The Rockwood Files: Seeing the lite (brite)

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

I walked into a children’s museum recently and saw something that made me instantly happy. On one wall was a giant version of one of the best toys of all time – the Lite-Brite. I rushed over to pick up a giant plastic peg, put it into one of the round holes on the black wall, and watched it light up in a brilliant red. “Yes!” I said as I stood back to marvel at the sheer size of it. I was suddenly awash in every good childhood memory from the 1980s.

The Lite-Brite was invented in the late 60s, and its simplicity was also its genius – a light bulb inside a plastic box with a grid on one side. You attach black paper to the grid and use brightly-colored, plastic pegs to push through the black paper and into the small holes of the grid. The peg would instantly glow a bright color against the inky black background. And there was something inherently satisfying about pushing that peg into place. It’s a little like that rush you get when you pop a pocket of air on a sheet of bubble wrap.

I think my mother liked the Lite-Brite, too, because I could sit quietly in front of it for hours – methodically inserting pegs into the pre-patterned black paper which showed where to put each one. While Mom folded laundry and watched J.R. and Sue Ellen argue on the show Dallas, I’d sit in the floor with the Lite-Brite, creating pictures of flowers, sailboats or Scooby Doo.

The only time she didn’t like the Lite-Brite was when she vacuumed the carpet. Mothers are nervous creatures, by nature, and a handful of plastic pegs being sucked up through an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner makes the same sound as a machine gun attack in the living room. (Lucky for me, the store sold refills of plastic pegs.)

What I loved about the Lite Brite was the same thing I loved about another famous toy from the same decade – the Spirograph. For someone who draws barely recognizable stick figures, the Spirograph was like magic. It let even the most un-artistic kid create intricate designs. All I had to do was take the plastic ring and plastic disc with holes in it, put a pen into one of those holes, and move the serrated disc around the interior of the ring.

When I chose a random hole on the disc, I had no idea what the design would look like. But if I was patient and steady as I moved the disc around the ring over and over, the lines would eventually take shape, intersect and make something incredible.

Just like the Lite-Brite, the Spirograph allows us to make something from nothing. A blank slate suddenly becomes an amazing pattern of shapes and colors, and all you have to do is keep your hand moving – or keep pushing round pegs into round holes – and have faith that the end result will make sense.

Maybe the best toys are the ones that fulfill a need we’re all born with – the need to create, to poke through the darkness and find the light, to make sense out of what often seems like a chaotic world.

With the messiness of this year’s election intensifying by the hour, I needed that visit to the museum and its giant Lite-Brite wall. I needed something to make sense again, something beautiful to give me a break from a political landscape that’s uglier than ever.

For the next few weeks (or until the madness is finally over) maybe we should put in ear plugs and drag out our old Spirograph set. Either that, or you can meet me at the giant Lite-Brite wall. I’ll save some pegs for you.

gwen-headshot-2014Gwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.