Put (Not) Away Childish Things
An Object of Desire
I recall being 7 years old when the Rubik’s Cube hit peak popularity in the United States; it was 1983 and like what seemed to be every other kid, I wanted one badly. I never got one. That Christmas, instead of the multi-colored cube I so desperately desired, I ended up with a Slinky. Sure, it was cool, but it was a one-trick pony and by that time, old news. Upon returning to school, of course, the cool kids brought the best of their Christmas hauls to show off, but I couldn’t bring myself to take my gift as I didn’t think it was much to brag about. Those of us who didn’t receive a cube from Santa “oooooo’d” and “aaaaaah’d” at the kids who did, but, quickly it seemed, many of the kids lost interest in their toys as they were unable to solve them. If my memory serves me well, there was one kid who was able to figure out the solution and as jealous as I and others were in our hearts, we called him a nerd and insinuated that the only reason he had time to solve it was because he didn’t have any friends. Kids can be so cruel.
The Rubik’s Cube was one of the objects of my childhood that would capture my attention and never quite let go. I remember vividly how badly I wanted these various objects and even as an adult, this feeling occasionally envelops me still. Though it is brought on by much more expensive things and is often momentary and fleeting, the flood of memory that accompanies that feeling evokes a strong response in me. “Life would be so much better if I could only have….”
Years passed and though the desire for a cube faded, it never truly went away. As I aged, I would pick up a cube at the house of a friend or wherever else I would find one, play with it for a while, maybe solve a color, but ultimately step away in frustration. I always knew there was a “code” to the cube, a series of moves that one could memorize to solve the puzzle, but I didn’t know anyone who could solve one and those who claimed to have once done so could no longer remember how they did. And so, my fascination with the puzzle cube would continue.
As the saying “everything that is old, becomes new again” would imply, much later on I would once again be captured by the desire to learn the solution to the cube. In 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many people, myself included, created “COVID Goals” or had “COVID Projects.” Having spent over half a year in a semi-lockdown state and while recovering from a series of unfortunate events, I determined that it was finally time to learn to solve a Rubik’s Cube. The idea was prompted by my son’s own desire to solve Rubik’s Cube and I figured we could learn how to do so together.
It was strange how his telling me he wanted a cube caused me to remember how it felt to be unfulfilled as a child. It was strange remembering what I couldn’t have then and finally overcoming that feeling as I realized that finally fulfilling my childhood desire only required me to head to my local Target. There I found an original Rubik’s Cube and wondered why $7 – Seven Dollars! – was such a barrier to me as a child. Perhaps those reasons are the subject of another blog post, but needless to say, later that day I was unpacking my long-sought object of desire.
More Than Just Algorithms
YouTube really is an interesting aspect of life in the 21st century. Want to know how to fix a broken toilet? YouTube. Want to learn a language? YouTube. I mean, just about anything a person would want to know can be found demonstrated, taught, or discussed on YouTube. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ardent fan of the platform, but it suffices to say that the mysteries of the Rubik’s Cube were made less mysterious because of it.
Over the course of a few days, my son and I reviewed YouTube videos and he began to write an instruction set on how to solve the cube. Right-Up, Top-Right, Right-Down, Top-Left. This and other algorithms were reviewed, memorized, and eventually burned into our muscle memory. I learned the cube is to be solved from the bottom up, layer by layer. Mastering layer 1 was easy, layer 2 less so, and layer 3 took some time as mistakes in earlier layers mean there are fewer chances to learn the layer three algorithms. But, after some time and after some frustration and many close solves, I finally solved it for the first time; as an adult – a 43-year-old man – I finally did it. It wasn’t because I was “a nerd” or didn’t have any friends; rather, it was because we were persistent. My son beat me to it (rightfully so), but I did it. As I write this, I know it sounds silly, but it was a significant moment for me. It only took 36 years.
Like anything, there is an efficient and a less-efficient way of executing these algorithms and with solve, we got faster and better. What became interesting to me is that solving the cube is more than just about remembering the patterns; much more. The cube can teach lessons in frustration tolerance (no matter how good one gets, mistakes will be made), in being present and task-focused (losing focus means forgetting where one is in the process), and in learning that one mistake doesn’t mean starting over (one can back up, assess, and pick up from the most familiar starting point and some mistakes can be unwound). I then began to learn that the patterns I used to solve the curve are mere starting points and that other algorithms for more complex (and faster) solves exist. Turns out, this “toy” is anything but.
A Childhood Desire Turned Meditation
Over time, I put the cube down and picked it back up again. I re-learned the algorithms and established new muscle memory as I watched others and figured out ways to hold the cube, flick it, and move it more efficiently. With time, solving the cube became more than a pastime and more of a mediation. I would pick it up in moments of difficulty when I needed to ground myself. At times, I kept it by my bedside and others, at my desk. Often, it was near the couch where I would solve it again and again as I pondered. Recently, I picked up a second one so I could have one at work and at home. I have traveled with one and actually, as I write this, my best cube is stowed in a seat pocket of a Boeing 737 as I am en route to Phoenix, Arizona. Sure, I pick up and solve the cube for many reasons, but the most common reason I pick it up is to be present with something, and being present is a state being I seek more and more as I age. This object of desire from my childhood has become a part of how I am learning to enjoy adulthood. Perhaps he did, but I have a hard time imagining that the creator of the cube envisioned this. I guess it’s also possible that he knew all along something I have only recently learned.