Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

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06/18/2005: American marketing...

Having been here numerous times and knowing it's impossible to not see the ubiquitous red shopping bags with smiling young girls mudges in tow, I thought this one was Priceless:Dad braves American Girl Place by Michael Bologna (Special to the Chicago Tribune):

"Mark Twain once said, "There are two kinds of people in this world: those who would prefer an afternoon at American Girl Place and those who would prefer an extended root canal without benefit of anesthetic at the hands of a second-year dental student."

I've had the dental student experience, so I decided to test Twain's insight by opting for a father-daughter afternoon at AG Place, a slick doll emporium, theater, restaurant and shrine for young girls located just steps from the Water Tower and North Michigan Avenue.

AG Place has had its share of detractors since opening in 1998. It has been criticized as being commercial and self-indulgent. Activists in Pilsen were upset when AG published a book in which the parents of Mexican-American doll Marisol, concerned about their daughter's safety, decide to move from Pilsen to Des Plaines.

In light of such controversy, I let my daughter Grace and her trusty $100 doll Kit guide me through the AG subculture.

(I should note that this mission was almost dead on arrival. A call to the reservations hot line revealed that the musical show had been sold out for weeks as well as the cafe's afternoon tea. Finally, the clerk squeezed us in for lunch the following week, and I paid a $2.50 reservation fee.)

At the age of 8, Grace loves a lot of things--soccer, ballet and fishing to name a few--but there is a special place in her heart for her one and only AG doll. When we arrived, our waiter Carlos asked if there were any special requirements for Kit. Grace requested a small chair and a cup and saucer. Grace loved the attention from Carlos and fussed over Kit as if she were a long-lost sorority sister meeting her for lunch. I was definitely the third wheel at this reunion, but it was cute to watch.

While Grace served Kit a hot beverage, I scanned the room. There were approximately 100 people in the cafe and 55 dolls. Most were girls with adult female supervision. I saw a handful of poorly behaved boys and darn few fathers. I appeared to be the only man unattended by a woman. I ate the only slightly guy thing on the menu, the "Cafe Turkey Burger." Thankfully, Kit agreed to simply snack off of our plates. With tip, the unremarkable meal set us back $45.

Grace and I asked Carlos if he'd ever witnessed anything unusual in the store. He pointed to a memorable incident involving a fist fight between two 6-year-old girls following an argument over which was prettiest.

After lunch we roamed the store and the AG museum in the basement observing the dolls, clothes and books. Grace certainly enjoyed seeing the latest fashions and accessories and she told me stories about the different dolls based on her previous experience with the books. But she was offended as a consumer, commenting at one point, "these prices are just ridiculous."

There's Nellie's spring party dress ($22), Kaya's teepee and bedroll ($94) and Marisol's "born to dance" performance trunk ($48). We also noticed a dozen girls queuing to have their dolls' hair coifed (between $10 and $40). The only thing we ultimately purchased was a glossy photo of Grace and Kit presented to look like the cover of AG magazine ($20).

I ultimately felt very conflicted about the experience. The consumerism certainly bothered me as a parent. On the other hand, the dolls and their personalities told stories about friendship, courage and integrity. I could also see that my daughter cherished the experience, and what kind of father would I be if I censored the sheer joy of being a girl?

In this respect, the AG experience was nothing like a trip to the dentist."

For those of you who have never been to American Girl Place, it's a marketing experience extraordinaire. I recommend it for that piece of Americana alone. :-)

Karen on 06.18.05 @ 12:45 AM CST

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