Kage Baker dearly loved puzzles.
Physical ones, anyway – not so much word puzzles, which she said all reminded her of the dreaded word problems in IOWA tests (which is what we had in the benighted 60’s). You know – if Billy leaves on a west-bound train from Chicago at 53 MPH, and 3 sousaphone players leave on a north-bound train from Philadelphia at 60 miles an hour – how long until you disembowel yourself with your No. 2 pencil?
Man, she hated those things. And crossword puzzles, she said, were nothing by solo Scrabble. What Kage liked were puzzles you could handle: jigsaw puzzles, most of all, but also all sorts of knot and metal doohickey puzzles. Pub puzzles or blacksmith puzzles, they call them now in fancy catalogs – Moebius strips of steel festooned with eyebolts and C-clamps and chatelaine rings. They drive me insane. But Kage could happily sit for hours unhooking them in all sorts of impossible-looking ways and then putting them back together again.
There was a huge jigsaw puzzle on a table in the waiting room where she went for her radiation therapy. No matter how weak she was, she worked that out a few pieces at a time whenever we went. Made great strides at the end, when we were going every day … she said it made her rather sad she’d never finish it, but she supposed most people didn’t. She liked that she was leaving a better start for the next person.
In my slight insanity right after Kage died, I seriously considered going in to the office and stealing it; I imagined completing it in her honour, and then fixing it in a frame for display. This idea was discarded by two important considerations: 1) there was no way I was going to be able to finish any jigsaw puzzle that had amused Kage. I am more the “3 Sad Kitten In 30 Pieces” kind of person. And 2) Kage had already left me with an enormous jigsaw puzzle in at least 3 dimensions – our house. Man, that was the hardest puzzle I ever worked.
So, did I come away from all that with a new-found love of physical puzzles? No, I hate ’em more than ever. Crosswords and knitting charts, that’s as far as I go in that direction. Kage was fascinated when she found out I could work knitting charts in my head; that struck her as such an outre skill that she gave it to Lady Beatrice in Nell Gwynne. This, from someone who would turn a jigsaw puzzle over and work it with only the back showing when she was bored and didn’t have a new puzzle to play with …
What this mostly proves, of course, is that we do not understand what mystery looks like to another person. Maybe it proves that the better the brain, the more it needs to play. Some such lofty moral, I am sure.
Maps, too, are a puzzle I struggle with even yet. I know how to read them, theoretically. I can tell Google the right parameters and get a printed map that actually shows me how to get where I want to go – and most of the time I can follow it. I even have a nifty map app on my phone, but, being a law-abiding person, I don’t use when I am driving – which is when I need it. And even with a clear map and a safe place to examine it, I remain compass point-impaired.
Getting around Berkeley and Oakland has been an adventure this week. I’ve mostly not gone out, since I have been writing furiously- but from time to time, one must venture out in search of provender. Milk, plums and bread are all necessities that are best when fresh. Occasionally one desires a bowl of chowder or a hamburger or a chocolate eclair … one of the endless joys of adulthood (and to be honest, there are NOT a lot of them) is the ability to sometimes eat precisely what you want, no matter how little sense it makes.
You gotta get to where they are, though, to indulge this right. Which means I have been amiably lost at least once every day since I got here. I study the maps on my Buke, and the traffic patterns on my phone – and then I venture out and discover the City authorities have moved a vital street. That’s especially common in the Bay Area, too, where roads sometimes fall down or are swallowed by the earth and never replaced.
Luckily, the Bay Area has some edge pieces that are always in place: the Bay itself. The Richmond, Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. Mount Tamalpais, whether all one can see is her toes or her stately crown, is a firm landmark. The Transamerica Building, on the other hand, is no use at all – it moves around on thousands of tiny wheels, I am quite sure, and can be anywhere along the Embarcadero. I mean, you can tell from it that you are looking at San Francisco – but there are lots of clues that tell you that.
Kage was my paramount puzzle-solver for the mysteries of roads and cities. I am lost all the time, without her. But she left me instructions, a compass that really works, and sacred disciplines of direction-finding. Oranges by the side of the road are lucky, she said. Hummingbirds promise a safe journey. The top of a map is North. I never stay lost long, especially up here by the Bay of Shifting Cities.
The Bay is the way in, she told me. The gold hills to the East are the way out. Never forget that, and you can find the way to anywhere.
And so far – so good.