Puzzles

I confess to being an addict—an addict of problems and puzzles.

When MC2 arrives each month, it doesn’t take me long before pencil and paper are out (and sometimes a few small computer programs as well), to attack the contributions on the puzzle page. The combination of strange human interest stories and weird mathematical coincidences for hypothetical protagonists whose names (fortunately) usually run in alphabetical order, is to me irresistible.

Worse than that, when Saturday’s “Edmonton Journal” arrives, my first port of call is a whole page of puzzles. The news and lifestyle articles wait—sometimes indefinitely. I start with unscrambling a number of jumbled words, to reconstruct a phrase which becomes the solution. I pass on to Isaac Asimov’s “super quiz”—not one of my greatest favourites, since it seems to test trivial recall more than brainpower, and sometimes I find I know it all, and in other areas—popular songs, movies, and movie stars—I find I know practically nothing. Next, I go on first to the simpler, ten minute, crossword, then to the larger one, and finally to the “diagramless”—which poses some of the neatest problems, since not only the words but also their location has to be discovered. Then there’s a number of Rebus type puzzles—some clever, some not so—before having a go at the Cryptograms. These always seem much more interesting as meaning gradually comes out from a process of intelligent guesswork and trial and error, than when I read the solutions a week later.

What’s the attraction—for attraction it certainly is? Just as the gambler seeks to find the perfect system, or the lover of “feghoots” is attracted by the improbable story made sense of by an impossible pun, so it seems to me that the exploration of the recesses of our mind, as we seek old memories, possible answers to clues, or means to attack a problem in mathematics, is a great source of pleasure—culminating when it leads to an intellectually satisfying answer.

When asked about the source of his great humour, the master of comedy, Charlie Chaplin, gave an illustration that I treasure. “Many people think it’s funny when a man slips on a banana peel;” he said. “But that’s not funny. What is really funny is when a man sees a banana peel, steps around it to avoid slipping on it, and falls down a manhole.”

Isn’t that what it’s all about? A situation. A challenge. A clue. A search through all the recesses of our mind, wondering if one or other false trail is the right one, to bring the unfinished to finality. Then at last, either we, with our own efforts, or the storyteller himself, divert us from what might possibly be the answer, to a finale that puts everything in its place. Falling down the manhole is not by itself funny. Nor is slipping on a banana peel. Somehow, it is the combination of the two, the substitution of one disaster for another, that gives the enjoyment. The same puzzlement, false clues, and final denouement that also makes a good detective story. The same first subject, second subject, development through disharmony and minor keys, and recapitulation to a harmonious ending, that goes into the making of a symphony.

So the golfer, trying “to hit an undersized ball into an undersized hole with the most difficult instruments imaginable”. So the hockey player, trying to steer past the defenses of the opposing goaltender to put the puck into the net. The circumstances may be different—but the plot is always the same. Travelling hopefully is essential to the pleasure of arrival.

– Gemini, July 1996
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