Here’s my column in today’s Greenville News. It’s about playing dolls with my daughter, Elysa.

Here’s the direct link as well.

I’m not very good at the sort of play that grown-ups enjoy. I almost killed a goose once when I sliced and very nearly combined bird hunting with a golf tournament. I can serve a tennis-ball…across the fence and into traffic. I once swung at a baseball no less than 20 times as team-mates kept encouraging me.

However, I have a great imagination. Imaginary play was my delight as a child, and I rediscovered it when my own children became my born-again playmates.

Unfortunately, I felt inadequate when it came to dolls. Since my poor daughter is blessed with three older brothers, she is always looking for someone to play dolls with her. Often, that someone is ‘papa.’

Mind you, I have spent many hours at GI Joe, but let’s face it, he’s an ‘action figure,’ not a doll! Right? To this day I have unopened Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and D-Day GI Joes. I also have a Navjo Code-Talker. My children once gave me an Air Force Para-Rescue GI Joe, but the square-rigged parachute was too cool to leave alone, so we opened his plastic box prison and threw him down the steps and up over the yard time and time again. He’s still escaping and evading, somewhere in the house.

All of that made sense to me. Joe was about adventure and combat! Joe had M-1Garands, M-4 carbines or sharks to capture. To be cliche and repetitive, he was a ‘man of action.’

But the doll thing initially had me mystified. I asked my wife for help; I figured, she was a girl once, right? So she explained it to me. ‘Dolls talk.’ ‘What? That’s it? They talk?’ To many men, especially those without cherished wives or precious daughters to serve as tutors, nothing is more terrifying than the prospect of simple talk. But because I have both, we talked. Elysa and I have played with various dolls, from Polly Pockets to baby-dolls, from Groovy Girls to Barbies. And we have talked.

We talked to each other about our dolls’ names; which changed from minute to minute. Our dolls, especially Barbies, discussed life and friendship, dreams and fears. They went to college, they went to the beach. They rode horses and drove cars. The Barbies now live in a large house with an open front (poor building codes if you ask me), but equipped with a hand-crank elevator and a balcony, from which the dolls can survey the vast imaginary beach, college, mountains or city that appears from moment to moment, thanks to the inestimable power of imagination.

In addition to talk, there were costume changes. A man not prepared for this sort of thing might be offended by the shear magnitude of nudity to be found in a room full of Barbies. But it’s just that someone is always changing! Statistically, someone is going to be undressed. Shoes, bags, dresses, swimsuits and hair-bows, changing clothes is the only thing Barbie does almost as much as she talks.

But I realized some time ago that doll time was also, if I paid attention, a teaching time. I sometimes let the dolls ask questions their mistress might not, about relationships or jobs, love and proper behaviors.

In fact, I have taken Ken in hand and have decided to mentor him, in full sight of my daughter. He is never allowed to sleep over in the Barbie house. He always walks Barbie home. And he absolutely has to keep his pants on his body. This is growing more difficult as his pants fray like Robinson Crusoe’s, and Elysa seems bent on his progressive exposure. (He hasn’t had a shirt in months).

Ken has to act the gentleman. He has to be considerate and polite. And he is always either 1) in school or 2) gainfully employed. Sometimes GI Joe stops by when he is abducted from the boys’ room, but that’s fine. He’s serving the country, and that’s honorable employment in my book. It was a little awkward a few days ago when the girls met Joe on a country road and he was carrying a Walther sniper-rifle. But he was considerate, and kept the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.

I’ve learned to talk to Elysa through her dolls. And I knew it had paid off recently when Barbie asked her suiter if perhaps they could go to church together for a first date. Her idea, not mine.

I guess I’ll have to explore Ken’s theology. We’ll talk.

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