- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2000

I did all my holiday shopping last year on the Internet. After watching Santa pinch a few elves (teen-age girls from the local high school) in the nearby shopping center while they were handing toys to the children, I retreated to the antiseptic sanctuary of my study. Poring over approximately 1,200 Web sites, I managed to find gifts for everyone without leaving my computer.

Well, this year, Santa's looking great to me. In fact, he's my ticket to a day out. Why, you might ask, do I need a day out? Remember the big dog that moved into our house in August with a disarray of followers who happen to be related to me by birth or marriage my daughter, my son-in-law, my grandchild?

They were planning to stay for a short time while they searched for a house. They're still living with us. They found the perfect house, but unfortunately, the house came with owners who have separation anxiety about moving out.

I spend a great deal of time in shops because they're heated and my family can't find me. To be more specific, I spend a great deal of time in that baby store that has me on its 10-least-wanted list. The store, which will go unnamed, is staffed with personnel who have become remarkably adept at fleeing my eagle vision to avoid explaining things to me, such as the difference between sleepwear and play wear, or fire-retardant and fireproof.

Alone and content to be so, I wander through the aisles looking at toys, trying to get a handle on the current trend in play land. Here is my assessment: The toy mantra for 2000 is "noise, glitz and traffic jams."

You're probably saying, "Wow, that sounds a lot like real life."

If it doesn't wail, buzz, beep or play Mozart, you had better be able to glue it on your face, and it had better glitter.

There are a few exceptions. One is a toy that actually simulates a rush-hour traffic jam. All the cars are pushed together in different directions, unable to move, and the child's job is to figure out how to get out of the jam.

"Look at this," I exclaimed to the woman next to me. "It looks just like 495. Or maybe it's a parking lot for the emotionally disturbed, which is not really different from 495." She looked at me, pursed her lips and moved away.

Another toy that fascinated me is called something like Family Vacation. Don't quote me on the name just look for a yellow car and lots of people (a mother, father and several children), dogs and bicycles. Everything is squeezed into a car that definitely looks as if it cannot accommodate the crowd, just like my house.

I picked up the little plastic mother, looked right into her face and said, "Trust me, honey, this won't be fun. The kid in the middle of the back seat is going to scream about why he can't sit near the window."

My fellow shopper, who had moved away from me, stared and shifted farther down the aisle.

I was contemplating the tenor of toys, thinking about how they reflect transitions from our generation to that of our children the high-gear daily routines, the road rage, the paradigm change to beep and press. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar figure.

Thirty years after I met her, my mouth still fills with bile when we are within 30 feet of one another. Dressed in slinky pants, a tight shirt and high heels, she smiled at me with her plastic smile, evidence of a face lifted too tightly.

When my children were only 5 and 6, she came into my house, making a mockery of my life, the way I looked, the way I dressed. While I was driving car pools, she was cavorting with a "man-tanned" surfer in some Silver Bullet.

"Grow up," I screamed at her. "You're 43 years old. Start wearing your shirt out." The stuffed-shirt shopper down the aisle screamed, threw her packages in the air and ran away. Of course, she probably never had the courage to confront Barbie.

I, on the other hand, have confronted her several times. Three years ago, when she turned 40, the toy industry went public with the new Barbie. The industry applauded its decision to make her a little thicker at the waist and a little flatter in the chest. I got in my car, drove right to the toy store and walked up to Barbie.

"Who are you trying to fool?" I challenged. "No one's chest gets flatter. It just gets lower."

I must admit, after publicly admonishing her, I felt a little remorseful. After all, I notice Ken isn't around as much as he was in years past. That can't be easy. I mean, there she is, 43 years old, in a bikini, in pedal pushers, in ski wear, and, worst of all, in a wedding dress, waiting for a man who never did ask for her hand in marriage.

I walked away from the vacuous success to which she clings and wandered down the aisle to some Rescue Hero toys dressed like Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Men of Honor." Needless to say, they talked. One of them said something I couldn't understand. "No thank you," I responded, "but why don't you go talk to the tall, skinny blonde down the aisle. She really does need to be rescued."

Of course, when all is said and done, I suspect Barbie goes home to the neat little trailer she bought with Ken 25 years ago. Maybe Ken isn't around much anymore, but I'm pretty sure there is no big black dog shedding hair on her couch. There also is no other family occupying her Silver Bullet. Everything is neat. Everything is clean. But then, her life is really plastic. Mine? Well let's just say it's molded of the material that makes us all grandparents.

Ellen Rosenthal is the grandmother of 1-year-old Matthew. Her column will appear the first Tuesday of each month. Send any comments and suggestions to her by mail: PO Box 60701, Potomac, Md. 20859; or by e-mail (grandtales@aol.com).

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