The Tresses of Her Hair of Gold

I wish I could tell for sure, you know. I’m even afraid to compliment my friends on their hair nowadays for fear of getting it wrong –the colour, I mean. I’ve never been very good at colours, though; to me, hair is red, brown, black, or blond… and grey, of course –although I seldom see that except in roots anymore. Words like ‘auburn’, ‘chestnut’, ‘strawberry’, or ‘caramel’ are wasted on me. And, apart from the obvious camouflaging appeal of a foreign word, I confess I’m not sure why a brunette doesn’t just have brown hair.

Be assured that I appreciate the rich palimpsest available today, it’s just that I can never remember the names –or, except in some of the more fluorescent hues, know if it is their cheveux de naissance. And, yes, I share with Longfellow, a delight in the gold of long blond hair: Her cap of velvet could not hold the tresses of her hair of gold, that flowed and floated like the stream, and fell in masses down her neck. But I have to say that for me, at least, beauty has never resided in hair length, or presumed intelligence or desirability in hair colour. All these things are mere adjectives to the noun of personhood.

And yet, I say this as a retired, older man, unplugged from the business world, and I accept that from the other end of the spectrum, things may seem different –perhaps are different, for reasons I no longer have to accept. Take the case of Eileen Carey, a successful 30-some year-old CEO in Silicon Valley who, naturally blond, now wears glasses and brown hair:

‘Carey was told that the investors she was pitching to would feel more comfortable dealing with a brunette, rather than a blonde woman. “I was told for this raise [of funds], that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs,” she explains. Pattern recognition is a theory which suggests people look for familiar experiences – or people – which in turn can make them feel more comfortable with the perceived risks they are taking. […] “Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey says.

‘”People are more likely to hit on me in a bar if I’m blonde. There’s just that issue in general. “For me to be successful in this [tech industry] space, I’d like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way.”’

Forgive me, I don’t wish to appear unduly benighted about this –I’m just trying to understand. Just trying to put it in some sort of context, albeit probably an outmoded one. Is the need to dye one’s hair similar to the need for a man to don a shirt and tie for a successful interview? And would going in blond be like arriving in jeans and sweatshirt? Just how are people –women, in this case- judged? Unless she was auditioning for a waitress job at the Cactus Club, how could the otherwise successful possession of whatever criteria were advertised for the position be invalidated by hair colour? Come on!

Of course, if she freely chooses to dye her hair, and decides she prefers glasses to contacts, then that is a different matter, but it seems suspiciously akin to changing your name on an application form to disguise your nationality –or skin colour… or even sex– just to get through the door, no matter your qualifications.

It reminds me of something that Janice, a family doctor once told me about hiring her secretary. She was just opening her medical practice in a new city and had advertised for a someone to work at the front desk and answer the phone. She wasn’t having much luck, apparently. She’d asked for a résumé from each candidate before their interview, and none of them seemed to invite further consideration, until she received one from a Gerri Coland who, at 27, had apparently been trained as a social worker, and although she’d already worked at it for several years, felt it was time for a change. She still wanted to engage with people and help them whenever possible, she had written, but without needing to take their problems home with her each night. Perfect, Janice thought.

The résumé had arrived via Email, so Janice replied immediately with a request for an interview the next morning, if Gerri could make it. But she didn’t receive a reply, so the next day, Janice phoned the number provided. A very pleasant man answered.

“Hi, this is Dr. Janson,” she said. “Is Gerri there?”

“No… actually Gerri’s at work right now. Can I take a message?”

“Well, she sent in a résumé to my office and I wanted to interview her for the job.”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Well, I’m Gerri’s partner, so I’ll pass the message on. When is the interview?”

“Would nine o’clock tomorrow morning work for her? I know it’s rather short notice, but I’m trying to start up my new practice as soon as possible.”

He chuckled into the phone. “I’m sure tomorrow morning will be fine. Gerri’s only filling in for someone right now…”

The job of a secretary in her office, Janice informed me, would merely be to greet and register the patients, and organize appointments over the phone. But it was an important first impression of the office. So, she needed someone pleasant, understanding, and able to cope with the different attitudes and moods patients often staple to their illnesses.

The next morning, ten minutes early, a smiling young man arrived at the office dressed in grey slacks, and a dark blue sports jacket over a pale blue shirt. Janice assumed Gerri was in the washroom, and smiled at the friendly man who was fairly obviously Gerri’s partner.

He glanced at his watch and stood up to shake her hand. “Sorry we’re a bit early, but my partner thought the traffic might be heavier coming across the bridge…” He glanced around the newly furnished office. “Wow, this is well-designed,” he added, walking up to the front desk after admiring a large Areca palm in an earthenware pot by the window. “I like the way the waiting room is furnished. The comfortable chairs, the pictures on the wall, and the box of toys for kids is so welcoming. So calming.” He allowed his eyes to rest on her face. “Did you design it, Dr. Janson?”

She nodded. I’ve always felt that the last thing a person needs is a sterile, airport-style waiting room when they’re already stressed with whatever problem brought them to the doctor.”

The man nodded in agreement and walked up to examine one of the pictures on the wall. “A Carol Grigg! I’ve seen some of her other work down in Oregon. She’s a Cherokee artist I think, isn’t she…?” But he seemed to be talking more to himself, than Janice.

This was a man who was obviously at ease with new situations, Janice thought, no longer caring, where Gerri was.

Suddenly the man stopped and looked at her. “Look, I’m sorry about this…” He stared down at his feet for a moment, and then rested his eyes on her cheeks as softly as small birds on a branch. “Perhaps there was a little confusion with my résumé… I’m Gerri.”

Janice broke out in a wide, reassuring smile, and touched him gently on the shoulder. “I was hoping you were…”







The Thousand Natural Shocks

I guess I should have seen it coming, but I am a creature of an epoch that craved the security of its boundaries, liked the certainty of its labels, the comfort of knowing where things stood. I am older now, and can accept the confluence of sides. I live in the wake of new ideas.

And yet, all around me, I hear echoes of Yeats: The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. For goodness sakes, it’s just Fashion blinking once again.

Those of us of an age, still equate unisex clothing with the guerilla military garb of Latin American rebel groups –utilitarian, egalitarian in its camouflage if not its beauty. But these are the chains of another era, born of necessity, not fashion. Once only a whisper, a different voice now sings in the ears of a youthful culture tired of the constraints of gender, impatient with being assigned a role. And while I can’t say that I follow any particular clothing style, I suspect that I conform rather closely to the stereotypes to which I was exposed at a very early age. But I realize that nobody really cares what I wear; it is perhaps enough that I don’t object if people wear each other’s clothes.

And I don’t object, although in fairness, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. These things sometimes creep up slowly, as indistinguishable as shadows on a cloudy day. In fact, I only became aware of non-discrepant dressing a while back, when I found myself scrolling absently through an article on unisex clothing as an antidote to the troubling catastrophes that leave me sleepless in the night.

I won’t say it was a surprise –things evolve, and clothing is certainly in the vanguard. ‘The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing […]. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory – wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance – this “was about appropriating male power”. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women “may be feeling more comfortable with themselves”; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)’ Uhmm… Yawn… I almost stopped reading at this point –I don’t know how normal people can slog their way through stuff like this.

Still, the next paragraph did manage to snag me from torpor’s edge: ‘Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share.’ Okay, coals-to-Newcastle perhaps, but it was a candle in a dark room that kept me scrolling.

Then, something caught my eye, something that even I have noticed over the years -the frustration of seeing some patterns or styles that I fancied, only to find they were destined for the female market. This was a view from the other side, though. ‘The shirt company GFW Clothing – GFW stands for Gender Free World– has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms “men” or “women”’ and Lisa Honan, co-founder of the brand online said ‘“I’d look in the men’s aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts […]” The men’s shirts, she says, didn’t fit her “because I’ve got a woman’s body. It got me thinking why is [there] a man’s aisle and a woman’s aisle, and why do you have to make that choice?”’ I don’t buy many new clothes nowadays, but Amen to that, I suppose.

One day, not so long ago, I was on a trip in a foreign city, and happened to walk past a row of brightly-coloured clothes hanging outside a store on a rack on the sidewalk. A sign above the clothes shouted Sale! 50% -or more- Off. And just like that, I fingered my way through a few of the shirts, stopping at a pale blue one that had a white linen flower sewn on the chest near the collar. In fact, the collar was what intrigued me –instead of the standard sharp angles, it was rounded off like the railings of an escalator. But its treasures didn’t stop there –the cuffs were adorned with a row of brightly coloured decorative buttons like digital fasteners all in a little row.

It was then that I noticed the eyes. And heard the mouth. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it sir?” I traced the words to a stoutly built middle-European woman standing in the door of the shop. She looked pleased, but suspicious –there was not the usual fawning of a sales rep on commission.

Embarrassed at being caught riffling through the clothes, and determined not to be pressured into buying anything, I merely smiled at her and withdrew my hand. Then, I shrugged and walked away a few steps until she disappeared through the door again. But there was something about the shirt that appealed to me so I turned around and pulled it off the rack. I think it was the little flower, to tell the truth. It seemed so… alive.  I couldn’t find the size, so I pressed the shirt against my chest like I’d seen people do to decide if it would fit. It seemed about the right size.

“Something for the missus, sir?” a now-familiar voice said softly, almost in my ear.

I turned my head suddenly and found a pair of eyes clinging to my face; I think I blushed. “No… I, uhmm, I think maybe…” I finally noticed the sign above the door, Plus One it said, and I wondered if it meant it was a two-for-one store, or something.

“I understand, sir,” she said with a big smile and what might have passed for a wink as she studied me and then let her eyes float up and down my face. “Would you like to try it on?” she added with a practiced, friendly expression and ordered her eyes closer to home base, finally satisfied with their assessment. She glanced at the rack. “I think that green one next to it would look good on you, too…”

So, it was two-for-one, I thought, happy that I’d found the rack.

“Try the blue one on first, and I’ll let you know what I think,” she said, hurrying over to one of two flimsy change room doors but found it locked. She looked at me and sighed. “You can use the other one. Some people just can’t make up their minds,” she whispered, and rolled her eyes. “That’s why they ask for my opinion.” She smiled innocently, as if she really would tell them what she thought.

I have to say that the shop had a sweet fragrance -as if someone had just shampooed themselves in a corner somewhere- and I was about to compliment her on the ambience, when the rickety door opened and a very large woman emerged. She was wearing a rather masculine-looking olive-coloured pant suit, complete with vest and a wide red necktie. It didn’t look like the stuff from the rack outside, but apart from some obvious strain on the fabric, I thought it really looked very nice on her.

“I don’t know, Helga,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously as she spoke to the saleslady. “I wonder if the colour is right for me.” She glanced my way again, obviously embarrassed.

Helga was already shaking her head, and I could see the disappointment on the large woman’s face. She really liked the outfit -and I kind of fancied it as well.

I put on my warmest smile. “I think it looks very nice on you, ma’am. The colour goes beautifully with your complexion, and I think it highlights your eyes. It’s a man’s opinion, of course…” I thought it best to issue a disclaimer.

Suddenly the woman blushed and a grin that almost split her face in half emerged. “I’ll take it, Helga!” she almost shouted, and disappeared behind the door again.

“And I’m gonna take these as well,” I said, handing them to Helga. “I don’t need to try them on… Two for one, are they?” You have to clarify these things.

Helga looked momentarily surprised but then slowly nodded. “Ever think of going into retail?”

You know, I’m beginning to think that someone like me would do very well in the burgeoning field.

Let Every Eye Negotiate for Itself

We are very attuned to patterns, aren’t we? We see them even when they aren’t there, filling in the lines, reading the shadows to complete the image. But does the face we see in the play of light on forest leaves, or the finger in the sinuous beckoning of the windblown grass really fool a mind that can do mathematics in its head? Or is it just a brief dalliance, a foray into a theatre for a moment or two? A titillating fantasy that fades when the eye moves on to other, more important, things?

A stereotype is a pattern too, but more deeply etched, and coloured so convincingly it is mistaken for the thing itself. Not recognized as a simulacrum, it is treated as archetypal, requiring few, if any, revisions –so self-evident it is almost a causa sui. And yet, hic sunt dracones, to continue the Latin –here be dragons- for stereotypes are, by default, fancifully-charted territories. Like incomplete maps filled in with imagined beasts, they are not reliable guides. They do not help.

And yet they are so prevalent, it is often difficult to recognize them, let alone extract them from the gestalt. So they persist, and like a Where’s Waldo face, only emerge from the background if we make a concerted effort to find them. But usually, there has to be a motivation to look –something that shakes us from our apathy. Our indifference.

It’s so easy to slip into somnolence, isn’t it? So easy to let things pass us by unexamined as long as they don’t threaten to disrupt our day. And yet, to escape the pastel hues in which our waking hours are often painted, it is sometimes an adventure to search for the chiaroscuro hiding in plain sight.

There was a delightful article I noticed a while back that managed to open my eyes again:

It recounts the story of a a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who designs clothes for people with Down’s syndrome. The thing is, ‘Before she was an internationally-recognised designer, Isabella Springmuhl says she was rejected by two fashion schools in her native Guatemala because she has Down syndrome. “They said I would not be able to cope,” recalls the 19-year-old. But that rejection was exactly what Isabella needed to turn her life around […].’

So, instead, her mother took her to a sewing academy that would accept her. ‘While learning how to sew, Isabella was asked to design outfits for worry dolls – traditionally hand-made dolls originating from Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. The tiny dolls are usually put under children’s pillows in the hope that they will take away their sorrows while they sleep.

‘Isabella took a different approach.

‘”Isabella didn’t want to design clothes for… finger-sized dolls,” says Mrs Tejada [her mother]. “She created life-sized dolls and dressed them in the colourful embroidered jackets and ponchos that she’s now famous for.”

‘Isabella moved from designing for dolls to people, and soon enough produced a collection that gained the attention of the fashion world. Earlier this year, she became the first designer with Down’s syndrome to take part in London Fashion Week.’

But it didn’t stop there. Isabella points out that her main inspiration for designing arose after a struggle to find well-fitting clothing for her body type.

“It was difficult for me to get clothes,” Isabella says. “We have a different body constitution; we are shorter, wider, or very thin. My mother always had to fix the clothes she bought for me. So I decided to design clothes that fit people with Down’s syndrome, plus I really love Guatemalan textiles and the diversity of colours and textures they represent.”’

Wow! I get a shiver down my spine when I think of the odds that Isabella was willing to tackle. But, I wonder if she ever thought of them as odds, or merely as challenges that needed extra effort each time they arrived. Not only are there rivers to ford as a young person hoping to succeed in a highly competitive field, but the water sweeps all but the most determined, the most talented, downstream with barely a ripple.

But what am I? asks Tennyson, An infant crying in the night, An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry. I doubt that Isabella ever thought of herself like that. From time to time, there arise those exceptional people who do not understand the concept of failure. Who do not doubt or lose their way. Who are so confident in themselves, no matter the circumstance, that they press on and build on what they know they have, and are ingenious about what they don’t.

Stereotypes fail these individuals, as they do anything unique. How can you epitomize a Caesar, or cage a Churchill? How can you oversimplify a courageous person? How to paint the journey of a cloud? Tennyson, again from In Memoriam A.H.H:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

And so, how to stereotype a syndrome? In Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, there is an extra (part or whole) chromosome 21, which causes an assemblage of physical and intellectual features, including a characteristic, recognizable, but variable facial dysmorphia. It is the latter that may prejudice unthinking employers into feeling that they couldn’t cope, that the individual could never fit in, or perform like the rest of their employees –or other students, in Isabella’s case. But they were wrong.

Creativity knows no boundaries; we all fit somewhere on a spectrum –individuals with Down syndrome included. And imagination, like courage, does not stop at the edge of a chromosome.

Let every eye negotiate for itself, says Shakespeare’s Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I think Isabella is a beautiful person, don’t you…? And how do you stereotype that?



What’s Past is Prologue

Sometimes it’s hard to get things right; sometimes it’s hard to get things even sort of right. We pride ourselves on foresight, on our ability to anticipate the future results of our decisions, but it’s often more hubris than skill. Unintended consequences have a way of interpolating themselves like bushes in a forest while we, so focussed on the trees, see only empty spaces –shadows- in between.

Examples are not hard to find. Just think of the well-intentioned introduction of cane toads to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control the cane beetles. Unfortunately, the toads contain a toxin that is deadly to many animals so they have escaped effective predation and their numbers have skyrocketed.

But unexpected problems can also arise at work with employers’ attempts to adapt to the domestic problems that occur from time to time in employees with families. Things like needing to take a child to the doctor, or having to pick her up from day care don’t often happen with childless singles in the office.

I have to say that I would have assumed that thoughtfulness of this sort would have few major adverse repercussions for the employer –workers able to balance job and family equitably might well be better, more satisfied employees. After all, a reward given, is a debt owed. So, I was surprised to discover another side to this family-friendly benevolence as outlined in a BBC news item:

‘Colleagues with children were […] prioritised when it came to taking their preferred vacation dates, […] while fellow single or childless workers struggled to get time off to care for elderly relatives or were asked to go on more frequent business trips.’ It’s obviously a challenge to separate envy –or resentment- from genuine favouritism and ‘While it’s tricky to nail down concrete statistics that prove how much singles might be being indirectly penalized in the workplace, a recent UK study of 25,000 workers found that two thirds of childless women aged 28 to 40 felt that they were expected to work longer hours.’

‘During research for his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University interviewed hundreds of single people in Europe and America and discovered “there was widespread perception that singles became the workhorses in corporate offices”’

‘Bella DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explores the phenomenon in her books and studies, and coined the word “singlism” to pin down the stigmatisation, negative stereotyping and discrimination against singles that she believes is widespread in the workplace and society at large. She argues that many many employers are missing a trick when it comes to single employees, who, far from being lonely and isolated, are actually more likely to be actively engaged in their communities and have strong relationships with friends who “feel like family, even if they are not family in the traditional sense”’.

Unfortunately, the issue is hydra-headed. ‘“There’s a difference in perspective between people who are parents and people who aren’t. If you aren’t a parent, you really can’t see how that changes your life and your priorities,” says Jonas Almeling, a former entrepreneur turned Head of Innovation for a Sweden’s export and trade agency, who is a father-of-one. “I would definitely not have the same flexibility for someone saying ‘oh sorry I am off kayaking’ compared to someone doing a pick-up from kindergarten,” he argues.’

And yet, both parents and singles can be tempted to abuse the kindness –or naïveté- of a forgiving boss. Many years ago, when I was in my salad days and green in judgement, I started my obstetrical specialty practice and hired a young single mother as secretary on the recommendation of a friend. We got along well, and she proved a reassuring presence for my freshling patients. But she seemed to get a lot of ‘colds’ and migraines, however, and often I would only know about when I found a strange woman, a friend of hers usually, standing somewhat befuddled behind the front desk and wondering just who I was when I walked through the door.

I have to say in Martha’s defense, she certainly had nice friends and they all did admirable fill-ins, but I spent as much time coaching them on their duties as I did with the patients. I knew from my training that new mothers had a lot to cope with and, I supposed, especially single parents, so I would usually just shrug, smile at the new receptionist, and introduce myself. After a while, I got to know some of the replacements, and the office got easier. In fact, when change is common, it no longer surprises, and to tell the truth, I normalized it in my mind.

But one of my new obstetrical patients didn’t, and because of some early pregnancy problems she ended up seeing me weekly for a while.

Normally bubbly and talkative, one day Janice was unusually quiet as I led her down the corridor from the waiting area to my office, and before she sat down, she carefully closed the door behind her. “Who is it this time?” she said, and promptly placed a fake smile on her face.

I didn’t understand the question at first and merely raised an eyebrow in response.

“It was Helen last week, and Brava the week before… Come to think of it, I think I saw this one a few weeks ago…” Her eyes hovered over my face for a moment before landing.

“Martha, is supposed to be my fulltime secretary,” I explained. “She seems to call in sick a lot… Single mother, stuff, I think.”

A sardonic smile replaced the fake one. “Have I met her yet?”

I tried to remember, but couldn’t. “She has short, blond hair, and often wears a blue ribbon around her neck, I think…”

Her eyes slid down my face and stopped at my lips –to see if I was serious, I suppose. “I’m a single mother, doctor,” she said and shook her head slowly. “Well, I will be at any rate, I hope…” She sighed and glanced out the window behind me for a second or two. “And even with all the vomiting, I manage to go to work most days.”

I smiled and shrugged. “Martha shows up a lot…” But Janice could see I was struggling with the defence.

She glanced at a picture on the wall. “How old is her child?”

I shrugged again, this time to cover for the fact that I couldn’t remember. But I think Janice understood. “Uhmm, somewhere around 3 or 4 I think…”

“And does she live alone?”

I did remember that –her roommate sometimes filled in for her. “No, she shares a condo with a friend…”

Janice’s eyebrows both crept upward and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Ever phone to find out how she’s doing?” She blinked as she suppressed a word that I could see being pulled back into her mouth in the nick of time.

I shook my head. “You almost asked ‘to find out what she’s doing’, didn’t you…? No, I trust her.”

Janice laughed. “Sometimes an employer phones because he’s concerned about his staff. Trust has nothing to do with it.” Her face brightened even more. “And by the way, I’m feeling a lot better nowadays. Maybe I can go back to monthly visits, eh?” she added. “I’ve been missing too much work lately.” And then she winked at me playfully. “Phone her, eh?”

But I didn’t, you know. I think I was too embarrassed; I liked Martha, and I suppose I didn’t want to catch her in a lie. Anyway, she resigned a few weeks later, and sent me a little potted areca palm for my desk to thank me for my patience with her.

The next month, when Janice saw it on my desk, she asked about it.

“Present from Martha –my former secretary,” I figured I’d better explain ‘former’. “She sent it as a thank you present when she resigned.”

Janice was quiet for a moment. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” Her eyes interrogated me briefly – but they knew…

I shook my head.

Then she sighed, and the slightest wisp of a smile surfaced for a second beneath those wise, experienced eyes.