Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: More Than Meets The Eye

If you’re of an age with me, then your childhood playthings and diversions were filled with what a friend of mine once called “stuff that turned into other, cooler stuff.” Transformers, Gobots, these are the best known, but there were also Rock Lords, MASK, Visionaries, Army GEAR, and many more I’m sure I’m forgetting. “Girly” toys got in on the act, too; remember Popples? Any concept would stretch to accommodate at least one wave of transforming toys; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Mutations,” where the figures turned into cute little baby turtles and back, was proof enough of that.

Kids (and adults who haven’t forgotten what it was like to be kids) like the notion of things with hidden natures. It’s why superheroes have secret identities.* Ream after ream has been written about how kids, adolescents, and even adults can identify with secret identities, because we all wish we were somehow different, or because we all keep secrets from people.** But there’s more to it than that, and it’s something that relates stronger to the specific needs and attitudes of childhood. It’s the externalization of the transformation concept, the application of the secret identity not to one’s self, but to the other. It is the teaching of the most important lesson anyone can learn: Things are not always as they seem, nor do they always have to be what they are.

Digression: There’s another toy from my youth, not transforming, that makes a good point about hidden natures, called Battle Beasts. Essentially a variation on Rock-Paper-Scissors, Battle Beasts were little inch-high figures that had a heat-sensitive emblem on their chests that showed a picture when you rubbed them. The pictures were of Wood, Water, and Fire, and depending on which one the Beast had, it would defeat or lose to another. Wood blocked Water, Water quenched Fire, Fire burned Wood. The moral here was: people’s true natures are often hidden, and only revealed under heat and pressure.

Anyway, back to the robots in disguise. There’s a Calvin and Hobbes strip that illustrates my point: Calvin finds a remote control device in a drawer, but can’t figure out what it does. He presses a button, and suddenly is swept down a clear glass tube into a hi-tech Batcave-style room, where he sees his parents dressed as superheroes. Then the scene switches to Calvin in the living room, sighing at his incredibly normal parents.

Don’t we all wish our lives were more interesting than they were? Maybe not in terms of our parents being superheroes (I can live without the sight of my dad in spandex, thanks very much), but in terms of a better job, a more fulfilling relationship. As children, we learn from our transforming toys that things *can* become more interesting. That tractor-trailer can become a 15-foot-tall robot. This Jeep can become a speedboat. All it takes is a little imagination.

In the same way, we as adults can become what we want to be through imagination. Shifting cultural gears, one of my favorite numbers in the musical version of “The Producers” is “I Want To Be A Producer,” because that’s just what happens: bolstered by the image of having a better, more glamorous job and life than he has working in an accountant’s office, he builds up the courage to quit his job and join forces with Max Bialystock because, as he says, “there’s more to me than there is to me.” Real people make that leap every day, with nothing more to fuel them than a dream of the outcome. Some make it, some don’t, but the point is that they take the first step. Why? Because they’ve learned to believe that the distinction between the real and the unreal is one of possibility, not probability.

So we build our public identities, and our secret identities, and if we’re smart, and if we’re fortunate, they’re as close to one another as possible.

The lessons of childhood, or at least the ones we choose to remember, are important. We carry them with us; for many of us, they shape the rest of our lives. And we learn these lessons from our toys. Even the ones that don’t tell us what the cow says.

*While we’re on the subject, He-Man, or at least the toy of him, had the worst secret identity ever. The Prince Adam toy had the exact same body mold and head as the He-Man figure, just different clothes. Then again, *all* the male figures in the He-Man line had the exact same body mold with just different clothes, so I guess no one noticed.

**I’ve yet to meet a gay man or male transsexual under the age of 40 who didn’t fantasize about spinning around really fast and changing into Wonder Woman.

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