We Gather Together

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For all who will be going “over the river and through the woods,” for those with fond memories of having done so, and for those who simply wish they could, warm wishes for a HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Quote for Today

“Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin…”

 — opening lines of a harvest festival hymn written by Henry Alford (1844)

 

“Going to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving.” (1000-piece puzzle)
Artist: H. Hargrove
Distributor: http://www.andrewsblaine.com

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Cinematic Chestnuts: My Favorite Films for the Holiday Season

LiW_Tree Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter.

In the United States, this week marks the beginning of a five-week-long revel of holidays that opens with Thanksgiving – a day set aside every year for feasting and a celebration of gratitude – and closes with the New Year.  In between will fall St. Nicholas Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Boxing Day (or St. Stephen’s Day), each of which can be rich with family traditions and history.

The cornucopia of dramatic material inherent in the winter holidays, coinciding as it has with the demand presented by generations of cold-weather filmgoers, has yielded a wealth of winter holiday films.

I offer for your enjoyment some of my family’s holiday season favorites, all of which I recommend highly.

Thanksgiving Films

There is no shortage of movies that explore emotional minefields vulnerable to exposure at family Thanksgiving dinners.

Here are two lighter offerings set in the days around Thanksgiving.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy
Synopsis: A wealthy businessman and a traveling salesman share a series of madcap adventures as each struggles to get home in time for Thanksgiving.
Recommended for: Hilarious pratfalls and excellent timing from two of the 1980s’ best film comedians punctuate an ultimately touching Thanksgiving story.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (language).

 

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Stars: Natalie Wood, Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne
Synopsis: A department store Santa Claus claiming to be the real thing teaches a little girl, her divorced mother, and her mother’s young attorney suitor a lesson in faith.
Recommended for: The original film of Miracle on 34th Street is the best.  Edmund Gwenn steals the show as the enigmatic and avuncular Kris Kringle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

Christmas Films

I understand that while some of you who read this blog are Christian, others are non-Christians who celebrate Christmas, and still others do not celebrate Christmas at all.  With that in mind, I rated the religious content of each of the films listed below.

Many of the best Christmas films address the season’s important themes – hope, goodness, and generosity of spirit – without reference to religion.  Yet others are stories for which Christmas is an incidental frame of reference.

Here are several can’t-miss greats!

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Timothy Dalton, Nigel Terry, Jane Merrow
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: A Christmas court in 1183 erupts into an extravaganza of power struggle and diplomatic wrangling among England’s King Henry II; his wife and sparring partner, Eleanor of Aquitaine; his three ambitious sons; and the young King of France.
Recommended for: One of the best screenplays of all time.  Phenomenal acting.  The finest balance of comedy and tragedy ever committed to film.
Appropriate for: High school-aged children and older.

 

 

Die Hard (1988)

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: New York cop John McClane must save the day when a Los Angeles company Christmas Eve party becomes a lethal hostage situation.
Recommended for: Highly entertaining, nonstop action.  A very funny script.  Delightful, just-this-side-of-camp performance by Alan Rickman as the film’s arch-villain.
Appropriate for: This film should be a PG-13, because of some graphic violence, a brief few adult scenes, and rampant blue language.

 

 

Die Hard 2  (1990)

Stars: Bruce Willis, William Sadler, Fred Thompson, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson, Franco Nero, and Dennis Franz
Religious Content: Minimal
Synopsis: John McClane finds himself in a race to save passenger flights held hostage by a group of terrorists that seizes control of Dulles Airport on Christmas Eve.
Recommended for: A rare sequel that lives up to the standard set by the original film.  Another engaging and very clever action plot.  Amusingly tongue-in-cheek (although rather blue) screenplay. Impressive stunts.
Appropriate for: A PG-13 audience (a great deal of violence and strong language).

 

 

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

Stars: Animation.
Religious Content: One character recites the Nativity verses from the Book of Luke (KJV) at a pivotal point in the story.
Synopsis: Perennial loser Charlie Brown searches for the true spirit of Christmas amidst a fog of secular commercialism.
Recommended for: This made-for-television classic never grows old.  It was groundbreaking in 1965 for its use of child voice-actors, its pioneering jazz score, and its direct invocation of a passage of the New Testament.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Stars: Jimmy Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart
Religious Content: Minimal; some Christmas carols appear in the score.
Synopsis: The Christmas rush wreaks havoc on the personal lives of staff in a Budapest gift shop.  A Christmas spirit of patience, generosity, and forgiveness helps to set everything aright.
Recommended for: This heart-warming gem of a film is infused with gentle pre-War courtesy and innocence.  Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are terrific as star-crossed lovers courting by mail.  Frank Morgan is poignantly gruff as the lonely storeowner.  Felix Bressart plays the warm-hearted, sensible, behind-the-scenes hero whom anyone might want as an uncle.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sakall.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: A single career woman who impersonates a married domestic goddess for a magazine column finds herself in a bind when a war hero asks to spend Christmas in her home.
Recommended for: Very much a period piece, this film showcases the comedic talents of one of the 20th century’s best actresses, Barbara Stanwyck.  The lovable and always smiling S. Z. Sakall saves the day.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven, Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester.
Religious Content: A bishop’s crisis of faith is central to the story.
Synopsis: In the days before Christmas, an angel visits a harried Episcopalian bishop in order to restore the bishop’s faith and raise spirits in his congregation.
Recommended for: This is a beautiful movie.  Cary Grant delivers a subtle and poignant performance as an angel who has to give up the woman he loves.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Scrooge “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

Stars: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Michael Hordern
Religious Content: Christmas is central to the story, but there are no overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: This outstanding version of Charles Dickens’ classic emphasizes character development and presents a tragically sympathetic Ebenezer Scrooge.
Recommended for: This is one of the two best film versions of A Christmas Carol.  I highly recommend it.
Appropriate for: The ghosts, and especially the ghost of Jacob Marley, might be too scary for young children.

 

 

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Stars: George C. Scott, Frank Finlay, David Warner, Susannah York, Edward Woodward, Roger Rees, Michael Gough, Angela Pleasence
Religious Content: No overtly Christian references.
Synopsis: An excellent made-for-TV version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Recommended for: This version of Dickens’ classic is visually sumptuous.  The script and cast are strong.  George C. Scott was born to play Ebenezer Scrooge just as he was born to play General George S. Patton.
Appropriate for: The ghosts might be too scary for young children.

 

 

The Nutcracker (1977)

Stars: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, Alexander Minz, the American Ballet Theatre
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: From her mysterious uncle, a young girl receives on Christmas Eve both a Nutcracker doll and a magical dream.
Recommended for: Mikhail Baryshnikov may be the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century.  His TV production of The Nutcracker with the American Ballet Theatre is a gorgeous masterpiece.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

White Christmas (1954)

Stars: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera Ellen, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger.
Religious Content: Minimal.
Synopsis: Two ex-army buddies take their successful musical revue to Vermont in an effort to save their former Commanding Officer’s hotel.
Recommended for: White Christmas showcases its cast’s tremendous singing, dancing, and comedic skills through a series of musical set pieces.  Danny Kaye is, as always, brilliant, warm-hearted, and hilarious.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1987)

Stars: Denholm Elliott, Mathonwy Reeves, Jesse McBrearty.
Religious Content: Minimal, beyond Christmas carols.
Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, a Welsh grandfather regales his grandson with stories of his early Christmases.
Recommended for: Deeply engaging, alternately poignant and humorous, this exquisite dramatic realization of Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem is a nostalgic celebration of Welshness and childhood.
Appropriate for: All ages.

 

 

Star in the Night (1945)

Stars: J. Carroll Naish, Donald Woods, Rosina Galli
Religious Content: This film is a clear allegory of the Nativity.
Synopsis: A mysterious stranger brings about a series of miraculous events on Christmas Eve at what had been a dismal desert motel.
Recommended for: This short (30-minute) film is a refreshing and touching reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  The film is available among the Special Features on the DVD release of Christmas in Connecticut.  It is also available on YouTube (linked below).
Appropriate for: School-age children and above.

 

 

 

Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Stars: Robert Powell, Olivia Hussey, Anne Bancroft, James Earl Jones, Caludia Cardinale, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, Valentina Cortese, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov, Ian McShane, James Farentino, Stacy Keach, Tony Lo Bianco, James Mason, Donald Pleasence, Anthony Quinn, Fernando Rey, Michael York, Cyril Cusack, Ian Bannen, and many more.

This spectacular six-hour TV miniseries is Franco Zeffirelli’s retelling of the life of Jesus, beginning with the betrothal of Mary and Joseph and ending with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.  Zeffirelli treated the material with great reverence and attention to detail – even thinking to have the village dogs bark at the Holy Ghost – and created an artistic triumph.

The cast is staggeringly good.  The script is spare and economical.  The narrative is well structured.  Details such as costumes and architecture are correct for the period.

Whether one views the miniseries as Biblical history or as a dramatization of a story which has been hugely important in the history of western civilization, Jesus of Nazareth is a compelling and high-quality piece of TV drama.

The Christmas story is presented in the series’ first seventy minutes with moving, rustic simplicity.  The stable is no more than a cave, and the shepherds are realistically ingenuous.

Because Zeffirelli freely depicts the New Testament stories’ violence (including the Slaughter of the Innocents), Jesus of Nazareth is not appropriate for young children.

The entire miniseries is available on YouTube.

 

Quote for Today

“What shall we hang — the holly, or each other?”

Christmas Eve 1183
Chinon Castle
Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lion in Winter

From Forward Roll to Starring Role: Cary Grant’s Conscious Creation of Himself

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He was born Archibald Alexander Leach on 18 January 1904, in the industrial port of Bristol on the west coast of England, to Elias James Leach, a garment worker, and Elsie Maria (Kingdon) Leach.

It is difficult today to know how many other children were born to the Leaches.  What is clear is that Archie was the only child of Elias and Elise to survive infancy.  What is also clear is that the depression Elsie suffered as a result of her losses affected her son for the rest of his life.

When Archie was nine years old, his mother disappeared one day while he was at school.  Elias first told Archie that his mother had gone on a “long holiday” to the seaside.  Some time later, Elias told his son that that Elsie had died.

(Only on his deathbed 22 years later did Elias confess that he had had Elsie committed to a mental institution.)

When Archie was ten, his father remarried.  Details of Archie’s life with his father’s new family are sketchy.  By all accounts, young Archie felt excluded and lonely.

After his expulsion from school at age 14, Archie moved to Brixton in southwest London to join the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, with whom he trained as an acrobat, mime, juggler, and stilt-walker.  The troupe sailed to the United States in 1920 when Archie was 16.  He never returned to Great Britain to stay.

Archie fell in love with the United States during his two-year tour with the Pender Troupe.  When the troupe returned to England in 1922, Archie remained behind, supporting himself with odd jobs as a vaudeville mind-reader, a necktie hawker, and a Coney Island stilt-walker.  He landed his first Broadway role in 1927, after a brief stint on the English musical stage, and never looked back.

In the autumn of 1931, 27-year-old Archie Leach drove his second-hand Packard across the United States in order to sign his first Hollywood contract with Paramount.  When pressed by the studio to rename himself, Archie suggested “Cary Lockwood,” the name of his most recent stage character.  ‘No,’ said the studio boss, ‘There’s another actor named Lockwood.  Pick one of these.’

From the proffered list of surnames, Archie chose, “Grant,” in part because Clark Gable had enjoyed so much success with the initials “CG.”  Thus was born the internationally beloved and unforgettable Hollywood personality we know as “Cary Grant.”

Over the course of 74 films from 1932 through 1966, Cary Grant cultivated an indelible and fabulously successful public persona.  The boy who began life in poverty and unhappiness became famous as an adult for his grace, beauty, wit, and glamour,

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his perfect posture, broad shoulders, and trim physique,

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and his breezy and apparently unshakeable confidence.

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Cary Grant defined the term “debonair.”  He always looked magnificent in his clothes.  People flocked by the millions to see his films.  Women swooned over him; men envied him.  Ian Fleming is said to have modeled his .007 agent James Bond after him.  As Grant himself said, “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

Archie Leach applied himself to the development his film career (and to his concomitant transformation into Cary Grant) with conscious study, careful planning, and discipline.  He observed Hollywood’s most urbane celebrities, such as Noel Coward, and adopted some of their mannerisms and stylistic idiosyncrasies.  Possessed of a fine intelligence, he read voraciously.  He cultivated a public love for baseball, the era’s National Pastime, supporting first the New York Yankees and later the Los Angeles Dodgers.  In June of 1942, he became a U.S. citizen, in the process changing his name legally to “Cary Grant.”

A highly professional practitioner of his craft, Cary Grant became a master verbal comedy (demonstrated here as he forces his acquaintanceship upon the fiancé of his ex-wife in His Girl Friday);

 

physical comedy (shown here in a famous scene with Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby);

 

character comedy (here in one of the funniest scenes of Alfred Hitchcock‘s funniest thriller, North by Northwest);

 

and drama (here again in North by Northwest, as he and Eva Marie Saint engage in mutual seduction over dinner on a speeding train).

 

Grant was capable of portraying darkness, such as in the arguably homicidal gold digger in Suspicion, but Hollywood refused to permit him to play a villain.

 

In some of his films, such as Holiday, Grant displayed his acrobatic skills.

 

Although never formally recognized during his career for his acting skill, Grant was a wonderfully subtle actor.  Because of his perfected persona, Cary Grant never disappears into his roles. One is always aware that one is watching Cary Grant, but each of his characters – from the unworldly paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, to the wartime cargo pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, to the hard-driving newspaper editor in His Girl Friday, to the charismatic jewel thief in To Catch a Thief – is different from each of the others.  In the uproariously funny Monkey Business, Grant successfully plays characters aged 35, 20, and seven.

Grant retired from films in 1966 at the age of 62, citing his belief that audiences would not want to see “Cary Grant” grow old.  In retirement, he shifted his professional attention to the business world, serving on the boards of several corporations, and devoted his personal time to his only child, daughter Jennifer, who was born to his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, in February of 1966.

Grant was a philanthropist throughout his adult life.  He donated his $137,000 salary for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to British War Relief and his $100,000 salary for Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to U.S. War Relief.  During the War, he traveled to entertain the troops.

Publically, Cary Grant was one of the most successful American figures of the 20th century.  Privately, he was haunted for his entire life by the central trauma of his childhood: the mysterious disappearance of his mother.

When he learned, at the age of 31, that his mother was alive and in an institution, he traveled immediately to England to secure her release.  He then moved her to California and supported her for the rest of her life.

The adult Grant was plagued by insecurity and was always fearful of losing the women in his life.  He resorted to using LSD in the early 1960s – at a time when it was legal – hoping that, as he said, “it would make me feel better about myself. I wanted to rid myself of all my hypocrisies.”

It is possible to see in the histories of Cary Grant’s five marriages the long, sad shadow cast on his life by the loss of his mother.  Of his first wife, Virginia Cherrill, he said, “My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her.”  Of the four wives who divorced him, he said, “They all left me. I didn’t leave any of them. They all walked out on me.”  For explanation, one might consult the revealing memoir penned by his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, about her life with Grant.  She describes scenes of Grant’s explosions of temper and hyper-controlling behavior which, I think, can be explained – though not excused – as desperate attempts to control his personal life and thereby avoid pain.

Grant’s incompleteness did not elude frequent co-star Katharine Hepburn, who offered this insightful comment on the lacunae in his private persona: “Cary Grant, I think, is a personality functioning, a delicious personality who has learnt to do certain things marvelously well.”

Cary Grant died of a stroke on November 29, 1986, while on a speaking tour in Davenport, Iowa.  He was survived by his devoted daughter, Jennifer, and his fifth wife, Barbara Harris.

He died with a $60 million estate, a testament to his financial acumen, his determination to succeed, and decades of focused hard work.  Pretty good for a boy who started as a motherless Cockney acrobat.

Cary Grant’s cinematic legacy is a veritable treasure trove.  Many of his films are available in their entirety on YouTube.

One can hardly go wrong in selecting a Grant film to watch on a cold winter evening.  Here are ten of my favorites, listed in no particular order.

  • The Awful Truth
  • My Favorite Wife
  • His Girl Friday
  • North by Northwest
  • Gunga Din
  • Notorious
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • Penny Serenade
  • Suspicion
  • The Bishop’s Wife

Quotes for Today

“My screen persona is a combination of Jack Buchanan, Noel Coward and Rex Harrison. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be, and, finally, I became that person. Or he became me.” – Cary Grant

“I have spent the greater part of my life fluctuating between Archie Leach and Cary Grant, unsure of each, suspecting each.” – Cary Grant

 

 

Order out of Chaos: Life Lessons Learned by a Puzzling Aficionado

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 Photo by Marianne Love (@Sellelady) for Slight Detour.

I have to admit it — I love putting jigsaw puzzles together.

When I came upon this exquisite portrait of autumn leaves, which in its delicate beauty evokes a Medieval stained glass window, my first thought was, “That would make a fantastic puzzle!”  Apparently the photographer, Marianne Love of Sandpoint, Idaho, agreed, because she called the photo JigsawPuzzleLeaves.

A jigsaw puzzle offers engrossing entertainment as well as quiet, meditative exercise which can be welcome in this cool, dark season leading into winter.  Puzzle assembly is a highly creative low-tech activity that anyone can undertake.

Over the many hours required to transform a jumbled chaos of pieces into the singular, ordered solution of a completed puzzle, one encounters lessons that can apply equally to puzzle work and to life.

I.  It helps to begin with a framework.

Although it is possible in principle to begin assembling a puzzle with any pair of adjacent pieces, it is most efficient to define the puzzle’s scope and the characteristics of its boundaries by assembling the frame.  Here, for example, is the 20″ X 27″ frame for a 1000-piece puzzle of a Tuscan pastoral scene.

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II.  Start with an organizing principle.

Every puzzle begins as a mass of randomly distributed pieces.

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While this may be beautiful to look at, it is not very useful.  To begin puzzle assembly in earnest, one must first apply an organizing principle to the pieces.  Usually, the first grouping occurs by color.

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III.  Seek out recognizable patterns, and begin work there.

To address the body of a puzzle, one needs a starting point.  For me, this is usually either an area that incorporates a clear boundary, such as the horizon in the Tuscan countryside,

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or sections with distinctive details, such as the crowds of tourists in this 1500-piece puzzle of the Paris Opera House.

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IV.  Divide a large project into smaller tasks.

I find it helpful to approach a complex puzzle section by section, following the leads of pieces that bear distinctive patterns.  For example, for the opera house interior, one might begin with the chandelier, surrounding artwork, and ceiling lights,

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follow that with the curtain and stage,

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and lastly, after most of the pieces have been locked into their correct spots, tackle the repetitive complexity of the theatre’s auditorium seats.

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V.  Some patterns become decipherable only after one has started to work.

Assembling a puzzle forces one to closely examine both the picture on the box and the individual pieces in search of fine patterns.

During the initial phase of the Tuscan countryside puzzle, both of these pieces might be categorized as “pink.”

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Only later might one realize that the solid pink piece on the left belongs in the sky, while the right-hand piece, with its fine-grained pattern, belongs among the plowed fields.

“Green” pieces might eventually be identified as components of distant mountainsides, leaves, lake water, grape vines, and shadows, but the proper identifications are not immediately discernible.

These pieces of the opera house interior, all categorized initially as “gold,” find their proper homes in the ceiling light fixture, the mezzanine’s decorative border, the auditorium’s lower walls, and various structural columns only after extensive investigation.

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VI.  Take breaks.

Pausing for a change of scene and a breath of fresh air always improves efficiency and effectiveness.

 

VII.  Sometimes the best way to find a puzzle piece is to stop looking for it.

This is true in life and in puzzle work: sometimes the best way to arrive at a solution – or find a specific piece – is to stop looking and allow the solution (or piece) to find you.

 

VIII.  Be willing to change your strategy and tactics as conditions evolve.

Throughout a large project such as the assembly of a 1000-piece puzzle, frequent changes of strategy may be warranted.

Whereas it is best to begin a puzzle sorting pieces by color and pattern, near the end of a puzzle project it becomes more efficient to sort the remaining pieces by shape.

Here are six basic puzzle piece shapes.

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IX.  Keep the big picture in mind, but focus your energy upon ensuring that the small details are correct.

The only way to complete a puzzle is to focus upon the accurate placement of each individual piece.  The words “close” and “almost” do not apply.

 

X.  The big picture emerges only when smaller tasks are complete.  In the context of the finished product, every component task makes sense.

When a puzzle is completed, a fascinating transition immediately takes place.  Whereas all of the preliminary work focuses piece by piece, in a completed puzzle it becomes nearly impossible to discern individual pieces.  Only the larger picture remains.

Here is the completed 20″ X 27″ 1000-piece Tuscan countryside.

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Here is the completed 23.5″ X 31.5″ 1500-piece Paris Opera House.

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XI.  Only when the project is finished can one know that there are no missing pieces.

The moment at which one places the final piece into a puzzle brings with it both satisfaction and relief, because it is only then that one is certain that none of the pieces has been lost.

 

Finding Good Puzzles

Jigsaw puzzles are available in a nearly infinite variety of designs and in a wide range of sizes and levels of complexity.

A German company called Ravensburger produces the best puzzles I have found. Ravensburger puzzles feature gorgeous, well-selected pictures that incorporate enough scenic variety to make pattern- and color-sorting manageable.  Ravensburger pieces are well cut and fit together tightly.  The puzzles’ matte finishes minimize glare.

Puzzle Tips

I recommend working on a puzzle on a large, dedicated horizontal surface in a well-lit room.

It helps to have three or four shallow boxes into which to sort pieces by color, pattern, or shape.

Be careful to ensure that any pieces knocked onto the floor are picked up immediately before they can be tracked into a different room or otherwise lost.

Do not vacuum or sweep a puzzle-working room until the puzzle is complete.

It is important to be patient.  Keep your sense of humor, and have faith that the pieces will eventually fit together into a congenial whole.

Remember that in puzzle assembly the process is meant to be at least as satisfying as the end result.

Have fun!

Quote for Today

“Our whole life is solving puzzles.” – Ernő Rubik