Chinatown, Legos and the Loss of Innocence –

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“Dad, I don’t want them to know I still play with Legos,” he told me. And instantly he could see that it broke my heart a little. He looked down at his plate, his little heart already heavy with the guilt of the statement.

I decided an afternoon alone with my middle guy, as I call him, was in order, due, in part, to the general busyness of my life and some recent behavioral issues.

We took off to Chinatown to hunt down some good food and some Taiwanese Oolong tea I’ve been looking for. We also planned to hang out in the martial arts supply house and stare at Ninja swords, throwing stars and bokken practice weapons for a while.

We talked a little in the car on the way in. I asked about his friends, mostly because I really don’t know them well. He described each one for their attributes and the things he likes most about them.

We looked for a certain place called The Great Taste House once we reached Chinatown. We walked up and down Wentworth, and we passed about six places with the word taste in the name, including two Tasty Cafes, but we never did find the Great Taste House.

Seven Treasures had roast duck hanging in the window, so we shared BBQ pork chow mein and half a duck. We sat and sipped on Oolong for a long while. Some of the best conversations I can remember occurred in Chinese restaurants with my grandfather or my dad.

I told him many stories from my youth. Mostly because he reminds me so much of myself. I told him about my friendships and how I used my skills and abilities to facilitate my friendships because I wasn’t very good at sports or other social climbing activities. I think he recognized much of himself in my stories from the way he nodded his head at me from time to time. It seemed he knew the end of the story before I got there.

We sat in silence for a long time after he made the Lego statement.

I love coming home to find him sitting in the middle of a huge imaginary world of strange buildings, spaceships, boats, airplanes and cars built from the thousands of Lego bricks we’ve collected since the boys were small.

He’ll extricate himself from the delicate world he created and run to show me some new variation on a spaceship he’s been working on for months.

Legos were the building blocks of my creativity, and judging by how much he still plays with them, his creative life will outshine mine.

The reason it hurt so much is because I know how much he loves it and what it means to him. And the fact that the boys in his circle would look down on this or misunderstand the act of playing with Legos is not just sad for my boy but for boys and girls everywhere.

I just turned 39, and I still play with Legos. I hope I still play with Legos if I live to be 100.

Sure, my dexterity will be gone by then, but the pleasure of sifting through a box of bricks to find the one piece you need to complete what only your imagination can see is priceless.

Lately I’ve been into the Lego Architecture series. Having visited some of the country’s tallest buildings since arriving in Chicago, I’ve enjoyed exploring them with Legos.

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My wonderful wife understands the boy in me enough to supply me with these sets on birthdays and other gift-giving holidays.

But more than the loss of Legos, because we all lose interest in Legos at some point, it is the loss of innocence that I fear most for my children.

It’s that point in growing up where you half understand the adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. It’s scary, and I can’t go back and walk them through that door.

I, like every other parent, would prefer they never find that door, but other children, having entered that door much too early, are all too happy to walk your children through it if they can. And I suppose I understand this to some degree. It is lonely going through that door for the first time.

My middle guy is at this point. Junior high is the peak of confusion over sexuality, social order and purpose, and the application of peer pressure to the mix can make for a volatile combination.

When they were small and still playing with oversized Legos because their dexterity had not developed, I had no fear of their teen years. But as they grew into their own lives, I realized how little I could offer them.

Sure, I could share my experiences as my dad shared his with me. And as little as my dad’s life growing up in the 50s and 60s in San Francisco applied to me, I gleaned the pieces of his personality that I’d inherited.

And my experiences growing up in the 80s and 90s carry no more influence for my children compared to the world they will be expected to grow up in.

Stories are powerful things, that’s why I do what I do for a living, but I think there is a limit to what you can glean from another person’s experiences.

In Legos, we have a continuum of beauty and creativity. My father loved Legos, and he took my brother and I to Legoland in Denmark when we were small boys. To this day I’m still amazed by the structures and the creativity on display in those gardens.

When you build, the creations are yours as dictated by the blueprints in your mind.

My brother and I loved Legos. I’m sure we still do. But I can only speak for myself. And I remember when our sets were boxed up and put away in the attic. It was somewhere in between junior high and high school.

And then it was girls and sports and cars and then bills and jobs and houses.

It’s a fast slide from building your own worlds to surviving in this one.

I’m not ready for my middle guy to give up the Legos, so I’m going to protect and encourage his play as long as I can. We’ve devised a plan whereby he can continue to play with Legos, with me, and still have his friends over.

The world is not often better off for small plastic toys. But my life is infinitely better for having Legos in the world.

TA

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