The legend in question began with a Lego figure of Anakin Skywalker. Growing up, my family wouldn’t use electricity on the Jewish Sabbath, and there wasn’t much to do. I played Risk. Monopoly. Magic: The Gathering. Most of the time, though, I played with Lego. Every Friday night when the Sabbath began, I would take all of my Legos off of the shelves and arrange them on the floor of my room – spaceships, castles, monsters, bridges, catapults, horses, robots, goblins, Jedi – spread them out and then spill whatever free-floating Legos we had until the carpet was a sea. Sometimes my little brother would play with me but, when he did, I often made him go to war, which wasn’t particularly fair since he had perhaps twenty little Lego people and no weapons and I had perhaps a hundred and many, many weapons.
On Saturday morning, I’d get up before synagogue and rearrange all of them, group them by size, army, when I made them, how much I liked them. At synagogue, I’d stop reading my prayer book and imagine Lego soldiers engaged in a desperate fight with wild beasts up and down the aisles and, as soon as the service ended, my neighbor Jacob and I would rush home. For the next eight or nine hours, our little Lego men and women would battle and love and build and whatever else little Lego people do. We kept track of all of our heroes and myths. The Great Luke. The Seven Castles, and the Third Lego War. The Chaos Lords. And, above all, Anakin.
On weekdays, it never felt appropriate to pull all my Legos off the shelves at once, knowing I’d have to return them before going to sleep and that an entire day of school stood between any two episodes. At night, though, I would take a few figures and maybe a spaceship or two, and play in the corner of the room. Whatever heroes were currently in vogue with me would have a chance to battle, attain valor and fame, and die glorious and tragic deaths. None of them lasted particularly long (at least, before Anakin). They would rise quickly from the remains of whatever figures came before them, and be taken apart thoughtlessly as soon as I got bored with them.
I don’t know how old I was when I stopped playing with Legos. That’s a lie. I know about how old I was, and it was probably too old (circa 2006), but until you’ve spent every Saturday twiddling your pubescent thumbs without much to do, you’re not in a position to judge. Anakin came to me a year or two earlier, in fifth or sixth grade. For some time, Star Wars Legos had been my favorite. I had a particular affinity for the spaceships and clone troopers, but my heart always belonged to the Jedi. As soon as I’d seen the movies, almost all of my Lego heroes became lightsaber-bearing, Force-using, completely and terrifically incredible Jedi. Despite his prominence in the actual Star Wars saga, I don’t remember being interested in Lego Anakin at first. I believe he appeared tangentially in some of my other heroes’ lives, but it was not until I killed him for the first time that he became anything other than one little Lego man among many. It’s been nearly ten years, and my childhood featured more Lego battles than I could ever hope to remember, but the Saturday morning on which I began Anakin’s story still comes back to me:
Anakin, with three other Jedi, stood surrounded somewhere or other by robots, and all of them were shot many, many times. Heroically, they struggled to fight their way out of wherever it is that they were and were shot some more. Finally, they were rescued by someone or other, but not in nearly enough time as to save them from their nightmarish ordeal. Though his compatriots who had lost limbs received prosthetics, Anakin, who had been grievously and irrevocably wounded, was forced to adopt a new, metal body. (There was an obvious parallel, at this point, to Anakin’s fate in Star Wars, but I always felt that my story was more interesting.)
He matured quickly from there. He led the Second or Third Lego War; he became a Chaos Lord (by which I meant better and stronger than any of Jacob’s Legos); he watched his closest friend and fellow adventurer, Zarak the Telepath, die at the hands of a former ally. He became a king, an emperor and then, finally, a god. For months, no matter what crises I concocted, none were too dangerous or intractable for Anakin to undo. When the Great Beast of something or other rose from the depths to destroy the Lego Museum, Anakin was the only hero, Jedi or not, who could return him to whence he came. When RoboNick came back to terrorize my little brother’s few remaining citizens against my little brother’s plaintive pleas, it was Anakin who heroically defeated him. (An outside observer might consider this to have been racketeering on my part, but Anakin was nobler than I was. He demanded no reward). No enemy could withstand him.
Our story has reached, by now, somewhere between 2005 and 2006, at which time I realized two things. First, that Anakin had survived longer than any other hero had and, second, that it was high time to find a tragic and memorable end for him. I began to plot his demise. First, I had the Golden King cut off his head, but when I couldn’t find a hero worthy of defeating the King, I was forced to bring Anakin back. Later, some Tyrant or other took Anakin apart piece-by-piece and ruled for a bit. With no one else to rescue his fellow Legos, I rebuilt him, again and again.
When you are close to entering high school, you know, even if you don’t know, that there are only so many adventures left for your Legos. Legos are not cool in middle school, and I spent my weeknights doing karate (also not particularly cool), homework, and talking to girls on AOL messenger instead. On Friday nights, I would still take my Legos out and, in the hours between Shabbat dinner and sleep I would play with them like I always had. By Saturday morning, though, I’d have put them all back, and if Jacob came over, we played board games. When you are seven or eight, you can be careless with your Lego heroes. If one dies in the face of some evil, there will be time for another to rise up and defeat it. When you are thirteen or fourteen, can’t take those kinds of risks. Consciously or not, I knew that if I replaced Anakin, I might never build another legend, and that as soon as he died, the last great age of Legos would go with him. There would be no more desperate sieges or time-traveling dragons, and whatever halfhearted heroes came next would rest on the shelves until my mother gave them away.
When we come to the end of things, I think, we will do anything to put whatever we held last back together. This is not about Anakin and this is not about childhood. It is why I looked for somewhere to do karate at Princeton, though I’d given it up years before, when I wanted to be good at something again. It is why, when we are lonely and don’t think we will be loved again, we look back at whoever loved us most recently and wonder if they might consider trying it again. We tell ourselves it is easier to fix what we have ruined rather than start over. For those of us graduating, it is simpler to continue with tasks and activities, even if we have grown tired of them, for fear that they will be the last meaningful or intensive ones we complete before we leave.
When we are at last forced to let go, though, we often do dramatic things to prove to ourselves that we are ready to move on. In second grade, everyone on the school bus knew I was old when I told them I’d stopped playing Pokémon. When I came home from my first date in 9th grade, I put my Legos away for the last time. We have different ways of doing it. Some of us visit home as little as possible when we get to college. Some of us get breakup haircuts, and we are all always caught between throwing things away and trying to tape them back together long after they have stopped being beautiful. I have still not learned how to let go with grace. Two or three times since 9th grade, I have sat on the floor of my room and taken out a dozen or so Legos of a decade past and I have not known what to do with them. I don’t know why I am telling you this. It is probably because I am coming to the end of Princeton and wondering what I will wish I had not broken and what I will wish I had not tried to fix. I don’t know. This is what I remember: the heroes of a thousand myths lie on the floor around me and do not move, all of them scarred and silent. Anakin looks at me. It is time to go, he says. There will be other legends.