Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cube Club

I have a cube collection--Meaning a collection of puzzles centered around Rubik's cubes.

I remember very clearly when Rubik's cubes arrived in the United States in the early 80s.  I wanted one.  It spoke to me in a way few things did.  I liked that it was colorful and compact and could fit nicely in your hands.  I liked that it was something that would take time to figure out.

I also come from a family of collectors, so in my home growing up it was accepted and even encouraged that if you liked something for you to collect and save anything related to it.  So I didn't just have a cube and a solution book, I had all the cubes and all the solution books I could find.

I kept a scrapbook, I have official materials from the Ideal Toy Corporation, I took sixth place in a cube racing contest that happened to be on my birthday and won a T-shirt...

(A couple of notes about that t-shirt:  First, this seems a questionable slogan for a prize in a contest for kids.  And second, it always bothered me that the cube in the middle does not match the other two in terms of color arrangement, so it was obvious that no one who actually played with cubes had any hand in that design.)

When my husband and I backpacked around Europe for a few weeks after college the item I took along with me to keep myself entertained on the trains was a 5x5x5 cube.  There were no solution books for it that I knew of, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to figure it out on my own.  It took 10 days.  But as happy as I was to have figured it out, I was then left wondering what I was supposed to occupy myself with for the rest of the trip, so I decided to see if I could write down my solution.

Explaining what you do intuitively is much harder than simply doing it.  I've never completely finished my book.  The problem for me with the 5x5x5 puzzle is that I when I get down to the last pieces that need to be fixed, I can only solve them in odd numbers.  I can move anything in threes, but if it comes down to two things I have to just essentially mess things up again until I get a combination of three to solve and then I can finish the cube.  This is inelegant at best, but someday I will get it.  Time for such things is just harder to come by anymore.

The other cube related event from that trip to Europe was that we managed to track down the Rubik studio in Hungary.  I got to see the space where the puzzle engineers work, and I bought a few things including a traditional cube which I asked someone if I could get Mr Rubik himself to sign.  They took it behind a large leather door into a big office and returned a moment later with a signature on my cube, but when I asked if I could peek in and say hello they said no.  It was kind of like the cube version of being denied a meeting with The Great Oz.

My collection includes a variety of picture cubes, including one I had to save box tops of Chex cereal and send away for.  Most were gifts, but I think my favorite is the one I got for participating in the last Amazing Milwaukee Race, because the organizer told me he threw a cube challenge into the event with me in mind.

The original cube to hit the market in the US was made by the Ideal Toy Corporation, and it's still what I think of as a correct cube.  I always liked that white was opposite blue on that cube (and green from yellow, red from orange).

The cube I raced with, however, was a "Wonderful Puzzler" knock-off cube.  I greased it with Vaseline, and it moved really well without coming apart.  Those cubes were the only imitations that also had white across from blue.  Now all the cubes are white across from yellow (blue is now across from green) and it always just looks wrong to me.

One of the weird things about all those cubes is that the orange stickers are always bad.  Didn't matter what brand, the orange stickers wouldn't stay.

(The one on the right has a replacement sticker)

Today good racing cubes don't have stickers at all.  The colors are built right into the pieces.  They are also far superior in construction and feel.  I just got a new set of cubes in the mail today by Mo Yu and I love them.
The Rubik studio invented other puzzles, some of which took off (like the pocket cube which is all corners) and most of which didn't.  I always kind of liked the Snake but it doesn't hold my attention for long, the Missing Link was too easy, and Rubik's Game I have never bothered to figure out.

My favorite game is Rubik's Race.  You shake up a little box of color cubes to create a pattern, and then slide squares around to copy it in the center of your side of the board.  When you get it, you slap the divider down to display your finished pattern.  I don't remember ever losing at this game.  I also don't remember anyone ever wanting to play it with me for very long.  My brother Barrett I think stuck it out the longest (he was/is a good brother) but I don't blame him for eventually not wanting to do it anymore.  When I showed it to Quinn the other day he was nice enough to do about a dozen rounds before he finally looked sort of hopeless and I told him we could stop.

They still make this game.  I spotted an updated version in a store not long ago.  But my vintage version has a shaker box so cloudy now that it makes more sense to take the lid off like a Boggle game in order to see the colors.

Some cubes are sparkly.

Some puzzles are just slightly altered cubes, and you solve them the same way, they are just awkward to hold.  Some variations are different shapes entirely.

I think the most attractive spin-off puzzle was the Alexander's Star.  It's not comfortable or fast, but it's not hard to solve; it just takes a little while to sort out how the patterns on it work.  (I have a book for that one simply for collecting's sake--I've never needed to read it.)

Some things are just fun and are barely puzzles at all.  Probably the prettiest thing in my collection is this weird shiny box that is really a pair of star-like objects that interlock.  It's the first thing anyone wants to pick up when I open my cube box.

I haven't had a reason to open my cube collection boxes in many years, but a couple of weeks ago a notice appeared in the school newsletter announcing the first meeting of the Rubik's cube club.  A cube club!

I looked at Quinn and told him he needed to go with me to cube club.  I could have probably gone alone, but that felt just too ridiculously weird, so I needed Quinn along as cover to not feel like I was completely absurd.

But how could I not want to see the cube club?  I'm astounded and amazed that over 30 years later there are still kids solving cubes.  It's up there with the fact that Star Wars is still a thing that elementary school kids know, even though I was introduced to that at the same age they are now.  I contacted the organizer of the club and asked if he thought anyone would be interested in seeing vintage cube stuff, and he thought that sounded fun, so I literally dusted off my boxes and brought them to the school.

Most of the kids understandably had no interest in cube information from the 80s, and it was hard to keep them from scrambling particular puzzles that I don't really want to figure out how to solve again, but it was fun for me to revisit my stuff, and remember what interested me and what I was like when I was Quinn's age.  I still think the funniest thing I came across was in my scrapbook of articles declaring the craze to be dead (in 1982).  The kids at the club were confused about that, since there they were, learning algorithms that would help them put their puzzles in order.

Here's the thing about solving a cube:  You have to be willing to let things you've put in order go temporarily into disarray before you can go forward.  While learning to do any of it you have to risk that you will mess things up and have to start over.  Some people can do that in life, and some people can't.  In my experience, success in anything depends on being able to embrace mistakes.

Most people I've met who give up can't handle that part of solving a cube.  They may learn to complete a side, but then they get precious about it.  The idea of altering what they accomplished enough to create a finished layer rather than just a side seems like too much, and then beyond that watching that work seemingly unravel in order to get to the next step is too uncomfortable.

Solving a cube is not a trick, or one single piece of knowledge.  It's a process, based on a variety of possible methods.  People want there to be a single series of moves that put everything reliably back into place, and that's not how it works.  Analyzing what's in front of you, applying what you know to the current situation, looking ahead to the next step, are what make it interesting, and those things change each time you scramble the puzzle.

Someone once asked me why after solving a cube would you do it again?  It's a good question if you don't know what goes into solving one.  The goal isn't the point so much as the process of reaching it and seeing how much better you can do it each time.  So my answer for that person was, "Once you've played a piece of music why would you play it again?"  It's a challenge and a joy.  It's not for everyone, but it's for me.

I even have violin store cubes.  When we first opened ten years ago I started looking at promotional material, but nothing seemed right.  My parents always had pens for their art gallery, and I always liked those, but there was nothing that jumped out at me as being a decent item to put the violin store logo onto.  Until I found out you can customize cubes!  When they arrived I mailed some out to my family, and I think they were all happier for me that I had my own cubes than my own store.  I'm pretty sure we're the only violin store that offers free cube solving as a service.
My one big cube dream for the store is to someday find an affordable supply of cheap cubes in bulk that I can use to completely fill a display window.  I'd like to create a giant pixilated image by arranging the colors on a side of each cube so that from across the street it looks like a scroll or a pair of f-holes or something.  Wouldn't that be cool?

It's been fun having an excuse to dig out my old boxes of puzzles.  And the organizer of the club let me take home his nice 5x5x5 cube for a couple of weeks to try and solve for him.  People leave cubes for me to solve on the doorstep of our store occasionally, and a couple of years ago there was a 5x5x5 for me to work on and I got to dig out my old notes and put it back together.  This time around I'm trying to improve upon my old solution a little bit.  I'm kind of impressed with my old notes, frankly, because some of it I don't completely know how I figured it out all those years ago on the train.

I don't imagine going back to cube club (other than to return that man's cube I'm working on) because Quinn has little interest and I already know how to solve a cube.  I love that there is one, though.  And I have loved revisiting a bit of my puzzle obsession, but I should probably attend to other things.  Diving into the Rubik's cube was the perfect sort of activity to try and master as a kid, back when there were long stretches of time and few responsibilities.  I picture myself one day in old age, no longer feeling competent with violin maker's tools and not required to work anymore, sitting in a rocker and still clutching a cube.  Maybe in that second childhood I'll figure out those last couple of formulas I need for my personal solution book.  Doesn't sound like a bad way to go.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentine's Box

My mom is amazing.  She's an amazing artist, person, and grandmother, too, not just amazing as a mom.  I'm one of only three people in the world, however, who get to judge her directly on the mom-front, and the vote is unanimous that she is the best.

I've been struggling with how well I measure up in that role lately.  I know I am good enough most days, and there are moments I'm satisfied that I've done something I can be proud of, but I've never felt more inadequate to the task than in recent years.  I appreciate most of the freedom I have now that my kids are more independent compared to the baby and toddler years, but I miss the relative simplicity of their worlds being so small.  Often the first time I see them on an average day is when I get home from work.  They are beyond my reach.  It's a helpless feeling.  I worry I should be doing more for them but it's hard to know what.

When I look back on my own childhood and think about how much my mom managed to do, I can't figure out how she did it.  She would sew us real clothes, not just Halloween costumes.  She kept the house much cleaner than I'm able to keep my own and certainly changed the sheets more often.  She tended the garden, did all the bookkeeping, did all the labor at the art gallery full time, and somehow also maintained her career as a successful artist.

And then there was the food.  My mom prepared us excellent homemade meals every day.  I don't remember us ever getting food delivery or take out when we were growing up.  Once my brothers and I were intrigued by the look of something called "pizza" on a Little Caesar's commercial, and we asked if we could try some, so the next night my mom served up homemade pizza in the same broad pan she made lasagna in.  It didn't look the same as in the commercials (shapes are strangely important to kids, and the ones in the adds were circles cut into triangles and this was a rectangle cut into squares, so that was distracting) but it was good.  I don't remember her making it again, though.  In our house (usually on a Wednesday when I leave work early to take Quinn across town to Latin after school then have to pick up Aden right afterward so the two of them can do violin lessons until 7:00) there is often actual Little Caesar's pizza on the table so that people coming and going can grab something to eat before getting shuttled to the next place.  It's fine, I don't really beat myself up about it, but I know my mom would have managed it differently somehow and I am awestruck.

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Two of the things I most want to define myself by (aside from my relationships and my attempts at being a decent person) are my instrument making and my writing.  Yet somehow, more often than not, the treadmill of chores takes priority, as do the needs of others around me like my kids and my customers and even our silly dog.  There are rehearsals to attend and meals to make and little things like filling the gas tank and collecting dishes from around the house that nibble away at my available time.  Whole days, then weeks, then months, and even years slip by where I'm not doing the things I most want to do.  Stepping back, that looks ridiculous.

I know how to fix this, I just have to do it.

When I talk to younger women in instrument making the main questions they have for me are about how to keep doing it after having children.  (I remain fascinated by the fact that this is never an automatic question about men.  No one assumes once a man has children  he won't be able to continue doing his work.  The expectations of women are different, both about us and by us.)  And I tell them that the answer is simple, just not easy to do:

You must carve out time that is yours and be ruthless and unapologetic about protecting it.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Word of the Day

I love weird coincidences.  I don't read anything into them, I just enjoy how they can make otherwise ordinary moments seem far more intriguing.

Our weird coincidence in the first weeks of this new year involves a word from my childhood:  Floccinaucinihilipilification.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It's what we do

We just finished all our holiday cards this weekend.  I'm behind on all things Christmas, and still need to bake and figure out many of the presents, so I was tempted to skip cards altogether.  But Quinn wanted to do them.

Quinn likes lists and excuses to hand write things and organizing stuff into piles, so holiday cards are right up his alley.  I decided if he really wanted to help it would be worth going to the trouble.  We talked about what to make and settled on an origami star.  YouTube showed us how to make one, and we got to folding.

In the past when we've done our little home assembly line process of putting together holiday cards I thought of it in two parts: The making of the actual cards, and then considering whom they are for and what to put inside.  It never occurred to me that the second half of that process would be done by anyone but myself, but the part that most interested Quinn was addressing envelopes.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Surprise Cakes

This year has been the birthday season of the surprise cakes. 

The first birthday is Quinn's, and he couldn't decide what kind of cake to ask for.  Mona wanted try her hand at making a cake this time, and offered to surprise him.  He liked that idea, and the result was this adorable cat cake.

Pretty much all of this was Mona.  I baked the actual cakes, but Mona did all the sculpting and decorating.  I would like to mention that my end of it was no small deal in that I wound up baking three sets of cakes three days in a row.  Her original idea was a "transfer mouse" from some online game the two of them like to play together, and she wanted it standing.  I tried to explain (based on my vast amount of experience with past cake wrecks) why the way she was going at it wasn't going to work, but some lessons one must apparently learn for oneself.  There was one collapsed cake, then another even more collapsed cake, before Mona finally accepted my adage of "The cake should be wider than it is tall to remain stable" and the cat cake came to be.

We had a nice quiet birthday with Quinn this year.  He made a million cereal treats to take to school both for his classroom and for the after school geography club, and for dinner we tried a new taco truck and ate while watching anime at home.  (I highly recommend the short series "Erased" if you haven't seen it.)

He did love his cake and asked if he, in turn, could surprise Mona with a cake for her birthday.  Mona was scheduled to spend her birthday weekend at a sleepover for a friend whose birthday is on the same day, so Quinn and I decided we needed to make a cake that was easy to transport so she could take it to the party.  It wasn't at all what Mona was expecting because the cake was simply cake-shaped, but I think it came out cool and Quinn did a good job.

We made a "checkerboard cake" which means we used different colored batter in concentric rings in the cake pans so that when the layers were stacked they would look like a checkerboard when you cut into it.  That way the surprise cake had a surprise inside as well.

This one took a couple of tries, because the first attempt was with chocolate cake and white cake, and we learned the hard way that the two textures of cake don't hold together, so we just added different colors to white cake.

Quinn also wanted to go crazy with frosting colors and the piping bags, so we did.

Right before Mona's birthday, though, was another cake decorating/fundraiser event at Aden's school.  Last year Aden made a spectacular dragon and geode cake, and it won first place, but it was too beautiful to cut into and wound up not being the best choice for a fundraiser where people pay to buy slices after the awards.  This year she went with something more accessible: a candy sushi plate.

The fish part is just a basic chocolate cake cut to the right shape and frosted, and I helped again with baking and a bit of the crumb coat which got tricky, but the rest of it was just Aden working late into the night with cereal and marshmallows and candy.  There are Oreo crumbs in there, gummy fish, fruit roll ups, Twizzlers... 

I think she did a beautiful job.  (And so did the judges, who awarded her first place for the second year in a row.)

My mom was in town briefly in the middle of birthday season and decided to make a collective cake for us to celebrate with all together.  The cake itself was a chocolate chip cake with custard filling that was delicious, but to top it off we put on a "magic candle" we found at the grocery store. 

You light the center wick, the flame gets kind of high (the instructions suggested we should be 3-4 feet away from it), it sparks briefly, then opens like a flower with tiny lit candles that burn down quickly as they make the whole thing spin slowly.  It was also supposed to make music, but we didn't get that to work until after the candles went out.  The package described it as making "continuous music" which is apt, since the only way we could shut it off was to crack the candle housing open and disconnect the battery from the speaker.  We loved that weird thing.
For Aden's birthday she wanted to continue the surprise cake theme and have her siblings make whatever they chose.  They settled on a shield and sword from the Legend of Zelda, which worked out well because Aden had a skating party at Incrediroll again, followed by a sleepover, so we had a cake for each site.

This time we used fondant to decorate with.  I baked a couple of cakes again, but the kids made the fondant themselves and did all the real work.  I helped with some frosting work again, and I cut out the white and yellow fondant bits for the shield, but the rest of it was all Quinn and Mona.

Aden managed to walk into the kitchen at the wrong moment and saw the drawing we were working from which spoiled some of the surprise, but she wasn't expecting two cakes, so part of it was still unexpected.  Cake is cake, though.  Surprise or no, it still tastes good.

Best cake making tip I can share this year is the glory of parchment paper.  We cut out parchment paper to fit along the bottom of all the pans and it made lifting the cakes out to do things with incredibly easy.

In between Quinn's birthday and Mona's birthday is Thanksgiving, and I feel the need to show that not everything we make comes out pretty.  My grandma used to serve orange jello at the big holiday meals, and I inherited her cut-glass jello plate and the mold in the shape of a ring that fits on it perfectly.  I also inherited the recipe, but have yet to make it work. 

The orange jello calls for (appropriately) three boxes of orange jello, orange sherbet, mandarin orange slices, and crushed pineapple.  The problem is this is one of gram's recipes where the amounts of everything are unclear because it just says "a can" or "a box" and we have no idea what the proportions are.  Every year we make a new guess and every year we end up with orange soup.  Luckily orange soup is still delicious, but I think gram would horrified that we're serving a giant bowl of brightly colored goo in her honor on our holiday table.
We'll try again at Christmas.

In the meantime, no more cake for a while.  We are caked out.