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.

 

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“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 trying to awkwardly cross 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.

 

Unwanted Attention Towards Women

A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness.

Gavin de Becker wrote this in his book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence about America in the 1990s. In fact, the edition I’m quoting from was published in 1997, but so many years later I found myself returning to that quote more than once. It’s still true on various levels, not just those de Becker writes about, though important shifts are happening in terms of how both men and women perceive and conduct communication with each other.

Lots of examples that come to mind in connection with unwanted attention relate to interactions between strangers who will not necessarily get to know each other. I’m guessing they wouldn’t want to, either. Some are easy to shake off or don’t leave an impression at all. Will this ever become a topic that I and other women will have nothing to add to? A topic the women arriving after us will have nothing to say about at all? I don’t think so. It’s human nature. To make it clear at the start, I’m talking about “everyday” occurrences which, small and fleeting though they may seem, are still marked by a dart of upset, tension, feeling uncomfortable afterwards even if you know exactly how to deal with it, and knowing nods from your girlfriends once you share an experience you had.

So what’s the trigger for this post? Nothing major, just being paired up with a classmate who made me uncomfortable during a language class. I had spotted him immediately upon entering the classroom and thought that I didn’t want to work with him, because I probably already knew I would be, since we were the only ones sitting alone. Before I could join my usual teammates, one of them a twinkly-eyed bachelor in his late fifties whose jokes and polite door holding never gave me any twinges, this stout, slightly hulking man of seemingly the same age was sitting down next to me and staring at me while I spoke, turning brick red in the process. We were answering questions for vocabulary training, and mine was what I would pack for a vacation. I paused to remember the words for “different clothes”, and my exercise partner pounced in with a cackle: “A bikini!” I stopped what I was doing, looked him in the eye and said, “That’s not funny.” It worked.

When I told my girlfriends this story, head shaking and supportive sentences followed, as well as the valid observation from one of them that it would have been a totally different situation if I was paired up with a woman who said that, especially a woman my age, and I have to say I felt myself agreeing one hundred percent.

It wasn’t alright because it didn’t feel alright, besides being, in my opinion, a textbook example of Things You Don’t Say to a Woman, Especially One You Don’t Know Well. I’m reminded of a good colleague of mine who mentioned that there was construction going on right next to her house and she had to walk past the site every morning on her way to work. Despite going out early, as is often the case, there was usually someone there, already busy. We were chatting and she frowned suddenly. “There’s this one worker who always says good morning to me, he calls it out even when I’m clearly in a hurry or focused on walking. I never initiate this and it doesn’t feel nice.”

I didn’t have to say anything as we looked at each other, because I knew what she was talking about, and the additional probable components she wasn’t mentioning: knowing that man would notice you even before you walked out your door and not enjoying the thought, seeing him straighten up out of the corner of your eye, pull up his jeans or lean on something, grin or tilt his head, call out the greeting with an air of mutual acknowledgement that was never established, feeling his eyes follow you as you walk along in the summer dress you were looking forward to wearing.

Change individual bits of these stories and they transfer easily to a variety of experiences, and these are the “harmless” examples. I don’t walk around expecting any of this, in whichever version, but I’m prepared for it, and my mind switches to all the self-protection and self-soothing strategies that have been there so long, I can’t even remember when I started being conscious of them. A conversation with my own mother rapidly proves that what I talk about is as familiar to her now as it was when she was my age or even way younger, and since she’s my mother, she can usually guess where I’m going before I get there in my story. My mother gets approached plenty. So does my father, but that’s another blog post.

With the dude from my language class, I remember suddenly feeling extremely irritated and thinking, Why can’t you be an attractive, well-mannered, well-adjusted man paying attention to me instead of this? But the truth is,  a well-adjusted etc. man wouldn’t have acted in a way that made me feel the way described above. Also, I wouldn’t have cared or noticed what he looked like.

Are we too sensitive? No. Are we forgetting all the good guys? No. They are even easier to spot. Are we tense and frightened of any sort of interaction with a man coming our way? No. But it’s in us to be wary if necessary. The perhaps strongest feeling I usually experience if I get unwanted attention is a sort of proprietary anger: why the hell do you think that I would want to hear this, from you? I didn’t ask you to do this or infringe on my time. That’s it.

Writing in a Café: How to Keep Your Space

Nah, not like that. But it’s an option. It might lead to you being banned from your favourite café, though, so use with caution. Or opt for openly and loudly applying hand sanitizer.

Odds are that there will be people in your café who aren’t there to work, meet up with someone they arranged to see or just enjoy their own company. In fact, they might be looking for the company of others, be it just a chat or something more. This is normal coffee shop/ café culture . After all, you’re a social person as well (most of the time, I’m guessing), and you’re perfectly open to meeting new people, networking, possibly forging a neighborhood familiarity or even a new friendship.

I’m not averse to engaging, because that is also another reason you venture out to work away from the comfort of your home. But I came here with a purpose, so how do I keep the space I need for it?

As already hinted, have a pair of headphones handy. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re listening to music. Or maybe you feel fine without them – also great. But as a woman coming in alone somewhere I’m used to being approached or talked to, even if it’s a short exchange, not necessarily an unwanted one too. If I’m settling down to work on a writing or blogging idea I’ve been carrying around for days, teaching it how to walk on its own before I release it into the world, I need to stay focused. I’ve carved out time for this and I want to make the most of it. Plenty of people still have an inner social brake if they see someone with headphones in. And if not, you have the right to look properly annoyed if you get tapped on the shoulder (depending on the situation and who’s tapping, of course) and have to take out the headphones after all.

Wear comfortable clothing (not PJs, although it’s so tempting – I just imagine it sometimes) that you don’t have to think about once you sit down. Nothing that you need to tuck in or adjust periodically, pull at, maybe a favourite scarf in the event of a draft (so distracting and who wants neck pain after), a signature accessory (I’m that writer/ blogger/ creative person/ everybody look at this thing I got on vacation).

Take a book or notebook (don’t forget the pens!) with you to do something else between typing if you need to pause or think something through, so you still make it clear that you’re occupied. Write some to-do-lists, answer your friend’s text, think about what to give your dad for his birthday, get up and ask the barista about that tea you liked so much. Only if you want to, though. Everyone should be able to stop and stare into space if they wish to.

If you get approached or spoken to, I’m sure you’ll be able to play it by ear. If you don’t want to engage in a longer conversation, there are polite ways of ending it (“I really have to get back to work now”, “Well, thanks for the tip (put headphones back in)”, “Have a nice day (put headphones back in)”, just to name a few). Most people will pick up on social cues or just follow plain good manners. And if you want to continue talking, it’ll happen naturally.

This all goes both ways. If I want to approach someone or ask a question beyond whether I can borrow the sugar, I’ll watch them for a little while first (in a non-creepy way is the obligatory addition to this sentence). There are loads of polite openings that will soften the possible blow of essentially intruding on someone’s bubble of time, and hopefully I’m also socially competent enough to recognize when the interaction is over or if it will continue. Obviously there’s always the option of exchanging contact information and picking up where you left off later, when neither person is deep in answering the muse or working towards a deadline.

I just spotted the jovial middle-aged newspaper reader from yesterday, good that I’m already settled and typing. He’s looking around! Headphones? Mais oui, bien sur! Also one of my neighbours who was very happy when I lent him a stepladder once and enthusiastically attempted to engage me in a subsequent conversation about whether I was Turkish (that was a new one, considering all the stuff I’ve already heard), repeating his name two times, sat down at the table next to mine, despite there being other free ones and me silently asking him not to in my head. However, he didn’t seem to recognize me or simply didn’t want to talk – score! His phone and the pinging noises it was making proved to be more absorbing.

An illustration to all of the above. I looked up on reflex at the person settling at the free table next to me and was pleasantly surprised to see it was an author whose (thrilling and wonderfully written) book signing I had been at fairly recently. We smiled and said hello, chatted a little, then I said I’d let her work in peace. I put my headphones back in, she got her drink, sat down, plugged in her own headphones and began to work. That’s how it’s done.

How to Pick a Café for Writing

Just ask yourself the following questions…

Do they offer carrot muffins with carrot cake frosting? If they do, how do you feel about that? If they don’t, do you have a second-choice and third-choice dessert as a back-up plan? Do you even like dessert? Am I asking too many questions when I was planning to ask only one regarding this subject?

Do they have free Wifi?

Is the location nice? Are you looking for something closer to or farther from home?

What impression do the people sitting in there make? When does it fill up? Are there enough tables?

Maybe do a test run without your laptop first. Are the tables a comfortable height for working? Is there a counter with chairs that’s also comfortable? What do the seats feel like? Is there enough distance between tables, or you’re fine either way? Is there enough light? Do people respect each other’s space? Are there other people in there writing, studying, in headphones etc.? Is it noisy? Some noise is to be expected, like chatting, doors opening and closing, the baristas and waiters doing their jobs, people asking questions and placing orders, equipment etc. Can you tune it out, or you don’t mind?

Is the service friendly? If it isn’t, but you still get what you need and it tastes like it should, does it matter? Maybe it polishes your sarcasm skills, which are not entirely impractical when you might have to deal with other people approaching you (the drama), but more on that later.

All the possible questions asked? Time to pack up your stuff and when your friends ask you what you got up to over the weekend, just say nonchalantly, “Oh, you know, I went off to create a masterpiece that will put an end to all the stupidity in the world once people read it.”

Musings While Writing in a Café

After some saving up I bought my first little laptop. It was a fantastic feeling to be able to take it with me on a trip for the first time and be independent as far as communication with family and friends, blogging and writing were concerned. It was also nice to share it when my sister and I were in Tokyo and type away on it during my trip to Iceland.

Now that I’ve name-dropped a few fancy destinations I loved visiting, let’s get to the topic at hand. Laptops are great for travel, but they are also great when you start writing  outside of home. This has been a bit of a learning process for me, because, surprise, surprise, it took a while for me to catch up on offers besides Starbucks or build up to writing in a café in the first place.

I walked into my chosen café today and stopped to do the usual scan of the perimeter – it’s later in the morning and I’m slightly worried every table will be taken, but I’m in luck. There’s a free one by one of the large floor-length windows. A long couch seat spans the width of the window and three tables are placed alongside it. One is occupied by a girl in headphones who is immersed in her own little laptop – bless her. The next one is free as well, but there’s a newspaper lying on the tabletop, so I leave it and take the table I spotted first. I put my coat down to mark my territory and start deciding on a beverage, when there’s movement to my side and chatting.

A middle-aged man has arrived, smiling and clearly thinking he should say something to everyone nearby. It’s OK – I just don’t want to join! I smile politely, get my drink, sit down and start silently setting up, because he settles down, shifts around in his seat, grunts, says “Well…” at every page turn of his newspaper and I just know that if I don’t plug my headphones in NOW, I’ll lose precious minutes of the morning I’d been looking forward to for several days.

I love writing at home – there are no distractions, even though there can be, but everything is so familiar that it blends seamlessly with my concentration. I can write in my PJs, I can write at the desk, on my bed, on the floor, I don’t have to watch my stuff and the fridge is (usually) stocked. I can take a nap when I need to and I can be as introverted as I like. Obviously this all differs a little depending on your household, but in general it’s true.

BUT, and there is a but, I do need fresh air and people watching, because otherwise the writing won’t be authentic and a change of scene is always invigorating both for concentration and inspiration. Writing in a café also takes you slightly outside of your comfort zone, if you’ve been used to writing at home or enjoy being a homebody, or, rather, it trains you in finding your comfort zone anywhere and making adjustments if something doesn’t feel right. It’s also a good solution until you get that dream writing office with an exit straight into a beautiful garden whenever you need a break…and definitely a good place to dream.