Archive for Current Events

A Tribute to Jigsaw Puzzles (We Go Way Back)

 

Preliminary sketch by R.W. Alley for THE CASE OF THE HAT BURGLAR, a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

My name is James Preller and I have a problem.

It goes something like this:

My wife Lisa yawns, says, “I’m going up to bed.”

I stand by the large dining room table. It’s almost 10:30. There’s a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle spread out before me, halfway done. The edges, the easy parts, in place. There’s still about 500 loose pieces that all look, at a glance, the same. That’s the thing about puzzles: glancing won’t get it done. You’ve got to scrutinize. 

Lisa goes up, I remain. Just be a minute, I say. Time passes. At around 2:30, bleary and blurry and buzzing, I drag myself away.

Something happens when we break out the puzzles. I get a little obsessive. Okay, a lot obsessive.

Help me.

Quick flashback: I am a shy kid in an afternoon kindergarten class with Miss Croke in Wantagh, Long Island. She seems nice. Tall with glasses. The other kids strike me as boisterous and messy and problematic, especially one girl named Kathy who keeps threatening to hug me.

The way I cope is to stick to myself and do jigsaw puzzles. One after another after another. I have clear memories of this. Miss Croke coming along, sweetly asking if I’d like to, you know, do anything else besides puzzles? No, I’m good, I assured her. I was not unhappy, just quiet and reserved and, okay, a little freaked out.

(Like most shy kids, once I’m back home I won’t shut up — even after it’s forcefully suggested.)

Later, in 1997, I started writing a mystery series for young readers. At first, I didn’t have the name of the main character. I used Otis as a placeholder. Then Theodore. I decided he loves puzzles. That made sense to me, a detective would enjoy assembling the clues, piecing them together to create a full picture of the truth.

My editor, Helen Perelman, pulled a line from that first book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, tweaked it, and used it as a tagline: “Jigsaw puzzles are like mysteries — you’ve got to look at all the pieces to solve the case.”

Excerpt from THE CASE OF HERMIE THE MISSING HAMSTER.

So here I am, along with everybody else in May, 2020, hunkering down to COVID-19, quiet and reserved and still a little freaked. Once again busting out the jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I recently texted my friend, Corina, wondering if she was interested in a puzzle swap. Corina’s also an enthusiast, though I don’t sense it’s an affliction with her. She likes the Ravensburger puzzles whereas I have a preference for difficult nature scenes. We left a few boxes on our front stoops and made the masked exchange.

Looking back on all that, I suppose it wasn’t an accident I named him Jigsaw. 

There are 14 Jigsaw Jones titles currently available from Macmillan. (You should buy them all.) And in each one, there’s a moment when Jigsaw withdraws to spend time alone, deep in thought, working on a new jigsaw puzzle, thinking about the case.

Oh, almost forgot: I read aloud the entire book, The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster, on my Youtube channel. It’s a series of five videos. Feel free to share them with young readers, that’s why I made them.

     

     

Poem: “Written at Four A.M.”

I don’t usually post my poems on this blog, but wrote this one last night, as the title suggests, and felt I might as well put it out there. I am quite sure that not everyone understands, or even considers, the terrible stress and anxiety that our healthcare workers are under. There are heroes among us, and they don’t wear capes.

 

 

Written at Four A.M.

– for Lisa, 3/29/20

 

My wife cannot sleep these nights.

She lies blanketed in worry,

rueing her sleeplessness and tasks

undone, so much still to be done,

and afraid of what’s to come:

hospital beds in cluttered corridors,

patients sharing ventilators, alone

and clawing for air and surcease;

the fear in everyone’s eyes; the nurse’s

front desk, so often a font of crude

jokes and late-night laughter, now

red-rimmed and fraught. Awakened,

I rouse and speak: it only annoys her,

so I rub Lisa’s back in night’s full dark,

resort to an old trick, and pick up

a bedside book of poems, Philip Larkin’s

The Less Deceived, to read aloud.

It never fails. My good wife listens and

only half-hears, the words washing over

her in waves, undulant images, a mind

open like a drawer of knives, a hometown

recalled, a horse troubled by flies. Finally

I reach the last poem, read it twice

as I often do. Lay down the book,

the reading glasses, fumble with

the light. It rains outside our window,

a soft pattering urgency, dawn’s chorus

still two hours from us, if it comes

at all. But listen: at last she sleeps. I yawn,

thinking of poems and hospital beds,

and cough.

 

 

My wife, Lisa, is a midwife at Albany Obstetrics & Gynecology. Her work often finds her in the maternity ward of St. Peter’s Hospital. She’s also recently created a Facebook page, Reproductive Health at Home, which you can follow in these days when access to healthcare is challenging. These are hard times, and very scary for many. I write children’s books, a far less perilous venture. In support of teachers and parents as they scramble to provide online learning for young readers, I’ve created a variety of free videos for ages 3-14. You may access them at my Youtube channel. Just stomp on this link and it’ll bring you there.

Be smart, stay home, protect the vulnerable.

A Little “Exponential Functions” Humor

 

CARRY ON.

BE SMART, STAY HOME, PROTECT THE VULNERABLE!

Love in the Time of COVID-19

Today is my mother’s 94th birthday. She lives in a retirement community, Peconic Landing, in Greenport, Long Island. She requires advanced care and her mind has gone cloudy with only occasional patches of sun.

Our original plan was to travel down to visit this weekend, spend the night, surprise her with cake, balloons, and small gifts. But that was before the virus. Before the world changed. From what we’ve been told, as of two days ago, Peconic has already experienced three virus-related deaths. It now begins to wash like a great wave through the community, affecting healthcare workers and elderly patients alike. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my mother again.

These are hard times. For much of it, we are strong and brave and something close to our regular selves. Other times, we might feel that weight drag us down. For a few minutes, alone in my room, the tears come. I tried to call, something that I’ve all but given up on in the past. Thanks to the help of the staff, the call gets through. Our conversation becomes confused very quickly. Eventually, in the muddled silence, I hang up. Goodbye, I say.

It’s far better to see her in person, face to face, squeeze her hand, push the wheelchair outside, look out into the bay. My mother enjoys a cup of Lipton tea with sugar and still, amazingly, eats like a stevedore. That’s one of her signature expressions, which I love. Such a visit is not possible right now, will likely never again be possible.

Yet here in upstate, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. It’s the first day of Spring. Our two youngest children, Gavin and Maggie, are home with us. Our oldest, Nick, is healthy and working at home in New York City, supposedly the new epicenter of America’s coronavirus epidemic. My wife, Lisa, a midwife, is an amazing woman, doing important work. She touches lives in deeply meaningful ways. I’m infinitely proud of her.

There is still so much to love in this world. The trees, the clouds, the morning’s dawn chorus, our friends and family. Forgive me, if for a moment, I forget. I think we all have to forgive ourselves during these lapses. These moments when we feel it closing in around us. I’d planned on getting some work done this afternoon, attempting to make a bright, upbeat video for young readers who might have enjoyed my books. Throw it on Youtube, maybe somebody would find it. That’s something positive, right? But now? I’m not feeling it. Work can wait until tomorrow. This effing virus. Oh Mom, oh my family, this small mercy is not the ending I wanted to write, not the first day of Spring I had imagined with balloons, and small gifts, and cake. 

Online Support: Working with Teachers, Schools

Everyone is scrambling to catch up with an ever-evolving news cycle where the world beneath our feet seems to radically shift by the hour. Schools are closed or closing. We’re all supposed to stay indoors. We’re not sure how best to respond.

As an author of children’s books, familiar with speaking to large groups at school visits, I haven’t figured out my best response to all of this just yet. But I do expect to offer up some Youtube content, book talks, readings — I’m not really sure at this time what would be most helpful. There’s a learning curve, most certainly. 

Illustration by R.W. Alley from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar.

If you are interested in anything like that, or in something more interactive with readers, please feel free to contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and hopefully I can provide some support for meaningful, book-centered learning. 

My inclination is that this would be free or low cost, depending on the time and effort required. I’ll keep posting as this concept develops. Please don’t hesitate to write to me with your thoughts, questions, ideas. I’ve never used Zoom before, but my wife has, and it sounds user-friendly. Most important of all, please take this virus seriously. Stay home. Hunker down. Read, think, reflect. Take long walks. We’ll get through this.