Monday, June 30, 2008

LEGO Retail Store at Brickworld2008- Part 2

I'm staring at a LEGO store employee that looks impossibly like Dustin Diamond, better known as Screech from "Saved By the Bell." While I'm trying to figure out what Screech is doing in a suburban Chicago mall, the employee at the door waves me inside even though nobody has yet exited.

I walk in and I stop five steps later. The store is packed with LEGO fans, carrying arm loads of kits and cramming brick pieces into empty white cardboard boxes that sell for $150 a pop. There is the excited buzz that I always imagined was reserved for the adolescent winners of toy store shopping sprees. I blurt that out to a forty-something guy, wearing a yellow LEGO t-shirt.

"It's like a shopping spree you always dreamed of as a kid," I say to him, stepping aside as a pair of teenage boys walk past excitedly pointing to the Indiana Jones sets.

"Except you've got to pay for it when you get the bill next month," he responds laughing and walks toward the back of the store where a LEGO employee has just emerged with a handful of Green Grocer sets, in an attempt to try and restock the store. The employee will never even reach the shelves in the front.

I'm experiencing stimulus overload, so I mostly stand in the middle of the store like a child hoping he isn't really lost. I'm struck that despite a lack of personal space, I don't see one angry face or hear a terse word. This is what bliss feels like.

I eventually settle on buying a Pick A Brick cup, an over-sized, clear cup that you can fill with whatever loose bricks and pieces are available for $15. A savvy LEGO collector can stock up parts well below retail or aftermarket cost. I am not savvy, but I can pretend. I marvel over bright orange 1x4s and translucent blue 2x2s. I load up on white plates, window frames, and 1x1 headlight bricks. As Mr. Barnum would say, "I'm the sucker born right this minute."

An hour later and I've reached the front of the line. I place my Pick A Brick cup and two LEGO separators on the counter.

"What do we have here?" says the guy, working the counter.

"That's everything," I shrug.

"This is kind of anti-climatic," he says, gesturing to the two gargantuan sales bags that the person in front of me is still struggling to carry from the store.

"I know," I admit, "But we can pretend that I just helped you reach your sales goal for the quarter."

He half-laughs, in the way you humor someone you will interact with for a short period of time, but don't find especially funny.

"Shouldn't be a problem. Okay. Have fun at the convention." And with that I walk out of the store $19.61 poorer.

Friday, June 27, 2008

LEGO Retail Store at Brickworld2008- Part I

Visiting a mall after all of the stores have closed is like walking into a zombie movie or a Kevin Smith flick. You never know if the undead or Ben Affleck is waiting around the corner. It's also lit impossibly well by buzzing fluorescent lights and could be anywhere in America.

As I stepped on the escalator at the Northbrook Court Mall, the first thing I heard was a crackling, a fire getting started. When the escalator steps reached the second floor, I saw the beginning of the line into the LEGO retail store. The crackling was the buzz of conversation as adult fans of LEGO discussed potential set purchases, "Green Grocer," and "Indiana Jones" being popular choices.

The store would be opening late for the attendees of Brickworld2008 and the employees seemed a bit overwhelmed by the crowd. The group I was with walked to the back of the line, which stretched for several hundred people and was growing at an alarming rate.

"What's this for?" asked a teenage girl as she walked by with her friends.

"Brickworld," said the store representative before launching into a complicated explanation of discounts and shipping orders.

"Oh," said the girl, quickly losing interest in the hundreds of adults streaming into the mall for a chance to pilfer the inventory of a toy store.

The line began to move briskly until the store reached capacity with 100 fans grabbing and clawing through bricks. I was stopped near the front of the line until someone left with their purchases- the LEGO employee at the door operating like a club bouncer in a bright yellow apron. It was one in and one out, under the watchful eyes of two of Northbrook's finest, on hand for crowd control.I watched the frenzy as people grabbed discounted sets and began to fill from the Pick A Brick tubs (loose pieces that you can grab and buy in bulk). And I wanted to get inside and join them. Part two: Inside the Store comes Monday.

Photo by Nannan Z.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Behold the brick separator

Today is a sad day for my dentist and a great day for me- as I can now return to regularly scheduled fingernail hygiene. What you see there is the "LEGO brick separator." A slope with ridges that latches on to a plate or brick in the same fashion as a bottle opener, allowing you to snap up or down and separate stuck together elements.

At Brickworld2008, I lamented to a few adult fans of LEGO that I wished there was a way I could separate pieces that had been stuck together for years without sacrificing my fingers or teeth (and thus avoid sampling the odd tastes that accompany bricks in storage- a process not too dissimilar from tasting Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans- a disproportionate amount taste like ear wax).

That was when the brick separator was introduced to me- a simple idea that I was sure was a practical joke on the new guy. Sure, Jonathan, there's a separator. There's also a magic machine that can build for you... But it wasn't fiction, the separators exist and when I was handed a set of two in the LEGO store, (used together, they form the Jaws of Life), I was ecstatic. Here was a product that the company understood I needed and had actually built. Each one was only $1.69, but like its plastic brethren the "Chip Clip," it has changed my life.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The world in microscale

Here's a challenge for you. How do you build an accurate representation of a famous landmark using as few LEGO pieces as possible? Welcome to the world of microscale building, where tiny Sears Towers rule and the search for the perfect piece never ends.

Microscale building seems to come with a set of unique advantages in that your final product will ideally be less expensive, more portable, and instantly identifiable.

The expense portion goes out the window fairly quickly as specialty pieces in rare colors (which I've learned can be basically distilled to adding "dark" to any common color, ie. dark red), can be five to 20 times more than a basic part. So, a small structure with several window panes or unique elements can still have a hefty price tag. The other catch appears to be balancing identity and minimalism. You don't want to sacrifice too many architectural details, otherwise you'll just have created a generic building.

But with a healthy childhood addiction to Micro Machines and potential storage space limitations, the possibilities for microscale building choices seem endless.

The photo above is the Taj Mahal by Arthur Gugick from a display at Brickworld2008.

Monday, June 23, 2008

I Could Build That Out of LEGO

It starts slowly. You see a geometric shape or a house made of brick. A mailbox appears blocky or a Toyota Scion rumbles by and you see how it is basically just a rectangle on wheels. But before you know it, you're looking at everything and thinking "I could build that out of LEGO."

On the walk back from dinner on Saturday night, I looked at the North Shore Westin, where Brickworld 2008 was being held, and I had that thought for the first time- "I could build that out of LEGO."

It was an easy thought, one that snuck in quickly, almost reflexively. It felt like the moment when you begin dreaming in another language- a breakthrough that you're not quite sure you actually had. As my wife and I drove throughout Chicago on Sunday, I continually remarked to her on the squat brick row houses and dilapidated warehouses- repeating my new mantra that "I could built that out of LEGO."

To her credit, she allowed this to go on for nearly two hours before she finally asked me to keep those thoughts to myself. She was annoyed and I didn't blame her. I was starting to get annoyed as well. Annoyed that I couldn't turn off this latent portion of my brain, but even more annoyed that I couldn't drive and build with LEGO bricks at the same time.

Photo Credit: Kevitra

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hitting the convention circuit

I'm off to attend BrickWorld 2008 in Wheeling, IL, for the next four days. It's one of the largest annual LEGO-themed conventions with 20,000 square feet of display space.

"There is nothing at this convention but LEGO. It's about sharing why you do things and how you do things," event coordinator Bryan Bonahoom told the LAML Radio podcast recently.

I'm excited by the prospect of being around so many talented builders and hoping that some of their skills will rub off on me. This is a chance to discover why Adult Fans of LEGO feel so passionately about building and perhaps, best of all, shop for pieces with some understanding of the market.

It will be interesting to see how the Town & Country folks interact with the Space guys and the Mindstorm/robotics fanatics. I haven't figured out yet if I fall into any of those groups. I wonder if there's a general interest Adult Fan of LEGO?

The event is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday. If you're in the Chicago area, it's a must see.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jedi Starfighter Set

Today I built from someone else's plans. It's the first time I've used the instructions in a set and I was pleased with the Jedi Starfighter that emerged at the end.

I was a bit concerned that building set #7143 would go as well as my previous experiences with the instructions that accompany IKEA furniture, meaning several panels would end up facing the improper way as I sat there cursing the piece of paper. Thankfully, LEGO bricks are usually only studded on one side. Thus, placing them wrongside up is next to impossible.

The symmetry of the model is fascinating, a mixture of rounded and triangular shapes. With an R2-unit on the wing and back thrusters, it is the details that make this starship sing. But clearly the most entertaining part of construction was putting the hairpiece on the Jedi minifig. Who knew minifigs came w/ toupees?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Your plans are in the mail

Building with LEGO bricks is very much about possibility. The possibility that whatever you build will be incredible or merely just a rainbow-colored collection of bricks.

I've tried to start building without a plan, just a vague idea of what I want to construct because that is how I remember approaching construction as a kid. Also, I've found you can spend so much time planning what you want to build that you never get in there and get your hands dirty.

Out of the Life on Mars set came a pair of arches that have formed the basis for a tunnel, or cargo hold of a truck. I like the shape, I'm just not sure what I'm going to do with it. The inside is completely open, a blank space; but the walls are structurally sound and reinforced by plates on top. It might be an elevated walkway in a mall or a portal from Stargate. Worst-case scenario, I've built a LEGO mailbox that could handle a card the size of a golf ball.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Welcome to the Club

My first issue of LEGO Club magazine arrived in the mail today. Based on the content, I can assume that I have raised the average age of their subscriber significantly. It's tied to the release of the LEGO Indiana Jones video game, which looks pretty fantastic.

It reminds me of the old Nintendo Power magazine- which was designed to complement the original 8-bit Nintendo. The LEGO Club magazine is a mix of product announcements, sneak previews, contests, and a delightful comic where the cartoons have been given blocky, LEGO-esque features.

There are a number of creations built by kids and this calls to mind the dispiriting effect of returning to the ski slopes later in life. Like there, it would appear that children are whizzing by me effortlessly, while I'm just trying to stay on my feet and not hurt myself in the process.

There's also a look at the LEGO Batman and Speed Racer sets. The photos make me realize that LEGO automobiles are difficult to build. That, and everyone needs a monocled minifig at the helm of a penguin-inspired boat.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

How about a LEGO fruit snack?

Don't have enough energy to build with LEGO bricks today? Then fill up on LEGO fruit snacks. You get 2x4 bricks in fruit snack form. They stack and they're edible.

I don't recommend eating more than two packages in a sitting. That much Vitamin C (100 % in every bag) gets your heart racing.

The challenge is figuring out what you're going to build when you only get about eight to 10 bricks per pack. If you're strapped for ideas, why not a camel?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A suprise wookie with every box

I began to dig into the Life on Mars set I purchased over the weekend yesterday and discovered that the oversized box was being used to hold quite a few pieces that I didn't expect.

I am now the proud owner of a Chewbacca minifig, two Ewoks, and an Imperial Stormtrooper. As I write this I'm working on building an AT-AT, which is where one of the Ewoks was hidden. Today, I dork out on Star Wars, and if I'm willing to part with the Ewoks, (they apparently go for $10 a piece on the open market), I've made a profit on my garage sale find and can go drop more money on LEGO bricks.

And if you ever doubted the technical abilities of this blog, today is the first video feature and it's a doozie, I mean wookie...

Monday, June 9, 2008

Garage Sale Find

LEGO pieces and sets don't often end up in garage sales. And so I didn't have high expectations when I accompanied my wife to tag sales in our neighborhood this past weekend.

Case in point, when I was cleaning out my childhood closet before leaving for my move to Kansas City, my mom encouraged me to throw away or donate everything and anything I touched- with the notable exception of the tub of LEGO pieces. Those will be kept for grandchildren, whenever they appear in the picture.

Late Saturday afternoon, my wife and I approached an estate sale. We first entered the garage, where a portly man in an ill-fitting cowboy hat was testing a hand held chainsaw. We didn't linger. When my wife hesitantly asked "Do you want to go in the house?" I surprisingly agreed.

Inside, close to 20 people sat picking carelessly through a lifetime's worth of collections. TWA prints and model cars were stacked haphazardly on folding tables. The stale air and pink carpet left me feeling claustrophobic, but like someone bewildered in a blazing home, I wandered away from the front door and further inside the house. Clothes and price tags hung from furniture bunched together to leave narrow aisles into the two bedrooms on the first floor.

Plenty more upstairs! declared the Sharpie-stained paper on the stairs. The temperature rose as we climbed into a wood-slatted top floor with a finished bedroom. Oxford shirts hung on racks and I couldn't help but wonder what the former owner did for a living. My wife and I threaded our way to the back of the attic, where another couple was testing the integrity of caned wooden chairs by repeatedly banging them into the floor.

I was ready to pack it in as I felt the first small bead of sweat form at the base of my neck. But then my wife said a magic word.

"Look honey, LEGOs."

I bent near a corner to see four different sets: a set of pull-back racers, two Star Wars-inspired boxes, and an oversized container for Life on Mars- which featured a series of interconnected tubes and LEGO aliens. The box promised over 700 pieces and was $15. I immediately backed away and pretended to be disinterested. I then bent down for a closer look while telling my wife I probably wasn't going to buy it. This is what I do when I really want something. It's as if I'm negotiating with an invisible vendor. But in truth, my mind is whirring as I consider what will happen when I buy it.

I snatched up the oversized box and my heart raced a bit. Three minutes later, we walked out $16 poorer (a glass pitcher adorned with dinosaurs called out to me) into the cloudy afternoon.

Friday, June 6, 2008

A simple brick house

Today, I have for you a tiny brick house. It's only $19.99 and comes with a vegetable peeler. And if you act now, we'll throw in a set of gutter guards. Or so, the infomercial style sales pitch would go for the sculpture you see in the pictures.

This is just a simple house, it's neither microscale nor out of the town and country mold. It has a height of 10 bricks plus a two-brick chimney; but some foolish architect failed to consider that the occupants might wish to have windows in the front of the building. My goal was just to build a structure that had a recognizable shape and was stable. It's interesting to see how interlocking walls and laying bricks in an overlapping manner create a much stronger building.

I'm still building in rainbow mode (an early stage where you just use the parts available and focus on the pieces you need, rather than colors). Ultimately, this house reminds me of an old factory or warehouse, perhaps because of the cubist nature of the construction.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

On boxing rings and space dementia

Into all lives, a little poor construction must fall. Today's effort is a bad one. The concept was willing but my fingers were lacking. I've been looking at a lot of tableaus online, small scenes that are recreations of movies or just whimsical placement of LEGO minifigs in absurd situations.

The premise for this build was a boxing match gone horribly wrong. Think Rock-'em, Sock'em Robots, only gorier. Based on the minifigs at hand, it was going to be a sporting contest between the Space Police and a moon vehicle driver.

The canvas of the boxing ring proved to be the first issue as I failed to build a well-connected, structurally strong surface. I instead ended up with a flimsy base that was two plates thick. The ring poles also were too thick in proportion and the ropes were a nightmare. This was the type of project where the end result is not reflective of the time and energy spent to get there. It's the first thing I've built that I would rather throw away than post online.

But this is a process and there are going to be blemishes. We can't all be as shiny as Paris Hilton. If anyone's got some boxing ring advice or even thoughts to keep in mind when planning out a tableau, I'd be glad for some direction.

In the interim, know that the Space Police were once again victorious, though subdued in the post fight interview.

"I was just doing my job," said Lt. Hank Holmes, a veteran of the Space Police, "sometimes you got to put a guy down who has space dementia."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Review: Safari Adventure in LEGOLAND

Precious little source material exists when it comes to researching LEGO. It's kind of surprising, but ultimately you look for information anywhere you can get it as a journalist. That's why I sat down this morning with a copy of "Safari Adventure in LEGOLAND," by Carol Matas. It's a 1994 children's book about a boy's adventures in the Denmark theme park after it shuts down for the evening.

Aaron is tasked with saving a queen, but unfortunately he can only do so after being shrunk to the size of a LEGO minifig. Hilarity ensues, two inches at a time. So far, I've discovered that there is a character named Bad Bart of Legoredo- possibly the best name for a fictional place outside of Narnia. And at just eight years old, Aaron seems like a bit of a whiner when compared with his brave (but bossy) older sister Rebecca. I speak from experience- I'm a little brother and it's easy to tell when another little brother is being annoying.

Aaron is shooting a LEGO gun at toy animals- and it seems, in a bit of foreshadowing, that this might not be the best choice for when the rides come to life. How will it end? I'm betting with an ice cream sundae.

If you know, don't ruin it like the time my brother informed me halfway through the Dr. Robin Cook novel Outbreak that they all died of the flu.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

LEGO bricks are an acquired taste

If Starburst was to release a new flavor- let's just it would not be old, musty LEGO brick flavor. Today, I made the unfortunate mistake of holding a LEGO plate between my lips while building, in the same manner one would hold an extra nail or screw while hanging a picture.

That plan lasted for three seconds until my tongue accidentally brushed up against the end of the plate. Some combination of dust, sweat, and cheese (despite the fact that there has clearly never been cheese in the box) assaulted my palate. Needless to say, I think my brain learned an important lesson today, either that or I'm writing to you on autopilot.

The idea of brick-shaped food is admittedly intriguing. From Jello to potato wedges, the idea of an artfully crafted house of food has me thinking beyond Gingerbread Houses. If I get hungry though, I think that next time I will opt for the brick waffles- because who can let go LEGO of delicious Eggo?

Photo Credit: cknlomein

Monday, June 2, 2008

Make a little window to your soul

They Might Be Giants suggested you make a little birdhouse in your soul. My dog has decided to begin with a tiny red window. The yellow-framed, four-paned window is a standard of home building- only this one is now missing a left set of window panes and smells faintly of Science Diet puppy food. But I've been thinking about building a home in need of renovation- it would suit my current style because if something was inaccurate I could just argue that it was in need of repair. Furthermore, you figure the subprime mess has to be affecting the Town & Country set of LEGO folks with little minifigs walking away from their LEGO mortgages because it makes more sense to default.

I haven't starting work on an abandoned LEGO subdivision where an ambitious minifig developer overbuilt, as frankly the idea seems less tongue-in-cheek and more just depressing. But a house built by a poorly trained architect seems right up my alley.

So while I ponder that, I'm rubbing my dog's tummy because it is apparently her stomach and not her eyes that will be providing the window to her soul.