Jigsaw Puzzles and Common Law Marriage

To start off the new year, my significant other, EW, and I decided we would have a little screen detox. “But, Z, “you might say, “are you not currently interacting with a screen? How serious a screen detox is this anyway?” And that is a good question. It’s not that I want a blanket ban on all screen use, it is more that I want a ban on all *mindless* screen use. As I wrote last week, in 2022 I was averaging 7-10 hours per week on social media, and when one sits down and thinks about the time one really has to oneself it doesn’t come out to very much time. I have a lot to accomplish in my life and I can’t just be scrolling on social media with it. I also, it turns out, can’t just be sitting on the couch watching TV.

I love television. In truth, it was one of my custodial parents. TV and I go way back, we understand each other, and we’ve had some amazingly great times together. EW and I have this love for TV in common which is why when we have had a long day, and especially if it is cold or crappy outside, we are both going to sit down and turn on the Ole Boob Tube. We’re not a house where the TV is all all day [though we both grew up in houses like that], but it is on for a solid 2 hours most non-summer nights and we are actively watching it because it’s bringing us our favorite stories, played by our favorite actors, from our favorite streaming services.

So if you’re following, that is roughly 15 hours of TV watching and 10 of social media scrolling per week. That’s a 25 hour job just looking at media other people have made! I want some of that time back to do things like look at this screen [writing], look a my pocket screen [reading books and journalism], not looking at a screen [doing crafts, being with friends and family, not fucking doing anything].

Part of the issue for me and EW, though, is that in the winter [a very long time in Montana] we don’t have a lot of overlapping hobbies. Sure, I like crafts, but he doesn’t [he’s happy to wear them at least]. Sure he enjoys all the winter sportsball but I don’t [though I know a surprising amount about football now and can almost intelligently participate in these discussions]. We both do a lot of reading, but in general that is a parallel play activity where you’re not really spending time together as much as next to each other. The same with the news. We both read the news a lot and breakfast conversation is often, “I read this article…” where we chat about what insane thing [or stupid thing, or hilarious thing] we each read about. In the summer we have the farm and other outside activities, but in the winter hobby overlap is mostly TV, talking trash about articles we read, walking the dog, and going to grocery store [all of which I love and illustrate what old farts we are]. I wanted to be sure that this screen detox I suggested we embark on didn’t have the inadvertent consequence of me and EW discovering that we just hung out on opposite ends of the house for all of January and never were together. Because, you know, we like each other. Enter: the jigsaw puzzle.

Wooden table covered in multi-colored puzzle pieces that have not been put together. In the background a man's hands are sorting the pieces.
Handsome gentleman beginning the puzzling, New Year’s Eve, 2022. This was a puzzle of various National Park Posters a friend gifted us last year

EW is always after me to do jigsaw puzzles because, despite doing almost none over the last little while when all the cool kids were doing them [lockdown], we both enjoy doing puzzles a lot. Fun fact: EW’s instagram since 2017 is almost exclusively puzzles that we have done. I am always the one who vetoes the puzzle because we get really involved in it and stay up too late and then I am stiff the next day because I hovered over a puzzle for 4 hours. But the act of doing the puzzle itself is always enjoyable and relaxing and something you can do in companionable silence or while listening to an audiobook. Other puzzlers can come in and out, there is no plot you’ll miss by doing this. And at the end you can say triumphantly to yourself and your fellow puzzler, “Eff that stupid puzzle, I hated it, but now it’s over. What puzzle do you want to do next?” So instead of TV for January we have been doing puzzles.

There are rules when doing a puzzle with another person and not all humans are compatible with every other puzzler’s rules. As an example, the second child [who is almost 11], is now a decent puzzler but she gets territorial or otherwise annoyed by her older brother [almost 14] poaching more desirable parts of the puzzle. During a puzzle we did last week of Basic Birds she actually hid one piece under her napkin so that she would have the last piece to put in the puzzle. I informed both of the kids that this move is a technical foul, at least in our house. And too many technical fouls means no contributing to the puzzle. I can imagine some other house [the sort of house where everyone plays pranks on each other and no one ever takes it too far or too seriously – so not our house] where hiding the last piece is a delightful past time and everyone good-naturedly participates in a practice where pieces could be lost or a puzzle is never officially finished because it’s just their thing. But not in this house.

No, in this house, as we are frantically adding the last dozen or so pieces, invariably in the same general area that’s just boring trees or sky with no landmarks, we each gauge who is most likely to get to the last piece first and then we voluntarily slow down in order to differentially allow the other person the great honor of placing the last piece. Sometimes we may even have to say, “no you,” or, “go ahead.” Because we want to be clear that no one is winning the puzzle, that the point of the puzzle is to work on it, not to complete it. There have even been times where one of us did a lot of work in the last stretch of the puzzle and simply left the last piece out for the other one to put in, leaving the puzzle uncompleted for hours. This is just who we are. You always let the other person have the last bite of the ice cream/popcorn, or the bigger half of the donut, or the fuller coffee cup. It’s just the rules.

There are also other, if not rules, then firm guidelines. Some people will not allow the puzzle to progress until the edge pieces have been assembled. My mother and grandfather, for instance, would consider it lawless to begin a puzzle from any other place besides a bottom corner piece. This is not how we start a puzzle in our house. Yes, we flip over all the pieces so they are face up and sort the end pieces out. Yes, if during this process we find pieces correctly put together from the factory we take them apart, but if you find two pieces that go together during the sorting process feel free to assemble them. Once the end pieces are all sorted out I tend to begin assembling them, but that is because they are often boring pieces [more on this later] and therefore the task left to me. Other fellow puzzlers are free to go put together other parts of the puzzle. Maybe you want to put together some large lettering, or a specific focal point, or all the faces, or the flags. Then by all means you should do that. Putting the edge pieces together is really a one person job and delegating it this way prevents the dreaded hovering or swooping or supervising, also technical fouls.

For those new to our house rules, supervising is in anyway directing or passing judgment on another puzzler’s puzzling. This rule is important when there are puzzlers of varying skill levels. One does not want an older sibling mocking a younger sibling, taunting them about their choices in pieces to try to fit. They might say something like, “that piece is obviously too green to fit there. What are you thinking?” This ruins the conviviality of the puzzling experience utterly. Sometimes it is quite hard when sitting next to a young puzzler because they are epically bad at the puzzle but you want to be encouraging. My general style in puzzling is to put together as few actual pieces as possible, I prefer to try them out in my head and rarely reach for a piece unless I am 80% certain that it’s going to fit. In my case this is because a grouchy adult-figure would often snap at me for “hovering” over the puzzle with my attempts to fit a piece, blocking their view. Now I am the grouchy adult who strictly enforces the hovering rule. During the Basic Birds puzzle I called “hovering” almost ten times. It was out of control. Swooping is likewise a nasty move where a puzzler, disgusted with being unable to find where the piece they have in their hand fits, puts the piece down and moves on. Then a fellow puzzler grabs that piece and drops it in the puzzle immediately afterward, often with a cackle. My son did this to me last week and I may have exclaimed, “you little fucker!” He was not deterred. This was after I had told him that he shouldn’t be supervising his sister’s placement of pieces. It is permissible to request that someone help you find where your piece goes, but it’s important to not go in search of the satisfaction of the swoop. You will be banned.

Another rule is that you never let The Cheet too close to the puzzle. She will knock pieces onto the floor and then the dog will eat them. I did not put together a single one of the birds in this puzzle, but that brown background is all me.

Everyone has preferred strategies, techniques and talents in the puzzle. As mentioned above I am often relegated to the “boring parts of the puzzle.” This is for many reasons. The first of which is skill. I have superior spatial reasoning compared to most humans [and I’m very modest] so if you have a 500 piece puzzle that is all white [and I mean ALL WHITE] I will be happy to do this puzzle and feel very smug at having completed it because I fit pieces together based on piece shape. I will see the edge of a piece and then go I search of pieces with that exact edge. Regularly, I will get to the end of a puzzle and not know what it is a picture of [and won’t really care that much] or I won’t have a sense of the puzzle as having “trees” or “boats,” because I just saw “brownish green with splotches,” or “stark white against several colors of bluish.”I certainly use clues from the colors of the pieces to fit them together [not just the shape] but I rarely know what those visual cues represent. These capabilities together mean that I am the best puzzler to do the parts that have nothing that distinguishes them other than shape and vague color. If a puzzle is made of pieces that are all exactly the same shape – even if they were numbered so you could put them together in order – I would flip the table rather than do that puzzle. I would be irrationally angry and never attempt a puzzle like that. In fact, when we take a puzzle like that out of the box, as soon as it becomes clear that the shapes are not distinctive enough, we have to stop.

Not so with EW. He is the sort of person who will study the picture of the puzzle carefully, then he finds a piece and figures out where it is in the picture. Not like generally – exactly. And then he sets about looking for other pieces that go exactly next to it. He is often known to say things like, “I can’t for the life of me figure out where in the puzzle this piece is.” I politely sip my beverage at that point because that is no way to live. Obviously the piece goes somewhere in the puzzle – who cares where? – when the space for it exists then it will be placed and not before. That said, EW’s strategy means that he gets to do the fun parts of the puzzle, the flashy bits. If there is one rustic, snow-covered chateau in a field of snow and stones, he is going to get to do the chateau and I am going to fill in the snow all around. We don’t do many puzzles like that because too much of the puzzle is “boring,” not giving him enough to do. Fairly famously, we got a puzzle a few years ago that was mostly a gray background with multiple, single-colored paint splotches and very little visual variety. EW hated this puzzle and we had to stop doing it with only half the edge put together. It was his equivalent of the puzzle where every piece is the same shape. He often gets irritated when there are too many “weird” pieces in a puzzle because, I suspect, they increase the number of ways that pieces can fit together and this slows him down. Weirdo pieces are my favorites.

Generally we pick puzzles that balance visual distinction in the picture with distinctive shaped pieces. This makes it possible for us to each have a job to do that is equally vital to a completed puzzle. EW is not going to want to brute force a puzzle by sorting all the pieces so that he can try each possible one in turn, and I am not going to do a puzzle where I have to find each piece in the picture before I can place it. That would be a hellish puzzle experience for us both. I think some people in our situation, with our puzzle proclivities, could easily find themselves resentful or entitled. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to object to always having to do the brown pieces while he gets to put together the Chickadees and Cardinals. But I don’t. In general, he fits many more pieces than I do in any given puzzle. I believe his method is superior for most parts of a puzzle but because it utterly breaks down in very specific instances my strategy has an additional value that allows the puzzle to get done. I spend a lot of the early puzzle, once the edges have been done studying the pieces so that when all that is left is the background I can knock it out really fast. By then, I have seen every piece and it’s shape in my head. I delight in looking like some sort of puzzle wizard at that specific point, even if it amounts to only 20% of the overall puzzle.

I think this sort of balance is a decent metaphor for our lives together [which is why I made you sit through a few hundred words about puzzles] and it is also a role reversal. In real life, EW does a lot [a lot] of the boring things. He does most of the dishes, mostly takes out the trash, does more of the laundry and vacuums. He digs most of the holes that the plants go in and I mostly pick out the plants and decide where they go. He dutifully does those less glamorous things in our lives and I get to do a lot of the flashier things. At least this is how it feels to me. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but I think what it really means is that I need to be sure that our life has a better balance of boring and flashy things. We need to be sure that our life is not like the puzzle of a single chateau in a field of snow.

Most of life has a lot more boring stuff in it than the average puzzle does. Almost no one elects to do all white puzzles because that would be infuriating, boring and ultimately unsatisfying for most people. But I feel like life can very easily get around to being the equivalent of an all white puzzle if you let it and refusing to do that sort of puzzle is not as straightforward.

I should be clear that when I say I get to do the flashy things in our life what I mostly mean is I make sure that I have a variety of things to do. No one here is partying all night and going to Vegas [ever]. It means I go to the fiber festival, I design the food forest, I try the weird veggie meals. I claim my right to do things that I find exciting. And sometimes I worry that EW will be resentful of the way I claim that right. I could be entitled about it, I could think to myself, “well if he wants to do something he should just do it,” but that isn’t what I do. I have designed two areas of the food forest so that we can try [fingers crossed] to grow blueberries and blackberries. I mustered every ounce of plant lore I know to try to give these two berries a fighting chance to grow and fruit here in semi-arid Zone 4b. Because he wants them. I grew the snapdragons from seed and selected cold hardy decorative grasses that I didn’t see a “functional” reason for because he wanted them [it turns out the hummingbirds really love the snapdragons and the grasses are surprisingly decorative in winter, which is most of the year]. Currently, I am rallying the troops to find the perfect used turntable credenza so that we can showcase his vinyl collection and also to source heritage turkeys so that EW can roast his own hand-raised Thanksgiving turkey. These are exciting and flashy ways for me to use my brain, for him. I think this might be why he goes along with a lot of my schemes as well.

The reason the puzzle is upside down in this photo is because I don’t need to be oriented to the image to do the boring white and brown part.

I think sometimes about my parents, who were abysmal at being married to each other, and also about me and my ex-husband [likewise terrible]. EW and I are not married, though we are coming up on seven years of being in this thing. This is on purpose but only because one has to deliberately do things to get married. I have said before that I would like to *be* married, I just don’t want to *get* married. It is, maybe you have noticed, a whole thing. There are a lot of reasons that the institution of marriage is crap, just as there are a lot of impediments created by not giving in to it when you have a relationship that is ostensibly the same arrangement. That’s all its own post and I am not writing about here. EW and I, however, know a thing or two about how to properly live in a long-term monogamous relationship and be mutually fulfilled. So there’s a point for the non-institution of common law marriage: a relationship that seems like there was no thought or ceremony put into it, but is necessarily intensely deliberate.

My parents NEVER could have done a puzzle together. It makes me laugh uproariously to even consider it. And it is a shame because my mother loved to do puzzles and my father has the same sort of spatial reasoning that I have and would therefore be really good at the boring parts of the puzzle [that my mother hated]. But they would never have been able to sort out mutually beneficial rules for puzzling. My mother would not have been able to resist supervising, they would both have swooped on each other’s areas, not understanding that you can’t win the puzzle. Similarly, my ex-husband and I could do almost no projects together so I would never even suggest a puzzle. He would feel entitled to the flashiest bits and would have insisted we do puzzles with all the same shapes if he liked the picture.

I am upstairs in my studio writing and EW is downstairs in the living room watching football. Yes, it’s on the TV. But also, it’s not mindless watching, he’s running a very important fantasy football pool and it is the post season so things are getting exciting [if one is into that sort of thing]. Our decision to not mindlessly watch TV as our default activity might be leading to more opportunities to do activities apart, but it is my turn to pick the next puzzle. I will be selecting one that is all different types of mushrooms. It has optimal visual interest and variety in the mushrooms, they are each small and can be easily distinguished from one another in the photo, but it has lots of negative space in between the mushrooms and weird shaped pieces. It’s the best puzzle for what we each bring to this thing. I think that if the kids ever ask me how to know if someone is the right sort of person to be your person, I’m going to tell them to do a jigsaw puzzle with them. This might be a very good test.

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