A Good Puzzle

My older sister Felicie has a particularly strong puzzle-mind. Though I am the writer in the family and thus the supposed word guru, she would routinely whip me at Boggle. She loves anagrams and crosswords and logic games of any kind, and she was a sturdy and confident mathematician. When handed a problem for which there is a clear and definitive solution, her mind becomes a ferociously happy dog digging for a bone. This made school very appealing. In school, teachers generally make it clear to their students what must be done to be graded successful. My sister has never misunderstood an instruction in her life, which, coupled with her puzzle-mind, resulted in a string of very good report cards. I recall, however, one report card in particular. She was in sixth grade and had decided she wanted to get straights A’s—well, O’s, actually (for Outstanding!), because this was the 70s. I believe sixth grade was the first year students were actually graded, and so the first time my sister would be so publicly rewarded for solving the problems her teachers asked her to solve.

As my mother tells it, the day the grades were given, the doors to the school opened and my sister came running down the steps of Nathan Bishop Middle School waving her report card over her head. At the time, I thought to myself, “Oh, who cares, Felicie? What’s an extra O or two really going to do for you?” You see, my view on grades was this: I will do just well enough so as not to be judged a failure or average—but you’ll get nothing more out of me.

Except a part of me understood why my sister was really running down those steps with her straight O’s. I’m sure her little 11 year-old ego was doing back-flips, but so what? The flesh is weak. The O’s weren’t the point at all. My sister was celebrating the same discovery humans have been making and celebrating for tens of thousands of years: that anything we apply our direct attention to comes into being. Lay your attention on a novel for a year, you get a novel. Lay your attention on straight O’s, you get straight O’s. Perhaps, she must have been thinking as she sprinted toward my mother’s car, it’s not all luck after all. Perhaps the question is not how do I solve a problem, but which problem do I want to solve?

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