If These 'American Girls' Could Talk...

My wife, who usually shares my home office, has taken a temporary job and now heads off to work each morning after our daughter leaves for school. So I'm serving on the home front alone - almost. As I stumble through my personal and professional chores, my actions fall under the polite, cheerful gaze of the American Girls. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you've missed one of the marketing success stories of the 1990s.

The American Girls are beautifully crafted dolls available only by mail order from the Pleasant Company of Madison, Wis. About 4 million have been sold in the past 11 years. Several are now comfortably residing in my daughter's bedroom.

Though numerous accessories are available through the catalog, my wife is an expert at finding or constructing items that provide the dolls with a luxurious existence. She recently wired together some pastry cooling racks and petite garden fencing to create an elegant bed frame. I plan to tell anyone who inquires that it was made by skilled metalworkers at a foundry near Madrid.

Since each doll is based on a different period in American history, their clothes range from Colonial to modern. But the exquisitely detailed outfits have one thing in common: They all contrast sharply with my proletarian household attire of jeans, battered cotton shirt, and sneakers.

Yes, the painful truth is that the American Girls are enjoying a better lifestyle than I am. Of course, the girls are not to blame for this inequity. I'm the one who owns a labrador retriever that must be walked four times a day and seems to shed his entire coat twice a week.

And, I admit, whenever I'm seething with resentment after another spine-twisting bout with the vacuum cleaner, I'm soothed by the sight of the girls gathered around their tea table (made from an antique tray attached to a juice can). Sometimes, the effect is even inspiring.

Addy Walker certainly wouldn't complain about cleaning the house. She and her mother escaped from slavery during the Civil War and settled in Philadelphia. They worked hard every day - without a vacuum cleaner to help with the chores. Addy probably thinks I'm a whiner.

Felicity Merriman looks a bit smug, but that's expected from a girl who grew up in a proper Colonial Williamsburg family. She even has her own tea caddy. But the mobcap and petticoat are so endearing, I cut her some slack. Molly McIntire's dad is an army doctor stationed overseas in World War II. She, too, would be unimpressed with my coping skills.

RECENTLY, my daughter was playing with the dolls and said, "You know, it would be really interesting if they could talk." True enough, but I'm secretly glad they can't. They'd probably bother the dog, and heaven only knows what they'd say about me.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here, Fish Cake' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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