My son sees treasure in every bit of trash

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My 4-YEAR-OLD son, Paul, collects everything. He collects leaves and pine cones. He gathers sticks and pebbles. He hoards bottle caps and dead bugs.

One of the reasons Paul collects so many things is that he was taught the concept of recycling by his preschool teachers – and for that I will never forgive them. He believes so strongly in recycling that we are no longer allowed to throw anything away.

Paul has mastered the premise that recycling means making something into something else. But he has trouble with the concept that the "something else" should be more than a plastic juice bottle glued to an empty tissue box.

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"Look, Dad!" he says, "I recycled these!"

"What is it?" I ask cautiously. The last time Paul recycled something, I became the proud owner of a popsicle-stick, used adhesive-bandage tie clip.

"Can't you tell?" he asks, rolling his eyes. "It's a juice bottle glued to a box." He holds up an object that looks like the Stanley Cup Trophy, if it were co-sponsored by Gerber and Kleenex.

"What will you do with it?" I inquire nervously.

"I'll put it right here, on the kitchen table, so everyone can see it," he says, beaming.

Now we have the Gerber/Kleenex Stanley Cup for a centerpiece. I look on the bright side and imagine that I'm eating dinner in Wayne Gretzky's dining room.

Paul's recycling is getting to be a problem. Paul is to empty paper-towel- roll tubes what Imelda Marcos is to shoes.

We have so many paper-towel-roll tubes that, if you put them end to end, a gerbil could run from our house in Ohio to Brazil without ever seeing daylight. I could prove it, too, but Paul won't let me touch his collection.

I wouldn't mind the paper-towel-roll tube collecting so much if Paul waited until all the towels had been used before taking the tube. The way he shucks off the sheets, he must think they're just packaging to keep the cardboard tube from being damaged.

As I consider the possibility of using the Stanley Cup centerpiece as a vase, Paul takes a plastic shopping bag and "recycles" it by slipping his arms through the handle holes so that the bag is on his back.

"Look, Dad! I'm Buzz Lightyear!" he shouts, flying around the room with a plastic bag for a rocket pack. I look for the silver lining: Maybe he can find a job doing wardrobe for low-budget movies. I'll also save $50 on his birthday present by giving him a brown paper bag and telling him it's a Woody-the-cowboy costume.

If Paul doesn't have an immediate use for an item, he hides it in one of his many lock boxes. Hey, if it's good enough to hold the Social Security Trust Fund, it's good enough for old buttons, pieces of string, and expired grocery-store coupons. (Some economists predict that Paul's collection of expired coupons may be worth more than the Social Security Trust Fund in a few years.)

While most of Paul's recycling collections consist of ordinary household items, he does have some treasures. "Treasures" are items that have been processed by our automatic treasuremaking machine. You place any ordinary object in the hole in the top, press the "start" button, wait 20 minutes, and the object magically transforms into a priceless bauble.

Our treasure-making machine washes clothes, too. Very convenient.

I'm getting used to the concept that what is garbage to me is beautiful to Paul. As the saying goes, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Or, in Paul's case, "Beauty is in the eye of the paper-towel-roll tube holder."

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