Puzzling it Out

Missy bent over the magazine, sharpened pencil at the ready. The point descended to circle one letter … then another … then one more.

She looked up from the penciled rings, her hundred-watt smile beaming. Just letters for now, no full words. But a New York Times crossword champion couldn’t have been prouder.

“Look!” she declared.

Despite all its other epochal moments, January 2017 will go down in history for Chez Rochat as the moment that Missy discovered Heather’s puzzle magazines. My wife Heather has long loved mind-benders of all kinds, from crosswords to sudoku to logic problems. Since her multiple sclerosis diagnosis two years ago, they’ve become not just a recreation but also a weapon to push back against the occasional MS “brain fog.”

Our disabled ward Missy, for her part, has always enjoyed more tactile challenges, like board puzzles, shape balls and simple jigsaws. But she’s never met a magazine she didn’t want to explore, whether to search for classic cars and pictures of fancy shoes or to disassemble for a spur-of-the-moment collage. And at a moment of Missy curiosity, Heather saw an opportunity.

Word searches and other letter jumbles are the current field of battle – anything Missy can peruse to track down a single letter, like finding where an “M” is or an “S.” It’s not quite the sort of play that the original puzzle-maker expected, perhaps, but it’s doing its job: sharpening a mind and challenging it to learn more.

Curiosity is a powerful thing once inflamed.

That’s something known by any scientist, any journalist, any parent of a 6-year-old. But somehow it still manages to surprise politicians. Even in its mildest forms, the nation’s curiosity can turn any offhand remark into a performance review, often pushing aside whatever message the elected official had hoped to promote.

And if that official is actually trying to hide something, or to cut off information, or to pre-empt debate? That’s when curiosity gets married to stubbornness.

Not always, I admit. People want to be right, and the desire to “mostly say hooray for our side” as Buffalo Springfield put it, can include a willingness to excuse behaviors and ignore inconvenient facts. But we also hate to hear words like “No,” “shut up,” and “You don’t need to know that.”

That becomes a challenge.

Ban a book and not only will it draw defenders, it’ll become a bestseller.

Cover up the truths behind a “third-rate burglary” and it becomes two years of Washington Post headlines, culminating in the first-ever presidential resignation.

Forbid someone to speak to the press officially and they’ll find a way to do it unofficially – often becoming more prominent and more embarrassing than if they’d been left to themselves.

Smart politicians learn this quickly. They learn that concealment and misrepresentation become their own stories, that open channels give you an opportunity to manage your message, that barriers don’t protect you but instead cut you off from any control.

The others? They learn what happens when you squeeze a sponge. The tighter you exert your grip, the more it leaks.

That mix of curiosity and stubbornness is woven tightly into this country’s fabric. It can be infuriating – but it’s also our national glory. Short of outright repression, it means no leader will ever go completely unchallenged. And none ever should, however popular they may be.

We want to know. We want to see. And given the slightest opportunity, we’ll find what we’re looking for.

Even if it’s as simple as an M-for-Missy.

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