Last year I became passionately obsessed with killer sudoku and then, fairly abruptly, stopped. At no point in this process did I become all that good at killer sudoku, although I became distinctly, measurably better. Nor can I say I really understand the subtleties of killer sudoku, although there is an essay I was writing in my head for a while, an All-I-Needed-to-Know-I-Learned-in-Killer-Sudoku essay. That would have been a good essay. This essay, instead, is about the activities that give structure and a sense of forward progress to life, and what it means to abandon them. It is about how life goes forward regardless, and, I guess, in some sense it is about the open question of whether or not I would be a better person if I had kept on doing killer sudoku.
Any kind of sudoku involves a large square that is made up of nine smaller squares that in turn are made up of nine still smaller squares. Each of the medium-size squares holds the digits 1–9 in it a single time, and the same goes for each horizontal and vertical row. Normal sudoku allows you to solve this by filling in some of the digits in some of the squares for you; killer sudoku allows you to solve this by marking off other sections of squares and telling you what the total sum of each section is. Once you account for the fact that numbers cannot be repeated in subgrids and rows and columns, only certain numbers can add up to certain sums. Each solved square limits further what the other squares can be.
The first time I tried to solve one, I had no idea even where I would start. The friend who introduced me to killer sudoku had to point out that each row (and column and subsquare) totaled up to 45, and then I had to memorize a few of the simpler sums. I was very bad and then I got better and then I got better still, although I never got very good. The broadest pleasure, for me, of doing them was the sense that there was an answer, there was an indisputable right answer and that I could apply logic and get there. The narrower, sharper pleasure of doing them was the moment when I had cleared away all the simple, easy answers, all the things I could do standing on my head, and I had to stretch my mind, had to come up with solutions I couldn’t have envisioned myself finding. It felt so productive, which was hilarious because it was the least productive possible thing I could be doing, and often I was doing it during hours when I legitimately could have been accomplishing something.
The only way I know to do killer sudoku is to do it, by which I mean to laboriously put into each box the possible numbers, and then, one by one, eliminate them. Sitting back and reasoning got me nowhere—I could do it only up close. You can see how well that would fit into a self-help book; you could apply that logic to anything. You move forward by moving forward. The fact that sudoku was actually something I did instead of moving forward the things I should have been moving forward—the dishes, the laundry, my voicemail—didn’t feel relevant when I was in the grip of it.
When I stopped doing sudoku this time what I replaced it with was reading fan fiction. I want to be very clear here: there is a lot of really really good fan fiction out there and a lot of terrible fan fiction, and I would pit the best of it against the best of any other kind of narrative. But I’m not interested in that; what I’m interested in is the way that fanfiction, for me, acts as a time machine back to the self I inhabited the most closely when I was seven or eight years old, when anything I read was a long slow slide into another world and the idea of putting it down to do something else was the worst. Reading fanfiction, for me, is the opposite of doing sudoku —there’s no illusion of mastery or control. Just the opposite — pleasure in the loss of control, pleasure in the failure to regulate. The knowledge that I’m not moving forward, not even pretending to move forward.
There have been moments like this in my life before. There was the time when I got reasonably good at the New York Times crossword puzzle (again, not excellent, just okay) and then I just stopped. I don’t know why I stopped—I was so into the crossword puzzle that I got the Sunday Times delivered to my house in Trinidad, Colorado, population 10,000, only of course it didn’t get delivered half the time and then I would throw a fit, because this was in the pre-at-home-internet era, and then I just stopped and I haven’t done it in so long that I probably couldn’t do it if it were put in front of me.
I think a lot about what it says about me that with certain things I want to get to a certain level of competence, but also that when I get there I want to let it all slide downhill, to let all my painfully acquired knowledge of which three numbers will add up to 24 disappear from my brain.
But what is perhaps the strangest is that the me of two months ago who could not fall asleep without painfully solving the Friday killer sudoku puzzle is actually not all that different from the me of today, who doesn’t bother. At that point in time I worried that I was spending too much time on killer sudoku and now I worry about what it means that I’ve abandoned killer sudoku and meanwhile I keep going, going to work and eating dinner and talking to people and just generally experiencing more of the world.
I think a lot about how my 19-year-old self would view the person I am now. I think she would probably be disappointed; she had a lot of thoughts about doing interesting things and how that would make life worth living, make the passage of time meaningful. I guess that now I more or less believe that by definition life is always worth living, that a pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of lead, that whether you believe yourself to be sliding helplessly into something or deliberately, carefully doing sums and figures you are experiencing the world around you to the same degree. I believe it and I don’t believe it and all the same the numbers keep filling the box, ruling out certain possibilities and inviting others in.