LEGOs: an Essay, by Tobias Hopkins, Age Eight

LEGOs are fun. If I got a brand new box of LEGOs, I’d open the box, then I’d open the bags that are inside of it. Then I’d pour out the LEGOs, but I wouldn’t sort them. It’s a little more fun to just look for the LEGOs, to dig through them. If you sort them, then everything would be with other pieces that are the same color, and it would be harder to find them, because they’d blend in.

Then I’d open up the instructions and I’d start building with what it says. It can be kind of hard, because the instructions don’t have any words, they just show you pictures. Sometimes the pictures are more like diagrams. I look at the picture of the LEGO piece I need, and I try to find it. Then I look at the picture of what that step should look like after I put the LEGOs together. Then I put them on the actual structure to do that step.

Sometimes it doesn’t go exactly right and I have to redo it. Sometimes I haven’t done exactly what the directions showed because it’s hard to tell what the directions are showing. I redo it if it’s not correct. It can be frustrating if you get a step wrong, but then it’s really fun once you get it right.

When I do it the right way, that feels good. If you get the directions correct, then you just move on to the next step. It keeps on going like that.

As you keep working on the kit, it gets bigger and bigger. At first it looks like a couple tiny pieces, and then it starts to look like what it’s supposed to look like. It looks better as it grows. When I built a treehouse, I started to be able to put more parts on it that moved in interesting ways. But not all LEGOs can move, and that’s okay.

Each step that you take when you’re building a LEGO set gets more exciting, because each step gets you closer to being able to play with it. And when I finish it, I feel really great about it. I feel proud that I followed the directions and made something that looks good.

A LEGO dragon that I built, after I finished, I took it apart so I could build the same thing again. I left some of the pieces together, like the head, and some pieces I had to put together from scratch, and I put all the parts back together. Some LEGO kits, after you build them, you just play with them.

If there’s anything that moves in a finished LEGO set, you can move that around. If there are humans involved, you can play with the humans by moving them around and having them do different things.

We also have a box of LEGOs that are all different kinds of pieces that can let you build a lot of different kinds of things. It used to have directions for how to build a fire truck, a house with a dog inside of it, and a few other things, but I ripped up those directions one time when I was really frustrated. So now when you use that box of LEGOs, you do things that you want to do, and you can’t use instructions, which also turns out to be kind of fun. I’ve ended up making things like a giant box thing on wheels, a swimming pool, and a couple different kinds of cars.

I like doing both kinds of LEGOs, but I prefer the ones with instructions. Then you get to play with things that have a lot of cool stuff and that actually look like real things.

I hope you enjoyed my story about LEGOs. (If you’d like to learn more about LEGOs, go to Wikipedia. On the LEGO website, you can see many different kits that they make and you can do games and stuff.)

—Tobias Ezekiel Hopkins
Kingston, NY
26 March 2017

A note from the publisher—that is to say, me, Tom, his dad: Toby wrote this essay for a publication class he’s been taking before and after the school day. This story will be included in an anthology that his teachers will be publishing at the end of the school year with CreateSpace; the book will serve as a fundraiser for the school. Once the anthology is published, I’ll add a link to the book’s buy page here.

While Toby did not type the essay, his mother, Emily, served as his transcriptionist, or stenographer. As a writer and writing teacher herself, she made no attempt to “improve” the work during its composition. A few times, she encouraged the author, in Socratic fashion, to prefer the specific to the general. The ultimate choices of words, sentences, and paragraphs are very much the author’s own.

Maple Fest

This past Saturday, the boys and I were some of the earliest arrivals for Maple Fest at the Ashokan Center. This is unusual for us—it’s usually a challenge to get two young boys out the door—but I convinced Toby that if we were there first, we’d get the freshest of the pancakes. In hindsight, I was wrong: being there first meant we did get the first pancakes, but the first pancakes were the ones that had been sitting out on the warmer for a while. Nevertheless, Toby ate two servings of them, after running around the empty music hall.

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Then we made sure to wash all the Ashokan maple syrup off our hands. Although rustic, the Ashokan Center features the joys of Xlerator hand dryers.

the joy of an Xlerator

We listened to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason do their sound check. I hope they didn’t mind.

Then we went for a walk on this beautiful, disturbingly pleasant, early spring day. First, the boys explored ruins on the property.

exploring ruins

Then we walked down a switchback trail to a covered bridge over the Esopus River that dated from the late nineteenth century. It had a great view of the waterfall coming off the mill pond just a little ways upriver.

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Even though it was a strange and mild winter, the Esopus still looked swollen—presumably from runoff, although I think the Ashokan Center is downriver from the Ashokan Reservoir, so presumably the volume of water there is not entirely natural, and controlled by the reservoir’s spillway to some degree (if that’s the right way to describe it).

In any event, it was a perfect opportunity for throwing rocks.

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We got back from the river in time to hear Jay and Molly’s first set. They closed with Jay’s most famous composition, “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme song to Ken Burns’s The Civil War (and one of the reasons for the Ashokan Center’s very existence). I got a little choked up.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

We also got to hear an Ashokan Center environmental educator perform the work of John Burroughs. Unsurprisingly, Toby was more interested in this than Emmett.

Then we hiked out into the woods on the mile-long path to the sugar shack. Along the way, our guides taught us that although hemlock is the name of a genus of flowering plant famous for being poisonous, it’s also the name of genus of evergreens. Eastern Hemlock, they taught us, is delicious and nutritious.

When we got there, they taught us the history of tapping maples. The kids got to help drill a hole in one of the trees.

tapping a maple, one of two

And they got to help hammer a tin tap into the tree as well.

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The strange winter meant that the season was short and early—but the sugar shack was still warm and homey, and it smelled absolutely delicious.

the sugar shack, looking up

Not everyone was as impressed with the place as I was, though.

Toby in the sugar shack

The Rubber Band

Emily and Toby and I wrote a poem. No day is ever perfect, and yesterday had its problems. But: we wrote a poem! (Which is perhaps especially awesome because of this: Emily and I were in the same section of David Layzer’s Space, Time, and Motion class in the fall of 1989, and our section leaders allowed us to cowrite an epic poem for our final paper. Emily and I both lived in Adams House. She would come over to my dorm room in E-11, where we typed it all out on my Macintosh SE. We wrote it in botched heroic couplets. It was about Aristotle, Kant, Alice in Wonderland, Hume, Plato, Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, Reimanian geometry, Milton, Henri Poincaré, Einstein, and Virgil, among other things. It was terrible; it was glorious.)

If you put a word by itself on a line, Toby said, then you draw special attention to that word, and the reader pays special attention to it.

I love the poetry unit! I want to live in the poetry unit always.

The Rubber Band
by Toby, Mommy, and Daddy

streche    streche
Don’t let your brother eat that!
slingg—shot
Stretched wide in an O
FouR  EDGES
An infinite beige   rectangle
HLDS together tie-die   shirts
FIGUR    ATE
Cat’s cradle, a bundle of mail, preserver of bread
a    zero
a mouse bicycle inner tube
a   ginee   pig    guiTAR
The hairband of last resort
A    TITE    BRASLIT
Get enough of them, make a ball
thay    geT    OLD
THAY     get rough
little spaghetti
Ever-changing shape
BRAIDED
Tiny digeridoo
ants use them to power their
PROPELLER PLANES
and     it     SPRINGS     A N D     SPRINGS
A N  D    S    P     R      I        N         G           S

The Rubber Band

YOU ShOULD LOVe

In the middle of the afternoon, a couple hours into our drive to visit our sons’ grandparents in Pennsylvania, we pulled off the highway for a pit stop. Emily went in to pee. “N-e-w-t-o-w-n M-o-b-i-l,” Toby spelled out. It was exit 10 off Interstate 84.

When we lived in Kingston, this was the exit Emily and I always took, going in the opposite direction, to get to our classes in New Haven. The gas station where we’d parked is about half a mile from the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Toby saw a sign on the door, green with white lettering: “We Are Sandy Hook,” it read, “We Choose Love.” He noticed that last word. That’s silly, he said. He wondered why they had a sign with the word “love” on the door.

How can a parent possibly explain? This brutal country! The bloody massacre of twenty first-graders, six grownups–I want my sons to remain ignorant of it for as long as possible. It wasn’t even a year ago, and we’re not a bit safer, and Toby, this sweet boy, had to play a game last year in preschool where he and his classmates competed in an everyone-hiding-in-the-closet game, seeing who could be completely quiet the longest.

Because sometimes people forget how important love is, I said. Other people want to remind them about love, so they made that sign.

Later, we stopped again, this time at the Ramapo rest area off Interstate 87. We sat at one of the booths. We ate McNuggets. I got out a scrap of paper, started jotting down notes.

“Can I write something?” Toby asked. Of course, I said. I flipped over our McDonald’s receipt. “I’m gonna write ‘You should love,'” he said. And he did: “YOU ShOULD LOVe,” in big tall letters. I helped him spell “should.”

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“So if we forget to love, we can just look through all the receipts, and look at the backs of them–until we find this one.”

I wrote that all down. He wrote “YOU ShOULD LOVe” again.

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Have you been thinking about that sign we saw? I asked. Is that why you wanted to write these words? Yes, he said.

Fifteen Thoughts on AWP

1) Emily’s joke: For AWP, we stayed at The Lenox, which is a member of the Saunders Hotel Group. At first, the hotel seemed like a near-future dystopia, with a lot of scary TradeMarked MidCaps (TM). Also, everyone there, like, uptalked? But halfway through our stay this totally surreal thing happened, which, by the time we checked out, via that surreal thing, totally redeemed our faith in humanity.

2) The view out our hotel window.

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3) I thought that Facebook and AWP would be an interesting combination. I had the idea that everyone would use the former as a tool for managing the latter. As in, if you were at the Bloof table, you would write “I’m at the Bloof table,” and then your friend who happened to be over at the Small Demons table would see that, and then wander from Small Demons over to Bloof, and then say hi, which is what’s so great about AWP, saying hi to all these wonderful folks.

But it didn’t seem like anyone was doing that. It seemed like everyone I knew on Facebook who was also at AWP wasn’t writing much of anything on Facebook. Presumably because they were too busy saying hi to other wonderful folks?

Or maybe the appropriate digital tool for what I’m talking about is Twitter?

4) I’m sure some people had all kinds of judgemental thoughts about us wheeling around a boy who’s four and eleven tweflths in a stroller meant for a much younger child. Perhaps they thought we were spoiling him; maybe they thought we fit some preconceived idea of modern parenting that they’ve decided they hate.

But I tell you what, the Micralite Toro is an amazing machine. You can push it with one hand. You can put all your coats on it, instead of checking them for three dollars per coat at the coat check that doesn’t allow you to combine coats. At the convention that doesn’t have child care. Or a play area. Or any comfortable chairs. Did you see everyone lining the long hallways, sitting down, napping on each other, checking their phones, reading, resting in the only place there was to rest? It looked like an airport in a snowstorm. A conference and book fair together mean walking many miles over the course of the day. Which is tiring for people of every age.

I highly recommend the Toro. They should make a grownup version.

Maybe they already do; it’s called the Segway.

And the Husqvarna ear muffs. Next year, we’re starting a fake literary journal and selling branded Husqvarna ear muffs as swag.

5) I miss tabling. I think I’m good at it. I love standing behind a table and talking to people all day. Maybe not every day, but certainly a couple of times a year. I love teaching, but I also hope my work someday means tabling conferences. I hope it doesn’t sound pathetic for someone in his early forties to say such a thing.

6) The woman who was running the TriQuarterly table on Saturday morning was not a nice person.

7) Bloof!

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8) Perhaps I just think I’m good at tabling because at AWP, there are so many people who are incompetent at it. Why go at all, why spend money on a table, if you, the editor, are not going to go yourself? Why send your socially challenged editorial intern? And if you’re the socially challenged editorial intern, why are you hiding? Why not say hi to someone and possible learn something about the world?

9) Sven Birkerts is awesome. First thing in the morning, he’s sitting behind the AGNI table. He’s a major public intellectual and he’s also trying to sell you a damn lit journal. That’s how you do it, man.

10) I’m sad I didn’t get to meet Michael or Jamie in person. I’m glad I got to finally meet Stephen. I’m glad to’ve seen Jed, Bruce, Hannah, Rach, Richard, Jess, Dan, Shanna, Sam, Brendan, John, Rick, Laurel, Laurel.

11) I’m sad we didn’t run into Maud or Alix. Whenever we go on a trip, we set up a few timers on the lights in our house. Our first floor timer, when we’re not traveling, lives tucked into the top shelf of the right-most fiction bookshelf in our living room, next to Babylon and Other Stories and The Missing Person. So when we go on trips, we think about Alix.

12) Fucking Facebook! It’s a flood of so much in medias res. If all we get are updates, which is the same as “and then this next thing happened to Joe,” but we never get the first part, the beginning of the story, the introduction of the plot, the “once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe,” then how are we supposed to follow?

13) Is it a conversational medium, or a broadcast medium? Is it supposed to be the former, but then becomes the latter? It feels like we’re all in a room, all of us talking, none of us listening.

To put it another way: if you and I are “Friends,” and we both write status updates, and I’ve hidden you from appearing in my “News Feed,” and you’re hidden me from appearing in your “News Feed,” then what the fuck are we doing?

Oddly, blogging, which seems like it starts out more as a broadcast medium, has more potential to be a conversational medium. (For old people.)

So right now, I’m writing this; I think there are about two or three people who will read it; I’m curious what those two or three people will have to say, the next time I see them.

14) Once again, I’m so ready to bail on the whole thing. Facebook, I mean, not AWP. I love AWP. I love seeing people. In person. It’s so good.

15) Friendly’s, on the way home.

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Does a Bear Come to a Satisfying Conclusion in the Woods?, a Book Trailer for Trophy by Michael Griffith

New work, as Emily notes, from the Hopkins & Barton Book Trailer Manufactory:

It is, as Emily says, the second installment in our book trailer manufacturing project, following the breakaway success of “They Don’t Have On Clothes, a Book Trailer for Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge.”

“Breakaway success” in the sense of 130 views total, as of today.

Not quite the more than half million viewers of “3-year-old recites poem, “Litany” by Billy Collins.”

But I always remember what Ryan Murphy told me when I interviewed him for Poets & Writers: “[E]ven just fifty readers, he says, ‘kind of blows my mind.’

Birds in Our Backyard

When Emily and I bought our house in 2007, there was a birdhouse hanging from a nail in the ceiling of the basement. This past spring, for the first time, we put it out in our backyard. And then one Saturday in late June this past summer, Toby and I discovered an amazing thing: some birds had moved in. And they’d had babies. And that afternoon, the mom was feeding them.

This video is pretty long, as these things go; it clocks in at just over seven and a half minutes.

In Web years, that’s like Roots. Or The Civil War.

We were so excited. We took two of our lawn chairs and set them up so that they were facing the birdhouse; we put them what felt like a respectful distance away. And then we sat and watched the mommy bird—or the bird I assumed was the mommy bird—bring her babies food, and take away strange white bits that to me looked like eggshells.

I should add that it was me who thought it was the mommy bird, not Toby. As he and I talk about, about five minutes in, Toby thought the mommy and the daddy were alternating, one bringing their babies food and then the other.

Which I’d like to think is a testament to who Emily and I are as parents.

Does this need editing? Most likely. You probably don’t need to watch this bird feeding her babies (or birds feeding their babies) for all seven and a half minutes to understand how beatific it was to spend a Shabbat afternoon sitting and watching this happening just a few feet away from us in our backyard.

The sad part of the story is that I had the mistaken idea that this would be our family hobby for the whole summer—that we’d be able to enjoy our own private bird theater all summer long.

But the very next day, they were gone. The birdhouse was completely abandoned.

What were the white bits she kept removing? Was she feeding and relocating at the same time? Was she scared? Did we drive them away with our proximity?

The video is amateurish—a hand-held Flip, unedited—but I’m glad I have this evidence. We bemoan the fact that we all distance ourselves from merely experiencing something with these devices that we hold between our bodies and the reality in front of us. But sometimes it’s nice to have a record: Look. This actually happened. I saw this. It was right in front of me.

Happy new year, friends.

The Wind Chime of God

Do you know the book Bagels for Benny (by Aubrey Davis, illustrated by Dušan Petričič, Kids Can Press, 2003)? It’s really great. Benny helps out in his grandfather’s bakery; the grandfather tells Benny that his customers shouldn’t really thank him for his bagels, but instead should thank God, since God made the wheat from which they’re made; to thank God, Benny starts taking bagels and secretly putting them in the ark at their synagogue every week, where they promptly disappear (Benny and his grandfather eventually discover that a homeless man has been eating them; it’s the mitzvah of anonymously helping someone get back on his or her feet).

When the grandfather discovers what Benny’s been up to, they have this conversation:

“What are you doing?” Grandpa bellowed.
Benny spun around.
“Grandpa!” he gasped. “I’m thanking God.”
“You’re putting bagels in God’s Holy Ark!” cried Grandpa.
“But he likes the bagels,” insisted Benny. “Every week He eats them all.”
“Oh, Benny!” Grandpa laughed. “God doesn’t need to eat. He doesn’t have a mouth or a stomach. He doesn’t even have a body.”

The last time I read the book to Toby, when we got to this line, Toby said, “God does have a mouth!”

I told Toby (and I’m paraphrasing myself here), “No, he doesn’t—God isn’t a person. God is—well, the idea of God means different things to different people. He’s—”

Toby interrupted me. “He’s a monster,” he said. “He’s a kangaroo. He’s a blanket. He’s a yogurt. He’s a crown.”

I quickly jotted those things down. Then I asked Toby what else God was. “He’s a wind chime,” he said. “He’s a giraffe. He’s a cup of tea.”

All of which, I believe, is—from many, although not all, theological vantage points—entirely correct.