Dangerous expectations

Darien is basically Surrey-on-the-Sea with funny accents. Hardly surprising then that it hosts a thriving British community. The Darien Brit Group is famous in these parts. A refuge for expatriated Englishmen and women who need to burn a guy or two in November, participate in the odd vaudevillian pantomime and share a curry every so often. The traditions that make Britain great are upheld three and half thousand miles away by The Darien Brit Group.

I recently wrote a short piece for The Brit Group, entitled ‘Exiled in Darien’, containing some random initial impressions along similar lines of my ‘e-mails from America’. This may well have been a mistake, for the very next day I received the following e-mail:

“Simon, It seems like you are a huge hit with the Brit Group ladies who are all dying to meet you. I think your presence is required at the next Brit Group coffee morning on Monday – it is Valentine’s Day after all – perhaps you could give us a nasal trimmer demo, show us your new pants and write some poetry!”

Quite frankly I was scared witless. I’ve never written poetry in my life and, coming as the invitation did from a fellow Brit, exactly which pants did she want to see: my smart new trousers or my sulphurically diminished boxer shorts? Reciting poetry in tattered underwear while forcibly tugging out nasal hair in front of a Valentines Day audience of British housewives didn’t seem to me to be an especially good idea.

Being a shy and retiring type, the prospect of entering a lionesses den, having inadvertently stoked up a degree of expectation that I couldn’t in a million years hope to satisfy, terrified me.

The peril of raising false hopes has become all too apparent to me whenever I venture out in my Volkswagen. As I used to find with my Smart car, one of the attractions of driving something a little out of the ordinary is the camaraderie with others in the same boat (so to speak). Fellow Smart drivers always greeted me with a smile or a wave as we proudly passed each other in our motorized shopping trolleys.

The same happens here with Beetle Convertible owners, but with one significant difference. Without exception, every other member of this particular driving fraternity is in her early twenties. Consequently I always get the same reaction. The expectation of greeting a kindred spirit from the sisterhood is cruelly dashed when they spot me behind the wheel. Their eyes tell the whole story in that split second. It’s a story of disappointment, as they’re confronted by the crushing reality that their twenty-five thousand dollar trust fund toy is in fact driven by forty-two year old bald men.

I was thinking of putting in darkened glass and becoming a recluse in my own automobile before it occurred to me that such an action would rather defeat the purpose of having a soft-top.

Jay even confessed to me that he has told all his friends that it’s his mother’s car. I suggested that he tell them the truth; that it’s simply his Dad expressing his feminine side. Jay considered this a poor idea that would reflect badly on him. He argued that wearing a woman’s car is much the same thing as wearing women’s clothes. His image, he felt, would be better served by success in the wrestling ring than by coming clean about his father’s predilections. Difficult to disagree with that.

Putting aside my son’s concerns about my latent transvestitism, it did occur to me, in the midst of my rising panic over that coffee morning invitation, that there could be something to be said for this writing lark.

This thought returned when my wife recounted a recent luncheon conversation. A new work colleague, had said, “I hear you’ve got a very funny husband”. Ros looked blankly at her. She might have turned around to see if the remark could have been addressed to someone else, before issuing what I imagine would have been a pretty emphatic denial. ‘Funny’ is not one of the first words that would spring into Ros’s mind when considering her husband of fourteen years. In fact it’s probably one of the last, if not the last. Her luncheon companion though persisted and said she had been told that I write humorous e-mails.

Wow! This is fame. This is what I’ve always wanted.

My circulation list is an exclusive group of fifty, virtually all on the other side of the known world, and here we’ve got an American lady, who has never met me, telling my wife that I’m a funny man. Not only that, but she wanted to have lunch with me. Ros warned her that lunch wouldn’t be a good idea, that she might be disappointed; no, she would be disappointed. She suggested that, if this woman wanted a laugh, she would be much better off dropping me an e-mail. My wife grudgingly admits that, once in a blue moon, I’m capable of raising a smile electronically.

The sad truth is that, like Flaubert who lived by the maxim, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”; I’m better in type than in person.

I’m finally beginning to appreciate why people chose a life of poverty and hardship to become writers. And I’m beginning to wonder if I made the wrong career choice all those years ago. I chose advertising because I had been led to believe that it was sexy and would bestow upon me qualities that would make me irresistible to women. Now I have to be careful here, because it did indeed lead me to my wonderful wife, but never did it have quite the same impact as I’ve experienced in the past fortnight.

I pretty sure that I wouldn’t have made the same mistake had I been choosing my career over here in the States. There is nothing remotely sexy or clever or creative about the advertising fare that is served with monotonous regularity on American television.

Last month’s Superbowl, one of the main sporting events of the American calendar, was strangely hyped on the strength of its advertising spots rather than the game at hand. I knew which ads were going to appear before I knew which teams were competing in the final, which is quite something given my obsession for sport and the fact that, in the New England Patriots, one of the participants was a local team. So I tuned in with high expectation, only to find myself assailed with messages about hair loss and erectile dysfunction. Well I guess at least the targeting was spot on. About the hair loss I mean.

While in England one is taught to write advertising by dramatising a single key benefit, the American method is to hammer home every conceivable product point until their audience are beaten into submission. Just as you think the ad has finished they come up with “…and another thing.” It being America, the ads are also required to carry a long litany of riders. I particularly enjoyed one that came midway through the third quarter of the Superbowl for a product called Cialis. This advertiser paid $2.4 million to tell me “although a rare occurrence, men who experience an erection for more than 4 hours should seek immediate medical attention”. In such circumstances I’m not convinced that my doctor would be top of my mind.

American admen (and adwomen) prey on the vulnerable and trade off fear. They tell you that you’re an overweight, sexually inadequate, heart attack waiting to happen, bald no-hoper. And with a wife working in the business, I don’t even need to turn on the television to get these messages every evening. Confronted with such truth, it’s hardly surprising the small comfort I take in writing: a place where I can be, if only fleetingly, a funny guy in a feminine car.

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