The Plastic World

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
In this essay, I write imaginatively about a memory I have of a game I used to play as a child. I hope in this essay to reveal process some of my early creative and psychological instincts at a juncture in my life when everything is about to change.

Submitted: August 23, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: August 23, 2014



They surrounded me: companions that gave life to the world of bright colors and fantastic cities of glass and chrome that bounced around inside my toddler head. My friends turned my dreams into reality with plastic ease. Anything was possible. I just had to think it, and they would do the rest with the precise, structured way so characteristic their kind. They covered my house, especially in the living room, all begging me to play with them in soundless words. They even occasionally hid in the odd corner where I had pictured an adventure but forgot to clean up later. They were my best friends, and they weren’t even alive. 

When I was a four-year-old toddler, nothing made me happier than constructing worlds with Legos and blocks. I played with them in preschool, quietly sitting in a corner with a bright yellow tub filled to the brim with colorful rectangular pieces. There, I would commence the creation of buildings, cities, fountains, vehicles -- even people -- to my heart’s desire.I ignored the other children, preferring the company of my own, personally-designed-and-built friends.At home, I would take out my own tub of building blocks and resume where I had left off at school. Unlike the sterile, worn cardboard boxes that housed the battered school toys, my pristine, shiny plastic blocks lived in a yellow plastic bin the color of a dandelion. It represented my biggest conquest, the biggest set of blocks that I had ever owned. On the sides, the tub depicted smiling children building ships and planes that my expectant eyes considered rudimentary. They paled in comparison to my own creations.

I would build alone or invite my younger sister to join in the fun. Being two years younger than I was, she was not of much use, but I let her hang around anyway. The building blocks saw me through my graduation from preschool to Kindergarten as a proud five-year-old and new student at Rossmoor Elementary School. As the years passed by, the schoolwork and homework all blending into one swift blur, but there was one scintillating constant. No matter which plane of conscious memories I enter, a brightly colored block seems to sit in the background, giving the picture a touch of bright reds, blues, greens, and yellows. Sometimes, they even take center stage, like in my most vivid recollections, ones in which I built monuments that rivaled the Great Wall of China.I built my first large-scale city at six years old. It spanned across the expanse of our cream-colored living room carpet, all plastic, colorful blocks, props, and dolls. It was my pride and joy for the next two days, and I couldn’t bear to tear it down and clean it up, much to the annoyance of my inconvenienced parents. They failed to see the architectural brilliance of the urban area on our living room carpet. All they saw were places where they couldn’t step comfortably without an excruciating pain. When they lifted their leg and peered at the offending object, they saw an innocent Lego where their foot had been.Even as the days’ wear and tear slowly took their toll on my massive construction, I still looked upon it with joy and an exhilarating sense of triumph. The blocks started to fall, the buildings unsteadily tipping over in a stilted parody of its former glory. Some sections were even completely razed down into a scatter of cluttered objects, signifying the careless run my dog had made through my city. Though the dents grew bigger and deterioration of time became more evident, the beauty of the success never faded.

Without the readily available option of using electronics as a means for personal enjoyment, the blocks and my imagination were all I had to keep me occupied. We had one television in my father’s room, which we didn’t dare enter. It was like a dark cavern, the screen of the TV being the only source of light. The only channels he seemed to have were news, history, and science. It was uninteresting and incomprehensible to us. We didn’t have internet or the sophisticated computers already equipped with fairly interesting games. We had a geriatric behemoth of a computer that whined and groaned so loudly on its upstart that we were afraid it would explode every time we turned it on. Modern phones were a novelty, and certainly not appropriate for the four-year-old. So, all I had were my toys and my mind. I brought new ideas to life using only my hands. I used the blocks in ways they were never meant to be used to mimic pictures I had painted in my mind. These pictures rivaled the Taj Mahal in sweeping symmetry and the mystical Hanging Gardens of Babylon in technical advancement. They would grip my mind with a tight-fisted hold, drawing all my attention like a powerful magnet and never letting go. They came at any random moment of the day, whether I was dozing off during nap time or wandering the recesses of my consciousness during story time. Once the thrilling exhilaration of seeing another project for the first time wore off, I good-naturedly picked it back apart and set my sights on a new goal.

Books and blocks competed for my childhood attention, and each satisfied a different need. Whereas I could live someone else’s life through the words on a page of a novel, only with blocks could I build my own world and my own plot. I was author, director, producer, and character of whatever story I aimed to tell. I didn’t have to listen to someone else’s story or follow someone else’s predilected path; I could be a trailblazer of my own. When I tired of reading, I flipped to building, and vice-versa. This back-and-forth fluctuation of my interests persisted through every year, but building blocks always stood tall as a pillar to my enjoyment. Even through my coloring phase, or my running-around-like-a-fool-in-the-park phase, I always came back to my blocks and the blueprints in my mind. 

The microcosms I imagined were my own to govern. I wove absurd rules or strange customs into my storyline to keep things interesting, since there was nobody to tell me otherwise. The actual building and constructing was only half the fun; just as much attention was paid to use the newly-revealed set of rules to run the lives of my dolls. I made the streets curve around buildings, complete with hidden bridges my favorite characters could use to “teleport” elsewhere. I exercised my control as the dictator of my own universe, giving more rights to my best dolls, but none at all to the dumpy little figure with half her hair cut off. (There was an unfortunate salon accident when I thought I could give toys new haircuts and have them grow back to normal like human hair.) Traffic laws were mine to control, accidents made and fixed whenever I pleased. Dolls could live two days, or to infinity. I defied every natural law of physics, biology and common sense, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

This fun, innocent, childhood wonder continued until I was ten years old. I had already begun the slow ascent beyond my infantile years, evidenced by my decreased interest in having fun with building blocks and increased interest in friends and school. I took my building set out less and less, even going so far as to refuse invitations to play with my sister, who was now a solid eight years old and finally understood the complexities of childhood architecture. On most nights, the living room carpet lay painfully bare, almost begging to be covered and strewn with blocks, toys, and other bits of colorfully shaped and molded plastic. Instead, I would settle down with a new, mature book or spend time lying on the couch, just dreaming about all the possibilities and fun I could have with my friends. 

The days dragged on and on. I graduated elementary school, and entered the sixth grade as an eager eleven-year-old. I was filled with a pre-teen’s desire to impress and conform as best as I could to social ideals. It was a place where only certain shops were acceptable to purchase clothes from, and following the jurisdiction of the school-ruling eighth graders was key. Increasing attention had to be given to physical looks, and discriminating attitudes prevailed as the first major cliques appeared. Somehow I knew that within these social ideals, there was no room for people who dabbled in building structures with plastic interlocking blocks. I inevitably succumbbed to this condescending mindset, giving up my wealth of imagination and newfound cities for something much darker and more abstract. I started to bow to the pressures of the social structure of the school, doing what everyone else did to try to fit in. 

My fingers recognized less and less the cool, hard surface of the once-familiar building blocks. The golden tub of blocks sat in the corner of my living room, on the cold slate-gray stones framing the fireplace, and gathered dust for gradually increasing lengths of time. As I busied myself with other activities, my living room resounding with the chatter of a group of eleven-year-olds indulging in hesitant gossip rather than the waterfall clatter of blocks tumbling out of their bin, and the naivety of my younger days faded as well. The blocks seemed not just a toy, but also a tangible representation of innocence. 

One warm summer evening in late August, past my twelfth birthday, past all the days spent on sleepovers and trips to other countries and the slow drip of a bright red cherry popsicle and the chlorine tang of my neighbor’s pool, my eyes alighted on the bright yellow tub that contained within it my entire childhood. Oh, what the heck, I thought. No one was around to see me; nobody would scorn my actions as support for Freud’s theories of regression. Almost furtively, I made my way over to the neglected corner. I dared not pick them up and carry them to the middle of the room like the old days; that was just too embarrassing even in the privacy of my own company. I lifted the lid of the box and, almost immediately, the dusty, nearly-metallic scent of plastic, fake fur, and cloth rose to my nose, weaved in with the bittersweet recollection of a only a few years prior.

Slowly, I tipped the box onto its side, watching as the blocks and props tumbled out in an achingly familiar rumble. I carefully sifted through them, recalling the stories about how this doll was used as a housemaid in the biggest mansion of the city or how that irregularly shaped, gauche block was used as a city landmark when it couldn’t fit in any other location Each of the pieces had a special story, and all of them ran through my mind like an old video tape reel. The block with the chipped corner where it hit the table a little too hard, the doll with the leg covered in small dents perfectly matching the teeth of my terrier, the Lego with a rim of paint where I used it to make little circles on an artistic work of mine. They flowed on a constant circle as soon as the sight of the blocks hit play and couldn’t find the pause. 

I sat there and regarded them for some time. I didn’t pick them up, didn’t build anything with them. They lay silently, watchfully, as if the inanimate objects held figurative breaths, anticipating a momentous decision that would determine their fate. Finally, I got on my knees from my crouched position and swept them up into my arms, cradling them as carefully as I would a newborn baby. Then, with that same tender reverence, I poured them back into the bin. When all the pieces were gathered and stored away, I picked up the lid. I ran my gaze over the full tub for a last time. They were just as silent as they had been a minute ago, but this silence was quieter than before. I had made my decision, and somehow, they were all right with it, and so was I. This wasn’t like my hasty abandonment of two or three years ago. This brought closure, a final decision that was best for both the toys and for myself. With a river of emotions and memories still carving a canyon through my mind, I shut the lid tightly over the box once again. In a single moment, I had shut my childhood in a box with plastic playthings. I only had the memories now, but I also had the anticipation of a different future. I closed one door, but I opened millions more in the process. There was no going back, no turning around and crossing that threshold to a safer, more comfortable place. But in this precarious, wide-open world of possibilities on the other side, I needed to start building my own eighth wonder of the world.

© Copyright 2018 Jamie Lee. All rights reserved.