Maura asked one day whether I did sudoku puzzles. I said no, and she said, well that's good, because they're completely addictive.
Personally, I've never heard about a thing that was habit-forming without feeling at least a flicker of an impulse to, hell, give it a try. What's life without bad habits?
So it's her fault that I picked up a book of sudoku puzzles in the Tucson airport bookstore before I got on a flight to central Mexico last month. Like all functionally sane people, I hate air travel, hate it more than I can say--would rather be shot with tacks, basically. Since I deal with this by pretending I'm not leaving home up until the last moment, then by carrying on every single thing I can think of that will possibly help me ignore the fact that I'm in transit, I'm the ideal airport-shop customer.
Buckwheat-filled, lavender-scented neck pillow? Need it. People magazine? Just add it to the two mysteries, four magazines and stray bits of the morning paper I'm already schlepping. Three-dollar bottle of water? High-altitude dehydration is actually dangerous. Everyone knows that.
That's how I ended up with a sudoku book, three sharpened No. 2 pencils--René Descartes could not do sudoku in pen--and an obsession that was full-blown before we "initiated our descent into Houston." (God, I love airplane-speak.)
A month later, it's still going. I had to tear myself away to write this--I'm about halfway through a "Beware! Very Challenging" puzzle that's not going badly at all, and, to be honest, I'd much rather be penciling tiny figures in the corner of little printed squares than blathering on about doing it. Blathering on--um, composing my column--requires that I venture into the part of my brain that processes language (a creaking, soggy region littered with half-eaten sandwiches and old song lyrics), whereas working a sudoku summons up only the quiet, calm clicking sound of the mind ticking off logical possibilities and impossibilities. Unfortunately, Jimmy will not accept my need to work my way up to The Ultimate Challenge! puzzle as an adequate excuse for not turning in copy. He's such an editor, if you know what I mean.
I've had more eccentric obsessions. The press is full of stories of airlines, TV producers and shop managers who've had to forbid employees from bringing sudoku puzzles to work, because nothing gets done. I read somewhere that the sale of pencils has doubled in the last two years in London, the epicenter of sudoku sickness in the West.
If you haven't tried sudoku, I cannot advise that you do. Surely you have better ways to spend your time than filling in the missing numerals in more or less elaborate Roman squares from more or less helpful sets of givens. It's a much more pointless time waster than working crosswords, because sudoku aren't about anything, not even numbers. (According to Wikipedia's exhaustive entry, they've been constructed with letters and even colors as placeholders.) They're pure pattern, requiring nothing but patience and logic to solve, and in their meaninglessness lies their charm. They keep the nervous, primate part of the mind busy--the part that's always looking for problems and solving them--plus satisfying the urge to be doing something, anything, all without generating any anxiety whatsoever. And while you're doing one, you can ignore anything. I haven't felt so pleasantly detached since my son used to let me play Tetris on his GameBoy when he wasn't using it. (This is your brain. This is your brain on sudoku.)
We went to Mexico to join a group of friends, and as it turned out, two other people on the trip also had sudoku books. We had a couple of good if rather furtive talks about their joys and frustrations, agreeing right off that paper quality counts. (You have to do so much erasing that the ones in newspapers--where the craze started--tend to smear and fuzz up. This is not good: A sense of emerging clarity is an important part of their pleasure.) We differed somewhat as to method, but were able to reach the conclusion that it's not just the number of numerals given, or their position that makes a puzzle easy or hard--it's which numerals. Deep.
Don't laugh. The Guardian has claimed that its sudoku puzzles contain "intrinsic witticisms."
To my intense satisfaction, I'm gradually getting better and faster with practice: I can see patterns more quickly. Of course, it's pretty appalling to think about what I might accomplish if I devoted all this time and concentration to something useful or lucrative, like learning German or getting a book proposal out.
On the other hand, things I could do--if I weren't mesmerized--bubble up all the time when I'm working a puzzle. The latest was a pitch for a sure best-seller--Skinny Bitch: The Ann Coulter Story. Naturally, I don't have time to do it. I have squares to fill.