Ted Talks: An AFOL’s Journey to Enlightenment

Welcome back to the third edition of Ted Talks, where friend of the blog and bon vivant Ted Andes tackles topics that are near and dear to his heart.  Without further ado, take it away Ted!

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I’M THE DARK KNIGHT!!! Artwork by polywen

Are you ready to read yet another AFOL’s boilerplate “coming-out” backstory?  Me neither.  Despite that consensus, it does make perfect fodder for an article (along with minifigs, replica models, and critiques).  This one’s my story:

My 1st LEGO set was…

Lame.  Seriously lame.

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I received this police set for my birthday in 1977, and I was not impressed.  My aunt was telling us that LEGO was a toy company in Denmark, and that their building block sets were the “hottest toys around”.  This police set was one of the only sets she could find.  “What eva”. Spider-man was my thing back then, and soon after the original Battlestar Galactica (and that recalled  Cylon Raider toy I had was so rad!!!).  Besides, who the heck were these stumpy, no-armed torsos that LEGO called police men going to arrest anyway?  Some random stack of 1×2 bricks?  Pfft, please.  Maybe they could hop around like pogo-sticks, or play “steamroller” with each other, but that’s about it.

“Steamroller!!!”

That birthday, I also got a set with some of those moon-faced maxi figs (or whatever the heck they are called – I don’t keep up on all our LEGO geek-speak). It was probably the set below.  I remember that it had some big spoked wheels.  I sure hoped that LEGO would include more wheels in their sets someday…  They could keep all of those stumpy, no-faced figures to themselves in Denmark for all I cared.  You’ll find no nostalgia here.

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What eventually got me hooked on LEGO was…

Space minifigs and the “Space Shuttle” set!  Hot damn, were they cool!  Maybe those toy builders in Denmark knew what they were doing after all!… Minifigs with posable arms AND legs!… And faces?!…And look at all those GREEBLE PARTS!…  And angled plates!?…  And a RAY GUN!?!  … And what a cool space logo!!!

The “space shuttle” flew into my life on Christmas Day, 1979.  I swooshed that thing everywhere.  I had an epic swoosh-fest when we went to Christmas mass later that morning too.  Those church pew kneelers made the best space runways… Swoosh!….Hey. Maybe that’s why they are called pews… “PEW! PEW! PEW!”  From that point on, Space was always where my heart belonged.

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“Pardon Me. Would you have any “LEGO Dark Age”? 

But of course…  My “dark age” began when I was 12 years old.  That was around the time that the LEGO catalogs started getting stale.  It was just more rehashed Classic Space sets, Castle sets, City sets, a Monorail we wanted but couldn’t never afford – rinse and repeat for next year.  I just got bored with it all.  I had diverse toy interests anyway.  At home, there was all the Star Wars playsets, the Erector sets, the original die-cast Transformers, and by then home video games started appearing on the scene;  TRS-80 Color Computer FTW!!!

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My Dark Age became official when I gave my entire LEGO collection to some undeserving neighbor-kid… (despite being nice to him, he turned out to be such an annoying, lying weasel; any time he got into trouble, that turd would try to pin the blame on me somehow… sheesh.  EVERYONE knows you’re supposed to blame it on those anonymous “kids on the school bus”).  My LEGO collection wasn’t all that large at that point, so “don’t cry for me Argentina….”

 “The truth is I never left you…”

So a few months after I gave away my entire LEGO collection, we learned that my mom was pregnant with my soon-to-be younger brother.  Damn.  Sorry bro.  No “hand-me-down” LEGO sets for you!… But this was actually a blessing in disguise.  We would need to get him new LEGO sets now.  By the time he was of LEGO-age, LEGO themselves were starting into their first “Golden Age”; the advent of Blacktron, Forestmen, and those wondrous Pirate ships.  I was off at college by then, but on my visits home I would always look forward to helping him build his latest sets (and I was soooo tempted to take a Blacktron minifig back to college with me when I left).

And once he got too old for it?  Well, he never truly did, but around the time he might have my sister gave birth to my nephew.  The “Circle of LEGO” would remain unbroken.  I’d eventually get my nephew a new LEGO set every Christmas, which got me back onto that wonderful LEGO Catalog mailing list.

“All Aboard the AFOL Train!”

Sometime in 2002, I was flipping through the latest LEGO catalog and there I saw it; the Santa Fe Super Chief.  Wow, that was pretty damn cool!  I always wanted one of those expensive LEGO trains/monorails as a kid (again, who didn’t?). It was then that I first thought, “Hey! Why not buy a LEGO set for myself?”…  But getting a LEGO train layout started was still going to be pretty damn expensive, as I’d need the engine and at least 5 train cars, all that 9v track, a motor, power converter…and what will the wife think?  Hmm… It was probably best for me to save up and wait for next year, or so I thought.

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New year.  New LEGO catalog.  No Super Chief.  WTF!?!  I went on-line to find out where it went.  Flippin’ retired?  RETIRED!?! It was during that desperate search for answers that I came across the Lugnet Train forum.  They had all the answers that I was seeking, and then some (SAVE 9V TRAINS!!!).  More importantly, I realized that the Super Chief was a fan designed engine, and these gents in the train forum were designing their own MOC’s too.  Well, of course they were!  “LIGHTBULB!”  So it was LEGO trains, Lugnet, and the builders in that community that brought me out of my nearly 20-year Dark Age.

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Q: “What’s black, and white, and red all over?”

A: My LEGO part collection starting out again.

Starting over from scratch, my part selection sucked horribly, and my building skills were admittedly no better.  The starting point for my collection was the Hobby Train Set and the Corner Café (and all that 9v gear).  Lacking in bricks, eventually I designed a train using LDD and purchased the parts via LEGO Factory / “Design by Me”.  I thought it turned out great given the constraints.  I proudly took pictures of my “Pennsylvania Rail Road T1 Class Duplex Drive 4-4-4-4 Steam Locomotive” and shared them on MOC Pages and the Lugnet forums for all to see…

Well, that build that I thought was “pretty close” was a dud in retrospect (and let’s not even talk about my photography skills at the time – cringe).  Sava and Cale were kind enough to give this newbie AFOL a pat on the head, and some words of encouragement… but deep down, I knew I just built the equivalent of a rainbow warrior in the train world.

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Look what I can do!

Trains weren’t the best place for a newbie AFOL like me to be starting out.  The creativity used for trains is predominantly focused on finding the right parts to make a replica model look as close to its real-life inspiration as possible, and to scale… and preferably in 7-wide.  Not having the parts to accomplish this, or the OCD passion that is hard-wired into these train folk, my train MOC’s were going to be DOA.

After that, I took a break from building and focused more on photography (only natural with that FOL migration to flickr).  Eventually, I was inspired to start building in the more “openly-creative” themes.  That’s when my heart found space again.  That’s also when I started plaguing brickshelf, flickr, the Classic Space forum, and the YCTA contests with photos of anything I could make out of those damn parts from the Hobby Train Set and the Corner Café.  I milked those sets to death, man!  Beat them into submission!  If you dare delve into the depths of my flickr photostream (I don’t recommend it), you’ll be able to tell.  The MOC’s are truly “black, and white, and red all over.”

Progress

But I kept at it, slowly building up my collection, poly-bag by poly-bag, clearance sale by clearance sale, holiday by holiday, and eventually Bricklink order by Bricklink order.  Note for any new AFOL’s out there; the sooner that you can “come out of the storage closet” as an AFOL to your friends and family, the better.  LEGO sets will become their go-to gift idea for you, and your collection will grow exponentially.

I built more and more, with various on-line contests being both my muses and measuring sticks on how my skills had progressed.  Eventually I got my first blog-age by the TBB back in April 2011 for the Bionicle/System infused beast below.  That was just the encouragement and validation that I needed.

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The Parasite

So if you’re counting, it was roughly 8 years from when I took the first steps on my AFOL journey until I finally got blogged. I finally built something worthy of recognition by the “building legends” that I had been chasing for so long.  I wasn’t looking for any acclaim (and I’m still not… but that’s a topic for my next article…).  I was just looking for something to indicate that I was making some progress, and closing the gap between me and those AFOL artisans that I continue to admire.

I wouldn’t get blogged again until 15 months later, but that was even sweeter.  It was for the MOC that would eventually become my first significant on-line contest win; The “M-Wing” (not to be confused with Jon Palmer’s M-Wing… )

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It was none other than Dan Rubin that blogged my M-Wing version… and it was none other than Dan Rubin who subsequently commented “Ok, the underside is a little disappointing …”  I could have just let the comment pass, but I wanted to know more.  If I was going to accept his favorable opinion of the top, then I needed to equally accept his unfavorable opinion of the bottom.  I reached out for his candid critique.

An aside: I know we’ve beaten the critique topic to death, but if you want a critique, ask for a critique.  Dan cracked open the door of the opportunity, and I threw it wide open. In this brave new on-line world, you have to ask for what you want.  It is YOU that controls that action!  Don’t just whine about how no one throws critiques around like they’re parade candy anymore…

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“No one critiques my builds anymore…”

Dan replied, “I would either smooth out the bottom or greeble it up substantially more. Right now, it holds a middle ground that’s a mix of boring and ugly (those anti-studs make a bad impression)… I guess it either needs more style or more substance, but it’s currently not offering enough of either for me.” Truer words were never spoken.

This would eventually lead to my moment of “AFOL Enlightenment”, which is this:

-= Building a MOC based on a cool idea is not enough.  You have to give equal importance to the rest of the build, and commit to it like you will never take it apart again. =-

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The “M” shape of the M-Wing from above was my “cool idea”, and I had nailed it… but Dan opened my eyes to the fact that I just ‘settled’ on many of my other part choices.  I thought they were ‘good enough’ in relation to the “M”, but in reality they were anything but good. Since then, I’ve taken that lesson to heart, and try to consider all aspects of the build.  If I can go at least a full 24 hours without thinking of some kind of improvement for it, the build is usually pretty well baked… admittedly though, I still settle from time-to-time, even if it is as small as a 1×2 slope.

The Journey Continues…

So from there, it has been a matter of having the personal motivation and inspiration to build.  Some times that motivation has been sparked by on-line contests.  Other times, it has been sparked by seeing a cool build from someone else that gets me thinking of building in new ways.  Sometimes it’s taking on a self-inflicted project, like the 8×8 x 52week vignette series.  Lately it has been driven internally, by wondering how I can expand certain themes in unique ways (steambugs, aeronaut speederbikes, space nouveau, etc.).

Finally attending a LEGO Convention in 2016 was like receiving that final “sacrament of confirmation” as a FOL. There is no more lurking anonymously behind on-line avatars anymore, and wearing the FOL badge when it is convenient.  That brick badge is etched with my name now, for all to see. The next phase of the journey has begun…

It has been great to finally get to know fellow builders in person, and put some real faces (and personalities) to their otherwise anonymous avatars.  It helps to keep people strait too, since so many have on-line screen names with “Brick”, or “Block”, or “Builder”, or “Model”, or “MOCs”, or “Lego” embedded into them.  (BTW – maybe it’s just me, but the people with “Master” in their screen names always seem to be the sketchy ones?…  Those “MOCs” guys?  Well, they’re ok, I guess…). We can certainly be a dysfunctional family at times, but that’s what makes for the most entertaining family reunions of all… Now, get over there and give your Aunt Carol a big hug.

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“Public hours begin in 5… 4…. 3….”

“SWOOSH…”

And with that, it’s time to end this edition of “Ted Talks” with a mighty “SWOOSH….”  Shoot your flick-fire missiles at me down in the comments below.  “PEW! PEW!…” (…but please don’t shoot them down your own wind-pipe.  We don’t need another toy recall…)

– How did you find the FOL community (or did they find you)?

– Did you have a similar FOL journey?  What makes yours unique?

– Have you had any “moments of enlightenment” yourself?

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Editors Note: By including this final photo, the author issued a clear invitation to critique by the Manifesto’s Style Council.  Unfortunately the photo is viciously cropped and therefore not ideal for a comprehensive analysis, nevertheless a verdict must be rendered.  The ubiquitous T-Shirt is boilerplate attire for the hungry, unwashed Lego-nerd masses, but this one breaks a couple of rules.  First of all, the shirt advertises a corporate football team instead of a corporate toy and everyone knows that sports and Lego are not compatible.  The other big problem is the particular sports team being promoted is objectively terrible, with an overall franchise win-loss record of  344-408 and no Superbowl victories in their 50 year history of mediocrity .

Since Ted is only pictured from the waste up, the Style Council must assume that he is not wearing any clothing from the waste down which actually elevates his status from mild to wild.  The pose also works in his favor, it’s evokes the flair of a Vegas off-Strip magician or a particularly snappy waiter.  After considerable deliberation the verdict is in:

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