Near the end of last month, I decided it was again time to cross an entry off of my thimble list. A thimble list is kind of like a bucket list, I guess, only less serious—things that I’ve always wanted to do, but which don’t require quitting my job or taking out a loan to accomplish. Where a bucket list might have something along the lines of See the Taj Mahal, my list would have something like Finally watch Breaking Bad. Where a bucket list might have Learn to play the violin, mine would have Figure out how to make omelettes.
I tend to pull out the thimble list whenever I start to get antsy about my own life. Since I’ve been dedicating the last couple of years to developing my writing, it’s not hard to feel a little stagnant. My writing is getting better, slowly but surely but extremely slowly, and I’m not looking for any sort of major life change (unless anyone out there needs an entry-level race car driver/astronaut opening filled). It’s just that I’m lucky (or maybe unlucky) enough to have surrounded myself with successful and interesting friends, which often makes me feel like a bit of a deadbeat. A friend from university recently moved down to Sydney, Australia—he’s winning sales awards and developing a very even tan. My childhood pals from back home tumbled off their return flight after a months-long ramble around Europe and Asia, and are now pursuing lucrative careers. Even my own younger brother dresses like an RW & Co. model, drives stick, and is planning a trip to Japan before starting the next step of his education as a marine biologist.
Meanwhile, I’m over here white-knuckling a cup of stale coffee, putting permanent tailbone divots in the couch cushions while I squint at The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Fifth Edition. You can see, I’m sure, why maybe I would feel like I’m a slow bloomer.
This is where the thimble list comes in. You know that feeling you get when you get to scratch out one of the items on your to-do list? Paint the garage door, mow the lawn, that kind of thing? Knocking something off the thimble list is a double espresso to that feeling’s lukewarm double-double. It helps me feel like I’ve increased my overall worth in a small but lasting way. It’s like painting the garage doors of my self-esteem.
So, after what had been a bit of a rough few months, I made up my mind to tackle one of the longer-standing items. I worked my way down the list. Skydiving was out—it was still too cold, and I wasn’t looking to spend that much money. I thought about looking into surfing lessons, but hadn’t the slightest idea where the hell I would even do that in this city. Perfecting a recipe for crepes, making a ranked list of the best ice cream in Toronto, and actually reading the copy of Infinite Jest I’ve had on my bookshelf since last November were all options I strongly considered, but none of them was it.
And then I got to the one that had been lurking in the back of my mind since I was a kid.
One of my favourite family stories was told to me as a teenager by my uncle. My uncle is a worldly and wildly intelligent organizational psychologist. He’s cultured, the kind of man who collects Russian war medals and can easily articulate the differences in taste and body between shiraz, merlot, and boxed. Maybe that’s why his story sticks out so strongly for me.
Years ago, he told me, a seemingly well-intentioned friend of his handed him a Rubik’s cube as a gift.
“He gives it to me and says, ‘Here. Take this and keep it in your bathroom. It’ll keep your brain sharp.’ I played with it for about five minutes before I smashed the thing with a hammer and gave it back to him in an ashtray.”
If even my uncle couldn’t solve a Rubik’s cube—well, that settled it. It was impossible. Like a lot of people, I bumped into Rubik’s cubes now and again when I was younger. Where I would have encountered them, I don’t know. We may even have owned one, for all I can remember. The only thing that sticks out in my mind is the insane frustration of trying to solve the damn thing.
I might, if I were lucky, have managed to get four squares of the same colour grouped together. And then one more turn would undo all that work, and I’d be apoplectic with irritation. Even the obvious moves seemed to have a monkey’s paw-like curse, yanking another square out of its proper place. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to play with the stupid things—attempting them was like strapping yourself in for a rousing bout of water-boarding.
In high school, my friend Vince learned how to do it. I still don’t know how or where he learned. He would have us mix up his cube for him, and then we’d watch, rapt, as he clik-clik-cliked his way to six solid sides. We’d all take turns at trying to work it out ourselves, although I’m not sure that any of us ever did, at least back then. We’d blindly twist away at the cube for a few minutes, trying to feign like we weren’t baffled, before handing it back to Vince, acting like we didn’t care.
Vince eventually moved on to a four-by-four version of the cube, and I think he even wound up picking up a five-by-five version, but by then we’d all sort of lost interest. We graduated, I moved away, and for years I happily gave no thought to Rubik’s cubes in any way, shape, or form.
How learning how to solve one then made it onto my thimble list, I’m not sure. I don’t consciously remember putting it on there, although it does add up when I think it over: it may not inflate my bank account or pad my resume, but in some small way, it represents a better version of me. I would be as fast, as strong, and as smart as I was before—but I’d finally be able to solve that damn puzzle that drove me to adolescent madness for all those years. (Plus it’d make me look cool at parties.)
One quick trip to Toys ‘R’ Us later, I was the proud owner of a shiny new Rubik’s cube. Official merchandise, no off-brand colours or knock-off mechanisms. Solid plastic, the package bragged, no stickers that could start peeling off with repeated use. It was generous of them, I thought, not to insinuate that there were no stickers for you to peel off and then reapply in their proper places, rather than just finishing the thing the right way. I gave it a few test turns. It was stiff; the sides rotated reluctantly. (Later, I’d learn that the pros will break the cubes in until they can essentially spin the sides with a flick of their fingertips. Thankfully, I don’t have that kind of time.)
Right away, I could feel the old frustration bubbling up. I was a kid again, nine years old, flailing away at this stupid little puzzle. The difference was that this time, I vowed, I would stick with it until I’d solved it at least once on my own. That was the point of the thimble list—raise the Kris Bone stock value, a few cents at a time.
I won’t lie to you: I had help. How people solved this shit before the internet, I have no idea—Ye Olde Rubike’s Amusement Squares were probably really fucking hard—but in today’s day and age, there are all sorts of videos and downloadable PDF guides with advice on how best to sort the cubes out. Even the official Rubik’s website has a link for “Solving” (and it’s listed before the “Buying” button, which I think says a lot). Reading over the guides, I realized something that struck me as profound, although it could have just been because it was like three a.m. when it occurred to me: for my entire life, I had been conceiving of the puzzle in the wrong way. See, I had been thinking of the cube as a sort of test of natural ability—solving it, I thought, would take intelligence, intuition, and luck. That’s not necessarily untrue, it’s just that it’s not quite right.
A Rubik’s cube is like a 3D math equation, it turns out. Though there have doubtless been savants over time who have been able to pick them up and sort them out without first being primed, for the average person it’s more about learning patterns—and these patterns are an awful lot like algebraic formulas. It’s just a matter of applying them.
The cube is divided up into different “sections,” we’ll say: Front, Back, Up, Down, Left, and Right; abbreviated as F, B, U, D, L, and R respectively. You learn right away that only the centre panel of any given side is static—it dictates which colour that side belongs to; everything else moves. The turns that the solver needs to then apply are abbreviated as simply F (for a clockwise turn of the Front face), Fi/F’ (for a counterclockwise turn of the front face), or F2 (for two clockwise turns, etc.—I’m sure you’re getting the idea.), and are presented as strings of movements: R’D’RD, say, is the movement you would repeat in order to change the orientation of a corner’s colours without destroying the rest of your work, while RUR’URUUR’U swaps two specific squares in a later part of the solution process. These “equations” are applied in distinct stages, and when followed properly they solve the puzzle.
I won’t try to reproduce a guide here**—more qualified people have produced better work elsewhere, and it’s all free anyway—but this is all to say that a Rubik’s cube isn’t some sort of test of innate ability. It’s not impossible, the way I once thought it was, and while it’s certainly not easy by any stretch, once you know how it’s done, it seems so simple. It’s all practice and memory.
I practiced the steps for hours at a time, following the guides exactly and trying to understand what I was doing. I stayed up all night on the couch one evening; sat practicing in the subway station as several trains passed by another time. I got better. It felt great. Like I’d unlocked a new superpower.
It also had the benefit of making me appear like a sort of Z-list celebrity, or a member of a secret club: kids would gasp as they saw me solving it, and multiple people gave me tips or comments as I tried my hand at it in public. One girl in particular, on a bus in Winnipeg, ran up excitedly and asked me my “time.” Once I’d figured out that she meant the time it took me to solve the cube, I replied that it was something like three minutes. She smiled and took her own severely scrambled cube from her purse, swinging the surfaces around so quickly that it was perfect before we’d reached my bus stop a half-block away. I asked her her own time as I exited, and she told me proudly that it was thirty-nine seconds. As a point of reference: the world record is just under eight.
Here, it is tempting to draw an easy moral out of the story. I set a goal, I achieved it. It had loomed over my head as a younger man, seemingly impossible, but with dedication, I overcame. Follow the steps, paint by the numbers, watch my objective come into focus. But that’s not really the way it works most of the time, is it?
I wish it were. I wish all my problems were just applying the right series of actions in the right way. I wish you could predict how the human mind would react to things so precisely that that approach would be feasible, even. But it’s not. Even if it were, I would be remiss in not mentioning that I still make mistakes. I can solve the cube now in under two minutes—a time I don’t have any interest in pushing, anyway—and I know the steps like the back of my hands, but every so often I still lose my place and rotate clockwise when it should have been counterclockwise, or grab the wrong side and turn. And once you’ve made a single wrong move, the sequence is thrown to the wolves—all the subsequent moves in the pattern will only get you further from your goal.
Counting down my thimble list makes me a (marginally) better person, or so I like to think, but it doesn’t erase the wrong moves I’ve made for myself in the past. Some days I wonder if I’m just twisting my way away from the solution I’ve been aiming at the whole time and never realizing it. Some days I’m sure of it. That’s the nice thing about Rubik’s cubes over life, though: if all else fails, you can just scramble your whole shit and start over.
*The infamous five-by-five cube apparently has “282 trevigintillion” different combinations, which I am pretty sure is a totally made-up number.
** I will, however, point interested parties towards https://how-to-solve-a-rubix-cube.com/, which I found immensely helpful.