From my perch in Canada, the decision in Ferguson felt like a tragedy, or perhaps a series of tragedies.
First and foremost among those tragedies is the death of a young man. In a better world, Michael Brown would still be alive.
Next among the tragedies of this case is the loss of yet more faith in the US court system by the African-American community. If people can’t feel that their judicial system will treat them fairly, then eventually some will find extrajudicial means to mete out justice as they see fit. For us, in the relatively wealthy parts of the Western world, that is a tragedy.
I’ve mentioned in a previous Guyside that my mother died in August. And yesterday, my brother and I were informed that her house — our house — had sold. For me, it’s been an odd experience. It’s a home my grandfather built in the ‘teens and twenties in a small coal-mining town. My mom and her siblings grew up in that house; after getting married, my dad moved in, and my two brothers and I grew up there. Soon, I’ll be flying home (an ironic phrase, now) to do the final paperwork and hand off the house to its new owner.
Since I’ve been lucky enough to be born in Canada, and since I chose not to enlist in our armed forces in my life, I’ve never experienced war. But there is lots of service in my family. My brother collected a pension after a career in the Canadian Forces; my father piloted a Sherman tank through Holland and Belgium in 1944 and 1945; his brother landed on Juno Beach in Normandy and fought the European campaign all the way through; and two of my mother’s brothers joined up for WWII. Sadly, only one of them came back. And that’s really where this story begins.
My mom died on August 29. She was 89. And part of the family mythology that I grew up with was Uncle Bill. When we went to our summer cottage, she’d remember how Bill would swim from one shore all the way across the lake and back (a swim I was never fit enough to manage, likely two miles or more), worrying my grandmother greatly.
He commanded shore defences in Cape Breton, where my family was from, and gave up a commission so he could go overseas. A land mine grievously injured him, and he died at the age of 33, a bachelor, in Belgium, October 26, 1944. He was buried in a Commonwealth cemetery in Holland.
As my brother and I and our partners prepared my mother’s house for being vacant for a while (neither of us live close by), we came upon a few stacks of letters in the basement, sent by my mother’s uncles from 1942-1945, and a number of other things that related to their service. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the letters so far, but they are remarkable. First, the quantity of letters that Bill produced was amazing for a modern person, who puts pen to paper occasionally at best. He wrote to his parents, to his sisters, to his brother, and probably to friends as well.
Second, the tone of the letters. Ones to my mother, his baby sister, are teasing and affectionate. He calls my mom “Ebby” or “Eb”, a play on words for her name, Evelyn. He teases his other sisters as well, but reserves a more respectful tone for his parents, my grandparents, although he teased them on occasion too. He appeared to have a pretty good handle on what would be censored, because there are only a few passages cut or blotted out. And, likely in part because soldiers were told to be positive in their letters home, he was almost entirely positive, rarely speaking even of the minor difficulties of wartime life, deprivations, cold, wet. His biggest complaint was lack of mail from his family, and it seems his biggest hobby throughout his war was girls.
As I delve into these letters, I’m beginning to see why my mother mythologized my uncle. To use the parlance of the time, his letters paint him as a “really swell fellow — simply grand.” I would love to have had the opportunity to meet him, but we missed each other by 22 years. And I am again struck by the differences — at least the superficial ones — between the men of that time and the men of our time. My father’s uncle Cam, a veteran of the entire European campaign never shared his war experiences with anyone, to the family’s knowledge, and it never seemed to have affected him. It feels as if the men of that generation returned from a global conflict and got on with life. I think I could take a lesson or two from the men of that time in simply getting on with things.
Were the men of that time perfect? Undoubtedly not. They were products of a different time. Some of the attitudes and behaviours not even noticed back then would be considered abhorrent today. But it’s kind of neat to be given the opportunity to glimpse through a window into your family’s history, to imagine meeting a long-since-lost man in your family, to hope that you would find him up to your expectations, and that you would meet his.Read More
I don’t own a cottage — although I am quite happy to be invited to other people’s! When we started to get on top of our mortgage and cash flow, and something like a recreational property became an option, my partner and I opted for investing in our back yard instead, and we now call it the cottage.
She’s in charge of the garden and I lend brute strength and occasional good ideas; I’m in charge of drinks, food, and keeping the little patch of grass, the stonework, and anything else that needs maintenance maintained. We’re happy with our choice. We tell people “we can barely keep up with one house — what would we do with two?!”
But … I grew up with a “cabin” (that’s what we called it, not a “cottage”, although sometimes it was “the bungalow”) a few miles from our house. What I remember from my childhood is roaming through the little patches of forest with an air rifle and plastic Viking figures that were in my mom’s bags of puffed wheat, setting up shooting galleries and practicing my aim, swimming in the clear salt water of the Bras d’Or Lake, playing with giant inner tubes that my dad got hold of from somewhere, bonfires with toasted marshmallows, and my dad working.
My mom worked when we were out there, but her work never seemed as hard to me as dad’s work. Mom worked on keeping us all fed and watered, on getting bug spray applied, at planting a few flowers here and there, at welcoming friends and family when they’d pull up. But dad… There was a marshy section of the property, and he worked to dry that out and clear it, seed it, and turn it into something you could walk on. Wheelbarrow loads of fill and soil. I first remember actually getting to the lake holding on to a rope that helped you down the fairly steep bank. Then there was a staircase, and then a nicer staircase. My dad would take a swim, but then he’d put on an old pair of sneakers and grab a pry bar and start moving rocks to make a bigger swimming area. When the grass needed to be cut, it wasn’t a ride-on mower, it was a push mower, its motor roaring, its wheels being adjusted to accommodate the rough terrain and stumps and rocks and roots. When it came time for the bonfire, it was he who built the fire, and it was he who would tend it with a long steel poker, making a place where the coals glowed for the best marshmallows.
He worked way harder than I’d be prepared to do at my age. And he did that after a week’s hot, sweaty work at a steel plant. His brother was another steel plant LeDrew — they almost all were — and when his emphysema got to be too much to let him work at his cottage, he stopped going rather than watch his children do what he saw as his job.
We live in an era of specialization and technology. I grew up helping my dad change our car’s oil and do basic maintenance. Much of what we did simply can’t be done on modern cars. Our back yard was landscaped by others. When our dishwasher broke recently (DISHWASHER, my dad would scoff, were he here…) I tried and failed to fix it. In came the specialist.
Our cabin didn’t have any pretensions. It didn’t even have plumbing. The beach wasn’t an endless expanse of honey-coloured sand. But I hope that my dad looked at it with the pride of someone who had used his muscles to make something. That’s what men like him did.
It’s difficult to muster a similar sense of pride over some glowing pixels. Sometimes, there was a nobility and a simplicity about how things were that I’d like to try to recapture now. How about you?Read More
I have been listening — against my will — to a lot of “new country” music over the last couple of weeks. And let me tell you, it’s not to my taste. My tastes are very broad when it comes to music, but 90 per cent of what I heard — from “Drunk on a plane” to “River bank” — I disliked.
And it got me thinking, all these songs. It reminded me first of this video that I saw a while ago: “Why country music was so awful in 2013.”
And then I got to thinking that this whole country music thing is an example of people putting on a mask that they want to be their persona. The concepts in country’s top hits right now don’t really relate to real life as I think of it. In Canada, we’ve never been more urban as a population. But the songs people seem to listen to are decidedly rural. People drive trucks that they rarely use for their original purpose, and trucks that are incredibly luxurious compared to those of the past.
I’m a folkie, and a lot of the music that I listen to seems to reflect my reality, and I feel (I am perfectly ready to admit I’m being hypocritical if challenged) that the country music hitting it big doesn’t reflect generalized reality.
Billy Joel once wrote:
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
I think men are more likely than women to put on those masks. From our hildhood we’re encouraged to do it. “Big boys don’t cry”, “be a man”, peer pressure: we’re pretty darn likely to find a persona that we put on to please others. I certainly did.
But the thing is — we don’t have to choose those masks, and we don’t have to live up to any pop culture stereotypes. Wanna be a cowboy? That’s cool. But look critically at the features of whatever mask you’re putting on.Read More
In an article from TIME magazine last year, Virginia Postrel writes about The Twisted Allure of Jihadi Glory. While it features the outcry over the Rolling Stone cover featuring Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, it poses a bigger picture question on the power of glamourization.
Postrel shares a quote from novelist Salman Rushdie, no stranger to controversy himself as the author of the 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Asked about what motivates suicide bombers, Rushdie’s answer is illuminating:
Terror is glamour – not only, but also. [Terrorists] are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic… The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives.
As Postrel shares in her piece, Rushdie hits the nail on the head when it comes to how glamourizing something offers an incentive to act upon, to increase the perception of who we are and how we act, which made me think of how glamour warps our everyday lives.
The Power of Glamour
You can go back to virtually any point in history, and you’ll find countless examples of glamourizing something that was anything but.
In her piece, Postrel talks about martial glamour – or how war seemed glamourous to those that would follow in their leader’s footsteps. She talks about Achilles from ancient Greece, but you could also look to the poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Tennyson, to see how war was glamourized.
Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
Until the First World War and its huge loss of life, war was seen as a heroic endeavour. Today, we think differently – and yet, as Postrel’s piece shows, some of us don’t.
This is the problem with glamourization – how do we reel in what we encourage blithely?
The Persuasion of Hope
Marketers and brand advertisers have been using glamour in a bid to create desire and action within their target audience for years.
Think back to the black and white movies of the 40’s, where the movie stars of yesteryear would happily smoke on-screen and be regarded as sexy and sophisticated for it. Today, we know the dangers of smoking – just over 70 years ago, it was actively encouraged.
Or look at the success of magazines like Vogue and Elle, that portray perfect women that rarely reflect society’s real women and their various shapes, sizes and lifestyles.
These examples, and others like them, build on the desire of their audience(s) to be more like the actors on screen or the models on the page, as opposed to being happy with who they are.
By tapping into this powerful hope, or desire, brands use the power of persuasion that people need to be something they’re not in order to be valued.
As Postrel shares in the TIME article, that value can come from making powerless people feel significant. In advertising and marketing, that value can come from answering the “if only” question.
- If only I had a better job;
- If only my car was as cool as my neighbours;
- If only I could look good in that tiny bikini;
- If only. If only.
The problem is, even those we aspire to be like aren’t perfect. Magazines take perfectly good-looking people and airbrush them to an even higher plane of “perfection”. Movies use focus filters and post-production effects to showcase their stars in the best light.
By creating an unrealistic desire, we’ve created a culture of hope that can never be met – at least, not until the next campaign where we can start it all over again.
Realism and Reclamation
The problem, of course, is that to deny hope, we deny growth and our future selves. Why shouldn’t we want to reach for something we don’t have, or be like someone we admire?
The thing is, we don’t need to deny ourselves. We should do all these things, and more. But we should do it realistically.
We need to stop promoting the idea that unrealistic imagery is the norm. Individually and in a wider context, we need to understand that glamour is only a facade of what realism truly is. To continue to glamourize our perfect selves doesn’t help us grow – it merely stunts us, and that benefits no-one.
It’s not as if we need to play the glamour card, either.
- The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty has won widespread praise for the way it showcases the beauty of women in all their natural sizes;
- UK retail chain Debenhams has invoked a ban on airbrushing models for their promotional materials;
- Lifestyle magazines like Cosmopolitan are calling for clothes manufacturers to stop the obsession with unrealistic sizes.
These are important steps from the types of companies on the front line that can truly initiate a different way of thinking. But they’re just the first steps.
As marketers, we need to be able to instil desire without taking the lazy way out. As businesses, we need to be more realistic on who our target audiences are and what they really feel, and need.
More importantly, as men – in marketing, advertising and plain old life – we need to look at women the same way we do each other. After all, when was the last time you saw a guy photoshopped to the Nth degree to present a false idea of sexiness to women?
Hopes and dreams are one thing. Selling hopes and dreams is another, and it’s the latter that can make the biggest leap to connecting the two together.
It’s time to see who’s up to the challenge.
image: Julian Rodriguez OrihuelaRead More