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Patrick Henry: Puzzling proves to be both challenging, fun

“Me, I’m waiting so patiently

Lying on the floor

I’m just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle

Before it rains anymore.”

– Rolling Stones

In 1968, as a fusion of rock and revolution circled the globe, I could no more imagine Mick Jagger or myself doing a jigsaw puzzle than I could our taking tea with the Ladies Garden Club. Ah, times change. I never joined the Garden Club, but jigsaw puzzles became my go-to strategy for dealing with our recent record-breaking winter.

Before I actually tried one, jigsaw puzzles represented the epitome of mindless activity. They appeared to require the barest of physical or mental effort, and provide little, if any, sense of accomplishment. I was wrong on both counts. Assembling a puzzle with hundreds or thousands of pieces requires a larger amount of brainpower, physical stamina and emotional maturity than I suspected, and the jolt of endorphins released when you snap a defiant piece into the mosaic is not only pleasurable, it also reinforces the behavior.

“Puzzling” (it’s a verb in our house) does have its tedious moments. Take the initial sorting process, for example. Faced with 1,000 pieces of varying size, color and shape, you need some way to make sense of the chaos. Finding all of the straight pieces comes first and is not as easy as you think. Invariably you assemble the border only to discover that a half dozen “straights” are still hiding somewhere. How is this possible, you ask yourself? Then, realizing that you’ve just said this out loud to an empty room, you assume that talking to oneself is simply part of puzzling.

Once the initial sort is complete and the border more or less intact, you need to decide where to go next. Out for a beer works. By now your eyes and back are tired, and any desire to continue dealing with that pile of colored shapes is gone. You remind yourself that it will still be there tomorrow.

The next steps depend on the puzzle’s design, and no two are the same. Each has a distinct cut, and the shape of the pieces varies accordingly. They can be identical, a repeated pattern or totally random, like a herd of amoebas. Some shapes are so odd that they become interesting objects in and of themselves. Sadly, this unique identity is only temporary, surrendered for the greater good when the piece finds its resting place in the puzzle, lost now among its brethren.

When looking for a new puzzle, seek an image with a decent number of straight lines and few large areas of indistinct shape and color. The latter will drive you bats. Ultimately, the ideal puzzle walks that fine line between being difficult enough to be interesting, but not so difficult that you’re forced to decide between abandoning it or your sanity. Examples of the latter include puzzles that have no image whatsoever (all white and all black are popular variations), those that have an image on both sides of the pieces and those that inhabit three dimensions.

Every day we hear of a new smartphone app or website that claims to exercise our aging brains and help to keep them young. Jigsaw puzzles, which have been around for hundreds of years, remain one of the most effective in this regard.

As for me? After spending a winter completing them I am no longer, if you’ll pardon the expression, puzzled by their attraction.