I finally finished that jigsaw puzzle today. It took me just six months.” 

Grandmother: “Six months? That sounds like an awfully long time to finish a jigsaw puzzle.”

Grandfather: “Heck, no, it wasn’t. Not when the box says 4 to 6 years….”  

Speaking of which, would you mind passing me that blue piece at your end of the puzzle table? I’m hoping it will fit the pattern I’m trying to construct. If not, well, it might take me a few months. After all, there’s no rush. That’s why you can hear me humming “Time on My Hands” as I play. It’s the theme song for all us jigsaw jockeys. We’re in for the long term.  

Not that I’ve given up my idea for a pandemic board game. I’ve got a notion for a game called Supermarket Supermanners. In this version, shoppers are obliged to demonstrate the utmost courtesy, respect and kindness to others, wear masks and gloves and make polite conversation while keeping appropriate distance, if they wish to win the game and collect their choice of scarcities. It’s either that or the back of the line. 

The rules of the house must prevail. After all, we can’t go through a pandemic without having learned a thing or two if we wish to emerge into a better world.

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