Life is Good

Evan in Drag…

Mum got good news. A single blast of pre-cautionary radiotherapy and she has the thumbs up from her Consultant.

She was trembling before she went in. Visibly. Her hands were shaking.

When she came out she said:

Oh what a beautiful man. Gorgeous. If I was 20 years younger…

That’s happiness for you!

Rebel is become a happy woman who sits on my bed late at night and talks of hopes and dreams. I could weep with the pain of my own happiness, simply listening to her quietly growing joy in life.

The Lad is thriving on 5am rises and managing the DIY superstore staff and being praised by Regional managers who talk of his ‘headroom’… (apparently that’s his ability to grow into a senior management role).
He has become a man. I was looking elsewhere – for just a moment – and I turn back to see him full grown. He pats my shoulder and looks down at the top of my head and laughs and calls me ‘my wee Mum’. The roles are reversing (though I do have to check that what is mildly endearing now doesn’t become irritatingly patronising later!).

Baby Giant ran a half-marathon dressed as ‘Paula Radcliffe’ (who annoys – but that’s another post): 6′ 5″ of blonde wig; skin-tight speedos (courtesy of Papa Jaime) and a ripped off midi top… And was the talk of the toon. A colleague of mine – not realising he was my son – described this ‘vision of loveliness who was packing an eyeful’. Mmmm That’s my mad totally-secure-in-his-own-self boy.

The Tricky One – baby number 4 – is making a huge success of his entry to High School. Has a film star girlfriend and is just too cool to utter more than a monosyllable response to dinnertime questions.

Baby has a sleepover tomorrow and is bursting with excitement.

And I have a meeting at Victoria Quay’s Government buildings.

Life is Good.

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I am not middle-aged apparently

According to a report (can’t comment on the provenance) discussed on Radio 4 today (the beauty of the commute is maverickly random radio-listening) middle-age starts at about 54 years.

Oh jeez. And there was me thinking I had a good excuse for my creaky knees, inability to party all night and general crankiness. Turns out it’s got nowt to do with my age. It’s just me. Out of shape and jaded, knackered me.

I listened to the debate – between two irritating male mid-40 yr olds – and wondered how the report writers decided on the cut-off point? where middle-age began and youth ended?

And then got a bit pissed off with their puerile arguing over which of them felt oldest/youngest and plugged in my iPhone instead. The Crystal Fighters boomed from the car speakers for a bit – I got bored with their techno-folk and returned to BBC Radio 4.

The two middle-youths were still debating.

One was 44 and the other 46. 44 felt middle-aged. He was railing against the tyranny of ‘youth’ and evangelical about ageing. 46 was insistent that he felt ‘young’. That he loved ‘youth culture’ and never wanted to stop ‘being a child’.

46 really really irritated me. I had this intense desire to shout at him. And as the Lang Whang road is a desolate wraith of a desolate haunted road, I did shout.

‘Oh ffs get a grip! You sad man. Your bloody life has been wasted on you if you haven’t learnt yet that you are OLD! And that age is GOOD!’

I ruminated over my own relatively recent but latterly happy realisation that my ‘youth’ was over (yes, I too was a bit of a late-realiser): standing in a muddy wet festival field listening to a favourite band (Elbow as it happens) and realising that actually, my back was sore with all the standing; that I hated being wet; that I hated the mud; really hated being dirty in a pair of old wellies that had seen better days and that I was dreading another night spent in a tent hunched around a hump in the field listening to wains getting off their tits on MDMA, lager and dope and having to pee in a super-size flora tub at 5am because a trip to the bogging bogs was just beyond me. I was, I realised then, just too old for all that crap. And that this would therefore be ‘the last time I’d do the festival-thing again’.

And since then there have been other blinding flashes of insight. Sadly, not of the profound variety (I don’t want to mislead) but rather, wee bits of realisation dawning on me, in a way that liberates me just a little more every time.

I am freed from the tyranny of youth. I am proud of my age. I own my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned.

One of the biggest of which – and this is bound to disappoint with its shallow narcissism – is the liberation from feeling I need to maintain my sexual attractiveness…

I am 45. I will never again have my 20yr old body back. My face is going south. I am sagging and bagging and wrinkling and drooping. My knees hurt a bit when I get up in the morning. My teeth need an overhaul. It’s harder than ever to lose weight. I look ridiculous in Topshop. I need 8 hrs sleep but can seldom manage more than 6. Thirty yr olds sound young. And 60 plus yr old men no longer remind me of my Dad.

And it’s all alright. Better than that. It’s freeing.

Mind you I ain’t giving up on the hair dye and anti-wrinkle serum just yet.

But I am genuinely more comfortable in my skin than I have ever been. I relish knowing answers, being able to recall work situations from years ago and applying the lessons learned. I like the maturity of thought and political pragmatism that’s settled with age. Being able to debate electoral reform and secularism and quote John Berger and remember why it’s right and proper to hate the Tories (Thatcher) and all about mining and the car industry we used to have and the summer it snowed. I like remembering. Starting sentences of stories for my kids with ‘I remember when…’ I love having a 22 yr old daughter. I know I haven’t as much physical energy for my amazing 9 yr old – but wouldn’t change a thing.

I am finally the person I have waited my whole life to be – or I’m so much closer.

Yes, I am middle-aged. And it is good.

I know the answer to that, Miss!

Today there was a definite improvement. With some work now on my desk I am beginning to feel I have a purpose.

Sad really. That I need the external reassurance of additional hearings; of meetings with Government and analysis of legislative initiatives; of STUC Conference and the anticipation of ‘Fitness to Practice’ cases. I want to be busy. I have so much enthusiasm, wanting to master the new challenge. More significantly (and I own and accept this deeply ingrained flaw): I also need to be seen to be smart and to be contributing something of value… (ugh)

I know that I’ve always been this sad annoying wee chiel. The smarty-pants clever-clog with her hand permanently in the air. I know the answer to that Miss! I know! Ask me! Ask me!

I was put up the back of the class in English because I annoyed the Hell out of Lucy McGill my English teacher. It was she who taught me that my sheer delight and enthusiasm in learning was a bad thing. I learned not to put my hand up. Because when no one else would answer (and nobody else did) she would sneer, smirk at the class and then say Alright class – Yvonne will have the answer… Yvonne? (with the sarcastic stress on the Yvonne).

She had a poster in her class which read Those of you who think you know everything are annoying to those of us who do. I guess it was meant to be funny. I also guess that she thought that I thought that I knew everything, the poor sad sod.

Funny how I still want to punch her. But she smoked at least 20 and day – she’ll probably be 6 feet under by now.

It’s taken a long time – but I’ve gradually learned to temper the I know the answer! I know the answer! tendency – and now give folk at least a couple of minutes to make their own contribution. I’ve even discovered – sometimes – that some folks have really good smart valuable contributions of their own to make. In fact, sometimes better than anything I was going to offer.

It used to be that I felt vaguely deflated by their ‘brighter-than-me-ness’ – until I realised that, really, it wasn’t a good or pleasant or mature or secure person who felt that.

I’ve quietened my inner hand-up child for long enough now to begin to be able to appreciate and learn from other people – to use their skills to make a bigger and better thing from the whole as opposed to just me on my own…

Yip. I am still a sad annoying wee chiel inside. But I’m fighting her. Honest.

The spectacles of experience; through them you will see clearly… (Ibsen)

Just back from Specsavers where, despite not needing prescription specs for everyday use, they still gave me the hard sell.

Lanark’s Specsavers…haven’t a clue who the guy is…

I have a ‘slight astygmatism’ apparently. I already knew this, I explained – from the test they’d done on me way back in 2008, when they sold me two pairs of designer spectacles which I never wore.

Effectively the test today revealed more of what I already knew – that I can see the letters on the bottom line, as long as I squint a wee bit – but I can see them without squinting when the tiny prescriptive correction is applied. The optician suggested I ‘would be advised to use prescription glasses when watching t.v. (not something I do very often) and maybe when driving at night’.

I suggested that I might prefer not to get any glasses at all. That I might, in fact, prefer to continue just the way I always have – entirely unaware (physically) of any eyesight imbalance at all and managing just fine, thank you very much, with my ‘driving in the dark’.

I could tell she wasn’t terribly happy with my suggestion.

‘Now, Mrs Stewart’ she said slowly and carefully, coming over all Primary School Teacher-ish, as she frowned at me with what I presume she thought was a careful and intelligent look,  ‘Isn’t it better that you correct your eyesight problem now rather than leave yourself at risk of headaches and eye strain?’

She said ‘eye strain’ as though it were something I could die of. I had this vision of myself: one minute, sitting watching telly quite amiably and then, Bang! suddenly clutching my eyes as I breathed my last.

I laughed and asked (cheeky and rhetorical) – Isn’t that why paracetemol and eyelids were invented?

She looked perplexed.

And I felt suddenly sorry for her.

Look I said Let me take the prescription and go look at the frames that are out there.

Jamie was standing in amongst the racks of grim-looking frames. He had been tested too, but pronounced perfect and quickly got rid of. He looked at me as I clutched my prescription and advanced towards him.

Ha ha ha he said You need specs ya old wummin!

I looked at him. I looked at the multi-racked row upon row of spectacle frames. I looked at the prescription in my hand and then at the door.

Come on James, ya cheeky wee rat, we’re going home.

When I said ‘Can my day get any worse’, it was a rhetorical question, not a challenge…

Why is it that some days start badly – and just keep getting worse?

One wrong turn leading inevitably and inexorably to the next, til you’re in a cul de sac with a juggernaut too big to turn.

The arse-kicking I got the other day set the scene for a difficult conversation with my ‘client’. I can’t dress my failures up as anything other than failures. Nae point. Bullshitting is not my game. But that involves laying yourself bare as a professional plonker – not a great strategy when you’re trying to reassure anyone that you really, actually, truly and in fact, know what you are doing.

Said me I accept full responsibility for the poor show. I will understand if you have lost faith and would prefer alternative representation. However, here is what I plan to do – if you are prepared to give me the opportunity to redress the balance…

Silence.

Big fat yawning silence.

It is a long time since I experienced this acute sense of plonkerishness. It hurts, big style. I reflect, during the silence, that this is my idea of hell and that I deserve it.

It’s a funny thing, but the longer silent man hesitates – and then procrastinates – the more I want to keep his case. I need to show him. Prove to him that I can win his dodgy case.

He says he’ll phone me back.

I come off the phone, shaking with a frustration that surprises me and immediately go for a cigarette or two.

When I come back in, I sit. Tapping my foot. Mind spinning and wheeling. The phone is quiet. By now I am obsessed by the need to fix that case.

I look around. I’ve nothing pressing. I’ll do something I haven’t had time to do for years… something which I was taught to do way back at the beginning when I was prosecuting Health and Safety cases. Write my case in reverse…

And so, feeling positively, sublimely virtuous and smart, I write my submission for that case now. I’ll make this all perfect. It will be textbook. This will be the submission to top all submissions. My case will shine like a shiny big diamond shines. It’ll be a stunner. Knock the spots of the employer. 

Excited, I start typing. I have quotes from the Competency Framework and comparative studies. I have ET caselaw authority. I quote lengthy legal judgement and academic studies. I have my client’s statement and all the in-gathered ‘evidence’ (so far anyway). My fingers clatter across the keyboard. I am on fire! This is smoking. I start to laugh. This’ll show them.

Four pages in and the system crashes.

I’m at home now. I don’t know what has been saved. The Office manager was still working on the server when I left.

And a 7pm email from my client says he’ll phone to discuss on Monday.

I want to believe that this is proof that there is hope. But today has been so shite, so I am not counting my chickens.

My Working Day – or – You can take a horse to water but you canny make it drink…

A slow day today. Home-working, preparing paperwork for submission, examining and assessing evidence, deciding on final strategies and tactical moves.

The reason I am good at what I do? (she said, modestly). Because, above all else, above and before all that adherence to process, I manage the client’s expectations. Calmly. Placatingly. Sensibly and reasonably. So it is that, even as I sometimes feel like shaking them physically, I am smiling and nodding, exuding reassurance and validation, whilst gently probbing their inevitably warped reasoning and beginning the process which will bring them back to themselves.

Cynical? No. Realistic? Yes.

The first rule of my client management is: Let Them Blow. That first meeting, let them do a Vesuvius. Let them exhaust themselves. Let them consume all energies, pouring their bile and their acid; their tears and their snotters; their months of frustration and pain into the calm space of my presence.

Some will come with bulging files of paper: printed emails evidencing workplace slights; perceived bullying treatment; suspect ‘tone’ and discriminatory treatment. For a few, the files will represent several years of a life  which has become invested in sustaining a deep wrath and personal unhappiness. These are the clients who hug their files to themselves – files become life jackets. These are the clients who have annotated the margins of printed-out emails with red inked exclamation marks and row upon repeated row of question marks. The clients whose eyes begin to bulge with the pressing need that you believe them.

Inevitably, all have become attached to their grievance or their disciplinary or their dignity case. It has become the filter through which they experience the world. It defines where and who they are emotionally. It colours every action they take and will be the measure against which they assess their life and the working lifes of others. These are people who are on a mission: to convince me of The Truth.

Ironically, and ‘in truth’, it generally matters not what I believe. The Truth is a subjective mistress who is all things to all people. One man’s bullying is another woman’s performance management. Perception is all. And unless it’s a case about who punched who, or who shagged the 16 year old pupil – in other words, a case about empirically verifiable FACTS – then it is forever a case of ‘he says; she says; he says’. It is Personal Perception.

So, I listen to the noise of their pain and frustration; their repeated calls for ‘justice’ (calls that very often really mean ‘revenge’); I hold their hands through the cataract of anguish and anger – and when they are exhausted, I begin the process of cutting the tumourous mass of filing from them. Delicately avoiding a mass blood-letting. Because what I am really doing for many, is questioning the very basis upon which they have built their recent lives. And that often requires a surgical precision, a delicacy of touch, a keen sense of time and place.

Mind you, for some, there is no tool like the blunt tool. A bald undisguised order that they stop communicating with their employer after I become involved – backed by threat: or else I will withdraw from acting. Or a dismissal of the missive they have drafted with a: It is wholly inappropriate. Now, let us return to our agreed plan.

Some people want the sun and the earth and the moon and the stars. They have lost perspective – and need time to understand that the law does not have a remedy which will heal broken relationships with colleagues nor deliver what they deserve. Nor that stamping their feet in a toddler dance of defiance will achieve anything more than reducing their stock possibly further.

As for me, I cannot afford to become affected by their emotional battles. I cannot be blinded by their views. I must be detached. Objective. Must be able to highlight the unreasonability of their expectations. Always ready to substitute their desires with ‘what the law and legal precedent would indicate is reasonably possible in this case’. Or I do them a great disservice.

What has often struck me, as I do a job like this, is just how many people become trapped in jobs to which they are entirely unsuited – but I also know that it is a dangerous thing to suggest they may be in the wrong job… It often bewilders me how many people make demands of their employers that they wouldn’t dream of making of their partners or families or friends (aka I want a transfer now and it must be within this area or similar) or how many people simply cannot hear that they may have to change their lifetime’s practice or to learn new skills (aka but I have always done it this way).

Of course, I am also aware that my experiences are mediated via the minority of the deeply unhappy; that the vast majority go through their working lives without needing my services; and that work can and does make some people very ill.

Today I prepare the case for a client who cannot accept that he has any professional short-comings. He does not need ‘professional development’. Or at least, he has rejected every management identification of his need for improvement, as ‘motivated by spite and a bullying culture’. Tomorrow I will begin the process of challenge…