Monthly Archives: February 2017

Puzzling Puzzles

Puzzles are a puzzling thing. It is curious to wonder why someone would buy a box filled with many, many small interlocking pieces that once assembled will look just like the picture on the box, only a larger version covered with little crinkly lines, almost like age wrinkles. One would think that just a print of the puzzle photo would provide a superior quality image. But it’s not the image quality as much as it is the gamesmanship that continues to sell puzzles.

Unlike Sudoku, which provides a numerical challenge or a crossword puzzle that presents a lexical trial, a picture puzzle represents a visual test. And puzzles with a huge number of pieces can also test our patience. But with cold winter weather, a puzzle can offer hours of indoor fun when it is not conducive to venture outdoors.

Over the years, my wife and I have assembled a number of puzzles, typically in the wintertime starting over the Christmas holiday when we have more free time.

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One was particularly challenging due to its lack of color. In order to finish the snow at the bottom of the puzzle and the sky at the top, I had to organize the pieces by common shape and trial-fit each one until I found a correct match.

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Another was particularly intriguing as it was a 4-D puzzle. For this one, after assembling the Manhattan puzzle base, 3-dimensional skyscrapers were added in chronological order (time making the fourth dimension) starting with the earliest tall buildings and moving forward through even the removal of the Twin Towers.

So it was over this last Christmas-New Years break that I started another puzzle, a mural of city doors, and a veritable “cakewalk” with only 750 pieces.

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This was one that I had actually gotten as a Christmas present several years ago and just never had opened.

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Obviously, the first step is to lay out all the pieces onto a table. As I did so, some of the pieces that were quite recognizable, I went ahead and assembled. Next step was to locate all of the sidepieces and begin to “frame” the image. As I was removing the pieces from the box, I had tried to put all of the sidepieces in one area of my table to make this process easier.

Once I had done that, I realized my table was too small to provide a useable workspace and so I transferred all of the sidepieces to a wooden surface. Using the box top as my guide, I pieced these together but then noticed there were pieces that I couldn’t find on the box. At this point, I realized there was a reason why the puzzle had included a “mini” poster as the entire puzzle image, being a rectangular-shaped 18” X 24” size, would not fit, even in a shrunken size, on the front of a perfectly square box.

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It was at this point that I also realized that the puzzle would not fit on the wooden surface I was using.

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I looked around the house to find a larger surface that I could use that could remain undisturbed for the weeks that it would probably take to complete the puzzle. I came across my oldest son’s homemade drafting table from college that was actually made from a cutoff door. It fit nicely on top of the grey table I had been using and what better surface to assemble a door puzzle on than an actual door?

With sufficient space now available, I could layout the four sides of the puzzle. But quickly I realized that I was missing a number of sidepieces. Thinking I had already separated all the sidepieces, I went back through all the pieces and found 8 more. But I was still short. I then recalled a quality control test of an inspector’s attention to detail where the challenge is to find 15 red balls mixed in with 985 blue balls. It usually takes at least three complete run-throughs before all of the red balls can be isolated. It is amazing what you miss even when you know something should be there. I went through all the pieces four more times finding first 3, then 2, then 2 more, then finally none. But after all of this, I was still missing one sidepiece.

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I had a dreadful moment of angst that probably everyone who has ever put a puzzle together has had—maybe a piece had been left out of the box. Out of 750 pieces of which 108 are sidepieces, what are the odds that a sidepiece would be the one missing? But rather than counting to see if I really had 750 pieces, I forged ahead.

While the winter-scene puzzle I had done before was almost monochromatically white, this puzzle had a multitude of colors. I began searching for a few common colors and discovered that many doors were no more than four pieces.

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I first pulled all of the red color pieces together and was able to assemble three different doors. I continued this approach looking for common colors to try to match together. I soon found that some of the pieces I was searching for were actually sidepieces so I decided to begin to put the doors in the puzzle where I thought they should go. I did this and soon had a number of doors in place.

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But then I still had a multitude of pieces left to fit and I was running out of unusual colored ones that were easy to spot in the sea of pieces.

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But I trudged on making good progress.

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On more than one occasion, I tried to fit a piece that based on color, obviously went to a certain door only to find that the piece did not fit. Looking more closely at the mini poster, I realized that three of the doors were actually duplicated on the puzzle. Whether to make it more challenging, or due to a shortage of door photos, I will never know? But it did make it more frustrating until I realized the replication of the three doors.

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One night as I was working on the puzzle, I experienced probably one of the reasons puzzles are so popular—they are addictive. As you successfully place a piece in the puzzle and hear that satisfying snap as the piece goes into its singular location, you want to find one more, and then one more until before you know it, hours have gone by.

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And then Eureka! I found the last sidepiece; it wasn’t left out of the box after all. I don’t know how many times I might have picked it up, moved it, or glanced at it but all of a sudden, with less than 100 pieces left to place, it was clearly visible (guess I wouldn’t make a very good quality control inspector).

This motivated me to continue and before long, I was left with about 70 pieces that didn’t have unique colors to make them easy to place. So I decided to employ that same technique that was critical to finishing the winter scene and organized the pieces by shape.

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With this aid, in short order I finished the puzzle.

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Turns out it took me less than a week to finish it. And in spite of not working on a puzzle for a couple of years, it motivated me to want to do another one. But much like books you never return to after you have read them, once you put together a puzzle, you don’t typically put it together a second time.

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So I have already ordered myself another puzzle—a 1000-piece version—I guess you could say as a Christmas present to myself. Until it arrives, I will leave my newly completed one on the table to admire my workmanship until the next puzzling challenge tests my visual acumen. And maybe if you find the three duplicated doors on this puzzle, it will motivate you to assemble your own puzzle!

Going on Sweet 16

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Last year, I wrote about a “birthday” of sorts for my 1994 Mazda Miata as it was celebrating 20 years with me. I was pleased to learn that this post inspired my daughter to write a post about her first car that she had for more than half her life.  Not to be left out, several weeks ago, my 2002 Miata marked a similar milestone, 15 years with me.

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It was in January 2002 when I agreed to let my oldest son borrow my ’94 and I purchased a new ’02 to replace it. Having had fun going back and chronicling all the road trips that the ’94 had taken over those 20 years, predominately with my son’s hands at the wheel, I thought it would be entertaining to also recount some of the fun mileage of my ‘02.

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Admittedly, close to 95,000 is not a lot of miles for a fifteen year old vehicle. But for most of those years, the ‘02 was not the only car I owned and had available to drive on a regular basis. It was joined first by a 2006 Mini Cooper S and then by a 2012 Fiat 500. However, for its first four years with me, the ’02 Miata was the only car I had and thus was my daily driver. It also is the one car I have not “loaned” out either to my wife or kids so those 95,000 miles are for the most part my miles.

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This is one of the earliest photos I have of my new Miata, safely tucked away in the garage during this rare snowfall in Memphis. This photo was taken shortly before it made its first road trips, although these were admittedly not fun trips.

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Not long after I took delivery of this new Miata, my dad was hospitalized due to complications from his melanoma cancer. So the first few road trips I took in the ’02 were over to Hot Springs, AR to see my dad just before he died. While being extremely sad driving memories, I tried to make something more positive out of them by taking a portion of my parent’s estate left to me and paying off the car. Although neither of my parents ever saw this car, they both knew how much I loved cars and I think they would have approved of me using the money this way, in a sense turning it into “my inheritance” car.

The following year for my next road trip, I headed off in the opposite direction when my sister and I drove up to Knoxville, TN to visit my brother and other sister. This was a weekend visit that would spark the beginnings of what would become our annual SIBSAB (Sibling Sabbatical) when just the four of us get together. Being that this was in the winter close to the one year anniversary of the death of our dad, we were met with sleet the morning of our departure.

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In 2005, I convinced my sister who lived in Memphis at the time to take a road trip with me to North Carolina. But on the way up, we took a slight detour to drive the Tail of the Dragon, a fun, super curvy road (incredibly 318 curves in 11 miles). Even though I’d had the ’02 for three years, this was my first opportunity to run her on what is certainly one of the best “driver’s roads” in the US. It also gave me my inaugural experience of what the expression “it corners like it’s on rails” really feels like (it scared my sister). Following this heart-racing thrill ride, we made our way into Asheville, NC for a fun brother-sister road trip (click here for more details).

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With just the taste of a single run on the “Tail” in the ’02, I wanted to go back for more. So in 2008, I took a “father-son” bonding trip to North Carolina with my two sons, the youngest of which had just turned 21. Since multiple runs were what all three of us wanted, we made the “Tail” our destination for the first day’s drive from Memphis and booked a cabin at the Tapoco lodge which is on the North Carolina side of the same US 129. And for this trip, we took not just the ’02 Miata but the Mini Cooper as well (the ’94 Miata was in San Francisco at the time).

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With one extra driver on each run, we actually got some pretty nice photos of the two cars.

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Riding with my youngest son at the wheel, I got my chance to be scared (much like my sister probably was) as we squealed around several of the tight curves. The final destination for this trip was once again Asheville, but not before having multiple exciting runs (click here for more details).

By far, the granddaddy of all road trips I have taken in this Miata was in 2010 when I set out to drive the entire Sky Line Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP).

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While these parkways are not curvy roads like the “Tail”, they are some of the most scenic routes in the US. And at 469 miles long, the BRP is America’s longest linear park. When I asked my wife if she wanted to accompany me on this road trip, she demurred when she learned it would be mostly spent in the car—which it was.

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Over a five day trip, I drove over 2,000 miles with the time on the two parkways (about 575 miles of the trip), almost exclusively with the top down. Although I was all alone on this road trip, it was still very special as I posted previously (click here for details).

Having owned the ’94 for 20 years and the ’02 for 15, it has given me plenty of opportunity to notice the differences between the two cars. The ’02, being eight years younger in age, certainly doesn’t have all the squeaks and rattles that the ’94 has and the ‘02 is surprisingly still pretty tight given it wears its original-equipment Bilstein shocks. The glass back window with defroster in the ‘02 is a definite advantage over the plastic window on the “94 that has to be unzipped and carefully lowered before dropping the top. But with the top dropped, the ’94 exhaust note wins hands down. They are both very fun cars to drive and in the end, they are similar but different.   I don’t plan to ever sell either one of them.

While my ’02 Miata has not seen as much of the country as my ’94, what the ’02 has seen has been all with my hands at the wheel. With the miles I have put on my two Miatas, I realize that I have been driving a fun, sporty convertible for almost half my driving life.

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Now with a 2016 Subaru WRX as well, it is sometimes a tough choice to pick which one I want to drive at any given time. My choice is typically limited in that regard since only two of the three are at the same location at any given time (either our home or condo). But whichever one I do chose, I know I’m going to have a fun drive no matter what road I’m on.

Travel 2016

I thought I would start out the New Year as I have done before reflecting back on the trips we took in 2016, some of which I wrote posts about last year (linked below if you are so interested to read more details). When I started this post, I didn’t think I had taken that many trips but when I started recalling them all, I discovered that I had actually taken more than I did in 2015.

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Often times, our first trip is very early in the year—right after New Year’s Day—as we are coming back from our friend’s cabin in Boone, NC after ringing in the New Year with them. But this year, our friends had the cabin up for sale so we didn’t make that trip. So my first trip was actually not until March when I went to New Jersey to teach my Validation course. It was strictly a business trip with no time for site seeing.

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Then in April I actually had three different trips so it was a busy travel month. First up was a business trip to Washington, DC but again there was no time for site seeing.

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Then in the middle of April, I was off to Amsterdam to teach my Validation course again. Fortunately for this trip I was able to tack on some actual vacation days on the front end for a very nice visit, even though I was alone on this trip.

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On the last day of April, I was off to New Jersey again, this time to teach my Stability course. Before the course began, I visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty for the first time. It was truly amazing touring both.

In the middle of June, I traveled to Richmond, VA to teach my Validation course for a third time this year. It was a very short trip and thus no time for site seeing.

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At the end of June, we took our really big family vacation to Montreat, NC, the one we had been planning for over a year. It was a very enjoyable weeklong visit with 15 family members, including two of our three grandchildren.

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Through July and August, we stayed home suffering through the summer heat of Memphis and then over Labor Day, rented a cabin at the Natchez Trace State Park for our first trip by ourselves all year—a trip long overdue. The only down side of this trip was that we were both sick which prevented us from doing some of the things we had wanted to do.

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At the end of September, I took a quick weekend trip over to visit my sisters in Northwest Arkansas. It was nice chance to get to visit with them, take my first road trip in my new WRX, and to explore the Frank Lloyd Wright house that has now been relocated to the grounds of Crystal Bridges.

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October found us in San Francisco for our annual trip there for me to teach. This year, I actually had both my Validation and Stability courses scheduled just a week apart so between courses, we had four days to visit with our oldest son, his wife, and our youngest granddaughter. An added treat for me this year was to get to visit my son’s office—with a great view of downtown San Francisco—and learn about the work he was doing there. Prior to heading in to his office, we got to go onsite to a major redevelopment project his firm is working on at a former sports complex.

My last trip of the year was another quick trip, this time a weekend trip just before Thanksgiving out to LA to visit my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.

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Although an ulterior motive for me was to go to the LA Auto show, …

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…my main reason for going was one last chance to visit with them in Pasadena before they moved out of the area in 2017. It was doubly sad this time driving away on Sunday afternoon leaving all three of them there knowing that the fun visits we have had there over the last five years were coming to an end. However, this sadness was tempered somewhat with the knowledge that they were moving to another really cool place that we would certainly visit in 2017.

So if I’ve done the math right, I had a total of ten trips in 2016, not a huge number but certainly some very special trips. With my planned retirement later this year, I should have even more time to travel in the future. And with the extra time, we should be able to even take some extended road trips to see parts of the country that neither my wife nor I have been to.

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So cheers to another fun year of travel in 2017!

 

 

Four Years Blogging

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Wow, four years!

When I started this blog post on February 9th, 2013, I never envisaged I would still be publishing these four years later and yet I have been coming to you every Sunday morning since then, 208 in a row now. I know a number of my loyal followers—and I thank you heartily—have been with me from the very beginning and have willing read each and every one of my muses, graciously overlooking my occasional bad grammar or poor sentence structure. But also along the way, I have picked up some additional followers who blog themselves and then there is the occasional reader that happens to find my topic of the week of interest to them.

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To all of you I say a great big THANK YOU. It is with this knowledge of your continued reading as well as your encouraging and thoughtful comments that motivates me to write these weekly posts. For me, it is exciting to awake each Sunday morning and think of the possibility of people all over the world reading my latest post when it publishes.

But in spite of all your encouragement, I must admit that there was a time last summer when I didn’t think I was going to make it to this four-year anniversary. When I looked down my list of topics still to write on, there just weren’t that many left. As my existing readers know, I primarily started this blog to tell my story to my kids, my family members and my friends before I lost these old memories. This was my “Black Book” project (click here for an explanation). I also write on travel, vacations, reading, projects, cars, grand parenting, and sometimes just random things (my Entropy category). Many of these topics I saw that I had already covered extensively.

So I really began to rack my brain to come up with additional topics.

But then an event occurred that opened up a whole new category of exploration—the announced closing of my work site and as a result, my pending retirement. This along with a number of other new ideas that came to mind, as well as the milestone of hitting 60 years of age last year, gave me additional topics to script.

Credit: Saveup.com

Credit: Saveup.com

And write I did! At one point last fall, I had 16 posts written and scheduled for future weekly publishing with about six more drafted. I felt the goal of continuing my blogging through a fourth year was well within reach.

Credit: runforecaster.com

Credit: runforecaster.com

And then additional events transpired that I wanted to blog about soon after the event occurred.

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Some of my previously scheduled posts followed a sequential order and so I began to have to shuffle multiple ones around to squeeze in new posts. Some posts could not be moved, as they were most relevant for a certain date (for example, Toys on Christmas Day). Before I knew it, after two or three shuffles, some of my existing posts got pushed out several months into 2017.

I guess from a bloggers perspective, this was a good problem to have. In fact the words you are reading now, I wrote over four months ago after I had written and scheduled almost all of my future posts through this February date.

By nature, I am an early starter; I never like rushing at the last minute to finish a project that is due. Even when I first began to blog, I typically liked to have my posts written and scheduled a couple of weeks in advance. That way, if something unexpected came up during the week that prevented me from finding the time to write, I still wouldn’t feel pressured to be trying to finish a post on Saturday night, just hours before its planned publishing.

The down side of this most recent strategy last year was that once I finished what I thought was a particularly good post, I sometimes had to wait several months to get feedback from my readers if it was in fact worthy. There were even times when I had to read my own post on Sunday morning just to remember what I had written.

So having reached this fourth year milestone, my plan is to continue weekly posts. However, it just seems at some point, I am going to hit a wall where nothing comes to mind to write on. But if I can just make it until I retire later this year, I will have even more time to brainstorm ideas. And with more free time, hopefully I will also be doing even more interesting things to blog about.

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So cheers to another year of blogging!