The Working Dead

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Save yourself before the Working Dead consume you!

working-dead2

Friday 21 October 2016

They’re among us

Some named … Cathy, Donald, Robert, Dale, Meredith … Some nameless

They are The Working Dead

Hunched over desks … 9, 10, 11 hours a day

Thick stench of inactivity and wounded ambition

Sustained on routine, machine coffee

Doing just enough most of the time

Little enough some of the time

Never enough at crunch time

Oh, you’ve seen them alright

Shared an office 

Watched them shuffle … 

To the copier, kitchen, smoke room 

You tried to reanimate them

Call them out or cast them out …

Save the team, save the company 

No, forget it … save yourself!

Before The Working Dead consume you

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Do the laws of nature apply to your career?

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Just as people reach the very heights of their chosen careers, their job satisfaction begins  to dip. Is this an inevitable law of career physics?

Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Grafitti inside a church steeple. Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Tuesday 29 September 2015

The unwritten law of a stellar career is that you work hard when you’re young, establish a good reputation and reap the rewards as you climb the ladder. But what happens when the view from high up the ladder starts to get a bit blurry?

At some stage after about 50, a strange phenomenon begins to take hold. Reading goes from being an enjoyable cerebral exercise to an upper body workout as well, as you pump the book in and out to find what seems to be an ever-changing range where the words become clear.

Standing up, once done with ease, becomes a two-step manoeuvre; first you raise yourself, then you wait a second to stop the spinning (that could be a sign to go to the cardiologist as well). And the once simple task of cleaning a gutter becomes a daredevil act as vertigo sets in (something to do with the inner ear, among other things).

Could it be that a career also follows the laws of nature, ageing or mechanical motion?  As you achieve what you set out to do early in your career, the highs and the exhilaration of ‘new’ challenges drop off – unless you’ve been job-hopping for decades or qualify as some kind of workplace adrenaline junkie and always push for the latest, toughest assignments.

Speaking to people who have reached their career Everest – or K2-equivalent – reveals a hidden tyranny of success. The higher they climbed, the further they moved away from what they loved doing the most; the things that drew them to the job in the first place and, no doubt, propelled them on the path to career success.

One medical scientist I spoke to said in the final years of his career – before retiring from a position as head of department – he spent more time dealing with holiday rosters and refereeing staff tiffs than he did looking through his beloved microscope. The rest of the time he dedicated to grant proposals and speaking at conferences. Neither of which were terrible but these tasks didn’t light the same fire in the belly as a discovery in the lab.

A French-speaking engineer I once helped to improve his English presentation skills – after his company was taken over by an American one – once confided that he still yearned for the days when he managed the factory floor. His intimate understanding of the production processes, combined with people skills and aptitude for figures, made him an ideal upper-management candidate in industry. He took every promotion he was offered and valued the challenge of leadership roles. But – and this is a big ‘but’ that comes later in a career – deep down it wasn’t really what he loved doing.

For some jobs, or perhaps the people in them, the true height of their career may not be the wrung in the ladder that delivers the best views. Of course, the decision to take promotions is theirs, and they have to own that. But the irony – wrapped inside an enigma – is that the majority of people only discover this ‘viewpoint’ after climbing to a dizzy height.

But there is another law of nature that everyone knows; what goes up must come down. So, whether by choice (step down), failure to continue performing (demoted or sacked) or simply holding on tight (pension time), there is at least one certainty in every career.

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Hijabs and the beautiful game

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Despite their conservative reputation, a growing number of veiled Muslim women are taking up football… and giving men a run for their money.

Kicking ball

Wednesday 9 September 2015

There is a general perception across the globe that if you are a Muslim woman who covers her hair, then you are restricted in the sports you can play – or that you are not allowed to play sports at all. While this is the case among the most conservative, many hijabbed Muslim women play sports, including professionally.

Leena Rodgers is of Syrian and British descent who resides and works in Dubai, UAE, as a social media executive during the day but in the evenings and at weekends, she laces up her boots and turns her attention to football – her hobby and passion. “As a child, I was an all-rounder at sports,” recalls Leena.

At the age of nine, Leena first encountered the beautiful game when she accompanied her mother to her younger brother’s football practice. “I felt this instinctive urge to play too,” she recounts. Leena soon discovered that football had a more powerful pull on her than any other activity, toys or games, and it rapidly became her main source of fun.

Luckily, rather than informing Leena that girls don’t play football, her mother encouraged her talent. Leena began training with a professional coach who was an injured ex-footballer  and it was he who helped develop her skills.  A few years later, Leena started to learn advanced football skills on her own and through practice games.

At first, other girls were unaware that Leena was playing football, as it was still an unfamiliar concept for girls to play such sports around where she lived. It was only when she began secondary school that Leena actually started playing in a girls’ team.

Fortunately for the upcoming generation, the situation in Dubai has changed considerably since Leena’s pioneering days. “I currently coach girls in skills that I didn’t learn until my 20s, and they are only 4-12 years of age,” observes Leena. “It makes me sad to think how many skills I could have been taught that would have enabled me to become natural at them, if I’d been able to start younger.”

From the start of her footballing career, Leena was lucky to enjoy the full support of her family, although she admits that she still gets surprised looks when she informs her extended family that she plays football. “They see a girl and they just don’t think you’re actually any good,” she explains. In reality, Leena was always as good as her siblings and better in certain positions, especially defence.

Football was traditionally a working-class sport played mainly by men. Although this has changed considerably in the West, in the Arab world the sport was almost exclusively male. Leena’s instincts and abilities prompted her to push back the boundaries and to break with tradition. “I found myself good at it, sometimes better than the boys, so it made sense to continue,” she points out. “I was also the star of the defence, so the praise I got for that kept me going. I was depended on and I felt useful.”

IMG-20150131-WA017Her passion, talent and determination led Leena to play in the Dubai Football Women’s Association amateur league. She helped her previous team, the Arabian Leopards, to become league champions before moving to her current club, Sandstorm. Leena also plays in a mixed league and takes part in tournaments, which is a new trend that started last year.

Leena has been pleased by people’s positive reaction to women’s football team. “Off the pitch, they are usually impressed and don’t expect it when I say I play football,” Leena describes. But there is a lot of pressure to perform. “You almost feel like you have to justify to them that you are good and just as good as the guys, or even better. The standard is set in their eyes as soon as they see a girl, and a veiled one at that, which makes the task of the female footballer much harder than her male counterpart, as she needs to do double the effort in order to earn the audience’s respect in a way.”

On the pitch, though, it is different story. Male footballers tend to hold back because they are afraid of hurting the female players. “Some think that they shouldn’t challenge you – somehow they do it sympathetically, and some just refuse to play with girls because they think that they are not going to get a tough game out of it,” says Leena. “Also the more annoying part is when they don’t pass to you as much because they think you are going to cost them the game.”

Ultimately, however, Leena believes that her gender and religion do not, and should not, play a role in her sport. “At the end of the day, if you play well, no one cares where you’re from or what you are wearing,” she insists, “they are greedy for your talent and contribution.”

Leena regards football as both a hobby and a way of life, and, as a coach, a profession too. She loves everything about football because “it teaches you team work, reflection, improvement, fitness, excitement, urgency, awareness of your surroundings, concentration, handling situations under pressure – almost everything.”

“It also makes me incredibly happy, so I am so committed to it,” she adds.

The dream of playing football professionally is what keeps Leena’s ambition going but she is quick to point out that “I am where I am right now because I have got a bit of everything in my life – football, photography, social media, coaching.”

Football can affect one’s personal life, especially for women. Leena recognises that time management “is going to be a big factor in my life, knowing when to say no to football (which is extremely hard). I definitely have to fight for time with my family, because I recognise how important they are in my life and they shouldn’t be taken for granted.”

Leena sees a bright future for Arab and Muslim women’s football. “I think it is definitely on the rise and inshallah there will be more professional cups, leagues and tournaments because there is such a high demand for it.”

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Egypt’s underground sisterhood

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egyptian women are under attack from a failing patriarchy. But what is overlooked is that they are fighting back through grassroots emancipation.

10 September 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Surveying Egypt’s political landscape, you might be excused for thinking that women are a minority. Only five members of the Committee of 50 tasked with revising the constitution are women.

Unsurprisingly, this 10% ratio falls far short of the true proportion of the population women constitute, which in Egypt is just shy of 50%. Although women are politically under-represented everywhere in the world, in Egypt, the problem is particularly acute, as reflected in the pathetically low number of women in the first post-Mubarak (dissolved) parliament.

Egyptian women have been divided on how unfair this is. The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights – which advocates the use of quotas to balance the gender disequilibrium in Egyptian politics – criticised this “lean” representation, which is only 3% higher than the committee formed during the Muslim Brotherhood-led constitution drafting exercise.

Others have drawn consolation from the apparent quality of the women involved. But no matter how high the calibre or how strong the mettle of these five women, can they truly advance the cause of female emancipation and gender equality?

Of course, that is probably the entire point. Male politicians generally want to preserve male privilege, and excluding women from the political process is the most effective way of doing so. That would explain why the draft constitution still claims that all Egyptians are created equal, but some – namely middle-aged, Muslim men – are more equal than others.

So, while Article 11 ostensibly guarantees gender equality, much of what it giveth, it taketh away with the qualification that this should not get in the way of a woman’s “duties towards her family” and should adhere to the “principles of Islamic Sharia”.

Although many women and advocates of gender equality are rightly depressed and demoralised by these developments, I feel this post-revolutionary conservative backlash is less a function of the patriarchy flexing its muscles and more a sign of a weakened traditional male order desperately trying to reassert its shaken and failing authority.

With Egyptian women increasingly equalling and even surpassing men in the academic and professional spheres over the past few decades, the patriarchy has sought to hold on to the vestiges of its ever-shrinking spectrum of privilege and to control women in the only areas left: at home and sexually.

This manifests itself in how many Egyptian women may be managers or doctors in the public sphere, but at home they still have to behave like, or pretend to be, obedient housewives. It is also embodied in the excessive focus on “virtue” in which women have traded greater socio-economic freedom for ostensibly less sexual freedom, again at least openly.

This can partly explain the horrendous level of sexual violence that has been witnessed since the revolution began. The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.

This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.

Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.

One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.

Once upon a land in a time not so far away, the overwhelming majority of Egyptian women went around with their hair uncovered and many dressed in revealing western fashions. Interestingly, in the 1950s, even the daughter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s general guide, who wanted to force all Egyptian women to cover up, did not wear a headscarf.

While there is some validity to this sense of loss, there is a danger of over-sentimentalising the past, Although Egypt until the late 1970s was freer in some ways than now, in others, it was just as conservative or even more so.

Egypt’s modernising secular elite may have seen female emancipation as a crucial component of development and progress, but wider society was still largely traditional and agrarian. This meant that modernity was often fabric deep and did not extend far beyond the emulating of the latest Western fashions.

Women of my parents’ generation were still making the first tentative steps into higher education and the workplace, with all that entailed of battles against entrenched traditionalism. In contrast, today, despite increasingly conservative attire, Egyptian women have succeeded in just about every walk of life. Moreover, young women have plenty of role models to look up to, and female education and employment is taken for granted by millions.

Unsurprisingly, liberal Egyptian women want to protect what hard-won gains, relatively few and precarious as they may be, the feminist movement has made, and to try to build on them. However, they have to contend against not only the reactionary voices of Islamists and other conservatives, but also against those sympathetic to their cause who claim now is not the time, we have bigger fish to fry.

But if not now, when, if ever? Never? Since the 1919 revolution, Egyptian women have shared the pain of the struggle for freedom but have reaped few of the gains. Instead of being rewarded for their sacrifices, they have seen their cause constantly relegated, in the battle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, dictatorship, etc.

In addition, the West hasn’t helped by exploiting women and their cause to mask its hegemonic ambitions in the region, which has enabled Islamists to smear female emancipation as a “Western import” designed to tear apart the fabric of society.

While there may be some credibility to the notion that women cannot be free if the rest of society is not, I believe the inverse is far more true: society cannot free itself if half of the population lives in relative subjugation. A country wishing to prosper, resist internal repression and foreign domination cannot do so without gender equality.

As prominent feminist Nawal El Saadawi recently put it: “Democracy means economic equality, social equality – you cannot have democracy under a patriarchy when women are oppressed.”

In fact, the subjugation of women is partly a product of these ills – when politics is closed off to the masses, the vulnerable suffer. Moreover, the Ottomans, the British and Egypt’s domestic tyrants had an unspoken hierarchy of repression: the elite runs the public domain while men will run the private sphere.

This means that Egyptian revolutionaries looking to free society cannot postpone women’s liberation to an undefined “better” future, but need to make it a central and integral pillar of the collective struggle for “bread, freedom and social justice”.

More importantly, with the Muslim Brotherhood project discredited by Morsi’s presidency and its divisive politics, many Egyptians are questioning their former faith in Islamism. This provides a golden opportunity to advocate more muscularly for women’s rights.

Sadly, this seems unlikely in the political mainstream, which will continue to exclude not just women but also the young for some time to come. Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that Egyptian women are not taking this passively and are engaging in grassroots action to change their reality.

Though pioneering Egyptian women lack the safety net of a progressive legal system which safeguards their rights against regressive traditions, they are not waiting for their rights to trickle down from on top.

Every time I have visited Egypt since the revolution, I have been impressed by the increasing number of women I encounter who are defying social norms to live their individual and collective aspirations. These range from the political activists who risk life and limb for the cause to the growing number of women who pursue unusual careers, travel abroad or defer being married off (sometimes indefinitely).

When I first decided to live alone in the Cairo of the 1990s, this was unusual even for young men to do. When I was in Egypt a few weeks ago, I was impressed by the surprising number of women who are choosing to live alone.

And not all of them are from the “elite”. One young woman I met was born and raised in a small, conservative village outside Fayoum. University enabled her to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural Egypt. Not only does she live in her own apartment in Cairo, she has worked in China and the Gulf.

“The status of women has deteriorated a lot,” she admitted. “If the civil [Egyptian for ‘secular’] current gets its way, things will get better. I hope to one day see the first female president.”

While such an aspiration seems like wishful thinking today, I believe that it is entirely possible as grassroots change climbs gradually upwards. After all, if the Islamist counter-culture of the 1970s managed to mainstream its values, why can’t the secular current do the same? Political revolution needs social evolution.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 September 2013.

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A graceful exit?

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Exit interviews are ‘in’, but how trustworthy are they in today’s tough market? Is it like forced confession or can it ensure knowledge transfer?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Contracts are harder to come by so companies are downsizing like they’ve got a wasting disease in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. In their haste to save the company’s arse – and often their own – managers are falling into the ‘restructuring trap’ … not securing knowledge transfer and not learning from their mistakes.

Sure, exit interviews come highly recommended to staunch the knowledge loss, but how reliable are they when you consider the person being interviewed has just been told to pack his bags? Isn’t it like a forced confession? Don’t psychologists say our instinct is to mentally burn what we leave to justify our onward journey? Surely that is why we have evolved so well.

And what does a company’s failure to implement exit interviews say about its attitude to staff… or indeed its overall management competence? Interviewing a departing colleague makes good business sense. You can learn what works and what doesn’t in the company; and perhaps more to the point who works well and who doesn’t. Because the chances are that someone left behind will have to pick up the work of the departing colleague – unless of course they really were useless or cruising.

But even then you can learn something: how did they manage to keep under the radar, and does this mask a systemic problem which could explain the drop-off in business? Is their supervisor really on the ball? Does management understand how to win business in tougher economic climes?

There are reasons why companies baulk at looking too closely in the mirror. They could argue the cost of exit interviews during a period of ‘restructuring’ can’t be justified. But this rationalisation most likely masks a deeper problem – failing to implement robust human resource management practices (hiring, training and firing) – which may also reflect on the ‘no-one is indispensable’ corporate culture.

Companies, or indeed their agents (the managers) are also shy about being exposed to criticism, especially during times when it seems almost everyone is under scrutiny. Like this, the ‘honest feedback’ may shine a light on some poor decision-making made at all levels of the company. The default reaction: “Let’s not look too closely, shall we?” or “Let’s blame this person because they’ve already gone, and leave it at that!”

But this attitude misses the point of restructuring, and failure to implement exit interviews misses an even more valuable opportunity not only to learn something new about the company to improve its performance, but also the chance to send out ‘peaceful emissaries’ to the business world. Retrenched or fired staff members may have unflattering things to say about their previous employer. An exit interview gives the employee an opportunity to air their views, to feel their contribution amounted to something. For the company, it’s the last chance to make peace with the departing member of the team, sending them away with more positive impressions.

There is also the matter of what goes around comes around. Many companies operate in a relatively small marketplace and the chances of coming across the employee in another company, as supplier (or even client) are quite high. This works both ways, too.

The writers at Businessballs.com put this quite well: “The adage about treating people well on your way up because you might meet them on the way down applies just as well to on your way out.” So they advise departing staff to approach an exit interview, if it is offered, in a positive way: “Recrimination, blame, revenge and spite are destructive feelings and behaviours so resist any temptation you might have to go out with all guns blazing.” Nice visual.

Talent out the door

There is also the risk that during a rather radical staff-letting exercise a company may have misread where its true strengths lie, or indeed who its true talents are. A decision to let a whole department go which is no longer considered critical to the business – i.e. only making a ‘non-billable’ contribution to the company – can be risky when individuals in that department are rising talents, or already very accomplished. What happens to these skills? The competitors get them.

Forbes writer Mike Myatt highlights the pitfalls of failing to identify and nurture top talent in a company. “Few things are as costly and disruptive as unexpected talent departures,” he says. He questions the culture of a company that doesn’t see the signs of disenfranchisement. And arguably worse still, actively pushes the talent out.

People leave a company (not sacked) mainly because they feel under-appreciated and disconnected. More than 40%, according to the Forbes story, don’t respect the person they report to and around half say their values are different to their employer’s. Some two-thirds don’t feel their career goals are aligned with the company’s plans, and more than 70% feel undervalued and under-appreciated.

Myatt provides a litany of reasons which could explain how talent slips away from a company including: a failure to fire up their passions, challenge their intellect and engage their creativity; not developing on their skills or giving them a voice; providing insufficient support and care; weak leadership and not recognising their contribution to the company; and not delegating responsibility or securing their commitment.

Even in tough economic times when lay-offs are unavoidable and perhaps justifiable, there is always a good case for carrying out what needs to be done with professionalism and respect. The benefits far outweigh the costs, regardless of what the balance sheets say in the short term. Business is – or at least should be – a long-term investment, and that goes for the handling of staff as well.

Equally, parting employees – regardless of their talent or whether they had a choice – also have a unique chance to exit with grace and dignity. Who knows, they may find themselves back in the same office when business picks up again.

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The hair that binds

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Despite its bonding potential, a trip to the hairdresser’s can inflict trauma on soap-phobic pre-adolescent boys and their mullet-phobic fathers.

Friday 11 January 2013

I can think of three traditional male-bonding rituals between father and son: fishing trips, the first football match together and that birds and bees chat. Today, I am reminded of another … going to the hairdresser together.

I’m sitting in an over-lit salon on a white faux leather couch flicking through magazines with my eldest son in search of a hairstyle that doesn’t make him look more of a Muppet than he currently does. It’s not going well. He’s all attitude and insists he just wants the fringe out of eyes and may be less hair on the sides.

As someone raised in the 1970s and 1980s, I can see that instructing the hairdresser to do this will result in only one thing … the dreaded mullet. Remember Bono in the 1980s, Billy Ray Cyrus in the 90s and, for those familiar with Australian Rules Football, the 21st century incarnation of this fashion travesty Richmond player Ivan Maric.

Failure to face this challenge today in an adult way, failure to overcome the fear of making a scene will have serious consequences. It will scar the memory of this landmark father-son bonding moment. The pointed finger of shame will be cast in my direction for months (until the mullet grows out) as parents recognise my salon failure, my inability to instruct the hairdresser on the appropriate length and style for a nine-year-old boy.

As I mull over the perils of this decision, an executive-looking guy walks in with his preteen son and says with authority to the hairdresser, “Can I leave my boy here to wait for a cut … make it short for school but perhaps not too much off the fringe!” The hairdresser flutters agreement to this alpha male and he walks out of the salon, leaving the boy to finger his smart phone morosely while he waits his turn.

“You see how lucky you are?” I say to my boy whom I clearly think shouldn’t care how his hair looks. “Some dads just tell the hairdresser how to cut it and that’s it.” After months of badgering him about the state of his hair, my wife decided it was time that I stepped up and did what fathers do … problem is, I’m not really sure what they’re supposed to do in this situation.

Fishing trips aside, my dad was not the most hands-on in these matters. For example, the birds and bees thing was a memo delivered via my mum along the lines … “Get him some condoms and make sure he uses them!” My mum obliged but her timing was a bit off. I was 14 and still very much a virgin. The procured box of condoms was met with some bemusement at first but that gave way to amusement for my friends and I who found a good use for them as water bombs.

So, here I sit 30 years later with my own son and sometimes I possess barely an inkling of the requirements that this entails. Next to me is a man waiting equally as uncomfortably on this white sofa, enduring the top ten R&B tunes of today on a mounted TV and humming some incessant tune of his own. Second thoughts … it’s a tick and it’s really starting to wind me up.

Two hairdressers work on three women at various stages of what appears to be their Saturday wash-and-dry routine, while a chatty woman with a red nose waits her turn. Builders bring in materials for renovations and the red-nosed woman takes up position as traffic cop opening and closing the door each time they return with planks and boxes.

Meanwhile, my son has narrowed down his choice of hairdos to two possibilities. I struggle to hide my envy that he has a choice at all. Hair loss is cruel. I like both cuts, but one could really work with his hair, and although it is ‘fashionable’ it is also boyish, so perfect for his age!

I’ve got Time magazine’s people of the year edition open in front of me, but as interesting as Obama, Cook and co. may be, it’s impossible to concentrate. Inane nattering, R&B warbling, coiffed madams complaining, builders bantering … Human suffering gets a makeover in the salon.

Finally, it’s my boy’s turn. He approaches the spray-tanned stylist and shows her the page with the look he wants. She seems impressed. He sits and she pumps the seat to the right height.

Mullets now safely behind us, fresh concerns bubble to the surface. Will she go too far and turn my innocent boy into a Dorian dandy? What will his mother say when I walk him in with a new romantic flick that would put Spandau Ballet to shame?

I take a seat next to him and my panic is palpable. She starts at the back. He says, “Don’t let her cut too much off’, in Swedish (his mother is a Swede) so the girl doesn’t understand. But all my own fears of making a fuss come back to me. I get a flashback of the times I sat in the salon chair saying nothing as I see the next three months of my life being destroyed until the tragedy she is creating on my head grows out.

I tell him it looks great. I can tell he’s not convinced, but he can’t see what she’s doing so it’s still safe. Then she starts on the sides and front. Hair piles up on the floor. With every chunk jettisoned he winces. I can picture him starting to cry and embarrassing the hell out of me when she finishes.

Then it starts to take shape. My dread subsides momentarily. My boy smiles as the fringe is tidied up. I say it looks great and really mean it because it does. No mullet, no new romantic. We think it’s all over when she pulls out another pair of scissors and starts cutting it all again. I say cutting but it looks more my scraping as she distresses the ends … and me … with every pull.

Next comes the razor and I think this is where I have to say enough is enough, but I remember her being so pleased to be able to work on a proper hairstyle, from a book and all. I don’t have the heart to take this creative moment away from her. I sacrifice my child to her tepid career in a provincial salon. I close my eyes and pray that it will be over soon.

“Umm, do you want me to put gel in it?” I open my eyes and see that the creation is finished. “Gel?” she says slower and louder like young people do when speaking to the elderly. I look at my son, and he screws up his nose.

“No, I think it’s fine the way it is,” I say with a measure of exhaustion creeping into my voice. She brushes the hair off his face and back and removes the smock. He turns to me, catching himself in the mirror on the way, and I’m just waiting for that look which means “Daddy, I’ll never trust you again”.

It doesn’t come. Instead I get a broad smile and glint of pride. It’s a cool cut from a magazine but it still makes him look like a boy … a beautiful nine-year-old boy. The stylist is pleased with herself. The customer, my son, is pleased with himself. The father, me, is relieved as hell. We leave the salon and he takes my hand as we walk back to the car.

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Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t (know)

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Yes, it’s a famous Cole Porter song but an even better ambition for a fading socialist of the 1980s kind.

15 October 2010

Tis easy to have socialist leanings in your youth because you’re usually broke and life hasn’t dealt you enough blows to know the difference. You write off your conservativevoting gene pool as misguided and scorn Gordon “greed is good” Gekko, the devil of Wall Street personified.

You pack up your Renault 12 with all your belongings and move to the city to study LawArts (because just Law could be misconstrued). There, you find kindred spirits. Rich and poor kids grunging it up (or down), railing at inequalities and injustice the full length of Islington.

You get political. You get more ideas. You read other people with ideas, and you pick up the language of action, the language of change. University ends. You’re broke and can’t afford to keep studying.

So you take up a crummy entry level job out of university and the bosses are all bastards growing rich off your sweat and toil.

You sleep on just the mattress, because it’s down to earth, and the Batik wall hangings smell distinctly like stale paraffin and incense. Your friends still pop over unannounced and your repertoire of conversation pieces and quotes include Kundera (most used: “A worker may be the hammer’s master, but the hammer still prevails.”) and a fistful of foreign film titles that you claim to watch sans sous-titres.

Miraculously, you get to work on the stroke of 9 am every morning and then count the hours till your hangover wears off, while inventing evermore creative ways to power nap in the office. Successful methods are shared with compatriots. Favourites include the paperclip caper (PCC), postoffice pass (POP), and the dodgy Somali sauce slip (SSS).

PCC is simple yet ingenious. Spread paper clips liberally under the desk, close your office door fourfifths (fully closed = something to hide), snuggle into a pocket under your desk and nap until revived. If you hear the distinct footsteps of your boss – languid and leather-soled – commence paper clip pickup and bump your head deliberately on the desk as you act startled by his presence in the doorway.

POP works a treat when you really have to join your housemates at the free Tibet demonstration. Pull out the registered mail slip you keep in the drawer and wave it liberally until the secretary and several colleagues have seen it. Then casually leave, saying: “I’ve got to pop out’ (details smell of deceit). Take as long as needed, and claim killer queues for longer stays.

The triple S is the young socialist’s equivalent of a bad prawn at the quayside brasserie, and can be deployed with no backstory or preparation for those moments when the Cheinspired sangria just won’t stay down. It draws ample sympathy and no suspicion as your breath smells of uncooked garlic from the guacamole, not telltale booze fumes.

[You might wonder why young socialists have to be so ‘creative’ with their skiving. This is because the bourgeoisie classics, like letting a tradesman into your house, don’t work when you rent and don’t have any white goods or renovations to worry about.]

You’re 20something and eager to change stuff about the world, about your neighbourhood, about your self. You talk about career like it is social climbing, and you slip in something existential at least twice a week – even if just to say the word – to remind yourself that you are ‘existential’. That the silk tie isn’t you and that being quite good with spreadsheet databases is a handy skill for, say, protest mailouts.

But something is wrong. You forget to send your apologies to the monthly union meeting, again. Your friends pop over as usual and you’re a bit annoyed because you rented a video cassette. And one Monday ‘the man’ calls you into his office. You think the PCC game is up and prepare to deliver your rehearsed ‘fyou’ speech. But it’s worse than you thought: instead of dismissal, he deals your ideals a body blow by giving you a promotion.

Of course, you know deep down your left leanings are straightening out when you catch yourself complaining to a fellow middlingmanager that your staff is punching the clock instead of pulling their weight. Still, you haven’t faced the 4AD music with your friends.

You don’t tell them about the next promotion, either. But soon a work car appears on the scene – much harder to conceal. Next thing you know, you’re eating with friends and their partners at a Thai restaurant. As the bill comes you lift a cheek [of course you’re sitting crosslegged at the table and can’t reach your wallet otherwise] and deftly pull out a credit card.

“You can’t pay for it all!” they protest. Still, noone makes more than a halfhearted attempt to stump up. Then a mate quickdraws his own credit card, then another has one out. Now you start to protest, pulling your trump card… you’ll expense it. Everyone goes quiet.

The broke mate who’s doing his second masters, this time in election monitoring, breaks the silence: “I’ll get it next time,” he says deadpan.

Everyone cracks up laughing. Socialism gets its death knell… and the relief to all in the room is palpable. Bring on the High Society.

©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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