Putting the Pieces Together

It’s probably an overstatement to say that I loved playing with Legos when I was a kid.1I enjoyed them, to be sure, and I wished at the time that I had more models. I would open the outer package, dump all of the tiny bricks together into the inner box and start building. My eyes would bounce back and forth like tennis balls from the instruction booklet to the box of bricks to find the pieces I needed and back again to complete each step. I would pore over the instructions, making absolutely sure that I had placed the pieces correctly before pressing them together. I would sit, sometimes for hours on end, constructing airplanes, medieval castles and woodland fortresses.

But then I would leave them alone.

I treated my Legos like art. I positioned the different Lego people to create still shots of action scenes. The EMTs were loading the stretcher into the Red Cross plane to fly the injured skier to receive proper medical attention. The guards on watch were preparing their catapult to defend the keep. Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men had robbed a knight and had stashed their loot in the chest in their secret hiding place at the base of the tree. My Lego models depicted a moment in a larger story that was in the process of being told, even if I never quite got around to telling the rest of it.

I was never bothered by the idea of the story being incomplete. Each set presented a glimpse into the characters’ lives and there was room for interpretation to fill in the blanks before and after. The thrill was in the process, analyzing the way each piece fit together to form a larger design. I would try to anticipate each next step, noticing oddly shaped bricks along the way and looking forward to seeing how they would contribute to the whole. Then, once I had finished, I could let the pieces speak for themselves and people could draw their own conclusions about how the one woodsman had managed to get up into the tree or why the pilot had to help the EMT instead of focusing on flying the plane.2My brothers played with Legos differently. My middle brother would actually play out some of the scenes with the figures. He enjoyed playing with action figures in general and approached the Lego sets with the same attitude. He would launch the catapult and drive the race car and conduct conversations between the characters. Pieces would go missing here and there as a result of their increased use but he took general care of the sets. He kept them intact, for the most part, and usually put them back in the boxes or up on their display shelves.

My youngest brother, on the other hand, had no such interest in the models keeping their forms or in maintaining the divisions between the sets. All of the Legos ended up together in one large bin, tree branches and race car wheels mixed together with airplane wings and castle walls. Anytime I would see the bin in his room I would feel a combination of nostalgia and irritation with a hint of “Well, I guess they’re his now” thrown in for good measure.

That’s how it goes for eldest siblings, I suppose.

I’m bringing all of this up, of course, because Eitan has caught Lego fever. He had a set of Mega Bloks when he was little and then we bought him two Duplo sets – a zoo and a fire house – but he never seemed to be as interested in them. Then we bought him his first real Lego set around his fourth birthday – a police helicopter that also included a robber stealing from an ATM machine. He and I built it together and then I spent the next half hour trying to help the robber escape from Eitan and the cops.

We bought him a few other Lego Junior sets over the next few months – superhero sets, mostly – and he would play with them for a while and then lose interest. At some point, though, the switch flipped. He became addicted, constantly requesting new sets. Superheroes, vehicles, Star Wars, it didn’t matter; he wanted to build and he wanted to play.

There have been a few times since Eitan was born that I’ve felt somewhat separated from him. His features have always resembled Trudy’s more closely than mine and he’s been more attached to her since he was a baby. I see myself in him, though, when he’s building his Lego sets. He focuses in on the instructions, his brow furrowing just like mine used to and his eyes pinballing back and forth between the diagrams and the piles of pieces nearby. His facial expressions while he’s building, his fascination with creating new things, even his beaming smile of accomplishment when he has finished – those are all mine.


It might as well be five-year-old me in that picture.

I’ll admit that I still wince every once in a while when I see him throwing some of his already-built Lego models as he plays. I flinch when I see the models crash to the ground, pieces occasionally flying off. I have to bite back the impulse to tell him to stop because he’s going to ruin all of his hard work. Then I remind myself, just as I did when my brother would toss all the Legos into one big bin, that they’re not mine. Building is no longer something I do to enjoy myself; it’s now something I share with Eitan.

And, honestly, his way is more fun.

I was not compensated financially for this post, but I did receive a free Lego Technic model (not pictured) for Eitan. As always, the opinions included here are fully my own.

1. I know the technical, correct language should be “I loved playing with Lego bricks” because Lego is the manufacturer and the objects are the building bricks. I don’t care. I’m calling them Legos.

2. The technique of creating individual scenes but not filling in the beginnings or endings would show up frequently in my writing as I got older, like here or here or here.

RAD Girl Revolution

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

That’s the slogan for RAD Girl Revolution, a new children’s book created by two mothers from my neighborhood, Sharita Manickam and Jennifer Bruno. Like many modern parents, they were disappointed with traditional portrayals of gender roles in children’s books. It wasn’t just the “knight in shining armor” and “damsel in distress” tales that concerned them; it was the idea that astronauts, fire fighters, business people and a host of other professions were almost always characterized as men. Despite the increasing prevalence of girls empowerment programs across the country and a rising presence of similar slogans on clothing targeted to young girls, Manickam and Bruno kept coming back to the same bottom line: if girls couldn’t point to women in specific roles in society, they would have a much more difficult time visualizing themselves in such a position.

To that end, the authors created a book that shows girls dressed as members of professions where women are traditionally under-represented. Bruno staged photographs of young girls for each page, from judges to police officers to CEOs. Each photograph is accompanied by a short rhyming poem to make the picture more accessible to a young child’s imagination. The book is cute on its own but it’s message elevates the project to a more meaningful level.



I’m excited about RAD Girl Revolution for obvious reasons, of course. My daughter is about to turn two and I want to make sure that she grows up believing that she has every possible opportunity available to her. She won’t be able to be “anything she wants,” of course; her genetics are likely going to prevent her from being a professional athlete, for instance. But I would prefer that DNA prevent Shayna from reaching a certain goal, as opposed to an arbitrary glass ceiling imposed by the society in which she lives.

The other reason I’m excited, though, is less obvious.

A few months ago, I wrote a response to a Time Magazine article about toxic masculinity and the differences between the ways parents approach raising sons and daughters. Essentially, girls continue to be encouraged to speak about their feelings and experiences, while also receiving increasing pushes to pursue their dreams, no matter how far fetched. Boys, on the other hand, are still consistently pushed into traditional male-dominated fields and often face criticism for choosing a different path. Girls who want to be doctors are empowered; boys who want to be nurses are ridiculed.

Admittedly, RAD Girl Revolution is not going to solve the issue of traditional views of masculinity pushing young boys into the same typical fields. And it shouldn’t; its main focus is on improving girls’ status in society, a noble cause in its own right. Redefining masculinity is a process that has to start with training sons to think differently about women and girls, as opposed to training girls to stand up for themselves against boys and men.

But that is exactly the other reason I love this project: Trudy and I will buy this book for Eitan as much as for Shayna. We want Eitan to grow up believing that girls and women belong in every profession as much as he does. We want him to understand the different perspectives that women can bring and the value of including input from different sources when solving problems and developing programs. He needs to believe that the assumption that a girl would be unsuitable for a job simply because of her anatomy is not only inaccurate, but harmful. Girls may not be able to be what they can’t see, but boys can’t visualize other possibilities if they don’t see them either.

I hope you’ll join the RAD Girl Revolution with us by contributing to its Kickstarter account and following its progress over the next few months. For more information, please visit the project’s Facebook page, follow RAD Girl on Twitter and Instagram, and check out their recent news spots on PIX11 News, NY1 and amNY.

The Unintended Hospital Visit (or, How a Kia Saved My Life)

“Okay, Aaron, here’s your car,” the rental car representative said to me as he gestured toward a maroon sedan in the garage.

I wrinkled my nose a bit as I gave it a quick once-over.

“A Kia? That’s all you’ve got?”

I didn’t know much about cars when I was twenty-four (although, honestly, not much has changed in the ten years since). My knowledge could basically be summed up as, “If it works, great; if it doesn’t, find someone to fix it.”1 The one thing I did know, though, was what I had heard about brand reputations. I knew that foreign-made cars, particularly from Japan or Germany were the “best,” and that American-made cars were generally fine, though not quite as good. I couldn’t have told you exactly what the differences were between the brands or what made one “better” than the other, but I knew what I had heard.

The other thing I had heard was that Kia was a cheap car that you only bought if you couldn’t afford anything else.

The salesman laughed a bit and reassured me that Kias were much better than the public had been led to believe. “Plus,” he added, “I can’t give you any other cars because you’re still under twenty-five.”

I grimaced slightly but I was familiar with the company’s policy about renting certain cars to people under twenty-five. I’d rented cars a number of times through the foster care agency where I worked to visit my clients at Westchester and Rockland County hospitals, bring them to interviews at more distant school placements and, in the most unpleasant situations, to move them and their belongings from one foster home to another. My age meant that my cars were never flashy; a Ford Focus, a Chevy Malibu and, on one occasion, a full-size white van with the rental company’s logo on the side. On that particular day, I was traveling to an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Ossining with my coworker so that we could visit a young man who was hoping to get some good news on his fourteenth birthday. On that particular day, I was getting a Kia.

My coworker and I got in and I pulled out of the garage. I weaved through New York City traffic to the West Side Highway and began driving north along the Hudson River. It was a clear September day and the river shimmered brilliantly under the perfect blue sky. It was the kind of day that foster care workers cherish; the days when we could work with a team to make someone smile, ease someone’s worries and feel, for once, like we were making a difference.

It was a day of promise.


The trip went smoothly. There wasn’t much traffic and I enjoyed being able to actually drive, navigating the hills and curves of Route 9A and getting a feel for the handle of the car. I watched the scenery shift from the drab concrete of the urban jungle to the healthy green of trees whose leaves had only just begun to turn. My already good mood seemed to improve even more as my colleague and I shared stories about our families and our experiences in child welfare, as well as plans for our upcoming meeting.

Then, in a flash, all of my senses went blank.

I remember being vaguely aware of our car moving, sliding backwards down a slight hill until it came to a stop with a lurch. I was confused; I couldn’t piece together why I was no longer driving toward the hospital. My vision began to return slowly, colors starting to peek back in through the blanket of white that had covered my eyes. A faint smoky odor reached my nostrils and I thought I could hear voices, though they sounded like they were miles away. My forearm was stinging, though I wasn’t sure why. My addled brain kept trying to fight through the haze to figure out what had happened.

Finally, it clicked: we had crashed.

I’d been making a left turn off of 9A onto the quiet street where the hospital was and I never saw the other car coming. It slammed into us as I turned, sending us spinning around until we were facing the opposite direction from where I had been trying to go. The other car had caromed off ours into the guardrail while we spun and stopped in the middle of the road. Our car had ended up facing the median before sliding down the sloped side of the road, coming to a stop when we reached the same rail. The white blanket had been a combination of my brain turning off to avoid additional trauma and the airbag deploying. The airbag had also been the source of the smoke and the burn on my arm.

I began to panic once I realized the situation. My mind, which had previously been moving at a snail’s pace as it recovered from the impact, suddenly began racing. I needed to make sure my coworker and the other driver were all right, to call 911, my girlfriend, my parents, my supervisor, the hospital to let them know we couldn’t make it and I had to do all of it immediately. I asked my coworker if she was hurt (she wasn’t) and used the adrenaline that had begun coursing through me to push through the dizziness and get out of the car.

I could see the other vehicle, a black sports car, a short distance away. The driver had also come out of the car and there were some people standing with him as he stood leaning on the driver side door. I called out to ask if he was okay, noticing that my voice also sounded far away, and felt relief wash over me when the group gestured that he was fine.

I pulled out my cell phone to begin making phone calls and stopped when I felt my knees start to buckle. The world tilted around me and I was just barely able to grab the car door to steady myself. I blinked hard, took a few deep breaths and walked gingerly toward the guardrail so I could sit down. I planted my hand on the rail as I lowered myself to the ground and took another deep breath as I started making phone calls.

It was early evening by the time the other supervisor from my foster care unit and our director arrived at Westchester Medical Center to pick us up. Ambulances had brought us and the other driver to the hospital as a precaution but we were fine. We were all quite shaken up, to be sure, but none of us sustained significant physical injuries beyond some bumps and bruises.

My coworker and I were speaking with our director and supervisor about the accident while we waited for our discharge papers when I realized my work bag had been left in the car. I don’t remember what I had in it that made me want it back; certainly, no one would have faulted me for leaving without it. But I said I needed it, so we stopped at the auto body shop where it had been towed before driving home. The employee showed me where the car was and said I could get whatever I needed.

I stepped into the garage and inched my way between a weathered turquoise coupe and a black sedan to get to the car I had rented that morning. The bag was easy to reach – it was sitting on the backseat, waiting patiently to be picked up. I was about to return to my colleagues when my curiosity got the best of me; I turned to check out the damage before going back outside.


This wasn’t the car I was driving (this is a stock photo). But this is really close to what my car looked like.

The car had been totaled. The front corner on the passenger side had been completely inverted and the hood was folded almost in half. The case that should have housed the headlight was missing and the lower part of the windshield on that side had a long, snaking crack in it. I looked down at the hole in the front tire and the bent wheel rim and I found myself wondering how my coworker’s legs had not been crushed. My thoughts began racing again as I pictured the tragic outcomes that had somehow been relegated to alternate universes instead of my current reality. I whispered silent thanks to the powers of spirituality and physics that had spared us and gave the car a symbolic pat on the trunk.

I stepped out of the garage into the cool evening air. The clouds on the horizon were splashed with watercolor hues of pinks and oranges as the sun retired for the night. I took one last glance back at the car, now reduced to a jumble of metal plates and screws, and swore never to make fun of a Kia again.

1. My grandfather reportedly used that exact phrase in the Air Force when his superiors asked what he knew about radio operations.

This post’s featured image can be found here and the driving image can be found here.