Albert Einstein was once asked how he would spend his time if he were given a problem upon which his life depended and he had only one hour to solve it. He responded by saying he would spend 30 minutes analyzing the problem, 20 minutes planning the solution, and 10 minutes executing the solution.

I operate in a completely different way. This is one of a myriad of ways in which I am nothing like Albert Einstein. Except for my hair, which can resemble his, when I wake up.

In other words, I jump to conclusions and operate at about a 75%-success rate. This gives me the confidence to think that, in most circumstances, I have a better than 50/50 chance of figuring out stuff.

Unless I can’t. Like last month, for example.

Most mornings, I wake up early and head out for a hike by daybreak. I have to drive to the trailhead, and there is only one route to take. So, I drive the same few blocks, listening to the same world-weary NPR newscasters trying to voice a smile as they deliver the daily bombshells of what I consider to be real and mostly depressing news. During the summer, as it is now, my suburban streets are even more quiet than usual as my neighbors head out to their summer homes or other envious destinations. In any case, I’m awake enough to be behind the wheel, sufficiently caffeinated to be headache free, and greased up with enough sunscreen to leave traces of the stuff on my steering wheel.

Then, I see him. He’s an old man, and by that I mean even older than me. He has a lovely straight back and his head is topped with a thicket of grey curls. He is not wearing a hat, but a fashionable hoodie. He looks to be a denizen of the neighborhood, comfortable in his surroundings, owning the moment, heading on his way and staying on the sidewalk. Jaunty. A morning guy.

Although his countenance was intriguing, he caught my eye for another reason. He was, at this hour of 6:50 a.m., eating (and relishing) an ice cream cone. It was not the ice cream cone that comes wedged into a box of six. Nor was it the single cone that one might find languishing among the yellowed ice chips housed in the liquor store’s freezer—the kind of cone where the paper is stuck to the contents either from moisture or staleness, or both. The morning guy is eating a bona fide cone. You know the kind: An ice cream cone with a scoop of the creamy, cold stuff that has been shaped by an ice cream scooper. An ice cream scooper that presumably was held by a real, live person doing the actual scooping. But, where did he get an ice cream cone at this early morning hour? I have lived here for almost 40 years. I know of nowhere he could have purchased this. Furthermore, it seemed as though most of his treat had yet to be devoured. So, I further deduced that it couldn’t have come from a distance away.

By now, I’m way over my Einstein goal of a 30-minute analysis of the problem. I’ve been obsessing over this for weeks now.

I see the man again, with his exquisite ice cream cone, on the next two consecutive days. But, despite my daily hikes, I have never seen him since.

I wonder if Einstein knew how to spell conundrum without having to look it up.

I love doing crossword puzzles because they offer such a satisfying way to find solutions. Completing them (or not) is my way of appreciating how the world works, and that offers me some comfort. The life-lessons I’ve come to rely on include:

  • Don’t force it.
    Here’s an example: In today’s puzzle, the clue for 21 Across was a four-letter word for “One of the friends on “Friends.” I had it as Joey. It wasn’t until 3 hours later when I revisited my still incomplete puzzle that I realized it was Ross.
    As a result of my epiphany, I filled in 21 Across and every square that butted up against those 4 little squares then fell so gratifyingly into place. Smooth and satisfying. Not to mention that I found reassurance knowing that it only took me 3 hours to remember all the main characters on “Friends.”

    Whatever happened to Chandler, I wonder?

  • Come back often.
    Except for the Monday New York Times crossword puzzles, which I can do in one sitting (again about 75% of the time, which is equal to my above-mentioned jumping-to-the-right-conclusion success rate), if I just get up and move around and come back to the puzzle, I see things entirely differently. Also, I remember that I need to actually get something else done. The dishes, for example. A shower is important too.
  • Commit.
    Do the puzzle in ink. Take a stand; fake it until you make it. These adages give me confidence. I can feel both puffed-up and proud of my 75% accuracy. Also, pencils are for perfectionists. If you need the reassurance of an eraser, you need to get out more. It is also true that a writing implement deemed a “lucky” pen can help one’s crossword-puzzle-solving acumen. This theorem is 100% accurate, by the way.
  • Seek help.
    Don’t be afraid to ask your spouse or your neighbor or the guy sitting next to you in the coffee shop for assistance. Just the other day, for example, I asked my husband, Marty, for help with 15 Across, “Charles or Ray after whom a chair is named.” Marty offered Barcalounger. I’m not sure if he can’t count or if he was giving me a hint for his upcoming birthday. Charles Barcalounger? See Rule #1 above.
  • Find an App.
    When all else fails, the Internet won’t let you down. My favorite go-to is because you not only find the answers to the puzzles that you’re pulling your hair out trying to complete, you learn so much more from Rex, who is a genius. I know this because he says he is. Additionally, you discover by reading the comments of others that you are not alone in your ignorance. Be strong, though. You also learn that a ton of people are a lot smarter than you.
  • Enjoy being alone.
    It’s the only way, really, to get through a crossword puzzle. It might be nice to get cozy in your husband’s Barcalounger and find yourself that lucky pen, remembering to have your device handy to access your App. You can convince yourself that you really are adept at figuring out things. Who’s going to know (or care) otherwise? I doubt Einstein was a sharer.

And, when you do figure things out, make sure you gloat on line, and go get yourself an ice cream cone…at any time of day.