Sunday, July 25, 2010


As I may have mentioned before, I have always loved puzzles—jigsaws, cryptoquotes, double crostics, the New York Times’ diagramless, and even Sudoku in the last year.

As a child, I would knot up my shoelaces for the pleasure of unknotting them and if you handed me several yards of tangled twine, I could be happily absorbed for hours. When friends began to knit or crochet, I was the go-to for getting the knots out of threads or yarns. In school, diagramming complex-compound sentences was like unknotting language.

Then came high school and algebra. Kids today begin algebra in 7th and 8th grades. In our country school, we didn’t get it till 9th. I had always been pretty good at arithmetic, especially long division, and I loved the way the numbers fell in orderly patterns in the multiplications charts, but that first week of algebra was a nightmare.

Our teacher was also the boys’ basketball coach and math was not his first love. With no explanation at all, he had us open our books to the first page of simple problems and began going down the row: “If 2x equals 10, what is x?”

“If 3c = 12, c = ?” and “2a – 7 = 3, therefore a = ?”

I didn’t have a clue.

Our class included several sophomores who had flunked Algebra I and were taking it over again, so they seemed to know all the answers. I was a straight A student, yet I didn't have the foggiest idea what was going on. It was a frustrating and humbling few days of stumbling around in a fog. How could those “dumb” kids mysteriously rattle off the correct answers? How had they managed to memorize what all those letters stood for?

On the third or fourth day, the teacher casually mentioned that x (and therefore y and c and every other letter of the stupid alphabet) weren't fixed quanties but were variables. It was like the rising of the sun. How logical! What a thing of beauty was a quadratic equation! What fun to prove the Pythagorean Theorem!

Sometimes I think I became a mystery writer because my brain is hardwired to solve complex puzzles. For the past week or so though, I’ve been feeling like that long-ago freshman. Day before yesterday, however, I finally worked out the main knots in my plot and solved for x. The rest of the plot seems to be falling into logical place. It’ll be another few days before I’m sure, but for now I’m as happy as when I learned that x was a variable.

In the meantime, pass me that bag of tangled electronic power cords!

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