October 22, 2020

Pandemic Puzzles

My greatest source of comfort during the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t been a streaming service or a pair of sweatpants, but a book of 317 “expert” level Sudoku puzzles. I took it from my college boyfriend during a time of great Sudoku popularity in America, but it remained largely untouched as I got busier with finishing school and building a career. I brought it on vacations with me in recent years. It was still on my dresser from my last trip when COVID-19 struck.

I tried watching TV a little while social distancing. I made it through “Parks and Recreation” and moved onto “Broad City,” with a little detour for “Tiger King.” It was weird to watch people hugging and caring for each other. One particular episode of “Broad City” took place when the characters were sheltering during a hurricane. It made me wish I could be with my friends, even temporarily, during this disaster. 

I don’t know when I’ll see them again. I do know that every row, column, and square in my puzzle contains each number once. 

I don’t know what to do and how to feel. Is it safe to visit my family? Should I order a bunch of takeout or try to eat more vegetables? As businesses open back up, should I go or wait? How long do I wait? Will we have sports? Should we have sports? Every move I think about making becomes this giant battle of what I want and what is ethical. 

I don’t know if tipping 100% on my weekly coffee order will be enough to help the business survive or the baristas make their rent. I don’t know if I’m wearing my mask perfectly all the time or if it’s enough to keep me and the people around me safe. I do know that if 1 and 5 can both only occur in the same two cells of a square, I can disregard all other numerical possibilities for those cells.

When we first started social distancing, I thought plans would be cancelled for a couple of months. I was hoping things would be better by June, and that seemed reasonable to me. We thought we’d slow the spread, and maybe there would be a treatment or some way to track infections. 

As time wore on, people started to debate. Does it matter if we have a shelter in place order? Does it matter if we specifically call it that? What should our government do to support people in this time of crisis? What criteria should we use to determine when we can loosen social distancing guidelines? While I have opinions and defer to people who have dedicated their lives to studying the spread of disease, I don’t personally know the answers to those questions. 

I don’t know what strategies would work best in the United States or what it would take to implement them. I do have a strategy for this Sudoku puzzle, and it works the same every time. I know if I review this and make note of that, I will get the right numbers in the right places. 

When my brain is overloaded from a full day of work, trying to make sense of data about testing, squeezing in exercise to keep myself from falling into a funk, pushing aside the feeling that I have never been this alone in my entire life, and cleaning things in case they carry an insidious virus trying to kill me, I want to turn it off. I like to think in numbers – specifically numbers that aren’t tied to words, people, or consequences. There’s nothing in this puzzle that can trigger a thought of something I’m afraid of or missing. It’s just me and the numbers 1 through 9 until I’m ready to face everything else again. Our grim reality will still be here when I close my book.

Chaplin
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Nicole Gustafson 34 Articles
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Nicole was born in Chicago and raised in Des Moines. She took her talents to The Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism. You can find Nicole cheering on her favorite sports teams, hanging out with her dog, or finishing a Netflix marathon. Nicole is a big fan of #pitcherswhorake, fat guy TD's, and carbs. She's not a fan of mornings, winter, or vegetables and will complain to anyone who will listen.

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