The Legos

Marcie and I are boring people. We don’t like to dance. We’re not into sports. We don’t like coffee or microbrews, which means we’re missing out on the entire urban experience in the Pacific Northwest. We try to compensate for our boringness by attending every oddball event that comes to town: ferret olympics, rubber stamp shows, sausage festivals. The paper announced that Brickfest, a Lego exhibition, was coming to the Convention Center. We had no great interest in Legos, but it sounded better than doing laundry all weekend.

We walked most of the length of the empty Convention Center before finding the Lego exhibition tucked into a corner of small conference rooms. We had seen Lego models on display at the state fair, and I expected a similar arrangement: robots, fire engines, and houses a foot or two high, arranged neatly on long tables, with small placards showing the artist’s name and age. However, on entering the main room, all expectations of modest homegrown charm were forcibly exploded.

photo from brothers-brick.com

The constructions jostled together in massive piles. Each cluster of tables held Lego models of a consistent theme, all spilling into each other. It was impossible to tell where one artist’s work stopped and the next began. The makers of these citadels did not hunger for mere blue ribbons. This was a convention of Frankensteins and Pygmalions, bent on rebuilding the Tower of Babel.

The castle section combined the epic battlefields of Braveheart and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in 1/16 sale. Knights and samurai swarmed all over an impossible landscape, crowded with fortresses vying for territory. One castle faced an invasion of ninjas wading through the moat, their legless bodies snapped onto blue baseboard. Another castle was open on one side to reveal the blackened skeleton of a fallen giant, beset by victorious Lilliputians. Tiny flames of translucent yellow plastic flickered in the behemoth’s eye-sockets.

The space opera table made me even more dizzy. Models by dozens of builders were integrated as thoroughly as any city that had grown through centuries of shifting zoning regulations. Moon-bases and space colonies interlocked over the cratered ground. Spacecraft and robots of all sizes filled in the remaining gaps. The Ghoul, a ship over a yard long with its name stamped in white bricks on one gray flank, dominated half the table. Two large snakes from a Harry Potter kit formed eyestalks for a monorail-eating monster. The tracks and car lay broken and askew, bringing a startling naturalism to Lego’s world of right angles.

Even the present-day cityscape was hypnotic. A motorized crane moved cargo up and down endlessly. Commuter trains ran around on tracks. Someone had replicated the convention center itself, from the twin glass spires to the loading docks in back. The rows of lovingly detailed buildings invited me to shrink down and stroll on in. They had no idea that I was too old to do such a thing.

In another small room, an audience watched animated films in labyrinths of Lego. A third room held souvenirs such as the “Girls of Lego” calendar, which featured a different inch-high female figure each month. I felt myself among kindred spirits. My interest in Legos had dwindled years ago, but in many other ways I have still failed to grow up. I knew what these guys were thinking. More. More. Higher. Keep adding bricks until we remake the world.Brickfest embodied a childlike faith in miracles. Kids know that with a shovel and enough time, you can dig a tunnel through the planet.

A month or so later, we embarked on a typical boring Saturday of driving around and running errands. During the summer, we can’t go two blocks without seeing a dozen signs with great black arrows drawn on neon green poster board, directing us to garage sales. Marcie enjoys garage sales on many levels. She is fascinated by the transformation over time of trendy clothes and cutting-edge gadgets into fodder for the “Free” box. Also, she can deduce the family’s entire history from the piles of old dishes and broken ski equipment. And of course, the thrill of acquiring a solid Pyrex baking dish for 25 cents is not to be missed.

I tend to get depressed at garage sales, so we rarely follow the magic marker arrows. Unless the sign says “estate sale,” meaning you get to walk around inside the home of someone’s recently deceased grandmother. Or “Neighborhood Garage Sale,” meaning a whole street has been converted into a flea market.

We walked from house to house in the Neighborhood Garage Sale. It consisted mostly of children’s clothes that had been outgrown. Having no kids of our own, we weren’t finding much of interest. Eventually we came to a driveway without many clothes on display. I opened the top drawer of a large chest and discovered… Legos.

"Escher's Relativity" by Andrew Lipson

Endless Legos. I plunged elbow-deep into drawer after drawer. There were rectangular bricks of every color and configuration, plus specialized components of spaceships, castles, and motorized clockwork contraptions. The inch-high Lego men swam amongst the bricks in painted-on uniforms of firefighters and pirates. A thick stack of building instruction booklets took up half the bottom drawer.

“Make me an offer,” said a man from his lawn chair. He wore a basketball jersey over his weekend athlete physique, and a wide grin. With a nod he indicated the ten-year-old boy who was trying to look occupied with a box of old shoes. “He’s built all those things. Now we need to get rid of them.”

Marcie looked at the boy. “Are you sure you want to sell all this?” she asked him.
The boy hesitated, then looked at his father. “Yes, he’s sure,” said the man.
Make an offer? What price can be placed on childhood?
Twenty dollars, it turns out.

Driving home, I imagined the vast empire of bridges, towers, and pyramids I would construct. Not specifically urban or medieval or space opera, but my own personal dreamland combining elements of all three. Like a vision of the future as imagined by the ancient Maya. I could picture the skyline. The blueprints and roadmaps would work themselves out.

We dumped the Legos out on the living room floor. We built a few awkward little houses and spaceships, just messing around before worrying about where to store our plastic mother lode. I sorted through the instruction booklets, thinking I would work through one or two of them before striking out on my Mayan space colony. I chose a helicopter to begin with.

The downside to having an endless supply of Legos quickly became apparent as I fished around for specific pieces. The booklet showed a blue helicopter, but after digging around for fifteen minutes I gave up on matching colors. An hour later, I had one skid and part of a propeller. I found several pieces needed for the body of the chopper, but none that actually attached to each other as shown in the plans. Marcie was having similar problems with the haunted clock tower.

I chose a different booklet, hoping for better luck, but it was no use. The sea of bricks defeated every search. I switched to another set of instructions, then another, spending less and less time on each one as the great drifts of Legos sapped my will to hunt and assemble. Our searching caused the pile to thin and spread, into the dining area off the kitchen, and down the hall. Afternoon turned to evening. I couldn’t leave it alone. This was someone’s childhood scattered all over our floor. We had a moral obligation to enjoy it.

The phone rang. Our friends suggested we all go out to dinner. Without a second glance at the pile occupying our living room, we put on our shoes and drove away. For a few happy hours, we forgot all about the Legos.

"Grasp" by Nathan Sawaya

Sunday morning, the hoard remained in our living room like a drunk brother-in-law. We read the paper, played the radio, and pretended to ignore our persistent guest. Sunday is our day to catch up on neglected housework. We cleaned the bedroom and the garage, but stayed clear of the living room. We went grocery shopping. Marcie remembered that she needed some screws from Home Depot. We considered going out to dinner again, but the milk and eggs had to get into the fridge, so we went home.

Over the next week, we settled into a routine; come home from work, have dinner, watch TV and try to come to grips with the plastic modular blob we had brought into the house.

Marcie got serious about sorting out the different colors. She found some foil catering trays, inches deep, and assigned one color of bricks to each one. Every night she diligently pulled pieces from the scattered mound and placed them in the appropriate tray. The grey pieces and blue pieces quickly overflowed, each requiring a second tray. Another tray held all the cogs, axles, and advanced mechanical parts. Dozens of Lego men stood in tight formation on a green baseboard. At night, Marcie closed her eyes and saw squat cylindrical bumps on brightly colored surfaces, stretching to eternity.

Slowly the mountain diminished, while the foil trays multiplied. Still, the stranglehold of the Legos on our living room did not let up. Under the weight of their cargo, the foil trays became fragile things. We had to move them carefully to prevent them from buckling and spilling onto the floor. Walking across the room without stepping in a tray of bricks required inhuman agility. Sorted bricks had long ago taken over the coffee table, and began encroaching on the couch. The daunting tumulus no longer squatted like a despot on the floor. Ordered and separated, it marched forth and occupied every horizontal surface in sight.

Unable to make any progress with the instruction booklets, I decided to dive into my Mayan megalopolis. The funny thing about the Lego instructions is that the first few steps don’t look like anything at all. How do the designers come up with them? Do they start with a blueprint of the finished product, and then work backwards to step one? Or do they possess a strange geometric foresight that enables them to extrapolate complex structures from three pieces in the shape of an L? I certainly could not visualize the steps needed to raise a city from small groups of blocks. Neither could I solidify my mental image to the point of drawing up an overall plan. I started to put bricks together randomly, thinking if I could just build up some walls, I’d soon have bridges and courtyards. It was time to make the bricks work for me, rather than trying to fight against them. I would pull Lego after Lego from our gathered mass, and just stack them up until my city formed itself.

But the Legos were no help. They have no imagination. The only thing Legos are naturally inclined to create is a box. My walls were squat, inelegant things. My buildings closed in on themselves with ruthless efficiency. There would be no courtyards intersecting at different elevations, no Venetian bridges spanning canyoned alleyways. Instead, a dreary parody of my crypto-urban environment began to emerge. One by one the bricks resolved into a chilling but undeniable portrait of my soul. I was Uninspired. Unimaginative. Boring.

I tore my pathetic little buildings apart. I couldn’t look at the Legos anymore. They sneered at me from every corner of the living room, so I grabbed a book and went to bed. I found myself trying to assemble the words on the pages into snap-together walls and boxes. All my mental processes were compromised. Everywhere I looked, I saw right-angle fault lines and hidden interlocked nubs. I went to sleep.

after Giger, by Bryce McGlone

The night passed in visions of a Lego Masque of the Red Death. I moved from one ghastly monochrome chamber to another, each one more claustrophobic. Finally I escaped through a doorway onto a small balcony, and looked out on a world drowning in Legos. A vast ocean of tiny plastic blocks pitched and rolled to every horizon, devouring the last remnants of civilization before my eyes. As the surface of the Lego sea rose higher, the Lego building I stood on pulled itself to pieces. The balcony floor disintegrated, becoming so many drops in the sea of bricks, leaving me struggling to keep my head above the surface. A strange, rectangular seagull gave a monotonous, insistent call, which suddenly resolved into the cruel yet merciful beep of the alarm clock.

The sensible thing to do would be to get rid of the Legos. Sell them at our own garage sale, give them away on Craig’s List, donate them to Goodwill, anything to get them out of the house. But apart from the banal defeat in such a course of action, I can’t shake the image of that devouring ocean of little plastic bricks.

Who would want our colossal pile of Legos? Someone who likes Legos, of course. Someone who probably already has a collection. But what if the Legos prove too much for that person as well? What if they dump their own Legos into the pile and pass the blocky mountain on to the next unsuspecting collector? How long would it take for the Legos to reach a critical mass and overwhelm us all?

Maybe it’s inevitable. In the time it takes us to add another 3 billion human beings to the planet, 600 billion more Legos will be produced. That’s not nearly enough to encase every person in Lego carbonite (that takes 10,000 bricks or so) but it only takes one brick under a bare foot at the top of the stairs to send a human being to his doom. That’s not taking into account the ever-growing sophistication of Legos. We already have programmable robot Lego kits. What’s next, self-replicating Lego factory kits?

We don’t build with the Legos anymore. We dumped all the foil trays into a big wooden crate. My cousin’s kids play with them once every year or two. Apart from that, they just sit in the box, knowing they will outlast us, waiting for the next collector.

Summer 2005

Update: http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/10/legobot/

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