“HORRIFIC” – an anti-choice blight on Dublin’s streets

Walking around Dublin at the minute, it’s very quickly obvious that the city is under siege by an army of bullshit. I’m sorry – I normally try to be reasonably polite about other people’s politics, but up with this I will not put.

I speak, of course, of the anti-choice posters that seem to have been splattered over the city from a paintball gun held by a despotic and artless misogynist. I found out that they’re from the always-reliable Youth Defence, quickly rushing into the breach to spread their moronic gospel – so I feel totally vindicated in my first opinion.

NOPE.

Look here: you are not pro-life. There is nothing pro-anybody’s life about opposing a Bill meant to save women’s lives. You understand that, don’t you? I have a grandmother who’s ninety-one and more Catholic than God, and she understands that. If you let the mother die, not only do you let the foetus you’re so concerned about die with her, you also make sure that she can never have any more children.

I can’t believe there are people in this country who don’t understand that. I can’t believe that people have been pelting the Taoiseach with Catholic paraphernalia, threats of harm, and letters written in blood. I just can’t believe it. I can’t be eloquent about this because I am just so utterly gobsmacked.

I shouldn’t be. I know, like, and respect people who are pro-life. I know, like, and respect many people who are Catholic. The bit that I don’t like and don’t respect is when people who share those views attempt to impose them on my body, my uterus, my liberty.

It’s so strange, this dogged determination that I should have to live by your rules, when you would absolutely agree that I am free to consign myself to Catholic hell if I so desire. If I were to get pregnant tomorrow, I would have it terminated. You know why? Because I’m not ever going to be a good parent. Because I’m not ready to hand over control of my body to an invader. Because I’m mentally ill, and I’d have to change my medication – which would probably land me in hospital, combined with the distress of said pregnancy – and it’s a 50/50 chance whether I’d pass this on to my offspring, and I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, take that risk.

So thank you very much for shouting until my broken, violated, and distressed self would have to get three doctors’ opinions before I would be counted as suicidal enough to require a termination. Suicide kills! Why does no-one take that at face value? Why is it that when several young men kill themselves in a row, they put psychiatrists on the news to discuss the problem, but when women threaten to kill ourselves it’s totally legit to write difficulties for us into law?

Don’t answer that. I don’t think I’m going to like your reasoning.

One of the more vocal anti-choice voices in Ireland is an old lecturer of mine. In person, he’s a genial and intelligent man, who teaches well and greets his students pleasantly when you pass him in the hallway. In the media, he espouses a viewpoint that would let me have a crack at killing myself and a hypothetical foetus, rather than allow me a termination and save my life. The cognitive dissonance there makes me slightly dizzy. I think that’s why anti-choice rhetoric has such a stranglehold in this country – because respectable, smart, likeable people carry a massive conservative bias and don’t seem to see anything wrong with imposing that on (hopefully also respectable and smart) women who don’t share the view.

So I’m pretty bloody angry about this, and every time I have to look at those dreadful posters I get angrier. I’m having daydreams out the windows of buses about having a lovely big bonfire on O’Connell Street – not that I would ever do such a thing, as I have respect for public order and the laws of the state, but a girl can dream. Also ruled out by law would be ‘editing’ them to have a more realistic message, but no-one said I can’t do that on the internet:

posteredit

Better!

This was nicely cathartic, even as rants go. I know this is a sensitive issue, and I really do understand that people can hold a viewpoint I dislike and will do so for reasons they think are morally right. I honestly just cannot deal with the far-right on this one, though. People like this are anti-choice and anti-women, and I am so very tired of seeing their rubbish defiling my beautiful city.

Previous post: a background to Irish abortion law pre-2013.

talk: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at @WITSIreland

Science, art, feminism, activism, and a cup of tea. I’ve had worse lunchtimes.

Okay, confession: I’m not a scientist myself. I just play one on the internet sometimes.

Nevertheless, this Thursday, I was thrilled to don my hobbyist science-geek hat, and attend an event organised by Women in Technology and Science Ireland (WITS) in honour of Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bringing us together was the presentation of a painting by artist Margarita Cimadevila, inspired by Professor Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars.

Margarita Cimadevila – Pulsares.

Ms Cimadevila – a chemist by training and a teacher by profession – based a series of paintings on the work of women scientists whose brilliance was underrecognised. Ciencia Ex Aequo includes tributes to, among others, Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Chien-Shiung Wu, Emmy Noether, and Lise Meitner. Quite apart from the richness of the art itself (and the photo above does this piece no justice), there is something fittingly lovely about seeing the lives and work of these women celebrated vividly and beautifully on canvas. They deserve the honour; deserve their names writ large and illuminated. I really do recommend looking at the Ciencia Ex Aequo catalogue linked above – I wish I could have seen all twelve.

Next up, some of the spotlight was handed over to a gentleman for a few minutes (but only a few). Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, spoke about the importance of the sciences sector for industry and progress in Ireland. In particular, he pointed out that women in the sciences were carrying a lot of the weight of the work, but were entirely underrepresented in the power structures of academia and training. Promoting the importance of women’s voices and representation should be a priority for anyone looking to shore up Ireland’s scientific stock, particularly as we heard this week that Nature considers Ireland one of the up-and-coming countries to watch in high-level research.

Professor Bell Burnell’s talk came in two parts – a presentation about her work with Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM, a project of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and an interview about her life and career, conducted by science journalist Claire O’Connell. Having never seen her speak before, I was expecting an interesting talk, but was still pleasantly surprised at how warm and engaging Professor Bell Burnell is as a speaker.

She noted that Scotland is a close analogue for Ireland when it comes to size, character, and economic status, and therefore the results garnered from the Royal Society report would equally serve as good guidelines for the Irish scientific sector. Foremost among her concerns: the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect – whereby, even though school and undergraduate degrees are seeing many women and girls opt for science subjects, the number of those women remaining in the sciences at each subsequent level (bachelors, postgraduate, researcher, lecturer, professor) falls away steeply. For example, while 70% of candidates for school exams in biology are female, only 15% of professors of biology are women. The situation is worse still in chemistry, physics, and maths, where girls start out as a minority at secondary school level and remain starkly so right up the ranks. This echoes what Minister Sherlock had said about women in power structures – there is no reason why women shouldn’t have the same impact as men trained to an equivalent level, and yet we don’t get our voices heard nearly as much. Fewer women at professorial level means fewer women directing research and fewer role models for the girls making it to university lectures.

This is institutional sexism at play, both on a conscious (well, science is a boys’ club, isn’t it) and an unconscious level. ‘How many of you have had to fill out a form where you declared your gender by ticking a box?’ she asked us. ‘And which one of those boxes came first?’ It’s a simplistic example, but one that resonated with the audience. This unconscious bias comes into play even as far as the language used to describe job postings in the sciences, which can often use language typified as ‘male’ (strong, dynamic, etc – adjectives which, for better or for worse, are filed under the M box for cultural gender).

In an employment culture where 73% of female STEM graduates leave the field once they start employment, incentives must be given to institutions to promote their ‘women-friendliness’. The Tapping All Our Talents group recommended that universities be given research grants condititional on reaching a Silver Athena SWAN level, and that employers pay special attention to the conditions offered to female employees and potential hires (diversity and equality in recruitment, positive part-time hours and benefits for working mothers, cultural change and anti-discrimination policies in the business).

A quick aside: a question from the floor raised the question of visible female role models for young scientists. In her reply the Professor mentioned the popularity of Chris Hadfield’s reports from aboard the ISS – currently, one of the ISS astronauts is a woman named Karen Nyberg, who tweets updates and photos as @AstroKarenN. If lady role models aren’t as visible as the men, there’s only one thing we can do about that – make them so.

The tone got lighter after the formal section of the talk was over, and the interview began. I think most of us could relate to the young not-yet-Professor, arguing with her schoolteachers to be accorded equality with the boys in her choice of subjects! You have to be tough to get ahead, it seems, even in school uniform. More seriously,  it was reassuring to hear her talk about experiencing impostor syndrome while a postgrad student – it sometimes feels like people who are successful were created that way, and have never doubted themselves. She discussed the lead-up to identifying the pulsar and its strange pattern of data: how she was convinced, as was her supervisor, that the signal had to be an error or interference on the radio receiver, and how they performed a differential diagnosis until they were left with no choice but to accept the data and find an explanation for them. It’s understandable! A pulsar is such a strange object that if there wasn’t such strong evidence for its existence, it really would seem like a product of a creative imagination.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon overall, but if I’m to sum up the good humour and amusement present throughout the event, I’ll do so like this. Several times in the opening speeches, allusion was made to Professor Bell Burnell’s PhD supervisor being awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars – even though it had been her data and her insistence, despite his scepticism, that led to the discovery being made. I wondered if that wasn’t something that would sit uncomfortably, given that much of her career has been clouded under this one big oversight. Do you ever really get past being the person who didn’t get the Nobel?

Ms O’Connell brought it up in her interview, asking how it felt to see the supervisor get given the nod.

“I was pleased to see it go to an astronomer, seeing as there is no Nobel Prize for astronomy – it has been given to quite a few, since, but pulsars were the first to be honoured in that way.’

Yes, but how did she feel about it?

“I think I’ve done pretty well out of it,” replied the Professor, laughing. “If you don’t get the Nobel Prize, they give you every other prize that’s going!”

Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes clearly required better taste in role models.

I’m not ‘having a fat day’ (and neither are you)

I grabbed the wrong t-shirt today, and realised only about half an hour later that I was wearing one that makes me look very oddly shaped and quite unlike my actual figure. Bugger, I thought, I look ridiculously fat today. And then I caught myself.

It’s been a few years since I tried to cut fat out of my vocabulary as a critical descriptor of my figure. I’m not fat, and I don’t think fat is a bad thing to be. I’m being neither accurate nor appropriate. It’s still a really difficult habit to shake, which probably shows exactly how engrained it is into women’s mindsets that the default response to unhappiness in self-image is ‘I look fat’.

It seems like a lot of us don’t really look into that thought process. If you extrapolate from that phrase you get: I don’t like how I look -> I look fat -> fat is something to dislike -> fat people don’t look good. Except… that’s not true. Fat people can look good or bad, as much as thin people can. The word ‘fat’ is not a synonym for the word ‘ugly’. That is – or should be – common sense.

Okay, the media don’t think it is. The advertisers don’t think it is. The Daily Mail would get this far in this post (should they be very bored at work) and split their sides laughing. I’d like to think most of us are smarter than that. It is hard, though, to hold up a properly feminist and equality-driven set of beliefs on body image when you’re bombarded from all sides by: Get a beach body! Snack packs of biscuits, 100 calories! Figure-enhancing and very uncomfortable tights!

What will you gain when you lose? asks a cereal company. Bad restrictive food behaviours and an inroad to obsession over my intake, say I (but that’s another story.)

There are pat answers thrown around – have a body; put a bikini on it – but they’re a patch, not a cure. Ridding yourself of the pattern of thought behind ‘fat = to be avoided’ requires an understanding of the root of that pattern. Isn’t it odd how women get so much more pressure than men to ‘look after’ our bodies? A feminist angle on that question puts the matter among the societal limits put on women. We are to be dainty, petite, restrained people, and we are to be neither seen nor heard, for the most part. Being fat – being anything above waiflike, to be honest – means that we take up space in the world. It means that we have to confront the fact that our bodies don’t equal the idealised image constructed for us. Being a woman who’s proud of her muscular physique, or loves how her curves look in a dress, or doesn’t give a damn that she’s wearing something unflattering for comfort’s sake, is a challenge to that ideal. It’s a statement we make by our mere presence.

And it’s intimidating, don’t get me wrong. Piloting a non-airbrushed female body around means you’re open to uncouth remarks from (mostly) men, and unpleasant comparisons between yourself and the images in the media. How are you meant to feel okay in yourself when someone who’s six feet tall and a size eight looks so much more sleek than you do in a dress? How is a six feet tall, size eight, woman meant to feel when she’s told that wearing heels makes her look ridiculous? It doesn’t matter what you look like – eventually someone, somewhere, is going to say something that makes you feel like Gregor Samsa, post-cockroaching.

Here’s where ‘having a fat day’ comes in – when you have that thought, you’re expressing something internalised from your experiences in society. You’re not actually after becoming twice your size, nor have you instantly added several inches of saddlebags from eating a plate of chips. You feel like something is off about your appearance, and the way you process that is: I feel fat. You’re saying that you feel misshapen, or wrong, or uncomfortable, but the narrative that we’ve internalised translates that vague feeling of off-ness into a conviction that you’re too big, you’re taking up too much space, and you’re straying farther than you should be away from the ideal.

Well, ladies, that’s some bullshit we put up with, right there.

It’s bullshit from both angles. It’s demeaning and embarrassing to people who are fat and are living comfortably, or learning to live comfortably, in their bodies. It’s too simplistic an answer for those of us who feel a dysmorphic discomfort in ourselves – because if we just blame fat, we can avoid the disagreeable procedure of figuring out what’s actually going on in our heads.

Saying ‘I don’t feel right. I don’t know why. I think I look bad, but I can’t tell where. I don’t like my body.’ is difficult but honest. Saying ‘I feel fat’ is careless, insulting, and unproductive – and getting that phrase out of your vocabulary is the first step toward teaching yourself to understand what emotions are leading you to use it. It’s a hard habit to break, but I really feel it’s worth it – even (especially, really) if you just do it to be one less person making women feel bad about themselves.

We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to reclaiming our relationship with our bodies. Thinking about that might make you uncomfortable. It’s okay.

But you’re not ‘having a fat day’. Trust me on that.

overlookable blogging about blogging

I realised after I’d published my last post that the title, pulling a boat over a mountain, is one that looks very obvious from my perspective but may need explanation.

It comes from the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo, which is about a mad Irishman with a plan to build an opera-house in the Amazonian rainforest. Fitzcarraldo is an eccentric, violently passionate doer-of-odd-things, which must have been nice for Klaus Kinski to play (he couldn’t have gotten a role as close to real life as that again unless they hired him to play himself in his own autobiography). An Irish band also wrote a rather lovely song inspired by the film.

but I’m not going down here//this journey isn’t over//it’s a long way to the house of Fitzcarraldo

It seemed apt for my DIY final year and the heaping piles of stress I’ve put myself under.

Fitzcarraldo (the film) is one of those classics that in retrospect, I’m very glad I’ve seen, but that I’m in no hurry to watch again. I seem to remember wondering, about two-thirds in, if I’d be eligible for a pension before it ended. That’s symbolic of the whole thing to me, I guess – long and arduous projects, roads to nothing apart from personal pride, and the feeling that you may end up standing screaming off a bell tower if things don’t. Go. Bloody. Right. For once.

If it’s not immediately obvious from the overextended reference, my mind has gone south for the summer. I’m kicking around things to write about, although I’m currently am in the early phases of A Depression (capital letters entirely justified) so I’m mainly just attempting to flail/sleep that off for now. Maybe I’ll get something useful done this week. Maybe I’ll just get some sleep.

Maybe I’ll avoid nightmares about Klaus Kinski and useless blog posts.

Probably not.

pulling a boat over a mountain

About nine months ago I did something very foolish, and now I’m just waiting for results.

Unprotected optimism, kids. Not even once.

In recent years, I’ve had a lot of health problems. I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, but about four or five years ago it ramped up from occasionally awful to totally debilitating for long periods. I got through some bits of uni with the help of deadline extensions, accommodating lecturers, and the best counsellor I could have had. In fourth year I started having real problems. I signed up to do a dissertation, then totally cracked up not long before the hand-in date and had to pull out of the year. I tried fourth year again the following academic year but had another breakdown in the spring.

I went on medical leave not long after, and tried to do the work in my own time to be ready to sit the exams.

You can guess how well that one went.

The past year or so has been better. My doctor switched around my meds to the most helpful combination I’ve had yet; I put in serious mental-health-related work; I applied for and was granted disability benefit, allowing me stop worrying about finding and being unable to do full-time work. And I decided to finish this degree for once and for all.

I did warn that this probably included too much optimism.

So in September I confirmed to college that I was going to sit the goddamn exams in May and breakdowns be damned. I don’t think I swore in the emails to my tutor, but I wouldn’t blame him if he did on receiving them. He is seriously great, but I’ve been the most annoying tutee I can imagine. I contacted all my lecturers and got the reading lists, then I bought textbooks. Any resurgence in the Irish economy last autumn was down to me and my dealings in Hodges Figgis. I could build a small house with the stacks of books, paper, and folders in my room – and they’ve probably cost me about as much as that small house would.

Then I looked at the calendar, saw that May was a long way off, and applied myself sort of patchily to work.

Autumn was fine; winter less so. I fell into a bad depression from about the middle of January until the start of March, and woke up out of it to find that I had two months until exams and quite a lot of stuff to do.

The rest is unfortunate history, and anyone who’s had me on Twitter over the last few months has seen the process. Insomnia, blasphemy, the odd midnight anxiety attack, far too big a reliance on tea and Diet Coke to substitute for sleep, and having to find and stream all of this season’s Doctor Who because I kept reading too long and missing it.

I’m being light-hearted, but teaching myself final-year law is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever undertaken. I keep forgetting that it’s a pretty exceptional thing to do and giving out to myself for not reaching the standard that my pre-mental illness self would have wanted. I’m not going to get a 1.1. I’d be happy with any honour, to be honest, but at this point I’ll take what I get. I’m just glad it’s over.

I don’t really know what baseline anxiety is for people without anxiety disorders. My friends say I’m knurd – so far past sober that I need two drinks just to be normal. Even so, I don’t recommend taking on a large and mostly unsupervised project like this. In general, too! Getting through this with my small claim to my sanity intact has required an iron grip on my brain. I did mindfulness therapy last year and, while at the time I thought it was a bit of a waste of time, I think some bits of it stuck. A grounding exercise, reminding myself that I only have to take care of this point in time and not all of the other, dreadfully intimidating, points, was useful.

(The bit of me that thinks it’s codswallop kept pointing out that that current moment was pretty hopeless too, but I mostly managed to keep her mouth shut.)

I sat the exams in the past few weeks, and did mostly okay. There’s only one I’m worried about, but I think that just about hit ‘okay’ too. I’ll know in a few weeks. I had one bit of coursework, which I handed in on time and pretty okay also. I came home from the last exam on Monday, drank a lot of wine, and have been as much asleep as awake ever since. It’s bloody lovely. I’d forgotten how nice books were when I don’t have to memorise them.

I think I’m going to be prouder of this when I know the results. I find it hard to see just getting there as an accomplishment (as I said to a frustrated parent, passing is the point – I could walk into my boyfriend’s college, sit his quantum mechanics exam, and fail it). Still, learning six subjects in a generally self-directed manner, fighting off several mental illnesses, and still having a partner, friends, and family speaking to me at the end of it is pretty good.

I can see that much.

A quick thank-you: you bunch of lovable [space] oddities on the internet have been a wonderful source of support. My Twitter friends and acquaintances have done more than they know to keep me sane(-ish) over this year. The 24-hour revolving pub door of Twitter is a support system and a distraction mechanism all at once. Twitter friends, you are bloody brilliant.

2013: Year of Getting Shit Done. And how.

that’s here. that’s home. that’s us.

There is the horizon, and there is a shield of light. It drops away to an inky, cobalt blue, and fades almost regretfully into the deepest black night.

For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light—our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance. – Ulf Merbold

In a tiny silver speck orbiting tirelessly around this spinning planet, Chris Hadfield switches off his camera and turns in for the night.

Hadfield is Mission Commander on board the International Space Station. His day job is conducting experiments and operating the Canadarm2 robotic device that functions as part of the ISS infrastructure. In his downtime, he catches up with ice hockey, gives talks to schools, makes videos on the oddities of ISS life, and takes some of the most compelling photos of our beautiful planet yet in existence.

If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night, it would look to you more splendid than the moon. – Galileo

These photos are beautiful. They are stark, or verdant; they are recognisable, and alien. Written on the Earth is a record of our past, the battle-scars of a species making its mark on its home.

People leave marks wherever they go. We build, we create, and inevitably we destroy. To look across the globe is to understand our compulsion to etch our fleeting presence on our world, and to understand how very tiny those machinations are to which we cling most tightly. One of my favourite quotes on this is from Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, who said of spaceflight: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

The crew of the ISS are the furthest humans from our planet. Their lonely viewpoint allows them to see – and allows us to experience, vicariously – our pale blue dot, as it appears in macro.

There is a fascination to that solitude. Space flight is something that has never lost its wonder, from the time we first sent brave pioneers into orbit and had them return to a hero’s welcome. Space travel is so far beyond the reach of the everyman, even now, that we retain a childlike awe at the  very thought. We are limitless, we story-telling apes, in our imagination. We want that experience. We want to be lifted above our lives, to be able to look down at everyone alive in the world, and to say yes, that is ours. That is our home.

Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. -Fred Hoyle

This, then, is one facet of the appeal of Hadfield’s photography: it marries an alien perspective with a familiar subject. There is a thrill to finding a photo of your city and reading the streetlights to find your way around. In photographs from space, we experience a double consciousness. We are the painter, and the sitter. We experience art; we make art; we are art.

For all our faults, we are still so beautiful.

Dublin’s fair city.

Those of us who enjoy astronomy revel in viewing the photographs the Curiosity Rover sends back from Mars. Interpreting the geography of an alien planet is fascinating; we are explorers, readers, inwardly running our hands over rocks we will never touch in reality, piecing together the history of its mountains and plains. It’s easy to forget that we live on just such a planet ourselves – constitutionally different, of course, but equally as amazing, equally as strange. We live in a microcosm, all of us. We spend so much of our time on so little an area of land that the disconnect involved in contemplating the whole is startling. There are beauties you will never see, entire continents you may never visit.

And this is thrilling!

There are seven billion of us down here, and that is what we share – the love and stewardship of this planet of ours. Alone, each of us is so insignificant in the wider scheme of things. Collectively, we can send people into space to reflect our lives back at us through beautiful photographs.

Carl Sagan was right to observe that exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. I hope within our lifetimes we have the chance to experience that wonder for ourselves. For now, it’s a privilege to experience the visual story of our existence from the perspective of our most adventurous wanderers.

In Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, the philosopher Albert sends Sophie a letter asking her if she has ever thought about meeting a little man from Mars while she is out walking. “What would you think?” he asks. “Never mind, it’s not important. But have you ever given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself? It is obviously unlikely that you will ever stumble upon a creature from another planet. We do not even know that there is life on other planets. But you might stumble upon yourself one day. You might suddenly stop short and see yourself in a completely new light. On just such a walk in the woods. I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.”

(Thank you, Commander Hadfield, and safe home.)

[2013] exams and a total placeholder of a post

For reasons I’m not going into until the blasted things are over, I’m currently sitting final-year exams. I’m trying not to talk about them all the time, because there’s probably not much more boring than post-mortems of somebody else’s exam papers, or pre-game monologuing about subjects you have never sat**.

I have one down, five to go, and I’ll be done on the 20th of the month. I may be able to persuade myself to write something non-work-related on here before then. If not, this blog will be back properly in about two weeks’ time.

Well, two weeks plus about seventy-two consecutive hours that I’m reserving for sleep.

** because you’re a sensible person and I’m a masochistic idiot.