Realiz(s)ations

My name is Peter, but most of my friends don’t call me that. Somewhere in the murky waters of ninth grade, many of my friends started calling me “Peetah”. By no suggestion of my own, my name had changed into its phonetic pronunciation from across the pond. The reason for this switch is simple.

To us Americans, phrases like “Peter”, “Harry!”, “Rubbish”, and “Hello, Governor!” are infinitely more fun to say when said in a British accent.

As someone who has always done impressions and voices well, I have seen firsthand the ridiculous obsession many Americans have with British accents. I was flocked, in grade school, anytime I told Malfoy to give it here, or I’d knock him off his broom. In seventh grade science, I despised a temporary substitute teacher enough, within the first few moments of hearing him talk, to speak strictly in a British accent for the next three weeks. I took two things away from that experiment. I learned not only that “Sickle cell” is very hard to say in a British accent, but that if you constantly lie to someone about your personality for three weeks, they won’t be very happy with you when they’re your full time teacher the next year. Thank goodness for the memory of the look on his face when I first broke character. Ah, was I ever a cheeky little bugger. Years of entertaining others with British catchphrases has been a fun ride, but it has left me with one conclusion about the relationship between Brits and Americans that I don’t very much like.

Americans, for the most part, fail to recognize that there is more than one accent from the country of England.

They deny the existence of any British voice outside of what they hear on television. When speaking with the average American, dialects one might find in Liverpool or Birmingham are ignored, and Cornish and Suffolk might as well have never existed. Cockney, thanks to Oliver Twist and Bellatrix Lestrange, has remained comical. But, because of the rise of international media in recent years, the Queen’s English (what is heard on BBC) is, exclusively, the voice of Great Britain which Americans hear and accept. In essence, most people in America associate a British accent with the voice – and demeanor – of Sir Ian McKellan.

ian-mckellen

For English folk, this gigantic generalization can be a good thing. They benefit from American ears, which associate the accent they hear with positive things like knowledge, high class, and sophistication. When an American hears an English accent, they think of all the posh and well-educated characters they have ever seen on television or in the movies. The antithesis of my Ian Mckellan statement, however, is much less satisfying.

If Americans listen to an English accent and hear Ian McKellan, the quintessential Brit, then who is the quintessential American? Who do British people hear when they listen to an American accent?

If Brits, or people of any nationality, for that matter, hear John Wayne when I speak, I think I might take a vow of silence. Nothing against the Duke, but I don’t roll my own cigarettes or swig whiskey. In fact, I don’t roll anyone’s cigarettes and I don’t think I’ve ever swigged anything, and assume those characteristics based on my voice would butcher the truth.

If a stereotypical British accent implies knowledge, then a stereotypical American (or Australian) accent implies ignorance. Since a general English voice brings to mind high-class, one can infer  that an American voice rings of classlessness. Where sophistication is found in one accent, impulse and crass are found in the other.

john wayne

In light of American society’s ridiculous associations and assumptions, resurrecting that seventh grade identity for the duration of my children’s development phases has never seemed like such a good idea. It’s for their own good.

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Marlboro Man, 2.0

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Look at this butch, beach-sun, back-lit bro.

Strolling down a February shoreline has never been so masculine-Noir. Champion of solitude and self-possession, our knight in shining Armani walks on toward an untold destination. As the chilly wind nips at his scruff, he pulls at both his collar and his Blu electronic cigarette – eyebrows cocked with a faux pensive confidence all the while. Chambers of silver smoke shoot from his nostrils, and as he looks the camera head on, his gruff cheekbones and deep brown eyes assure America that he is, with the help of his smoking habit, the coolest person in the whole world ever.

Ladies and Gentlemen – meet Marlboro Man 2.0

When I first saw the commercial for Blu electronic cigarettes featuring the man above, I was  in Times Square, New York City. I have seen it on my television at home several times since, but there was something about that first time. There was something about looking up at a god-knows-how-many-pixel screen alongside thousands of families to see a million dollar advertisement promote “nicotine refreshments” that really made me cringe. It felt uniquely strange, and I realized that never before in my life had I seen a television commercial glorify cigarette culture. That was, luckily, a phenomenon eliminated far before I was born.

Advertising for tobacco products on television and radio was banned in 1971, and there has been a constant battle between Big Tobacco and the FCC ever since. As recently as 2010, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act prohibited tobacco companies from sponsoring sporting, music, or cultural events, virtually eliminating explicit tobacco promotion from anything the public might see or hear. The cultural endorsement of tobacco products once seen everywhere – which successfully presented a malignant habit as a masculine one – was eradicated from the media long ago, and for good reason.

Advertising appealing to young males, which displays cigarette smoking as tough yet sophisticated habit, is a frighteningly successful strategy. Take the original Marlboro Man, for example.

marlboro man

Marlboro Man was first introduced as an advertising strategy in 1955. In just the first two years of his existence, his rugged demeanor increased Marlboro’s sales from $5 billion to $20 billion: an increase of 300%. The trend only continued. Marketing specific to young men quickly spurred an epidemic of cigarette culture which has only recently been beaten back. My short lifetime has witnessed the disappearance of smoking in bars, in restaurants, in many hotels, in just about anywhere that is not outside. Tobacco on school property is a serious crime, and programs are brought in to schools by the dozens each year to inform students of the life long dangers of nicotine addiction. All of this success and recovery is threatened, however, by Marlboro Man 2.0 and the electronic cigarette campaigns which created him.

Electronic cigarettes as a concept are not the problem. Although not regulated by the FDA they are, for the most part, less of a health risk than conventional cigarettes, and they provide a viable medium of emancipation from nicotine addiction. Unacceptable, however, is the advertising strategy employed to sell them, which through the use of flavored vapors and commercials like Marlboro Man 2.0 is blatantly aimed at young adults. As the results of this resurgence of smoking culture in the media begin to appear, it is clear that this nefarious marketing scheme should be addressed by law sooner rather than later. Electronic cigarette use and, consequently, conventional cigarette use has increased significantly in the last five years according to the CDC, with the use of electronic cigarettes among middle and high school students doubling between 2011 and 2012. These and tens of other similarly troubling statistics reflect not only a misguided appreciation of smoking, but a lack of appreciation for its terrible consequences among America’s budding adults.

For this reason, electronic cigarette advertisements, which promote the pernicious rut of nicotine addiction, should be banned from all types of mass media. If electronic cigarettes are to market the same skewed view of smoking as conventional cigarettes, they should face the same social elimination as conventional cigarettes as well.

It is important that we as a society perpetuate the truth to our youth: that smoking culture is a culture to be admonished, not admired. The families of Wayne McLaren, David McLean, and Dick Hammer – the three Marlboro Men, each of whom died of lung cancer before the age of 60 – would say very much the same thing. There is no glory or fashion in the culture of smoking smoking, electronic or not, and to advertise otherwise is a perversion of reality. To do so before the vulnerable eyes of youthful future generations is especially immoral.

If we are to learn from the societal disaster enacted by the original Marlboro Man, we must end his 21st century counterpart before it is too late.

Rippling Reflections

Rippling Reflections

If by some miracle or act of the almighty I became skilled with a paintbrush, I know exactly what I would paint.

Shapes once rigid break from their silhouettes to babble and curve. The hues of life are both softened and amplified. The Sun’s light dances – skipping like stones – in the rippling reflections of the world’s creeks and streams.

Maybe I could wish upon a shooting star for a Freaky Friday incident with someone more advanced, artistically, than I (past avant-garde stickfiguring).

Something like this painting, by Norwegian Impressionist Frits Thaulow in 1901, would be my inaugural artistic work. I first saw Thaulow’s work at the Philadelphia Art Museum, when Water Mill was on display. The water born from the tip of his brush seemed to be from a different dimension than the structures which laid in its reflection. The thought of it today in class inspired many a doodle in my notebook, but none could quite capture the beauty I sought, If only, if only…

A High School Museical

High school, for the most part, is not at all like what the movies would have you believe. For this, I am eternally grateful.

The differences between the real and the reel are not hard to pick out. Not once in my high school career did I participate in a spontaneous musical number that involved, quite rebelliously, both the closet cellists and the basketball stars. What a choreographic nightmare that would have been. Not once was I ever harassed, or even aware, of the bible club. Not once, thankfully, did any of my friends or my enemies (even more thankfully) turn into a werewolf. All jokes and musical numbers aside, there is one characteristic of those harrowing high schools to which I, thankfully, could never relate. From High School Musical to The Breakfast Club, all television and cinema depictions of life in high school are built around assumptions and, consequently, social cliques. It would appear that the interactions within and between cliques is an integral part of any high school experience – but for mine it was not.

People got along fairly well in my high school. Social boundaries that may have defined the lines in other schools were, although not invisible, easy to circumvent. In the midst of all the other ridiculous things that occur during those times, it seemed as if no one had time for cliques – they were often pushed aside.

For a while, I took pride in this. When I met people from other towns, I would discover how lucky I was to be able to sit comfortably at lunch with whomever I desired. I learned through a girl from North Carolina that the unwritten rules of other schools were consistent with those of the movies, and that in her school, as in many others, fissures formed. They separated students who could have gotten along: dividing athletes from musicians from academics, and appallingly creating a cleavage between students of differing social class. After hearing of a few other high school horror stories to the same, cliquey extent, I felt far from all of it. I told myself, with an introverted confidence, that I would never be one who was sensitive to social boundaries and the assumptions about others which create them. It simply wasn’t me.

It is all too easy to tell ourselves things – to brush our insecurities aside – in order to ease our fear of what the truth may be.

That truth came into the light of my inward vision within my first few days in college. My roommate, with whom I had conversed sparsely for a week or two, seemed like a good guy. I get along with most people, so there was little doubt in my mind that he and I would be perfectly alright for nine measly months. Sure enough, after a few hours, we discovered some uncanny similarities. Our senses of humor, along with our feelings toward dirty laundry, the finest microwavable cuisine, and a plethora of other college-kid topics, were increasingly more the same than they were different. I liked my roommate – he could have fit right in with my friend group back home. But, for reasons that I at first did not understand, I felt a sensation of surprise that he and I had connected past a head nod in the hallway at all.

As I went to bed that night, I began to understand why my roommate’s friendliness caught me off guard. Remembering a conversation of ours prior to actually meeting him, I had an embarrassing epiphany – one that I could not believe I was having. Weeks ago, my roommate told me that he was preparing for football camp. Subconscious as they were, assumptions had clearly been made by me about my roommate before I had known him in the slightest. In an awkward moment, I realized that I was not above the clique culture: my assumptions were perpetuating the very thing that had disgusted me throughout high school.

I was channeling my inner Ashley Tisdale. It had to stop. The fact that there was, apparently, an Ashley Tisdale within me at all was an urgent and uneasy warning.

So here we are with this story of mine. The setting, the conflict, the rising action, the climax – all significant, all in their places. As time goes on, and my roommate and I connect more and more over characteristics which I assumed could never be found in someone like him, I am starting to discover the final piece of the story. I am starting to find a resolution.

In a world where assumptions are so often inaccurate, there should never have been a “someone like him” at all. Not when, in my unknowing eyes, “he” was nothing more than a collection of small talk snippets and Facebook fragments. I had assumed that a football player and I would have little on which we could connect, but I had also assumed that I was above assumptions. My mind had acted in ways that were wrong and could have been hurtful, and as someone who has seen others hurting, I knew that a better person within me had to emerge. Sorry Ashley. When our assumptions are wrong as often as mine are, it is best not to assume you know others – or especially that you know yourself – before you really and truly do.

Pancakes and Syrup and Power in Silence

My father is a wonderful man. As a tax attorney for almost 40 years, he has dealt with dozens of grieving and often broken families, easing them through burdensome decisions and reconciling the solidarity that brought them into his office in the first place. As a dad, he has had at least one child in the house for 42 years and, surprisingly, still has the patience and wit to put up with all of them. With hungry eyes, hungrier grandchildren, and a raunchiness that pushes ubiquity, they appear at his table for dinner. He greets them with a rib-shaking, forehead-veined laugh every time. Fortunately for both his sanity and his poor, overused forehead vein (it’s an Olson thing), that 42 year streak will come to an end this fall, as I settle in as a college student and my parents try and spread their wings as empty-nesters. As is the case with any time of change, the advent of this new chapter in both of our lives marks the end of the previous one. That chapter – for as far back as my memory will serve me – has been characterized by our Sunday mornings and, more importantly, the silence that inhabits them.

My father is a man of routine. Every Sunday morning, while my mom was working and my friends were sleeping, my dad would wake me up at the same time with the same coo with the same pancakes with the same NPR. Everything was always the same, and the predictability, the seeming constancy of all that went on those mornings, was truly beautiful. Sundays were our time, and as sure as the comics were certain to be colorful and Will Shortz was certain to be puzzling, my father was certain to be silent. We would sit and eat together, occasionally offer another pancake, and smile. Talk was limited to things of true importance: baseball, books I was reading, and, of course, the never-ending imbecility that was our little dog, Maisy. Far more important than things said, however, were the moments of content when nothing was said at all. I don’t mean to paint my dad as a verbal recluse, he is just exceptionally reserved. He could have been more talkative with me, but – in the most sincere and cherished part of our relationship – he did not need to be.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie Pulp Fiction would apply, crudely, here. It comes from when Vincent takes Mia out to dinner and the two of them find they are both equally demure. “That’s when you know you’ve found someone special”, says Mia, “when you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.” I love my father immeasurably, he is perhaps more special to me than anything, and I would agree with Mia completely. This morning was our last Sunday morning before I have to move away for college, and as I sat, predictably, eating pancakes and listening to NPR, I looked at my dad and realized that silence, when underlined by content, is such a powerful thing.

Mastering the art of silence, as my father has, is a difficult thing to do. The time in between involved conversation makes most people immensely ill at ease – it takes a very special relationship for the art to thrive. When casual silence is able to grow, however, it can blossom into an intimate tool to express care, respect, and love. With a kind gesture or a pat on the knee, it has expressed as much and more to me for 18 years.

Silence, underlined by content and with Puzzlemaster in the background, is the most comfortable thing in my world.