Category Archives: Travel

Tales From New York: American Girls

There was a time when waiting for the mail to come was enjoyable. A time when it wasn’t all bills and mortgage offers. I don’t know how they knew to send the magazine to my house. I’m certain my parents would have stopped it if they could. I can remember checking the mail after school before Mom got home. I was so excited when it arrived. Pouring over each page in my living room. Book bag and jacket forgotten, left in the middle of the hallway floor. American Girls were the gold standard; the toy I coveted above all others.

I was never really into dolls growing up. Mom says she remembers me sitting in the family rec room with a book and precisely turning each page in imitation of my elders. I was probably three or four years old and I couldn’t read, but I desperately wanted to. I quietly reenacted what I thought it would look like if I really was reading: a miniature version of Plato’s cave shadow; the idea of reading without the reality. Growing up there was no shortage of books. I had children’s encyclopedias with information about space and how to make homemade playdough. I had books about dinosaurs, poems by Ogden Nash, and stories about a mouse on a motorcycle, goneaway lakes, and friendly bulls.

Perhaps that’s why American Girls appealed to me. Long before my parents ever conceded and sent away for my girl, I had the books about her. Back then, there were only three choices. You were either a Samantha, a Kirsten, or a Molly. Samantha was always my favorite. Even after the red-headed Felicity was added to the collection with her beautiful blue ball gown, I wanted Samantha. I’m sure part of it was the fact that we had similar hair, but I think another part of it was that there was something about her spirit that I identified with. In some ways she was living a privileged life, but she was also a bit of an emotional outcast – having been orphaned. Her best friend was poor and she had a tremendous amount of compassion and did her best to help. Her stories tied in with the idea of women’s equality and the right to vote.

During my recent trip to NYC with Kristin and Adrian, we did a lot of walking. Adrian wanted to go to a brewery and had his phone set for walking navigation. This gave us the opportunity to walk all over Manhattan from the MoMA to the brewery. Of course, being New York City, his reception was less than stellar and we did some back-tracking. We ended up walking through Rockefeller Center while an episode of 30 Rock was taping. Jane Krakowski and Judah Friedlander performed a musical number with the interns as the chorus. We walked passed Magnolia Bakery, where I was tempted to “mack on some cupcakes.”

And then we walked past the American Girl store. Correction: And then I stopped mid-stride and demanded that we go in the American Girl store. Adrian, being male, simply did not understand. Kristin, being of an age, told Adrian he could wait on the street corner by himself while she accompanied me inside.

The store was huge. If someone had taken me there when I was a child I may have had an aneurysm and died from overexcitement. They had all the dolls on display. They had all the little outfits set out to full effect. There were scenes, the dolls posed with all their accessories. There were pets. There was a doll hospital where the performed repairs. You can have tea with your doll.

The original girls are no longer available, but there are new dolls. Now you can pick out one that looks exactly like you. This was something that I was vaguely aware of as I recently read an article about a photographer, Ilona Szwarc, who has done a series of portraits of girls with their American Girl dolls. These portraits are provocative and thought provoking. The idea that children are malleable and are in the process of a metamorphosis, that they are constantly in the process of forming ideas about themselves and the world around them, and that the American Girl phenomenon is an extension of that process.

Does the girl come to identify and know herself through the doll, or does the identity exist and then the doll is chosen to reflect that identity? It’s a sort of chicken or the egg hypothesis. I think that’s the magic of American Girls. Because unlike other dolls, which seem to exist for young girls to mirror the act of mothering, American Girls exist as a mirror of one’s self. I never played mother to my American Girl. I played history. I learned about the world around me: about factory fires, children working to support their families, and the suffragettes. I learned about the wars that shaped our world and was given a marker by which to judge my experience as a girl growing up at the end of 20th century. American Girl provided me with a perspective on the privileges and limitations placed on me due to gender. A complex, although admittedly not always accurate, lesson for a seven-year-old.

And so, while my brother stood outside on the bustling streets of New York City, I took a few minutes with my sister-in-law to bask in the nostalgia of my childhood. To appreciate what I was given and to remember hours of hours of playtime with friends. Kristin and I reminisced and talked about our shared history as an American girl with an American Girl doll.

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Tales from New York City: The MoMA Addition

Ok, so even for me that last post felt a little morose. I swear I started with the idea that I was going to do a recap blog about my experience in New York City, and that is not what came out. I guess the heart wants what the heart wants… Anyway, my trip to New York was awesome. I spent time with two of my very favorite people, saw a lot of really cool things, and ate a lot of really great food.

I drove up to Kristin and Adrian’s the night before and spent the night, which is always a good time. Then we took a bus out of Nazareth, PA the next morning, which was surprisingly cheap and easy. It took about an hour and forty-five minutes to arrive at the Grand Terminal. The ride was scenic and the conversation superb. Not to mention they indulged my need for Starbucks…

When we got to the city something very interesting happened to me. Now for most of you who know me, you will probably not believe this: I did not feel the need to take control. I did not immediately assess the situation and figure out where to go or what to do. We were standing in the middle of the metro trying to figure out how to buy passes and which track to board from, and I was completely cool with Adrian and Kristin taking charge. I don’t know what it is about the two of them together, but I just didn’t feel the need to figure it out or take over the trip. I just let them lead me around. And you know what? It was freaking liberating. I had the most relaxed and wonderful day as a result. I’m hoping I can take this feeling and apply it to other aspects of my life. I think my stress level would only continue to decrease as a result. Maybe I just need to hang out with them more and learn their Zen ways.

The main “purpose” of the trip was to visit the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). I was super excited about this because I’ve been to a lot of art museums in the United States and in Europe, but I’ve never been to the MoMA before. Kristin planned the trip because they were featuring a Diego Rivera exhibit. Seeing Diego Rivera’s work was wonderful. I didn’t realize that his time in Europe working on frescos so directly impacted the medium in which he worked and became famous for. I knew about the ill-fated project he had worked on for the Rockefeller’s and its ultimate demise. I had a general sense of his aesthetic, his political views, and his impact on Mexican culture and art – you know – the basics. But I guess I never really put it together how large and immovable his pieces were.

Instead of using plaster, he used a more modern material: cement. This made his work tremendously heavy and difficult to move. The curator of the exhibit did a wonderful job of displaying this to maximum effect. There was an xray of one of the pieces on display. You could see how the blocks were held together with wire and larger pieces of metal x-ing the entire piece as a reinforcement. Then the original art was viewable from both sides, suspended inside a wall. It was all very impressive.

His roots to Communism and his commitment to and love of the proletariat was evident in each piece. Also, although his fresco work has been criticized as being “flat” (due to the nature of the frescos being observed up close instead of high up on a wall or ceiling as is traditional), I found the pieces vibrant and expressive. I liked the distinct shapes of the people as they represented each aspect of the working class’ struggle against the rich and powerful. Although much of the fresco work on display depicted scenes of violence in the forefront, I found the characters in the back of the pieces equally compelling. Overall, I felt like I came away from the exhibit with a new respect for Diego Rivera and his work.

The MoMA was also featuring a Cindy Sherman retrospective. I will admit that before this trip I had never heard of Cindy Sherman. I have picked up a great deal of art history as a hobby. And I’ve certainly learned a lot through my work at the Mattress Factory and the State Museum, but there are definitely holes in my education – as I’ve  never studied art history formally. I’m specifically ignorant when it comes to photography. For those of you who are like me, here’s the skinny on Cindy Sherman. She is an amazing photographer, and an artist who is widely considered one of today’s premier contributors to the field of contemporary art. She takes photographs of herself as different personas. She uses makeup, prosthetics, and costuming to metamorphosize herself into completely different people. The contrast between pictures is such that one might never realize that they were looking at the same person. She portrays women with all their complexities: with all the beauty and grotesqueness that is placed on women by accepted social norms and by themselves.

Her most recent series portrays women in different stages of the aging process. At first glance, one might see a typical portrait. But at a closer look, and certainly when seen together with the whole series, it becomes clear that there is an underlying panic behind the eyes of what should be a confident woman. Each piece subtly shows a different way in which women try to forestall the wheels of time. Whether it’s with clothing, makeup, cosmetic surgery, or a chosen activity, it’s made clear that none of these women are comfortable in their own skin. I found the work both tragic and compelling. Certainly, an apt portrayal of the modern woman’s plight in a world that is ever-focused on youth and attractiveness.

The M0MA is an amazing building. We saw a lot of other art, including a new print exhibit and some of the permanent collection. About three hours in, however, we were all pretty tired. There’s only so much one can take in before it becomes a blur. I would definitely recommend the experience to anyone who has an appreciation of art. Modern Art is not just paint splattered on the wall; it’s a reflection of where we are as a culture. Even if you don’t appreciate a particular piece, even if you question why it’s there, then realize that it has fulfilled its function. Because when you deny that it is art, you have fundamentally defined what art means to you in that moment. Take note of what that is, because that will undoubtedly tell you as much about yourself as it does about what you are looking at.

As a side note, the MoMA gift store is awesome. I picked up a set of coasters for Ben (I felt bad he couldn’t come along, and also he’s always looking for coasters in our house). They are made of cork and shaped like pieces of bread. They came in a little bread bag and only cost $10.00. There were a lot of really cool “artsy” household and kitchen items. I had to show some major restraint while in there, so be forewarned.

More to come: The American Girl Store!

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