COLUMN: This old LEGO house

This is my Sunday column for the Feb. 12, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

This old LEGO house
By Aaron J. Brown

Parenthood doesn’t necessarily move in the phases described in child development books or, as they’re called in our house, “projectiles.”

At the beginning is the spit-up, diapers and first steps-turned-thundering stampede. Then the house fills with an elaborate network of railroads (we have three boys, in case that wasn’t apparent), a labyrinth of wooden tracks that would surely intimidate a scale-sized James J. Hill. Along the way they’ve learned to read and operate the remote control. They grow faster and stronger each day.

We’ve entered a new phase and like most new trends this one is Scandinavian and expensive. We are a LEGO household now. I don’t have time to explain Legos*. If you don’t know LEGO you probably tuned out back when I referenced “children.”

At some point several months ago our son George was reading his older brother Henry’s copy of LEGO Magazine. He took special interest in the picture of a vast, opulent, crime-ridden LEGO city. George pointed and said, “I want that.” “Which one?” I asked. He stared back, incredulously. The answer was “all of it,” of course.

This was a preposterous notion to me then. How on earth could one attain so many LEGO blocks on a middle class salary? Well, the answer to that question is safely locked away in a safe buried beneath some Danish market research firm. Because we have a great many LEGO sets now and a fair number of unassigned Legos that may be assembled in many untold ways.

One of the most interesting things about Legos is that they are neither permanent nor temporary. They are semi-permanent. Old fashioned wood blocks may be assembled for a few hours before someone bumps the tower to the ground. Legos may be assembled and left up for a several days or weeks. You may choose to disassemble them, of course. And a truly fatalistic event could occur such as that time our boys were running around the house with a blanket and obliterated the fire house. But perhaps the enduring appeal of LEGO creations is that they are both durable and fragile, much like the very nature of human life.

My wife Christina made an observation that what makes Legos unique is that you can buy more and more of them and you still never have enough. There is always some brick that you need to finish whatever you’re working on.

A 2002 study by mathematician Mark Changizi and colleagues at Duke University studied the complexity and diversity of LEGO sets. Sam Arbesman at broke down the study in a Jan. 6, 2012 article. The bigger the set, the more diversity in components you find. Additionally, the more diverse the set becomes the fewer new component types are used as the set grows larger. In other words, as a LEGO creation grows it uses more different parts but also becomes much more efficient. The Duke study applies this same principle to other complex systems, such as our own real life human cities.

So the LEGO-building lifestyle we lead in this house is a wonderment of imagination and philosophy, so long as you don’t step on the blocks in the night, bellowing expletives into a throw pillow so the kids don’t learn new words. I don’t know if we’ll ever complete the LEGO city our boys have coveted for so long, but in trying we will complete the lessons of their childhood and of parenthood, too.

* I made the choice to use the American term “Legos” interchangeably as a plural of LEGO bricks. LEGO ® is a registered trademark of the LEGO Group, a private holding based in the company town of Billund, Denmark. In most of the world LEGO is the plural of LEGO, much like the English words sheep or deer. A hockey player can play for the Minnesota Wild, but he and his teammates collectively also compose the Wild. The Wild score a goal. The Wild lose a game. Same for LEGO.

In researching this column on the internet I found that most American references to “legos,” “Legos” or “LEGOs” were met with a sprawling comment thread over the plurality issue, usually boiling down to old grievances about American cultural imperialism. Some people sure do take LEGO building components seriously.

I call them Legos because the two sets my twin sons desperately want for their birthday this summer cost a combined $187. I will call them Legos and if the prices go up any higher I will start calling them “Lego’s” and trigger some kind of uprising on the Jutland Peninsula. It is my suspicion that the fixed yellow C-shape hands of LEGO’s legal team lack the dexterity to type out a cease-and-desist letter.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.

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