Sleeplessness

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

This time a year ago I went to America. After a few weeks, I began one of my longest seasons of insomnia. Its pattern was that I would go to bed, usually some time between twelve and one, though it didn’t really matter when. I would fall asleep, and wake again at four. Usually, it was at exactly four. Once, it was at exactly four because there was a small earthquake.

For a while I would hang around on the brink of sleep, almost falling back in. But then my thoughts would start to tick over, and then begin steadily to throb like an idling engine. Night thoughts are not the same as day thoughts. And there is no amount of reading, wishing or walking that can turn those endless hours of night into day. But there are things to do that make the sleeplessness less likely, and to mitigate it. You can’t try to sleep (though we always tell children, confusingly, to do so). Sometimes, though, you can trick it.

I’ve never written a self-help post before; nor a list. Personally, I find these forms both slightly compelling and more than slightly annoying. But here it is: tricks from a poor sleeper. If nothing else it’s something to think about in the long silent hours of the night.

Preparing for sleep

  • Bed

When I moved into my flat, I slept on a sofabed for months. Then I gave it away and slept on the floor. In America, I lived in the lounge of a shared house for three months (saving money: what an idiot), sleeping either on the floor, on a borrowed Thermarest, or on one of the two sofas (the leather one, though an unpleasant texture, turned out to be best).

So I know that this is true: there is nothing like a good bed. Hard beds are best. I finally collected my good, wooden futon from my parents’ house. I will not part with it again.

Get a good bed. Do not make excuses (‘it will be expensive/hard to move/temporary’ etc). Having a good bed is as important as having good shoes or a good bike. It will make you happy every day.

  • Covers

Buy good sheets. They have to be cotton; but ideally they should be something like “Egyptian cotton”, because this provides you with an idea as well as sheets. If you know it is “Egyptian cotton” you can feel the superior texture on your skin, putting you in a happier state for sleep. Most insomnia is probably about unhappiness in some form, so this is valuable.

White sheets are really best. There is nothing quite like them. No other colour feels as crisp, or as deliciously cool. Sheets unwashed for too long feel uncrisp – even, slightly greasy. Wash them often. In something that smells beautiful. Dry them in the air.

Good duvets are expensive. Get one. Like the bed, it will change your life. Duvets should be feather, ideally down. They are impossibly light and infinitely warm. Somehow, they are both crunchy and squidgy, like macaroons.

  • Other things

Get an eyemask, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because then you don’t have to sleep in a dark room (for me, blackout curtains are a sort of torture device).

Holly Golightly

Someone who sold hats once told me to put on a hat if you can’t sleep, because so much heat is lost through your head (even at her stall, though, I wasn’t able to find a good sleeping hat).

Maybe, a sleep talisman is a good idea. Children have them in the form of toys, but most people grow out of them. I hadn’t had one for as long as I could remember, but the night before my new job started, I fell asleep holding a little beanbag – the kind you place over your eyes at the end of a yoga class. I woke up several times that night, and every time I had a wild, irrational need to find the beanbag – after which I fell back asleep. A talisman might be a good way to deflect insomnia, I think.

In the night

When you’re awake in the night, the most dangerous things are your own thoughts. Anything you can do to change their strange dark patterns and break their cycle is good – though some tricks are more likely than others to help you sleep again. These are mine.

  • Read

This doesn’t help me go to sleep, but it helps me stop thinking. Read a book, ideally one that is enjoyable but not very exciting. Don’t turn on a screen to read. I heard that the kind of light they admit is particularly addling; but the main problem is that they encourage you to flick between different activities, and that they are often connected to the internet. In my experience, the internet is not a good place to send yourself or to wander during a sleepless night.

  • Write

The thoughts lose power, rather than gain it, from being written down. Even if they don’t go away completely, they are mitigated. And you know you can come back to them in the morning, so there is no need to keep rehearsing them. Writing, especially emotional writing, is also fairly exhausting, so you might find it helps you sleep again.

  • Eat

This is more of a trick than a hunger-based necessity. A friend of mine with chronic insomnia conquered it, to a large extent, by eating a bowl of cereal last thing at night, every night. Find a food to associate with sleep. If you are a rabbit, the soporific food is lettuce. Mine is plain oats, milk and honey. Beware of toast – the food you choose needs to be eatable in bed, without producing uncomfortable crumbs.

  • Have sex

Well, obviously. I think quite a lot of insomnia is really sexual frustration, plus it’s different being sleepless next to a partner – who you can wake up and talk to – than being sleepless alone. If you are alone, though, masturbate. Sometimes this is what you need to go to sleep. But if not, at least it’s a worthwhile thing to spend your sleepless time doing.

  • Tell yourself a story

For me, this is the main one. I’ve been telling myself the same story since I was about seven. It’s changed a lot on the way, and it morphs to incorporate new stimuli, people and ideas. At its heart, though, it’s the same story. I really don’t know if anyone else does this. Do they? The advantage is that it is absorbing, and narrative, but it isn’t real and so it avoids the trap of the night-thoughts, which twist everything into a cause for worry and panic.

When I was a child I thought I would grow out of this. When I was a teenager, I thought I should. Perhaps I still will. But not yet.

If all else fails, get up

  •  Try the floor

After harping on about good beds, sometimes the bed is a trap. Try sleeping on the floor. Make a nest with your down duvet. Sleep on the sofa (I don’t have one, but you might).

  • Walk

A few weeks ago, totally unable to fall back asleep, I went for a 5am walk. I gave myself a mission: to find a Swiss Army knife lost the day before on the heath. I went to the place, searched systematically, and failed to find it. It was a grey morning, the trees were monochrome and the grass shifted about uneasily in the wind. They might not be very nice, these walks, but they are an experience. Its good to know what the world looks like at the times you’re normally in bed.

  • Work

This is only a really good idea if you don’t have to go to a full day of work afterwards. But if you can get three hours work done between four and seven, then sleep from seven until ten, great.

In the end

The Swiss Army knife wasn’t on the heath, I discovered – it had been found, hours before, at the bottom of someone’s bag. But in any case, I’d known at the time that I wasn’t being rational. The insomniac hours are a strange, hidden, lost and lonely time. This practical post doesn’t feel quite right – its like a prayer said into the dark. Does all self-help have a touch of that? Maybe I should try Valium.

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Riding in the past

April 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Riding the in the past for me meant longing. It meant slow walks near livery stables, hoping to be spotted and asked to help. It meant a yellow card booklet of ten lessons or hacks – a huge £100-worth – eked out over two years. It meant becoming vegetarian at ten, and co-organising (with a couple of other little fanatics) a ten-mile sponsored walk in aid of Lipizzaners, a kind of stallion originally bred by the Hapsburg nobility which, with hindsight, needed my money to about the same degree as Kate Middleton now needs my attention.

It also meant humiliation. The frustration of pulling with small arms on the reins of a horse that has decided to spend an hour (one precious yellow tear-off card) eating dandelions, while you sit on its back and weep. More recently, the pain of being bossed around the New Forest by a tyrant in a normal riding hat, while you and twelve other adults meekly follow at a sad walk, wearing hard hats covered up by big, bashed and non-optional Stetsons.

And always the suspicion that, no matter how much you brush this beautiful animal or stare into its dark mysterious eyes, it will never be as interested in you as you are in it. Which is definitely true.

None of this has stopped me loving riding or, more precisely, the idea of riding, since each actual experience has been like a sip of wine before the glass gets smashed; like a pencil study for the main picture, abandoned in the rain.

With the first paycheque of my new job, drunk on security, I went to Wales for three days of riding near Mount Talgarth, in the Black Mountains.

So: On a night before Easter, twelve women and one man – strangers – converge on a remote Welsh farmhouse, last decorated in 1970. One is very, very late – almost unforgivably so. The place is run by a German matriarch and her son; the father has been displaced but still stomps around shouting at people and driving a quad bike. He runs a secret pub. The son’s wife is beautiful and harried; she is drowning in children, and isn’t allowed near the horses. The horses are also beautiful, and they have spirit. It rains; the terrain, already rocky, becomes “greasy”. People fall off horses. It is cold but the countryside is being overrun by spring. Every day new lambs appear, and there are still snow scars on the mountains. Gossip begins to circulate. Americans arrive. The water runs out…

Riding has distinct rhythms, and maybe one of its attractions is that we are used to none of them. Walking is slow – surprisingly so, slower by quite a margin than a fit person walks. Sitting on a walking horse is like being carried in a palanquin or by a pallbearer, stately and perched. Able to look over hedgerows instead of at them.

Trotting, the most energetic gait for the rider, requires such a precise up-down-up-down movement that it’s hard not to feel prim doing it, and to think that a top hat or a tight-waisted riding habit might be more appropriate than Goretex. The staccato hoof-beats recall names full of consonants and privilege – Pemberly; Casterbridge; Rosamond Vincy.

Its only when the horse starts running that the rider is flung out of these states and into something older and more instinctive. For this moment, it’s worth getting good enough at riding that you don’t immediately lose both stirrups and slide fast and helplessly sideways or backwards out of the saddle.

The horse’s body has not really moved until it starts to canter. When it does, it starts at the shoulders. They begin to work and you see the power in them before the speed kicks in. The back legs must be joining in, but you can’t look round to check and anyway, the animal feels like it’s being drawn forward rather than pushed from behind. The rider realises that they are far above the ground and balancing on moving muscle. There is no opportunity to stand-and-sit-and-stand, and no need to, because you’re more at one than you have ever been, and either you understand this from films or maybe you’re bred knowing it, because you’re back in the time of King Arthur and running into battle or away from dragons, or just over the endless un-built-on plains that used to be Britain.

In Kazakhstan, a couple told me, you can canter and gallop across the endless spaces for as long as you might want to. Groups of horse-breeders move up onto the plains for the summer, taking yurts with solar panels and therefore televisions. They stay for a season, breeding incredible thoroughbreds from ex-Russian stock, never groomed yet glowing like polished stones. They graze these beautiful horses on in the meadows until it becomes too cold to stay. Then they eat them.

Back in Wales, the speed and the symbiosis doesn’t last for long, and soon the group slows for gates or tarmac or maybe just for propriety. We are back in the present.

They are weaknesses, I’ve always felt – both my love of horses and of the distant past. And they’re also connected. Living in any time before now would have involved brutality – as the breaking of horses does – which I choose to ignore. But there’s something raw and beautiful in it too.

Polaroid of a horse by Patti Smith

Polaroid of a horse by Patti Smith

Tools, trees, nerves

March 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

The weekend before I started my new job, I went back to the place in Suffolk where I grew up. My idea was to relax completely, away form the stresses of London. My phone barely works in Great Bealings, unless I head out of the front door and climb up the field opposite my parents’ house. I would run in the countryside, I thought. I’d read, sleep, enjoy the silence. None of this happened.

On Saturday I visited the house where my grandparents lived, for the first time since they died six years ago. The kitchen has been remodelled, the carpets replaced since the last tenants. The curtains are beige, the walls smooth magnolia, the rooms empty.

Walking into the living room, I saw the space as it was. At the same time, I saw the place as it had been, in detail I wouldn’t have thought possible. Along the main wall, opposite the gas fire and the television, stood a dark-flowered chair – my grandfather’s – and a sofa, its cushions re-covered in a foresty green hardwearing fabric, slightly faded from sun and washing. Between the sofa and the chair a reading light was mounted on the wall. It consisted of a backless box of thick glass, patterned into crystal shapes, and was operated by a pull string underneath. Where the string hung, the blue stripes of the wallpaper were worn off, leaving a scuffed white patch. The result of thousands of gentle motions, the reaching up to pull the string, the light going on or off, knuckles brushing the paper.

I liked that light as a child. It reminded me of the glass-lidded biscuit barrel containing Digestives which, over years of staying one night a week with my grandparents, we ate dipped into cups of tea in bed before breakfast. The wallpaper held a fascination, too. It was thick and slightly spongy. The top layer – as evinced by the scuffed patch – was thin. A thumbnail could be pushed through that layer, with a satisfying feeling like popping the bubbles of bubble wrap. Though bubble wrap is not, of course, permanently affixed to the living room walls.

In every room this past reality coexisted almost naturally with the present. Every space was, after all, the same proportions, every wall and window in the same place.

The garden was stranger. My grandparents’ garden was a beautiful place. For an ordinary suburban house, it was a huge amount of space, perhaps 60m long and full of trees. The garden I visited last weekend was almost featureless. A concrete path led from the back door towards the end, dividing the lawn into two and petering out about half way down. To the left of this sat a large and battered trampoline, abandoned by the previous tenants whose children had, during their five-year stay, grown out of bouncing. A few cupresses [1], vigorous but deadening evergreens, hung around near the fences.

Where the trampoline lay like a huge beached jellyfish, there used to be a walnut tree. Walnuts are beautiful, with a light, close-grooved bark and big smooth-sided leaves. We rigged a swing from this tree, made from rope and a chunk of yellow plastic tubing. Most of the other trees were apples; three large cooking-apple trees, big enough for climbing though not to satisfying heights. A small and constantly disappointed Cox near the house. There was a weeping willow.

Though my grandfather loved trees, he didn’t have impeccable taste, so there were also always a lot of cupresses with foliage like big black fins, a fir, and one or two acacias, the salamander-green of their leaves like pointillism on the muted background. By the shed at the back (one of three) was a damson tree, and at the sides were a Victoria plum which gave amazing fruit that tasted of England, and a pear which never produced anything worth eating. In front of the house, near the parked-up caravan and the self-built porch, were a silver birch and an almond tree.

So all of this lived, that Saturday, alongside the reality of the tufted grass and the raw edges of things, the absent roses, the fishpond missing its glowing kois and full instead of dead creepers. The effect, strange rather than sad, mimicked a loss of recent memory; the world as it is refusing to fit with everyday vivid life which has, in fact, past.

It was only in the garage that the realities met. The place smelled as it had always smelled – of damp and engine oil. Piled in boxes on the shelves, in an extra lean-to section tacked on to the back (my granddad loved building things, and loved sheds), were a load of dusty, greasy, heavy things which it turned out were his tools.

The stuff left behind by a life – clothes and false teeth and papers – are too personal to endure and therefore, I suppose, take on a dead quality when the owner dies. The tools were personal too, but they had a liveness to them. There were wooden-handled saws and old-fashioned hand-drills, planes and wrenches, a glass-cutter, clamps and hammers and spanners, a last for making shoes of different sizes. Everything was a bit rusted, but probably salvageable. Everything had been handled, used, liked without the excessive liking of a prized piece of china or the family jewels. They were built to last – even, to outlive.

Saws with wooden handles

This was, it turned out, the only really calm point of the weekend. By Saturday afternoon an unplaceable tension, which felt like misery but I now realise was nervousness, had taken hold. To everything – birdsong, sunset, the Chart Show in the car on the drive back to London – clung the same sense of doom, the only cure for which was Monday morning, when it dissipated completely with the energy of actually doing something.

I had been scared, in a vague way, of ever going back to 681 Foxhall Road. Tonight, I sifted through my clothes and piled up everything I don’t wear. The Frank Lloyd Wright phrase, that everything should be both beautiful and functional, was in the back of my mind, along with a sense – less morbid than it sounds – of not wanting to leave behind me a lot of crap for someone to sort out. On the kitchen floor, a heavy metal box, from which the turquoise paint has chipped, has been getting in the way. I couldn’t resist bringing a few things back to London where they will no doubt gather more dust, and go unlooked at, but retain their quiet usefulness.

[1] My grandparents called the trees “cupresses”, pronounced ‘kew-press’. It was only in writing this that I looked up how to spell the word, and realised there is no such tree. They must have meant “cypress”, but had never heard it said.

Another look at reviews

February 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

I stopped reading criticism – of theatre, films, or anything that I might make a decision to see. After making my own shows the way that words could reduce, deflate and negate months of someone’s work had begun to make me uncomfortable, distrustful. In this country critics have a Mandarin status which friends from other places have told me is not universal. “Their opinion is really so important?” someone from Barcelona asked me. Yes, I replied, people really base their decisions – to see or not to see – on the reviews. My friend, also a theatre-maker, looked confused and worried, and I knew what he was thinking. It’s just someone’s opinion; someone you don’t even know. How can you judge without watching?

Mainly, though, I just found them to be wrong. That is to say, they expressed wonder and delight about plays that I then found dead and mannered. Or mediocre reviews killed with kindness my desire to see a certain film – and on DVD, months later, it took my breath away. I was tired of the internal monologue and post-show comments all saying, “but it got wonderful reviews…!”

Now, though, I’ve found a way to enjoy reviews: read them afterwards. This evening (tired of not being able to discuss it), I saw Shame. I left a bit confused by how it could have sparked quite so much talk. I thought the acting was very good, the music very cheesy (nocturne, anyone?), the sex unsexy, the motivations clingfilm thin. Or buried terribly deep. Either way, inaccessible.

I put the poster in because I like it, shame on me

But A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, does something brilliant with it, underscoring a careful analysis with bits of Shakespeare (ok, I’m a sucker), appreciating the good bits, and really pinning down the problem that left me with that so-what? residue somewhere between sadness and boredom.

(It occurs to me that this is how many people probably use reviews, but bear with me, I’ve just discovered it. Also no one ever reviews reviews – though hopefully because they’re too busy making art or money, or sledging, or something).

Highly encouraged, I Googled “shame film review” and came up with Peter Bradshaw’s in the Guardian. Here, though, I found myself lost. “Icily dysfunctional” in the standfirst described to me a film I didn’t feel I’d seen, and when “icy” returned in the first paragraph, accompanied by “nightmarish”, “damaged”, “neurosis”, “laugh-free black comedy” (not a comedy at all, then?) and “dysfunction” (again), I began to experience the sensation of wading through an adjective soup towards a receding target.

What was particularly strange was that I recognised the feeling from many other review-reading experiences – the feeling of constructing an imagined version of the thing to be seen which is both very real and completely fabricated. Sometimes this shadow construct is blown to pieces by the actual watching experience, and sometimes the two continue oddly to coexist. Tonight, the feeling was strange because the shadow was created after the real experience. Which is a complicated way of saying that Mr Bradshaw and I disagreed.

He has a hard job, though. Reviewers try to construct an experience for the reader that is a bit like the experience of watching the film (play, etc). They can’t say exactly what happens (though many, infuriatingly, do), so they use lots of colour to explain what it is like. But since they are individuals, rather than everypeople, the experience they recreate is their own – something we as readers can never hope to share. The review is a simulacrum – a copy of an original where no original exists.

Reading the review after seeing the thing now makes sense to me – it’s like a discussion over dinner with a friend. Reading it before, however, is only half the experience. We’re not learning, only listening. And while I’d happily have dinner with A.O.Scott whenever she or he is in town, I’d hope the conversation would stick to themes where we both had something to say.

Not quite reaching Beachy Head (and not jumping off it)

January 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

I caught a train to Brighton and then a bus to Seaford, which looked, from Google Maps and a night-eyed 1 a.m. search, to be the nearest bit of beautiful coast to London. I needed head clearing and walking and to see the sea.[1]

At London Bridge I collected my ticket, stopped to pick up a penny, bought coffee and nearly missed the train. The sidings, as we pulled out of the city, were ski slopes of frost and chicken wire and the sun was hitting things at hard angles.

On the bus, four foreign exchange students were having a conversation in slow, correct English. The dog of my parents, said one German girl, must be put down. Put down – not killed; the term seemed carefully learned. Perhaps she often described this scenario, or it was close to her heart.

I asked two women bound for Eastbourne where to begin a walk towards Beachy Head, sparking off a murmured discussion that lasted the forty-minute drive. The consensus was “somewhere after Seaford,” so I waited for a tap on the shoulder. We passed through a place called Peacehaven. Across the aisle, the conversation became suddenly intense: “…it is a Gospel of love; not about going to hell, but about a God who loved us so much that he…” The girl speaking, maybe Spanish, leaned towards her German companion. “Our brains are too small, to comprehend…” she said, and they laughed together and agreed.

I got off the bus (with the exchange students and, it turned out, almost everyone else) near a pub called the Golden Galleon. It sits on an estuary, where a river meanders through salt marsh to the sea. “The cause of meandering is not fully understood”, states a site I later checked, which also names the estuary as Cuckmere Haven. It marks the start of the Seven Sisters, which I expected to be rock stacks out in the water, but turned out to be seven hills leading down the coast.

And then there are chalk cliffs and the sea. Walking, I think about naval battles and the film of Brighton Rock, which has a scene in the cliff top darkness.[2]

It’s strange that Beachy Head is both the destination of hikers and a place associated with death – a “favourite” suicide spot; as if any individual could have a favourite. Walking towards it – walking on the cliffs at all – brings up the thought of what it would be like to step over the edge, or to plunge off; to run at the brink, or to fall. People seek out high places, but why? Do we just love views, or want to be in command of our surroundings? And is part of it – the flip side of vertigo – that we like to experiment with the thought that we’re a step away from death; and in control of it.

Clouds have come up, and the sea looks like a cloth onto which someone has spilled the sun. The sea can be terrifying or calming. I think about the conversation on the bus, and about how huge the human mind seems to me, what changes it’s capable of. I wonder how many people come to Beachy Head with the intention of jumping, and look at the water, and go home. Without a death there is no news and no story. But maybe the sea saves lives as well as ending them.

Towards sunset, Seven Sisters

At the lighthouse near Birling Gap, a sign reads Beachy Head 3 Miles. The cold cranks up a notch and the light changes; the sun has already started to set. This means turning back, walking west. The light falling in sheets on the sea is now the colour of dessert wine, and around the feet of the cliffs the water is milky with chalk.

On the train home I met a man called Andrew Schotter[3], a bus driver who also came down to look at the ocean. He had won £76 on Brighton Pier; I remembered the penny found at London Bridge and we decided it was a lucky day. Before becoming a bus driver Andrew drove ambulances. One day he helped transfer a woman between two hospitals. She was in a wheelchair, paralysed from the neck down. He asked what had happened to her; she had jumped from Beachy Head.

I, Andrew, the exchange students – for different reasons we made our way to the sea. I didn’t make it quite as far as Beachy Head, and am not reaching, in this post, a conclusion. Walking, seeing something beautiful, recognising the size of the mind. The cause of meandering is not fully understood.


[1] I directed a play all about a journey to the sea, which was translated from French. In the play, the play between the words la mère (mother) and la mer (sea) was important; but completely lost in the English – where the closest sonic association with the sound of “sea” is the concept of sight.

[2] Released in 2010 to lukewarm reviews, it’s infinitely better than – for example – 2011’s well received but terrible The Deep Blue Sea.

[3] I’m using his whole name because Andrew had never Googled himself. When I did so, I found that an Andrew Schotter is Professor of Economics at New York University, and author of several books about positive, normative, micro and free market economics. If the Andrew Schotter from that journey ever Googles himself, maybe he’ll find this.

On being misled

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Abortion and suicide. Hollywood – meaning American films made now – is fascinated with both, but it skews them. It makes out that killing yourself is a much easier decision than in reality it is; and that having an abortion is a much harder one.

The Ides of March bills itself as a political thriller, but an abortion-and-suicide storyline is key (and yes, here be spoilers). Political intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is twenty (possibly slightly younger, an opaque and throwaway line suggests). She is beautiful and confidant, the daughter of a political family and a keen worker on the Democrat trail.  She confidently and beautifully beds the campaign manager Stephen (Ryan Gosling) and the two have a brief relationship, until he discovers that she had a one-night liaison with his boss, the formerly untouchable Governor Morris (George Clooney).

At this point Molly’s confidence (and with it her character) evaporate in the heat of Stephen’s disbelief and horror. All Victim, Molly weeps that she couldn’t ask her well-known political father for the $900 she needs to … (the word “abortion” is never mentioned, perhaps deemed too shocking). Now a wall-eyed machine, Stephen finds her $1800 from campaign funds, tells her to spend some on a plane ticket home and book an… The next day he drives her to the clinic, leaves her there, forgets to pick her up for hours and hours. We see her being given two bottles of pills by a faceless nurse. She gets back to her hotel room by foot and taxi and by the time Stephen gets there later in the evening, she’s dead. In the car park he listens, behind a rain-chastened windscreen, to a series of messages that she left him over the course of the afternoon.

Now there are two possibilities. Either Molly killed herself. Or the abortion pills killed her.

The Governor tells the media of a “prescription drug and alcohol” combination. An accident or not? thrills around the room. There may be other drugs involved, of course, but this is never hinted at and when Stephen sees the neatly fallen corpse, he also pointedly spies those two bottles of medicine that the orderly gave Molly.

The “thriller” element of the film wants to preserve this ambiguity, and it trades on any latent distrust of abortion to do so.

Is this scenario possible?

First, I was incredulous about the $900. Surely it can’t cost that much to get a legal abortion in Ohio? I checked and I was wrong; it really – frighteningly – does.

But second, what are the two bottles of pills?

Medical abortion is a term that refers to abortion induced only by medicines, rather than by any surgical procedure. In the UK women are not allowed to take these at home, but in America it is possible, since it is deemed perfectly safe (in the UK the restriction is politically, not medically, founded). The drugs are mifepristone and misoprostol and the highest dose usually prescribed would be four tablets of each.

According to the International Consortium of Medical Abortion, there have been a total of six deaths of American women linked to medical abortion since 2001. All were the result of infections and not directly related to the abortion medication. Figures on the risks of abortion from the Guttmacher Institute show that in the first eight weeks of pregnancy there is an average of one death per million abortions. As far as I could find out, no one in America has died as a result of taking medical abortion pills. There’s no getting away from the fact that, in the Western world, having a legal abortion is an extremely safe thing to do. (Much, much safer than having a baby, for example).

There is a second possibility in the Molly story; that she had a surgical abortion and the pills are painkillers or antibiotics. Enough to kill oneself with? Maybe, for a very careless or very determined person.

Up to the point where she dies, however, Molly has not seemed careless; she’s been portrayed as an able and driven young woman. There is very little evidence that she is suffering from despair or a lack of self worth. What reason are we supposed to see for suicide?

Inescapably, it all comes back to the abortion. If this woman, who was really just fine the day before, is now a potential suicide, where else are we to look for the reason? No matter that there is no evidence to suggest that abortion has a detrimental psychological impact (and there are plenty of studies). The filmmakers make do not make a moral judgement (except perhaps of Stephen for being heartless and the Governor for being lascivious). But they don’t have to. Because they’ve set up an apparently believable situation in which a young women, driven to have an abortion, has paid for it.

And if suicide is a massive undertaking, unlikely to be the way out of choice for a smart, successful young women? Well, there’s always the accidental death option.

And if accidental death could not, logically, result from the scenario that has been set up? Never mind. You can always rely on a latent fear of abortion – that word too frightening even to be uttered – to make that little piece of fictionalisation credible.

I didn’t like The Ides of March. It’s stylish but thin, ultimately depressing in its meanness of imaginative scope. All the characters – not just poor cipheric Molly – are cobwebby, blown apart by the gale force requirements of the plot. The abortion story is worse than sloppy, though; it’s misleading, designed to play on our fears and dependent on our ignorance.

Asking for less

November 8, 2011 § 7 Comments

David Cameron has been making lots of supportive noises about female membership of executive boards. Last week, hit by the news that executive pay saw a sharp increase last year, Cameron suggested that the “women on boards” plan could also help to address excessive pay. The boys club atmosphere of senior executive circles allowed men to keep on paying men more, he suggested, and a larger female presence would somehow cut through this and help to restore measure and balance.

But how exactly does the Prime Minister think the presence of women will curb pay?  The Financial Times, looking for experts, found little expert evidence and one person who was willing to say that “women ask for less than men.”

Is this the way the curbing will work? Because women have been trained to ask for less than their male colleagues, their influence will mean everyone gets a bit less greedy?

There are some real problems with this. Though many people might agree that (mainly male) top executives demanding very high pay is wrong, it doesn’t follow that women demanding less is right. Women asking for less money is not an indication that women are less acquisitive or more measured than men, but that they have been trained – really, throughout our entire financial history – to think they should have less. Women have always been paid a smaller amount than men; they still are. They ask for less out of habit, fear, lack of self-esteem – but mainly because that’s the way it has always been and it is difficult to break through in every area, and to fight all the time. Women may have agreed to do top jobs at lower salaries because, in trying to achieve equality, status is more important than money. That doesn’t mean money isn’t important to women.

There is a second possibility. It is possible that with more women on boards, the average pay will go down: because the women will be paid smaller salaries than male colleagues doing a very similar job. Since this currently happens in almost every arena of professional life, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that it continued even after more women entered boardrooms. David Cameron’s plan might work in this way – will that be a triumph?

David Cameron seems to think he’s giving women a compliment, by propounding the idea that they will morally shame or wisely advise their greedy male colleagues. What he’s actually doing is counting on a historical inequality to solve a problem he should be addressing via policy.

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