Don’t underestimate the power of packaging

I bring in props from time to time for my students to write about — nothing too out of the ordinary: a bowler hat, a leather-bound notebook, a coconut. The idea is to trigger a response — whether real or imagined — and just to go with it.

Writing with nothing but a blank page is a tough business, and exercises such as, say, writing about a bowl of chestnuts can remind students of places and people in their lives. I am always pleased (and mildly surprised) by my students’ willingness to do this. Often these stories are quite moving. Some are humorous, some are mere prattle, but that’s OK too; it’s liberating to write without the burden of feeling the need to change the world with every sentence.

But here in my own home the favor is returned. A student of mine has given us all a prop to consider. I pull out the pack of Camel Lights a student had left in the classroom and show it to the boys, and my oldest snatches it from me. "A pyramid!" He turns the pack. "Say, these are from..." His younger brother protests and takes a swipe at them. "Don’t do it!" We all look at him (except my oldest who has already lost himself in the language on the pack, eagerly immersed in its prose as if reading a banned novel).

It’s clear that the younger is worried his brother will fall for it. We had been talking a lot about ads lately — their swiftness and cunning and the consequences of corporate greed on the general population who upon becoming hypnotized by a 30-second spot, unwittingly rush out to buy a Diet Coke, Nacho Cheese Doritos, a Buick…

My son worries that his older brother will fall under the spell of the Camel Light box, thereby committing himself to a sad, isolated life of smoking in the shadows of restaurant alleyways, thumb-flipping a coin with his cigarette-free hand. Since my wife and I don’t smoke, I thought they’d appreciate a chance at seeing "real" cigarettes up close. Sure, I thought they’d be interested, but I hadn’t anticipated the strong opposing responses.


This is one of the writer’s many lessons: simple things can set us off. You never know how someone might react to any given object. And I guess that’s the fun thing about being confronted with the unexpected from time to time. The cigarette pack is another reminder of how something so ordinary and unsuspecting can launch us all into oblivion.

Turns out, my son’s concern is warranted because, presently, his brother is leaning into the pack, neck strained, his eyes like twin suns hovering over the exotic rectangle planet adorned with palm trees and architecture of Middle-Eastern influence, above which words like Turkish and Aromatic and Distinctive Flavor And World-Class Smoothness are written in the clouds.

Somewhere in that vast, distant desert, in the mix of oppressive heat and blowing sand, is a lone voice pleading, desperate to save his brother’s life.

Jon Olseth has been an English faculty member at Riverland Community College since 1999.

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