Plastic Crap

We actually went out on a weeknight last night! God, we’re old.  We trekked out to the Cantab in Cambridge to hear Phil West, aka Pinata. I can’t believe it’s taken so long to meet him.   He gave a great reading.

I think this captures my ambivalence about consumerism and capitalism, as someone who owns far too many Star Wars action figures and other forms of “plastic crap”:

Plastic Crap By Phil West (reprinted from here)

There are handcuffs hanging from the inside of my car.

No, I don’t drive a 1978 Camaro that cranks Bad Company and Kiss from its car stereo at stoplights. I drive an unassuming gray Volkswagen Jetta with a booster seat in the back. The handcuffs are plastic, and are hanging from the handle on the door next to the booster seat. My three-year-old son put them there. The handcuffs are part of a package my father-in-law picked up for him at the dollar store. The package is, and this is really just too good to make up, a Homeland Security Kit.

The Homeland Security Kit also features a plastic police badge, some giant ’70s-styled plastic-framed sunglasses that scream not-so-undercover undercover cop, and a plastic gun that shoots suction cup darts. One evening, upon coming home from my part-time teaching gig, my son shot me in the face with one of the plastic darts, presumably another episode in a Worldwide Make-Believe War on Terror, with me in the role of the stealth Al-Qaeda operative.

I, of course, was horrified. I was hoping to avoid the whole boys-with-guns rite of passage for at least a few more years, but when your father-in-law is a Marine who fought in World War II and Korea, that’s probably too much to ask for.

And, perhaps more significantly, I was also hoping to not add to the mountain of plastic crap piling up in my son’s room, but in this day and age, it’s unavoidable.

We have a menagerie of plastic animals and a plastic natural history museum’s worth of plastic dinosaurs. We recently acquired two light sabers over the holidays, and I see us moving to a point on the timeline where my son will use his $15 Target-bought talking Yoda light saber to break the dollar-store light saber knockoff, dubbed a “light sword” because they couldn’t get the necessary copyright clearances from Lucasfilms. We have several plastic infant-sized riding vehicles that our son has outgrown but can’t bear for us to donate to charity. There are also toy cars and bats and bath toys, all fashioned from molds that originated overseas and will eventually end up clogging an unmistakably American landfill.

Every time we buy a McDonald’s Happy Meal, which my son would have for every meal if he could, we become the proud new owners of yet another piece of plastic crap. There’s usually some insidious movie marketing behind whatever treasure we pull from the bottom of the bag, and though we’ve judiciously thrown some of them out within hours of receiving them, some of them end up at the bottom of plastic toy bins underneath plastic items we’ve actually purchased. From the exhausted eye of a parent who has spent hours picking up a toddler’s room, the individual toys merge together into one indistinguishable tangled mass of plastic. It has the resilience of a hydra: pull one piece out of the mix, and several pieces magically appear in its place. Or, at least, that’s how it seems.

I can’t imagine that I’m alone in all this. Spend enough time in this great country of ours, and it’ll happen to you too. Having a small child accelerates the intimacy with plastic, but the love affair happens to all of us.

A quick visit to the American Plastics Council website tells you more than you have probably ever need to know about how plastic came into your life. In 1862, Alexander Parkes debuted a moldable form of cellulose at that year’s Great International Exhibition in London, and it was christened Parkesine. But Parkesine does not roll effortlessly off the tongue, so Parkesine begat celluloid, begat Bakelite, begat vinyl, begat polyethylene — eras in plastic strata somewhat analogous to Jurassic and Mesozoic and all the other dinosaur ages that bore the countless species of nigh-impossible names that my son, who is perhaps a budding paleontologist (assuming the rock and roll career doesn’t pan out), is perfectly capable of rattling off.

And really, how did we come so far without plastic? It manages to be all around us without us ever really seeing how it is made. It pervades every aspect of our day-to-day: the snooze button we slap on the alarm clock, the toothbrush, parts of the car, numerous items at work, on workout equipment at the gym. Avoid anything plastic in your life, and you will be avoiding lots and lots of life.

At the San Antonio Zoo, which is about a fifteen-minute walk from our house, if your child happens to demand it, you can feed a dollar into a giant black machine, which feels directly transported from an early 1960s time machine, and you can make a plastic mold of an elephant and a giraffe. Liquefied plastic comes out of the inner workings of the machine and is poured into an animal-shaped mold. The plastic animal comes out still warm, a burned chemical scent clinging to it long after it has hardened in the air. It is at once foreign and familiar. If plastic is akin to buying meat in the supermarket, this is akin to hunting for plastic in the wild.

Most of us do not hunt, but manage to consume on the efforts of those who do the dirty work, and it’s much the same with plastics. Live in this land long enough, and you find yourself, more and more, becoming a plastics connoisseur. There are low-grade plastics that you feel sorry for, and more sturdy varieties that confuse you — they’re too disposable to be utilitarian, but too utilitarian to be entirely disposable either.

Santa’s elves in the workshop are often depicted, in their fictional craft, fashioning little train cars out of wood. How terribly, terribly quaint. Today, it would be giant vats of polyethylene and elves shaping molds out of whatever flickered across TV screens: from American minds to Korean animation houses to whatever cable company had exclusive rights to the North Pole.

My son excitedly comes to me, now that Christmas and its bounty of Star Wars toys has come and gone, and is asking for Power Rangers. They’re all the rage in his preschool class. He holds up a Power Ranger action figure that he got God only knows where, and I inspect. It’s plastic and paint, and a series of small metal screws positioned to make it somewhat limber, though, to be fair, it moves with all the grace of a 7-foot basketball player from Slovenia that more agile players find to be particularly enticing to dunk on. He has instructed me that he wants more just like this one. Lots more.

Watching an episode of Power Rangers on TV is confounding. To me, it seems like a show explicitly engineered for the selling of toys. There are fights with stereotypical villains. The Power Rangers seem to change shapes and randomly shoot bolts of energy from their wrists. One day, when my wife picked up my son from an especially grubby day at preschool, one of his classmates told her, “What you should do is give him a bath and put him in his PJs and let him watch Power Rangers.” My wife regarded him for a moment, and then said, “Well, thank you for the parenting advice.”

Alexander Parkes had no idea. The revolution that ended up not bearing his name was a revolution of comfort and innovation, and assembling a phalanx of things we probably don’t need. It all starts as a goopy mess of chemicals in a factory pressed together and left to cool. What can be the housing for a hyper-efficient computer can be melted and reconfigured into the leering face of some comic book creature, or a cup, or any number of other items that we assign some arbitrary value to and seek out.

Plastics are so pervasive that it’s pointless to be pro-plastic or anti-plastic. It’s sort of like being pro-air or anti-air — hating it won’t make it go away, and trying to do without it dooms you to a bleak, cabin-in-the-woods Unabomber existence. Even bleaker, probably. I’m guessing that even the Unabomber didn’t whittle Tupperware and ball-point pens from wood.

Toddlers don’t think about things like this. Most of us, most of the time, don’t think of things like this. And as much plastic crap as my son seems to accumulate, at least they’re more than just toys. At some point, most of the items my son has assembled in his room have been touchstones for the imagination. The cars have driven across imaginary landscapes, the animals have walked forests and meadows only he envisions, and though I’m still pretty unsettled about the Homeland Security handcuffs, even those are figuring into a worldview that, for the children of the 21st century, is getting more complicated all the time: harder to fit into a mold and refashion than it maybe ever was.

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~ by realsupergirl on July 3, 2008.

One Response to “Plastic Crap”

  1. […] Plastic Crap Alexander Parkes had no idea. The revolution that ended up not bearing his name was a revolution of comfort and innovation, and assembling a… […]

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