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Some clear lessons from the Lego Club

Mister reminded me, oh, I don’t know how many times last week, that on Saturday morning we were committed to the library: Ruby Sisson had scheduled a Lego club and, if there’s anything Mister is about in year nine, it’s Legos.

Zombies, Star Wars, Matchbox cars, plastic army men — none of those capture his imagination nearly in the way that Legos grab him. Of course, those little plastic blocks allow him to create infinite worlds. and he’s only limited by the number of pieces he has at any given time (and the TYPE of pieces; he’s an aficionado). When he conceives of something bigger and better, he has to figure out what he can add to it and, given good behavior (and some diligence toward his chores), how he can finagle another set of blocks.

In his room, alone with the apprehension of what he might do with an infinite set of Legos, he makes plans for huge star cruisers, planets occupied with warrior robots, cities filled with ninja assassins that also make sure that every kitty and puppy has a home, all is set on making the world better. When those aspirations fall short due to a lack of resources, he calls upon Dad or Loml (Love of My Life, if you hadn’t figure that out) to subsidize his grander dream.

At the library’s Lego Club, every kid involved knew that dilemma, and the first half hour was spent accumulating as many pieces as each participant could grab. Well before the projects had started, each child made numerous trips to the Grand Bin of Blocks, scooping up armloads of pieces that they then dropped into piles, only to return to the Grand Bin for more.

By the time each child had as many blocks as he or she could handle, the projects began (“Monsters,” in congruence to Halloween) with everyone wondering where to go from a huge pile of blocks to a concept.

It was at that point when children began with collaboration, pairing off or making teams in order to combine both material and creative resources. Alliances were created, some with the right stuff as far as the desired blocks, others with cool ideas that the team wanted to build. And, as concepts took hold, each looking over the piles that other teams had, they figured out trades for this or that piece; it was, indeed, the economy of Legos.

What was impressive to me was how that economy played out organically — how (mostly) boys between 5 and 12 years old made up their minds to build things with finite resources and figured out how create something cooperatively, with savvy toward the other guy’s stuff.

More impressive, to me, was watching 20 or so kids engaged in building, watching their faith in seeing something completed from the concept stage to the last brick placed upon their creation. Even if (at the end of the session when everyone was called upon to show what they had built) a minor detail was missed and meant to be placed at the last minute, they were all proud of what they had put together following the mad scramble for parts and pieces, then figuring out what to do with their mounds of plastic.

My own memories regarding what could be built from Legos didn’t have so much to do with what those kids had done, but what could be done in real life.

The kids on Saturday were among the generation that saw the space shuttle program scuttled; my generation had seen humans landing on the moon.

I was about Mister’s age when I stood on the railing of Hoover Dam, awe-struck at the scope of that massive slab of concrete holding the mighty Colorado back to create Lake Meade. It was then (and even now), inconceivable as far what it took to put such a massive project into place, and then make it work.

Unfortunately, this country has become small-minded as far as what we can do as a nation, claiming that government cannot do what free enterprise does — whatever that means.

Small (and greedy) minds have somehow convinced us that free markets — and the fallacies of Adam Smith — will create some Shining Mansion on the hill for each and every one of us. Yet, in the 30 years or so that the country has been moving further and further towards lasseiz-faire economics, not a single massive infrastructure project has been completed for the betterment of society. At best, free-enterprise has managed to shoot a few satellites into the troposphere, while Virgin Enterprises has promised to offer rich people an experience to fly above the atmosphere for 100-grand a pop.

I remember when we had grander ideals, when we were determined to create big things, to impress the rest of the world with what we had built. I remember the stories of Soviet officials stunned by everything we offered in our stores, our cars, our washers and dryers; I remember Chinese Communists touring out farms and wondering how we could feed our country outside of collectivism.

And I recall a time when the extremists won the vote, moving the Overton Window, spending profligately on missiles and jails, yet convincing us that we could no longer afford to be great, that we could no longer pay for our children to stand head and shoulders amongst the rest of the world.

“Oh, massive infrastructure? That’s something the Europeans or Chinese do, not us — at least not anymore. We’d rather go from first to 24th in life-expectancy, first to 27th in education, and first to 64th in income disparity. U-S-A! U-S-A! 24th in life expectancy!”

These were my thoughts as I watched kids build things, as they put little bricks together to fabricate space ports and launching pads. A generation distant from a time when this country threw up its hands to build things, they continued to possess the dreams and desires that made us great.

The desire to build, to create, to see into the future still resides in our next generation — I saw it in a room in the library as about two dozen kids scrambled to grab Legos and, in an hour’s time, collaborate and cooperate to stack little plastic bricks in order to merely make something.

Why is it that this generation can’t live up to their expectations (much less their aspirations) should be a source of inextricable shame? To tell them that we “can’t” build something, that we’re afraid to invest in a future, a possibility, a structurally sound country is an embarrassment. God knows, in order to make a few dollars, we gambled — and lost — as we allowed the extremists to continue to try and convince us that we were the greatest country ever and, at the same time, half things and half the halves, seeming to harken to Zeno and the paradox of the arrow.

The last 40 years of lasseiz-faire fundamentalism in this country is as specious as Zeno’s paradox; we know that we can afford to build things — at the expense of our desire to drive four Mercedes-Benz sedans, just as we know that an arrow does eventually reach its target.

I can say, with 100-percent certainty, that the kids on Saturday know that, if you shoot an arrow, it will eventually come to rest, that half and half and infinity just don’t make sense.

As such, I’m convinced that they know we can build whatever we want, given the will, the desire to cooperate, and sufficient creativity. From what I saw, they have that in an infinite capacity.

If we are to be adequate guides to the future, we have to jettison our fears. We need to plan, to be creative, to build. We have to show this next generation, those kids building whatever they could with wide-eyed enthusiasm and finite resources but endless aspirations, that we are no less creative, that we have the will to collaborate, that we will make do with the resources they have, and invest in a better tomorrow. Anything less is cheating their faith in us as the preceding generation, their blind respect in what we’ve done to build the country that we’ve given them.

Lego Club taught me a lot about what our next generation is capable of as well as what this generation has to do in order to gain their respect. “If not now, when?” isn’t a question — it’s a mandate.

jim@pagosasun.com

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