Sam McManis

Discoveries: Exercise your brain in Redding

The Parlor area at Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s new exhibition, Mindbender Mansion, features many brainteasers.
The Parlor area at Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s new exhibition, Mindbender Mansion, features many brainteasers. Courtesy of Turtle Bay

I had a ditzy “I Love Lucy” moment here the other day. Can’t say I’m proud of my performance, but I’ve never been so wildly entertained by being proved, again and again, to be utterly incompetent.

Thankfully, my humiliation was witnessed only by Turtle Bay Exploration Park curator Julia Pennington Cronin – or, as I like to call her, Ethel.

Actually, there was some disagreement between us as to who would be Lucy and who Ethel, as we girded ourselves before a conveyor belt bearing cafeteria trays at the museum’s new “Mindbender Mansion” exhibition, a vast and maddening display of brainteasers and processing puzzles sure to leave you equal parts entertained and irritated, not to mention cognitively comatose by the day’s end.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Julia had just ushered me through the exhibit meant to “test the brainpower and problem-solving skills of even the most experienced puzzlers,” showing me geometric puzzles meant to exercise one’s spatial processing, perception and motor skills. She manipulated blocks and sticks into hexagons, sussed out patterns where none seemingly existed and generally showed the neural nimbleness that I, just watching her, couldn’t even begin to process.

Now we stood at a puzzle in the “kitchen” area at a contraption called “Feeding Frenzy,” a puzzle we would have to perform as a team. The object was deceptively simple: fill TV dinner trays cut out in geometric shapes for food – triangular peas, trapezoidal corn, rectangular meat, etc. – as the conveyor belt chugged along.

Naturally, I flashed upon my vast database of TV rerun knowledge – what I did in my misspent youth instead of studying geometry – and called up that famous “Lucy” skit at the candy factory, where she and Ethel try and fail with slapstick hilarity to wrap chocolates as the assembly line gets progressively faster and Lucy and Ethel progressively flustered.

I hoped, of course, that Julia and I, who between us boast four higher ed degrees (OK, so Julia has three), could master this task by fitting the pieces into the slots like champions and not star in our own Lucy-Ethel remake.

“Feeding Frenzy looks pretty deceptive,” she said. “You think, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ But there are only enough setups for 10 trays, and you have to get at least 10 points to get the clue (for the next puzzle station). You think, well, it’s the same pattern on each tray, but you’ve really got to work on the strategy. Like, you put the peas and corn in and I’ll do the meat and potatoes and dessert. You really need to work together. OK? OK.”

Did I have a choice at that point?

Then Julia had to go and turn on the conveyor belt to the highest setting: “fast.” A guitar riff emanated from the exhibit, and the belt chugged to life. I grabbed peas and corn and whatever the heck that dessert was supposed to be (peach cobbler, perhaps?) from the chute and started jamming triangles into squares, squares into parallelograms. Julia worked more methodically. For every tray we completed, two more went by absent all of the five food groups.

The clock was ticking. We had two minutes to fill 10 trays. Julia emitted a sound, “akkk,” that I took as a commentary on my lack of pattern recognition and motor skills.

“Wait!,” she said breathlessly, heading back toward the head of the conveyor belt to grab more blocks. “We’re gonna run out of food.”

I started hyperventilating. “I … don’t … have … peas,” I wheezed. Then, frantically, “I need some damn peas.”

Julia: “Akkk!”

The buzzer sounded.

“Noooo,” she wailed. “We got only 7.”

For easy face-saving, perhaps, Julia next took me to the “Disco Room” to play a word puzzle called “Spelling Fever,” geared, it seemed to me, for the elementary-school set. No matter, I was happy for the break. You pressed a button, listened to a question and then jumped, hopscotch-like, over lit-up letters to spell your answer with your feet. You would be timed, of course.

My question: “What does a dentist study?”

I froze. Of course, I had to overthink it. I wracked my brain, thinking, “How do you spell ‘Periodontics’? Or, no, wait, ‘Maxillofacial Pathology’?” Julia gave me a puzzled look. I finally snapped out of it and jumped on these letters: M.O.U.T.H.

“That’s right!” the voice intoned with automated enthusiasm.

Sensing I was fitting myself for the metaphorical dunce cap, Julia tried to reassure me.

“You know what? You’ll get better,” she said, as she seemingly slowed down her delivery to make sure I caught every syllable. “We encourage people to keep coming back. … Sometimes, what’ll happen is, you’ll walk away from a puzzle, go do something else, come back and it dawns on you.”

Before letting me try my hand at brain teasers that “connect to national science, math and technology standards,” she tried a few herself, clacking around puzzle pieces to solve the one called “15 Sticks,” the object of which is to remove six of said sticks to leave 10, lickety split. She aced another puzzle, called “Square or Triangle,” in which four wood pieces somehow get manipulated into either of the patterns.

Her final words to me: “Have fun.”

Easy for her to say.

Up first was a puzzle featuring a leather shoelace wrapped around nails arranged to look like two houses. The object: “Use the rope to trace the outline of each house without crossing or retracing your path.”

After 10 minutes of sweat and toil, I gave up in frustration. I looked furtively around, then slunk over to the puzzle across the room titled “10 Pegs, Even Lines.” Instructions: “Start with the pegs in the 10 black holes, move only two pegs to the other holes so that every row and column horizontal and vertical has an even number of pegs.”

Huh? If I couldn’t understand the instructions, how could I possibly solve the puzzle? As Lucy Ricardo would say, “Wah!”

One last shot at redemption. I found the most basic brainteaser in the exhibition, one the curator threw in there just for toddlers to have a sense of accomplishment: “Arrange 4 pieces to make a green square.”

OK, bear down. Focus.

A few manipulations, one false start, and I had done it. Took about 20 seconds.

I already was feeling smarter.

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Mindbender Mansion exhibit, through Sept. 7

  • Where: 844 Sundial Bridge Drive, Redding
  • Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
  • Cost: $16 general, $12 ages 4-15), $12 ages 65 and older
  • Information: turtlebay.org
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