and I quote

febuary 2009

click here for permalink February 21, 2009

Parisian BarbieShe made the most of those first five years; bonding, bestowing her wisdom and setting a good example as my de facto female role model, before the inevitable day arrived when I first laid eyes on Barbie.

Barbie 1959My mother was about the same age in 1959, in the final days of the beauty- and conformity-obsessed decade when Barbie was "born." With her heavy-lidded eyes and unsmiling red pout, she was a thinly Americanized version of a doll who was based on a German comic strip about a gold-digging sexpot named Lilli. Barbie, with those ballistic missile breasts and a waist so tiny it seemed to mock the very mechanisms of puberty, was supposed to offer young girls an "alternative" to playing with baby dolls and practicing to be mommies from birth.

MarilynMy mother had scorned both options, choosing instead to channel her youthful energy into ballet. In the 1960s she was a flower child, singing and writing music at the heart of the hippie scene in San Francisco. In the 70s she became a mother, then a single mother — but, having always been a feminist, she was also attending medical school, making her own clothes as well as mine, and turning our backyard into an herb and vegetable garden.

So of course I knew that it was with the very best of intentions that she resisted at first, trying to talk me out of my growing infatuation with a certain dangerous blonde piece of plastic. But I was undaunted and fortified with an eerie intensity by my single-minded obsession, like those scary little zealots from Jesus Camp.

RupaulI embarked on a shameless campaign of begging and bargaining. It took all my powers of persuasion and reason, everything I had learned in my brief five years on earth, to convince her that Barbie's influence on me would be benevolent — at least that's how I remember it. My mother's recollection of our first battle of wills and how it eventually played out might differ slightly — but in the end, I named my first Malibu Barbie after her, the most beautiful woman in the whole world. To this, my mother rolls her eyes (and I'm not sure whether I'm remembering her doing it back then or if I'm psychically seeing her do it right now — but most likely both).

HD BarbieHaving reached this unavoidable milestone as mother and daughter, we would next be plunged headlong into territory that, although new to us, was not exactly uncharted — in fact, it was growing more populous every day; and every step of the way would prove, not just for my mother but for an entire generation, to be a veritable minefield for the well-intentioned parent (and a veritable goldmine for Mattel).


MadonnaYes indeed, it was a minefield paved with gold and it branched out in all directions, stretching off into the distance, a four-lane highway that reached everywhere, bumper to bumper with pink convertibles, porsche roadsters and corvette stingrays as far as the eye could see. And the roads were lined with townhouses, three floors of high-style city living with an elevator built for two. But variety is the spice of life and it's a life of luxury so pretty soon there are dream houses from coast to coast, sprawling across bedroom floors and back porches — and little girls' rooms up in Boston look just like little girls' rooms down in Baja. Next thing you know, every one has to have a swimming pool, then a hair salon and an ice cream parlor — and don't forget stables for all those horses and the sheepdog. Sold separately, but each one comes with accessories and styling tools so you can brush their manes, braid their tails, put barrettes in their hair and then make your hair look pretty too. There's a car wash, a foaming bath and a doggy day spa — they're all sharing a dedicated water supply — and, on the floor of the closet, a Harley is parked on the roof of the tour bus that belongs to the band. They play on a stage that converts to a wardrobe which folds out to display all their clothes between shows.


Moon MysticWhen I was seven years old, my mother and grandmother started going to doll collector shows, where they displayed samples and took orders for custom portrait dolls. People could order dolls that looked like themselves or like anyone, dressed up in miniature versions of their real clothes or in costumes from any historical period or fantasy they wanted.

Sometimes they brought me along and I would spend the entire day walking up and down the aisles in absolute awe, gaping up at the displays. These were some seriously hard core, obsessive collectors; thousands of grown women who actually made a living buying, selling and knowing everything there was to know about dolls. I hope it was some consolation to my mother that, even to my impressionable Barbie-loving young mind, it was clear that most of them were crazy.

Sun SpellWe went to this one show when I was eight where they had two of the coolest dolls I had ever seen. They were totally out of our price range and already being classified as "rare and hard to find," but after all this time I've never forgotten about them. I've tried searching for them online a few times, only to give up after spending hours hunched over in frustration. So imagine my surprise today when, in the midst of some entirely different wild goose chase, I found myself staring right at them.

(Click to see full size.)

Eve KittenBarbie collecting has always had a distinctly addictive quality about it. Maybe it was something about that particular shade of pink. It imbedded itself in your brain's reward centers and got reinforced every time you tore open a present on your birthday or at Christmas and discovered a bright pink box inside.

I still can't walk into a toy store without making a beeline for the Barbie aisle, regardless of whatever other mission I might have been on. At which point, depending on the store and the time of year, I could be there for a very long time (if it's Toys 'R' Us, let's say, in early December, you'll probably have to go on without me).

Angelic DreamzLooking back on all this stuff, what amazes me the most is not so much that my tastes have apparently evolved very little if at all since adolescence — after all, most of the grown men I know still play video games — no, the really sick part is that Barbies, and the legions of imitators she's inspired, are so much cooler now than they were when I was a kid — and they just keep getting better.

Check out the Barbie store at Angelic — then, if you can handle it, take a peek at Tonner Dolls and the Fashion Royalty collections and you'll see what I mean. Some of these dolls are so ridiculously beautiful that looking at them makes your teeth hurt, you know? I mean, in a purely benevolent way.


click here for permalink February 3, 2009

Do you remember the first book you ever read? I know from family lore that one of the first books ever read to me was The Elves and the Shoemaker because my father says he used to read it to me and, if he thought I had fallen asleep, he would try to skip ahead to the end but I had it memorized so I would always catch him and make him go back and read the whole thing.

I also remember him reading something to me that was like a "My First Science Book," that went through all the basic sciences to teach kids about things like the earth being a planet and how plants grow and all about the animal kingdom. In fact, I believe this book was the source of a mental picture I still carry around with me to this day, of a cross-section of the ocean and all its inhabitants, graduating in size from the tiny fishes and crabs near the shore, down to the very bottom which was home to horrible, enormous things like the giant squid and blue whale. At the top of the page, a wavy line indicated the deceptively placid surface of the water, on which a tiny boat floated blissfully unaware of the untold multitudes of creatures populating every gallon of the darkness below.

Island of the Blue DolphinsThe first book I can actually remember reading on my own is Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell. I must have been in the first or second grade when I read it for the first time because I have a vague memory of my mother reading aloud from the sequel during our trip from Seattle to Arizona which took place at the beginning of my third grade school year. I can also remember taking advantage of being in a new school by reading the book again the following year when the first reading assignment came up — there may even have been a shoe box diorama involved that time around, featuring a shipwrecked Barbie in a handmade "seal-skin" cape.

Wrinkle in TimeSomewhere around that time I started reading the series of books by Madeleine L'Engle that began with A Wrinkle in Time and included A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. A lot of kids in my class were reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that year but the C.S. Lewis series carried a warning label of religious propaganda so I steered clear, preferring L'Engle's strange tales of time travel wherein the battle of good versus evil was set against a backdrop of esoteric science and liberal political ideals. In retrospect, it seems to me that these books were clearly intended to spark children's curiosity about science — especially among the girls — ideally paving the way to greater interest and better performance in science classes and, eventually, to an increased number of graduates embarking on careers in the sciences.

In fact, this isn't such a far-fetched theory; A Wrinkle in Time was first published in 1962, right in the middle of the US/USSR "space race" and national paranoia about the perceived "missile gap." The government was pushing to improve science scores among public school students, a goal that could easily have influenced the book publishing industry — although she was famously rejected 26 times before finding a publisher for the book. Unfortunately, even by the time I read it two decades later, the typical North American elementary school science curriculum, to say nothing of the coincidental intervention of puberty, did little to support the growth of the seed planted with the best of intentions by Ms. L'Engle.

"A theme often implied and occasionally explicit in L'Engle's works is that the phenomena that people call religion, science and magic are simply different aspects of a single seamless reality." (Wikipedia)

FirestarterIn fifth grade, I changed schools three times so whatever reading assignments there may have been are lost among more persistent memories, like the long, early morning school bus rides through the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, and friends whose names and faces I can still recall with clarity even though our friendships only lasted a few months. One thing I remember distinctly is sitting at my desk in the second of the three schools, holding a weather-beaten copy of Stephen King's Firestarter in my hands, its pages thick and brittle from water damage and its spine permanently bent in a deep curve. It was a long book, as King's better novels tend to be, and I got at least a third of the way through before I started to skim. I was determined to reach the end before we moved again so I wouldn't have to return it to the school library unfinished.

After that, I tore through Carrie, Christine and Cujo, The Dead Zone and Thinner before my Stephen King fascination started to wane; I think he lost me somewhere around the middle of Pet Sematary. Shortly after that, I took a three-year detour into the world of historical romance novels, to which I give partial credit for my consistently high grades in US History, a class in which my retention of the subject matter might otherwise have fluctuated in proportion to any given teacher's charisma, or lack thereof.

I can't remember the first non-fiction book I read by choice, although it was very likely a biography of Marilyn Monroe or Lana Turner. I can still vaguely see the friend who recommended the latter to me, standing in the kitchen of his parents' house reading out loud from the chapter where the daughter intervenes in a fight and ends up killing Lana's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato (such passages are like catnip to the typical teenage reader). It has probably been more than a decade since the last time I read a novel but there are still a few notable works of fiction on my "to read" list, like Catcher in the Rye, which I somehow missed when everyone else was reading it in school (I was probably between schools).

Right now, I'm on the waiting list for the library's first available copy of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, as well as others by Simon Schama and Nassim Taleb. All my "to reads" these days are non-fiction, as many in audio book format as I can find, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that the library not only makes it easy to search for and reserve books that fit the criteria, they also make it free. It's a good thing that an obsession with reading books the second they're published is one of the few forms my impatience doesn't take.