Wednesday, December 14, 2005

American Girl Doll...$top the In$anity

I have two daughters. My wife and I don't plan to have any more kids, which means there are certain things I must accept. I will never cheer on the sidelines while my child scores a touchdown. I will never waste a weekend watching sports on TV with my child. I will never go to a Monster Truck Rally or attend a WWF Smackdown. I will never have the "what your penis is capable of" conversation. Wait, I take that back. I WILL have that conversation with every boy who wants to date my daughters.

I accept these sacrifices and I'm okay with it. Because, if I had boys, I would never tear up while watching them dance ballet in leotards. I would never attend the annual Daddy-daughter dance in the park district gym. I would never hear the sound of high pitched giggles over what, I don't know.

Yes, as the father of daughters, I get to savor the moments I have been blessed with. But each Christmas I must also put my manhood in the closet and leave it there while I visit the most hellacious, insidious store on the planet- the American Girl Doll store.


Okay, I got that off my chest. The American Girl doll is a sickening phenomenon that shows no signs of abating - kind of like karaoke. Several years ago some company started making toy dolls and somebody thought it would be cute to add two zeros to the pricetag. Whether this was done in jest is beside the point. What matters is that this idea stuck, which is why the American Girl Doll store can afford to be on (drumroll please) MICHIGAN AVENUE IN DOWNTOWN CHICAGO.

That's right. Ensconced between Bloomingdales, Nike Town, Cartier and Gucci sits a store that sells FREAKING DOLLS! There is even a doorman who, thankfully for him, is not forced to dress like a doll. He looks very happy as he opens the door in subzero weather for customers. That's probably because American Girl pays him more than I make in a decade.

Both of my daughters have American Girl dolls. The funny thing is, neither requested one for Christmas. My wife and her relatives decided that each girl should have one. My oldest received an American Girl doll at two. As I remember, she was biting the heads off most of her dolls at that age. Therefore, an Ozzy Osbourne doll, complete with lifelike bat, seemed more appropriate. Yet my wife didn't share that opinion. So, when my brother in law asked if he could make the purchase, she cheerfully agreed.

That's the first problem with these dolls - they seem more geared toward mothers than kids. I don't know if adult women are trying to relive their childhoods but that seems to be the case judging by the clientele inside the store. And WHAT A STORE! The American Girl doll store is four levels. Besides the dolls and the myriad of doll accessories (I'll get to that in a minute) the store includes a theatre showing American Girl doll movies, a hair salon for the dolls and my favorite, a restaurant where you can eat WITH THE DOLLS! That''s right, the doll sits at the table, orders food and probably gets a bill with a 17 percent gratuity tacked on. I've never been but I've heard getting a reservation is impossible. Of course it is! Not only are there people in front of you waiting to be seated but dolls too!

That's the problem with this store. Everybody seems to think these dolls are human, which can get very annoying after about 15 seconds. As I entered I heard haggard housewives asking store personnel questions like, "Where is Samantha,?" "Do you have Elizabeth,?" "I need to find Molly." I wanted to scream, "hey ladies, for God's sake watch your kids. It's a busy store." Then I realized they weren't talking about lost children. They were talking about FREAKING DOLLS!
Yes, all the dolls have names - and stories too. Some probably have anorexia and bad cocaine habits that the American Girl company is trying to keep hush hush. My eight year old owns "Samantha," who, according to the web site, "is a wealthy girl living with her grandmother in 1904." Huh? All I know is that Samantha costs 87 bucks WITHOUT the paperback biography. I have no idea what the grandmother cost.

That's right, 87 bucks and you get a doll with one outfit. But, as we all know, today's dolls cannot have one outfit. Especially if you are wealthy and living in 1904. For an extra 22 bucks I could buy "Samantha's winter outfit." Samantha's "travel outfit and parisol" would set me back 30 bucks. I guess these outfits are needed. I wouldn't want Samantha to be subjected to "American Girl peer ridicule," which would lead to "American Girl therapy." I don't even want to know what that costs. Plus, I don't have time to schlep downtown once a week for Samanth'a group counseling.

Want to hear something worse? The doll's outfits come in human sizes too! That means you can dress your daughter AND her doll in identical clothes. That was last year's Christmas card - my daughters, holding their dolls, in matching outfits. They looked like they had just stepped out of a private school in the Hamptons. If the IRS ever sees that photo, they will immediately move me into a higher tax bracket.

My eight year old never really took to her American Girl doll. Most of the time Samantha sits alone in a corner of the bedroom, surrounded by several hundred dollars in outfits. Thankfully her head is still intact. She will make a wonderful Ebay purchase someday.

But just when I thought I was finished with this gluttonous example of corporate greed, my second daughter was born and I was introduced to the term, "Bitty Baby." Yes, the owners of American Girl decided they all needed to buy vacation homes in Bora Bora so they invented a line of little baby dolls for little baby girls. My three year old received her Bitty Baby doll from my giddy relatives shortly after her umbilical cord was cut.

Bitty babies don't have names - they simply come with descriptions. Forty-two dollars gets you "light skin, blonde hair, blue-gray eyes," or "dark skin, textured black hair, light brown eyes. " Come to think of it, that's how most babies are referred to in maternity wards. "Congratulations Greg. Which one is yours?"
"It's the one with the bald head, the closed eyes and the slightly yellow skin. Third incubator on the left."
"You mean, the one with the Bitty Baby next to it?"
"That's the one."

My three year old took to her Bitty Baby like American GIs to a Hooters waitress. She sleeps with her Bitty Baby, whom she has named "Emma," changes her outfits daily and pushes her in the official Bitty Baby Stroller (34 bucks)

So it was no surprise when she announced she would be asking Santa for "a big sister for Emma." That meant I would be journeying back to the American Girl Doll store to buy the 84 dollar brand, a doll named Kirsten. According to the web, Kirsten is a Swedish immigrant who settled in Minnesota in 1854. If I have done the math correctly, that makes her 50 years older than Samantha.

"Shouldn't we be getting a younger doll?" I asked my wife. "Kirsten may die soon and we can't afford an American Girl casket."

My wife finds none of this funny. Joking with a woman about American Girl dolls is kind of like making jokes about labor. YOU DON'T DO IT!

So off I went to Michigan Avenue, through the hordes of Christmas shoppers, until I had reached the American Girl doll store and was escorted inside by the multimillionaire doorman. I immediately approached the first store worker I saw.

"Where is Kirsten?" I asked in a panic. Trust me, dads don't browse in the American Girl store. They pounce on their prey and move on.

I was lead up two flights, where I saw Kirsten, smiling from her cardboard box, decked out in a calico dress, striped apron, stockings and fancy pantalettes. Don't ask me what a "pantalette" is. That's what the description said.

I hurried down the stairs, pausing briefly to ask sheepishly if there was an American Girl tavern in the building for Dads. A nearby Dad heard me and cracked up. The store worker never cracked a smile.

I was halfway out the door when the cell phone rang. It was my wife.

"Did you get Kirsten?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Good because I was just on the Web and saw that Kirsten's fishing set is on sale for 22 dollars. See if you can find one."

My mortgage can always wait.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mr. Mike, we miss you

Mike was the kind of guy who you would buy for your neighborhood if there was a way to order such a person.

All the homeowners would chip in some money, go to the "ideal neighbor" store and say, "do you have a retired guy who always has a friendly hello, actually wants the neighborhood children to knock on his door, knows everybody's business but not in an annoying way, and will give you the shirt off his back at a moment's notice? A guy who will march down to the village code enforcement office and demand action if he feels, for one instant, that his neighborhood is being threatened or mistreated by lazy homeowners or developers? But also a guy who will do it quietly to avoid commotion. Do you have a guy like that?"

The clerk would disappear into the stockroom and come out with Mike.

Three years ago I was mowing my lawn one Saturday when a car pulled up and a middle aged couple appeared. Noting the "For Sale" sign on my property, the man said, "you must be the guy moving down the block." It wasn't a question - he already knew the answer.

"Yes," I replied. "We love this neighborhood but wanted a little more space so we bought that lot on the corner. " Already I had revealed more information than I normally would when approached by a total stranger. But there was something about this guy - an approachability factor and one shared by his wife.

Within seconds I learned his name was Mike, his wife was Mary, he was a Chicago cop getting ready to retire, he was a lifelong Notre Dame and White Sox fan. And, unlike many of my existing neighbors, he didn't care that my allegiance was to the Cubs.

In the next minute, I told him everything about me. My wife's name was Sue. I had two daughters, 6 and 1. I was a comedian. I traveled extensively. I grew up in the Northwest suburbs before becoming a "South Sider."

I'd lived alongside a neighbor for seven years and never told him that much. Granted, Polish was his first language but we still had occasion to talk. But we'd only exchanged simple pleasantries.

"Well, we're going to be your new neighbors," Mike said as Mary beamed. "We bought the lot across the street."

I knew the lot well. It was part of a townhouse development that would face our new single-family home. Mike was chomping at the bit to get the house started. As a member of Chicago's finest, he was required to live in the city. Now, with retirement beckoning and, I'm sure, a well-earned pension, he was moving to the 'burbs for his little slice of heaven and to be closer to his only son.

As the months went by, our new house began to rise from the dirt. We sold our existing house, moved in with my in-laws 15 miles away and made frequent trips to the site to inspect the progress. Maybe it was coincidence but it always seemed like, whenever we were viewing our new property, Mike and Mary drove by. The developer still hadn't broken ground on their townhome but they cruised the neighborhood nonetheless, anxious for the day when their construction began.

Eventually that day came and we saw more and more of the couple. By now we were living in our new house. When I saw Mike inspecting his lot, I yelled across the street, "Come on Mike, we need some neighbors. It's lonely over here."

He'd reply with a friendly wave and eventually we'd meet in the middle of the street, talking sports and the current state of his townhome. Most of the lots had been sold but none had been completed. Yet Mike still seemed to know the names and backgrounds of everyone who had made a purchase. He'd told his police buddies about the new development and some had purchased lots.

"We'll definitely have the safest neighborhood in the state," I told my wife. "There's going to be an entire precinct living across the street.

Finally the day arrived. Mike and Mary moved in, completing their dream. My kids called them "Mr. Mike" and "Miss Mary." Within months, Mike seemed to become the unofficial mayor of the street. During the warm months I'd jog past his house at 6:30 a.m., and see him on his porch reading the morning paper. In the evening, he'd sit on the front stoop, or in his garage smoking a cigarette as Mary wouldn't let him smoke in the house. Whenever I'd return from an out of state show, he's see me pull in the driveway and remove my luggage from the trunk.

"Welcome home, Greg," came his booming voice from the across the street. "Where were you this time?"

Once this conversation occurred at 2 a.m. When your plane is five hours late and you get home in the middle of the night, you don't expect anybody to be making friendly conversation, much less being awake at all. But that was Mike for you.

After my reply Mike would bring me up to speed on neighborhood news, if there was any. I came to relish these conversations. He knew I coached girls softball and asked me how the team was doing as he loved the fact that I held practices in the vacant lot down the street. On college football Saturdays the Notre Dame flag flew proudly from his porch and we'd discuss the game's outcome even though I never gave a rip about Notre Dame football. But I could have talked to Mike about global warming, so approachable was he.

He watched my youngest learn to rollerskate as she practiced on his sidewalk and, occasionally, his driveway. He bought Girl Scout cookies from my older daughter. The townhouse development was eventually completed. We rarely saw any of the new occupants and, to this day, don't know their names. But Mike and Mary were not your typical retired townhome owners. On Halloween my girls trick or treated in the single family homes down the street where their friends lived. They visited one townhome. You know who lived there.

So last week, when I looked at Mike in his casket, I wanted to say, "get out of there."

He was all decked out in a black suit with a maroon pocket square. His police badge and a White Sox cap proclaiming "World Series Champions!" accompanied his body. The funeral home was, naturally, packed to the gills. Everybody came to say goodbye to Mike.

He had awoken three days earlier and offered to drive Mary to work. First, he needed gas so he drove to the local convenience store. On the way back he spied a neighbor and, naturally, rolled down the window to talk. The heart attack was massive and death almost instantaneous.

"Mr. Mike" is gone. And a big slice of our suburban neighborhood went with him. May God bless him.