Back when I was a little kid, The Old Man told me,
“All that television you watch is gonna rot your brain.”
At the time he told me this, I was in the den watching cartoons.
He told me, “I never watched television when I was your age.”
And by mistake, my less than smart words left my mouth before I had time to think about them. “That’s because they didn’t have television back when you were my age, Pop.”
The Old Man’s eyebrows folded down with his left eyebrow raised slightly above his right. The crunched lines on his forehead expressed the anger which was about to become painfully obvious as he screamed the famous words that come from an angry parent.
He shouted, “GO TO YOUR ROOM!” and as ordered, I retreated to my bedroom with the door closed, and of course, the small, black and white television that sat near my bed was turned off.
And by black and white, I feel I should explain to some of my younger readers that the television set, itself, was not black and white. The television set was gray . . . it was the picture that was black and white.
(This is what we watched before they invented that thing we call color)
My Old Man was born in a different era. He was born in 1929, during the time of The Great Depression. There was no television back when The Old Man was a little kid.
As children, The Old Man, and his brother, my Uncle Alan, and his sister, my Aunt Sondra would to listen to radio shows. I assume they listened to shows like The Lone Ranger or maybe they listened to Abbot and Costello, or The Jack Benny Radio Show. And ironically, my Grandfather probably told them the same thing about listening to radio programs and how they could probably rot your brain.
Around the time of the television incident, and in an effort to teach me something productive, The Old Man introduced me to jigsaw puzzles. He told me to start with the smaller puzzles. And I did. I began with 50 piece puzzles. They were pretty easy. Then I moved up 100 piece puzzles with my personal best at 250 pieces. The jigsaw puzzles were all pictures of cartoons that were fitting for my age.
The Old Man explained, “This is what I did when I was your age. I didn’t rot my brain by sitting in front of a television set. Only, we would get bigger puzzles of 1,000 pieces and sometimes 1,500 or even 5,000 pieces.”
The Old Man told me, “The bigger the puzzle, the better it was.”
He said, “Back when we lived in the Bronx, we used to put the puzzle on a table and put it together as a family.”
I noticed the pieces were smaller in larger jigsaw puzzles. The larger the puzzles of say, 1,000 pieces or more were very small, and many of the pieces looked similar—but this did not mean they fit together.
“Start with the border,” said the Old Man.
He told me to do this with any puzzle I started. Only, the new puzzle I was given was much larger than the ones I had put together before. The new jigsaw puzzle was 5,000 pieces.
Put together, the puzzle was a large picture of brown horses running through an open field of green grass. To me, this was serious artwork and much different than the other puzzles I finished.
As soon as The Old Man spread the puzzle pieces on the dining room table, I was immediately intimidated.
He said, “Don’t worry. I’m gonna help you with this.”
“We’ll do it together,” he explained, and together, we sat at the table in the dining room.
The Old Man sat with his glasses pitched slightly down off the bridge of his nose. He was dressed in his bed clothes and a cup of black coffee sat beside him. As for me, I was in my pajamas, perched with my knees on the seat of the chair and leaning forward on the table with my elbows tucked beneath my chest. My eyes scanned the shapes and colors of the small puzzle pieces that were clumped together and scattered in piles on different parts of the table.
My father was more patient and less intimidated than I was. Together, we sorted through the pieces to find all of the edges, which make up the border. The edges are easy to find because one side of the pieces is perfectly straight—except for the corners, they have two straight sides.
I admit I was lost before we even began. There were so many pieces to this puzzle—all of them were similar to me and all of the shapes appeared as if they could fit in one place, but yet, they were clearly meant to fit someplace else.
In my desire to complete this puzzle and please The Old Man, I tried so hard to find the matching pieces. But in my haste, I tried too hard and pushed the wrong pieces in the wrong places. They seemed to fit the picture correctly. The color seemed right and the shapes looked as though they could be a match, except they refused to fit together.
This frustrated The Old Man because whenever I did this I damaged the puzzle piece. I wrinkled the sides of the cardboard-like piece, which would mean if we ever completed the puzzle, the picture would have its share of imperfections.
The Old Man said, “You can’t force pieces to fit together.”
He said, “Don’t rush. If you rush, you’re gonna break the pieces and the puzzle won’t look the way it should.”
The Old Man told me, “If the pieces don’t connect easily, then chances are, they’re not meant to go wherever you’re trying to put them”
I had no idea this lesson in jigsaw puzzles was going to be the metaphor it is today. I spent much of my life and too many years trying to fit myself in places where I thought I might belong. And same as the puzzle, I tried to push myself in. I tried to force myself to be, “That Piece,” but in turn, I damaged my sides by placing myself in places where I could not fit.
As a kid, I sat in front of a large jigsaw puzzle with its pieces spilled across the dining room table. I tried to find the corners so I could build my borders and work my way in to the meat of a much bigger picture. I was intimidated by the size of the puzzle. There were so many pieces and so many of them looked similar. Except, no matter how similar the pieces seemed, not all of them were meant to be connected.
Even if the shape of the puzzle pieces seemed to be a matching fit, if they did not connect easily, then chances were those pieces were not meant to fit together. This is life.
This lesson applies to more than jigsaw puzzles. This applies to friendships and relationships. This applies to marriage and love. It applies to work, and to anything we assemble in our lifetime. This is why so many relationships fail and breakups are ugly—because in our desire to fit and in our haste to connect, we place ourselves in the wrong situations. Rather than feeling the lonesomeness or accepting our proper fit will be more time consuming or necessary of deeper thought, we often decide to force ourselves into inaccurate placements. And that is why breakups are often ugly. In most cases, or at least in my regard for past relationship failures, I was more angry at myself for accepting the trade and forcing myself to fit where I knew I could never belong.
When it came to jigsaw puzzles, The Old Man explained, “It’s okay to try and see if pieces fit together.”
He said, “I understand they look similar, and they might be close by each other in the picture, but you can’t force a piece to fit someplace where it doesn’t belong.”
“That’s how you break the puzzle,”
Fitting in, or should I say, not fitting in place was very frightening to me. I was less patient and more intimidated by the size of life’s puzzle.
In my desire to fit and in my haste to complete the picture around me, I tried to force my connections, which in this metaphor, crinkled my sides the same way it wrinkled the shapes of the cardboard-like puzzle pieces.
And even if the picture I tried to manipulate came together—it would have too many imperfections because I crunched the pieces and tried to put them where I knew they did could never fit.
I never finished that puzzle with The Old Man.
It was too hard for me at the time. Maybe I didn’t have the patience. Or maybe the feeling I had while sitting at the table was too familiar. Maybe it was the feeling of being misfit or the fear of not easily finding my proper place in this world that was overwhelming.
The Old Man enjoyed putting puzzles together.
He said, “If you take your time and you pay less attention to the amount of pieces you have on the table, and instead, you focus on the picture you’re trying to put together; everything will come together just fine.”
“You just have to have faith in your ability,” he said.
He taught me, “Make sure you don’t lose anything. Otherwise, you’ll never get to see the whole picture. And whatever you do, don’t compromise your pieces and force them to go in places where they don’t fit.”
That’s how you get a perfect picture . . .