When Ty Inc., maker of Beanie Babies, announced last month that it would “retire” every animal in its plush menagerie at the end of the year, a lot of serious collectors threw a fit. Assuming this meant the end of Beanies altogether, they wrote infuriated messages to each other on the Ty Web site, wailed to newspapers reporting the cryptic announcement, and immediately started hoarding Beanies in preparation for a Y2K Beanie disaster.
Most of the serious toy collectors in the world are adults, of course, who ought to be beyond throwing tantrums. But to read newspaper accounts of their outrage, you’d think Ty had announced it was bringing out a black bear named Adolph, emblazoned with a swastika, just in time for Hanukkah. The kids, for whom toys are ostensibly made, mainly shrugged. Then they headed outside to trade Pokemon cards.
At our house, we learned the latest news from the toy gods by way of our newly reading 7-year-old. “What’s R-E-T-I-R-E-D spell?” he asked, looking at a brief article on the front page of the business section of The New York Times, which happened to be on the table next to his bowl of breakfast cereal. “This thing says that all Beanie Babies are going to be R-E-T-I-R-E-D on Dec. 31.”
“When something is retired, it’s removed from service,” I explained. “I think it means there aren’t going to be any more Beanie Babies.”
“Oh,” he said.
That one word was the sum total of his response. Then he fell into a fit of giggles when his baby brother tossed a bit of scrambled egg off the high chair tray and hit the dog on the head with it.
I didn’t expect a tantrummy 7-year-old routinely behaves with better grace than many adults you read about in the newspaperbut the kid has a personal collection of Beanie Babies several dozen strong, and it seemed to me that a small display of nostalgia was in order. A moment of reflective silence, at least. Instead, he finished his breakfast, set his bowl in the sink, and went down the hall to brush his teeth.
I sure felt nostalgic. For nearly three years, Beanie Babies have been the source of great childish joy at this house. Not as collectibles, but as toys. Unlike most contemporary toys, Beanies don’t come with a preordained, adult-determined use. You don’t insert batteries, turn them on, and watch them do whatever some techno-head toy inventor decided it would be cool for them to do. A kid has to make up a game to play with a Beanie Baby.
Over the years, my children have invented entire classes of Beanie diversions, each with an almost limitless set of subclasses. For example:
Beanie Warfare: Probably the most popular Beanie activity at our house, this game transforms Beanie Babies into projectilesbombs, bullets, and heat-seeking missiles that can make it down the length of a ranch-house hall and bop an unsuspecting brother in the head when he’s not even in the same room.
Beanieball: Similar to Beanie warfare, this game also involves airborne animals. Some kinds of Beanieball are predictable: Basketbeanies, for instance, merely entails slam-dunking a stuffed bear through a Nerf basketball hoop. But others are more elaborate, involving distance and nuance (“Five extra points if Velvet hits the aquarium but doesn’t fall in”) and a delicate sense of balance. My oldest son once managed to toss six different Beanies to the top of a curtain rod where they sprawled, undignified but balanced, until the seventh throw knocked them all to the floor.
Beanie Apparel: Just like the peddler in Caps for Sale, my kids sometimes attempt to walk from one end of the house to the other wearing half a dozen Beanies stacked on top of their heads. Or one of them will casually drape a favorite Beanie across his shoulder and carry it around all day, parrot-style. Once in a while, the older boys can persuade the toddler to lie down and hold still long enough for them to swathe him with the entire Beanie collection, the beanbag equivalent of burying a sunbather in the sand. When they call me to come and look, I have to peer closely to find their baby brother’s smiling face; for a moment he blends like E.T. into the happy fake-animal crowd.
Beanie Academy: One of our preschooler’s favorite activities is to line up all the Beanie Babies across the foot of his bed where they sit, rapt, as he “reads” them a book. Discourteous Beaniesthose who disrupt the story or speak out of turnare sternly sent to the time-out chair.
Beanie Amulets: Our children sleep on one side of the house while their father and I sleep in a room at the opposite end. It’s a 1,500-square-foot house, a tiny house in which a parent can be at a child’s bedside in approximately eight striding steps. Even so, at night this distance worries our children; there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of shadows between them and us. To a wakeful child, Beanie Babies make good talismans against the dangers of the dark. Their gaze is kind and reassuring, and their soft moldable bodies fit perfectly in the crook of a small elbow. What better companion in the cold, huge darkness than the warmth of a soft plush tiger?
And that’s why, more than anything else, I mourn the passing of the Beanie heyday. My oldest boy has moved on to the next collecting fad with just as much passion as any other kid half-alert to popular culture, but I don’t mind too much that right now he’s spending all his allowance rabidly collecting Pokemon cards. In the end, I think he’ll learn something that the collectibles-obsessed adults will never notice: If you can’t play with it, and if you can’t cuddle with it when you’re lonesome or frightened, it’s a sorry excuse for a toy.