Published on April 22nd, 2019 | by Cheryl Klein1
Lego and Let Go: Parenting in the Time of Peak Plastic Sh*t
“Are you guys going to build something, or just make a big Lego mess?” asks one of the parents at Justin’s fourth birthday party. His voice is jovial.
Justin, my son Dash, and the other kids at the party answer with their actions, Lego spatter reaching the far corners of the small living room.
“I would never buy those for my kids,” says one of Justin’s grandma’s friends.
I clock her age as mid- to late seventies. She wears a knit beret, flowing top, and gauze bandages on her shins. I’m not sure if she means “would never” as in “never did” or as a declaration of hypothetical austerity.
The Lego company was founded in 1932, its name a contraction of the Danish phrase “leg godt,” meaning “play well.” It started producing wood and plastic brick play sets in the 1950s. It is possible this woman refused her children Legos.
Justin, Dash, and the other children move like a hurricane between living room and patio and bounce house, a mass of shouting, frosting-smeared boys. Dash alternates between pulling back and whispering to me that they’re “too loud” and “playing rough,” and being loud and rough himself.
Justin opens presents. Tissue paper tumbleweeds join the Lego diaspora. Almost everyone has given him a plastic truck. He loves plastic trucks. He gave Dash a set of three plastic trucks for his birthday in January, and Dash loved those trucks.
When it’s time to help clean up, we add Justin’s new plastic trucks to a giant toy chest of other plastic trucks. Justin’s parents hand out sparkly goodie bags full of candy and tiny plastic Minecraft toys.
I know Justin’s parents well enough to know they don’t want any of this, any more than I do: the plastic upon plastic upon plastic. The stuff upon stuff.
Are we just weak-willed, part of a generation that believes children should be appeased rather than denied? Is the plastic abundance a twisted consumerist side effect of attachment parenting?
Or are we trapped by something bigger than ourselves, like fish in a nylon net? There are social imperatives, yes, but I am also thinking about what is scarce in our current world, and what is abundant.
In-state college tuition at UCLA is $11,000, which is slightly less than the annual cost of sending Dash to daycare four days a week. In 1956, when my dad was in high school, it was $84 a year, or $780 in 2019 dollars.
In the 1950s, a tin fire truck would run you $2.79, or $26 in 2019 dollars. On Amazon right now, I can find a plastic fire truck (“fire truck for boys,” suggests auto-complete) with “automatic sensor, 3D star flashing lights, and siren music” for $9.99.
My dad still owns a box of crayons from kindergarten. Granted, he was never much of an artist, so perhaps that’s why they’re barely dulled. But I thought of that box in his desk drawer when Dash opened the Paw Patrol art set that my partner C.C.’s parents gave him for Christmas. It included twelve waxy crayons, twelve plastic markers, and a thousand stickers. Also a white-tipped marker that smelled vaguely like rubbing alcohol. When he ground it furiously into the surface of the accompanying coloring book, Ryder and his pups grew magically red, yellow, peach, blue, and pink.
It’s spring now. All the crayons are broken. All the markers have dried out or had their tips pressed to the point of retreat inside their plastic cartridges. The tip of the magic alcohol pen has gone from rocket-shaped to flower-shaped. The idea that any of his toys might survive to see a younger sibling, let alone a subsequent generation, is absurd.
My dad grew up poor and made money later in life. The advantages of white maleness and three-digit tuition are invisible to him, and so he is a Republican (albeit not a Trump Republican, which is a whole other thing).
C.C.’s parents grew up poor and worked for the postal service and public schools, respectively. They own their home and can live, carefully, off their pensions. The disadvantages of being Mexican-American and the necessity of unions are visible to them, and so they are Democrats.
For Christmas, my dad gave Dash a balance bike: sleek, sturdy, shiny.
C.C.’s parents gave him the Paw Patrol art set and a fleet of Hot Wheels and two sets of pajamas and a Paw Patrol book and a nativity book.
Hot Wheels are $1 each at Target. When I’m in the toy section with Dash, shopping for a party gift the birthday child’s parents will inwardly groan upon receiving, I’ll buy him a car to tamp down his jealousy. I will think about landfills and end-stage capitalism.
All these things feel related; I am sorting out how, exactly. They bump against each other like empty milk jugs bobbing in the ocean. Is quantity a substitute for quality when quality is inaccessible? Can a grandparent’s expression of love be both plastic and golden?
It takes 2,700 liters of water to produce a T-shirt. I don’t buy Dash white T-shirts anymore, because they are stained after one wearing. The last few times I’ve gone to Goodwill to drop off trash bags full of goods I’m only 60 percent sure they accept, I’ve felt like a criminal, leaving my bags like trash bombs in donation rooms already stacked to the ceiling.
Goodwill has admitted to being overwhelmed in the wake of America’s new love affair with decluttering. “Donating” feels like a game of ding-dong-ditch-‘em. Do I really think that old sippy cups with teeth marks on the lids are going to find a new, loving home?
Dash had one of those plastic ride-on trucks that a grown-up can push with a long handle. For months, it gathered dirt in our driveway, rainwater pooling in its grooves. The stickers depicting its gears faded and peeled. Then he rediscovered it and decided it was his “trash truck,” which meant that I got to push him around the block, stopping every few dozen feet so he could pick up “trash”—leaves, rocks, actual trash—and make beeping sounds. He was getting too big for it, his knees bumping the non-functional steering wheel. He had a balance bike and a big-wheel bike and a three-wheeled scooter. But how could I give it away when he was having so much fun?
One morning our trash truck route took us to the grocery store, where we parked it outside. It was sufficiently beat-up that I couldn’t imagine anyone stealing it, but someone did. I comforted Dash and verbally condemned theft and secretly rejoiced. One plastic problem solved. One thing actually being used by someone who actually wanted it.
We live in a gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood where home prices are creeping toward the million-dollar mark and the streets are lined with thirty-year-old motor homes occupied by residents who cannot afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment for $1,600 a month. Our own housing stability is the product of long-time residence and family help; we have been grandfathered in, quite literally.
The poverty rate at all the schools within walking distance ranges from 77-91%. The families that are sending their children to public schools are not the same ones who are the buying million-dollar homes.
I have always been bad at throwing away any toy with a face, and so the stuffed animals piled on Dash’s old changing table include a Winnie the Pooh from C.C.’s childhood, a stuffed bunny I got her when we were in a fight, and a Lion King souvenir from when I saw the stage version with parents shortly before my mom died.
When I was a kid and found a stuffed animal peeking out of a garbage can or abandoned in a park, I’d beg my mom to let me rescue it. She often obliged, though she never let me touch them until they’d gone through the washing machine and emerged from the dryer, looking as if they’d gotten a perm and a blow-out.
I hoped a kid was riding Dash’s green truck with a similar feeling of delight and heroism.
Like many mothers, I was not full of Christmas joy this past year. The demands of gift giving—even intentionally scaled back rituals—and receiving made me feel like I was drowning. I complain a lot about being the Keeper Of The Things in our family. When new toys and clothes and kitchen gadgets come into the house, it’s my job by default to find a place for them, put them in that place, and remember and remind others where that place is when they are looking for the thing. It’s my job to move old things out of the way to make room for new things, because part of being Keeper Of The Things means deciding what not to keep.
Because I’m married to a woman, I can’t blame sexism for this defaulting. And C.C. doesn’t slough off housework: She weeds and plants and washes floors and does dishes and laundry. But she is not spatially inclined, and I am, and so I am the Keeper Of The Things, and it’s fucking exhausting.
I blame Peak Plastic Shit.
C.C.’s sister had a baby in September. As she prepared for the birth of our niece, she read blogs about minimalist living and acquired as much as she could secondhand, except for her stroller, which C.C. referred to as the “BMW of strollers.”
Elena is spatially inclined, and I always envy her home, which is full of succulents and neutral colors punctuated with bright Mexican accents. A couple of years ago, she decided she only wanted clothes made from natural fibers, and she gave us bags of her old, invariably cute synthetic clothing.
I took her clothes and ditched a bag of mine at Goodwill.
Marie Kondo is worth an estimated $8 million. I haven’t read her book or watched her TV show, because I know I would dissolve into longing for a perfectly curated, minimalist life. So if I’m a skeptic, I’m a poorly researched one. But…isn’t “decluttering” just throwing shit away? And if throwing shit away is a luxury that more and more people can afford, because the shit we’re throwing away is so cheap to replace, that seems like a luxury the planet can’t afford.
And there’s this: She recently collaborated with Cuyana, a fashion brand whose motto is “fewer, better things,” on a capsule collection of small leather travel boxes inspired by the aesthetic of the bento box. They are lovely and minimal and a little boring. They are another thing you can buy, for $50 and up. The end of “fast fashion” always seems to mean the purchase of slow fashion, rather than wearing someone’s H&M castoffs until your dryer eats the spaghetti straps.
Having a single Le Creuset saucepan and shelves so empty you can stack books horizontally is the new having everything. It is a status symbol that flips based on circumstance, like summer tans and body fat.
There was a moment, when Dash was about six months old, that C.C. and I told people, “He doesn’t seem that into toys.”
Now, he has five trash trucks, ranging from the size of his fist to the size of a small dog. At one point, long before he saw Cars, I counted six Lightning McQueens in our house, none of which I’d purchased. This happens when you have a child and a large extended family and you live during end-stage capitalism. Guilty as I am of stop-gap Hot Wheels purchases, I estimate that C.C. and I have bought Dash less than 20 percent of the toys that cohabit with us.
There is the box of miscellaneous electric racetrack parts that C.C.’s cousin gave us. There is the four-foot mechanical crane that friends dropped off before they moved across the country. There is inflatable donkey from my sister and the inflatable dolphin from C.C.’s dad. There is the bag of Moana toys that came free when we saw Disney on Ice.
And while I brood and suffocate, Dash continues to covet: a set of four Frozen puzzles, a working ice cream truck as tall as he is, rubber ducks from the vending machine at the mall.
I grew up reading the Little House books, in which Laura Ingalls longed to replace her corncob doll with a real rag doll. I could call Dash’s covetousness spoiled, but I think it’s evolutionary—an urge to acquire might be a matter of survival in a time of scarcity. During end-stage capitalism, it reads as haywire, the wires popping out of the robot’s head with a cartoon SPROING!
So I don’t blame Dash, and I only half blame myself. End-stage capitalism likes to put on the mask of Bad Mothering. Too many toys, not enough quality time.
I hope there’s a solution, but if I can’t even shovel my way out from under the plastic entrails of a dissectable giraffe that C.C. originally bought for a young therapy client, how am I supposed to imagine and begin to implement a new economic system?
As it turns out, the island of plastic the size of Texas, floating in the ocean, is somewhat apocryphal. How convenient would it be if we could just invade it like an oil-rich nation and lug the pieces back to a landfill, or turn them into one billion Trader Joe’s bags?
Instead, there are multiple “garbage patches” where microplastics float “like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How do you un-season soup? You start by developing a taste for what is plain, and I think we’re getting there, even if our kids aren’t. After that, I don’t know.