Saturday, March 3, 2018


Writing about puzzle boxes and cocktails has always been a balancing act, trying to bring equilibrium to two distinct ideas in a single format.  The endeavor invites constant opportunity for change and shifting focus, a perpetual starting point for something new.  In Taoism, the ancient philosophy of life which originated with Lao Tzu in China thousands of years ago, the contrasting paths of life and nature naturally flow in and out of one another, the way night turns to day.  Although night and day are separate, even opposite, they are both a part of each other and complete a whole cycle.  This concept is represented visually in the Taoist symbol Taijitu, commonly referred to as the “Yin Yang”.

Yin Yang Master Puzzlebox by Randal Gatewood and Robert Yarger

The Yin Yang Master Puzzlebox by Randal Gatewood completes a cycle of its own, and represents a celebration of a life and a tribute for a death.  Randal Gatewood was known to many in the puzzle community for his expertly handcrafted, unusual puzzle boxes which he sold under his Quagmire Puzzle Box label.  His website was filled with beautiful photographs of his boxes, accompanied with detailed descriptions of his process, the history of the work, and behind the scenes insight into his inquisitive and inspirational personality.  He was extremely private and few apart from his close family and friends knew him well.  One friend, a fellow woodworker and puzzle box artist named Robert Yarger, would trade correspondences with him on occasion, and the two had made plans to collaborate on a puzzle box design one day. 

Opened and closed, locked and unlocked ... its all part of the cycle

Those plans were not meant to be as they had envisioned.  Randal Gatewood died on May 26, 2016 while fighting cancer.  The flow and circle of his life was balanced by many things, including the uplifting spirit of his favorite saying, “I can, I will”, the pursuit of bringing his creative passion to reality in his puzzle boxes, and the reunion with his high school sweetheart, who he carried in his heart and finally married, thirty years later.   She sent his unfinished puzzles to Robert Yarger after Randal’s death, which gave Robert the opportunity to make good on their plan, after all and in a fashion.  Robert was able to finish the series of Yin Yang Master puzzle boxes started by Randal, and added his own “unique flair” to the design as well in the spirit of collaboration.  These meaningful creations bear both the Stickman Puzzlebox Co. logo and original Quagmire Puzzle Box stamp hallmarks.  The boxes are beautifully rendered in shining red paduk wood and feature a lovely inset Yin Yang symbol crafted from maple and purpleheart.  If you can properly align the balance of light and dark, of motion and rest, of life and death, perhaps, you will open the box. 

The hallmarks of friendship

The Way begot one,
And the one, two;
Then the two begot three
And three, all else.
-          - from the Tao Te Ching

This ancient description of the meaning of Yin Yang, from Lao Tzu, seems awfully like a cocktail recipe, no?  Clearly we are considering a Negroni here, the ultimate three part cocktail made from gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.  The brilliant brain behind Portland’s bustling bar Clyde Common created a version which uses a bit more gin, the lightly bitter aperitif Aperol, and the bittersweet Italian vermouth known as “Punt e Mes”, which means “point and a half” and describes its composition of one part sweet to a half part bitter.  He called it the “Bittersweet Symphony”, a name which rings true and feels all too apropos for this toast.  It would have been enough, but I felt the Yin Yang Master deserved more balance and I wanted a bit of sweet and sour to complete this pairing.  I continued the cycle and used the specs from Washington DC’s Farmers and Distillers “Negroni Sour” to achieve what I envisioned for this symphony.  I’ll raise a glass to Randal, his life, and his legacy.  He left behind plenty to puzzle over with appreciation.

Bittersweet Symphony Sour

Bittersweet Symphony Sour – adapted from Jeffrey Morganthaler and Farmers and Distillers

 1 ½ oz gin
1 oz Punt e Mes
1 oz Aperol
¾ oz fresh lemon
¼ oz fresh orange
¼ oz simple syrup
1 egg white

Dry shake egg white and lemon juice to froth (no ice), then add the remaining ingredients and shake with ice to chill.  Strain into a favorite glass and complete the cycle.

Bittersweet balance

For more about Robert Yarger:

For more creations by Randal Gatewood:


  1. Lovely sentiments - I also bought one of these. As everyone knows, I don't tend to collect boxes but when I was offered a Stickman combined with a Quagmire puzzle I couldn't resist. Plus the proceeds went to Randal's widow and it was an honour to help out.


    1. Thank you Kevin. This was a special tribute, you are excused from your normal policy for this one :-)