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Last January, my wife received a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift from some dear friends. The puzzle depicting an idyllic cabin by the lake that looked like the cabin by the lake we currently live in. We thanked our friends for their thoughtfulness and put it away in our games cupboard. We were not sure when we would actually do the puzzle but it was nice to have it in case the need arose.
The need arose.
One of the reasons we don’t do puzzles is that they require a large, flat, comfortable surface, which is not easy to come by in our modest home. But with no plans for company in the immediate future, we were free to move furniture around to create the necessary playing surface. We put the extension in the kitchen table and rotated it so it projected into the living room. We ate our meals at one end of the table and spread the puzzle out on the other end. It still wasn’t comfortable, but it was large, flat and well lit.
On the 16th day of our isolation, we cut the box open and ceremoniously dumped the pieces on the table. We knew the drill. Frame first, then we tackled the large objects with distinctive straight lines and/or unique colours. My wife primarily used the colour and shape of the pieces to solve the puzzle; I relied more heavily on the picture on the box as a guide. And so began our odyssey of the puzzle.
I came to know every piece of that puzzle more intimately than I have known anything in my life. One piece had a bit of antler running through the upper left quadrant. Another was shaped like a gingerbread man. Some pieces found a home in the puzzle the first time I picked them up. Others hung around for more than a week until the puzzle filled in enough for the errant piece to be properly placed. But once a piece joined the collective, it lost its individuality and blended into the puzzle to complete the picture.
My thoughts wandered. What is a jigsaw? First and foremost, it is a puzzle to be solved. But unlike many puzzles, it can be eventually solved with a modicum of talent and a sufficient reserve of stubborn determination. In our case, three to four hours a day for 16 days. Our daily routine was to give it a good hour or so in the morning and then, during the course of the day, wander back to it as we drifted past the kitchen table in an aimless quarantine shuffle.
Ultimately, a jigsaw puzzle is a testament to one’s character. You usually complete this arbitrary, time consuming but ultimately useless task for no better reason than not allowing yourself to be a quitter. I documented the odyssey on Facebook and received both encouragement along the way and hearty congratulations upon our eventual success. It was reminiscent of the praise my mother would heap on me for my handmade Mother’s Day card.
A fair number of friends who followed our odyssey considered the activity to be a craft or an artistic endeavour. Some commented on the beauty of the picture. Many insisted that we frame and hang the completed puzzle on our wall. I am skeptical as to whether there is any artistry in completing a jigsaw puzzle. After all, it is someone else’s artwork that we are constructing through pure grunt work. Unless one considers pattern recognition to be artistic, solving a jigsaw puzzle seems more of artistic appropriation than art. I understand the impulse to frame and keep the completed puzzle for posterity, but is it really practical to frame and display every jigsaw puzzle one completes in one’s lifetime? Framing is expensive, but the lack of available wall space is a bigger deterrent than a lack of money. Aesthetically, I believe that hanging even a small number of puzzles on the walls will make my house look like a cross between an elementary school classroom and the world’s cheesiest art gallery.
So what to do with the completed puzzle? The only reasonable option seemed to be to break it up and put it back in the box. It took 16 days to put the puzzle together and only two minutes to tear it apart again. It was then that I felt the full force of the second law of thermodynamics, more commonly known as entropy. A puzzle contains information which we recognize as a picture. It takes a great deal of energy in the form of human labour to put a puzzle together and make this information intelligible, but very little effort to destroy the information. And of course, entropy only moves in one direction. Shake a jigsaw puzzle and it will fall apart, but no matter how long you shake the box, it will never spontaneously reassemble back into a completed picture.
Once our puzzle pieces were back in the box, it became apparent that the goal was never to complete the puzzle at all. Rather it was merely a mechanism to fill time. In this way, jigsaw puzzles are like life itself: It’s all about the journey; the destination is, in fact, trivial.
Irv Handler lives in Haliburton, Ont.