Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

The day before her thirty fourth birthday, I gave my wife a puzzle.  Well, actually it was an address to a website I’d created that included an assortment of puzzles.  To access the website she needed a password, which she would have found while completing the previous day’s puzzle.  That puzzle, an Excel spreadsheet with two columns of seemingly random numbers, had also required a password, which was of course the solution to the previous day’s previous day’s puzzle.  That puzzle, a Word document with miscellaneous images and decorative symbols to be decoded, had kicked it all off on Monday morning – a week long birthday puzzle extravaganza.

The problem with doing a series of multi-day puzzles – well, one of the problems – is that you are tempted to adjust the difficulty on the fly based on a rather small sample size of one or two days.  On Tuesday afternoon it looked as though I had underestimated my wife, or overestimated my puzzles.  In either case I needed to make a change to keep this interesting for her, and for me.  And so I went back to the final day’s puzzle and I added additional parts, and then new layers to each part, and then new parts to each layer just in case.

By Wednesday evening, though, it was clear I’d taken things too far.  What had started out as something unique and interesting for my wife – a new puzzle offered by her husband for every day of the week, leading towards a mysterious birthday gift – had by the eve of her birthday turned into a kind of Scavenger Hunter Games.

After finally getting the kids to bed, she sat down to work on part two of that day’s puzzle. From part one of the puzzle she now had the answers to five different clues: ‘Rex’, ‘Cool’, ‘Actuarian’,  ‘Beer’ and ‘01000010’.  And she needed to take the first couple letters from each answer and translate them into a number using the Periodic Table as a code.  So, for example, ‘Re’ in Rex became the number 75, since Rhenium (symbol Re) is the 75th element in the Periodic Table.  She’d figured out how to do this for all but one of the five answers she had.  The problem was what to do with the answer that wasn’t a word, but a number, a binary number in fact: 01000010.

She was stuck.  Which is perhaps not surprising given that up until this point in her life my wife had probably never had any need to use, or even know of, binary numbers.  She’d already, in the previous days, through her own cleverness and perseverance, turned wingdings into words, converted random numbers to places of interest, and found out what A. Fominaya (a person almost as obscure to her as he is to you, my dear reader) wanted to be when he grew up (which she found in our high school yearbook).  She had done all this with enthusiasm and without requiring any of my many prepared hints.  But expecting her to know what to do with this particular binary number at 9 pm on the eve of her birthday was probably unfair.

By this point I’d moved to a different room to avoid my tendency to backseat puzzle.  I hopped onto google chat and asked her what she’d come up with so far.  She typed in: Re for Rex = 75.  Yep.

“And for the answer that was a number?  What letter did you come up with for that one?” I asked.

She typed into the google chat box: O.

“So you are thinking that the first zero in 01000010 is just supposed to be translated as an ‘O’?” I asked her.  It was rhetorical question meant to shame her into understanding that her guess was wrong.

“Yeah.  I’ll play around with that one,” she typed back to me.

“Yeah.  You have the right idea in general though.  So it’s probably just a tweak here or there.”

“But that one is wrong,” she said, though this was not a question.  It was the statement of someone who had come to accept that they were being toyed with.  That resistance was futile and so they’d better just play along if they hoped to ever get back to a normal life of arguing over dishes and laundry, rather than engaging in passive aggressive conversations about 0’s and 1’s.

“Yeah.  You need a real letter, not a faux one.”

A faux one?  Had I really just typed that?  What the hell was a faux letter, anyways?  Cut to the hipster perusing letters at a store in Williamsburg.  Oh, I really do love that letter A, but do you have it in faux?  I don’t buy real letters for ethical reasons.       

Now any sensible person in this situation would have recognized that this had all gone too far.  They would have stopped hurling insults about phony letters.  But I was not sensible anymore.  I was drunk on my own puzzling power.

Sometime in the weeks before the puzzles began, my wife was asked how I was as a gift giver.  Her reply was that my gifts were usually either amazing or awful.  Apparently, I was the gift giving equivalent of the American economy – a predictable cycle of booms and busts.  I argued that this wasn’t a totally accurate picture.  I had some highs, and some lows, but also a handful of perfectly mediocre gifts.  The sort that don’t get remembered, but are nonetheless not so awful as to warrant an embarrassing anecdote.  Besides, she knows she never even got the worst gift I ever gave.  So isn’t that also something?

Everyone who has heard the story already knows the worst gift I ever gave.  It starts as all great gift giving stories do, on Christmas Eve, at a mall.  To my credit, I’d spent some time in early December thinking about gifts for my college girlfriend, but as was my usual pattern I’d stowed those thoughts away until after finals were done.  At Maryland finals were usually finished with only a couple days to spare before Christmas.  And a couple of days is not enough time to execute poorly thought out half-plans from a month before.

So there I was, on Christmas Eve, at Laurel Shopping Center, without the slightest idea of what to get for my girlfriend.  As it happens there are special places for people like me, who wander the mall-ways aimless and in utter desperation.  And so it was that the first time I’d ever shopped on Christmas Eve happened to coincide with the first time I’d ever purchased something from a mall kiosk.

In the weeks after kind friends would offer me chances to salvage my dignity.  “A shaved ice machine, oh, how nice – so she really loves shaved ice, huh?”  No, not particularly.  I mean, who doesn’t.  But it was never a thing we shared, or something she ever professed to be so fond of.  I loved shaved ice.  It was my favorite part about going to the beach.  I thought I might love her.  So why shouldn’t these two loves be brought together?  I mean, it’s not like I only bought her the machine.  I bought her at least a month’s supply of interesting flavorings.  You can’t just find those things anywhere, you know.  There’s a special kiosk at the mall…

I never got my wife anything as equally ludicrous as a shaved ice machine.  In fact, some years, I did quite well.  Early in our marriage I surprised her with a brand new laptop.  And there were diamond earrings one year for Christmas.

Then in May of 2012 we found ourselves in Florida for her birthday.  And I found myself contemplating creating my first ever scavenger hunt.  It was a rather amateur affair, with clues hand written on torn bits of paper.  The clue at the bottom of the pool (Where Narcissus May Be Found) was stuffed into a plastic bottle and weighed down with a few handfuls of dirt.  But the shiny iPad she got for her efforts made the whole thing seem more polished.  In the end she was quite happy, and I had gotten a taste of the power that came with tricking others into solving problems that in any other context would be considered a significant inconvenience.

There is a certain narcissism in creating a scavenger hunt, and even more so in creating a week long epic puzzling quest.  These activities provide the perfect venue for showcasing one’s own cleverness, carefully baked into each and every clue like the cream in a Twinkie.  Would you look at that!  How did he get that in there?  And when the puzzle-e comes to you looking for help?  Well, this is where you, as the puzzler, can really demonstrate your cleverness, dare I say, your brilliance – as you explain how trivial it is to solve some problem, which you yourself made up just the night before.  Well, if one is familiar with the bitwise manipulation of binary numbers, this next part is pretty simple really…There’s more than one way to interpret that word, of course…

And this is to say nothing of the self-indulgence I granted myself in obsessing over creating the puzzles in the first place.  On more than one occasion while working at night on the puzzles, after the kids had gone to bed, I stopped my wife mid-sentence in order to inform her that I simply did not have the patience to chat with her right now.  I was too busy building a puzzle to show her how devoted I was to making more space for her in my life.  The irony was apparently not lost on her.

Which is all to say that by day three, the puzzle quest had been revealed to be something more complicated than just a sweet and romantic (and geeky) gesture.  It was those things, but it was something else as well.  Something a bit self-indulgent.  Like taking a friend out for their birthday to a nice restaurant that happens to be your favorite.  On a night when the restaurant is hosting trivia.  And you are the announcer.  Come on, this will be fun!  I’m just going to go sit over there so I can read off the clues without any distractions.

The final solution to Wednesday’s puzzle was yet another piece of information, the final key to unlocking the location of the gift: Up Above the Fridge.  For all that I’d put her through, it was going to have to be something special.  If the puzzles had in the end been as much of a gift to myself as a gift to her, on Thursday, her actual birthday, I would need to give her something all her own.

She reached her hand up and felt around on top of the refrigerator.  Nothing.  She grabbed a chair, stood up and opened the cabinets above the fridge.  Just vases.  After a few moments she reached her hand up over the top of the cabinet.  Bingo.  Nothing came easy in this game.

After opening the gift, the MacBook Pro that she was thrilled to have but would never have felt justified in buying for herself, she admitted that the thought had gone through her head when looking at the wrapped gift that perhaps her prize would be a puzzle – as in the kind with pieces you put together.

Alas, I wasn’t that clever.


  1. Ahh yes. The summer of puzzles. I remember it like it was last summer. Amazing, date I say thrilling, times. Don’t forget someone else’s birthday is about 2 months away. Plenty of time for a puzzle…. 🙂

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