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A few years ago, responding to my inactivity and slowing memory, my daughter sent me a book of mixed puzzles. Supposedly, doing puzzles helps your brain stay active and engaged. I obligingly worked my way through most of them.


I now have a first-thing-in-the-morning online routine: three different crossword puzzles, then two (or three) jigsaw puzzles, then the day's weather forecast, all before checking my email account and then—too often—Facebook. I claim knowing the weather helps me decide what to wear and it's remotely possible I'll have a personal email message or find an urgent Facebook post. I delete most of the messages out of a sense of tidiness and scroll quickly past most Facebook posts. I claim that this routine prepares me to start the working day, but other than editing and re-editing an entry to post on my blog on Friday morning or revising my check list of things I might be doing during the coming week or composing biweekly notes to record what I did or didn't do in terms of writing, editing, and reading, my concrete accomplishments in any week are likely to be various household chores and curbside errands.


Online jigsaw puzzles appeal to me, especially the plentiful array of nature scenes and historical sites available at Jigzone and Jigsaw Planet. Those sites give me a range of patterns to work with. The Jigzone puzzles range between 6 pieces and 247 pieces, in over a dozen shapes (zigzag, birds, polygons, stars, lizards, triangles—in one option you piece together a map of the United States); I almost always do the 48-piece Classic version. The Jigsaw Planet puzzles have eight shapes to choose from and generally range between 24 and 300 pieces; I mostly choose 24- or 30-piece puzzles in a fairly simple shape. Most of the puzzles I pick show places I've sometimes but most often never have been.


Crossword puzzles—AARP's The Daily Crossword, The Daily Word Search, and Scramble Words—appeal to me more. They involve words that call upon powers of memory and interpretation. The Scramble Words puzzle is a timed event in four rounds with three to five or six blank spaces to be filled with certain letters randomly presented below the puzzle. If one of the letters is an S, chances are good that one or more three-letter or four-letter singular words will add it to become a plural: tip, tips, pit, pits, port, ports, sport, lime, limes, guy, guys, dent, dents, gent, gents. I almost always make it through the third round, but I've only completed all four rounds three times. I can look up the words I've missed when the game ends, which usually makes me certain I would have guessed them if I'd had more time.


The Daily Word Search centers on the trivia theme of finding words about that day in history. Words are variously arranged in a puzzle grid, to be read up, down, forwards, backwards and diagonally. The words are listed beside the grid, two of them hidden for extra points. I generally try to find the hidden words before they're exposed but pay no attention to the score I rack up.


In The Daily Crossword the words are either horizontal or vertical, roughly 80 or so intersecting one another, with a numbered list of clues for up words and down words alongside the grid. You need to figure out what a clue is alluding to: a historical figure or event? a familiar expression? an alternative meaning? I avoid the more complicated crosswords—the Anagram Crossword, the Cryptic Cross, the Daily American Crossword (which took me over half-an-hour to complete yesterday)—and stick to the Daily Crossword, which I can now complete in six or seven minutes. My speed relies on how repetitive the words are. I can almost count on certain words showing up: Ella, elle, ella, ell, ells, els, Elton, Eddie, Reba, Alec, Alecs, Eric, Erics, area, arena, Erie, eerie, lama, llama, aper, icer, and how Shakespeare would write "never" or "ever" or "evening". The repetition makes the puzzle easier, of course.


As I confess to the frequency with which I work at crosswords and jigsaws, I'm aware of how insistently I opt for the less challenging approaches. More challenging versions take more time and the prude in me resists playing games that long. I suppose the question might arise as to whether the time I'm spending and the level of challenge at which I'm spending it is sufficient to keep my brain active and my memory operational. Maybe the more urgent question is whether this blog post is proof positive that the crosswords and jigsaws I've completed have helped keep me as intellectually proficient as I used to be.


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