Q: Hi Dad. Have you heard from the Spaniards yet?

Orange: No.

Q: Nothing?

Orange: Nada.

Q: I jumped ahead a bit there. Now, it took Michelangelo three years to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, how long did it take you to finish the jigsaw puzzle version?

Orange: Two and a half years.

Q: What are its dimensions, now that it’s done?

Orange: The dimensions are 272 cm by 96 cm.

Q: And what’s that in Yankee?

Orange: About three feet by ten feet.

Q: How did you come into possession of such a thing?

Orange: [laughs] I was given the puzzle by my precious daughter, who was trying to drive me insane so I would commit suicide.

Q: Right. Why did you decide to take it on?

Orange: Well, because we’d done a puzzle every Christmas for the last five or six Christmases and we were all going to do it.

Q: I know, but how come you kept on doing it after we left?

Orange: Well because it was a challenge. A 9,000-piece puzzle? I wanted to see if it could be done.

Q: From what I remember, all we could do that Christmas was sort out the border pieces. What was your first line of attack?

Orange: Well you started working on one end and you actually got details down, by looking at that dark blue of the stained glass, with the yellow running through it. When you got about ten square inches of it done, I was amazed that you could sort them out that way, and I decided I would work from one side to the other, because the right-hand side of the puzzle has brighter colors than the left-hand side.

Q: Yes. That was a slightly controversial move, if I may say, because you finished the section that’s closest to the altar first, while Michelangelo actually worked from the other end toward the altar.

Orange: Oh, really? I think they just took this picture for the puzzle before they were done restoring it, because the one half definitely has brighter colors than the other.

Q: No, because when I saw it this year, you can see that his style evolved into much more intricate, brighter compositions as he moved across the ceiling over time.

Orange: Oh. Well, suffice it to say that it’s easier to sort the puzzle pieces by color when you have bright colors for one end and duller colors for the other. When I sorted the colors, it became clear that it would be easier to do the brighter side first.

Q: I’m smart, right?

Orange: The side that was in the den.

Q: When did you realize that whole the puzzle wouldn’t fit on the family room floor?

Orange: Well, when I got into it about a month after that, I realized that you couldn’t look at the whole thing at once, so I had to get each half into a more manageable space. Half in the family room and the other half down the hall in the den.

Q: And when did you put the cardboard under it, from our refrigerator box?

Orange: At the very beginning, I cut that cardboard up.

Q: Did any of your strategies progress organically?

Orange: What do you mean?

Q: I don’t know.

Orange: Well, by “organically” do you mean “changing strategies as I go along”?

Q: I honestly don’t know.

Orange: What I realized was that the arches containing the sybils and delphis could actually be put in more easily than I thought they could, because they’re all of a slightly different color, and design, and the pieces of the arches would tell me what color I needed inside that lunette. They formed the most important part, the central frame, because that holds the whole central panel, if I could get that in, then that would tell me exactly where things end and where things begin. So I spent lots of time putting in the central frame first in one half and then in the other, and once I had the central frame, that established the overall design, and once you have that….

Q: So what you’re saying is that the central frame is pretty much useless as far as strategies go.

Orange: ….

Q: Were you on sabbatical the year I gave you the puzzle?

Orange: I was on sabbatical the following year.

Q: And did the puzzle get extra attention during that year?

Orange: In a way, since I was at home, and when I got tired of doing the work I was doing, it was a way of distracting myself without having to, you know, go out.

Q: Did you ever ignore the phone, doorbell or shower when you were working?

Orange: No, I wouldn’t say so. You’re the one who ignores the phone.

Q: Oh-ho! If I ignore the phone, you positively snub it.

Orange: Hmmm.

Q: What about the puzzle reward system that developed when you were marking essays.

Orange: Well that was the next year when I had to mark essays again. Yeah, I would mark — I would say, “If I can get through these two essays, I’ll give myself half an hour with the puzzle.”

Q: I thought it was you got to put one piece in, inconsiderate of duration.

Orange: Oh well, sometimes I would say, I’ll put in one or two pieces and then go back to work. Again, it’s the same kind of distraction.

Q: Do you think any of your students benefited, say if you had a particularly satisfying go of it between essays, and you came back fresh, that the next student got the benefit of that?

Orange: Oh, I don’t think so.

Q: I mean, if you were really on fire, and locked a piece that you’d been looking for for months, you don’t think that would bias you when you pick up the pencil again? Or maybe whip through one so you could get back to the puzzle?

Orange: No. Well, it would affect my mood but not my marking. But I must say, it does give one a sense of satisfaction to get a couple pieces in over the course of the day.

Q: More satisfaction than correcting it’s/its over and over again?

Orange: Surely. The interesting thing about that is that at night, I trained myself to remember the pieces I had put in or sometimes they would just occur to me — the pieces I had put in that day — and that would give me such a feeling of satisfaction that I could fall asleep at night.

Q: [laughing pretty hard] Would you count down the puzzle pieces, like sheep, to get to sleep?

Orange: It depends on how much I did that day, but I’d go over in my mind how I found the piece and realized where it went. I’d rarely get past four or five. I could certainly reconstruct the more difficult pieces. The ones that I could remember the best were the ones that I’d been looking for for months, that would give me a real satisfaction. In fact, there were two pieces I could not find for the whole two years and I only found them when I was almost finished the puzzle.

Q: Why, did you have them in the wrong spot?

Orange: No, they were just of a monochrome color, and the shapes are all pretty much the same so I always assumed these pieces went someplace else. It never occurred to me they’d be back where I was before. Then when I found them, man, when I found them I jumped up and down and whooped and yelled and twirled —

Q: You did?

Orange: Yeah.

Q: You twirled?

Orange: Yes, I twirled.

Q: Um, how many Zip-loc bags were enlisted for this project?

Orange: A whole package.

Q: How many bags did you have going at the height of it?

Orange: Well, I didn’t count but my guess would be, probably thirty-five.

Q: And what sort of a system did you come up with?

Orange: It started out with colors, one bag of colors, one bag of body parts, one bag of just white pieces, browns, and then gradually the whites got divided into off-white, bright-white, yellow-white, grey-white, blue-white….

Q: Did you ever have a problem with Michelangelo’s handling of the female body? I mean, did it ever confuse you, since his women tend to be built like linebackers, where you’d look at a piece and think that that big bicep belonged in the ‘man’ bag and it would end up belonging to a woman?

Orange: The way they cut the puzzle you could hardly tell that body parts were body parts, the pieces were too small. What struck me when I was going through it is that there are so few women in it.

Q: And aren’t only the men nude?

Orange: Eve is about the only nude woman in it, which surprises me, I thought there were more than that, but it turns out, when you look closely, those figures are not women, they’re just…. funny-shaped men.

Q: Did you get the equivalent of a Christian theology course in studying the scenes for so long?

Orange: I learned that I don’t know who these people are. I don’t know what they’re doing. I know they’re sybils but I don’t know why he chose to put them in there. I don’t know why he put Judith Holofernes where she is, and Jonah…. the one that says Jonah makes no sense to me. There’s a fish, but no whale, and Jonah’s not even an old man, he looks like a young man.

Q: When were the puzzle hiatus periods?

Orange: I got very busy when I went back to work last year, so for about five months I didn’t work on it.

Q: What about the emotional setback you had?

Orange: That was when JB and Nadia were coming to live here in the Summer of 2000 and I was going on vacation, the question was, would the kids and the dog upset the puzzle? And that was a real concern so, I tried to transfer the other half of the puzzle into the den so we could close the door and they could still use the family room. The puzzle is wider than the door and I turned the cardboard and it slanted and then the whole thing just slid into itself, and half of it came apart. It took three weeks to put most of those big sections back where they belonged and it took me a good two months after I got back from vacation to put the other 150 or so pieces back in.

Q: Did you cry?

Orange: No. I cursed.

Q: Did you twirl angrily?

Orange: No, I cursed and I stamped and I pounded my fists on the ground.

Q: Ah. Did that help?

Orange: No. It dislodged two other pieces.