Saturday, June 24, 2006

Toy story

This weekend I got a large dose of life with kids. With family in the big city for the first time, I played the dutiful role of tour guide and babysitter. It’s amazing how completely exhausting it is to just be in the general proximity of toddlers. Even after avoiding any real physical exertion, I realized how drained I was at the end of the day just listening to them try to tell me every little thought that popped into their heads.

Conversing with a kid is the equivalent of seizure-inducing channel surfing. I learned that Wesley played baseball and that his only position was shortstop... no wait, also third base and pitcher and second base and left field and Warren is an Allosaur, not a Tyrannosaur and that when he hunts down a Brontosaurus, he eats like this (chomping noises) and Wesley has the Cybertron Megatron and Warren has three different Optimus Prime toys but doesn’t have the Energon Optimus Prime and the rings of Saturn are made of asteroids and a scientist that studies bones is a paleontologist and Warren’s friend Devon caught roly-polys and gave Warren nine because he already had one and now they both have ten and then they let them go because they’re living animals and that rattlesnakes have venom in their fangs that are curved and that they bite you and suck your blood and then you die from the poison.

I think this is when my head imploded.

So with four kids ranging from 4 and 7 years old, the Times Square Toys R Us store was a necessary destination. Not to reward the kids with toys but as a means to distract them enough for the adults to catch their breath.

It’s amazing how much that place has changed since my youth. Now there’s a full-sized Allosaur roaring in the corner (but it’s not real, it’s animatronic, according to Wesley), and a dizzying array of specialized Lego pieces.

Somewhere between touring the Barbie house, digging through Legos for square red pieces and checking out the latest Bionicles, I recalled how I promised myself that I would own a Toys R Us when I grew up because I never wanted to be away from toys. Toys were the sole focus in my life. Nothing was above having toys. Eating, sleeping, school, these were mere obstacles to my obtaining and playing with as many toys as possible.

Whenever I was in the car with my parents and a Toys R Us came into view, I would fix my gaze on it until it would disappear into the horizon. It was my secret hope that the sheer, desperate display of want on my face would convince my dad to turn the car around and offer to buy anything in the store. That never happened.

Even when I was lucky enough to get into a toy store or even the toy aisle in the grocery store, I would always pick out something and wait for my mom to come along to pick me up. I never gave up hope that if I shoved the package into my mom’s face, she would be forced to accept how cool and awesome it was and that my life would be meaningless if I didn’t have it right then and there. This never happened either.

I think this effect has stunted my emotional well-being to some extent. What’s the point in showing excitement or desire over anything if it gets you nowhere? I wonder if that’s why I’m so apathetic towards any display of interest. Even if I really wanted something, I would just shrug my shoulders and think “Well, if I get it, I get it.”

But maybe that’s just a part of growing up. Most adults don’t throw tantrums and pout when they don’t get their way.

There have also been a few revelations about myself through toys. I learned early on that I am way too trusting and gullible.

In the first grade, I barely spoke english. I was pretty much ignored by my classmates except for intrusive questions about my ethnicity or someone being wowed over by my really good renderings of Transformers. Still, when one boy started wanting to play together, it was exciting. That Christmas, I got the ultimate gift: a complete set of Voltron. This wasn’t the dinky, stiff armed version that didn’t disassemble. This was the Voltron. It could bend it’s arms and legs. It could split apart into the five lions (with the removable pilots in the cockpits). And it was two feet high. I had hit the jackpot.

So naturally, I took it to Show and Tell. That day at recess, a boy from class asked to take it home to play with it. I was young, na├»ve and desperate for friendship so I let him take it. The next day, I asked for it back and he flat out refused. No excuses or lies. His reply was “It’s mine now.” I was too embarrassed and confused to even go tell my parents or the teacher. It was a big life lesson in not trusting people. To this day I still never confessed to my mom what happened to that toy and why she never saw it again.

One of the other moments in my life that I still clearly recall was my eighth birthday party at Chuck E Cheese (or Showbiz Pizza as it was called back in the day). I had invited half my class, including my best friend, Daniel and the girl I was in love with, Michelle. After the blur of eating pizza, the birthday song and ripping off wrapping paper, I remember standing in front of Michelle with Daniel, ridiculing her over her choice of gift for me.

“You got me Thunderclap?! He’s not even cool! He’s not even the leader of the jet Decepticons!”

“Yeah, Starscream is the leader,” Daniel chimed in. “He’s so much better! You should’ve gotten that one for Steven! You don’t understand because you’re a girl!”

I don’t even know why we were berating her. Normally, I’m so ecstatic to get not just a toy but a Transformer. Even the knock-off Transformer toys were good enough for me. Gobots, weird Japanese ones whose names I couldn’t read, or hell, even the robots that transformed into lumps of rocks. Rocks for chrissakes! Talk about lack of effort by the creators on that one.

And she just sat there tearfully and took the abuse without a word.

To this day, the recollection of this incident makes me cringe and feel like a worthless person. If I could, I’d go back in time, smack myself silly and apologize to that poor girl.

Another telling behavior was whenever I’d get a new toy that was one of the good guys (say an Autobot or a herbivore dinosaur), it wouldn’t get accepted immediately into my toy community. It would be ostracized by the others and treated like an outsider. That is until it performed a feat of selfless sacrifice to save one of the existing good guys from the bad guys. The good guys would mourn the death of the newcomer and lament the error of their ways. That is until the new toy was resurrected and accepted by everyone. This scenario I played out many, many times.

It makes me wonder how much of myself I was casting into that outsider toy and what that said of my own perception towards my peers. It makes me appreciate that there’s something more to the toys that my cousins are lusting over. And it makes me want to reach out to those cousins that are not as popular as their fellow cousins. I want to shower them with attention to show that they’re not alone or outsiders or freaks.

My parents and my uncles don’t understand it. All they see is their children’s singular obsession with obtaining toys. But while listening to Warren tell me that he’s the Blue Power Ranger and that Wesley’s the Red Power Ranger, it hit me. Adults don’t understand that the unending stream of conscious talking may actually mean something to these kids. It’s more than constant rambling. I may not get why Warren likes Batman but not Superman, or why Sarah likes Dora the Explorer but not Elmo. But what I do get is that it’s more than the material fix. These toys somehow will help define how each one of them will perceive others and themselves. That your friends are capable of being thieves. That you are capable of being an asshole. That we’re all heroes and martyrs and outsiders. That I get.

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