March 9, 2011

Happy Barbie Day

My friend Beth reminded me that today is Barbie's birthday. She told me that she hadn't known that Barbie owed her existence to Bild Lilli, a voluptuous German doll sold mostly in smoke shops and toy stores, a gag gift for adult males, whose inspiration, a comic-strip character named Lilli was, as your grandmother might have said, no better than she should have been.

Beth went on to say, "Barbie has done all right for herself though, evolved into such different expressions: mother, working woman, president even. Although I think she still retains that part of her. I see it in my granddaughter's Barbies, who are forever naked, hair a frizzy, frazzled mess, covered with ink pen tattoos. There are three of them (one is a knockoff and not a real Barbie) but they get together most every night in the bath tub and they swim and they hug and seem to have a good time and not judge themselves too harshly."

Ken doesn't seem to have judged Barbie harshly, either: he recently launched a social media campaign to win her back. (They broke up on Valentine's Day 2004.) Apparently all his Facebooking, Twittering, Foursquaring and YouTubing paid off, and now it's official: Barbie and Ken are back together again. Take that, Bild Lilli!

I wonder what Ken gave her for her birthday.

November 24, 2010

And Then I Didn't

I think I mentioned that I bought a Barbie Dream House on eBay. The original 1962 model, just like the one I had as a kid. Not to play with. To write about. Really. Perhaps the italics have given you the wrong idea, but here's the truth: I had a Barbie Dream House, and then I didn't. I used to write, and then I didn't. Ah, but as a kid I wrote all the time. Wrote wrote wrote wrote wrote. Stories, plays, poems. Teachers awarded As. Classmates read avidly. My father corrected my spelling.

Was I good? Hard to say, though I've kept every scrap. The more important question is: Did I love it? Yes. I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. But I didn't. Not good enough, talented enough, dedicated brave strong confident stubborn defiant crazy driven enough. When I came back to writing nine years ago, it was no longer fun or easy. My fingers no longer itched when they'd been too long away from a pen and a few sheets of notebook paper. I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be. I had no ideas, period, and relied on exercises and prompts to get me started.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg preaches the power and efficacy of what she calls writing practice--writing in response to a prompt for five or ten or fifteen minutes during which you don't stop to think or correct, you don't pass go, and you don't collect $200. You don’t even lift the pen from the page.

For example: write about a favorite toy. Ten minutes. Okay, go.

No, stop. What was my favorite toy? No idea. Well, let's see: my bike, roller skates, a baby doll named Jeanie, a teddy bear whose name changed depending on which one of my siblings claimed ownership, Barbie, the Barbie Dream House, COLORFORMS--whoa, wait. What was that about the Barbie Dream House? Ah, yes. The Barbie Dream House. I loved the Barbie Dream House. Whatever happened to that? No, seriously, what did happen to it?

It took me several writing sessions to remember the last day I played with it, and—I’ll let Barbie tell you her version of events:

"I was in the midst of a hot date with Ken when the Mom-person came to tell my person that it was time for dinner and that she had to go home. The Friend-person asked the Mom-person if my person could stay for dinner, but the Mom-person said no. (The Mom- and Dad-persons seem to have a lot of power. Especially the Mom-people. What they say goes.) And so my person and I went. She gathered up all of my furniture and stacked it against the back wall of my house. The bed on its side, balanced on the couch, along with the coffee table, the easy chair upturned over the ottoman....well, I don't know how she does it, but she gets it all in there. She takes good care of my stuff and for that I'm grateful.

"She doesn't pull my arms off or cut my hair. Doesn't let her little brother shoot me with his BB gun or blow me up with GI Joe’s bazooka. My friend Skipper’s cousin’s neighbor said she knew some Barbies whose Brother-person stood up in a field with some other dolls so he could pretend he was shooting Germans in WWII, but that might just be an urban legend.) But she does stuff me in my dream house on top of all that furniture, and then SHE LEAVES ME THERE. My back just kills me. One of these days, I'm going to become a chiropractor--or maybe an astronaut. I haven't decided yet. Whatever has the cutest clothes.

"Anyway, on THAT day, which would be--little did I know it--the last good day of my life, my person stuffed me into the house, folded up its walls, and off we went. It was a bumpy ride from the Friend-person's house to my person's house. She acted like I'm HEAVY or something because she kept setting my house down and letting out these big sighs. (I'd have been insulted if it weren't for my svelte, buxom figure, which I just know will still be sexy even when I'm 50.)

"Once, she set me down for a really long time, and I heard voices. Girl voices, and boys laughing. My person didn’t say much. And then, really clear, a girl voice said, 'Barbara, do you still play with DOLLS?' Like playing with dolls was a bad thing! Like it was a dirty thing. After that my person picked me up, real rough, like she didn’t care about my safety and comfort, and the ride was worse than it had ever been. She left me for a long time in the dirty, car-smelling garage. A long, long, LONG time. Like, forever."

Barbie exaggerates. It was two years, three tops, before the Barbie Dream House was disposed of in some manner I no longer recall but which most likely involved Goodwill, and Barbie, freed from house arrest, was relocated to the cardboard box that would become her tomb. (It was an accident, I swear.) Writing, shoved into a grimy and unvisited corner of my psyche, languished longer.

Why does this matter? Because I used to write, and then I didn’t. I had a Barbie Dream House, and then I didn’t. I didn’t write, and then I did—and when I did, the Barbie Dream House was one of the first things I wrote about.


October 29, 2010


A friend gave me a magnet that reads: Barbie wants to be ME. It's pink, of course, and yes, there's a heart on it. I thought it hysterically funny. Still do. But I don't believe it. Friends have said (some even publicly, in comments made on blog posts) that Barbie has nothin' on me (aside perhaps from the nifty convertible, the padded resume, and the height), but I don't see it.

What I see: a short, overweight, glasses-wearing middle-aged woman who is also--when she's not spending insane amounts of money to keep from looking 50--going gray.

I read a story the other day (by the fabulous Jo Pilecki, one of my workshop writers and a newly-minted Amherst Writers  & Artists workshop leader) about a woman who bought a special mirror that made her look thin. Of course it would be wonderful to own such a thing, but what if the mirror on the wall reflected who we really are? If we could see ourselves as others see us?

Probably I would avert my eyes--just as I do whenever I stand before the bathroom mirror in the dark, for fear that what I will see there will be as hideous as the vengeful Bloody Mary, whose spirit can be summoned by the triple invocation of her name. For fear that I could never un-see how others see me. (Short, overweight, glasses-wearing, middle-aged, going gray, bossy, self-righteous, judgmental...) 

But what if the magic mirror showed me the good things I don't see: wit, humor, kindness, generosity, intelligence, tolerance, talent. Would I then believe that Barbie wants to be me?

Actually, you know what? Who cares who Barbie wants to be. Who does Barbara want to be?

October 12, 2010

To Whom It May Concern

October 12, 2010
Fear of Being Laughed At
Department of Looking Stupid
Worrying Too Much What Other People Think, Inc.
To whom it may concern:
I am writing to you today regarding a lifetime's subjugation to the fear of looking stupid, sub-catagory: fear of being laughed at. After fifty years, this fear continues to operate as efficiently as if its constituent parts and features--embarrassment, humiliation, exposure, blushes, and, yes, tears--were brand-new. In fact, it sometimes seems that this fear of being laughed at/looking stupid works better now than when first installed.
This is unacceptable.
It is this very reliability that makes the fear of being laughed at/looking stupid a health hazard. Frankly, I'm surprised that you have not already been sued for damages inflicted to self-esteem, ego, and potential. Do you have any idea of the things I have avoided doing because of you? Singing where anyone could hear me. Dancing. Writing. Saying "I love you" when it might have made a difference. Saying "I love you" when it wouldn't have changed a thing.

While we're at it, let's talk about my fear of losing control--kissing cousin to the fear of being laughed at/looking stupid--which requires--requires!--me to be in control at all times. I must avoid any and all situations in which the unexpected might occur. Surprise is anathema.
Thanks to you, someone is always watching. am always watching, always vigilant, always less than I could be, my light perpetually basketed, lest someone find it/me laughable/stupid.
I really must insist that you accept the return of this paralyzing gelotophobia--which, by the way,  I never wanted in the first place. As it was a gift, handed down through countless generations of my family--along both matrilineal and patrilineal lines--I do not have the receipt. Regardless, I feel certain that you will find a way to make restitution.
I look forward to your prompt attention to this matter.
Cross-posted in the Sunset Coast Writers blog.

September 26, 2010

Never a Grandma

My oldest (in terms of how long we've know each other) friend recently announced that she'll be a grandmother early next year, and all I could think was, how could she (and by extension, me) possibly be old enough to have grandchildren? I still remember the day we met, a sweat-sticky afternoon in early August. She was nine. I was almost-nine.

My family had just moved to Georgia. I had met all the other kids on our street, but for some reason I had not yet met Cherie. (She was out of town, or sick, or maybe grounded. I don't remember.) But I had heard about her. Everywhere I went, it seemed, someone would ask her little sister, "Where's Cherie?" And every time, I would think, "Oh, yeah, THAT'S how you say her name--Sure-REE." And then I'd forget again, what, exactly, her name was, only that it was exotic--and that everyone seemed anxious for us to meet, asking, "Have you met Cherie yet?" 

In her absence, she assumed mythic proportions, so that, the day I finally saw her, holding a popsicle with one hand and steering her bicycle in slow circles in front of her house with the other, I was too shy to approach her. She was just that cool. I told myself that I would, you know, just ride BY her on my way to the other end of the street. As I steeled my nerve and pressed my feet harder against the pedals, she braked hard, jerked her handlebars to the right, and leaned over, orange syrup dripping from her chin and running down her arm. And there we were, face to face. We had no choice but to say hello, to become best friends.

Forty-one years later, I still love that little girl, and the woman she grew into. Her news brought both joy and the sudden realization that when my husband and I opted out of PTA and car pools, doctor visits and tantrums, all the challenges and, yes, the sweetness of parenthood, we were also opting out of grandparenthood. I don't know why that came as such a suprise. Not having children was a conscious decision, and it's a decision neither of us regrets. But sometimes I wonder about that particular not-taken road: what kind of parents would we have been? What would our children have been like? Who would WE be, if we had had children? There are no wistful if-onlys in my wonderings, merely speculation.

All of my life I have I lagged behind my friends when it came to rites of passage: drinking, driving, riding a bike, leaving home. I have felt that I didn't know the things that everyone else seemed to know: what to take to the family after a death, how to parallel park, how to throw a party. Eventually, the training wheels came off, I passed my driver's test, I found my first apartment. It's not too late to learn how to entertain, and I can get by without parallel parking. As I approach fifty, I know that I will--like everyone else my age--turn gray, need bifocals, gain weight. I may lose my hearing, my balance, my memory. But I will never wear a puff-paint sweatshirt that says, "Ask me about my grandchildren," or pose in place of honor at my 80th birthday party, and know that many of the people present exist because of me. Sometimes, there's just no way to catch up. 

Take the road less traveled by, or take the first. Either way, the choice will make all the difference.

But you know what? Barbie will never be a grandmother, either.