Toy Retreat

(Guest Post from the the NBP–the Non-Binary Progeny)

I didn’t realize it as a child, but now I see that I was pretty angry about a lot of things in my young life. I didn’t look like my parents (other kids looked like their parents!), and besides that, I was trapped in a body that I really didn’t like—a body I came to hate, but more on that later. When confusion and anger overwhelmed me, I would go into a zombie-like meditative state and lose myself in my toys.

Several toys consumed me. Whether it was G.I. Joes or Transformers, I became transfixed. I also had an assortment of Lincoln Logs, Matchbox cars, plastic dinosaurs, and other animals for whom I created worlds for us to get lost in. Sometimes those worlds only consisted of marching the dinosaurs around and having them meet the cars and the tigers, but it was enough for me to forget about myself for a time. I loved my “boy” toys.

I hated dolls. I once had a doll my mom named Chamomile (I wouldn’t even deign to name her), given to me by a family friend. Chamomile was a Japanese doll with a porcelain face, straight jet-black hair, and a red kimono. Didn’t this couple—Japanese scholars both—know that Koreans and Japanese aren’t the same thing? Well, I didn’t at the time, so I thought I was supposed to look like this doll; I couldn’t have been more insulted! Okay, well, they couldn’t have known that this Asian (I barely knew I was Korean, only some brand of Asian) toddler despised dolls of any ethnic background. No dolls. Period. This doll was not allowed in my room. I wanted to put her six feet under because I wholly rejected any resemblance to her and flat out thought she was creepy with her piercing eyes and her perfectly puckered lips. [Shivers!] My mother consigned her to a closet, where I wouldn’t be able to see her, nor she me. Obviously, dolls were forever banned from my toy repertoire.

One Christmas—I was about five—my grandpa made me a dollhouse. Built it himself—an old man building a dollhouse. Awww, sweet. I destroyed it. Like a little ungrateful brute, I kicked it in because it screamed to me, “YOU ARE A GIRL.” I feel guilty about demolishing it, and I know my parents were upset that I had done so since it was such a nice thing my grandpa did (and, apparently, he wasn’t always the cuddliest fellow in the world), but I couldn’t stand it. In hindsight, I could’ve at least tried to use the dollhouse as a G.I. Joe headquarters.

The only other “girly” toys I remember owning were My Little Ponies. They were stupid and pink and purple and “girl” colored but ultimately accepted into the mix because they were useful as beasts of burden. All my action figures were allowed to use them as mules and horses for carry and cargo. Mwahaha.

I was a huge fan of Legos and spent hours building Lego cities, both modern and medieval. These were extravagant constructions with multiple dwellings, roads, vehicles, people. Sometimes these architectural masterpieces remained assembled for quite some time…months at least. After a while I would notice that the yellow, blue, and red blocks started looking more and more like the gray ones. Excitedly, I would go majorly OCD. Paintbrushes of all sizes would be assembled and used to dust every nook and cranny. Fan brushes were especially effective, in case you were wondering! Dusting became another therapeutic zombie activity. It required few brainwaves and at the end, when I snapped out of my dusty reverie, I would feel a sense of accomplishment. All my knights, castles, pilots, drivers, and civilians now lived in an allergen-free world! It took hours—blissful, non-thinking hours.

Talking about paintbrushes, art was another outlet for me. Not only was it easy to get lost in, but it was an activity relatively free of gender overtones. My zombie self was an abstract artist veering towards Modernism with lines, colors, patterns, and shapes plunked all over a page; we (my Zombie and I) used crayons, markers, watercolors, pastels, colored pencils, acrylics. These artistic adventures could last for hours in which I would achieve my “zombie-zone”—anger synapses asleep. Pages upon pages would pile up on my art table. Once I had a formidable stack, I would gather together as many pages as the stapler allowed, and add a cover with a clever title (e.g., “Lines and Shapes”) and my name. It amazed and impressed my parents when the zombie state came on because I’d be intent for such long periods of time that they thought it indicated a profound ability to focus on a task. They didn’t know—and neither did I—that it was really a way to unfocus and go to another, less complicated place.

Later on these drawings became distinctly warlike. Knights, axes, swords, battleships, and airplanes shooting fire, bullets, missiles, bombs, ahem all manner of projectiles, figured prominently. The knights or the soldiers were always either armed or had rippling arms themselves. These drawings required total concentration, and the time spent drawing them—images of death-inducing weapons though they might be—had a calming effect on me. Whatever the zombie and I did, it was done subconsciously to calm an inner rage, and it sort of worked.

Warrior wannabe (or disturbed child, ha. Ha. Ha?) though I may have been, I loved stuffed animals. They were cute and soft and uncomplicated (boys had them, too!). Stuffed animals were also good friends because if you felt the need to hit things or throw things against a wall, they could take it. They didn’t get upset or scream or cry. They just pleasantly smiled (hopefully without crying on the inside).

I always had one favorite, and he was never in harm’s way. The first favorite was a super soft leopard with wonderful spots named Larry. Larry had plastic whiskers great for chewing on. Then came Steven who was a tan mini-Gund bear. He loved to have his tummy rubbed and rubbed and rubbed.

Needless to say, all my animals were male, except for one pink Gund bear named Susan. Me, the blossoming little sexist, made her the bitch. Talking about sexism: Loving stuffed animals—being suckered in by cute things—seemed like a disturbingly girly thing to do. Dusting Legos also made me feel girly because neatness and cleanliness were attributes associated with girls. I tried not to think about this too much, because even if they were girly, they were necessities.

Then came William, William T. Bear (his middle name was “The” not “Teddy”). When I received William, a chocolate brown grizzly bear and held him for the first time, he felt so new and soft and was the ultimate in cuteness and comfort—100 percent ergonomic…for hugging. Oh, he even smelled good. I knew we’d have a special bond. He was a present from my father, which made him already special—even magical. I gave him a voice, and in turn, he gave me one. I manipulated and animated him like a puppet (but he’s not a puppet, damn it, he’s real!). I brought him to life by moving him: body, limbs, even ears. I gave him emotions and ascribed body movements to each feeling. I was never without William at home, and I dreaded leaving him behind when I went to school. He was a shield and a security blanket, and a rather excellent companion. William was also a useful communication conduit to my parents. My parents, not bears of small brain themselves, caught on quickly. They would ask me if William were tired, or if William were sad, and William, less guarded than I, would answer truthfully and unassumingly. I, who rarely spoke more than a word or two even at home, became quite vocal and lively when William was around. He was a bubbly bear and made even me laugh. William was who I wanted to be. He was funny and simple and innocent and silly and male. He was not evil, though naturally being a bear, he grrrred a lot. He made my anger disappear. He was the light side to my dark. (Shhh. Don’t tell, but he’s watching Top Chef next to me as I write this.)

Piecing It Together

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Piecing It Together

A guest blog from the spouse.

I’m not certain when I started making baby quilts. It was probably when our friends from college started having babies. I thought my first one was truly amazing, and I was inordinately proud of it. Looking back on the photo of it now, it was a simple affair, but colorful and vaguely competent. It wasn’t “quilted” (stitched from front to back through the sandwiched batting), nor was it “bound” (having a neat binding around the outside). That was long before the days of the Internet, so who knew from “quilting” and “binding”?  

I picked it up again when my students, post-docs and younger colleagues started having babies. There came a time when four of them were due within weeks of each other (my colleague was having twins), and I made five quilts for a joint baby shower! – none of them was quilted or bound. Somewhere along the way (thank you, Internet), I learned how to do both. However, no matter how many times I watched YouTube videos on binding (and I had to re-watch one every single time I made a quilt), it took me well into my tenth quilt to get it right. In short, I’m not much of a seamstress, but there is something satisfying about making a baby quilt even when it is imperfect.

Why? One starts by picking out the fabric. Fabric designed for babies is comforting. It’s routinely made with lovely, soft pastels or bright, cheerful primary colors. There are tiny flowers, idyllic scenes, or slightly goofing-looking animals. These animals peek around corners, cluster in goofy groupings, smile, and look for all the world as though they would like to play with you. What’s not to like?

Then there are the designs one can make: Stars, pinwheels, bright patterns of color. One can also clip out those precious little animals, highlight them, build a structure around them. But what needs to emerge from that structure is a crisp rectangle even if the animal clip-outs are of different sizes. It’s a challenge in measuring, piecing, measuring again, adding a piece here, a square there. One designs one’s own puzzle.

I volunteer with an organization that collects day-old flowers from grocery stores and florists, freshens them up and assembles them into small bouquets that are then distributed to residents of nursing homes and women’s shelters. On the day of assembling, there may be as many as thirty or thirty-five different kinds of flowers available for the bouquets. Volunteers fuss over their little creations, but the truth is there is no need for fussing; a bouquet of flowers is simply pretty. There is no way to make a mistake.

Making a baby quilt is similar. There are a hundred ways to make a mistake, of course, but given basic competence, the result of the piecing and measuring and assembling, the colorful fabrics, the animal smiles, even the jumble of pieces almost always make a satisfying bouquet.

The NBP (non-binary progeny) and I are also into a different kind of puzzle-making – jigsaw puzzles. When the NBP was just a little tyke, they liked puzzles, and liked creating fantastic cities from Legos — a different kind of puzzle. As they got older, they became adept at putting together complicated three-dimensional puzzles of The Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, The Capitol.

This interest lapsed only to re-emerge in adulthood. After my retirement, the puzzle craze took hold of us both. They and I are particularly fond of Ravensburger puzzles with 1000 pieces. The puzzles are quirky, colorful, filled with phantasmagorical figures, mysterious black and white photographs, whimsical structures, dreamscapes, exotic flowers and books, always many books. Tiny pink shmoo-like beings hide out in nooks and crannies. The puzzles are a joy to assemble. We have assembled, disassembled, and re-assembled at least seven of them.

These assembling exercises have become essential to us during the recent stay-at-home orders caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But thank goodness for babies! In the past year, four of the NBP’s friends, two of my dear friend’s daughters, and a past student of mine are about to have or have had babies.  I have been busy all year making quilts, but I have made three since March…labors of love and labors that have a visible product, a reason for the exercise, and, frankly, a reason to get up in the morning.

So: quilting in the morning and jigsaw puzzling in the afternoon. The NBP and I have sat in companionable silence for at least two hours a day working on a completely useless product that has given us both calm satisfaction. We have completed four puzzles, the hardest one was a polar bear mother and cub in snow. The NBP did most of it; I found it difficult indeed…and truly not that much fun. I know now why Inuits have 100+ words for white!

One of my friends says that I must enjoy putting things together. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but in times when the world seems to be unraveling at a frightening pace, maybe putting these things together has been an unconscious effort to gain some control over what feels like a chaotic present and an uncertain future.

Could you kindly let me know if you or one of your friends or relatives is about to give birth? I could use another baby to swaddle.

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