Sunday, February 26, 2012

Puzzling: The Benefits of Jigsaw Puzzles

            Puzzles tease the brain, test memory, and keep occupied those who have time to lose track of time. There are many types of puzzles: brain teasers, crosswords, word finds, logic puzzles, jigsaws, etc. Jigsaw puzzles, in particular, practice and test brain function. They are also a hobby for those who easily become bored on a rainy day. The benefits of jigsaw puzzles are numerous, and can lead to better overall quality of life.
            To begin with, puzzles prevent boredom. Now there are certain people this doesn't work for (imagine the young child who loves to play outdoors loudly). They do require a certain level of patience that younger kids don't have. For example, puzzles were big with my family at the beach, but we'd usually do them once we were back from a long tiring day of swimming and sitting in the sun and sand. We used them to relax in the air conditioning. My cousins might come over and try to place a few pieces, but usually they'd go right back to swimming in the pool once they got frustrated with pieces that just wouldn't fit. Anyway, puzzles prevent boredom by keeping the brain occupied enough while letting the body relax. Similar to reading a good book. On the other hand, reading occupies a lot of brain space, while the visual and tactile pursuit of putting together a puzzle leaves plenty of space open for conversation or thinking about other things. I used to do big puzzles in the summer time (1000-2000 pieces) and I'd sit on the porch all day organizing and putting together sections while drinking bottled coke and eating pretzels. It required just enough brainpower to keep it active and alert during the long months I wasn't in school.
            Jigsaw puzzles require strategy and memory to put together. The eyes and brain work together to determine it is easiest to start with the edges of a puzzle because that flat side is the easiest to recognize. On another beach trip with my family, we started a huge 10,000 piecer by searching out the edges. We had been working for days and finally completed the edge when a rainstorm blew onto the porch and the puzzle was scattered. I was young then, and too disappointed to start over with all those edges, but some of the adults kept working. I don't think we finished that puzzle though. Once those edge pieces are identified, the eyes move on to definable patterns in line or color (a large pink flower means all of the pink pieces go in the same place). We use clues, like the picture on the box and the patterns on the pieces to test out possibilities. When we get to difficult place, the shape of the pieces starts to matter. For example, in a puzzle with a ton of blue sky might require greater focus on the fading in and out of the blue or we may have to try every piece of a certain shape if they're all the same color. Especially at the end of a puzzle, it is easy to just test every piece in every space because there are only so many combinations. This requires some organization of the pieces so that each is tried and set aside.
            Memory comes into puzzles, too. When you've been looking at the same pieces for a while, you start to remember the weird looking ones or the ones you've already tried. The brain picks up patterns in the pieces and knows not to try certain ones again. You also go looking for new pieces of the same type when you register that all the combinations have been tried. When something happens to test accuracy, like two sections don't fit together because of one piece, the brain is at disequilibrium, and so it tries to fix the problem by identifying which piece was put in incorrectly. This requires a great attention to detail that has come from testing memory to be more and more specific. When you first start a puzzle, it is much easier to make a mistake in putting together two pieces that seem alike because you haven't been looking with such specificity. Eventually, many people don't have to look at the box anymore.
            All of this memory and brain function testing, multitasking and socializing time, and occupying of free time and relaxing lead to better quality of life. Doing all types of puzzles is scientifically proven to reduce likelihood of acquiring memory diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia, cancers of the brain, and anxiety disorders. Of course doing puzzles doesn't automatically guarantee a healthy life (exercise, nutrition, and companionship are also important), but it is a step in the right direction for adults who are easily bored or have trouble relaxing. I've been doing puzzles my whole life (all the types, not just jigsaw) and I still get automatically "in the zone" every time one is placed in front of me. I enjoy games with some puzzle element more than skill requirements. Some of my most vivid memories are of doing puzzles by myself or with my family (perhaps because my eyes were so active and it was easy to listen). My quality of life has been improved through puzzling, and I encourage anyone who's never tried to be open to the benefits.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Who Can Tell It Best?

            "Well, what did you think she was going to do?! Do you really think she can tell the difference?"
            "Do you honestly think that little of your own daughter?"
            "Where do you get off telling me about my own daughter?"
            "CUT! Ladies, that was pitiful. Are we not trying?" How could he believe these actresses, pampered and pretty, could emulate any argument of significance? Would his masterpiece be an infomercial? A soap opera?

            "Cara, try to act like you're sensitive to your daughter's disability in every way, maybe a little over the top? Can we do that? And Ann Marie, can you pretend this is a child with a disability, one that is disrupting your classroom and that you can't handle? DO NOT switch around the roles, huh? Got it?" Cursory nods of the head with blank eyes mean they got it, right?
            "Alright, TAKE 4!"

            "What did you think she would do? I know my daughter, okay? Do you really think she can't tell the difference between herself and the other students?"
            "Don't you think she can rise above it?"
            "Do you think you could rise above it?"
            "CUT, cut. Stop acting like your acting."

            Did I choose the wrong actors? Perhaps I didn't brief them enough? Maybe if they met Ally? Could I bring Ally in here? Could she tell her story? "How about this: I'm going to go home and spend some time with my daughter and we'll pick this up again tomorrow?"
            The actresses both looked relieved. I get how they wouldn't get it, but do I?

            If I didn't know anyone with Down's, would I get it? Did Ally even understand how it affected her? Did she understand about my writing and directing? Wasn't I doing the right thing, trying to make people understand?
            "Well, isn't this a sight!"
            "Ally and I are allowed to have a little fun while Daddy is at work, right Ally?"
            "Mhm," Ally never jumped up to say hello anymore. Would it be every day she stared deeper and deeper into a workbook or art project or puzzle and avoid my eyes more and more? Or maybe it was puberty coming on?
            "Did you have a day at work, dear?"
            "Don't I always?"
            "Not so good then?"
            "I don't get how they don't get it."
            "Yes, you do." And wasn't she right, my dearest wife? Wasn't I being unfair? Wasn't it unfair of me to assume these young girls could emulate an inexperienced and under-trained elementary school teacher and an overprotective mother of a child who slept less than three hours a night, still wet the bed at twelve, and couldn't imitate without direct instructions? Was that an obvious answer or what?
            "Ally, sweetheart, do you want to tell a story tomorrow? Go with Daddy to work?"
            "What story?" Was that a glance up?
            "Do you remember Mrs. Armstrong last year?"
            "I didn't like her. Why'd she have to place me with the baby class?"
            "Do you remember how you felt? Do you want to tell the story?"
            "Maybe. Are there snacks?"
            "Will there be snacks? Always."
            "Then why'd you even ask?" Do anyone else's crinkled eyes 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Second Resolution Season

Wow, I can't believe next week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season. So much has changed since I set my New Year's Resolution and it has only been a couple of months. I set out to do what I love, to write. It turns out, I should've gone a bit further.

For those of you who don't already know, I have decided to leave the world of Special Education (for a little while). I withdrew at the beginning of January and have been lost trying to find passion ever since. I've begun applying to a few MFA programs in creative writing and looking at jobs all over the country. If you weren't aware of the change, it isn't because I didn't think you should.

This decision was very difficult for me and that difficulty was driven in part by my high expectations of myself. I thought I would look a failure, even though I didn't fail. Some wise words from various family members and friends helped me realize that sometimes one path doesn't work out, but it still leads you to the next path.

I don't know where my next path will go, but with Lent beginning, I wanted to revise my resolution. For Lent I usually give something up as well as do something extra. This year my "something extra" is going to be a revision of my resolution:
(1) I will continue writing this blog in the same fashion as I have been.
(2) The intent is still to participate in NaNoWriMo.
(3) I will continue searching for a job or degree that suits me and my writing.

I want to give up so many things, but most are superficial. Instead, this year I'm going to add a few things. I want to keep in better contact with my family and friends. There are a few people I've lost these past months and I want them back. I'm going to fight for my relationships. For each of those people, the effort is different. Therefore, I won't parade them about on this blog but hope they come through to the individuals that I love and miss.

I also have some personal goals I'm working towards, and I want to wear myself out pursuing them. At its base, Lent is about sacrifice and hardship. We give up something or make our lives purposefully harder to recognize what God did for us, what His Son did for us. Even if you aren't religious, you can recognize the power of trying to be a better person every day. More patient. Honest. Kind. I use Lent to deliberately pursue those ends and see where I end up. It's a magical season, try it if you dare.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Writer's Block

            With me you don’t need to hide behind your education. I'm trying out the interview style, selecting you as my first victim. But you won't be natural.
            Why is it that every sentence I write flows like your words coming through my ears, mossy and tangled? Sitting at the desk, I'm over-editing your sentences. I'm trying to make them sound like you. But they just sound like me.
            Some of it sounds like poetry: Create a life for yourself without feathers and beads; simply grab some sharp shears. The class is not impressed. The professor is scowling at me. He knows about the feelings. He knows about the editing.
            "I interview my best friend, you, and I feel like I know you less," I scream it into your voicemail.
            I calmly sip my coffee and justify why it didn't work: This is personal, not professional. I have to be professional. No more interviewing friends. No more interviewing people I know.
            I sit awkwardly in the presence of a stranger. You skirt around my dress and hair, you openly describe my face as flawless. He does not say one compliment. He just answers the questions.
            You use so many strands of color and texture and form. I couldn't edit his words if I tried. I'm bored with them. So bored.
            If I am everything exploding with colors and textures and forms, why is it you who says so and not anyone else? My professor is giving me consistent Cs, all of my interviews are flat and boring. But you still compliment me. Your interview is still "colorful."
            I sit with strangers and listen to their words and try to find stories. I try to feign interest. In reality I furrow my brow in confusion and then remember to dismiss your compliments as fiction. Your compliments are because you are my friend. They are only trying to tell a story.
            You’re still saying all of the things I’d like to hear and I’m writing them all down for the record. I'm pretending that you are my interview, but my professor has forbidden it. I don't want to hurt you. But I want the B, the A, the approval.
            You say, We will rule together, I will speak at your wedding, guard you from harm. This is your chivalry as you leave the house. I will get you bad grades and insult your professors and never understand, I parrot back to you in my mind.
            The different lives of minimalist and journalist. You so confident in all of life and I so critical. You are generally happy and simple. I am generally depressed and angry. You don't help my writing, but neither do they.
            Or not.
            I keep going though. Doubt is like hope. Doubt is a question; hope is a dream. I doubt this will work but I hope that it will. And so I keep going. More questions to you and them. More dreams for me to tuck away.
            This will never work for my thesis. Together. I mean. This will never work together. Apart it might work. Apart I might get an interview I can use.
            The. The only single word you say without curlicues and cross out marks and punctuation. I add and I take away and I change your words around so they work but they don't work.
            You want us to get an apartment for a while, but date so many other people. That would be the end of my writing. It might be fun. I tell you that, but I guard my smiles so you know that it is only a slight possibility. Perhaps I could interview your dates.
            A relationship is what you are, a series of couples of people. Perhaps that is what I could focus on. But that is overdone.
            Little they know. You say about my writing. The point, though, is that they know just from my words. They may know little but I am supposed to be telling them.
            I finally sit down to write alone.
            I call you, frustrated.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


            The because of it all escaped him. He did not know why or how he was there. Perhaps if he hadn't been such a bastard, he'd be out in the world now. But there was no way to go back. There was no way to ask for forgiveness. It was too late. If this was a sort of prison, he couldn't pay the bond. All he had were promises. And those he was wont to break.
            There were no iron bars, as if he were a beast. Just white blank walls with no doors and no windows. It was as if he'd just appeared there one day. An old four-poster bed with wooden headboard practically filled the room save for the toilet, sink, and couch. It was comfortable enough. Boiled leather sofa, fit for reading. But no books in sight. There was a bookshelf, but no books. Everything was bejeweled by the florescent light. He could not escape it. It glared the wood and blinded him with shine. He did not know night nor day. The light was always on.
            At first there were things he could do. They slowly withered into nothingness. Bored of counting ceiling tiles (exactly 25, no half tiles). They must have been nailed to something because they did not budge when he tried to lift them up.
            Bored of staring at blank walls. Blank, seamless walls and floor. He knew; he studied every inch. Sometimes he studied the baseboard that bordered the room, and wondered where the door may have been. But there was no crack. It was as if the walls had been built up around him as he slept. But he did not know this room, so that could not be it. There were no bubbles in the carpet, no mouse holes in the corners. No secret passageways. Wishing to bore through the walls did not produce holes or tractors or wrecking balls. The longer he stared, the brighter the light got. It gave him headaches. And so he would sleep.
            Sometimes he thought he was in a book, awaiting his beheading. Or a hanging. Or a drowning. Or a trial. He wished for it. That would be something. An answer. That would end the long wait. The forever wait. The indefinite wait.
            He made a ball of bread from his last meal so he could have something to throw around. It got crusty though. Why ever he was here, it was not to starve. They were meager, but his meals appeared. He would turn around and there they'd be. No one brought them or took them away. They just were. He would try to invent stories with his meals. Carrots were people; potatoes were mountains. His imagination had run out long ago, however.
            He never learned a craft, but perhaps if there was an instrument here, a piano, a flute, a banjo…something to do. Tapping on the walls produced no echo, as if they were thick with insulation. All of the rooms' sounds were missing. The toilet didn't make a whoosh noise when it flushed, the water pouring from the sink didn't drip. The heating and air conditioning (if there was any) did not turn on and off within the walls. He was the only thing there to make noise, and the noises were meager too. This was his noise bubble. He was blocked out from the world around him. Safe, but unsafe from himself. He would go crazy here, he thought.
            Voices would come to him from memories, and he would try to reproduce them. He would give anything to have his brother here with him. Or a stranger. Instead, he was bantering with the walls. He hoped someone was listening, studying his mind running away from him. That would at least mean he wasn't talking to himself.
            All he had was sleep. He would try to dream of bygone days and the details he took for granted outside of his box. The sounds of people and music. The words in books. The colors and textures. And the feelings. There were no feelings here. Only memories.
            He knew he was losing his mind when his thoughts turned to love. In the world he loved many things or nothing. Here he loved the box. It was the only thing to do, loving the box. The box gave him peace and quiet and all the time in the world to sleep. The box was good. These days were the best of his life. He had all the time in the world to sit and appreciate what he could not have.