We used to go on long weekend cross-country ski trips with two other couples and their kids, our best friends from our city years in Boston. At various stages in the children's development, different amusements were required for long winter evenings by the fire. One year one of the mothers announced that her daughter owned precisely eight hundred and twenty pieces of Lego.
I myself still do not know which is which, Lego or Duplo -- one's big, one's little -- but everybody calls it "Lego" generically, and I knew back then (did not say so) that that number would change. To put it charitably.
Today, we have Lego pieces numbering probably over 10,000. Some came in buckets. Some came as part of elaborate theatrical sets, the Tomb of the Pharaohs or the Space Shuttle or Johnny Rotten Goes to Vegas. All, however elaborately assembled, got pulled apart and dumped into containers which, throughout the years, grew less and less sophisticated, and now amount to little more than small garbage cans full of the stylized cubes which apparently undergo mitosis in dark corners of children's rooms.
OVER THE WEEKEND, our five-year-old had a friend come by. Friends have visited Joe other times, too, and I have found out about a mysterious five-year-old's ritual. When you visit somebody else's house, you go to your pal's room and you wreck everything. Just pull it apart by the double handfuls. I don't believe our Joe is immune from the ritual. He does it himself when he visits his friends' quarters. He doesn't do it to his own room alone, but abroad -- that's a free fire zone for the toddler platoons.
The next day, or the day after, you go upstairs and find out why your child doesn't want to go to bed in his own room anymore. He can't get to his bed, the floor is so riddled with trippers-up and traps, like mini-munitions designed to score his feet (which are always bare, with socks and shoes left just about anywhere). A five-year old cannot even understand the problem. It just makes him sad and confused.
So it's up to Dad or Mom or a kindly babysitter to put everything away.
Now's my chance. Mom and older brother are away at Disney for a conference (Mom) and a vacation (older bro). I am going to go up to Joe's room with a shovel and a garbage bag...no, hang on, must control myself. I am going to take two plastic bags up there. One, I will fill with Lego, in which Joe has shown no interest for more than a year. I will tie it up and put it in the basement to rot (Mom would give me what-for if I pitched it). And the other bag I will fill with junk toys, old prizes from fast-food outlets and the like, probably a hundred or more, and I will throw that away.
And nobody will ever notice.
SO HOW DOES THIS PLAGUE of toys come to be? Through generosity, of course. You cannot invite grandparents or a favored uncle and aunt over and tell them, cuttingly, "Don't buy the kids any toys." Toys are part of the deal there. Adults love to buy toys. It takes them back --- no, actually, their own childhoods did not include experiences like buying toys or even receiving them very much. Buying presents today creates a nostalgia for what never really was, the most powerful nostalgia there is. Few parents can resist the impulse to buy toys, either. (I can, but I'm a grouch.)
Some toys are undoubtedly superior to others. Lego's a good one. So is Play-Mobile. Both share the irritation of requiring tiny pieces by the hundreds. Remote control vehicles create cacophony for a day or two in our house, then lie forgotten. Car racing layouts do not charm for more than a week.
The absolute worst are those that automatically emit some kind of noise. Bud once got a mini-guitar that played standard rock and roll licks at the push of a button. It had an additional control that turned it into a torture instrument: a kind of rheostat for speed, the sort of effect a child can't resist. Bud instantly turned that knob to 11, making his "guitar" play B.B. King turns at tempos so fast they sounded like crazed simian chitterings. Don't even ask me about the stuffed parrot. Or the electric piano that let Bud play pushbutton Chopin on pipe organ, vibraphone, or synthesized saxophone -- switching among effects as fast as switches could be switched.
And there are the voice chips, filling your home with growling threats, as though the stars of the World Wrestling Federation have come to roost in plastic figures and pedestals that respond to the slightest jostle with dreadful, affronted imprecations.
As I carry Joe's forgotten junk playthings out to curbside for garbage collection, a throaty voice vows horrid revenge from the depths of the black plastic bag. "I'll get you for this...I've got you right where I want you now..."
Every time I jostle or move the bag, the voice speaks again. I hope the garbage men don't report us to the Department of Homeland Security.
"I'll get you for this..."
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