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Tuesday, January 14, 2014


"You can observe a lot by watching"

You can observe a lot by watching, said Yogi Berra. And it’s true, but you often have to overcome the mind’s tendency to see what isn’t there, or to ignore what is there. For example, I found a box of chocolate candy in a store. The candy is round and covered with chocolate powder, making look like a chocolate truffle. And that’s what I thought that the box said. But it didn’t, the box was actually labelled “Truffes,” French for truffles. It was actually a month before I noticed what the box really said.

Filling in missing letters or ignoring misspelled words, scanning, is indispensable as a way of reading for most of us, otherwise reading would be a chore instead of an escape into another world. It's what makes proofreading so difficult; we often see what should be there, but isn't.  We can look at a page and instead of reading words, letter by letter, our minds ingest phrases, sentences even whole paragraphs at a glance while our minds create images of what an author is conveying with what are actually squiggles on a page.

But sometimes it pays to go back and read s l o w l y.  I occasionally look at magazines that arrive at my home or office and try to view them from a new perspective. Instead of reading the text or glancing at the pictures I try to look deeper and see what the medium tells us about ourselves and about our culture ... and the culture of the people who created the words and the pictures. One of the most interesting magazines for doing this is called Departures, a glossy magazine produced by American Express. It’s filled with very upscale advertising for everything from jewelry and watches to yachts and planes. This leads me to observe the world of upscale culture via ads aimed at the very rich.

For example, the first 30 pages of the November/December issue were completely devoted to full page advertising. High fashion models sporting purses, watches, jewelry and clothing. Surprisingly, watches lead all other categories. Why would this be since, for most people, watches are really no longer necessary for telling us the time. Our computers tell us the time, so do our VCRs, our toasters, our thermostats, our radios, roadside signs and – of course – our phones; telling time is the number one function of cell phones. My son doesn't wear a watch but he carries his cell phone at all times.  So why the ads for watches that sell for upward of $300,000? Simple, it’s a fashion statement. They don’t tell its wearers the time, it tells people who wear them, and those who see them wear them, that the wearer can afford the financial equivalent of the typical suburban home on his wrist … and pay cash. That makes the Ascot Chang (another advertiser) suit at a mere $3900 and a shirt for $335 appear a veritable bargain.

But for cultural significance what caught my eye was a two page spread for the Waldorf Astoria. The picture was taken in the Waldorf lobby of a woman wearing a tight fitting knee length knit dress walking toward us. She is looking out of the side of  her eyes, looking at a man striding into the lobby with his back to us. The focus is on the woman and her obvious interest in the man. It’s not an image of a happy couple meeting at the hotel; the lobby is not even particularly attractive. The message is that the Waldorf is where bored upper class “cougars” go to find younger men. And that, along with ads for yachts that can be chartered for a million dollars per week (plus, fuel, food, drinks and don’t forget to tip) tell us a lot about our culture.

The next time you see a magazine, TV show, a movie or an Internet website, shed your preconceptions, look at it with a new eye and see the message you may have skipped at first glance. You may see things you may not have seen before. And it may teach you something about a world you may not know exists.

(Edited 1/16/2014)


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