I’ve been avoiding writing here about a recent obsession of mine: cubing.
Every year we have a small New Years Eve party, a bunch of long-time friends gathering at our house for food, fireworks, and games. The grown-ups hang out on the main floor. The kids have migrated upstairs in recent years.
The daughter of one of our good friends, barely a teenager, surprised me a little this past New Years. I went upstairs to evaluate the food and beverage situation and she was sitting on the couch flipping her fingers across my Rubick’s Cube, which had gone unsolved since the day we pried it from the plastic clam-shell wrapper and scrambled it. She was half-looking at the thing, casual. Fidgetting, really. And then… she solved it, set it on our ottoman, shrugged, and went on with her evening.
I know people do this competitively, flip their fingers across the butter-smooth mechanics of specially-designed “speed cubes” to see if they can solve it in record-setting times of mere seconds. Look it up on YouTube.
But my little classic cube, sitting on our shelf gathering dust had never been much more than throwback toy. I’d pull it down on occasion and solve one side and contemplate the elegant complexity of the thing. Whatever. Move along. Life is too busy to worry about every eclectic hobby.
Getting schooled by a kid one knew in diapers has a way of wedging a bit of grit into the folds of one’s aging brain.
It got under my skin. I suddenly wanted… needed… to figure this thing out. I spent more than a few evenings in January watching videos, reading guides, and eventually memorizing algorithms. The cube, it turns out, is essentially an algorithmic decision tree: one memorizes a series of move sets, collections of three, six, nine moves like ‘right-counterclockwise’ or ‘front-clockwise’ and then apply sets of those moves depending on the current state of the cube. In the end, the cube can be solved in a set number of optimal stages. All that is needed is to memorize a bunch of moves and states and apply that in the appropriate pattern. Any cube, any state, could be moved from randomness to order with simple math.
Those long evenings in January netted a handful of solves, each about an hours worth of effort.
Those solves led to faster solves, one a night maybe, and some casual practice.
Which puts me to my current state, two months later, of being able to solve any scrambled Rubik’s Cube in about three to four minutes.
And my reluctance to write about it came from the idea that it kinda makes a neat little party trick, but a party trick that only really works if people think the toy is this grand, unsolvable, geniuses-only mystery. A party trick that is probably pretty lame actually. “Oh… you can solve that? Uh…”
I felt mostly victorious at that little achievement, a check on that great unwritten bucket list of life, I could cross off “solve the Rubik’s Cube” and move on to other less trivial obsessions.
Then, one recent morning on the train, I was sitting a few seats across and over from a guy about my age. This guy was ripped and zen. He looked like he was some chill movie-star bodyguard, suited up and stone-faced, open-collared button down shirt with a classic look and chiseled chin. “Did your Lexus breakdown. Why are you on the train?” Whatever. I pull out my Kindle to read. He pulls out a speed cube: not a basic Rubik’s brand cube, but instead one of the precision engineered, lighting fast, ultra-smooth $50 models whose mechanical clicks were audibly poking through the rattling background noise of the morning train. And he sat there, bolt upright, hands symmetrically balanced between his knees, eyes straight ahead and barely so much as glancing down at the cube, fingers flicking with robotic precision, click, click, click-click-click. He solved it six times while we sat there, commuting, each time unscrambling in a blur of finger-movements the chaotic colour mess into a neat six sided match-up less than a minute. It was like watching an artist work, or a musician play. My mind melted a little bit.
My standard puzzle cube, a squeaky and stubborn brand-name model, bought for a few bucks from the book store had nothing on this guy’s marvel and my best-time-of-three-minutes of memorized algorithmic puzzle solving glory seemed amature, akin to pulling up to a Formula One race in a Mazda 3: humbled and realizing that there are entirely whole other levels to this thing.
Like any hobby, one reaches a point when one needs to ask: am I good enough, happy enough with what I can do, that I can get on with my life? Or is that metaphorical rabbit hole so tempting that I feel like I should reach inside just to see what I find there?
Does anyone know of a good toy store? I’m asking for a friend…