52° Good Afternoon
52° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Understanding life one piece at a time

Photo of jigsaw puzzle being worked on by

Photo of jigsaw puzzle being worked on by Michael Dobie and his family. Credit: Newsday/Michael Dobie

I got lost last week in the sky over Venice.

It was a gorgeous purple, actually several shades of purple, shifting seamlessly from darker to lighter tones as the eyes scanned from the heavens down to the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal beneath. Illuminated by streaks of light from scattered streetlamps, it was the kind of scene your eyes drink in, never fully sated. And it grew prettier as we slowly, painstakingly, added little pieces of purple to fill in the missing portions of that majestic sky.

My grandson will tell you I'm not that good of a jigsaw puzzler, certainly nowhere in his league, the one my wife and daughters also play in. They're all phenomenal. But like many other folks, I've been getting more interested in jigsaw puzzles in this age of the coronavirus. 

Jigsaws are, as they say, having a moment. And I am getting better. Practice does that. Work at it enough and you begin to see how to match the splotches of color and the shapes of those edges. I'm no stranger to puzzling, mind you. I dearly love them. But I prefer the words and numbers varieties. Crosswords, cryptics, acrostics, anagrams, Sudokus, KenKens, spirals, logic grids, almost any kind of puzzle that could be described as alpha or numeric.

Every puzzle, whatever the type, is a mystery to be solved and we get to be the detective. A tough puzzle is a master class in patience.

Completing a puzzle is a process that rewards time, effort and ingenuity. It is an exercise in bringing order to chaos, or in filling the void of an empty frame, or in seeing a pattern within apparent randomness. It's no wonder perhaps that puzzling has become more popular these days. From uncertainty, you find closure.

There was lots of puzzling going on last week in the wider world.

Astronomers who found what appears to be a rare intermediate mass black hole in the farthest corners of the Milky Way were trying to piece it into their theories of the universe. Reports of the first set of fossils to make a complete tail for the wacky Spinosaurus ignited new debate among paleontologists trying to decipher the swimming capabilities of this bizarre dinosaur. Researchers in Belgium reported that a llama whose antibodies neutralized both the SARS and MERS viruses also produced antibodies that held off the coronavirus, leading the medical establishment to puzzle whether these antibodies can work in humans.

The coronavirus itself is a dastardly puzzle, with thousands of detectives working hard on the solution. They're following logic that does not at first seem clear, trying to find the missing pieces that will complete the picture, seeking the right words to explain it all to a worried public. 

My wife and I do my favorite kinds of puzzles during weekend meals. The jigsaws we save for night. I'm developing a real appreciation for them. In some jigsaws, every piece is unique in its contours. In others, those thousand pieces come in just a few basic shapes with only infinitesimal differences between them. Do such a puzzle, you learn a respect for subtlety.

A good puzzle is more than a brain-stretcher, more than a time-occupier, more than a diversion, more than a touchstone that reminds us of places we can't go anymore. A good puzzle also is a metaphor and a dress rehearsal for what lies beyond our dining rooms and coffee tables.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.