The Art of Relaxing

For the past 10 days around the Christmas holiday, I have been on a serious
jigsaw puzzle jag, assembling 6 puzzles totaling several thousand pieces. I
have put together two Amish farm scenes, fall in Vermont, a scene of colorful
Greek houses clinging to a side of a cliff, a serene mountain lake at sunset,
and a puzzle depicting all the different state birds and flowers. Puzzles were
a staple of my childhood, and in sixth grade I remember inviting Mary, the new girl in school, over to play. We did this circular 500 piece puzzle illustrating different breeds of dogs, and then when we were done, I dissembled it and we did it all over again. Not surprisingly Mary never came back to our house and promptly moved on to a new circle of friends. What is it about puzzles that I find so relaxing? This lead me to ponder the overall concept of the art of relaxing, both in terms of the when and the how.

1. The When

To me, the concept of relaxing involves an element of a reward for some sort of accomplishment – on the weekends after a long week of work, at the end of the year or on vacation recognizing a job well done, or event after the most trivial chore. Let’s say
that we have entertained the night before, and the there are still some dishes left over the next morning. A few dishes lingering in the depths of the sink are acceptable, but once dishes overflow and are lined up on the counter, then it is unacceptable to settle in and relax with the Sunday New York Times. However, once those dishes are done, which unfortunately incldues the annoying task of
emptying the dishwasher, you have earned your reward – get comfy in the family room and start work on the crossword puzzle. However, I will say that unfolded
laundry on the back counter does not carry the same sense of urgency, probably because it is not visible from our prime relaxing couch that has a clear view of the kitchen. But the bottom line is that without some concept of a reward,
relaxing is merely a dangerous surrogate for laziness and procrastination.

2. The How

In puzzling over the how, I have determined that relaxing combines some optimal level of mental and physical energy. Too little mental energy is boring, and too much mental energy – well that is concentrating. Too much physical energy is purposeful sweating,
which doesn’t strike me as relaxing, and too little physical energy – well that is a total couch potato. My relaxation mostly focuses on the mental energy side of the equation – some people might find jogging relaxing, but for me a physical activity that is relaxing would be a good walk or a gentle bike ride. Most of my physical activities involve some sort of competition, such as paddle tennis or tennis, and relaxing is what you do after competing. I used to play a word game called anagrams with my brother-in-law Charlie – mano a mano.  However, it got so competitive that I had to psych myself up for the event by loosening up my shoulders and maybe even jogging in place. After the intense concentration of the game, I would often need a shower to rinse off the nervous energy. I subsequently developed a solitaire version of the game, which is very relaxing.

How does doing a jigsaw puzzle fit in? Well this takes a minimal amount of mental energy, but only if I get the correct kind of puzzle that combines the optimal quality of piece – in
size, shape and construction – and the optimal picture. Older puzzles consisted of interlocking wooden pieces, but now these are way too expensive and I have settled for sturdy cardboard puzzles. The size and shape of pieces must be varied, since this is one of the main variables that I can use to assemble the puzzle in the first place. Finally, the picture must contain reasonably sized patches of color so that I can work on sections, like the sky or red barn. I am going into such excruciating detail on the jigsaw puzzles only to point out that I the right amount of mental energy needs to be carefuly considered. For
example, the puzzle of the human skeleton that I just bought will languish on the shelf – the pieces are all too small and flimsy, they are all the same size and don’t interlock. Unfortunately these are all attributes that can only be assessed after I bought the puzzle and opened the box.

Once I have the perfect puzzle (I would recommend Spingbok puzzles), I combine it with another activity to get the right mental energy quotient. The best combo is a football game in which I have no vested interest – I can keep one eye on the puzzle, and exult when I find that piece that completes the duck’s nose, and one eye on the football game, looking up only when I hear an announcer’s excited voice.  Watching a meaningful game can quickly devolve from relaxing to nerve racking, as illustrated by the Bears’ blown lead to the Broncos as the fourth quarter turned into Tebow time. I have been known to get up and leave the room to take a relaxing walk instead. Another good combo is daydreaming, although I wish there was a word that sounds more productive – perhaps ruminate, meditate or pondering, but certainly not brainstorming, because that would imply forced
concentration. What I want to convey is the feeling of taking my mind off its leash just letting it go to see what it comes up with – in fact this is the starting point for most fanagrams.

Entertainment is an interesting type of relaxation, once again requiring an optimal level of
physical and mental energy. Charades are wonderfully entertaining, particularly if you are on the sidelines watching someone make a fool out of themselves, but at some point you know you will have to contribute your energy to the game and act out something  like “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” So the question regarding entertainment is how much are people willing to actively contribute to the entertainment versus being a passive recipient? I used to hate charades and its potential for awkwardness or embarrassment, but now I think what the hell, who cares, I’ll chip in …  When I want to be purely passive, I can just go to the movies. About 30 years ago, we went to see a movie of the Rolling Stones
on the gigantic IMAX screen, a novelty at that time. We were sitting in these big cushy lounging chairs that tilted back, perfect for relaxing and passive entertainment. But at the same time we were watching the most active entertainment possible. A leering and impish Mick Jagger with his pouty lips – about 6 feet across on the IMAX screen – he pranced across the stage drenched in sweat. The live audience was jumping up and down and singing with the music. This scene absolutely called for our studio audience to get up and start singing and gyrating in the aisles. But everyone just leaned back and relaxed. It was an odd contrast.

Passive entertainment was on amusing display last year when Nick and I went to a luau in Kauia. Far from an intimate experience, this was an industrial luau with hundreds of
people. One of the pre dinner activities was to take a train around the old plantation. At one point the train stopped and we were encouraged to get out and feed some pigs. Everyone obediently lined up, exited the train, leaned against the fence and started to throw bread – the staff was ripping open loaves from the grocery store and handing out bread. It seemed strange to me. After all we were having roast pig for dinner, and now the staff was encouraging us to treat the pigs like pets. Not only the children, but adults were cooing and coaxing pigs over to the fence. I saw one elderly woman (with no grandchildren in sight) calling out “here piggy wiggy wiggy,” while waving a piece of double-fiber bread. I think that everyone was in such a deep vacation, passive entertainment mode – which we had all paid good money for – that there were not enough operating brain cells to realize how ludicrous this situation was. Sometimes you just want to turn your brain totally off and just let someone tell you want to do – probably the reason that clap signs work for TV audiences.

The after dinner luau entertainment consisted of a very athletic floor show of Hawaiian dance telling a story of the Polynesian immigration to Hawaii. The women were dressed in swaying grass skirts and had coconuts covering their breasts. The bronzed and buff men, some of whom ate fire, were dressed in dinky little loin clothes. At that point I was ready to flip the off switch, I was on vacation, so bring it on. I absorbed the entertainment and the only active thought I had was to wonder how the men kept their loin clothes on. At the end of the show, we were told that we could pose with the performers. I just did what I was told and somewhere there is a picture of me standing happily next to a sweaty man looking relaxed and happy.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters in the word. One missing word will rhyme with the preceding or following line. Your job is to solve for the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

Here are the ingredients for a well-earned deep relaxation *****,

First find a level of mental energy that is more than a soporific daze.

Then find a level of physical energy, the kind that doesn’t make you sweat

You don’t have to keep in tip top *****, a gentle walk is your best bet.

Now find your reward, those ***** of dishes that are part of the daily grind

Clean those up, then sit back with the Sunday Times and start to unwind.









Answers:  phase, shape, heaps

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