Saturday, October 26, 2013

My Struggles With Sudoku

I was a natural at math when I was a student. I consistently earned A's in my math classes throughout high school and college. I never felt challenged. And I had enrolled in advanced classes: Linear Algebra, Calculus I, Calculus II, Calculus III. (Not surprisingly, the Calculus sequels did not live up to the original.)

I knew my way around numbers. They could be small. They could be large. They could be rational. They could be irrational. They could even be imaginary. It didn't matter. I handled them all with ease. As hard as they tried, they just could not stump me.

I'm telling you this because I have an embarrassing admission to make: I have never completed a Sudoku puzzle. Not even ones that were marked "easy." I have no explanation for this; why am I able to solve complex equations but unable to master a simple game involving the most basic of numbers?

What makes this especially frustrating is that each and every one of my closest friends has successfully completed a Sudoku puzzle. And I take pride in surrounding myself with people who are not as intelligent as I am. You can imagine why my struggles with Sudoku would nag at me, then.

So it was with an extra sense of purpose that I removed the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me during a recent plane trip. What better way to kill four hours on a plane than to tackle the airline's Sudoku puzzle and overcome one of my greatest shortcomings?

If you're wondering what the other shortcomings are, they are, in no particular order, my lack of cooking skills, my addiction to Sour Patch Kids, and my Cal Ripken Jr.-esque streak of consecutive days without a date.

I flipped to the page in the magazine on which the Sudoku puzzle was located, and would you believe that some of the boxes were already filled in? In ink? Boy, was I mad, mad at how inconsiderate the previous occupant of my seat had been.

It's my personal belief that a passenger should leave behind the in-flight magazine in the same condition he or she found it. Do not crease, bend, or change the shape of the magazine. Do not tear out any of the articles. And do not ruin the Sudoku puzzle for future passengers. Don't ruin my chance to finally subdue Sudoku.

Fortunately, I found another productive way to occupy my time on the plane. I turned the page to the listings of the in-flight movies that were offered by the airline. I already knew what one of them would be -- I did my research on the airline's website a few days beforehand. I always do that before a trip. I want to know what to expect.

There's always an initial sense of excitement --  "Wow, they're going to show Man of Steel!" -- before it sinks in that only the customers who are flying internationally will have the privilege of watching a popular film like Man of Steel. Inevitably, that excitement turns to bitter disappointment when I scan the listings for domestic flights. "Ah, come on, R.I.P.D.? I'm not watching that!" Of course, I probably will watch at least part of R.I.P.D., but I won't have to like it.

It turns out that this particular flight offered an on-demand entertainment system on the back of each seat, offering more than 25 movies and several TV shows. A much wider selection than the website led me to believe. This was a pleasant surprise. And -- this was even more unexpected -- it was free! Amazing!

My priorities shifted. If I couldn't work on the Sudoku puzzle, I was going to work on watching as much programming as possible on the little TV screen in front of me before the plane landed. I immediately launched the airline's version of Iron Man 3, which was different from the theatrical release in that the airline's name was plastered on the screen every 10 minutes.

That wasn't as annoying as the constant interruptions from the pilot, who would literally pause the movie whenever he had something on his mind. It was as if he truly wanted to replicate the moviegoing experience for me with his chatter. "Hello, just wanted to let you know that we're at cruising altitude, we'll be passing Atlanta in just a little bit. Clear skies ahead...."

Fine. Now can I get back to the movie, please? If I was interested in the condition of the skies, I'd watch the skies through the window. But as it happens, I'm watching Iron Man 3 on my screen. The Mandarin is destroying Robert Downey Jr.'s home. Please silence your P.A. system now.

Once Iron Man 3 ended, I quickly searched through the other options. It was only then that I discovered that HBO shows were available to me. I can't overstate how exciting this was, since I don't subscribe to HBO at home. Now I could watch it for free. I mean, it was free after the hundreds of dollars I spent on the flight, plus the additional airline fees. It was a nice little bonus, all the same.

I tuned into Louis C.K.'s latest comedy special, but my eyes frequently wandered to the neighboring screens, because I'm nosy and I wanted to judge the passengers seated next to me based solely on their viewing habits. One man was locked in on an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I couldn't believe it. I nearly tapped him on the leg and said, "Excuse me, I just wanted to let you know that there's free HBO on this plane. You don't have to watch Guy Fieri if you don't want to."

I was surrounded by many others whose screen was set to the flight map. I had no desire to interact with them, because I'm sure the only thought on their minds was, "Are we there yet?" So whiny. Pass.

After Louis C.K.'s set was done, I switched to The Wire. I have been told many, many times that this is one of the best dramas of my lifetime. But again, I'm not an HBO subscriber, so I've never seen it. I resolved to binge-watch as much Wire as I could before the plane landed. Unfortunately, I'd lost track of time, and 5 minutes into the first episode, the pilot took control of the P.A. system: "We've started our descent. We will be arriving at our final destination in 30 minutes."

I was so disappointed. I called over a flight attendant and made a simple request. "I know this sounds odd, but...can the pilot circle the airport for about a half-hour? Maybe he can fly the plane to Detroit and then fly back? Please, this is my first time watching The Wire." 

For the next several minutes, I continuously glanced over to a nearby flight map, and the plane kept crawling toward the airport. Dang it. So much for catching up on The Wire.

So now I have two goals for my next flight: conquer Sudoku and watch more of The Wire. I should be able to do both, if my math is right.