Friday, June 29, 2018

Tactile Time Machines

Toys R Us is closing today.

This got me to thinking about toys and what they mean.

I am a big toy collector.  My basement is like a geek haven of action figures.  People who visit my home for the first time see this room and don't know whether to laugh or cry. 

Like most children in the 1980's I had a large collection of Star Wars, GI Joe, Transformers, and He-Man toys.  They were all well-worn and broken down from overuse. 

As I got older, I got further away from toy buying until 1999 when Toys R Us had a midnight sale of Phantom Menace figures.  It was a great Star Wars event and the lines were huge.  It was a wonderful moment of fun and fellowship.  It was then that I really began collecting and my hobby has exploded ever since.

I used to buy multiple copies of a figure: one to open and one to keep mint in box.  But as I've gotten older, I find that most of the figures I buy will come out of their packages and find a place somewhere in my home.  Not only is this more in keeping with the spirit of toys, but it makes for more enjoyable displays.

I began frequenting the trade shows and becoming a connoisseur of the figures and their values.  I enjoyed the sport of it, the hunt for that one toy I had been searching for.  And often I would find myself back at Toys R Us.

Toys, I believe, are a huge part of a child's life.

There is an argument to be made about how stores like Toys R Us instill an unhealthy materialism in children.  Or we could make the case that, especially around the holidays, our consumerist tendencies make us overlook the spirit of the season.  And I am not here to argue against those points.  I just know that when I remember Toys R Us, my memories are fun and fond.

The first thing I always would notice was the smell: that heavy presence of fresh plastic that covered everything.  The bright colors of the toys themselves bouncing off the white floors and ceiling would hit your eyes as you walked in.  And then your vision would narrow and the hunt would begin. 

Toys, particularly action figures, are very important for boys.  When you are a child, you often feel powerless.  The larger-than-life grown ups move you around and control your choices.  Or maybe larger boys at school bully you and make you feel small.  The world outside is also incomprehensible and confusing.  But with action figures, you have finally a sense of control.  You become the larger-than-life grown up pulling the strings.  You can begin exercising your own power and imagination in an imaginary world right before your eyes.  You can begin to make things as you want them to be.  Want Robin to be able to beat Wolverine in a fight?  It can happen if you want it to, no matter the logic or illogic of it.  It is your world.  Maybe then you open up your collection to another kid.  You begin to learn skills of negotiation and trade.  You learn to be careful with other people's toys or they won't want to play with you.  You begin to make believe together and inadvertently make friends. 

For me, there is something incarnational about a toy.  In addition to action figures, I have an extensive comic book collection.  A friend once asked me which one I preferred: comics or action figures.  Without hesitation I said, "Action figures."  He pressed the point and asked why. 

"Because," I said, "when you read a comic book, or watch a movie or TV show for that matter, you open up a window into another world.  That world can be beautiful, scary, and fantastic.  And you watch the events in that world unfold from the safety of your sofa.  But with an action figure, you are not looking into another world.  With action figures, the characters that you know, love, and admire have now somehow entered into our own world.  I am not limited to viewing them from a single flat image.  I can see how they have entered into my space and occupy the same plane of existence.  I can reach out and touch them and make them pose and behave in that space."

I think this may be why Catholics have such a rich history of statues in our art.  Beautiful paintings have their important place.  But a well-done sculpture almost looks like it could come to life at any moment.  We've reached into our collective imagination and brought them to exist in our world.  In that way they become more real.  We hear stories of Jesus and the saints and we see paintings of them.  But with a statue, they feel closer to us because we know that we can feel the contours of their being.  Their depth is not a illusion of perspective, but a result of their reality.  What a powerful way to make the ethereal past feel concrete in the present.

And with toys we have that on a much smaller scale.  I can reach over my desk and grab my action figure of Strong Guy from the comic X-Force.  I can feel his oddly formed physique and remember the drama of his story and his pain.  I can reach over to the shelf next to me and pick up one of my favorite action figures, a Dick Grayson Robin based on the design of George Perez.  When I grab that figure I'm reminded of all the adventures I read with this character and those memories become immediately present in a powerful way.  Or I can go into my basement and grab my old, beat-up Optimus Prime from the 1980's (missing his detachable hands of course).  And then I can let my muscle memory transform him back and forth as I have hundreds of times over the years.  I can pick up a lightsaber and swing it around with abandon the way I did as a child. 

And in all of those cases, for the briefest of moments, I am once again that little boy reading that X-Force or New Teen Titans comic book.  I'm that child deepening my voice shouting, "Autobots, roll out!"  And I am that crazy kid imagining myself standing up to Darth Vader and all of the other large bullies in my life, confident that I could be every much the hero as Luke Skywalker.

That's what toys mean to me: they are tactile time machines.  One touch and the memories are so thick that I am briefly transported away.

And hopefully when I come back from where they take me, I can bring a little bit of that magic back to this world.

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