In 1974, the Hungarian mathematician and sculptor Ernő Rubik invented a surprising puzzle, “The Magic Cube,” that became the best-selling toy of 1982. You probably know it as the Rubik’s Cube.
After more than twenty years from its inception, I met my first cube while lazily wandering in a department store. It was standing there, shiny, glowing, untouched, on a tiny pedestal, not really fit for its real glory.
We met, and I adopted it, flipping it through my fingers without any specific technique, just for the sake of seeing it mutate at every move. I knew full well that there was nothing magic about it, and I trusted my ability to dominate its secrets.
At first, I tried to reverse engineer it, but it didn’t work out, so it ended up sitting on a shelf, hoping it would solve by itself. Then, a few months later, while dusting that shelf once again, I resolved to apply a more solid methodology to it: Google.
I downloaded a step-by-step guide, and two weeks of daily practice later, I knew that guide by heart. A year later, I was fast enough to solve any position in less than 90 seconds, which is the average time between two tube stations in London, Vienna, or Paris.
The real fun started when my cube and I started traveling the world together.
We’ve all seen travelers on public transportation staring at their phones. Still, wonder ensues when we see a popular toy from almost 40 years ago being scrambled and solved at light-speed in between two stations of a subway train.
It might be the retro flair, the magnetic look of a multi-colored plastic puzzle, or the irresistible attraction for someone else’s business, but the Rubik’s cube attracts more stares than flowers attract bees.
My cube isn’t a one-trick pony. It doesn’t just glow underground; it’s an ace in the air too. We can be chilling out in an airport lounge, taxiing on the tarmac, or waiting in line at any checkpoint in the world; if the “Magic Cube,” pops out of my pocket, we’ll catch other people’s eyes, and might strike up a chat too.
Some people feel compelled to tell me how much they hated that toy when they were young because their friends were good at it, but they weren’t. Others want to see if I can solve it or if I’m struggling with it.
Once, someone asked me if I had bought it at the duty-free shop because it would have made the perfect gift for their son once they were getting home from that long business trip.
But no matter where, and no matter what, I will always get “the question.”
It’s the question people have asked me the most: “what’s the trick to solve it?”.
Should I tell them the truth? That it’s just about learning a sequence, an algorithm, and obsessively applying it to the letter until the puzzle is solved? Shall I tell them that’s just about practice, that you go from 15 minutes down to 90 seconds?
The first few times, I tried to tell the truth, only to see the light dim in my new friend’s eyes.
Then it hit me – when they ask that question, people don’t want the truth; they want something extraordinary, inspiring, and wonderful. They believe there is a well-kept secret about it, they want to catch that classified piece of information, and join the club of the cube solvers.
However, the cube and I are in the business of killing time, not in the business of shattering dreams, so I made the resolution of being gracious with strangers.
I now answer: “It’s magic; I have no idea how it works; it just happens.”
I wink, they smile, and we part ways.
This essay is the first assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
This piece is a remix of a previous article on this blog, which I translated and reworked. I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft, and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: AAkash Gupta, Alexandra Zamora, Chris Wong, Christin Chong, Danny Oak, Ellen Muench, Joojo Ocran, Nico Choksi.