Chapters: My Growth as a Writer by Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan is one of my favourite writers and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned her on my blog yet! It’s time.

Last year I was fired up and researching whether writers I loved had written autobiographies or memoirs, hoping very much that they had, because one is curious about the person behind the magic pages that pulled you in, about their insights on writing and life, the experiences that shaped them, and you’re expecting their memoirs to be as engaging as their fiction. I don’t rush with this, because I’m usually involved in some extensive reading first, especially if the writer has been around a while and achieved a lengthy bibliography. Then there’s some digesting and thinking time after finishing a novel. It’s almost like I need to sit with the characters I met for a while before I move on to words directly from the life of the person who created them.

Chapters: My Growth as a Writer is a gem for many reasons. One of them is that between Lois Duncan’s memories and accounts of her writing, which are all absorbing in their own right, the book is basically an anthology of her riveting short stories (none of which I had read before!). She uses them to illustrate her growth and career, and while each point she makes comes across loud and clear, the stories themselves are a fantastic read, showcasing the incredible talent evident since Lois Duncan’s early years. They contain that unique suspense building up from the everyday experiences we can all relate to that is characteristic of her novels. What will happen? Will it be something bad? are the questions we keep asking ourselves when we read.

Visions of a woman’s life in a 1950s-60s America emerge, as a teenager, a young woman, a wife, a mother. The expectations, the preconceived societal ideas, the sexism, the condescension, the inevitable revolt against attempts, however small, to diminish a creative identity – unfortunately, some of it still exists today. One scene in which Lois Duncan describes her statement that she is a self-employed professional writer, while her conversation partner firmly insists it’s a hobby and not a “real” job is simply priceless.

Just like her novels, this memoir is a reminder that Lois Duncan was so much more than, as often mentioned in news headlines, the author of I Know What You Did Last Summer. She was a gifted writer, an attentive and precise observer and an amazing, engaging storyteller. She drew on and never disregarded her own experiences, more than proving the “Write what you  know” maxim, and she worked hard. She knew how to tap into that which scared us, young and old, what made us laugh in-between and how to grasp a life-changing moment, whether big or small, then put all this into written words.

13 Going on 30 Nostalgia

It’s 15 years old?!

“Thirty, flirty and thriving!” Great mild tongue twister and English class exercise, by the way. This heartwarming movie is, to this day, a wonderful story about not forgetting what your childhood and youth bring to your life for years to come, and what it means to be not just grown up, but mature.

But this fifteenth birthday has me feeling sentimental, so I’m reeling off my favourite things about 13 Going on 30.

Listening to Love is a Battlefield by Pat Benatar will forever be linked to Jenna’s slumber party dance-off.

Sometimes the truth needs to be said in no uncertain terms, without any embellishment, like kids tend to do.

One of the best tear-jerking mom wisdom moments ever.

Bitches are forever, and just because you’ve moved on doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you!

Sure we’re crying because we’re happy!

Here’s to the next 15 years!

Zumba Zingers

Because, you know, it’s just what I do now, and I just mention it in conversation like any regular thing, “Oh, just going to zumba tonight, didn’t get to go last week and I’m REALLY looking forward to it, I just feel like something’s off when I miss a class, you know?” This is all true – thanks to a good friend I felt brave enough to try out zumba and discovered I liked it. It always feels good to come back and it’s fun to see myself in the gym’s mirror:

I don’t move with the same speed or energy as our trainer, but then I’m NOT the trainer, so that’s fine. Whenever she praises us and tells us how wonderfully we did, I want to hug her and tell her how nice she is. But she seems to know it’s about the smiles each woman eventually has for herself during the class, and not just about the individual ways in which we all interpret the moves we’re shown.

However, we do need her guidance. Recently she’s been attempting to show us the moves and the choreography, subsequently doing one sequence with us and then stopping, perhaps for a well-deserved break, letting us follow the choreo (watch me drop the slang like nobody’s business) on our own. The moment she stopped moving, things unraveled like a rolling ball of yarn.

And then each one of us, being ready to jump back to being the individuals we all are when there is no supervision, starts doing her own thing. It looks like this:

Our trainer rightly identifies the potential for disaster and steps in once again. She doubles her speed and I just skip in place like an overgrown toddler, minus the cuteness. I do love the bent forward, backwards running, booty-shaking part, though. We’re all good at it and it creates a strong tribe vibe (rhyme alert). I’m not saying squad, because I haven’t researched if that’s still trendy nowadays, plus we don’t know each other.

We finish the last routine before the last relaxing sequence, the trainer giving it her all, while I stay true to myself.

 

Ballet Workout Number 14

Actually, there have been more ballet workouts between my last post about it and this one, but for the sake of consistency and harmony I’ll just continue numbering normally.

French class is out due to the place where I have my course being classified as a school, and therefore they stick to Hamburg state school vacation regulations. This means that my evening is free to go to the ballet workout with my favourite trainer. I come in and it’s a bit more crowded than usual, plus two dudes immediately stick out among the usual majority of women. One is young and bendy, practically teenage-looking, the other is middle-aged and wrapped up in layers, but as the class starts everyone forgets about each other, because all our inner prima ballerinas are unleashed and we concentrate on professional things like balance and poise.

The routine, however, is literally flipped. Instead of starting with doing exercises while standing up and working our way down to sitting and lying down positions, we begin by sitting on our mats and stretching – still feels great! No planks this time, though. There is a brief tremor of fear in the air as it looks like our trainer might just go for it, but it passes and we all laugh in mutual recognition and bonding. I think.

Predictably I’m feeling the burn when we get to the ab-based moves, but I do my best. Some go easier than I expect and I wonder whether I’m doing something wrong – maybe I’m not paying attention to some detail that is supposed to make it harder? Or maybe I should just accept that I’m getting better at this! Don’t forget the prima ballerina.

We get to a half-sitting position, legs outstretched to the side, and then we’re supposed to raise the top leg and stretch it some more. This is all very soothing and I calmly do my thing as far as I can go. Meanwhile, our trainer raises her leg all the way to a right angle and then nonchalantly tucks it behind her ear. She continues talking and advising us to be careful.

I will not forget this moment in a hurry. I’m pretty sure my little niece can do this without a second thought and laugh at the same time. Maybe one day I will return to that kind of flexibility. Until then…

We raise ourselves up – the trainer does it using only her legs and I’m not sure what I do, but I don’t fall over. We finish with a tiny bit of choreography, enthusiasm and happiness making up for some lack of elegance. People who laugh at ballet and ballet dancers should really go to one of these workouts, seriously.

My Life as a Doormat by Rene Gutteridge

It was a hard thing to shake. Edward thought I needed help with conflict. This was just another sign that this relationship was not what it should be.

Leah Townsend, a playwright and the protagonist of the novel, is right, but not for the reasons she thinks. Her boyfriend (gaslighter!), Edward, is also right, but not for the reasons he thinks.

I learned about this book because of the TV movie it was based on (incidentally, in retrospect, Holly Marie Combs did an amazing job portaying Lea) and read it afterwards. It’s a layered, psychologically insightful novel in which the experiences and feelings of the main heroine are sometime so relatable, so visceral in their descriptions that I had to lay the book aside to process. It’s also scary to realize how there will always be plenty of people ready to pounce on you as soon as you become that thing, a doormat.

Leah is a woman who has everything in her to be who she wants to be. In fact, she might already be that woman, only she got lost along the way due to ever-deepening habits of not wanting to disappoint people and destructive contributions from her boyfriend (gaslighter!). The number of times I was shouting to myself “No! That’s not what you should have done! Don’t give in! Do the thing, do the thing, aaaahhhh…” One consolation on the journey to finish the novel is that, ironically, precisely because of Leah’s submissiveness she has developed an inner voice in the form of her play’s main character, Jodie, a creative alter ego that lives in Leah’s head as Leah’s actual life becomes more complicated. But the complications are ultimately caused by Leah trying to get out of unhealthy patterns, and I was reading as fast as I could to find out if she would.

The conflict resolution class Leah gets signed up for by Edward (gaslighter!) proves to be a turning point for her in more ways than one. There are no hard-and-fast, magical solutions presented in the book. This is not a romantic comedy, though it has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (actually did that on the subway one day while reading) that look as if someone took note of the absurd experiences in your own life.

This is one of the most engaging books I’ve ever read and it leaves you thinking after you’re done, because Leah, in my opinion, has been nicer to the people walking over her than necessary even after her breakthroughs (like to some gaslighters, but I might be thinking that because I was reading a book about gaslighting parallel to the novel), and there might still be some things in her attitudes to wrap up, BUT all of this contributes to a rare effect and the mark of a good novel: you may have finished the book, yet you know the character still has everything ahead of her.

 

“Why So Sad?”

When I was at university, at any given time some people would ask me why I looked/ was so sad. It would always happen during a moment when I actually was thinking something over or mentally preparing for a challenging class, and felt like an interruption, an intrusion. The time I took to think or even daydream a little, to process something, was precious to me, whether I was among people or on my own. I’m still the same. It’s simply a character feature.

For a while I would answer, “I’m thinking”, “Everything’s fine” or actually engage in explaining I was not, in fact, sad. Though as we know now, thanks to the actively growing discourse around what commenting on or vocally interpreting someone’s facial expression might mean, my actual state was both beside the point and nobody’s business, especially since the people saying these things to me were not ones that knew me well.

The latter is often an important distinction. It was easy, in the accompanying burst of irritation, to think that “so many” people were doing this to me. In fact, it was only a few, and some of them shared common traits – lack of manners usually being the most obvious one. People who know me well, whom I trusted, close family and friends, never said such things to me. What they would say in cases where it was merited would be something like, “Everything alright? You seem preoccupied”, “What happened?”, “Are you OK?” when I myself knew my face was registering something. There is also a sentence in Russian I have always liked. It basically translates as “Don’t be sad”, but it means neither an order or anything close to “Cheer up”. It comes after someone has witnessed whatever it was that caused distress, or heard your story, told of your own volition. It shows support, understanding and a lack of blame. Most importantly, it expresses respect for your feelings.

Telling someone you barely know or even a stranger that they look “sad” is, for me, right up there with telling someone, women in particular, to “smile”, which has become a textbook example when starting discussions about unwanted attention and harassment. This fantastic article on Bustle thoughtfully and in my view, accurately, describes that telling someone to smile is, in fact, harassment in itself. The article was published five years ago, but is still easily transferable to today. I’m reminded of a former male colleague who would send me a message asking whether I was sad right now if I passed by him without stopping for a chat or, God forbid, didn’t smile when saying hello. Similarly to those cases years ago at university, I would at first say I wasn’t sad, maybe adding something unnecessary about having a lot of work. This simply created and prolonged interaction that wasn’t nice, satisfying the vampirism of one person and leaving me feeling unsettled, scrutinized. It took a few months before I saw the pattern and realized this was his way of taunting me because of his own insecurities. Like most people manipulating or being thoughtless even on a small level, the behaviour was always the same. The moment I’d worked this out, it didn’t occupy my thoughts anymore. Luckily the communication stopped without me having to actually do anything.

I’d known for a long time now what was not OK about the experiences described above, even though not every single one was worth additional attention or Googling. But placing it in a concrete context, supported by good articles from credible sources which have had space to multiply in the years the internet has developed so massively, has been helpful and useful for not stewing in it. In the end, the easiest way to confirm that I wasn’t overreacting was to simply flip through the list of people I felt comfortable around in my life. And why did I feel comfortable? None of them did the above, and I would smile in their presence without anyone telling me to.

 

Belly, Butt and Thighs Workout: First-Timer Report

When I walk in there’s a burly-looking guy with tatoos up both well-muscled arms patiently sitting at the front by the mirrors, and my heart sinks, because a gleeful inner voice dripping with Schadenfreude whispers boot camp. I hold out a little hope that he might be just another person come to join the workout who simply looks like he really, really knows what he’s doing, but no, there’s his fitness headset.

Welcome to my first ever belly, butt and thigh workout, OR legs, bums and tums in British English OR Bauch, Beine, Rücken, Po (BBRP) in German, because we just have to one-up everyone else, so we added the back to the name.

The trainer starts talking with ten minutes still to go until we start. He seems to enjoy hinting at push-ups and “using our whole body weight”. I knew it, they can read minds, tapping into what probably 80 percent of the audience is trying hard not to think about.

The room is filling up fast and the air is thick with energetic apprehension. Or is that just me? There are two other guys in the crowd of women. Everyone is looking focused and the trainer suggests taking off our sneakers and removing our socks if they aren’t slip-proof. Two women look around and proceed to do so. One of them is me. I wait a few minutes, notice no one else, the trainer included, has done this. Damn. He got me. If it was a trick to make me laugh, it didn’t work. If it was a trick to make me a tiny bit angry, it did work. All the better for the workout?

I quickly pull on my socks and shoes, and we’re off. Everything is mostly fine until we start going lower and then he shows us how to do the jumping spider plank. Oh my God.

My inner swearing count goes up dramatically and one F-bomb actually escapes my mouth, but the music is so loud and with the uneven noise of sneakered feet repeatedly hitting the floor I am unheard. No, the answer is just no. Same for the full-on plank, though I try my best with three restarts, which we’re encouraged to do. We’re asked if we’re doing OK and since apparently no one but me feels free to confess their grunting inability of doing anything remotely push-up related, everyone collectively grumbles “Jaajooooojaa”.

We lie on our backs, legs bent to one side, arms spread on the floor, stretching, and I can feel the temporary relief before the next ab-strengthening exercise, pulling those knees up to your raised chin while still positioned on your side. I don’t even want to think what I look like right now, but it’s probably more spectacular than that time I was trying to follow those zumba arm movements and made the impression I was awkwardly crossing myself.

We’re praised to the skies at the end of the session and I don’t have to hold on to anything to get up, which is a bonus, but ask me again tomorrow. For now I feel pleasantly energized, but also like I deserve a reward, so I buy all my favourite breakfast food on the way home.