One of the exhausting things about being a woman is that there's no brief answer to that social stalwart: "How are you?" In the workplace, maybe. In the street, maybe. Even at a party, maybe, but only if you don't know the person asking you well. But with a friend? With any, in fact, of your 20 close friends? Not a chance. There's no way out. Over a glass or 10 of chardonnay, or a slice or 10 of chocolate cake, you'll have to start from the beginning and work your way grimly through to the end.
The "beginning", by the way, is the moment, on your last meeting, when you said goodbye. The "end" is this, here, now. The wine, or coffee, or cake, is but the accompaniment, the stage set if you like, of the grand narrative that you're morally obliged to deliver. Deviation, repetition and hesitation are just fine. What isn't fine is omission. There'll be no skipping, no shirking, no executive summaries. The unwritten contract of any female friendship is the truth – and the whole truth. Every nuance, every action, every word. Every evening with a female friend is a gallop through War and Peace.
Evenings between male friends are, as far as I can gather, rather different. Rather more like Herman Van Rompuy's favourite literary form, the haiku. Conversation, should such an outlandish thing be considered necessary, is compressed. Economy is paramount. And so, it seems, is sport. Evenings like this (apart from the sport bit) sound rather relaxing. No wonder men are desperate for that lads' night out. No wonder they're rushing to start up men's groups.
"Have you got balls?" asks a leaflet at Oxford University. "If you have, how does that make you feel?" Probably, one is tempted to answer, like most of the other people who have passed through its hallowed portals over the centuries, and most of the people who run it, and most of the people who have been educated in it, and who have gone on to run the legal system, and the education system, and the financial system, and the country. But, hey, none of us is unique.
The leaflet is for a new group, for male undergraduates, called Man Collective – Oxford. Its very existence has provoked outrage. "Discrimination against men on the basis of gender," said the NUS national women's officer Olivia Bailey, "is so unusual as to be non-existent, so what exactly will a men's society do?"
Well, Olivia, perhaps they'll get some nice chardonnay and some nice chocolate cake and sit down for a nice chat? What the leaflet asked, remember, wasn't whether they experienced discrimination, but how they felt? Not as in that slightly blocked nose which probably meant they had pneumonia, or swine flu, but as in, you know, feelings. Happy. Sad. Ugly. Scared. Spotty. Inadequate. At sea.
And why shouldn't they? Lots of young men clearly are at sea. So are lots of middle-aged ones. It's a tough time, it really is a tough time, to be a man. Feminism told men they'd been part of a patriarchy that had oppressed women for millennia, and they'd better shape up.
Some of them tried, but found that women didn't fancy gentler men. Some of them didn't even know how to try. They could see the alpha males around them doing fine, as usual, but they weren't alpha males, and suddenly there were all these scary, independent women, wanting intellectual stimulus, and fabulous sex, and romance, and material success, and all they wanted to do was slump in front of The X Factor, or read Dan Brown.
So let the darlings talk. I don't know if it will make them feel better. I don't know if talking ever makes anyone feel better. But at least they'll understand why women are often so tired.
Here's a woman (called Christina) who has a right to preach
I've always felt a bit of an affinity with anyone called Christina, but you don't have to be a member of that super-exclusive club to be impressed, and deeply moved, by Christina Schmid. The fact that she is extremely beautiful may, of course, have played its part in her appearance on the front page of a number of newspapers (including this one) yesterday. But it's very clear that the widow of bomb disposal expert Olaf Schmid is as exceptional, in her own way, as the brave husband she lost.
While many grieving relatives are (understandably) reduced to inarticulacy and crude attacks on politicians or their handwriting, Christina Schmid has spoken with extraordinary eloquence about the values that drove her husband to take the risks he took. "From now on," she said at his funeral on Tuesday, "I expect our peacemakers to show us they are working as hard as he did to preserve life... I am fiercely loyal to serve him in death as I did when he was alive, however much it's breaking me."
The word "dignified" is over-used in these contexts, but there really is no other for her calm reminder of the price of war, and the responsibility entrusted to those we elect. Who, it seems, are not rising to the challenge. On the day that S/Sgt Schmid was buried, Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth was attacking Obama for his "dithering" over Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is the most complex military operation since – well, Iraq. In fact, it's even more complex. As Sir John Chilcot may, or may not, establish, snap decisions have their limitations. You can call it "dithering" or you can call it careful thought.
My lesson in how the rich get even richer
A couple of weeks ago, in this space, I mentioned a woman called Diana Jenkins. She had met and married Britain's highest paid financier, Roger Jenkins, but complained that his rich friends' wives treated her like "an Eastern European mail-order bride". Lifting the mistake from another newspaper, I described her as a "Serbian refugee".
She is, in fact, as a fierce letter from her lawyer swiftly established, Bosnian, and we printed an apology.
I was happy to reiterate the apology when she emailed me to apologise for "criticising London", though I couldn't care less if someone criticises the city I happen to live in, and in any case understood that what she was criticising wasn't the city but some of its (very rich) inhabitants. I then got an email thanking me for my email and then, last week, a delivery. The card said "Enjoy! Best served chilled". With it were 48 plastic bottles.
There were turquoise ones containing "Neuro Aqua" (otherwise known as water), offering "premium hydration" the "natural way". Others, containing liquids ranging in colour from puked-up pear juice to psychedelic oranges and reds you'd be happy to serve at a toddler's tea party, offered "performance", "sleep enhancement"and "a leaner you". There's even one called "Neuro Gasm" which promises "passion". (According to a colleague who tried it, it doesn't work.)
Neuro Drinks, it turns out, is "the hot new beverage company" of a certain Diana Jenkins. I, presumably, am a networking opportunity. And this stuff, as far as I can tell, is as near as you get to attempting to elicit money for old rope.