Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Guest Post: What an AFOL by Gnoll

Hi. My name's Gnoll, and I'm an AFOL.

That's not pronounced like "awful". Or maybe it is. I'm not sure, actually, as I've not heard it pronounced as a word very often. Normally, people just speak it out loud as "A-F-O-L", as I am wont to do. But The fact remains, I'm an AFOL: an Adult Fan of LEGO.

I hate that there's a term out there for people like me. I mean, the phrase "Adult fan of LEGO" is fitting. All of those words apply, and come out to a pretty concise and succinct way to describe a person above the age of 18 who still enjoys the world's most popular brand of plastic building toys. I just hate that someone, at some point, decided to create a silly acronym for it. And yet, I find myself using that acronym to describe myself when appealing to other people I have encountered who are also easily described by that stupid acronym.

So again, my name's Gnoll, and I'm an AFOL. And while I have been an AFOL for the entirety of my adult life, for the last six years or so I've been out of my "dark ages" -- a term defined by other AFOLs as that period of a person's life in which he or she forgoes their love of LEGO in order to pursue more "adult" activities. But for me, I don't really consider myself as having "dark ages". I still dragged out my collection to tinker with it when visiting home in my early adult years, and began collecting the Star Wars licensed sets upon their release in the late 1990s, although that didn't become a major pursuit until a few years later. In fact, the only reason why even had any sort of "dark ages" was simply a logistical one: I just didn't have the space to accommodate a collection of any note.

That changed when I was last shopping for a house. Previously, I had rented a room from a friend, shacked up with a former girlfriend in a one-bedroom apartment, lived alone in a tiny downtown rental, and owned a modest but cozy condominium. In 2007, however, I bought a house. A real live house, with a yard and everything. And when shopping for said house, one of my major considerations was finding one with an extra bedroom -- a bedroom that I could turn into my LEGO room.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have a LEGO room. It's not the third bedroom, or the front bedroom, or the guest bedroom, or the sun room, or anything else practical and adultish like that. It's a LEGO room. And that's precisely how I describe it to anyone who'll listen, AFOL or not. The LEGO room, all 120 square feet of it, is lined with conference tables which support a sprawling city scene. The city features everything from skyscrapers, hotels, emergency units, government buildings, restaurants, rail yards, and a working monorail, and all of it fits atop three 30" by 60" folding tables. Along the other walls and beneath the tables are dozens of plastic drawers and buckets, all filled with sorted LEGO elements of all varieties. Hanging above the tables and scattered about the other usable wall space are decorative floating shelves, housed with Star Wars sets I've collected over the years. And the entirety of the room's 2' by 6' closet's content is comprised of even more sorted LEGO elements.

The LEGO room is teeming with LEGO elements, and yet I still take great pride in amassing even more. Sure, there's a LEGO store or two within a short drive. And the local department stores and toy stores sell plenty of LEGO. But the fun part is acquiring the collection of someone who's outgrown theirs and making it my own. Frequent scans of Craigslist, roaming garage and estate sales on the weekends, and occasional stops into thrift stores often yield big scores of LEGO elements, and usually at quite the bargain compared to actual retail or eBay. In what was easily my largest single acquisition to date, I once procured over 100 pounds of LEGO from a young man whose wife had forced him to part with his lifetime's worth of collecting, all for $100. My car barely fit my haul that day.

Of course, acquiring a stranger's LEGO collection can be a perilous situation. Usually, these toys were owned at one point by a small child. Quite often, they shared a home with a smoker or a pet. Occasionally, their collection found itself joining forces with other toys in their collection. And as you can imagine, even the most careful of LEGO builders has the occasional fumble of a candy bar or can of soda, leaving a sticky residue where you certainly don't want it. So after happening upon a large acquisition, I have a three-part process I complete before I integrate my latest finds with my existing collection.

1. Sifting.

Upon getting my latest haul home, I sit down, usually in front of the television with a movie or something on, and sift through the parts. As a LEGO purist, I get almost irrationally annoyed at having to separate the wheat from the chaff in dealing with my hobby. This is most commonly identifying what are known as "clone brands": toy lines such as Mega Bloks, Tyco, Best-Lock, Cobi, and K'Nex, which are compatible with LEGO bricks, but are of a far inferior product quality. Even Hasbro, a company I generally admire, has gotten into the game with their Built to Rule and KreO lines. I abhor these off-brands, and purge them from the system as soon as humanly possible. At the moment, I have a tub with over 50 pounds of these parts in my attic, which are of so little worth on the secondary market that I have tried unsuccessfully to get a modest amount of cash from them on Craigslist or at a yard sale on more than one occasion. I've considered donating them to charity, but I would hate for some poor child to be disappointed when his or her mother showed up with a giant tub of what she unwittingly called "Legos" (another pet peeve of mine) only to find out it's nothing but cheap plastic junk. Aside from the clone brands I'm purging, there are usually other random toys tossed in to these lots. Plastic army men, toy cars, action figures, and other random playthings sometimes find their way in. There's other unusual junk to be found sometimes as well, such as Popsicle sticks and candy wrappers and paper clips. Of course, finding the occasional quarter or other piece of change is always a welcome distraction.

2. Washing

Now that the useless junk has been eradicated from the equation, it's time to get the remainder in ship shape condition. It's a pretty common phenomenon after handling someone else's LEGO collection to find yourself with a certain sticky residue on your hands. Pet odors and cigarette smoke also seem to soak in to the ABS plastic more than one would assume. So for these reasons, my new acquisition is thoroughly washed. The LEGO elements are stuffed into a mesh garment bag and put into my kitchen sink. Warm water is run over them for a few minutes to loosen up dirt and grime. Afterward, I soak the elements in warm water and dish soap. The soaking time can range from a couple of hours to overnight, depending on how filthy they were to begin with. There are some parts that don't get rinsed or soaked, however. During the sifting session, I typically do some light pre-sorting, putting standard bricks, sloped parts, flat plate parts, and everything else into four respective containers. Parts with stickers, metallic and chromed elements, and anything electrical are set aside, and are usually dabbed with a sponge to get them clean. After soaking, I rinse thoroughly for a good 20 minutes or so with cold water, and lay the elements out on a towel with fans blowing on them. Drying usually takes at least about 48 hours.

3. Sorting

Sorting is the third, and easily the most time consuming, of the initial steps. Sorting LEGO elements is a much-discussed topic among AFOLs. There are debates on what methods work best, what types of containers to use, and how finely sorted the parts should be in the long run. The size of one's collection is generally the determining factor for all of those variables, however. In my case, I typically sort regular bricks, slopes, and plates by color, with smaller elements being broken away from the larger ones. Other elements get broken down by color, function, size, shape, or scarcity. There's no real standard on how it's broken down in my own collection, and it's constantly evolving. Occasionally, when a certain bin gets too full, the elements in that bin are split up and sorted in three or four different bins. And sometimes, when those bins get too full, the same happens with them, or ironically, get recombined back into a larger bin than they all began in. Acquiring containers to keep your LEGO elements in can be almost as costly as acquiring the actual LEGO itself. Larger and more common elements are generally kept in plastic drawers of varying sizes, while smaller and more unusual elements are usually kept in bead-sorting containers with small compartments that can be easily rifled through. Sorting can be quite a chore, though. A large acquisition may require a few good weekends' worth of work in order to get everything squared away. Many AFOLs with large collections spend so much time sorting their collection that they find themselves limited in their actual time building things with them. A frequent joke I have found myself making is that my hobby is actually sorting LEGO, not building with it.

But being a grown-up LEGO fan, despite all the hard work that goes into it, is still a rewarding hobby. There's something to be said about learning that new building technique, or the excitement of finding that exclusive minifigure, or discovering a use for a part that you thought was completely worthless before. And when that creation of yours goes online and winds up receiving scads of positive feedback, the amount of time you put into it makes it all worthwhile.

So yes, my name is Gnoll, and I am indeed an AFOL. And while that may or may not be pronounced "awful", perhaps it should be. Because a lot of us AFOLs go through an awful lot of work just so that we can get a chance to play. 

-Gnoll

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