It’s Not the Destination: The Zen of the Mechanical Puzzle

At some point in people’s lives there comes a moment, at a party, in your friend’s living room, or if you’re old school, it’s at a tavern after a few tankards of mead, when someone comes up to you and hands you a jumble of metal rings and doo-dads and tells you to “try to get that piece there off this ring here.” You take the contraption in your hands, and while you’re suspicious of trickery or witchcraft you try diligently to do as they ask. But these things take time, and inevitably someone calls you onto the dance floor, or “Say Yes to the Dress” comes back on, or Beor gets into a fight with Ronald the Large and you have to unsheathe your broadsword and join the battle. In any event, the puzzle gets tossed aside.

For those who are unfamiliar, the type of puzzle you failed to solve was a mechanical puzzle: an object in which various pieces must be manipulated to complete some challenge (for example, taking a cube of multi-colored mosaic tiles and rotating each side to form uniform colors, i.e. Rubik’s cube).

I’m a patient person. If I’m presented with a problem and given time to solve it, I’m happy to work long past the point when others’ attention spans have waned. But I’m horrible under pressure. The simplest tasks, like giving change for a five dollar bill or constructing an IKEA coffee table, become insurmountable if there’s a time restraint. This is why I’ve never been excited about mechanical puzzles—until I started working at On the Spot events at Eureka.

On the Spot is a program of Eureka’s that provides entertainment for events like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, corporate retreats, birthday parties, and even weddings. We’re most typically croupiers of a board game casino, ambling professionally from table to table assisting our savvy 13-year-old high rollers with the rules of the games and resolving disputes.

When I trained to become an On-the-Spot game leader, I was suddenly expected to apply logic and intelligence to solving a mechanical puzzle in a social setting in a limited amount of time. I felt myself getting nervous and clammy when I was handed the first puzzle and told to solve it. I fumbled awkwardly and felt pressure that might have been more suited for the task of disarming a bomb.

But this time there was one crucial difference; if I didn’t solve it within a few minutes, I was just told the answer.

We moved on to The Comet. The Comet is particularly infuriating because it is one of the rare puzzles that you can complete right in front of someone, hand it to them, and they still won’t be able to solve it. This is exactly what Rafi, our On-the-Spot coordinator did. I took the puzzle from him and it jangled in my hands in mocking metallic sounds, prepared to display my ineptitude to the world.

In the absence of expectations, however, suddenly the puzzle’s merciless mockery ceased to matter as much. As I twisted the illusive wire shape, looking for weaknesses, I found myself enjoying the challenge for the first time. I didn’t solve The Comet by myself, it’s a really hard puzzle and I had limited time, but I started to see mechanical puzzles in a new light.

The mechanical puzzle station is consistently the table that adults gravitate toward at On-the-Spot events. They’ll stand around the table while their children run from station to station, twisting metal puzzles and sipping chardonnay. Many people, it turns out, get a rush from the pressure of solving a puzzle. But the thrill of the hunt was a new experience for me, and I’ve discovered that I am of a more sadistic breed: the kind of person that enjoys solving a puzzle right in front of someone, handing it to them, and watching them suffer. But I’m enough of a gentleman to understand it’s unsportsmanlike to taunt someone for lacking skills which you yourself do not have, so I’ve had a change of heart about mechanical puzzles.

If you’re like me and have always been turned off to them, I suggest a new approach. Sit down by yourself, on a quiet night, and allow yourself to appreciate the zen of the task. Don’t pressure yourself to achieve puzzle victory; accept the fact that the puzzle is solvable and it will be solved. You may find the pieces slide apart with ease. In the moment when you solve The Comet for yourself, you may find that rather than relief from the trauma of expectation, you will experience a deeper, more satisfying feeling: the thrill of new understanding. In that moment, you won’t think to yourself, “Thank God, I solved it. Now I can be done with this stupid thing.” You will think, “Wow! I never thought to do it that way. Cool.” Don’t be surprised if it’s followed by the profound urge to solve another—which we’ll be happy to help you find. 

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    Jamie Hovis Written by:

    Jamie is a retail associate at Eureka! He's a published author and playwright whose work appears locally from time to time in the greater Boston area. He is also the facilitator of the local Coolidge Corner Merchants association. Find him sitting with a beer in the third row of the Coolidge Corner Theater or haunting the streets of Brookline with his new dog Paul.

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