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Some Assembly Required

Monday, 24 June 2013

Legoland - Ned's Atomic Dustbin (mp3)

Michael Chabon’s 2009 collection of essays, Manhood for Amateurs, is an exploration into manhood and fatherhood at the dawn of the 21st Century, compiled from his essays in Details magazine over several years. The collection offered a breezy read with occasional moments of enlightenment. Plenty enjoyable.

As my son has become a full-blown toddler, Chabon's troubling essay on the devolution of LEGOs has become an ever-menacing shadow in the attic of my parental hangups. In an LA Times interview about that essay, he sums up his troubles with the 21st Century LEGO world well:
Not everything that at first glance seems to be a further illustration of the kind of cultural imperialism I see at work in the adult world over the world of childhood — not everything is necessarily an example of that. Certainly kids retain their love of subversion, and I think it’s just innate to a child’s mind to want to subvert authority. I think it’s unfortunate that the adult world figured out a way to take over that impulse and package it and retail it and sell it back to children, and to their parents.
Last Christmas, as I spent literally half a day assembling the half-dozen high-cost LEGO sets my son asked for and received, I thought constantly of Chabon’s essay. Was I helping create an automaton? Was this Ninjago (TM) 4-headed dragon going to crimp my son’s creativity? Was carefully piecing together that A-Wing Fighter painting my son's imagination into a corner?

Despite my internal struggle, I built the damn things anyway. I can’t say why. Maybe laziness (of parental philosophy, not actual labor, which was a pain in the ass). Maybe a Zen-like trust that things work out. Mostly just because he wanted me too.

As Chabon had suggested, LEGOs had become modern-day models, meant to be constructed and admired, not played with. By mid-January everything I’d so carefully built was in pieces and scattered into several plastic bins in his room. Their utility seems to have died with the first major pieces that fell off. LEGO Leprosy, if you will.

By late February, my 5-year-old began assembling LEGO stuff by himself. His grandmother, an anchor of babysitting reliability, started buying him those $10 smaller models -- Avengers, Star Wars, Ninjago, whatever the boy picked out -- and for that precious $10 she bought herself an hour or more of quiet time. She would read or rest or take care of odd jobs while my son labored intensely and singularly on his building project. Rarely if ever did he need her help. Junior was apparently better at reading the instructions than she.

Several times I have observed him through the process after buying a new box. He’d turn page after page of instruction, working the pieces into place. Five-year-old boys are rarely so quiet or so focused.

One time he missed a piece and got several steps down the line before hitting an impasse. My son has more OCD in him than either of his parents combined, and he’s an extrovert, so it was all yelling and pounding and screaming in anger that the process somehow failed him. After calming him down, I made him pull off several layers and start back on an earlier page -- I hadn’t seen Junior's mistake; I only knew it was how I solved the problem when I was building these damn things, which is to tear it down a little. Two steps forward, one step back.

He calmed down. He started again. He got through it without another hitch.

Junior was now the LEGO foreman of his own construction company. Give him the blueprints, and he could build it. Still, he was trapped in the very limitations Chabon lamented: Junior had become good at doing what he was told to do, and not by his parents, but by the LEGO Corporation.

Don’t get me wrong; I want an obedient and considerate son, and I can even tolerate his OCD nature even if I don’t completely understand it. But raising a semi-mindless soldier isn’t my idea of parental success.

But in the last few weeks, there’s been another move forward. My son has moved gradually from foreman to architect. He has increasingly become less focused on following the instructions and building pre-planned things and more interested in making new things from all his old pieces. In that LA Times interview, Chabon rained a little on my parade (“Junior is a friggin’ genius!”) by revealing that my son's metamorphosis is common:
In the world of Legos, what I did discover is that my kids were taking these beautiful, gorgeous, incredibly restrictive predetermined Legos Star Wars play sets — and yeah, they really wanted it to be put together just the way the box showed it. I don’t think it occurred to them you’d want to do anything else with it. But inevitably, over time, the things kind of crumble and get destroyed and fall apart and then, once they do, the kids take all those pieces, and they create these bizarre, freak hybrids — of pirates and Indians and Star Wars and Spider-Man. Lego-things all getting mashed up together into this post-modern Lego stew. They figure out a way, despite the best efforts of corporate retail marketing.
Or perhaps Professor Ian Malcolm said it best:
If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.
Nothing we adults to do try and kill or quash or control the creativity in younger generations will completely succeed. Creativity, like life, finds a way. It just takes time.

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