Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An American Girl

(This is a photograph that Abigail took with my iphone, of a page from the American Girl catalog. It is just one of a series of, oh, like 300 that she took over the course of the year.)

Well she was an American girl / Raised on promises. She couldn't help thinkin' / that there was a little more to life /somewhere else.
After all it was a great big world / with lots of places to run to…

Perhaps it's bad karma to let Tom Petty's anthem to wasted youth waft through one's brain while wandering the American Girl store in midtown Manhattan. It's certainly a recipe for cognitive dissonance. But then again, it's hard to imagine somebody like me feeling any kind of straightforward emotion in a place like that.

I got Abigail and myself there just as the store opened last Friday morning. I had assumed that we would have the place pretty much to ourselves, since even the private schools hadn't yet released their students for summer vacation. But the place was humming with adorable little girls clutching their adorable dolls. Each (live) American girl was tended and buzzed around by at least one beautifully, expensively, conventionally-dressed adult. Often a child would be surrounded by as many as three or four grownups, all cooing and oohing and ahhing over her and the toys.

I liked all the girls. I'm a teacher, after all. To me, just about any kid is like a beautifully wrapped package filled with dreams. I will admit that I even liked the dolls. I particularly liked watching Abigail scamper from room to room seeking out all the stuff she had been lusting for in the catalog she toted to French school for months.

Still, I wasn't so sure about all those other fancy-pants grownups spoiling their kids. As happy as I am to be back in America, with two happy kids, the jury is still out for me on how I feel about all those other people with whom I'm sharing a nation. I love my family, my friends, and the random strangers filling up the streets and avenues of my city.

But I'm just not so crazy about the species of Homo Shoppus Americus -- that bloated desire-balloon armed with a credit card itching to be swiped. I like walking down the streets with my fellow Americans. I just don't like the way they (we) turn into salivating idiots when given the chance to buy things.

For some reason, Abigail's desire for American Girl dolls (or even my own) struck me as wholly deserving and lovely. The poor kid had gone months away from her home. She got herself through the rough patches by re-photographing just about every item for sale in the catalog. Now was her time to be a kid. But everybody else there seemed gripped by less lofty emotions. You know, like wanting to buy things like happiness and joy. (I know, I know. Crazy talking here.)

Why should I be so cranky and conflicted about something as wholesome as American Girl? If the looks on the faces of the other patrons were to be believed, American Girl Place is a paradise of girlhood. A secular temple to all things doll. It is sweet and innocent, tasteful and adorable, and you can even have a prix fixe lunch there for only $24.00 a head (pink lemonade, kid-friendly apps, and a tiny chocolate mousse included.)

So why the trouble, Ms. Conflicted Pants? Well, when I wasn't following Abigail, or checking email on my iphone, or singing Tom Petty under my breath, I came up with the reason.

It's because American Girl Place organizes, displays, and puts a (hefty) price tag on a set of products that tap deeply into the raw ingredients of my own psyche: American History. Beauty. Money. Desire. Order. Motherhood. Girlhood. Independence. Houses. Stuff. A place like the Nintendo store is just as commercial, just as packaged. But it doesn't get to me. American Girl hits me where I live. Abigail and I? We learned this year that we're both American Girls, bigtime. Defiantly so.

I've been to the store before, and here is how it always plays out. We do a little vague wandering, and end up in the fantasy room of dolls with plucky, perky American-History backstories. There is Felicity, the Colonial-Era girl who dares to tame a mean neighbor's horse, and Addy the courageous escaped slave girl, and Rebecca the spunky New York Girl with the toy menorah and all the cool Progressive-Era clothing.

But then, just as soon as I get a little frisson of pleasure in gazing at the neatly ordered fantasy-world of Kit, Depression-Era Girl Reporter -- and all of her related products tidily arrayed behind plate glass -- I am hit by the ask.

"Mom, I really really really want Kit's typewriter" (which, as I have already noticed, is sold with a totally awesome historically-accurate tiny newspaper in a gingham-covered box.) I'm totally taken with the item already, but being the kind of devil-mother I am, I shoot out a reflexive "No!" even before scrutinizing the box for a price ($24.00 for the two small pieces. Add that to our lunches, and we're already approaching ridiculous.)

But then, realizing that my reflexive answer has been unreasonable, I have to weigh all these complicated factors, at a nearly subconscious level.

On Money: Is it worth it?

On Order: Will she lose all the adorable little pieces?

On Girlhood: Does it set a good example for her fantasy play?

On History: Isn't it cool that she wants a historically accurate typewriter?

On Desire (mine): Shouldn't we gaze longingly at every single other possible American Girl accessory item in the entire store before we get our hearts set on this one?

On Houses: Maybe we should get the awesome treehouse as well?

On Existential Dread: Why am I even here in this store in the first place?

My final answers to these questions this time around were, if you're wondering, No, Yes, Yes, Yes, No, No. And then, on the more open-ended question of why I was there in the first place, I will again quote Tom Petty. In this case, the American Girl was me, and she had one little promise she was gonna keep.

Because (as you may recall) this trip to the core of American Girlhood was the result of a particularly desperate bribe. Once she realized that things weren't going to get better for her, yet she was still facing the prospect of several months of French school attendance, Abigail started digging in her heels. Realizing that I'd have to pull out the big guns to keep her walking to le portail, I promised that upon our return, we'd head straight to American Girl Place and find a whole bunch of deeply American things to buy. The trip last week was one American Girl keeping her promise to another.

Go ahead, frown on my judgment if you will. But if this kind of harmless-enough bribe sounds bad to you, presumably you haven't been awfully happy about my other parental antics of late.

Since we're friends here, I hope you won't mind my embarrassing myself even further. I feel the need to admit to you that just behind my feelings of distaste and confusion in the face of all that commerce, I was really, weirdly moved by it all. It sounds ridiculous, but the way those toys evoked the perky, plucky backstories of generations of spirited girls kept tugging at my heart. I'm the kind of person who occasionally weeps at Hallmark commercials, and always weeps at sappy underdog stories. So watching all the real girls look up to their pluckier, historically accurate doll counterparts just made me all misty in ways I can't even start to explain.

As much as the people and the prices and the perfectly dressed suburban parents made me cringe on one level, I must admit how much I liked seeing the little girls, and all the dolls and their overpriced stuff. I loved seeing Abigail so darn happy, and relished the opportunity to practice saying yes more than I said no.

All the yeses we gave each other that day felt so good. The yes to the chicken tenders at lunch, and the yes to the typewriter. Yes even to a hairstyling kit, and believe it or not a 1930's style washtub, drying rack and ironing board. (For the record: I do not even own a real ironing board.)

I had dragged her all that way and back. I had raised her on promises and then finally gave her the keys to the kingdom. We had both earned our share of Yes, even if the yes for me was just a reminder to chill out and go along for the ride.

For, as Tom kept reminding me on that tapeloop in my head:

God its so painful
Something that's so close
And still so far out of reach

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