“Hello my name is Allison Pendell Jones and I’m addicted to puzzling.” This comment made me laugh on a post I had put up on Facebook looking for friends who were puzzling during the pandemic. But then the comments kept coming and coming and coming. In this crazy uncertain time, a few things have bubbled to the surface as unlikely heroes: sourdough starters, Netflix, and puzzles.
“The self-proclaimed puzzle king Peter Schubert tells us, ‘Bringing order to a pile of chaos can have an incredibly calming and relaxing effect,’” says Megan Miley. “This is my way of unwinding from a day filled with homeschooling and a full-time job. There is no better feeling than when you are in the homestretch with the last few pieces and see the puzzle come together before your eyes.” And the satisfaction of the last piece? Miley’s daughter Maple, 4, gets the honor. “It’s a new tradition. If that isn’t love then I don’t know what love is.”
Emma Williams says puzzling has even found a way into her work calls. “Last week’s conference call started with everyone giving updates on their puzzle progress,” she says. Williams is new to the puzzling world. “I have a friend who does puzzles all the time, so I asked her to borrow one. I was hoping it was something the family could do together and then it would entice the girls to get off their screen for a bit,” says Williams. That is a battle all parents can understand. “It sort of worked,” says Williams, mom to Leonie and Lila. “I do like puzzles,” she says, “but I have a lot of hobbies. To me, things like knitting are more satisfying because they have a long term result.”
That’s the rub with puzzles, you spend so much time working on them and when you finish it’s a bit heartbreaking to take them apart. After every puzzle, my kids always ask if we can frame them. But to me, part of the charm of puzzles is how short lived they are and then passing them off to friends. (More on this later…)
But not everyone takes apart their puzzles. Shoshana Fishbein is on a self-proclaimed puzzle quest. “The previous owner of this house left about 25 puzzles,” she says. “I’m planning on doing them all.” So far Fishbein is on number seven. She stacks them as they get completed. “I’m so addicted I start and end my day with puzzles.” The problem is that when she’s puzzling she doesn’t get anything else done. “I cannot walk away,” she laughs. Puzzling is in her blood. Her father buys 1,500-piece puzzles and spends six-months putting them together and then frames them around his home. And while her puzzles are a more reasonable 500-pieces, oftentimes she’ll be mid-completion when it’s dinner. “I throw a tablecloth over the puzzle,” she admits and dinner proceeds, albeit a bit uneven. “It’s a little wobbly, ignore that,” she tells her family as they put down their plates.
And while Fishbein hasn’t been picky about her puzzle choices (hey, free), Joy Sushinsky is. “I’m a big weirdo and I get into deep themes when I puzzle.” Last summer was National Parks. “I have gone to a bunch of National Parks and so I started collecting puzzles from all the parks that I have been to.” Once that was complete, she started to hunt for puzzles from Las Vegas. “Las Vegas is one of my favorite cities to visit. And as somebody who loves to read about real estate, my interest peaked after reading a series of books about the development of casinos over the last hundred years.”
But what is it about puzzles that had made it so popular during the time of COVID-19? Kate Rowe has a theory. “Puzzles work your mind, but aren’t (usually) insanely stressful like work, or even like the state of life right now.” Rowe turned to puzzles after a major surgery to keep her mind active and focused and now she sees a similar mind-set. “Usually people have a lot of options for distractions—friends, coffee shops, gyms—but now, they’re limited. Despite how much there is to watch, I believe people get sick of watching tv/movies and want to ‘do’ something, produce something that they can see the results of their efforts. I think that’s why I and so many others are loving puzzles, as well as gardening and baking.”
And puzzles are almost the opposite of computers—where we seem to be spending even more time these days (Zoom, GoogleMeets, work from home.) “I love puzzles because they’re so analog and tactile and engaging,” said Rowe.
Carrie Lang agrees. “We love that it’s a way to get away from the world, it’s unlike reading a book, scanning the internet, it completely takes your mind off everything around you.” Lang has even gotten daughters Cat & Mia Lang into puzzles. Up until the pandemic, “puzzling had always been a vacation thing for my husband and I.” But then “my mother was done with a few puzzles and brought them over a few weeks ago.” It took some time to open that first box—as well as finding some room—but now “we just began our third puzzle a week.”
Finding room can definitely be a struggle. I usually start our puzzles in the family room on our long but thin coffee table before moving it to our bigger kitchen table using a technique that involves a giant wooden cutting board and some curse words. Next purchase: a card table.
Megan Walker’s 13-year old daughter Nell “who enjoys quarantine life a little too much” has been holed up in her bedroom. “She has been doing puzzles on the floor in her room for a while,” says Walker. “But I made her move to the basement for a change of scenery and so her brother and I could join in.” One of their favorite puzzles was from a local artist, Debbie Lynn Zwiebach, in Highlandtown.
Beth Steiner’s husband, Alex, and son, Eli, has gotten into puzzles—swapping with grandma “so she’s currently working on our Mandalorian puzzle while we have her beach umbrella one.” The puzzle swap is such a great way to expand your number of puzzles. Oftentimes it’s with family members or friends, but sometimes there are neighborhood swaps and Facebook groups. (You will have to determine your level of comfort with using someone else’s puzzle.) Kristin Marcantonio posted a picture of some kid-friendly puzzles on her neighborhood page and within an hour they were all gone from her porch.
Jennifer Minke has stuck with new puzzles. She’s currently waiting for a few to show up from London. There are definitely local places that can usually do a same-day delivery or pickup, including aMuse Toys, Found Studio Shop, Trohv, Becket Hitch, and Shananigans Toy Shop.
For Minke and her family, 1000-pieces is her “sweet spot.” Their puzzle spot is a card table in the living room that is nice and sunny. (A Harry Potter castle from son Quinn’s most recent quarantine birthday has taken over the kitchen table.) Quinn has always had a natural affinity for puzzles. Minke will be scanning for a piece for ages and Quinn will walk up and pluck it out of the puzzle in seconds. “He has a broader scanning ability,” says Minke who will look for a specific color. Quinn is able to focus on the shape of the piece.
Dana Martin Scott’s son Charlie also seems to have a puzzle gift. “Charlie does enjoy working on the puzzles once I get him started,” says Scott. “He protests a bit and then becomes a puzzle ninja and seems to be able to find pieces that fit one right after the other. His favorite part is putting in the last piece.”
(Any parents admit to letting their kids put in the last piece and then pulling it out and doing it themselves. Just me?)
Minke and Quinn have finished six puzzles so far, but it’s not always perfect. They started one puzzle that no one loved. “We gave up on that one,” says Minke. “There was no pleasure there.” And these days, if something doesn’t bring pleasure, why waste the time.
That’s how Alex Steiner feels. “It’s very meditative. I like that there’s only one correct answer—it’s not like the outcome is in question. You know when you’ve done it right. The snap of that piece fitting down is very satisfying.”
Allison Pendell Jones, the self-admitted puzzle addict, and her husband have finished nine puzzles. Pendell Jones and her family, long-time Baltimore residents, moved to Albuquerque, a little over a year ago. “I have always enjoyed puzzles but really just got back into since moving. With more time and fewer distractions I remembered how calming they are. In some ways, this time has been similar to when we first moved here.” It’s a way to combat isolation with a purpose. “We do seem to measure this quarantine time in puzzles.” Nine thousand pieces of puzzles later, it’s been a long seclusion.
Elaine Asal has been preparing for this puzzling push for a long time. Her annual “Puzzle Season” brings together friends every year to conquer a puzzle. “We started joking that we had to prep for nationals.” That lead into talk of a manuel and currently Asal is putting together a “How To Puzzle” guidebook that includes chapters on Color Sorting vs. Shape Sorting, what to eat while puzzing, everyone’s roles, and condensation risks. “I love collaborative projects and I thrive on them,” says Asal. That’s what she loves about puzzling. “It’s intellectual, and collaborative, and fun,” and she’s ready to be working on a 1,000-piece puzzle elbow to elbow again with her friends.
For Patty Gallivan it’s therapy that she calls “rage puzzling.” So far she has completed three 1,000-piece puzzles. “It’s like when you’re so mad about things that you cannot concentrate on anything productive. But you can stare at shapes and colors and try to control a little thing like putting together a puzzle.”
And at the end of the day, puzzles are able to bring that satisfaction. A beginning, middle and end that is missing these days from normal life.
“They get your brain juices flowing,” says Rowe. “They’re just a small enjoyable thing in a hard as hell time.”