There are many wonderful things about being a father. From the first ultra-sound image of your child, to the nurse handing you a wriggling, screaming little bundle; from an unending onslaught of first steps, words, bites to those heart-breaking, pride filled milestones, transitions, and rites of passage, fatherhood is a time of wonder. And even as we mark the progress, we don’t mind those tender moments that remind us of that wriggly bundle. You know the ones. Your fearless rock hopper comes to you with an owie; your headstrong princess falls asleep in your arms with her head against your chest. It’s in those moments that our hearts break and, even as we anticipate the next great milestone, we grieve the fact that our little person is becoming less and less little and less and less dependent on Daddy. Perhaps it is this grief that makes fatherhood that much sweeter, that much more precious.
Of course, there are other very positive aspects of fatherhood that require less introspection and are just as fun and joyful and, well, good. It is one such aspect that I am getting to enjoy with my four year-old son, Harry, these days. Toys!
Now, it is needless to say that previous Christmases and birthdays have not been devoid of toys. It’s actually a bit frightening that after Harry had a friend over for a play date for the first time, the friend went home and excitedly told his mother that Harry has “everything.” What makes it so frightening is that this friend is the son of Harry’s in-home day care provider. That’s right. The kid who has a fully equipped day care facility in his house is impressed with my son’s toy collection. I think the herd needs to be culled.
But I digress. There are lots of “toy” experiences that I’ve been looking forward to sharing with my kids, but the one I’ve really been anticipating is Lego. One of my earliest memories is of playing with Duplo bricks in my grandmother’s home in Switzerland when I was three. Admittedly aided by photos, I distinctly remember making a wheel-less multi-colored train out of the plastic blocks and running it along her hardwood floors. I remember trips to the L.A. Children’s Museum, which sported a huge (for the time) Lego exhibit and bringing home the Lego space shuttle. Nothing like the soon-to-be-retired NASA shuttles that defined space exploration for my generation, the Lego shuttle was little more than a couple of wing pieces, a tail fin, a couple of engines, a steering wheel and twin lasers. It had one seat and no cargo area so I’m not sure what it was shuttling, but it stirred my imagination.
The sets got bigger and more complex as I got older, but one element remained constant: the versatility of the toy. Naturally, the first thing I would do when I got a new set was to follow the instructions to build the model depicted on the box and play for a while with it. But eventually, something would happen. I’d drop the toy and it would break, or I’d try to engineer a fix to a weak spot or add a seat or booster or cannon. Inevitably, the Galaxy Explorer or the Space Shuttle would gradually become something out of my own imagination and not that of the Lego designers. In the final phase of this process, the pieces would eventually join the other pieces and become assimilated into My Lego Collection. Far from being a tragic last sighting of the original model, this was a moment in which the true genius and purpose of those Lego bricks became fulfilled. I can almost see the other bricks welcoming the newcomers with open…um…well, I can see them welcoming the newcomers enthusiastically. Hmmm…maybe I’ve seen the Toy Story movies a few times to many.
Well, the high point of my Lego fascination came in fourth grade. I had a school project on “Flying Things,” and the centerpiece was a Lego helicopter. I called it “Rainbow Thunder” (after Blue Thunder) because I didn’t have enough pieces of one color to justify a monochromatic name. There was a lot of red, but somehow, I don’t think “Red Thunder” would have gone over very well during the Reagan years. Now I think I’d call it “The Spectrum Copter” or something to that effect. It was a cargo chopper with a crew of 4 mini figures and a bottom mounted winch, and it could deploy a small buggy out of its rear cargo ramp.) I didn’t have any sets that were specifically helicopters, so the entire build was mine. That is, it was mine until it became part of a classroom full of second through fourth graders for an extended period of time, a classroom with wooden floors. Needless to say that “Rainbow Thunder” (I know, I know, it sounds lame) crashed many times, and through the genius that is Lego, it was always reassembled, but rarely in exactly the same way as before.
After fourth grade, my interests in toys moved toward G.I. Joe and Transformers. Soon enough, all these toys disappeared from my room into various storage vessels and I went on to navigate my secondary school and college years with the style, confidence and sheer awesomeness for which I am known far and wide. (Why is everyone laughing?)
While my Legos languished in a Ziploc bag in a storage unit in Highland Park, the Lego brand moved on, adding and discarding toy lines, genres and even movie tie-ins like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Occasionally, the toy aisle in a department store would catch my eye, so I was vaguely aware of this, although I did wonder how the tie-ins would work out.
By this time, I had met and started dating my future bride. We had no immediate plans for kids (Harry was born a couple of months before our 6th anniversary), but we must have had some conversations on the topic because she bought me a Lego Naboo Fighter for my birthday, complete with Anakin Skywalker, R2D2 and two battle droids. Lego had re-entered my life.
A couple of years later, I bought a set of miscellaneous pieces and used them to depict terrain in a role-playing game. They proved quite useful, but more importantly My Lego Collection was back, if only minimally so.
Not long after that, my parents were cleaning out their stuff in anticipation of a move to Washington to be near Alissa and me. I ventured to L.A. to do my part, tackling the storage unit. There was no sign of the Transformers. My G.I. Joes, their internal rubber bands corroded and broken could serve no purpose beyond being featured in a macabre diorama showing the aftermath of a savage battle. But under the broken Sky Striker, Dragonfly and FANG copters; under the wreckage of GI Joe Headquarters and dismembered GI Joe and Cobra figures, my Lego’s were there, fully intact and as useful and versatile as ever. I packed them away for the move, and they migrated from L.A. to Washington.
Harry arrived two years later, and naturally I began looking forward to the day that I could introduce him to Lego. He received his first Lego set, in a SpongeBob Squarepants theme, from my cousin for his third birthday. He was a little young and Annie was just starting to put everything in her mouth, so up on the shelf it went.
Harry’s fourth birthday rolled around, and he was given two Lego City sets, a police helicopter and an off-road fire rescue unit. I helped him put those together and was able to once again appreciate the quality of the Lego pieces. We’d flirted with knock off sets, but the quality was not there. The pieces don’t lock as well, and the design of the models is just not even in the same league as Lego.
Some of Harry’s gift money went into the coffers of the Lego store in exchange for a police car and a tow truck. Finally, after an afternoon of shopping, Alissa and her mom came back with a baby doll for Annie and a Lego sea plane for Harry. At this point, I presented him with my Lego’s, old and new. We built the sea plane together, and then I showed him how to make a control tower and a tow vehicle. And here is where the magic of Lego came into play.
You see, each time I helped Harry build a model (and yes, I did most of the building…he is only four), I emphasized something to him. I emphasized that the beauty of Lego is that you don’t have to build what’s on the box. You can build whatever you want to. Your building options are only limited by your imagination and the pieces available to you.
Well, first, having seen the wheeled tow vehicles, Harry decided that the sea plane needed a landing gear. So we took off the pontoon assembly and built a landing gear with a tow hitch. Then he decided that the sea plane needed booster rockets. There were no boosters or landing gears shown on the box.
Mission accomplished, I thought to myself as we built the boosters. Grey pieces from my first space shuttle clicked together with yellow ones from the Naboo Fighter ultimately to be mounted atop the of the white wings of the sea plane. The pieces fit together seamlessly across the generations.
I’ve also posted this to The Satellite Show.