Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Adventure of the Missing Puzzle

I call it the Anomaly Game. (Warning: Do not play this game unless you have a good sense of humor and/or a firm grip on your sanity.)

Life (as we like to call it at Bleak House) is filled with anomalies. Just ask any research scientist. Anomalies can be important, as they can cause us to expand or re-think cherished theories. This is also a very good reason for ignoring them, unless you are paid to expand or rethink cherished theories; or unless you want to go around all of the time saying to yourself (not aloud, please), "What the bleeding hell is THIS?"

We are all familiar with real-life anomalies. We note them, forget them, and move on. For instance, you go to your bookshelf to check your Oxford editions of Trollope's Barsetshire novels and Palliser novels. They should be lined up in order between The Vicar of Bullhampton and The Collected Ghost Stories of Oliver Onions. As they have been for years, and still are...right between The Vicar of Bullhampton and -- LeFanu's Uncle Silas? Anomaly buzzer.

Or, continuing with books, as there are a lot of them around here. It's three in the morning. You sit bolt upright of a sudden because of a resounding thump! on the floor. You make sure that no one has fallen out of bed, especially you, then you gmfl crmbsk frgbp go quickly back to sleep. The next morning your copy of The Venetian Hours is lying on the floor. It had previously been on a nearby high bookshelf -- stacked vertically, between two other art books, which are undisturbed. Anomaly buzzer. Youput the book back.

The kitchen is a vast source of anomalies. See if something like this hasn't happened to you. There are only two of you at home. You have washed all of the dishes. You have made coffee. Now, being the considerate fellow that you are, you prepare two cups of coffee and carry both into the living room. You present one to your wife (bow optional), and you sit together for a while enjoying a pleasant morning cuppa. You then gather the empty cups, return to the kitchen, and place both in the sink. But...there is another empty cup there. Anomaly buzzer.

Of course there are explanations. That's the point. You don't give the matter another thought, because you know that you could instantly account for any of these matters with a number of commonplace reasons. These things happen dozens of times a day. You don't investigate them, for godsake. Anyone who did -- "Where did this empty cup come from!?" -- would rightly be branded neurotic. And you know that if you did go through the formality of gathering clues and putting together a probable causal chain, the explanation would be utterly banal -- oh, maybe 99.9% of the time. The rest of the time the explanation might be unlikely, but well within the realm of rationality. Improbable things happen.

Or maybe not. This is where the Anomaly Game comes in. Instead of dismissing the anomaly out of hand, you enjoy it for a moment. You let your mind roam freely over the imaginative possibilities. You may even construct a tale to explain it. You may construct two or three. You may just say, Very odd indeed, and laugh -- again, I must remind you, to yourself. Then you forget about it.

A delicious anomaly appeared the other day, and I've gone out of my way to avoid explaining it. And I certainly have not corrected it, though it will doubtless be corrected in the course of normal events. For the moment, it is a pet anomaly, and I smile every time I see it. I have remarked on it to no one else, and no one else has remarked on it to me.

Two days ago, I went into the bathroom. As I was washing up, I noticed the usual array of devices and products arrayed on or about the sink -- toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, etc. There, on the left-hand side of the sink, it was, sitting innocently. A single piece from a jigsaw puzzle. It is very small, all woodsy and brown and dappled -- probably a detail from a landscape, although it might be any number of things; I do not pick it up and examine it, for that would be to disturb the clue. Yes, some people here have been known to assemble jigsaw puzzles, but they have not done so in several years. Nor have I seen a jigsaw puzzle, either boxed or partly assembled, anywhere in the house; the old ones are in the basement. So why is it here? Where did it come from? What chain of extraordinary circumstances lifted it out of its normal repose in the scheme of things and moved it -- not under a couch, nor into an "unclassified junk" drawer in the kitchen -- to the bathroom sink? Why hasn't it moved? Everything else has been moved as might be expected according to one's inductive sense of bathroom protocol.

I don't ask. That would spoil the fun. And there's always the chance that there'd be no reason whatsoever. If this were a penny-dreadful tale, I'd gradually become obsessed, sitting long hours staring from the bathroom window, trying desperately to find...the missing piece in the landscape I see every day from that window. It's got to be small, but it's there, there, I know it's there...the small betraying detail. Eventually, my family must break down the bathroom door and drag me, cackling and disheveled, away for a mandatory "rest."

However, this will not happen, for if there is one thing I have learned from my education, it is this: Put not your faith in theories. Reality will do as it likes.