April 27, 2010

A Room of One's Own (Redux)

Perhaps this bears repeating: the Barbie Dream House was not my dream present. But after forgiving Santa for not bringing Color Magic Barbie instead, and after all the Slot As had been inserted into their Slot Bs, I came around. Mostly because--although I couldn't have articulated this as a child--Barbie had independence and autonomy and a place of her own.

It would take me nearly twenty more years to achieve independence and autonomy and a place of my own. And even then my dad tried to tell me I couldn't afford to move out. Turns out he was right, but I was determined and/or stubborn and rented a small, cheap efficiency.

That little apartment held all the worldly goods I couldn't live without (or leave at mom and dad's)--bed, desk, dresser, TV, stereo, bookcase, couch--and not much else. A partition--fabricated from 2x4s and a single sheet of PVC by the previous tenant, and left intact at my request--bifurcated the apartment's one room and created a sleeping alcove just large enough for my childhood twin bed and a third-hand dresser. The kitchen, surprisingly roomy, sported full-size appliances and a fair amount of counter space, but no window over the sink. I promptly stuck up a poster my best friend had given me for my sixteenth birthday--a rainbow arching over Victoria Falls, as seen through a window. Curtains and a hanging pot of aloe vera (verra good for burns) completed the illusion that the apartment contained more than one window.

Barbie had fake windows, too. Come to think of it, the whole place was a lot like Barbie's Dream House.

April 20, 2010

A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf  famously (and long-windedly) said, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

All I ever wanted, even before I started writing, was a space of my own, something inviolable that belonged to only me. I shared a bedroom with my little brother for six-almost-seven years, and when my older brother married, went from the twin beds of babyhood to the big girl world of a double bed and a huge dresser that held only my clothes. Santa brought a bookcase that year. Books and a door behind which to store them: What riches.

Still, the space was not all mine: Mom dictated when the sheets were changed, when I cleaned and what constituted "done," and even when I could read. (Not at all after bedtime, whether by flashlight, the glow of the streetlight in the alley between Warrington and Livernois, or the fading twilight of an early bedtime on a long summer night.) There was no place where my wishes and desires, however small, were not summarily overruled.

Barbie, on the other hand, had a whole house to herself.  There, within its cardboard walls, Barbie had everything she wanted. (As long as she didn't need to eat or pee.)  No one but me could tell her what to do or when she couldn't read.

April 13, 2010

It's Complicated

I am not a Barbie collector, a Barbie fanatic, or a Barbie abuser. But I read. I hear things. Tales of dolls kidnapped, barbecued, and blown up by brothers little and big. Dolls buried in the sands of backyard Iwo Jimas, dolls as target-practice stand-ins for the Germans of WWII. The most common mistreatment occurs at the hands of the seemingly-fond owners: the shearing of the locks. Almost every woman I know speaks, with a mixture of shame and pride, of cutting her dolls' hair. I never did that.

I never overtly mistreated my dolls; I do have a story, however, in which the child narrator kicks and punches her Barbie Dream House in an attempt to alleviate my -- I mean her -- mortification at having been caught playing with it by the Popular Girls who, although chronologically my age (alright, yes, it was me), were years ahead by maturity's reckoning. I suspect I still haven't caught up.

That event became, through the alchemy of time and perspective, the inspiration for my first adult-written short story, an essay, the title piece of my graduate school thesis, and the name of this blog. Clearly, Barbie holds significance for me,  certainly she shows up in my writing. Perhaps it is easier to bare imperfections under the solidarity of common experiences: a shared spotlight turns glare into glow. As little girls we played with dolls, exploring our selves as we shared wardrobes and dream houses, taking readings from each other: does this dream make me sound crazy? What if I were to do or say this, would you still like me? We tried on attitudes and attributes, rehearsed, repeated, ad-libbed our futures.

Sometimes I wonder when I'll give up writing about Barbie -- it was all so long ago -- and yet I think there's a deeper meaning to be mined and illuminated, real value in providing a reflective surface for others who might see themselves in my memories. Sometimes, as writers, we need to proffer our own moments of darkness, however tiny and seemingly-insignificant, so that what really matters becomes clear in the contrast. Insights, no matter how long, long ago the initial event, can lead to a sort of rebirth, a peeling away of a no-longer-needed armor.

April 6, 2010

Happy Belated Birthday, Barbie

April 6, 2010

Dear Barbie,

I missed your birthday.

Someone even told me it was coming, but I guess March 9 is not nearly as memorable as, say, my own birthday. Besides, fifty-one is not nearly so earth-shattering as fifty, which is clickety-clacking toward me like a train on a steep grade.

I would ask what the view is like from the top of the hill, except that I doubt one can see clearly through plastic. (Which, come to think of it, is why I gave up contacts. Twice.) At any rate, your view, however configured, would no doubt differ from mine. You seem to have escaped the indignities suffered by women constructed from more organic materials. No sagging jaw lines, spreading bottoms, or wheezing metabolisms for you, my girl. No wildly inappropriate temperature swings, no doctors who look twelve and whose sentences begin with, “Now, Ms. Simpson, a woman your age…” You can still dress like a teenager and no one, least of all you, bats an eye. On the other hand, no one is much impressed that you can still fit into your wedding dress/skinny jeans/cheerleading uniform, so maybe there are some trade-offs, after all.

Do I sound bitter? Perhaps I am, a little. It does seem a bit unfair that real girls are overtaken by raging hormones at both ends of the childbearing decades, and from where I sit, your life looks pretty easy.

You never had to change schools or leave a beloved house behind – we just took the Barbie Dream House and all your friends with us, from Mendota to Warrington to Luther Drive. You got every job you wanted, zooming right by entry-level to upper management, passing GO every time. Every day may as well have been payday. I bet you never had your electricity turned off because there was a one-day gap between the this-time-we-mean-it notice and the day your paycheck cleared, or that, when you went down to the office the next day to have your power restored, it was the mother of a high-school crush who waited on you so graciously and so completely free of judgment.

I have often been guilty of the sin of envy where you are concerned, until someone pointed out that while Barbie never learned to stand on her own two feet, Barbara did – even if those feet were sometimes in the dark, or awash in ice melt from a leaking soft drink cooler in the goody wagon some kids locked her in during the Salem Days festival.

The friend who reminded me of your birthday asked me how I felt about you. “I can’t tell from your writing,” she said. Fair enough. I guess I would have to say, “It’s complicated.”

I do feel as if I suffer in comparison with you. Ah, but then who, exactly, is doing the comparing?