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The restoration of Fawlty Towers

Posted by Simon Parke, 25 July 2017, 11.51am

We arrive at the Randolph hotel in Oxford.

It’s the city’s famous hotel, it featured a lot in the Morse TV series…which they are not slow to mention.

And it is expensive.

We’ve never been in a hotel so expensive but it’s my 60th birthday present, we’re pushing the boat out.

Well, my partner is pushing the boat out…

But I’ve always wanted to come here; and we both have high hopes. The doorman doffs his cap, the valet takes the car, the scene is set.

From here on, this will be a hotel story about the descent to Hades and the return to clean air; about hell and heaven.

It will be a piece about luggage, receptionists, bullshit, breakthroughs, anger… and how we start again.

So first, the descent… each painful, deflating step.

We arrive in our (not particularly) nice room; the view is a wall.

Wall as far as the eye can see. 

We may be staying in the City of Dreaming Spires, but there are no dreams outside our window…apart from possibly the anxiety sort, closed in and claustrophobic.

And after an hour and a half – I will mention this - we’re still waiting for our luggage to be brought up.

Against my wishes – it’s all a nonsense to me - they insisted on providing this service.

‘I’ll have it sent up to your room, sir.’

Only he didn’t.

The service they insisted on providing they didn’t provide…so we can’t unpack.

But to distract us, a couple of guests walk into our room, claiming it’s theirs. And clearly Reception does as well, because the new arrivals have the key cards.

I hadn’t realised we were sharing our room…will we all be putting our car keys in a bowl later?

Anyway, I guide them away, the man isn’t happy - but a few minutes later, neither am I, because Reception rings us to ask when we’ll be leaving.

‘When will you be vacating your room?’

I say we won’t be, because we’ve only just arrived; unlike our luggage.

She then questions whether we are in the right room; indeed, whether we are booked in at all.

And rings off.

We want to go for a walk but fear our room might be taken if we leave; possession is nine tenths of the law at the Randolph.

I go down the corridor to ask someone about the luggage.

‘Not my department,’ he says, with a smile. Non-service with a smile makes such a difference…

And when I return to the room, I find I can’t get in.

My key card has been de-activated. They really do want us out.

My partner lets me in and I decide to have a bath. But…oh dear, oh dear... the water is lukewarm…tepid. 

I ask a roving manager about this, he tries the taps, and it is still lukewarm.

He contacts maintenance, who arrive. He also tries the taps, fiddles around a little, but despite his overalls, the water remains tepid…as lukewarm as the Randolph welcome.

‘This is how it is in all the rooms,’ he says.

Really?

‘Is this the only hotel in England not to have hot water?’ I ask.

‘No one else has complained.’

Well, for the record, I’m about to; the tipping point is reached. Straw, camel’s back, you’ll know the moment.

And before we go any further, I’m aware this is a first world problem.

But it is a still a problem.

If someone makes claims on their website about their ‘famed customer service’ and about ‘giving you the weekend of a lifetime’ – and charge you the GNP of
Lithuania for the honour - then they need to be what they claim to be.

And after two hours at the Randolph, there is, appearing before my eyes, a chasm deep and wide between promise and actuality.

All organisations need to be careful of this chasm, churches quite as much as hotels; lest they become bloated on self-delusion and spout bullshit to cover their dishonest tracks.

And really, bullshit is not to be applauded in any world - first, third or seventh. 

So, chasm-aware, I go down to reception and ask to see the manager. I’m angry, you may have sensed this. Ellie, the Operations Manager appears.

‘How can I help you?’

‘I’m angry,’ I say.

‘Well, what can we do to sort it out?’

‘I don’t know, ‘ I reply, because I don’t. ‘But our experience so far is like being in a bad episode of Fawlty Towers…only I’m not laughing, because my partner has spent over £700 for the privilege…£700 she can’t really afford; but she wanted this to be a special weekend for me.’

I then list the events that have brought me to this point – high walls, no luggage, room invasion, receptionist asking us to leave, deactivated keys, lukewarm water…

...these are a few of my least favourite things and lead me to be standing here in the foyer of the world-famous Randolph hotel – next to the much-mentioned ‘Morse bar’ - comparing it to Fawlty Towers.

Ellie is good. She’s very apologetic and says she will have the luggage brought up immediately. And would we like a bottle of wine as compensation?

But emotionally, healing will not be found in the late arrival of our luggage accompanied by some sad alcohol; we’re beyond even the free evening meal she then offers us.

‘Would you dine here on us tomorrow evening?’

‘That’s kind, but I think my partner is so upset right now she just wants to be away from this place. The idea of a meal here won’t appeal.’

And what I’m wondering in the foyer is this: how do we start again? What will enable shift?

Ellie is saying all the right things; she’s saying all the things I’d be saying and I tell her this, because I like her spirit. (She’s probably the nicest person in this story.)

‘You’re saying all the right things,’ I say.

‘And I mean them,’ she replies and I almost believe her. ‘We do want to make this a good weekend for you and I’ll do everything in my power to make it so.’

‘I’m just not sure how we’re going to start again.’

It’s an existential observation in the hotel foyer around life and death, endings and beginnings, disappointment and resurrection; and then a break through, provided by Ellie.

‘How about we change your room, Mr Parke?’

Good move, I think.

‘I do think that would be good psychologically,’ I say, energised at last, feeling the possibility of ascent. A change of geography could definitely help here.  ‘And perhaps a room with a view?’ I add.

‘Let me see what I can do.’

‘So if we go out for a long walk, we’ll come back to a new room with our luggage in it?’

‘Absolutely, Mr Parke.’

‘And then we’ll start again. Thank you.’

And to cut a long story short, we do.

We go out, take a walk around Christ Church meadows, meet a very kind carpenter called Chris, (more about him another time), enjoy a pub supper and come back to a new room – and a room with a view, across to the Ashmolean museum.

There is also a bottle of champagne and vouchers for two free drinks in the bar.

And so we start again at the Randolph and for various reasons, enjoy a lovely weekend.

So what happened here? As we sift through the ashes, is there anything to be gleaned from this small service-industry saga beyond mere hotel tittle-tattle?

My soul was left pondering two things.

First, there is my anger. It’s not always the case, but I am happy with the way I handled it.

My anger is a fairly savage and untamed beast.

But on this occasion, it remained focused on our experience rather than turning on any individual. This meant that we remained on good terms with the staff throughout the process.

Of the six staff I dealt with in those difficult first three hours, only the Receptionist was unhelpful, borderline rude. Otherwise, it was just a series of unfortunate events and low-grade incompetence coinciding with each other.

So the anger was never about blame; but about highlighting the issues and making the situation better; its intention was to create rather than destroy.

To this extent, it felt like clean anger rather than something self-righteous, a hurt ego lashing out; that at least is my understanding.

The other experience which interested me was how we start again in life, how we draw a line in the sand with the past, and begin again.

Sometimes we can do this, sometimes we can’t.

Sometimes, in intractable situations, the skill is not in starting again, but in ending things.

There is great skill needed in endings; they too can be creative.

But if we do want to start again, an apology is always a help, certainly; just as denial is crippling.

Though often an apology is not enough not enough in itself.

It can feel a bit cheap and easy.

Do you find this? Do you sometimes feel an apology doesn’t in itself quite do it?

But the trouble is - if it doesn’t, what will?

In this case, I was aware that an apology wasn’t enough to shift the heaviness of the disappointment; but a good walk, a pub meal and a new room with a view did it.

I will blog once more about this weekend; and in particular, reflect on the gift of Chris the Carpenter and the Harry Potter effect.

But for now, I’m simply grateful for descent being followed by ascent; for the rather temporary nature of hell; and for the happy restoration of Fawlty Towers.

Also known as the Randolph.

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Rest is different from distraction

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 July 2017, 6.20am

I wish you rest this summer…rather than distraction.

And the two are different.

Ferreting around the internet on your phone at the end of the day (or in the middle of it…or throughout it) isn’t rest.

It’s mental distraction.

There’s no new life here; just cerebral escape from the one where we are.

There’s a place for this, we all need escape sometimes; but it isn’t restorative (indeed it may make us more anxious) and so we won’t call it rest.

Our mental machinations are hard wired for anxiety, dissatisfaction and irritation; they cannot offer us peace…just stressed stimulation.

Rest occurs when our breathing deepens and we’re taken away from our minds and into our body to a place of ‘no thought’.

So it might be being still, transfigured by a sunset; but it might also be an energetic walk up a hill or going for a swim.

Whatever takes us away from our over-thinking and brings us to no thought, this is rest… whether it’s a waterfall, a sunflower or feeling the kiss of the sun; whether
it’s a calming visit to the park or a half-marathon…

We feel better, we feel restored by a rest, by no thought, even if it only lasts ten seconds.

And I wish you rest this summer.

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An incredibly human story

Posted by Simon Parke, 24 July 2017, 5.58am

Hold the front page!

‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’, my historical novel, has a new reviewer.

And this is what they said:

‘A few years ago I read a biography of Jane Whorwood by John Fox, a most interesting book about a most intriguing woman, whose life and whose involvement in the life of King Charles I was largely forgotten by history.

That biography brought Jane Whorwood to life, and her portrayal in this novel enhances that biography with an incredibly ‘human’ story.

Jane is the “spy” in the novel’s title; the “soldier” is Cromwell; the “gaoler” Robert Hammond, about whom I would love to find more to read, as he sounds a most intriguing character; and the final titular character is the King, about whom the lives of the others revolved to a large extent.

From early 1647 to early 1649 we follow the intertwined tales of these four.

This is a novel which has a very intimate feel, and where the narrative unfolds subtly and carefully through the actions, words and motivations largely of these four main characters.

Each is portrayed sympathetically and non-judgmentally, and it is easy to feel pity and empathy for each of them in their turn as the story plays out to its end.

This is an incredibly good novel; a fantastic historical novel, and a brilliant read, from an author who will, I sincerely hope, write many more books for us to enjoy.

Definitely recommended without reservation.’

Keen Reader, Amazon

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The genius of nuance

Posted by Simon Parke, 20 July 2017, 5.59am

Let us suppose that human civilisation is the opposite of human brutalisation.

And ponder the difference.

Brutalisation is the stupid climate of tyranny, where rainbows are declared black and white

While civilisation is the enlightened climate of nuance

Where the seven colours of the rainbow are just the start of the story

Which, of course, is why we don’t applaud politicians, why we don’t chant their names.

Never.

We can vote for them if we wish; but we won’t wave banners, as if somehow they are the answer.

It never ends well…and we might make tyrants of them.

They might begin to believe in their black and white, stupid-as-mince cause

Warm to their dishonest certainty

To their particular telling of the story

To their sheep and goats world view

In short, applause encourages a foolish simplification of strategy and can encourage tyrants, who hate nuance with a passion

because nuance dismantles their labels

and disturbs their simplification of the world in which lives

The violent librarian

The honest thief

The bigoted freedom fighter

The magnificent Brexiteer

The greedy Trades Unionist

The depressed clown

The selfish nurse

The compassionate Tory

The jealous bishop

This human race is not black and white

So for the sake of civilisation, we don’t applaud politicians or chant their names.

It may stir in them the small-time tyrant, stoke their dishonest certainty, their selective discernment, their inaccurate labels

When civilisation is built on the truer and kinder way of nuance

On the truth there are no good and bad people or nations

Only the speckled

All mess and magic

The controlling charity worker

The enlightened accountant

The lazy victim

The gentle fundamentalist

The hateful mother

The generous Kensington and Chelsea counsellor

The kind paedophile

Oh… and the Good Samaritan.

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Spirituality: the art of staying awake

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 July 2017, 6.03am

In the 1990’s, a team of US researchers posed as beggars, in Santa Cruz, California.

The results were interesting.

When they asked, ‘Can you spare any change?’ most people ignored them.

When they asked for something more specific, like, ‘Can you spare a quarter?’ they did better.

But when they asked for an actual amount, like, ‘Can you spare 42 cents?’ a remarkable 75% of passers-by stopped to give them something.

With a change of question, they had also managed to change a dead dynamic and spark a sense of relationship.

They had managed to ‘wake’ the passer-by.

‘It’s as if the unusual detail shakes the person out of a slumber, to see the moment as the beginning of an interaction, rather than as environmental noise to tune out,’ writes Alex Fradera on the Research Digest blog.

We all have buffers in place tuning out environmental noise, which is a polite way of saying, ‘Everything that does not serve me’.

These buffers kindly protect us from being overwhelmed by life; there’s only so much we can receive.

But they can also stifle us, narrow us, harden us…make us stupid.

‘I know what I like and I like what I know!’

And it can be difficult for anything or anyone to penetrate this bubble or wake us from our particular dream/hallucination.

As Oliver Burkeman says, we can trundle through life giving rather scripted responses.

Someone asks us how we are and we say ‘Fine’ without much thought.

We’re managing our resources, keeping a lid on things, running a tight ship, both inside and out.

To engage with how we truly are is just too exhausting; we may not even wish to know.

So it’s easier to stay with the script, stay with our carefully constructed self-image.

It is as if we are sleep walking for much of the time… though we can wake up.

Or allow crisis to do it for us.

‘Hello, sweet crisis! What message do you bring for me today?’

Spirituality is the art of staying awake…staying awake to life rather than editing it out.

It is starting each day without a script…and staying open to the unlikely grace of this moment.

‘Can you spare 42 cents?’

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When

Posted by Simon Parke, 17 July 2017, 3.49pm

When you’ve lit a candle in the window, and no one has come

When you’ve planted a flower, but the flower doesn’t live

When you’ve thought ‘I could do that’ but others are chosen

When everything you’ve been building has been building to nothing

When you hope for more, but feel only less

When you walk by the sea of abandonment, a cold moon above

and feel the water seeping in your shoes

When the terror will be quieted no more

Go to yourself, go to your cell, close the door and sit kindly with your life

And start again

With neither expectation nor fear

And deserving both nothing and everything

Sometimes you simply wipe the old slate clean with your wretched tears

and with unheard-of strength, only distantly rumoured

You start again

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Getting my hair cut

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 July 2017, 8.31pm

I went to the barber’s shop today.

There was no quartet but, wait a minute, as I walk in the door, I see that one of the two stylists is a young woman with black hair and black mini skirt.

A young woman cutting men’s hair?! I mean, I like to think of myself as open-minded and all that, but, well -

She looks a bit like former rocker Joan Jett and there’s a small queue for her.

It’s usually blokes doing the cutting here, so I’m a bit surprised, but I try to act normal, despite the frisson in the air.

First things first: how long will the wait be? I’m not sure who is in the queue, so I try and find out.

‘Are you waiting?’ I ask the man sitting next to me, mid-sixties, I’d guess.

He’s looking at Joan.

She’s doing me,’ he says firmly, establishing his turf.

(Fortunately he doesn’t feel the need to urinate as well.)

He’s as keen as mustard for the forthcoming snip, I can see that, there’s not much else on his mind, and really, why not? How else is a man in his mid-sixties going to be willingly touched by a young woman in a tight skirt?

He’ll pay £10 and it will be money well spent… whatever the hair cut.

I’m not in the queue for Joan Jett, however; it seems I’m in the queue for Sammy, a gregarious young man of Asian descent, in crisp white shirt and black shorts.

He’s chatting football and boxing shit with the young man ahead of me; they’re a similar age, similar interests.

It’s mainly about the money, who’s earning what…millions, billions etc.

He refreshes himself at regular intervals from a bottle of diet coke, confident swigs, then back to the scissor work.

His mobile then rings and he looks at it and says:

‘Can I take this?’

‘No worries, mate, no worries, ’says his client, and Sammy is out the door for a while, chatting away in the sunny street.

This is one of the advantages of being a hair dresser over, say, a therapist. You can answer the phone mid-session and the client doesn’t mind; no abandonment
issues are brought to the surface by your actions and worked through thereafter in a transactional sort of way.

As soon as Sammy’s back, they’re straight back to Floyd Mayweather, ££millions and ££billions.

In the meantime, I’m wondering how Sammy is going to handle me.

We probably won’t be talking boxing, and I note the only time he looks vaguely uneasy is when he looks in my direction.

I feel like a haunting, a ghost from his past, he seems to look through me and then away.

Perhaps he’s thinking: ‘Old man with no hair. Why’s he here?’

Perhaps he can’t see my hair in the glare due to the angle of the sun (that must be it) and wonders what he is to do?

Whether we’re welders, writers, nurses or barbers, we all need material, we all need something to work with.

And what will we talk about?

So it’s interesting what unfolds.

When he has me in the chair, he ceases the one-to-one approach of former times and becomes ‘Master of the House’ engaging all and sundry in conversation, suddenly everyone’s life-long chum.

He talks with everyone, except me.

But it’s fine.

He has gentle hands, he’s doing a good job, and I’m happy not to be discussing my holidays…as he strikes up with a new arrival called Sandra, who he hasn’t seen for about three months apparently.

‘How’s Lewis?’ he asks. ‘It was Lewis, wasn’t it?

‘It was Lewis, yeh.’

‘So how is he?’

‘Oh I’m not with Lewis anymore, am I?’

‘Oh?’

‘He was cheating on me, wasn’t he!’

‘Oh dear.’

Sammy sounds genuinely disappointed in Lewis. Well, we all are.

‘And he was gambling away my money.’

‘That’s not good, not good at all.’

‘So he was out the door.’

Well, thank goodness for that, Sandra…that’s my think bubble.

‘So are you with someone new?’ asks Sammy.

‘Well, I was with someone…and it was going all right but then he started taking my money as well, bloody cheek, taking my money, so I brought that to an end. Not
having that.’

I feel embarrassed to be a man…even one with no hair.

‘So I’m on Tinder now,’ she says. ‘Testing the water.’

‘And why not?’ says Sammy affirmingly… though I can think of several reasons.

‘Yeh, I may have found someone, he seems nice, we’ll see.’

And all this in the last three months…

Meanwhile, Mid-sixties Man is still with Joan Jett, his thinning hair singing, as Sammy brings his fine work on my skull to an end.

It wasn’t tense.

But it was a close shave.

 

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The masks of anxiety

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 July 2017, 6.10am

It’s good to notice our anxiety.

Not to fight it…just notice.

One aspect of anxiety is its mask-making.

It can place frightening masks on people or situations, which create terror in us as we look at them.

We might imagine someone won’t like us, for instance, if we act in a certain way.

Or that something bad is going to happen to a loved one.

Or we imagine a situation working out badly.

If its not one thing, its another.

Our anxiety places masks on people or situations and these masks look back at us and frighten us.

It’s helpful if we can both name and remove the masks our anxiety has handed round; but it’s not easy.

Behind our anxious self is someone struggling a little…struggling to be…to be enough, to be what we essentially are.

Anxiety can be the panic that we are not enough in ourselves, not substantial enough… and fear does the rest, placing frightening masks on the world out there.

And it’s difficult to proceed.

‘What if this happens?! Or that happens?!’

‘I can’t do that – I mean, what would they think?’

So here’s to some deep breaths… and some loosening of the lying masks from those people or situations.

The universe is kinder than you imagine.

And here’s to fortitude.

Fortitude, says Paul Tillich, is the strength of the soul to be what it essentially is.

You are true…the masks are not.

And here’s to you being kind to yourself as your mask-making anxiety passes through.

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The grateful mind set

Posted by Simon Parke, 11 July 2017, 7.18am

Just as certain foods do us good, so do some emotions.

Take gratitude, for instance: your brain and your body, they love it apparently.

Why?

Because of the science of what it does.

You may know that the antidepressant Wellbutrin boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine.

I’m aware dopamine is sometimes called the Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters, sexy for being associated with pleasure.

Which is all to be encouraged.

But it has other functions in the brain; and beyond the pleasure sea it’s also involved in regulating movement, (and so used at the onset of Parkinson’s disease) and the control of attention.

But do you know what studies show also boosts dopamine in your body? Yes, gratitude.

It’s emotional self-medication, requiring no visit to the doctor’s surgery.

And then there’s serotonin.

Among other things, this neurotransmitter is important for mood balance, protecting us from depression.

Prozac, of course, is famous for boosting serotonin.

But studies reveal that - yes, gratitude also boosts it.

The simple act of focusing on good things in your life apparently increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex. (Not a phrase I use often.)

So as we all rush for the medicine cupboard, there’s definite cause for thought here, as our being - our psychological and spiritual state - is brought into our healing
equation.

Gratitude may not come easily to us.

When life isn’t going well, (and it doesn’t always) we may feel there’s nothing to be grateful for.

But this doesn’t actually matter; it’s the searching for the positives that counts… the grateful mind set.

The grateful mind set is a form of emotional intelligence and a tip-top habit.

Another study found that it affects neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex.

These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.

We can change.

And obviously gratitude doesn’t just release good things into your body. It makes people around you happy because it’s an attractive emotion to be close to.

So a positive feedback loop is created, a beautiful circle.

Some make a religion out of being grumpy, and it has its occasional comedy and charm.

But there are better religions, and one of them is gratitude.

The grateful mind set: it’s like one of those miracle cures.

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In search of the servant

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 July 2017, 10.58am

After thirteen years in their employment, Wayne Rooney recently left Manchester United to return to his first club, Everton.

In their goodbye statement, United referred to him as a ‘wonderful servant’ of the club.

And some discontinuity switch clicked inside me.

He’d played very well in some matches…but he was a ‘servant’ on over £200,000 a week.

So where does that leave us with the word and the role it signifies?

I have similar struggles with the papacy self-styling itself down the years as ‘the servant of the servants of God’.

I don’t know any other servant who, from their palace, and almost inexhaustible treasury, declares themselves infallible.

Again, I sense disconnect, some inner stirrings of incongruity.

A megalomaniac honest about their intentions is somehow preferable to this talk of servanthood.

And now we have a debate about bishops’ mitres which could throw up the same issues.

From their clothes, you probably wouldn’t guess that bishops are leaders of a sect which follows the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

It wouldn’t be immediately apparent.

While he identified strongly with the suffering servant, the clothes of some of his present day leadership – never short on gold - suggest a rather attention-seeking
servant.

You wouldn’t want to wash anyone’s feet in that get-up; you might get it messy.

The Revd Dr Ian Paul, a member of the Archbishops’ Council, has been a keen voice in the present debate.

“The mitre has become a sign that ‘this person is a bishop’,’ he says. ‘It’s not a very good one because it looks daft and it doesn’t signify anything…it makes them distant and it makes them look silly.”

This may or may not be so. I’ve seen plenty of Baptist ministers and Evangelical front men looking distant and silly in their suits…not because of their clothes; just
because of who they are.

Dressing down does not in itself make anyone humble…or convincing.

My greater concern with the recently-acquired odd hats – and the mitre is recent, only appearing on bishops’ heads in the 19th century – is around deference and servanthood.

I do sense that a mitre makes for infantile relationships around the bishop-figure, which does not serve them or their flock.

Putting on an odd hat (and I have a few) does not make me a more authoritative figure; neither does it work that way for a bishop.

Yet in a world that loves a show, loves a bit of theatre, it can play into that madness.

(Certainly when it comes to recent sex scandals in the church, such deference has played out badly.)

And talk of servanthood from a figure dripping in gold; who arrives last and leaves first; who always gets given the best seat in the house and wild-eyed deference as far as the eye can see…well, we’re back with the sense of incongruity, of disconnect.

I believe in the servant ideal and celebrate it wherever it is found.

I believe in one who does things for others, and we can take that spirit into whatever role or job we have – taxi driver, carer, footballer, car maker, bishop, sex worker, mum, teacher, dad, social worker, dentist, friend, whatever.

And of course it is more about the spirit, (it always is) and less about the wages and the clothes.

But such things have their own loud message, conscious and unconscious; and it may not be one that is helpful. 

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