“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” —Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
The sky was blue as an Autobot’s eye, and I felt stupid enough without my real car breaking down. I’d been to Target and Toys ‘R Us a bunch of times just to hold these things in my hands, turning them over to see how the light bounced off the clear plastic shrink-wrapping when I moved them, how enticing the packaging made them look. But I hadn’t even thought about Transformers since I was a kid, even though the show and toy line had undergone several alterations since then, since I thought I’d grown up.
First was Generation 1 (G1), what I watched as a kid, beginning in 1984, ending after four seasons but continuing on in Japan with intriguing and funny series names like “The Headmasters” and “Super-God Masterforce.” There was the G1 movie in 1986, released between seasons two and three, ushering in a whole new toy line. (The movie was basically a big commercial for new toys Hasbro wanted to sell, killing off much of the old line in the process, and the deaths of so many of the original G1 characters in the movie, including Optimus Prime, caused many children to cry. One kid, I read somewhere, was so upset he locked himself for days in his room). Then came Generation 2, basically a G1 rehash, then a series about transforming animals called Beast Wars, then some other weird Japanime series starring people with really big eyes and sharp, pointy hair. I was a G1 fan, so I stopped watching all the new incarnations of all the old characters. They just weren’t what I expected or hoped for, I guess.
I rented the original movie from Blockbuster a few times as an adult, just to get high and think fondly on how simple things used to be. But the toys never occurred to me as fun anymore because I didn’t remember them being too impressive—not that I had many. (Whenever I met another kid who had any Transformers or G.I. Joe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, my first question was always, “Do you have the whole collection?” This obsession with complete sets haunts me to this day as, with any of my favorite authors or directors or bands or television shows, I have to have all their work.)
When I was a kid my parents didn’t have money for any of that stuff, and now that I had a job I felt I somehow deserved a lot of things I missed out on. That’s partially why I didn’t want to start buying Transformers from the new line based on the new 2007 live-action movie—now that I was an adult, now that I had a job and could afford to be the child I always wanted to be. I knew if I bought one, it would be like the first cigarette I ever smoked: I’d be, like, opening floodgates.
I’d been to all the stores, just looking, teasing myself, and finally at Toys ‘R Us, with my then three-year old daughter, I decided maybe I’d just buy one: Deluxe Class Jazz. My daughter and I got out to the car and I opened it right there in the parking lot. She was somewhat curious, vaguely amused by this strange hunk of plastic, and I was bewildered by how much more sophisticated the transformation was compared to the boxy, simplistic robots of my youth. So, like cigarettes, I wanted another. Leader Class Optimus Prime, Leader Class Megatron, Deluxe Class Bumblebee, Voyager Class Ironhide, Voyager Class Starscream, Deluxe Class Barricade, and it just kept going.
The new toy line, based on the 2007 live-action movie, indeed the movie itself (directed by MichaelBay), was obviously just a commercial for the U.S. military, Hasbro molding their toys after war machines. I knew some of the profits from the movie and the toy line were likely going toward the Department of Defense (see: Starscream, an F-22 Raptor designed by Lockheed Martin, and Brawl, an M1 Abrams tank), not to mention the fact these toys are made in China, so I was supporting not only the American military industrial complex but sweat shops employing children like my daughter (maybe not so young). Other characters were based on molds of GM vehicles (see: Bumblebee, a 2009 concept Camaro, and Ironhide, a GMC Topkick C4500 4×4 pickup truck). GM, an American company that has closed countless American plants and moved jobs overseas.
Not just buying the toys or paying to watch the movie, I guess, but everything I do and buy makes me complicit in the dissolution of many small, personal economies (families) and, therefore, the continued downfall of civilization, the loss of liberty, the oppression, the deaths of people I’ve never met or had any problem with, and increasing the wealth of those who actually did kill them (military), or gave the orders to have them killed (politicians/CEOs). And all so I can be entertained for a few moments during my pointless, frivolous little life. I might as well just line up a group of third-world peasants (well, first-world, too) and shoot each of them in the head, then play with the toys using their corpses for landscapes.
Ethically, I’m opposed to everything humans do, opposed therefore to my own existence. But there’s still that part of me that just wants a toy to play with, a part of me that wants to be seven years old again, when nothing but the imagination mattered. Just, returning to that and keeping it like a picture in my wallet to pull out and look at when I’m sad, or like a toy on the shelf I can pull down and transform into a robot and talk to when I’m lonely or transform back into a car or whatever, just to make funny noises at.
It would always be the same pattern, before actually buying a Transformer. The internal conflict: Why are you buying this?… Because they’re sweet… But you don’t need them, save your money… But it won’t hurt… But you’re an adult… ‘Adult’ doesn’t mean anything… There’s this primal, Alpha-male territorial-possession aspect to it, too, not wanting anyone else to have them, thinking somehow the store will soon run out. The part of me that isn’t logical, the biggest part of me, that doesn’t seem to realize they manufacture millions of these things.
Sometimes, I’d bring my daughter to the store to buy her something small just so I could look at theTransformers section. That must’ve been a sight to all the other parents scouring the mazes of those department stores, screaming at their children to shut up because they weren’t going to buy whatever it was their children wanted: My three-year old daughter pulling toys out my hands, yanking my arm, saying, “No, dada, you have enough Transformers. You don’t need anymore.” My three-year old daughter, telling me I have too many toys. Something’s terribly right here, I thought.
My daughter’s mom got me the 20th Anniversary DVD of the original 1986 movie for my birthday (our birthday, actually. My daughter’s mom and I were born the exact same day, fell in love the same day, became parents the same day, but we didn’t break up the same day… She was way past me and in my head we were still in love). On the DVD’s special features was a teaser for a new live-action Transformers movie, so I guess that’s what started it all. I hadn’t seen the original series in so long, and I began to wonder what I was missing out on by not going back to watch those old how-it-felt-to-be-a-kid episodes. With the new movie coming out, I felt I should go back in time.
Rhino Home Video released all four seasons of the original series in five DVD volumes, supposedly because seasons two and three contained so many episodes and, strangely enough, the fourth and final season was only a three-part episode (the plotline of which was adapted and carried on by Takara in Japan [the company which created the original toy line the G1 series was based on]). The DVDs for the original series were out of print, so I went on Amazon and eBay for the cheapest used DVDs I could find, which, since they were collectors’ items (and a whole bunch of other grown-up boys like me were anticipating the new movie), ranged in price from $50 to $170. (All the G1 seasons have, of course, been re-released and are now available for like $20 each.)
So, I bought them, watched all 96 episodes, and actually fell asleep during each one. I’d wake up and have to rewind them to catch what I missed. Either they were very boring, entry-level sci-fi, or maybe there were memories of my youth I didn’t want to face and so became suddenly narcoleptic. But I felt somehow comforted by the thought that maybe this whole rewinding-my-life thing was me trying to face the past.
I’d go to the store with the intention of buying one, end up standing there in the aisle holding three packages, staring at them, urging myself to just go up to the checkout counter: Don’t think about it, just buy them… No, put them back, you don’t need them—this will not help you live a happier life. I’d put them back on the shelf and walk out feeling proud I’d overcome myself, but for the next few days I’d obsess over them, what it would feel like tearing those packages open, how the plastic parts would feel in my hands and the small clicking and clacking sounds of transforming them. I’d go home and sit on YouTube watching people all around the country who made video reviews of themselves transforming them. The only way I could stop thinking about them was to just go to the store. I’d have to just go to the store and just buy the fucking things.
When Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen released, I couldn’t afford to buy any of that line’s toys because I didn’t have a job anymore. I could barely afford a movie ticket, so I borrowed money from a friend and we went to see it. (I was and still am horrified by the racist stereotypes represented by the two twin Autobots, Skids and Mudflap. A huge controversy rightfully ensued over their “ape-like appearance, speak in street-slang dialogue, and […] inability to read. [O]ne of the characters also has a gold tooth” [Wikipedia].)
Now with Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon coming out today (from which director MichaelBay claims Skids and Mudflap are absent), I think back on both my childhoods. Though I stopped buying the toys a few years ago, even sold them all on eBay (except Leader Class Optimus Prime), and despite my opinions of the first two Transformers live-action movies, I still want to see the third movie. I appreciate the Transformers mythos, as well as my own hope for the myth’s potential.
My daughter’s seven now. Soon after I stopped buying Transformers toys, when she was around five, she said the strangest thing. She was sleeping over my place and I was giving her a bath. She was playing with her toy mermaids in the tub. She’d been taking swimming lessons at the Y, and she was showing me in the bathtub how she could plug her nose and put her mouth in the water to blow bubbles. She unplugged her nose before coming up and breathed in by accident, got some water up there, and she started coughing.
“Okay, no more,” I said, as I was already apprehensive about the whole thing. “I don’t know how to teach swimming, and I don’t want to say something your swimming teacher would say is wrong. Besides, the tub isn’t the place for that.” My daughter nodded her head yes, still coughing a little and kind of crying, and she picked up one of her mermaids floating in the water and looked at it. She put it back in the water, dunked it under, rubbed her nose and said, “I wish I was a toy so I wouldn’t have to hold my breath, and I could just go underwater and not worry about breathing.”
I realized that’s exactly what I wanted, the illogical part of me, the part that makes no sense. It’s always craved that dichotomy between the real and the imagined, what I could have and what I couldn’t. I wanted pretend things to be real. Or, at least to discover that everything real was just make-believe anyway, which I’ve somehow always felt. Or, I at least wanted any distinction between the real and the imagined to simply melt away until anything was possible. Or, I wanted to be a machine, a toy of a machine to which none of that mattered.
I walked out of Toys ‘R Us and started my car, drove off with a new Deluxe Class Barricade and, because I’m often absent-minded and forget to take care of things, my car overheated and stalled in the middle of traffic. I thought to myself, I can’t believe I care more about these pretend cars than my real one. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time, so I left my car there in the middle of traffic and hiked down the road until I found a payphone at a NOCO. I called AAA and hoofed it back to my dead car to sit there, and wait. I tore open the package my new Transformer was sealed in and threw the garbage on the passenger-side floor. There were cars all around me, the people in them honking their horns for me to get out of the way, to push my piece-of-shit car off to the side of the road. Those people could’ve been my conscience telling me to grow up, and I just sat there ignoring them all, transforming my new toys.