The Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

Overcoming Puzzle Shame

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but here it is.

I have never been particularly fond of puzzles.

It gets worse.  I have never been particularly fond of puzzles because I have never been particularly good at puzzles.

Before I dig myself even deeper, let me make a disclaimer:  my faint dislike for puzzles extends mostly to those requiring some (or really, any) semblance of mathematical knowledge or skill.  Crosswords, I love.  The methodical pace, the clearly delineated patterns and more or less defined methods of attack.  Letters in their proper boxes.  Boxes stacking up to form words.  Answers derived from a little sleight of linguistic hand, but nothing that my brain can’t wrap itself around with a little nudge.  And for the ultimate clincher (beware, geek alert), I watched the documentary Wordplay a couple of years ago and never looked back.  The bits with Will Shortz (the NYT Crossword Puzzle Editor) and Jon Stewart are priceless and could make a convert out of anyone. Watch it.

Jon Stewart doing a crossword in his office. Doesn’t get much cuter than that.

But Sudoku.  Now that’s a foreign land.  My brain doesn’t pick its way through digits 0-9 with the same agility as it does through a trove of A-Zs.  Sudoku is a minefield.  Minesweep?  Fuggedaboutit.

When MOCA opened its current exhibition, Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind, I was excited to see that amongst the hundreds of antique pieces wrought from iron and jade, numerous copper and wooden hands-on replicas, there were no numbers in sight.  My mind rejoiced – here was something I could get into.

Yet as I tackled the ingenious rings, the burr puzzle, the tangrams – I began to realize that these puzzles, while not viewable to the naked eye, were full of unseen numbers.  Instead of seeing those 0s and 9s, they had manifested themselves into sides and shapes, counting orders and angles.  Geometry.  Algebra.  NO!  I felt like the kid in Mrs. Fibonnacci’s math class:

From the amazing book that both children AND adults will enjoy: Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.

I couldn’t extrapolate their meaning beyond the dense fog of latent figures and equations.  I just wanted to see the solutions.  I wanted the pieces to either fall together or to fall apart (depending on the point of the puzzle).  I wanted to have that ‘a-ha!’ moment instantaneously or, I’ll be honest, just have someone tell me the answer.  This is not a moment I’m proud of.

Miring in my self-doubt, wondering how I could have gotten myself into this mess, it began to occur to me that I might have been looking at this all wrong.  While numbers may be a grounding component of these puzzles, and possibly of all puzzles (after all, at a very basic, superficial-level understanding, any person worth their crossword salt knows that a fatal crossword error is to triumphantly pen in an answer, only to realize that you have miscounted and have 1 more empty box to fill), the real fundamental skill in tackling a puzzle is the mental gymnastics you’re willing to subject your mind to in order to get through it.  Visually, I think your brain probably looks something like this (check the clip at around 2:18 in):

Vincent Cassel doing his Nightfox-laser-dance-thing as he breaks into a vault in the movie, Ocean’s 12.

Appropriately, like a sign from above, the New York Times delivered this message into my inbox that very same day:

“It’s all about you, using your own mind, without any method or schema, to restore order from chaos,” Dr. Danesi said. “And once you have, you can sit back and say, ‘Hey, the rest of my life may be a disaster, but at least I have a solution.’ ” MARCEL DANESI, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of ”The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life.” (NYT Quotation of the Day, December 7, 2010)

And just like that, I believed.  Reading through the illuminating article, “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving,” by Benedict Carey, I began to see puzzles for their capacity to tap into different spheres of our brain, informing us as to how human beings process information, analyze a situation, and develop insight.  Taking it a step further, they can tell us more about how we communicate with one another.

I had been seeing these puzzles, Sudokus and tangrams alike, as insurmountable obstacles as opposed to scalable peaks, wrapped up in the notion that they were only for the mathematically-oriented.  A puzzle boils down to each person’s own predisposition to various methods of synthesizing data, and if that fails, our ability to then stretch beyond our predispositions and find other possible approaches.  This perspective helped diffuse the numerical fog, providing a framework that made it all seem less daunting.

Though I can’t kid myself and say that I suddenly became a puzzle-master and will be registering for the Puzzle Symposium held at MOCA early next year, my sociologically and philosophically-bent mind gleaned a whole new appreciation for their far-reaching applications and significance.

And, dare I say, I’ve grown a bit fond of them.

–Marissa W. Chen, Development Assistant, MOCA

Note: The New York Times did a fantastic series on puzzles and their relevance in contemporary society.  And while it is featured in the Science Times section, much of the content cross-references the intersection of puzzling and art, design, philosophy, and more. I would highly recommend that you check out their plethora of articles and essays, particularly one of my favorites about how to construct the perfect crossword and the thought processes behind it: “An 11-Letter Word for Perfectionist?  Starts with ‘C’”, by Cornelia Dean.

I also highly recommend that you check out the article on the design behind Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Math Curse, which gets into a whole ‘nother can of worms that I would have loved to explore in this post, but will have to save for another time.

Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind will be showing at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) through May 2011.  Please visit our website,, for upcoming events, programs, and Puzzle Symposium (yes, it’s a real thing).

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