Monday, July 28, 2008

American Girls

Kate, Heidi, and I made our first trip to the American Girl Doll Store in Chicago two years ago, when Heidi was not quite six. We arrived just after it opened, at nine a.m. It is a vast place, just off Michigan Avenue, near the Water Tower: three stories of dolls and doll accessories! Each of the “official” dolls is named, and has its own story: including that year’s new doll, Jess, who is home-schooled. (Please don’t let her choose that one, I thought.)

The store is a materialist’s delight, packed upscale mothers and daughters. You can buy, it seems…anything. Dozens of outfits (with accessories), starting around $22, going to $50—some are offered in little girl sizes, too. Beds, tents, hammocks, kayaks, strollers, pets, horses, storybooks, jewelry kits, hair care kits. You can have your doll’s hair styled in the styling salon, where grown women style the hair of dolls in a line of made-to-scale beauty shop chairs set on the counter. You can have lunch in the café (we did, @ $20 a pop), where there are special doll seats that hook onto the table and each doll’s place is set with a little black and white striped cup and saucer.

Heidi was overwhelmed. After going through the whole store three times, we looked through the catalogue, Heidi circling the “official” dolls she liked, to try to narrow down the options—and got down to Molly and Elizabeth. We sat on a sofa in the doll showroom, and I got the models from the shelf so that she could hold them, examine their outfits. Molly had a locket that opened, like hers, and a cool red purse. Elizabeth had a pretty princess-like dress. But neither was quite right.

Heidi curled up on the sofa in the fetal position. “I’m sad,” she said. Moaned, actually.

Earlier, we’d looked at and rejected the selections of “do-it-yourself” dolls that are for girls who want dolls that look more like themselves, and/or want to make up their own names and stories. Those have a variety of hair color, length, style; skin tone, and eye color. Now we reconsidered them. There were pictures in the catalogue. One had highlights in her brown hair, kind of like Heidi—and blue eyes. She liked the sound of that. So we went back to the display: all the dolls seated in rows, as if waiting for a class photo, maybe 25 different options. The dolls are all dressed the same (in embroidered jeans, tee-shirt, hoodie, athletic shoes), each with its number on its lap.

There was a bunch of middle school girls standing there, and when we identified the one Heidi thought she might like, one girl said, “That is such a good choice. Her hair stays really nice. I’ve had mine for a whole year, and it’s just the same.” The approval of a middle school girl—what could be better than that?

(Though the girl then said, “Can I give you a little advice? Don’t brush the hair!” Heidi looked stricken. Kate said, “Thanks, but we just couldn’t not brush her hair!”)

In any case, Heidi decided instantly that this was the doll she wanted, and a visible weight lifted from her little being. “Are you sure?” Kate asked. She nodded. So we went right to the counter and I bought it—the special deal that included her pet dog! Kate said she’d buy one outfit, so we set out to look for that. Heidi lobbied for glasses, which we added. She was so good that (without her asking) I ended up buying her the bathing suit combo, since it was summer and she’d surely be taking the doll to the pool with her.

All the way home, she dressed and undressed the doll, named Mylie, marveled over the little accessories (an anklet, a bracelet, a tiny tiara, striped socks, underwear, sandals). She talked to it, brushed its hair, made pigtails, then a ponytail. “Did I make a good decision?” she asked, several times—and we assured her that she had.

We made our second trip the store last week. Heidi had saved money for a new doll—a friend for the first. Now nearly eight, Heidi was considerably more efficient in making her decision about what doll she wanted. The hard part was clothes and accessories. She could choose three things, and we circled the section again and again. Cozy star robe & spa slippers, flower girl outfit, sparkly tunic and jeans, nautical skirt set, gardening outfit, birthday dress, rain slicker & boots, mermaid costume, silk pajamas. Skateboard outfit—including skateboard--who, in the end,could resist that? Which led, naturally, to an agonizing consideration of the injury accessory kit (crutches, Velcro-on casts, etc) and the wheelchair. Small things get lost, I reminded her. And how, exactly would you play with the crutches?

The wheelchair it was.

She was thrilled with it, concocting various narratives about how the new doll, Carly, might end up in it. Someone stopped at our table in the Barnes & Noble café, where we were having a treat, and said how sweet it was that she was “aware” of children who were handicapped. But, while Heidi is a kind-hearted child, I knew it wasn’t about that at all.

It was all about the story--which, of course, I loved.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Unexpected Blessings

My former student, Dan Patterson, was in town with his family this week. Sitting in my goofy little office with his wife and kids, he observed that it had been twenty-five years since he took “Shoupabout,” the writing class I taught at Broad Ripple High School. Dan was in one of the first groups, when it was a daily class. Later, it became an independent study class scheduled through the school’s “Walkabout” program that provided internship opportunities for students. (Thus, the name “Shoupabout” was born.)

Of course, Dan’s observation brought a flood of memories about “Shoupabout”—one of my very favorites being the birthday party his class threw for me. We had a field trip to Crown Hill Cemetery scheduled that day, and I thought I’d be privately enjoying the irony of visiting a cemetery on my birthday. But when we got there, they surprised me with a birthday cake (with gray icing and “R.I.P.” written on it); a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One; and my own personal epitaph, composed by a very unusual guy in the class named John Smith, which read:


The party, being with my students on that day, made me so happy.

It would take days to write about each and every moment with students that filled me up with the most exquisite kind of light and brought the gift of knowing that teaching was the one thing in the world that I could pretty much count on doing right. Over the years, my Broad Ripple students made me happy, sad, curious, proud, grateful, compassionate, and full of wonder. Sometimes they made me crazy. They always made me a better person than I might have been.

But who could have predicted the unexpected blessing of continuing to know so many of these students into their adult lives, to watch them search for themselves and—if they searched hard enough and were lucky—eventually find what they longed for when they were young? Even at sixteen, Dan Patterson knew that a family was what he wanted more than anything. Now here he was, sitting in a place where that was once just a dream, with the fabulous Jen, Kate, and Al. How cool is that?

Honestly, it made me as happy as that goofy party did twenty-five years ago.

When I interviewed Amy Hempel a few years ago, she said that her fiction teacher, Gordon Lish, challenged his students with a variety of questions to help trigger stories, including “Where in your life are you most yourself? Can you sound like that on the page?”

I knew instantly what my answer to the first of those questions would have been: teaching. As for the second, if I ever do sound like that self on the page it’s when I am writing from the point of view of one of my teenage characters. There’s a bit of Dan Patterson—and every other high school kid I ever taught and loved—in every single one of them.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

One Car Parade

While I’m on the subject of Independence Day…

My dad loved a parade, and on the Fourth of July, we’d start out early to catch the start of the parade in Whiting, then move on to catch the end of the parade in its sister city, East Chicago—or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway. We’d stand, baking in the morning sun, marveling at the floats made of Kleenex and chicken wire, waving at the beautiful girls in their prom dresses and elaborate hair-dos who stood, braced in what looked like big doll stands, smiles plastered on their made-up faces, waving back at us. Motorcycle police skidded down the street, front wheels up, or stood on their seats, their arms spread out in conquering mode. There were clowns tossing candy and bubble gum into the crowd, Shiners driving their silly little cars in zig-zags and circles. There were horses! Military units, marching in strict formation, and in between, convertibles bearing veterans—including one for the oldest surviving veteran of the Spanish American War, a wizened old man who, from the blank expression on his face, might have been propped on a sofa back in the nursing home for all he knew. Still, it was amazing! The Spanish-American War!

What I loved best were the high school bands. I loved the uniforms, the flash of silver instruments in the sun; the girls wearing spangled leotards and white boots with tassles, twirling their batons; the high-stepping drum major in his tall hat, baton raised proudly, whistle in his mouth at the ready…for anything. (One of the many disappointments of high school was the realization that only a complete dork would want to do this.)

I was in absolute heaven when a band stopped and played directly before us; it seemed to me if they’d been marching all this time just to find our family, there on the sidewalk. We seemed exactly like what a family ought to be like at those Fourth of July parades. Ricky Nelson and his family might go to a parade together, I thought. Donna Reed’s family, the Cleavers.

I still love parades—and Indianapolis is blessed with two of the best: the 500 Parade in May and the Circle City Classic parade in October. Better yet, since my husband, Steve, restored a ’55 Chevy, I feel like I’m in a (one-car) parade every time we go out for a drive.

I mean, look at it! How could you not look at it? It’s so shiny and big and…red! Like a huge peppermint candy. And it’s very, very loud.

People stop doing whatever they’re doing to stare at us when we pass by. They pull up next to us at a stoplight, grin, and give us a thumbs-up. Guys of all ages groan in envy. Women of a certain age grow nostalgic. Their first boyfriend had a car like that, they might say—gazing at the gargantuan backseat with a faint smile, maybe thinking of drive-ins. Our grandson, Jake, begs to ride in it. He sits in his car seat, his arm resting on the frame the open window, wearing his HOT ROD MAGAZINE cap that’s just like Steve’s, gazing out at the world going by like a little king. Heidi, our granddaughter, took photography at Y-camp and Steve hired her to do a photo shoot. On a sunny Sunday morning, after chocolate chip pancakes at Perkins, she walked around the car, stopped, stepped back, assessed, clicked. He lifted her to get the engine; she told him how and where to stand for a proud owner photo. He paid her twenty bucks, which she added to her American Girl Doll fund.

I really did love parades when I was a kid, but I could never purely enjoy them. I could never purely enjoy anything. I still can’t, really. It’s my writer’s mind--always at work, always eventually turning toward longing. Always wondering what-if?

On the other hand, I never cease to be fascinated by the connections my mind makes. From the “Declaration of Independence” to parades of my childhood, to the backseat of a ’55 Chevy, to grandchildren, to this quote I love from Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Days:

“Some luck lies in not getting what you wanted but getting what you have which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”

Friday, July 4, 2008

It Is Your Right, It Is Your Duty

One of the more amusing sports of the Sixties protest movement was to type up this excerpt of the “Declaration of Independence,” put it on a clipboard, call it a petition, and ask people on the street to sign it:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.”

Most refused. Angrily. These were the “Our Country, Right or Wrong,” “Love It or Leave It” days of the Vietnam War, when any criticism of the government was considered unpatriotic. When told what they’d been asked to sign was an excerpt of the “Declaration of Independence,” these patriots refused to believe it.

Sound familiar?

Sadly, since 9-11 and the war in Iraq, we’ve been hearing that kind of rhetoric again. My guess is that if you typed up the excerpt and asked people on the street to sign it, they’d have the same response as people did in 1969.

There it is, though—a clear directive from our forefathers about our responsibilities as citizens of a free nation.

The Fourth of July seems a good day to remind ourselves that patriotism is more than loving America. It is our right, it is our duty to pay attention to what’s happening to the country we love and to take action when those to whom we've entrusted great power take advantage of it, diminishing what our forefathers meant America to be.

It’s easy to be an unquestioning patriot, raising the flag in your front yard, wearing it on your lapel, displaying it on bumper stickers claiming God’s blessing--letting these superficial things define what patriotism is. Not so easy to read carefully the documents upon which our country was created and to think hard about what the news tells us about how what those in power are doing both here and abroad may affect our destiny as a free nation.

And not easy at all to say “No!” especially when you may be one small voice among many. Still, sometimes it needs to be said.