Ranch Girls In Paris

While we were in Paris, we met up with a childhood friend of Miranda’s named Katie who is now a student here. These two were California ranch girls, and it’s so interesting to see what impressive young women they have become, living such cosmopolitan lives after having started out in the sagebrush. At the same time, there is something refreshingly down-to-earth and familiar about them, and also spirited and strong. You can take the girl out of the ranch, but you can’t take the ranch out of the girl…something like that.

Katie grew up in a male-dominated enclave of surfers, translated those skills to skiing, and moved to Aspen for a time. She recently traveled in Estonia and Norway, spent a couple of years in London, and has decided to take on Paris for a while and learn about art and design…because she can. “I am the first woman in my family who could literally do whatever I want,” she says, and she intends to take advantage of that freedom.

The day of our visit happens to be her birthday, and she’s turning thirty-one, “a cuspy age”, she calls it, which is a fitting term. (I remember a defining journey I myself made at the age of thirty-one, my great migration West.) One might say too that we are in a cuspy time of history right now, and we can wring our hands about that or face it with courage. Katie seems up to the challenges. I am intrigued by the Millennial generation and how they navigate through shifting landscapes, and Katie is smart, articulate, and brave. “When we’re very young,” she muses, “we think we are the center of the universe, and then we begin to realize that there are so many universes…and we are not the center of any except the one in our own head.”

She’s living in an AirBnB apartment in La Marais district, a place too pricey to keep for long, but a good base for now. She explains her initial criteria for living in a foreign country: Healthy. Safe. Happy. (As opposed to risky, sketchy, stressful.) “After settling in a little, then I can ‘off road’ and test boundaries by staying in weird places or checking out the borderlands,” she says.

Katie has no particular man in her life, is enjoying her singleness, and is not afraid of solitude. All in all, she’s a gracious, charming, grounded person. (Another of her maxims: “Don’t let your mood affect your manners.” I like that.) Although she’s taken an intensive language course, she’s far from fluent in French, but she’s open and game, and has some friends at school. I sometimes wonder if not having the language may render some of the visual and sensual input more immediate, but that’s probably my own self-justifying delusion. (In truth, I wish with all my heart that I knew a second language.). Anyway, it was a treat seeing these two young women in Paris, both of them having grown up in an isolated rural environment, both now so at ease in cities, such accomplished and interesting people.

Inevitably, we talked about growing up on the Ranch. Katie was lured to surfing, although her brother was the one who was encouraged in that arena. My own daughter chose the horse route…I can still picture that brown-haired little girl astride her beloved Appaloosa, Tommy, happy days. These kids knew trails and vistas, chaparral and woods, grassy hills and seashore; they were at home in the natural world, at the edge of the wild, serenaded by coyotes in the night. My impression is that most of the girls were avid readers, having learned early on the power of books to transport them and the need to be transported. And I’ve recently discovered some old slides from an impromptu theatrical performance that testify to the importance of dress-up and invention in their play.

Talking about childhood play led me to mention that the previous day, while exploring the neighborhood in which we were staying, I had come upon an old-fashioned doll hospital on Rue Parmentier. (More about that in  the next post.) This led to chatting about dolls…and in particular, Barbies. (Barbies, by the way, were nowhere to be found in this doll hospital.)

I remember playing with Barbie dolls in my own childhood, when they were still a new thing. My friend Carol and I created quarters for the Barbies on the tile-floored vestibule of the building I lived in on Coney Island Avenue. There were shoe box beds, thimble cups, wooden spool stools. Giant people had to step carefully to get to the door when the Barbie games were in session. To this day, I see miniaturization in relation to Barbies. A Brussels sprout, for example, is a Barbie cabbage…is it not?

Much has been written about the strange message Barbie dolls convey about the female body image…the absurdly large boobs, miniscule waist, long thin legs on tiny feet perennially on tiptoe. Carol and I enjoyed changing their outfits and tapping them around the lobby, and we didn’t grasp the implicit (and distorted) sexuality of these dolls, but at one point we decided a boyfriend was necessary. Carol volunteered a baby doll named Ben, whose proportions were all wrong, but whose molded hair was short, and was therefore vaguely male, and he became the man in all sorts of peculiar scenarios. I suspect that many little girls played risqué and perverted Barbie games, prurient but infantile.

But Katie had more enlightened and rebellious Barbie memories. The grandfather of  yet another of the Ranch girls, Elise, worked at Mattel, the motherlode source of Barbies, and Elise was the recipient of these well-meant but dubious gifts…and I’ll let Katie tell the story from here:

“Elise in particular really hated them. So a lot of hair chopping ensued, coloring the Barbies with pens, I think some limbs might have gone missing. Burying Barbies under mud happened a lot. Especially if the boys were involved,  and they were the majority.  They could never really be convinced to play our games and toys, so more often than not it would be some version of toy soldiers in the mud, and Barbie definitely got abused then.”

“I don’t recall hating Barbies quite as much as Elise did,”she continues. “But my mom claims that she once found me when I was very little, maybe four or five, tying a belt around my own waist to make it look like the doll’s. And Nick [a neighbor boy] actually used to take the heads off my Barbies and poke out their eyes. I wasn’t very happy about that.”

So here we are in Paris, of all places, sort of free-associating, but I am delighted by these stories, and by the healthy, instinctive skepticism these girls had about Barbies from the get-go, and about the way their Ranch childhoods helped to form their personalities. I see defiance and intelligence there, a preference for creativity and real world challenges over objectification and other people’s nonsense. I love how they look at things, wherever they are, ask questions, then dive in wholeheartedly, not just standing by, but trying, and doing. I love these ranch girls all grown up. They give me hope.

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