Osama’s death: a victory with no purpose

It’s probably not politically correct to admit this, but I’m distinctly underwhelmed by the killing of Osama bin Laden. There. I’ve said it. Oh, make no mistake, Osama was a particularly nasty piece of work. The mastermind behind the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre which killed around 2,752 people, and directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of others, he was a murderous extremist. His death, at the hands of a highly trained team of US military personnel specialising in strategic missions, is symbolic revenge for the September 11 attack, but it hasn’t achieved anything else.

It is now almost a decade since former President George W.Bush announced his ‘war on terror’, gathered a posse and began systematically terrorising the people of Iraq. Osama bin Laden, meanwhile, retreated to his bolthole, which we now know was in the military town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, and other than making the odd televised broadcast in which he taunted the Americans and vowed ongoing nastiness, he ceased to be the issue. First there was Sadaam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Then there was the Taliban. It is questionable just how much influence Osama has had on the decade-long conflict. What is not questioned is his influence on the way the world now operates, and his removal is not going to alter this fact one little bit. Within minutes of his death being announced, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a grim warning of ‘Enhanced risk of anti-Western violence’.

The killing of bin Laden was met with statements of relief and cautious optimism by world leaders. In the USA, where the 2012 election hopes of President Obama have just been elevated significantly, people danced in the streets. I can understand how people who lost family members or friends in the September 11 attacks would feel that justice has been done and revenge has been exacted, but I can’t help feeling disturbed by the sight of flag-waving Americans chanting and singing while compatriots remain in Afghanistan mired in a war that will not end just because the world’s most wanted man is dead. Do the thousands of families in Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost mothers, children, grandparents feel morally compensated for their loss? Are the Afghan kids with wads of bandages where their legs used to be cheering and waving flags? Do the families in the USA, Australia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and a number of other countries, who sent their sons, husbands and brothers (and yes, daughters, wives, sisters) to a war against terror and saw them return home in a box feel relief and joy? Or do they just feel hollow?

Osama’s death is, at best, a pyrrhic victory. It is not victory against the intangible enemy, terror, that George Bush and his Coalition of the Willing sought to defeat 10 years ago. Terror is still alive and kicking and will remain so for as long as there are people willing to kill and be killed for their idea of a glorious cause. This is to say: forever. That’s the problem when you go to war against an idea. It keeps shifting around.

Yet, the news broadcasts last night and the papers this morning trumpeted the demise of the west’s nemesis as though this is the last great victory that will end a decade not only of war, but of political obsessiveness with issues of security at the expense of many issues that are tangible, real and immediate. Terror, or terrorism, is not an enemy in the legal sense of war any more than communism – but then, the US has a track record of going to war against ideas. When terrorism manifests as attacks on innocent victims, the results are horrific and tragic, but the idea of terrorism is a political construct, it is not a real enemy. The real enemy remains unseen. That’s the point of terrorism.

Yes, Osama himself was a real enemy. But his death has not stopped the political construct of terrorism from poisoning minds around the world and poisoning governments which fall victim to the idea that everyone is a terrorist suspect. While this notion pervades policy on national security, terrorism and its practitioners keep the upper hand.

Americans might be partying with unrestrained self-congratulatory joy, but their country remains locked-down in a state of national nervousness. The death of one man, no matter how bad, is no cause for a street party while the lives of so many more remain on the line in the cause of fighting an abstract idea. The weapons may have become more sophisticated, but the idea is as old as human civilization.

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.  Jessica Dovey (incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King)

The stats in the war against terror:

American military personnel deaths (to August 2010): 5,554

American military personnel wounded (to Aug 2010): 35,302

Other coalition military personnel deaths: (to Aug 2010): 1,090

Civilian deaths (to Aug 2010): 874,736*

Cost ($US) (as of now):  $787,930,134,729 (Iraq)  $400,311,277,793 (Afghanistan)

*Figure includes 161 journalists and 1,231 private contractors

Source of data here (deaths and injuries) and financial stats from the National Priorities Project

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Hero and villain of the week: 30/4/11

I haven’t done a Hero and Villain post for a few weeks. Unfortunately there has been no shortage of villains, but heroes have been a bit thin on the ground, and my intention with this category was to always balance good and bad. However, I’m happy to have one of each this week, and not a politician or sportsperson among them:

Hero: My hero for this week is anonymous, like so many true heroes. From the tombs of unknown soldiers through to people who do random good deeds and disappear back into the crowd, sometimes the most profound and long-lasting good works are performed by people whose names we will never know. Last year an American donor contacted the University of Sydney and offered a donation of an original Picasso painting, Jeune Fille Endormie. The 1935 work is of Marie-Therese Walter, who was just 17 when she met the master, then 45 and already a major force in world art, in Paris and was the model for many of his paintings in the late 20s and 30s. Jeune Fille Endormie was acquired, not long after it was painted, by Walter Chrysler (of the eponymous car company) and has been publicly exhibited only once, in 1941, as part of an exhibition of art works owned by the Chrysler family. It changed hands only once and has remained in the private collection of the donor until its donation to the University of Sydney. The conditions set by the donor were that he or she would remain anonymous, and that the painting should be sold and the proceeds used for scientific research. The donation was only made public only last week after the provenance of the painting had undergone extensiveexamination and the date for its auction by London auction house, Christie’s, had been set. The sale of the painting is expected to net the University of Sydney around $18million, most of which will be poured into the university’s new centre for research into obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, expected to commence full operation by 2015. With weight-related diseases fast overtaking smoking-related diseases as the leading cause of death in Australia and other developed countries, research into these areas of health is crucial. In making this astounding donation, the unknown American donor may indirectly contribute to saving the lives of many thousands of people and develop global science in health.

Villain: From one extreme to the other, one of the lowest acts of the week was not anonymous. In a country where pretty much everything is fair game for humour, Australians take Anzac Day seriously. It remains separate from politics and is perhaps the single annual event that unites Australians from all sectors of the community. Which is, I think, the whole point. So it was no surprise that the airwaves went into overdrive when the Managing Director and mouthpiece of the Australian Christian Lobby, Jim Wallace, hit Twitter on Monday morning with an Anzac Day message designed to offend and divide:

Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!

So, that’s what the Australian Christian Lobby thinks, huh? That only some Australians are deserving of being defended? That not everyone has a right to be called an Australian? I’m fairly confident that there are many, many Christians who repudiate this sort of offensive, ill-informed, racist, homophobic rubbish, but it does their religious cause no good to have it promulgated under the name of a religion that purports to preach love and brotherhood.

The ACL later released a statement clarifying its position but significantly not repudiating Wallace’s statement:

Jim Wallace is entitled to hold a view and to express it publicly. His error was to express it on ANZAC Day, when it was surely going to offend public sentiment and result in negative publicity.

Really? So, precisely when, I wonder, would it be appropriate for Wallace to express this opinion so that it wouldn’t cause offense and result in negative publicity? Yes, of course Wallace is entitled to his opinion and has a right to express it, but if the ACL thinks that this particular view can be aired publicly and not cause offence at any time, it really is completely out of touch with the reality of modern Australia. Jim Wallace, as its Managing Director, just proves the anachronism.

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Smokes and mirrors

If one were to assess the importance of issues facing Australian society simply by column inches and the shrillness of politicians’ voices, one might be forgiven for thinking that the biggest threats to our environment, economy and indeed, our very social fabric, are cigarettes, poker machines, fast food and alcohol.  Never mind climate change, biodiversity decline, increasing carbon emissions, collapsing agriculture, resource over-extraction, the global impact of natural disasters, the USA’s economic implosion, the Middle East’s political implosion, Sydney’s public transport implosion … what will really destroy us and rend our society beyond repair is the colour of cigarette packets, the attraction of legal gambling, the fat content in food and the drinking culture among our youth.

I’m not trivialising these issues: they are important within the context of health and welfare. But in the wider context of political issues that will determine the kind of future we prepare for the next generation, these issues are distractions. Diversions designed to take our minds off the crippling paralysis in decision-making on more complex and long-term issues – the issues that will really determine our future.

Politicians are becoming nothing short of hysterical about smoking and gambling. In the midst of the debate about selling cigarettes in plain, olive green packets, ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope attempted to trump the federal government this week by announcing that he is considering banning smoking at bus stops. Oh, for crying out loud. If I’m standing at a bus stop and want to avoid someone’s cigarette smoke, I can move away from them. I’m not chained to the bus stop. Mr Stanhope would be better advised to trust the citizens of the ACT to make their own decisions on where they stand and what they do at bus stops and focus on getting more buses on the road or providing more bus stops in the ever-expanding outer suburbs. There is lot that could be improved about Canberra’s public transport system and smoking at bus stops comes a long way down the list of priorities.

Andrew Wilkie’s pet peeve of poker machines, or more specifically, the relationship between pokies and problem gambling, is, I am sure, well-intentioned. The proliferation of pokies in clubs and pubs across the country makes it frighteningly easy for people to part with large sums of money in short periods of time. Given that Australians, however, routinely wager around $80million on any given Saturday on various gambling pursuits according to research by the Australian Institute of Criminology, it makes singling out pokies as the root of all evil somewhat simplistic. Moreover, his solution to the problem, which appears to be a mechanism whereby gamblers put a self-imposed limit on their expenditure prior to playing, seems clumsy and almost impossible to implement or enforce. Why not just take the Nicola Roxon solution and make all the poker machines olive green? Strip them of the coloured lights, bright colours, bells and whistles and make them all look the same. While we’re at it, we could paint the TABs all olive green, as well as make it the default colour for lotto and lottery tickets. Jockeys can wear olive green silks as well. People would still gamble, of course, and the government would continue to skim its revenue from the proceeds.

While we’re at it, why not make all labels on bottles of alcohol olive green? And for the products that cause the most concern – usually alcopops marketed directly at teens – make the contents olive green as well. Drinking dull, olive green alcohol would still have the same effect as drinking brightly coloured alcopops or boutique beers, but at least it wouldn’t look as much fun. Speaking of fun, we need to get rid of all that happy advertising of fast food. A little bit fancy? Not any more. All those attractive colours and the enticing names given to the products? Yep, get rid of them. The government should legislate that every food product sold that has a fat content higher than a sultana has to be olive green. Sold in olive green wrapping. Except olives, of course, which despite their rather high fat content are actually quite nutritious so they should be an attractive, appetising yellow. Ditto avocadoes. From now on it’s olive green donuts, olive green burgers, olive green chips and olive green fried chicken. That should fix the obesity epidemic or if not, at least make eating a lot less enjoyable.

While the government persists with all this nanny state nonsense the real issues mount up. It’s just too easy for government to micromanage our decision-making capacity using that as a smokescreen for inaction on the big, hard, nasty things. A responsible citizenry needs good, up-to-date, unbiased information on which to make sound, informed personal decisions. All this government pfaffing with a law here, a regulation there, a bit of hysteria about poker machines, a stoush with Big Tobacco over the colour of cigarette packets just gives the impression of a government hard at work on the big dilemmas of our time. But it’s not. I’ve got news for the government. Regardless of what we eat, drink or ingest or how we choose to spend our money, the big dilemmas are not going away.

                Oh, and Mr Stanhope – I quit smoking many, many years ago, but if you decide to ban smoking at bus stops I will consider starting again, just so I can break your stupid law. And I don’t care what colour the cigarette packet is.

Olive green - maybe not such a nasty colour after all

 Social responsible poker machine cartoon from Inkcinct  

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Footballers behaving badly … again

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting very sick of seeing, on average once a week, the spectacle of a footballer, dressed in suit and club tie, looking contrite for the TV cameras and reading from a prepared script something along the lines of:

Ahm, yeah, I realise I’ve made a mistake and  I’ve let down me team and me mates and I’m really disappointed in meself for makin’ a bad decision. Um, I admit I’ve got a problem wiv alcohol and I’m addressin’ that wiv the club. I’ve disappointed me family and meself and I’m sorry for that too. So, ah, yeah, I’m gunna just concentrate on me footy and tryin’ to make it up to everyone …

And so on, ad nauseum, blah, blah-de blah.

Last week it was AFL player Brent Moloney pissing (allegedly) on a bar at 3.00am, this week it’s NRL serial offender Todd Carney drinking with a teammate, Anthony Watts, who was later charged with seriously assaulting his girlfriend. Nice type. Carney was sacked by the Canberra Raiders a few years ago for a string of off-field alcohol-related incidents and spent a year in the relative football wilderness before being picked up by the Sydney Roosters last year: a reformed character. He starred in their 2010 season, picking up the prestigious Dally M award for individual excellence along the way. But he just can’t help himself and it didn’t take long for him to revert to type. Now, with two misdemeanours in three weeks the papers once again sensationally portend the end of his career.

Oh, it won’t happen, of course. The club will find an excuse, give him another chance, pledge to continue assisting him to overcome his ‘problem with alcohol’ – always a great scapegoat – and Carney will appear in club tie and read the prepared script.  See above.

These brainless little thugs don’t have a problem with alcohol. They have a problem with discipline. They want it all, have it all, get it all, and the clubs continue to make the excuses. As far as I see it, the clubs have three options for handling the off-field bad behaviour of their players:

Option 1: Just say it out loud: “What our players do in their own time is up to them. We take no responsibility for their actions and so long as they’re performing on the field, frankly, they can do what they like off it.” That statement, of course, is high risk. Sponsors pay a lot of money to have their logo emblazoned on the front of football jumpers and whether the clubs or the players like it or not, the wearers of those jumpers are highly paid ambassadors for the sponsors’ products. Sponsors, and potential sponsors, are likely to a bit choosy about who promotes their brand and that is likely to include a whole off-field package as well as the on-field one.

Option 2: Instigate a set of rules about off-field behaviour, implement the rules as club policy and bloody-well stick to it. Yes, that means sometimes making hard decisions like, “pack your bags, son, you’re out”. Constantly making excuses for these little boofheads sends a lot of very confusing messages to the legions of kids who idolise them. It also makes the clubs look opportunistic and exploitative. ‘One more chance’ effectively means that we want his on-field talent more than we don’t want his off-field antics. Rest assured, there is no shortage of teenage boys who would drop everything at a chance to play football – any code – in the big league. For every badly behaved knucklehead there is probably a dozen serious contenders for his position and any one of them could be as good, or better.

Option 3: Hand all responsibility over to the league. Let the ruling body decide. That takes the judicial responsibility away from opportunistic clubs and places it in the court of the body whose duty is to promote and maintain the integrity of the football ‘brand’. This also means that a player sacked from one club for bad behaviour couldn’t be picked up by another.

Does anyone seriously believe that while the clubs continue to fawn over their highly paid performing monkeys and make excuses for their behaviour, the situation will improve? No amount of counselling over an alleged ‘alcohol problem’ is going to counteract the heady mixture of testosterone, money and fame that professional football creates. While no one expects the players to take any responsibility for their actions none will be taken. While there’s always the club lawyer and player’s manager to fix things, why will things change?

An alcohol problem is a sickness. It can be treated but only when the sufferer is ready to be treated. What these boys have is a total and utter lack of self-discipline and sense of responsibility, and the clubs, the leagues and the slobbering sports media need to take their share of responsibility for making it so.

Carney looking contrite

Post Scriptum: Just as I was about to upload this post the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Sydney Roosters have suspended Carney and Watts ‘indefinitely’: Carney pending a medical assessment and Watts subject to the legal outcomes of his assault charge. In Carney’s case it’s better than just giving him another chance, but I rest my case: no amount of medical assessments will give this kid the self respect and motivation he needs to take responsibility for himself.

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PM’s opposition to gay marriage out of line

The Prime Minister, asked recently whether she would support same-sex marriage, replied that she is ‘on the conservative side of that argument’, claiming that she opposes gay marriage on the grounds that marriage as it stands – that is, the John Howard version as reflected in his amended Marriage Act – is part of the Australian culture that got us to where we are now. This statement is a veritable anthill of contradictory messages, but for the sake of argument, let’s starts with the PM’s recent trip to the US.

On her first prime ministerial visit to Washington Ms Gillard was accorded all the respect, dignity and hospitality that any visiting head of state would expect. She met with President Obama at the White House and addressed a sitting of Congress – only the fourth Australian prime minister to do so. She accompanied the President to a school and fielded questions about such vital international and bilateral concerns as vegemite and aussie rules football – all exceptionally good PR and promoting Australian culture to American kids whose only knowledge of Australia is that it’s a landlocked country with some very high mountains. The visit, by all accounts, was a diplomatic success, even if some of the more obsequious sentiments expressed in the PM’s congressional address did cause many Australians to choke on their breakfast.

PM and First Bloke

Ms Gillard did not, however, travel alone to the US. She was accompanied by her partner, the First Bloke, Mr Tim Mathieson. It is usual for the spouses of Australian prime ministers to travel on official visits, and indeed, there are usually formal programs scheduled for the spouses of both leaders. Janette Howard and Laura Bush had a friendship that reflected that of their husbands; Therese Rein, herself a successful businesswoman, put her career on hold to undertake the role of First Lady, which included accompanying husband Kevin Rudd on his state visits. Michelle Obama accompanies the President on his state visits and uses the opportunities in other countries to promote those issues about which she has a driving interest and prominent role. This was also the case with Hillary Clinton in her role as US First Lady. On each state visit the spouse had an official program with the host’s spouse. But not Tim Mathieson. When questioned about the lack of attention to Ms Gillard’s spouse, US officials were quick – a little too quick – to explain that it had nothing to do with the fact that Gillard and Mathieson are not married or that their marital status, or lack thereof, might offend the delicate sensibilities of conservative Americans, it was just … um … an oversight and, well, Mrs Obama probably had better things to do.

The point here is that Ms Gillard does not have the sort of traditional domestic arrangement expected of leaders of national governments. Heads of government usually come with spouses to whom they are married – usually wives. Even the (female) President of Iceland has a wife. So for Julia Gillard to announce that she is of a conservative frame of mind when it comes to marriage and upholding traditions, and therefore gay marriage is off the national agenda, simply gives the lie to her own choices.

My second point is that, while her defacto status may not be usual among world leaders, it is broadly representative of the Australian community at large. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 52% of people who identify themselves as being in a ‘couple relationship’ are married. Which means, if my mathematics is correct (never a certainty) that 48% of people in couple relationships are unmarried. Furthermore, around 35% of children are born out of wedlock, presumably meaning that a lot of those unmarried couples don’t find it necessary to get married simply because they’re having a child. If traditional marriage is what got us to where we are, as Ms Gillard states, then there’s a lot of people out there who got off the national train at a different station. Whether she likes it or not, and whether the Americans can cope with it or not, the choice made by Ms Gillard and Mr Mathieson is squarely in line with about half of Australia and it’s that, just as much as traditional marriage, that has got us to where we are now.

It’s unclear where her opposition to gay marriage comes from. She has certainly never shown or even implied any opposition to homosexuality per se and as an atheist she can hardly claim any religious opposition. Repeated polls have shown that a majority of Australians are in favour of equal marriage rights for everyone. Public rallies are calling for it – and not only in the ACT and not only attended by gay people. Marriage is not, as the right-wing Christian lobby might like to tell us, something sacred that should be restricted to heterosexual couples. Marriage is a legal commitment. Of the 52% of people in couple relationships who have chosen to marry, only about 50% chose to marry in a church. In a secular society marriage is a secular institution and should be the right of anyone who wishes to make that particular commitment.

I have straight and gay friends who want to marry, and straight and gay friends who have no intention of so doing. The problem is, only the straight ones get to make that choice. It’s time Julia Gillard looked at her own life choices as an example and started to represent equality and end discrimination for everyone. Not just unmarried female heads of governments.

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Hero and villain of the week: 26/3/11

Hero:  In a public life spanning over 40 years he’s copped a lot of opposition and hostility, but no one can ever accuse Bob Brown of not practicing what he preaches. In the early 1970s he arrived in Launceston as a young GP. Shortly thereafter he bought a small property at Liffey – 14 hectares of bush with a very modest cottage, nestled in the shadow of a rocky bluff. It was in that cottage at the property, named Oura Oura after the call of the native black cockatoo, that the campaign to save the Franklin River was planned and the political party now known as the Australian Greens was born. In 1990 Brown was awarded $49,000 in the Goldman Environment Prize and used the money towards the purchase of two blocks adjacent to Oura Oura which were slated for clear-felling for the Tasmanian woodchip industry. In order to meet the debt incurred by the purchase as well as ensure that other areas of wilderness could be protected in perpetuity, Brown started the Australian Bush Heritage Trust – a not-for-profit organisation that buys and conserves bush properties. Last week he formally handed his beloved slice of the Tasmanian bush over to the Bush Heritage Trust so that it may be conserved and enjoyed for countless generations to come. There are not many people, much less politicians, who would entertain the thought of donating their own property for conservation. At a time when acquisition, wealth and greed drive so much of public life and private ambition, Bob Brown stands out as a hero for values of environment, generosity and selflessness. Cheers, Bob, and thanks on behalf of all Australians, here now and yet unborn.

Villain: Unfortunately, there is no shortage of contenders for this week’s villain. That unfortunate display of hatred and prejudice at Parliament House on Wednesday tossed up all sorts of characters, known and anonymous, who could be potential candidates, and events in the Middle East with totalitarian leaders violently oppressing dissention gives us a lot of choice. However, my villain of the week is again a sportsman – and I use the term loosely here. Ricky Ponting is one of the finest cricketers to have donned the baggy green. Sadly, he is not one of the greatest sportsmen to have done so. His displays of petulance and tantrum-throwing during the World Cup competition in India have now put his job as Australian Cricket Captain under question but more than that, he is reflecting a deeper malaise in the cricket team generally: they can dish it out but they just can’t take it. I suspect I am not the only Australian who is quietly (actually, not so quietly) pleased that our team is out of the finals. Ponting’s juvenile antics and pouting would not be tolerated in a local game of Under 14s, and such behaviour should not be tolerated at international level. Yes, in the world of professional sport there’s a lot at stake by losing. There’s much more at stake by losing badly.

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Letter to my ex-hairdresser

I guess it had to come to this. When we started it was so much fun – you understood my needs and made me feel so special. It wasn’t just the big things either, like the cutting and styling, but those little things you did that made our relationship so great. You made me laugh and we were able to talk so freely. I was so taken up with the complimentary designer chocolates and free cups of coffee, the huge range of up-to-date magazines, the hair protein treatments and head massages and the funky music and lighting in the salon that I guess I didn’t notice that in five years the cost of having my haircut has gone up by about $35. And we both know that my hair is not so challenging, pretty boring really – naturally straight, natural colour … it hardly extends your styling talents, and you are an exceptionally talented stylist.

Alan Jones purple

Look, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ve changed. I need something different now and, well, I’ve found someone else. She doesn’t have your excitement and her hair is not fuchsia pink. Nor Kermit green. Nor Alan Jones purple. She doesn’t give out designer chocolates or free cups of coffee and there is no funky music or lighting in the salon. It’s all pretty basic really. But, somehow, she meets what I need right now. Which is a more simple and uncluttered approach to life. Well, that and an unchallenging haircut for under $100. She actually does it for under $50.

I want you to know that this was not an easy decision for me, after all we’ve been through together, but I’m happier now than I have been for ages and I think I should have made the break earlier. It’s better for both of us this way. There’ll be someone else. There are lots of women – and men – out there who would die for a stylist like you. They want excitement in the salon and designer chocolates and funky music and everything. They might even accede to your suggestions for extra protein treatments, colouring and straightening and be interested in trying out the latest hair fashions. But I’ve been there – I’ve had green and purple hair, and it was long before I met you.

So, this is goodbye. It’s been a great five years of hair styling and we’re both going to grow from the experience. In your case, your styling skills will grow by finding a new and more challenging client than me, and in my case my bank balance will grow by having more than halved my haircut costs. Hey, I might even be able to afford to buy my own designer chocolates.

Yours sincerely

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