A Puzzling Situation

Click. Clack. Click. 

“Hu’p?”

In Missy’s enunciation, that usually means “Help.” And in Missy’s room, with those sound effects, it usually means her favorite puzzle is once again underway. 

In more than 12 years as Missy’s guardians, Heather and I have watched her work a lot of children’s puzzles – ones with planets, dinosaurs, pirates and more. But nothing has equaled the popularity of the Llama Llama puzzle, where the pieces have been handled so many times that the colors are becoming more of a suggestion. 

It’s not that Missy’s a fan of the show. To my knowledge, she’s never watched a single episode. But the Llama Llama puzzle may be unique in the realm of board puzzles. Even by the forgiving standards of that field, its pieces are …. shall we say, highly adaptable? In fact, a given piece may have four or five different spots where it could easily fit without bringing the process to a halt. 

And so, it’s quite possible for Missy to work the puzzle for an hour or more without creating the same picture twice. Mind you, only one of those combinations creates an “actual” picture. The rest of them are a bit more surrealistic, with Llama Llama’s head oddly disconnected from the rest of his body, or a toy train beginning in one corner of the puzzle and continuing in another as though connected by some bizarre hyperspace tunnel. 

But in a way, it doesn’t really matter. One way or another, with or without help, Missy finds her way through. And the answers she finds are indisputably hers. 

That’s truly satisfying. To her. To me and Heather. And maybe to anyone who’s had to assemble a life experience from inconsistent parts. 

Plenty of people have advice on how your picture should look, of course. After all, they know the “right way” to do it. It worked for them, so it’ll work for you, right? 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with learning from the experience of others. That’s how we pick up a lot of things from parents, teachers, employers and even the occasional Muppet. (“Why, yes, Cookie *does* start with C!”) But there comes a point where someone else’s lessons can only go so far.

And sooner or later, we all have to wrestle with the puzzle pieces for ourselves. 

The result may look odd to someone else. Chaotic. Out of order. Certainly unconventional.  But they’re not you. We all start in different places, work through different perceptions, feel the call of different songs. Our lives don’t neatly fit the same box.  

If the picture you build isn’t hurting someone else, chances are you’re doing it right. If it’s removing pain and adding to the world’s beauty, you’re doing it very right indeed.

And if it’s a little weird in the process – well, I’m certainly not in a position to argue.

Llama Llama has now been reassembled for the 1,237th time. (Source: U.S. Department of Imaginary Figures.) His toy box is upside down. His hooves are far enough apart to require a map. But it’s still a scene of celebration.

An answer has been found. Tomorrow’s may be different. But with patience, creativity and a memory of where “edge pieces” go, it will be one that eventually works.

All is well.

No need for Llama drama.

Word Out

The final count: 423 words in a row.

I stared at the screen for a few seconds in disbelief. Nothing lasts forever, of course. But my year-plus run of beating Wordle had started to feel pretty close.  The game’s six steps had always been enough to solve the five-letter word of the day, even if it was sometimes by the skin of my teeth.

But not this time.

“Current streak: 0.”

The word on the screen was CREDO, as in a core statement of belief. The word from my mouth … um, may not have had five letters in it.

The worst part? I’d done it to myself. My guesses had uncovered all five letters of the answer, but I’d read too quickly to notice and only used four.The information was there. The brain was not.

And if that sounds way too familiar, I’m not surprised.

Sherlock Holmes used to warn about the dangers of reasoning from incomplete data. But in this information-soaked age, the more common problem is likely to be the reverse: complete data, incomplete reasoning. We get tired. Or distracted. Or even overwhelmed as we try to handle “everything, everywhere, all at once,” which these days is not just a movie, it’s a way of life.

Whatever the reason, it creates a brain wreck. Sometimes it’s just annoying, like spotting an error in an email you sent just give minutes ago. Other times, it’s bigger – maybe even on the level of national news. (“BREAKING: GOVERNMENT FAILED TO ACT ON WARNINGS.”)

But in a weird way, it’s also hopeful. It means learning is possible.

If you visit here regularly, you may know that I’m also a tabletop roleplayer who runs Dungeons & Dragons games for his nephews. (If you didn’t know that, yes, I’m even geekier than you realized.) I bring it up because a lot of modern games now include the concept of “failing forward.” In a roleplaying game, it means that a failure should always advance the story in some way, even while making things harder.

In real life, it’s an even simpler concept: that a failure you can learn from is not a total failure. It’s the beginning of a future success.

It hurts. No question. It’s frustrating beyond belief. And even when you know what needs to improve, it’s often not easy. It often means retraining habits,  pushing beyond old expectations, even asking for help. Learning’s not a comfortable thing.

But it’s a possible thing. It can be done. And that’s what matters.

The story can move forward.

And despite what the world tells you, it doesn’t have to move forward at a rush. Take the time you need. Examine the situation. Learn the pieces you have and be ready to look for new ways they might fit.

It doesn’t guarantee a win. But it keeps you in the game. And with enough struggle and awareness and growth, it can eventually spell something pretty G-R-E-A-T.

At least, that’s my credo.

Ever a -dle Moment

I feel a little sorry for anyone trying to eavesdrop on the conversations of Chez Rochat these days.

“So did you get today’s flag yet?”

“Yeah, but I was totally in the wrong place for the country. You’ll see. And I have no idea on the music.”

‘Really? Play it a couple more times, you’ll know the guitar.”

“Ok …”

If it sounds puzzling … you’re absolutely right.

A few months back, I wrote about getting caught up in the Wordle craze, the ubiquitous puzzle game where you have to guess a five-letter word in six tries. I’m still there (and currently with a streak of over 260 wins). But these days, it’s got a lot of company.

Like Warbl, where you guess a song after hearing 30 seconds of it played backward.

Or Flagdle, where you have to recognize … well, national flags.

Or Quordle, the Wordle spin-off where you figure out four words in nine tries.

Not to mention Worldle (recognizing the shape of a country), Emovi (guess a film from a few emojis describing it), Yeardle (find the right year that an event happened in), and much, much more.

Heather discovered most of the games. I found a couple. A reader of this column even recommended one to us. It’s a little like finding dandelions in spring; every time you spot a new one, five more are nearby.

So what’s the point?

I’m not under the illusion that it makes me any smarter. Even the best brain games mostly teach you how to play brain games, a limited field unless you’re applying to become the New York Times crossword editor. (Know of any openings?) But that’s not to say that it’s useless, either.

Heather does them in part to sharpen her memory against the “brain fog” that multiple sclerosis can cause.  The moment where a reversed 30-second “Smoke on the Water” falls into place can be very reassuring.

For me, many of them play to my strengths: word play and weird bits of trivia.

And for both of us, the games hold the same appeal as a great mystery novel: pattern recognition from limited clues. As I pointed out last time, that’s a survival skill these days.

But there’s another quality that may be as valuable: tenaciousness. In particular, the awareness that an answer can be found, even if it’s not obvious or easy, and the will to keep trying for it.

I’m not naïve. I know that most of the issues we face in this world require a lot more thought than simply recognizing the shape of Belgium. But either way, persistence matters. No problem, simple or difficult, gets solved if people give up trying.

There’s a lot of temptation to do just that. As 2021 ended, an Axios poll found that more Americans were fearful than hopeful about the year to come. Ten months later, I suspect the proportions haven’t changed much.  Now, fear for the future isn’t necessarily unhelpful … but it depends on what you do with it. Does it drive you to despair and surrender? Or does it push you to struggle and try, to preserve something or even improve it?

If you’re struggling, if you’re tying, then there’s still hope in the midst of the dread. Hope sees a possible answer and then sweats to make it happen. It may take a lot of failed attempts. But hope keeps pushing for one more, to stay in the game a little longer.

So play on.  Hold your flag high.

And speaking of flags, have you seen today’s …?

Riddle Me This

Silence had reigned for a while.  For a moment, I wondered if I’d made things too difficult this time.

Then, the messages began popping up on my phone.

“Shred, lasso, trap,” one mused over the puzzle I’d left. “Terrapin?”

I checked, the clues did indeed translate to “tear, rope, pin.”

“CORRECT!”

Another came in, deducing that “lose it, quick text” actually meant “snap, ping.” And another, turning an especially convoluted wordplay into “teenage mutant ninjas.” Before long, most of the “Turtles” category had been uncovered.

Another Riddle Night was under way.

It’s probably my most curious hobby. Lots of people read. Plenty of people act with a theatre group, or play tabletop games, or fool around with a musical instrument. But the number of folks who create riddles for a group of friends to solve … well, I won’t say it approaches zero, but it is clearly a specialty entertainment.

I inherited the title of the Riddlemaster a while ago. Like many things, it started with a Facebook group, in this case centered around the humorous and thoughtful “Callahan’s Place” stories of the writer Spider Robinson. The tavern where Robinson’s science fiction stories were set had compassion, revelry, and near-constant puns – all things we could readily duplicate in a virtual environment.

But one of the more occasional features of the stories was Riddle Night, where one of the patrons would pick an unspoken theme and then write several related riddles on the board. Each successful guess scored a point; the winner had his or her drink tab cleared and got to be Riddlemaster next time if they chose.

We obviously couldn’t do anything about the drink tab in an online “saloon.” But the rest, with some effort, was doable. We added some more time (most of a weekend rather than just one night) and the caveat that if the winner didn’t feel up to the challenge of next week’s riddles, they could “pass the microphone” back to the default Riddlemaster – which, after the first few months, became me – and we were off.

OK, we were clearly off. But a little insanity never hurts for something like this.

By now, the topics have been myriad. Poker hands. Middle-earth. Heroes and villains. If you name it, we can riddle it – and maybe even crack it.

It takes a lot of mental effort, both to forge the riddles and to solve them. But it’s worth every drop of cranial sweat. In many ways, it uses the same parts of the brain that a good pun does, but in slightly different ways.

It forces you to look at meanings and see whether there’s something you hadn’t considered.

It makes you look for patterns and connections, veering away from the unproductive ones and zeroing in when the evidence becomes clear.

At times, it encourages you to work together – someone else’s wrong guess may have the key to your own solution.

In short, it makes you think, be aware, and pay attention to others.

That’s never a bad thing. Especially these days.

We don’t spend a lot of time trying to understand any more. Maybe that too is a specialty interest. It’s always easier to mobilize the troops and concentrate the folks who think just like you, to reinforce old habits and strengthen existing beliefs, than it is to try to see where someone else is coming from. It’s harder to feel where another person hurts – or harder still, to see where you’ve hurt someone else yourself – and reach out to help them out.

Harder. But essential. For all of us.

How do we get there? That’s a riddle indeed. But one well worth the solving.

And like the turtle riddles, the first step is to come out of your shell and try.

Puzzling it Out

Missy bent over the magazine, sharpened pencil at the ready. The point descended to circle one letter … then another … then one more.

She looked up from the penciled rings, her hundred-watt smile beaming. Just letters for now, no full words. But a New York Times crossword champion couldn’t have been prouder.

“Look!” she declared.

Despite all its other epochal moments, January 2017 will go down in history for Chez Rochat as the moment that Missy discovered Heather’s puzzle magazines. My wife Heather has long loved mind-benders of all kinds, from crosswords to sudoku to logic problems. Since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis two years ago, they’ve become not just a recreation but also a weapon to push back against the occasional MS “brain fog.”

Our disabled ward Missy, for her part, has always enjoyed more tactile challenges, like board puzzles, shape balls and simple jigsaws. But she’s never met a magazine she didn’t want to explore, whether to search for classic cars and pictures of fancy shoes or to disassemble for a spur-of-the-moment collage. And at a moment of Missy curiosity, Heather saw an opportunity.

Word searches and other letter jumbles are the current field of battle – anything Missy can peruse to track down a single letter, like finding where an “M” is or an “S.” It’s not quite the sort of play that the original puzzle-maker expected, perhaps, but it’s doing its job: sharpening a mind and challenging it to learn more.

Curiosity is a powerful thing once inflamed.

That’s something known by any scientist, any journalist, any parent of a 6-year-old. But somehow it still manages to surprise politicians. Even in its mildest forms, the nation’s curiosity can turn any offhand remark into a performance review, often pushing aside whatever message the elected official had hoped to promote.

And if that official is actually trying to hide something, or to cut off information, or to pre-empt debate? That’s when curiosity gets married to stubbornness.

Not always, I admit. People want to be right, and the desire to “mostly say hooray for our side” as Buffalo Springfield put it, can include a willingness to excuse behaviors and ignore inconvenient facts. But we also hate to hear words like “No,” “shut up,” and “You don’t need to know that.”

That becomes a challenge.

Ban a book and not only will it draw defenders, it’ll become a bestseller.

Cover up the truths behind a “third-rate burglary” and it becomes two years of Washington Post headlines, culminating in the first-ever presidential resignation.

Forbid someone to speak to the press officially and they’ll find a way to do it unofficially – often becoming more prominent and more embarrassing than if they’d been left to themselves.

Smart politicians learn this quickly. They learn that concealment and misrepresentation become their own stories, that open channels give you an opportunity to manage your message, that barriers don’t protect you but instead cut you off from any control.

The others? They learn what happens when you squeeze a sponge. The tighter you exert your grip, the more it leaks.

That mix of curiosity and stubbornness is woven tightly into this country’s fabric. It can be infuriating – but it’s also our national glory. Short of outright repression, it means no leader will ever go completely unchallenged. And none ever should, however popular they may be.

We want to know. We want to see. And given the slightest opportunity, we’ll find what we’re looking for.

Even if it’s as simple as an M-for-Missy.

Putting the Pieces Together

A small hand held the thin puzzle piece in midair for a few moments, then struck.

“Looka,” Missy said, motioning for my attention and pointing. She had indeed put together two more pieces of the Mickey and Minnie Mouse jigsaw puzzle – but with Minnie’s shoe pressed into Mickey’s body.

“Not bad,” I told her with a smile, scanning the landscape and the remaining bits. I found a fresh piece to one side, began a swap. “But what about this?”

Missy’s face brightened into a wide smile. “Yeah!”

My wife’s developmentally disabled aunt is a lady of many talents. When the mood strikes her, Missy will dance endlessly to a full-volume stereo. Or enthusiastically beat me at bowling. Or take a brush, some paints and a piece of construction paper and create one more art work for the family gallery. (The moment when I realized that a green streak and a blue one were actually two of our parakeets remains pretty exciting for me.)

But many times, in the middle of the living room, she’ll reach for one of the children’s puzzles nearby. By now, she knows many of the patterns well. But when she’s tired or frustrated – and while fighting a cold last week, she was definitely both – she’ll take shortcuts, hammering a piece where she wants it to go. Children’s puzzles being what they are, the piece will usually let her.

The result may be a pterodactyl’s wing on a tyrannosaur’s body. Or maybe a princess dress that moves jarringly from Sleeping Beauty blue to Ariel pink. Over the scene, Missy may look down in satisfaction or wrinkle her face as she realizes something isn’t quite right.

“I c’nt do it.”

“Sure you can, let’s take a look here.”

Even with help and patience, there’s always the temptation to go for the “easy” fit, to make the picture work. Even when it doesn’t.

In an alternate universe, Missy’s probably debating politics today.

If you’ve been on Facebook or any online forum – or even just a corner of a party at the wrong time – you know what I’m talking about. There’s always the one friend, who may be from either end of the political spectrum, who’s bound and determined to make their view of the world fit. Anything that supports the picture is latched on to unhesitatingly, anything critical is pushed aside, without hesitation and usually without verification.

At best, the result is approval from the choir and bit lips from everyone else. At worst, things can blow up into a heated argument, all the worse for everyone knowing deep down that they have the right of it and the other person’s just not listening.

And when it steps beyond social media, it can burn a lot more than just friendships.

A lot of national attention’s been given to the Jefferson County school board recently, where a proposed history curriculum would urge that “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The stated motive, according to one board member, is to make sure kids become “good citizens” and not “little rebels.” But given how much of this county’s history has resulted from civil disorder or social strife, from the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights battles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, a number of students, teachers and watchers are insisting that pieces of the puzzle are being lost or left out.

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,” wrote another Jefferson — Thomas, in this case.

The picture just doesn’t fit.

Jigsaw jams can be repaired. It sometimes requires an outside eye, it often requires patience. But the one thing it always requires is the willingness to dismantle the old picture first.

That’s not easy for any of us to do. (Myself included) It’s always easier to believe assumptions and react from reflex, much harder to entertain the thought that we might be wrong. Paul Simon once wrote that “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

It’s fun. It’ll finish the puzzle. But it won’t really complete it. That’s the goal, or it should be.

Ask Missy.

She knows what it’s like to finally get the picture.