Diary of a Christmas Decorator

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For those who think that Christmas decorations are a matter of lassoing a few strands of lights around a tree and fixing a plastic wreath with a red bow on the front door, don’t bother to read further.

***

Jim Hamilton used to be a Broadway set designer. These days he focuses more on architectural design – shopping centers, interiors of restaurants and homes of the scions of society – but for Jim, The Look is everything.

Some say he even hired a manager once because he liked his look – that of a funeral undertaker. I firmly believe he hired me because he liked my (then) look. At least, at the time, he told me that I looked like a fashion plate. (That was years ago. These days I have of course gone to seed with a vengeance. The bloom has long gone from the rose.)

It was in the middle of November that I bumped into him in the lane that leads to the restaurant.

He asked me if I would do the holiday decorating at his restaurant.

“Erm. Yesnaby” I said, undecidedly.

I was flattered that he would entrust me with such a gargantuan task, but I dreaded that I would displease him.

“I want them up by Thanksgiving,” he said fixing me with a rheumy eye.

I stuttered idiotically. Greatness has this effect on me. crisdec

***

Monday 24th November

A summit of decorators has been scheduled.

There is Pat, an elegant woman and lifelong friend of Jim’s who decorated the restaurant for years until it became toomuch.com.

Then there is a dishwasher who has come in from Trenton, a Vietnam vet who is a local character and a server who is seeking to make additional funds to finance the petrol for her trip to Tennessee for her daughter’s graduation.

The decorations have been stored in black bin liners in the Executive Chef’s garage.

Like so many sheathed dead bodies, they have to be lugged to his truck, transported to the restaurant and then hoisted off the truck and stored in the downstairs area of the office.

There are huge – eight foot tall – arches, wreaths, swaths and more arches – all wrapped in black plastic. There are countless boxes of faux foliage, holly, baubles and berries.  And there are tangles –  lianas – of Christmas lights.

While the dishwasher and the Vietnam vet position the arches in the Gallery, Cindy unravels the lights, ninety-nine percent of which don’t work.

Pat and I set out to find the amber light strands that Jim wants. We are unsuccessful. After considerable deliberation we settle on mixed cream and amber strings. Some $250 worth.

Six hour day.

Tuesday 25th November

Vietnam vet is the electrical guy. He is also the guy with a transistor radio which he almost-tunes to a station that is playing heavy metal. There is lots of ACDC.

“I’ve seen these guys! I’ve seen them!” he bawls above the din. “They came out on stage like animals escaping a cage.”

I yearn for ‘Oh little town of Bethlehem,’ but I don’t want to annoy the Vet. He is temperamental and is likely to walk off the job.

Six hour day.

Wednesday 26th November

Vietnam walks off the job. threearches

He has taken three days to complete the wiring on three arches.

Cindy and I resolved to finish the job ourselves.

It starts snowing. Not the charming filigree flakes but the large wet ones that cause the windscreen wipers of my little bug to jam.

I drive to Living Earth, a nursery and holiday accessory store that is filled with mind-wateringly beautiful stuff to make sure yours is a Christmas filled with rampant consumerism.

Plants, flowers, wreaths, poinsettias the size of dinner plates. I am in search of antique ribbons which they will make up into bows before your eyes.

When I pay the bill I understand why the locals call it

Living Wallet.

Jim’s exhortation to finish the decorating by Thanksgiving is not possible. There are five rooms and I am one person. Fiddling with fir will cut your fingertips. My thumbs are so cracked I can’t take my contacts out of my eyes.

Sunday 30th November 

I have persuaded Abigail to help me with the holly garlands. While she is on the ladder the new manager comes and informs her that he is a fashion designer and interior decorator and that he has done these things himself.

We are in the presence of greatness

It is day six of decorating. My crew has lost interest. Besides they have lives to attend to.

My Pomeranians are neglected as latchkey children and my editor’s emails go unanswered.

Friday 5th December 

Jim delivers the coup de main. He comes into the restaurant on Friday night and demands to see me.

He doesn’t like the white and amber lights! He wanted all amber! I explain to him that I couldn’t find amber lights in any local stores,

“If I find amber lights you’re in trouble,” he tells me.

My apartment has been bombed. I have been held up at gunpoint. Who knew that amber lights would be my coup de grâce?

Saturday 6th December

Jim calls me at the crack of nine to summon me to the restaurant to instruct me further on how to realize his vision.

I jot down frantic notes as we go from room to room.

More lights. Advent wreaths. Window boxes. A Christmas tree outside that has to be lit…janidecorator

He makes quick drawings of The Look of the window boxes and The Look of the topiary that needs to be planted in the urns outside the front door.

People’s lives are going on but I am in stasis with the decorating saga. Like writing a book, it started out as an adventure, and then became a mistress and finally is a card-carrying tyrant.

Every morning another box from Amazon.com thuds on my doorstep. Every day I shuttled to and from Finkles Hardware store buying extension cords, staple guns (to disguise the extension cords), hammers and nails.

On Wednesday morning I go to Jim’s atelier to meet with Charles Tiffany who will install a chandelier in the resto Delaware Room.

“Do you want ribbons or garlands on the chandelier” I ask.

“Both!”

I am tasked to buy another Christmas tree for the Garden Room.

I started this project as optimistic as someone who starts a crossword puzzle with a fountain pen. Now I am faltering. I ask Jim if his phone can receive pictures. I don’t want to make a mistake and buy the wrong tree.

He waves me aside impatiently.

“Go and buy a fu!@#ng tree! How hard can it be?”

I drive to Flemington. It is perilous driving a car that has the horse power of a perambulator. As each SUV and Hummer roars past me, my little bug feels as though it is about to wobble off the road.

There are no suitable trees at Michaels or Home Depot or any of the other three places that I try.

I have to call in a favour from my mortgage broker friend. He comes to fetch me in his wife’s Audi SUV. I (again) go to Bountiful Acres. It’s like an FAO Schwartz for Christmas decorators. Fake trees run at about $300.

“Get a real one,” Tim urges me.

I have never understood the annual American ritual of tree slaughtering, but in the interests of the man whose taste I admire above all, we join the puffy-jacketed throng milling around in the dark looking for an appropriately sized and shaped tree.

We drag the tree into the restaurant. I text waiter Steven saying “Please put the tree in water or the blood will be on your apron.”

Steven texts back:

“I won’t become part of your Christmas nightmare.”

Next day Jim looks at the tree.

“Let’s forget about the tree. I’ll take this one down to the shore.”

(He has a house at the shore.)

Finally on Sunday morning,  Pearl Harbor Day, Jed and Kevin, my two Christmas elves, taking pity on my solitary muling, come and perch on ladders and rewire the arches so that they have only amber lighting. They also lasso lights on the Christmas tree.

(Another helper had started putting the lights on the tree from the bottom up. “Brain dead,” explains Jim.)

Blackpool comes to Lambertville.

My futile search for meaning, unity and clarity in the face of an unintelligible world, devoid of God and eternal truths or value continues…

Maleness is wonderful, really, isn’t it honey? Perfect denial of reality.

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And so, praise the Lord, another Restaurant Week has come to a close. Restaurant Week is the week when most of the regulars stay well away and people we have never seen and may never see again descend on the restaurant. Why not?

A mere $29.95 (tax and gratuity additional) will get you a three-course meal at a restaurant that you would traditionally reserve for a special occasion. Like announcing you want to consciously uncouple. Or propose marriage.

Last week on Monday night a female co-worker – let’s call her Miss Bunny – and I served about 50 people. No hostess, no bus, just the pair of us. (Sounds like a Cole Porter song right there, I know).

Miss Bunny and I hardly needed to speak to each other. We anticipated each other’s needs. Just a tip of the head and I knew that she wanted me to finish clearing table eleven. I reached for the olive oil and found she had already herbed a little ramekin for me.

We worked together in focused silence speaking an unspoken language of co-operation and mutual support.

The restaurant was as busy as an oven at Christmas.

At the end of the night we plopped down, exhausted but strangely elated.

“V-power!” said Miss B. “V-power!” I agreed, swigging my split of champoo.

When women work together in high-stress situations, there is no yelling, no cursing, no bullying and pushing.

The difference between men and women is a topic as old as dirt.

Monday night’s tiny triumph got me thinking on it – and forgive me if I repeat myself – how many women do you know who have committed psychological rape?

How many women do you know who haven’t been the victim of a metaphoric rape? Rape by phony promises. Rape by betrayal. Rape by fraud.

There are men servers I work with – and don’t get me wrong I love them dearly (well that’s what we all say before delivering a coup de grâce, isn’t it?) see life as a contest in which they are constantly challenged and must perform to avoid the risk of appearing to be what they perceive to be weak.

The female servers will carry two cups and a creamer. The male servers will stack a ziggurat of coffee cups and yell “Out of my way! Coffee coming through!” Efficient, yes, but in my reference, very dim.

Men seem to see life in a world where they feel powerful by acting in opposition to others.

Why else would a former Marine (don’t get me wrong, I love him dearly) karate chop the air in close proximity to hot plates I am carrying?

Why else do they flick the napkin off your shoulder? Why else do they walk slowly in front of you when you are hurrying?

Why do they snigger triumphantly when you don’t have the strength in your wrists to carry three heavy platters of food? In short, why aren’t they helpful like women?

Men are never as bossy as when they are wearing aprons.

It is said that born rebels who defy society are not oblivious of it, but hypersensitive to it.

Men who defy authority see it as a way of asserting themselves and refusing to accept the subordinate i.e. law-abiding position.

Even when men are relaxing, their machismo is never off-duty. They’re always regaling you with stories about contest, how they defied authority and how they will sort out so and so if he dares darken their door again etc. etc. The stories about their wives are usually told in a whiney voice. “So my wife said to me, who is going to put up the chicken coop, honey?”

Women’s anecdotes tend to reveal how bad they felt when they’ve violated community values.

“I felt so bad, I didn’t realize it was a formal occasion and I turned up in jeans!”

Some sociologists believe that for a woman, the community is the source of power. Life is a struggle against the danger of being cut off from their community.

Men, on the other hand, have an overweening need to feel independent (even if in reality they couldn’t exist without Her Indoors serving him supper and washing his socks).

Empirical studies have shown that in the work arena women make infinitely better managers. Their managerial style is more democratic. They are likely to consult others and involve employees in decision-making. Women prefer to maintain an atmosphere of community, rather than an autocratic hierarchy.

Of course women get ripped off more often and slagged off more often and disobeyed more often. The reason is easy to explain. It is easy to rip-off someone who is avoiding a confrontational stance.

Success, for women, usually means getting along with everybody. For this reason they lay themselves open to being taken advantage of by avoiding confrontation.

Even the meaning of conflict and the means that seem natural to deal with it are fundamentally different for men and women.

Men and women don’t only play by different rules. They play different games. What game is it that makes a male server belch in a female server’s face?

A few weeks ago, I timidly asked the acting manager if we were all in. I pointed out that I was the low man on the totem pole. I was yelled at as though I were a Standard Three pupil although I have more degrees than a thermometer and I have interviewed princes and kings.

When the same question was asked of the same acting manager by a male server, the male server was rewarded with an extra table. Either the acting manager has animus towards me in which case he is not being fair, or, the male server’s demands are taken more seriously than my timid request.

When I was in the newsrooms in London there wasn’t such drama.

In the newsrooms I have had female news editors that had grit and guts and held their own in what was then, a predominately male-dominated world.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course I love all my co-workers dearly.

But clearly, men and women speak not different dialects, but different genderlects.

Men talk to preserve their independence (so-called) and assert their status in the hierarchical order. Thus they will tell you how they red-flagged someone in the bar; how they told a customer there was nothing wrong with the pork chop; how they challenged the State Trooper who pulled them over etc. etc.

Women are not that bothered about how they appear. They don’t mind self-deprecating humour. They aren’t flexing their sociological muscles. They will say “I think that woman on fourteen hates me!”

(Most male servers automatically think that all the customers they serve are charmed or a little in love with them.)

Then there’s the thorny issue of cash.

For men, possession of money is power, sexual prowess even. Why else would the male servers chant “I made more money than yoo-oo tonight. Just want you to know I made more than you-oo.”

Doesn’t this smack of ‘I’m the king of the castle’ playground behavior?

For women – or for this one at any rate – money simply represents security and not being dependent on others. When a female server gets a bad tip she will agonize about it. “I thought they were happy. I know the sweetbreads took a long time to come out,” etc. etc.

When a man gets a bad tip the response is usually: “Jerk!”

The key issue for men is retaining their independence (or the illusion of it).

How many women have been left in the wake of a man who just wanted to be free? When a man wants to be free he wants freedom from obligation, the relief of feeling claustrophobic and freedom from responsibilities. These are all regressive reasons, characteristic of infantile thinking.

When women discuss freedom, they mean not having to worry about their husband’s dinner or who is going to car pool to yoga.

Generally I’m with Erica Jong on this one.

Maleness is wonderful, really, isn’t it honey? Perfect denial of reality.

Jani writes to Melissa Bachman

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Dear Melissa,

I have to hand it to you.

That pic of you sitting gloating triumphantly behind the huge male lion you killed has gone viral.

I’m not saying that people aren’t admiring your big strong teeth or even your big strong breast implants.

But your timing was all kinds of special. A week after we hear that the western black rhino is officially extinct, you post this picture of yourself on all your social media sites. Now you are front page news in many countries. Even the comedian Ricky Gervais has weighed in. He thinks you are a great hunt. Typo.

When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him a vandal. What then do we call a person who shoots a wild animal?

Not for food, or even for their pelt. Just for pleasure.

Help me on this. I want to understand what frisson of pleasure do you get when you see a creature toppling to its knees? Which do you prefer? A crocodile? Or a giant bear? Which turns you on more? Heaven knows you have killed enough species to be an expert.

Do you have any feelings at all? Apart from vanity, that is.

I see from all your pictures, you wouldn’t dream of going on a hunt without heavily mascara-ed eyelashes, a piece of statement jewellery, your glossy hair, neatly braided…

Perhaps that adds to the revulsion people feel when looking at you with your ‘trophies.’ Because you see, sweetie, equality of the sexes, like Communism, is great on paper. In reality it is something else. Biologically a woman is the giver of life.

When she takes life it is an aberration. When she takes life for fun it is perverse.

Your utter disregard for animals and nature is breath-taking.

I read that you desired to kill an adult male lion as it is the most sought-after trophy by wealthy foreign hunters.

The Maroi ‘Conservancy’ gang – Hannes, Laurens and Julious (sic), did your bidding and imported a lion to the area so that you could kill it. I know that you know that this is called canned hunting.

Trophy hunting is an obscenity beyond the obvious one. Trophy hunting for lion is killing healthy members of an imperiled species.

Do you know or even care that when an adult male lion is killed, the destabilization of that lion’s pride can lead to more lion deaths as outside males compete to take over the pride? Read National Geographic and learn a few things. I know I did.

Once a new male is in the dominant position, he will often kill the cubs sired by the pride’s previous leader, resulting in the loss of an entire lion generation within the pride.

Trophy hunting by definition is counter-evolutionary. It is based on selectively taking the large, robust, and healthy males from a population for a hunter’s trophy room.

These are the same crucial individuals that in a natural system would live long, full lives, protecting their mates and cubs and contributing their genes to future generations.

See why everyone thinks you are bloodless, callous and recidivist?

Your grinning happily behind a dead lion has shocked people in a country that is almost unshockable.

In South Africa rape and murder are commonplace. Let’s be more explicit. Baby rapes are prevalent. But it took your narcissistic exploits to energize a country that is compassion-fatigued.

Amid the sad and irritating news which leaves the populace numbed by your career of legalized poaching – murdering – animals touched raw nerve ends. Hunting for sport is bloody and antiquated.

In a mere four days the Stop Melissa Bachman Facebook page has had over 95,000 hits.

You awakened a vast tribe of anti-hunters who are intent on urging the international animal protection community to muster support for the plight of animals and the environment.

For that I thank you.

The website of the Maroi Conservancy – your enablers – has crashed.

When the site was up there was some feeble defense along the lines of ‘providing employment to the locals’ and ‘conservation’.

Since when does killing an almost endangered species count as ‘conservation?’ You’ve been drinking too many Klipdrifs and coke with the manne.

The money that does come into Africa from hunting pales in comparison to the billions and billions generated from tourists who come just to watch wildlife.

According to National Geographic, despite the claims that trophy hunting brings millions of dollars in revenue to local people in otherwise poor communities, there is no proof of this.

Even pro-hunting organizations like the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation have reported that only 3 percent of revenue from trophy hunting ever makes it to the communities affected by hunting.

National Geographic published a story in which Jeff Flocken, the North American director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare wrote; The United States government is considering whether to add lions to the list of species protected by the Endangered Species Act. Such protection would ban the importation of dead trophy lions into the U.S.

A recent study led by a scientist from Duke University showed that as few as 32,000 lions are left. Approximately 600 lions are killed every year on trophy hunts – 80% are killed by Americans.

A few years ago I read about a South African woman who was attacked by a male ostrich. She engaged it in a fight to the death with her bare hands and managed to strangle it. An ostrich has a kick stronger than a mule and their toe-nails are sharper than a serpent’s tooth. She was knocked to the ground several times and suffered a couple of broken ribs and a punctured lung. Perhaps the whole of the human race would have celebrated your “victory” if you had been attacked by the male lion and managed to kill it with your bare hands.

I don’t know if you have ever heard of a bloke called Mahatma Gandhi. I don’t think his name comes up a great deal in the bomas you hang out in after a good day of killing. He once said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Given this premise I am afraid you and your animal killing chums are egregious, recidivist and morally bankrupt.

Yours etc. Jani

P.S. Isn’t it deeply ironic that “Melissa” means honey and sweet?

ends

Read Jani Allan’s column on rhino poaching here

On Friendship

I think my Pomeranians have taught me much about friendship.

After a gruelling shift I walk down the lane in the violin case dark to my little apartment. My footsteps quicken. I peep through the window and there they are, waiting expectantly.

They are greeted in order of seniority. Breeze (aka Tallulah Wiggles), whirls like a top spins waiting to be picked up. China hasn’t quite mastered the full-spin so she does a ballerina three-quarter turn.

Molly, agitated with delight, runs into the other room and picks up a toy, squeaking it excitedly. She promenades around the apartment, beeping it while I prepare their late-night supper

After half an hour in the company of my pups – interesting how God is dog spelled backward – the cares of the day boil down to sediment. Often times I will look up from my computer keyboard or a book to see Breeze gazing at me with the consummate devotion of a Believer.

I am so humbled by her adoration that it makes me a better self to be. Those who know me will testify that I am the best Pom Mom in the world. While I wear schmattas from the Gap, my little girls have real shearling coats. At night, when the last tweet has been sent, the peace plant has been spoken to and I am about to switch off my bedside light, I look at the three small furry sleeping soundly on their designated areas on the bed, and I think my life is as beautiful as a Beethoven Sonata.

I may have made questionable judgements about those I thought were friends. I have, in main had rotten luck with men. But my pups fill me with a kind of constant ecstasy. Everything they do amuse, entertains or comforts me. How many people can you say that about?

In my self-imposed exile in America the silence from some of my soi-disant friends has been deafening.

Of course there have been rare exceptions. One friend and her daughter came to see me in America. They arrived shortly after 8.am on 9/11. As they drove across the Verrazano Bridge in New York they saw the Twin Towers collapsing. We will be forever friends – even if months go by without us speaking.

I am blessed to have a friend in Missouri. We speak three or four times a day. She is the remote witness to my life. As unselfish as the wind, she listens to the trivial details of my life and we laugh together. She is a friend for all seasons. My young friend (now a short gallop away from Blenheim Palace) continues to surprise me with his intuition and generosity.

Great friendships don’t happen in flashes. They ignite slowly and burn steadily until a great fire of warmth wraps you in its cloak.

Perhaps I have erred in my choice of friends because anyone can be a friend when you are at the top of your game and you can provide food and drink and amusing banter.

It is easy to find people who will kill time with you.

The trick, I think, is to find those who wish to live time with you.

On Monday night I took the Poms to my friends Dee and her husband. The plan was to let the pups run in Yang Chin meadow. Four Temple dogs and three poms… It was a sight to warm any dog-lover’s heart. We drank champagne at the fireside and Dee played the harp.

Later, much later, on arrival home, I thought I had lost China. Immediately I felt like a switchboard with all my nerves on Emergency Alert.

I raced up and down the sleeping streets calling her name. China! China! Chahooey! Chahooey!

Panic-stricken, I called Dee. I knew that although night’s shutter board was still down, she would hop in her car and help me search for my child. Now THAT’S a friend.

In the end, China was found sitting placidly between the screen door and the wooden door. Of course we use the term ‘friend’ loosely. I have friends with whom I natter happily but would never dream of calling if I was in real trouble. It would be an imposition.

I have ‘’first responder friends’’ – those who are on speed-dial for when I have to be dragged to hospital.

I have a friend in Australia who has been my confidante for more than thirty years. At the outset of our friendship, I fancied I was something of a mentor to him. As the years passed the roles have reversed entirely. Although considerably my junior, now it is to him I turn for life-advice. It is his email addie that I search for and press send when I have good news.

I haven’t seen him since he lived in the marvelous villa in Bantry Bay and I lived in an apartment the size of a throat lozenge in Clifton.

But I know that when I see him we will take up like a piece of knitting those circumstances forced us to lay aside. Every stitch will be in place. We will remember the intricate pattern and our souls will continue to knit together.

If I were to draw up a manifesto on the rules of friendship it would start as follows:
1. Your friend is for your growth and for the deepening of your spirit.

2. If your friend intentionally damages your spirit this friend will also coil around your limbs and crush you.

3. Friendship is about sharing – laughter, pleasures and the little things because in the little things, ‘‘the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.”

Kahlil Gibran wrote one of the best explanations of friendship ever.

He wrote

Your friend is your needs answered.

He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.

And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger.

And you seek him for peace.

ends

You can also read this blog at janiallan.com

Birthday Blues

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I have always thought that making a fuss of your birthday is in poor taste. Why on earth would anyone be interested in the day you were born? Working in the restaurant I have come to recognise the kind of people who believe that their birthday is a special day – for everyone.

One is expected to smile benignly when told that ‘It’s Courtney’s birthday!’ (They’re all called Courtney.) One has to help festoon the table with hideous silver balloons. One trips over mountains of expensive-looking presents that are piled up in the passageway to the table. One tactfully tries to move the presents so that one can pour the wine.

Finally Courtney arrives looking ravishing. She is wearing the kind of Jessica Simpson shoes that are meant to be looked at not walked in. She is displaying acres of tanned, healthy skin and her hair, freshly $400 Keratined, looks like a commercial. When it’s time for dessert, one has to retrieve a huge hideous cake with loopy letters saying ‘Haffy Birfday Courtney’ from the walk-in. The cake is invariably tres leches with rococo cream icing and has to be cut into 43 slices. Courtney doesn’t eat a bite. You stay thin either by starving or waiting tables. In her case it is the former. All of which made me remember other birthdays in other countries.

My best birthday was when I was ten. I was given a small black pony. My heartbeat in my small chest was like the wings of a bird. Tears sprang to my eyes when I saw him in the paddock, tugging at the grass. I put my ear next to his while he drank water and heard the gulp gulp as it slid down his throat and thought that I would die of happiness. I brushed him with a brand new dandy brush until my miniature spaghetti arms were limp. When my mother refused to buy a fly sheet, I cut up a green candlewick bedspread and stitched a rug for him on my dolls sewing machine.

After school there was a little party with paper cups and chains and picture-hat biscuits. They were Marie biscuits with marshmallows in the center and pretty icing. As was the tradition in those days, all the little girls attending the party brought small gifts that were laid out on my bed. Handkerchiefs, Lakeland coloured pencils and Sharps toffees in a tin with a kitten on it. Time passed. I am twenty one. I am wearing a fabulous chamois dress and I am getting engaged to a chap called Roddy. We decided to get engaged on my birthday. Robert Hodgins, my painting lecturer from Wits is there. The party is to be held at a farmhouse near by. Unfortunately, while Roddy and his friend are trying are to burn fire breaks up the driveway so that they can put candles in paper bags on either side, a fierce wind blows up and flames from the fire engulf part of the house. The image of the farm hands running out of the house carrying furniture has never left me.

I am 29. I am at the St Geran in Mauritius. I am surrounded by strangers who have become instant friends – just add Indian Ocean. People called Gaetan are wishing me happy birsday. (sic) I am 30. My office at the Sunday Times is so filled with flowers it looks like a florist shop. Or a funeral parlour. My success is measured by how large the arrangements of St Joseph’s lilies are.

Five years later the beat is still going on. I am collected from my apartment by in a limo. My escort calls the radio station as asks the DJ to play ‘Give me All Night’ by Carly Simon, because, he says ‘That’s how long it is going to take to celebrate my birthday. My friend Barbara has arranged a party for me at a chic supper club. I am wearing Errol Arendz and high heels.

More time passes. I am in London on my 40th birthday. Alone. I walk around Hampton Court Palace alone and linger in Henry VIII’s Chapel Royal. I am alone but not lonely. Something in the spiritus loci resonates with me. I commune with the ghosts of the great writers who lived on this sceptred isle. I meander down the Long Water, the stretch which Henry created specifically so that barges coming from Chelsea would have a glorious first view of the Palace as they arrived.

Pootling around Surrey I come across a village – well, its only a couple of hamlets – called Friday Street. Nearby is the Silent Pool. It is said that Guinevere was bathing in it when some knights came upon her. She submerged herself to avoid detection and since then the pool has remained without a ripple…. I explore my amazement at this green and pleasant land. Everything pleases me. Even the fact that the local Hedgehog Hospital is called Miss Tiggywinkles, after the Beatrix Potter character. But that was England.

Usually birthdays are a time of melancholy. They remind one of one’s mortality and what one has yet to achieve… The wounds which haven’t yet healed and that which is no longer within one’s reach…

My memory is indeed a misty landscape in which shrubs of the heather of recollection crop up from time to time. At times there are memory banks of lilac heather, at times, sparse, spiky fingers of memory-nightmares that poke through my gauze-thin skin.

These days the only family I have are three girls, who have a leg at each corner. How does one celebrate when one is a stranger in a strange land? My first year in America was the fateful 9/11/2001. At first it was something of a relief to have a reason not to celebrate, but gradually, as I became, for better or worse, part of a small Norman Rockwell community, my birthday was allowed to resurface.

Last year there was a garden party in the park-like surroundings of a friend’s home. This year I spend most of the day being interviewed by a journo from Boston. We meet with one of my best friends whose two little boys have my heart captive. The five year old gives me rosemary and a spray of foliage from the garden. An Elizabeth Lock ring wouldn’t have brought me any more joy.

I get dressed up in a tulle skirt and combat boots (to keep it real). About ten of my friends have gathered at a local restaurant. Veuve Clicquot does indeed flow and yes, there is even a ridiculously wonderful champagne cake which Abby Wabby has baked. I shriek and giggle and blow out the candles. For a few hours I turn into Courtney! Why, there is even a present table. Later we wander through the deserted streets of the village singing at the tops of our lungs. There was a small incident when Matteo, the beautiful, leaned against a picket fence which promptly collapsed. But that’s a detail. I write this demi-blog, dear readers, because I have turned (yet another) corner in my life. In these sunlit uplands, I am learning that if you are with people who feel affection for you its OK to admit it’s your birthday. In fact it IS cause for celebration.

Praise the Lord and pass the Pommery.

Money can’t buy you happiness

….or can it?

Last night Bernie Madoff and his wife came to the resto. Well, a pair of Mr and Mrs Madoff lookalikes He is wearing a monogrammed shirt. Why do people have to monogram their shirts? Are there other people in the household who may accidentally wear their shirts? Labelling your shirts is for boarding school, surely. Anyhoozlebees. The wife is carrying a fabulous Bottega Veneta handbag, or purse as they call it here.

From the get go they are joyless. How is it possible to drink Gosset Rose joylessly? They don’t even have the boredom default – iPhones. Its a glorious, late summer evening with a full moon grinning down like a lottery winner. The evening air is filled with the silly, happy chatter of people enjoying themselves.

Mrs Madoffy orders the fish. He orders the filet. “And here is your lovely – your lovely fish.” The fish looks as though it should be on the cover of a food magazine. The plating is perfection. Mrs Madoffy pokes at the tricolour pepper salad. She gouges several forkfuls (Americans eat everything with their fork.) Then she rolls her eyes. “It’s luke warm. At best.” I am SO sorry. I scuttle back to the kitchen. The fish has to be put back on the grill to be reheated and is then, again, beautifully plated I take it back to her. “Is this a different piece? Why is it so small? This piece is smaller than the piece I had!” I assure her that the fish is indeed the exact same piece. “I’m telling you its smaller.” “Well, let me see if there is a spare piece of fish lying around,” I say foolishly. (That’s like saying ‘I’ll see if there’s a spare lobster lying around.) “Someone in the kitchen has eaten some of my fish! The evening is ruined.” Now is the time to switch to my snail under a harrow mode. I am so sorry, so vair vair sorry. I DO understand your displeasure etc etc. Would you like another piece. “No! My husband has already eaten his steak!” she snaps. The offer of free desert is met with stunning unenthusiasm. They pay no attention to me and have a convo in undertones in which shoulders are raised along with eyebrows.

Pontius Pilate had less indecision. Finally they choose the blueberry pie. I go into the kitchen to find that there it no blueberry pie left. Now they are even more without gruntle. I take out another desert which is accepted with bad grace. Then she needs to go to the bathroom. Of course the bathrooms are occupied. When she leaves the restaurant, a vision in designer labels, her face is tight as bound broccoli.

I am the first person to admit that I have been tainted by appreciation of the better things in life. Once you know what the good stuff is its hard to go back. Some vestiges of my snobbery remain. I would rather pay three pounds for an apple from Harrods than go to Tescos. (Its the experience I am paying for, I reason.) I never drink tap water. (My water of choice is Welsh Tynant, although one can’t find it here.) Hershey’s chocolate is tragic. I would shoot myself before I went to Walmart. I have a decade-old Yves St Laurent Mombasa bag. which I use instead of an orange-is-the -new-black $20 faux leather hobo made in China. I would rather buy gently worn Ann Demeulemeester than brand new H and M. I dislike faux – everything. Fur, jewels and friendships.

I wear a plastic watch on one wrist given to me by a co-worker. On the strap is written ‘Princess Loved-a-lot.’ On the other I wear my ancient Cartier Santos. Somewhere on the swings and roundabouts of my life I have learnt that excess of money is the ruin of most people. From what I hear, being a Black Diamond is not a guarantee of happiness.

Yes, I adore Veuve Clicquot (who doesn’t love to have the Widow Clicquot at one’s table?), but the notion of spending $200 on a bottle of Armand de Brignac is, to my mind, unattractive excess. So is spending the GNP of a LTPC – Little Tin Pot Country on your birthday party. Having seventy pairs of Henri Bendel loafers (as one client has boasts she has) is deeply unattractive. Interestingly or predictably, the people who show off about their possessions are chintzy tippers. Occasionally I come across someone with money and generosity. One such is a gorgeous Borzoi of a woman. (Think Ireland Baldwin in twenty years.) She and her partner have an apartment in New York, a farm in New Jersey and a yacht wherever they want it to be. When she celebrates her birthday she brings a bottle of champagne for us underlings. That’s style. That’s kindness. That’s unusual.

Never base your currency on your looks, my mother told me. Your looks will fade, but your character won’t.

Basing your currency on your currency is equipollently foolish.

If money is all you have to offer, if boasting about your possessions is your preferred conversation, then here is an echoing emptiness in your corroded soul. New Rule. Share the wealth or shut up.

Possible Service and Smiles

Marion Ettlinger, celebrated for her pictures of authors, forbids her subjects to smile for their portraits. ”If one is going for an iconic moment, one shouldn’t smile.” Most art photographers assume that the smile is a mask that must be removed. Why Canada, expressly prohibits any traces of a smile in a passport photograph.

But on the other side of the aisle, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote that ”Accent is the soul of a language; it gives feeling and truth to it.” He might have also said that facial expressions – in particular smiles – give feeling and truth to talk.

In Far From the Madding Crowd, the spirited heroine Bathsheba is faced with a choice of three men. Only one of the suitors, Gabriel Oak, has an authentic smile:

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to mere chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Of course Bathsheba ends up making the wrong choice. Had she been more astute she would have seen in Oak’s smile something more than cachet or capital. (Listen to me. I’m writing as though I think I am Jani Allan). Another intense smile was described by Charles Dickens in this way: “In came Mrs Fezzywig, one vast substantial smile.” Then there is  this:

He smiled, understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so far are you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Scott Fitzgerald describing Nick Carraway describing Jay Gatsby’s smile.

There are people whose high intensity smiles are their trademark. Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Julia Roberts, Miss America runners-up (the winner always cries in faux disbelief), the Cheshire cat.

According to parapsychologist (there’s a concept!) Gary Schwartz and his colleagues, voluntary smiles are on average ten times bigger than spontaneous smiles. So although a smile may be a mile wide, it may be only a millimeter deep. This week I went through the ritual humiliation of having my eyes tested. “I want you to rest your chin here and tell me what you see,” says the eye wallah. “ASBF!” I exclaim triumphantly. “Now?” “DBLT!” Still triumphant. “What about this?” “B….er…looks like F – no P! Its P…and could be…. Now its the eye doctor’s turn to be triumphant. He give me a smile like the curve of a knife.

There are air hostess smiles, dental nurse smiles, politician’s smiles and undertaker’s smiles.

Voluntary smiles – such as servers are expected to generate – should be large. Their point is to be seen. If you want someone’s approval, a smile is as good a place to start as any. Getting the size of the smile right is a delicate calculation. Psychologists call this the ingratiator’s dilemma: how do you create a positive impression without giving the impression that you are wanting to create a positive impression?

Smile timing is important too. How long should you smile and when is it time for the smile to disappear?

What about smiles that appear attentive but are really merely sentinels behind which the wearer is cultivating their own thoughts. These smiles are deployed by those who are emotionally absent.

One of the most arduous things about my grilling life is learning how to smile appropriately.

There is the “Welcome I am your server….yadayada…” smile. Then there is the “Of course I will get you more bread/butter/ice smile. Then there is the cancer patient laughing at the doctor’s joke smile that you give a patron who left you with a paltry tip.

This week I mentally compiled an entire glossary of smiles. It was Lobster Week at the resto. For a ridiculously low prix fixe, diners were given mussels, lobster, chicken, sausage, corn on the cob, Red bliss potatoes and peach pie.

As I carefully placed the dishes in front of a couple, the woman gave me a smile that was not really a smile so much as a tool of inquiry. “Vot I must do vith zees” she queried. I mimed cracking gestures and spoke to her as we all speak to foreigners. “Take claw. Crack open. Eat this way. Delicious. Me gusta. I bring finger bowls” I explained. (“Me gusta” is the go-to Spanish phrase which should be used in all tricky situations.) I tried to give her a trustworthy smile. Her partner looked at me with facial disinterest. If smiles are indeed interpersonal velcro, this one wasn’t it. Mostly a server is rewarded with a smile that is like a half-opened tin can. Sometimes the smile can be warm as a Tuscan sun shimmering across a valley of vines. Occasionally we are treated to a formidable smile, which displays the teeth and the whole personality. Once I was given the sort of smile memories are not made of as much as repaired by.

I have to report that the most insulting smile you can give a server is one that is flashed like a torn photograph. This is especially effective when the wife doesn’t bother to look up at you while you are (pretend) smiling and thanking them. Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my customer until I have walked a mile in her Christian Louboutins.

In Praise of Youth

Fame is a vapour, popularity an accident and riches take wings. The only certainty is ageing. Getting older is like being fined for something you didn’t mean to do. Since I am on the wrong side of twenty-five. All right, thirty-five. I find myself in a curious situation. With one or two exceptions, I am not, it seems capable of friendships with people of my age. They are secure and boredom flourishes when you feel safe. It is a symptom of security. When they invite you for supper they show off relentlessly. “He buys all my clothes for me. Do you like this ring? He chose the diamond. Had it reset. He won’t let me cook. He does it all.” You are forced to take a tour of the house, each room accompanied by a before and after explanation. “THAT over THERE was a tiny little window and then we decided to OPEN IT ALL UP…” etc etc . You sit on the patio with self-pity rising inside you like a pair of wings. You have no-one in your life who buys you clothes or cooks for you.

I have yet to find an American chum who can be counted on for a jorl. (And yes, I do request acknowledgement for the fact that I coined the phrase jorl. (*Not to be confused with jawl which rhymes with brawl.) They are not up for midnight jaunts to the local pub for ‘one and done’ after a shift because they are watching re-runs of EastEnders. They don’t drink because they are diabetic and in any case the sulfites in wine gives them a headache. They have one small sherry before supper. They don’t eat giant slices of pizza because it gives them acid reflux (whatever that is) and too much salt causes oedema. Being with people of my age depresses me. People of my age are knitting bootees for their umpteenth grandchild. They are always going in for colonoscopies. They refuse to come with me to see Pink Floyd. (“Are you nuts? The traffic will be impossible!”) The only thing they exert is caution.

My co-workers, on the other hand, are more fun. They live life at a helter-skelter pace, go kayaking in the moonlight, drive to New York or Atlantic City on a whim – even if it’s raining shuttlecocks. One pretty boy insists that when he is a famous model, he will buy me a baby blue Rolls-Royce. Or is it a Bentley? Optimism such as this is marvellous to be around. As the old German proverb goes Youth is a period when we believe many things that are not true, in old age we doubt many truths.”

According to the Seven Essene Mirrors of Relationship about which Gregg Braden writes so eloquently, the mystery of the Third Mirror has to do with reflections of loss. “As you journey through the waking dream that is your life, pieces of you may be lost, innocently given away or taken away by those who have power over you. These portions of you are your compromises, exchanged for surviving your experience of life.

The pattern of losing, giving away or having it taken away is a path I know well.

To the degree that you have experienced losses to survive, there remain emptinesses waiting to be filled. The voids are like empty charges. When you encounter someone with a charge complementing parts of you that have been lost, their charge is a gift from the universe.

My bestie is a kid about a third of my age who succeeded where many others failed. He inspired me to write this little blog. The friend who understands you creates you.

He is a brilliant linguist, recently graduated, and has the kind of poetic soul, limitless curiosity about the world and compassion that men will grow to envy. Despite the fact that we have never met – he is almost in constant motion – now in Genève, now in Jerusalem, soon in Spain – but a recent kindness was putting a prayer for me in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

I have pondered often on our friendship. Perhaps he is the embodiment of the Third Essene mirror. He brings to my life that which I have lost, given away, had taken away from me or forgotten within myself.

Perhaps I find companionship with the young moderns because in the end youth has to do with spirit, not age.

As Henry Miller remarked “Men of seventy and eighty are often more useful than the young. Theirs is the real youth.”

Conversation Envy

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Anaïs Nin once observed that life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
I have pondered this for some time and am bound to disagree. Life shrinks or expands, at least to me, in proportion to one’s conversations.

Last night I had an acute episode of Conversation Envy.
I can tolerate the drivel most of the time, but deep down I secretly yearn for a philosophical argument and a fresh point of view with the odd bon mot thrown in the mix to keep things fresh.

Living in a blaze of obscurity has its drawbacks. One is the quality of chat to which one is exposed.
Quentin Crisp said that the key to speaking with style is to command of a vocabulary large enough to give you both flexibility and precision in expressing yourself. The more words you have the more accurate and entertaining will be your self-portrayal in conversation.

Recall the startled bemusement of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain in “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” “Good heavens. For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it!”

These days one is engulfed in incoherence. Grammatical errors aside (“Between you and I”, problems with “infer” and “imply”, “flout” and “flaunt”), there is a paucity in topic matter.

Last night I was waiting on a table of distinction. Both elegant women wore the kind of important necklaces that one can only buy at the Metropolitan Museum store: heavy amber beads and interesting silver.
The men were straight out of Renoir’s Boating Party.
At the end of the evening I had occasion to be near their table. Their conversation stopped me in my tracks.
One of the men suggested that love, like evil, is a mystery.
There was mention of ‘meaningless malevolence’ and references to the Classics. They may have quoted Yeats and TS Eliot. There was objection to using the word ‘apartheid’ in contexts other than the South African one.

I did know what I was hearing, however. The quartet was engaged in mental callisthenics and the exchange of ideas.
I yearned to partake of this conversational feast.
I was having an attack of Conversation Envy!
One of the chaps, Michael Curtis, was talking about a piece he had written for American Thinker and how he had titled it “When will Irish Eyes be Smiling on Israel.”
I was engrossed.
Usually I don’t bother to eavesdrop on conversations. They are invariably as useless as wet newspaper. Most of what passes as conversation flows as swiftly as papier-mâché. No one really listens to anyone else and if you try it you will see why. There is a difference between conversation and speech. People have not lost the power of speech. They have lost the art of conversation.

Things are more interesting when a couple has a row. Then there are little popcorn bursts of truth. There is also a chance of collateral windfall. An arguing couple once stormed out of the restaurant forgetting a bottle of Dom Pérignon.

The kitchen staff talk about sex and mime unspeakable things with rolling pins or French loaves. The bus kids talk about surfing and how they did/are going to do Molly this weekend. The other servers talk about what a bitch that woman on 45 is and how they will never serve her again. Or they rat each other out: “Whose job was it to do lemons? Who hasn’t done their side work?”

I have one or two friends with whom I discuss what other people like to call Conspiracy Theories.
But in the main I am a conversational anorexic.

When I was a journalist, I had unfettered access to interesting people. I interviewed Charlton Heston once at the Hyde Park Hotel in London.
“Mr Heston,” I said, “My friend Elaine and I have had a crush on you since we were 13.”
“Where’s your friend Elaine,” was his wry response.
During the lunch gabfest he told me that his life’s philosophy was based on Winston Churchill’s exhortation to never give up.
He leaned towards me and in pure Churchillian metre he intoned
“Never, never give up. Never, ever, ever, give up…”

Political Correctness and the fear of treading on sensitive corns has all but bandaged conversazione. One certain way to prevent conversation from becoming boring is to say the wrong thing, but who has the brass ones to do so these days?

I want to sit at a table and listen to people sbottonarsi as they say in Italian – open up. Or mettere in piazza – make public those things that are private. I want a grand buffet of conversation. I would like to discuss The Waste Land. T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Andy Warhol’s From A to B and Back Again

As Schopenhauer wrote in “Our Relation to Others”: Politeness is a tacit agreement that peoples’ miserable defects, whether moral or intellectual, shall on either side be ignored and not be made the subject of reproach.

I am tired of politeness and weary of anaemic conversation. Come sit here and talk to me….

Manners Maketh the Man

From an early age I was taught the importance of good table manners.
“Show me a man’s table manners and I’ll tell you who he is,” my mother averred.
I wasn’t allowed to do the boarding house reach across the table. I wasn’t allowed to hold my knife like a pen. I was taught to sip soup using the spoon to scoop from the side of the bowl opposite you.
I was never, ever allowed to place my elbows on the table. Burping was something only babies did. I was brought up on Genevieve Antoine Dariaux’s ‘Elegance’ and Debrett’s Correct Form.

It pains me to report that In America table manners are as rare as unicorn droppings.
With the exception of about half a dozen people, most people eat rather unattractively.
From the moment the bread basket arrives I can tell who he/she is: they proceed to cut the rolls with the butter knife.

She orders the grilled shrimp.
My mind goes into picture postcards. I remember going to Norman’s Prawn in downtown Johannesburg on Sunday nights I would get taken there by a rich Greek boyfriend and we would order a dozen (each) prawns with piri piri sauce. The entire meal was eaten with our fingers.
I watch her desperately attempting to fastidiously dissect the shrimp with a knife a fork. When I suggest kindly that she eats them with her fingers, that I will provide her with a finger bowl she looks suspicious. Perhaps she thinks I am offering to give her a manicure.
He offers her an oyster. She reaches over the table (that would be the boarding house reach) and with her expensive bangles jangling, she skewers one on her fork.

Oysters should not be pierced with a fork. They should be allowed to slide down the throat by tipping the head ever so slightly. Those who request HP/Tabasco/horseradish/cocktail sauce – you don’t really like the snotty delicacy. Just own up! Don’t try and disguise their taste.
Purists will eat oysters with a squeeze of lemon juice. Possibly a drizzle of mignonette.

When it comes to eating meat – Americans zig zag. Emily Post gave it the name “Zig Zag” but it could also be called slice and switch.
Europeans will cut a piece of meat and place the tines of the fork into the meat and convey the piece of meat to the mouth.
Americans pin their meat down with a fork held in a fist (or like a pencil), they will then saw away at it. They then put the knife on the plate and pick up the fork with their right hand.
This cut and switch, according to Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College is a French thing which dates back to the early 18th century and is an attempt to pretend fancy manners. Anna Post suggests that since violence was part of the weft and weave of the American tapestry, lowering the knife, was therefore a sign of trust.
That’s giving it too much intellectual justification. Zig zagging is both unattractive and labour intensive.

Restaurants have long been the scene of social exhibitionism – and therefore anxiety.
“In restaurants,” writes Martin Amis “my father (the novelist Kingsley Amis) always wore an air of vigilance, as if in expectation of being patronised, stiffed, neglected or regaled by pretension.”
It is here that one is put to the torture of listening to people discussing the relative merits of West Coast oysters as opposed to East Coast oysters and how they can tell precisely to the minute how much time has elapsed from the oyster being shucked until it arrived in front of them.
It is here that new money and old flesh will happily pay $20 for a child-sized portion of pasta. It is here that a couple of radishes, served on a bread board with a little kosher salt and butter clock in at $7.50
As Kingsley Amis put it in his novel ‘The Biographer’s Moustache’, this is food ”whose pleasure is small and whose cost is great.”
Despite being menacingly well-groomed, a woman who doesn’t know how to eat elegantly is compromised.

Recently I portered the aforementioned radishes to such a menacingly well-groomed woman. I placed the worn wooden board in front of her. The trio of radishes trembled slightly. She looked at me with disbelief.
“This….uh…what…uh…”
Then she commenced to survey the table.
“Why…what….why would they serve the radishes like this? Why wouldn’t they cut them up….something…anything.” I hovered solicitously.
She suddenly became annoyed.
“This is too much hard work. Take them away and slice them for me.” Her mouth shut tight like a sprung trap.

As Joseph Epstein observed ”One knows one is in the presence of decadence, with a reverse snobbish twist, when people start ordering in restaurants food that would certainly disappoint them if it were served to them at home.”
This current decadence – the high prices make for the decadence – is possibly as a result of fancy food fatigue. Foodies are tired of food that has been gussied up, sautéed and marinated and mounted as if it were an assemblage in the Tate.

The rage for comfort food, offal and, yes, radishes is the new snobbery. In the new inverted snobbery it is not only acceptable, but desirable to announce that one’s son or daughter is going to the CIA. Not the Central Intelligence Agency. The Culinary Institute of America.

This week I had the pleasure of ‘taking care of’ two young moderns of the culinary world, Kyle and Amber. Kyle is a chef and instantly endeared himself to the kitchen by bringing a six-pack of fine ale. “I work at a BYOB establishment and I figured they might like something.”
Given the high heat and humidity in the kitchen his thoughtfulness was especially appreciated. Both he and his pretty girlfriend are foodies. They ordered the lamb chops rare and didn’t have a single life-threatening food intolerance. (“I’m pomegranate pip intolerant. There are no pomegranate pips in the salmon, are there?” I heard this week.)
When it was time to order dessert they ordered three. Their presence in the restaurant was cold cloth to a fevered brow.

Finally, no blog worth its weight in air guitar etc etc would be complete without mentioning the demise of Paula Deen. She is currently on an apology tour for having said the ‘n’ word some thirty years ago.

George Carlin said it best:
Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and its especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.

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