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Okumura Masanobu:
Solving a Puzzle (n.d., circa 1700-1760s)

" … no more often than occasionally, please."

When the annual New Yorker Puzzle Edition arrives, I resign myself to missing my usual reading material that week. I won't even look at the offered puzzles because they have always just confused me. Likewise, I hop over the New York Times crossword puzzle page. I find puzzles puzzling rather than entertaining. I consider those who dedicate themselves to Wordle, whatever that is, unfortunate. The Muse is forever playing solitaire or something on her phone. I find even the mention of card games boring. I will not submit to playing board games, either, with the very occasional exception of Scrabble. I find board games aptly named in that they seem boring. Given a choice between sitting quietly in some corner and solving a puzzle, I'll choose sitting quietly in some corner fifty times out of twenty.

I admit that Success sometimes demands that I solve some genuine Puzzlement.
I remain hesitant even to start down that slippery slope, for I always feel confident that each new puzzling situation will prove to be the one inescapable one, the instance where I will solve backward and make matters worse or, worse, freeze up halfway through, leaving an eternally unresolvable mess. I natter around the edges of these Puzzlements, playing scenarios in my head. I often seek advice and counsel from those whom I consider more experienced. Especially when I'm facing the need to perform some demolition, I rarely find myself able to imagine how to undo anything. The underlying construction never seems anything like obvious. I can't decide which tools best serve me. I circle uncomfortably until accepting advice.

Eventually, my hesitance somehow accumulates critical mass, and I get moving. I take those first few steps as if wearing lead sneakers. I shuffle and stumble out of the blocks. I might turn around and replace all the equipment I've gathered before retreating to somewhere quiet where I can think through alternate scenarios again. I often look as though I'm napping when I'm grappling with some Puzzlement. Usually, though, eventually, I get going. Once moving, once moving forward, patterns emerge, and I start seeing how I might manage to Succeed, always painfully, though, never easily. I feel wise to avoid Puzzlements and only engage after exhausting most reasonable alternatives. I begin once trapped. I solve to regain freedom, never to seek entertainment or even satisfaction. I only engage in problem-solving when there's no remaining reasonable alternative.

I usually manage to Succeed after a fashion. I avoid the formal Puzzlements, those promoted as games because they seem to insist upon single solutions. There's only one correct way to assemble a puzzle. This convention seems unforgiving. Real-world Puzzlements might be resolved in a variety of ways. Right and proper only rarely ever come into play. My favorite resolution strategy involves changing the story about the puzzle without even setting my mits on it. If I can quench my curiosity about the solution or leach out my desire for resolution, I can comfortably leave that puzzle unattended, unresolved. The Second Order Solution accepts the puzzle as perfect while still in the unopened box. It gives away whatever mystery might have accompanied the thing with just enough acceptance that the puzzle's just fine —thank you!— unsolved.

I admit to feeling a flash of satisfaction on those rare occasions when I resolve some Puzzlement. These Successes rarely come, which is precisely as such things should be. I would not want a steady diet of rich mysteries. They do not sit well with me. Occasionally, though, I can savor some puzzles, though I require some coercion. I must be cornered and need to escape. These Puzzlements are more inconvenience than entertainment, the most challenging work I ever attempt to accomplish. May I never become an accomplished puzzle solver. May I retain my blesséd hesitance. May solutions ever surprise me, sometimes even delight me, but no more often than occasionally, please.

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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