Friday, January 24, 2014

Kitty Konsumerism (Or, Brittany Likes Stuffed Cats So Much, Someone Should Buy Her a Real Cat)

When I want something very badly, images of what I'll do with it and how incredibly awesome my life will be once I get it are all that fill my mind. Eventually, one of two things happen. One, I get it and do what I planned, it's great, and eventually I accept it is a normal part of life. Or two, I never get it and the desire fades--luckily, I've always been resilient enough not to get bitter about not getting whatever I want.  There are ways to deal with the disappointment of not getting what you want.

I don't know where I first heard of or saw Hello Kitty (maybe one of those weird Hello Kitty cartoons where she somehow speaks without having a mouth), but from ages six to nine, I was obsessed with having a Hello Kitty doll. I loved drawing her and I loved the occasional Hello Kitty paraphernalia I would find at Korean stores near the ballet studio I went to. But in the 90s, Sanrio stores were not common at all and I'd actually never seen a Hello Kitty doll, though I assumed they must exist somewhere. 
So I mostly resigned myself to not having one and I took Albert, my stuffed white cat, whose inscrutable frown had always marked him as male to me, and put a pink hairbow around his head. Albert remained Albert (where on earth did he even get that name in the first place?), but occasionally, when I was in a Hello Kitty mood, he donned his bow and I imagined he was the Hello Kitty I wanted.

By the time I was nine, the Hello Kitty phase was beginning to pass in favor of a Pokemon phase. Not that I could play Pokemon well, mind you, but I loved the show so much and begged my mom for the Pokemon puzzle I found in a store mostly so I could draw the characters from the box. In that same store there were shelves of Beanie Babies, those floppy awkwardly shaped stuffed animals that so many stores used to tempt children in frothing fits of need by filling cases of them at child-level near the cash register, not far from the candy. In one of those cases, I found a striped grey-and-black cat and was suddenly consumed by a NEED to have it be MINE that is probably only comparable to Frodo and the One Ring, or Bella and Edward, or my current self and any food containing avocado.
It may not look like much, but hey, I never expect understanding for my unhealthy obsessions.
My mother said no, and at home it was all I could think about, as my mind replayed fantasies of me sitting on the stairs landing by my bedroom and dangling her over through the bars of the railing. The possibilities of our future together! I pleaded for that cat. I knew her name already from her ear-tag (Prance) and there was a little poem about her that seemed to tantalizingly promise that YES, this cat was basically fuzzy bean-filled happiness and I would not be complete without it:

She darts around and swats the air
Then looks confused when nothing's there
Pick her up and pet her soft fur
Listen closely, and you'll hear her purr!

This was so much more necessary than a Hello Kitty. A Hello Kitty doll was a character already invented and crafted by someone else, and although new stories could be imagined around her, she wouldn't be entirely MINE. Prance was a blank slate for any story I wanted. I don't know how many times I visited that store, clutched that Beanie Baby and insisted that I have it, but it was more than once. I also don't even remember the day I got it, though I do remember that swinging her by the tail through the railing was about 150% as satisfying as I expected (no idea why).

Prance could be anyone. Obviously, Albert being a male cat and with his transvestite Hello Kitty days in the past, was automatically her boyfriend, but somehow never a husband because Prance didn't settle down. Most of the time when I played with her, she was in high school (teenagers were literally the coolest people I could imagine....
In this drawing, she is actually in front of a high school with her classmate Albert. Yes, her shirt says Girl Power. It was the 90s; shut up.
...and moonlighted as a superhero (because of that magic rock she's always holding).
I was not particularly gifted at designing costumes, obviously. Also, cut off next to her is Albert. Check out those Pokemon-inspired toothless mouths!
Throughout everything, I never called her any name but Prance (she was so much luckier than Albert!!), but she fit into dozens of "stories" my brother Steven and I would play. With three colorful rocks, a toy garbage can, Prance, Albert, and Steve's stuffed sunglasses-wearing dragon, Drago (seriously, ask him about Drago next time you see him!), we had a whole story about crime-fighting teenaged animal-people. Being 1 1/2 years older, I always led the play, and the plotlines were mine, especially when I followed out my fascination with tragedy by saying, "Let's play the END of the story." I'm sure Steven dreaded those (Melissa always refused to play those when she had played), but he went along with it, being a very easy-going and happy-go-lucky kid (believe it or not). So everyone died, or it was all a dream, or they had to give up their memories to save the world, or some other contrived sad ending.

Despite my morbid story-telling, Steven followed me along on other stories starring Prance, Albert, and Drago. There was a medieval one that was short-lived enough for me to not remember any of it, but long enough for me to draw a lot of it.
Someone was probably being killed, thus the tears.
Eventually, we created Tech-Lin, a story about a town populated by our combined hordes of stuffed animals including my Puppy Surprise and his Sonic the Hedgehog, as well as Prance, Albert, and Drago. Because I was the boss of everything, Prance was undeniably the main character and the hero of every storyline. She had to be the one to fight the villain.

She had wings for some reason and there is something seriously wrong with her wrists. Also, she became a redhead? (She still carried a broadsword, which sadly isn't pictured here.)
Albert was usually high-minded and a know-it-all, but not half as tough as Prance (don't let her cute outfits fool you). As for Drago, like most characters Steve played with or as, he was the comic relief. This is the boy who used to tell people he'd be Timon from The Lion King when he grew up, after all.
There's still time for him to make that dream come true.
All that to say, Steven wasn't the most discerning. He and I don't have all that much in common now, even though we're the closest in age, but we did spend years communally imagining whole worlds and characters based on the toys we had. And before then, when Melissa and I had played together, she led the stories we imagined and all my ideas were subject to hers (the price of being younger sibling). When she stopped playing with me (I was about eight and she was twelve), I turned to Steven, who till then had been an occasional playmate, but mostly was relegated to playing in the corner while Melissa and I played our games. Steven was my first audience as I tested my storytelling abilities beyond imitating Melissa's ideas. I could try out a tragedy or alternate universes or characters who straddled the line between good and bad (Melissa always hated those guys because they were massive jerks) and he accepted it as the "reality" of the story.

I don't think we played like most children; I understand that now. We had particular stories that we called "shows", and Steven and I took mine and Melissa's use of the word "shows" even farther--we played commercials at random segments. Playing was performing, while my writing was still a private activity only shared with Melissa, who has consistently read all my writings since, barely literate, I wrote my first story at 6 or 7 (I so regret throwing that out!). But through playing I learned how to craft stories and how to build characters, something that my writing skills still weren't quite strong enough to explore. I didn't have the patience to finish even a lengthy scene, much less an actual story, till I was about 11, but I could happily play all day.

Imagination is a powerful thing. So I guess that little Beanie Baby did change my life. Thanks, Mom, for buying this little brat the stuffed cat she insisted she needed.

Art by Steven, showing how what looked like a dead-eyed fat-headed animal (top) could be transformed into a moody animal-person wearing a communicator on her ears and with a microphone extending around her face so she could keep in touch with the team (bottom).


  1. It's funny to me that you loved cats so much. <3 Did you by any chance collect those McDonalds Hello Kitty toys like, in the early 2000's? I still have a billion of them. It's also interesting the way that you guys played. My sister and friends and I did roleplay/acting games, not really so much with toys. It's such a different sort of imagination you use to bring life into a figurine like that.

    Well written, more light and conversational than your last one. (opposite of my prompts!)

    Lastly... well. Drago. He makes me sad to look at. <3

  2. Ha – I remember you getting your hello kitty water bottle and almost leaving it at Brooklyn College and how sad you were until you found it right where you’d left it.

    Loved this sentence in particular: “In one of those cases, I found a striped grey-and-black cat and was suddenly consumed by a NEED to have it be MINE that is probably only comparable to Frodo and the One Ring, or Bella and Edward, or my current self and any food containing avocado.”

    Your narrative flows so well and is absolutely hilarious. I had a similar cat, a black one, named Ebony, that I wrote stories around who was my best friend. She was handmade by some woman in a Pennsylvania store I think. Not sure what happened to her. But there is something magical in being captured by imagination.

    And your illustrations -- so charming!

  3. Brittany,

    Love the Pokemon and Beanie Baby references! It's fun to look back and recall the fads that marked our generation. We had several Beanie Babies around our house (including two of the "Pugsley" pug ones, of course!), and I had a Pokemon virtual pet. I remember when virtual pets were insanely popular. Before the Pokemon one, I had a Tamagatchi and I cried the first time it died on me. Thank God for the reset buttons! :)

    And there is truly nothing better than acting out stories with siblings, friends...or cousins. We have video somewhere of Joel and me acting out some story where I was dressed up as a genie and we escaped from a monster and killed a few bad guys. Real life-altering stuff!