Positive Practices: Doing the Right Thing

I’ve been away from blogging for a bit, but it’s a new year and time for Unfiltered Opinion to rise from its festive slumber…

Zombie Hand Rising Out Of A Grave

So, let’s kick 2020 off with the first in what will hopefully become a series of posts about positive practices. In this post, I want to discuss the art of doing the right thing. It may sound patronisingly straightforward and completely undeserving of being a discussion point but, if that truly were the case, the world and the people in it wouldn’t feel so utterly fucked so much of the time, would it?

But how do I define “doing the right thing”, then?

As always, I am only sharing my personal take on life, but “doing the right thing” in my book is all about being selfless and doing right by other people regardless of whether your actions and decisions will benefit you personally or not.

It’s about treating others the way you, yourself, would wish to be treated.

It’s about putting aside greed, selfish preferences or personal gain to do what you – deep down – KNOW is the right thing to do.

It’s about being honest and virtuous, and treating other people as the ends rather than the means.

It’s about doing things that are right without trying to (consciously or subconsciously) calculate what sort of “trade” you will be doing in the process i.e. only doing somebody a favour because they will owe you down the line.

It’s about striving to protect something higher than our individual selves.

I was inspired to make this post by – of all things – an ebay transaction last week. In a nutshell, I purchased something for the approximate value of £25-£30 just before Christmas and it still hadn’t arrived nearly a week after New Year. I messaged the seller and explained that I understood that the post was sluggish around this time of year but that I was just a little concerned that the item I’d ordered wasn’t coming. I asked them if they had any tracking information and they got back to me to say that they couldn’t find said information but that, yes, I should have received the item by that point. They apologised and issued a full refund. I was content with the solution and that was that.

Two days later, the item arrived in the post. According to the post marks, it had been posted on the nineteenth of December with a “Special Delivery” next-day service.

Whoops.

At first, I thought, “Get in! I’ve got a my item plus all of my money back”. It seemed like a major score.

But then I thought about it some more and remembered one of my all-time favourite philosophies: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So I contacted the seller, informed them that the item had turned up and offered to reverse the refund.

They were grateful for my honesty with the situation but it wasn’t their thanks that I was seeking. I just wanted to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. I wanted to preserve the value of honesty.

Yes, I could have easily gotten away with my free purchase, and I’m sure that many would have done just that and lost no sleep over it. It is, after all, a dog-eat-dog world at times and any unexpected bonuses we become the beneficiary of aren’t easy to relinquish. At times, we even feel that we deserve these moments of good fortune for the suffering or hardships that we’ve faced. Or as compensation for the times that we’ve been screwed over by somebody else. And that’s fine but I try to draw the line at plussing at the expense of somebody else, especially if they haven’t done anything to warrant it.

Now, I’m not trying to put myself across as a saint. After all, I did initially feel pretty fucking good about having my (very tasty) cake and eating it when it came to that particular ebay situation. That I cannot deny.

But I did question my actions and arrive at the conclusion that I’d rather do the right thing, even it meant forfeiting my small splash of fortune. I sacrificed a chance to “plus” and did right by the ebay seller because that’s how I’d like to be treated myself. After all, you can’t really roll around bitching about how people are so dishonest these days or always out to screw you over if you are going to behave the same way.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy and for a good reason: it usually means going out of your way for somebody else – or making a sacrifice – with no expectation of a reward. It means being selfless for the sake of preserving important, high-level values such as honesty and charity. There are a lot of people who will only do the right thing because they are – in effect – bartering and doing good deeds so that they can call in favours down the line or extract something from another person in exchange for their help. This doesn’t count as “doing the right thing” because you are doing something as a means to your own, personal ends.

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Doing the right thing becomes doubly hard when we are surrounded by people who are only interested in themselves and think nothing of doing whatever it takes to get ahead, regardless of how their actions affect others. It is, unfortunately, an attitude that can lead to much material, superficial and financial success – you know, all those shiny things that we want in our lives – and so it becomes an attractive way of life.

And that’s why adopting high-level values and doing the right thing is such a difficult thing to do. You might not get the fat bank balance. You probably won’t get to bang all the hot girls. And you likely won’t have such an easy, comfortable time of it.

Nevertheless, I still believe that it’s a positive practice to always question yourself and your actions – so that you can analyse whether you are really doing the right thing or whether there are some selfish motives lurking beneath the surface of your consciousness. I feel that if you want to surround yourself with the best, most genuine of people, then this is one big way to move forwards in that direction.

Of course, you have to strike a balance, because there are so many people who will – consciously or not – take advantage of another’s honest, charitable nature. “Doing the right thing” doesn’t mean that you should be permanently bent over and taking it up the arse from users and those looking to use you as a stepping stone. Saying “No” and recognising where to draw a line is just as important as doing right by others.

Bear in mind that this is just my viewpoint. It is not my intention to get preachy or encourage anybody to do as I do. I’m no master of doing the “right thing” all of the time, after all. I mess up constantly and always try to remind myself that I’m likely wrong or incredibly ignorant about most things. But pausing to question what I’m doing is one of the big things that I intend to keep working on going forwards.

 

Social media isn’t reality

Against my better judgment, I often find myself scrolling through the news headlines and articles on my phone. I say “against my better judgment” because

  1. There is nothing more untrustworthy than the news.
  2. Most of what you read is hyperbole or sensationalist bullshit containing the words “allegedly” or “apparently”. Fantastic, fact-checked journalism, then.
  3. News items are often spun to maintain the us-vs-them or left-vs-right narrative and get the public wound up in order to sell papers or generate ad-revenue via clicks.
  4. Many news outlets are biased towards either the political left or right.

What I’m saying is that regularly reading or watching the news is downright harmful in my opinion. The relentless torrent of bad news can get you down and the way in which it is presented can easily warp an individual’s perception of the world. You have to be able to fish out the raw facts from an ocean of stinking sewage and arrive at your own conclusions but, even then, you may still never know the actual truth.

But this isn’t a post dedicated to bashing the news. I’ll save that for another time.

This is a post inspired by a news item that I read on the BBC’s website (after scrolling beyond the usual headlines involving Brexit, Trump and other misc. death and destruction).

The item in question is called Cuffing Season: When a Partner is just for Christmas

Summer is a time for festivals, long lazy days in the park and for some of us… being single.

But come September, as the daylight hours get shorter and temperatures drop, you might find yourself wanting someone to cuddle up with.

That is basically the premise of “cuffing season” – that’s when people who are normally happy being single decide it’s time to find a plus-one for the Christmas party.

And then swiftly dispose of them before their trip to Ibiza in the spring. Brutal.

“Cuffing Season” has even made its way into the Collins English Dictionary according to this article. It goes on to speak to a few twenty-somethings who have jumped aboard the Cuffing train and the general picture that I got is that girls want to snuggle up with you on the sofa and watch Christmas movies together during the winter, then discard you in the new year so that they can be free and single again, unburdened by the presence of a partner that they chose to invite into their life. I guess this is part of the new Woke way of living where it’s acceptable to flit between, “I don’t need no man!” to “Oh gawd, I’m like so lonely! Won’t somebody go to a Christmas market with me and cuddle in front of the fire?!?”

Speaking as a man, I can’t say I care for this Cuffing Season thing. I have nothing against consensual, casual sex or a non-binding Friends With Benefits arrangement – as long as it’s clear that that’s what it is from the off. But Cuffing Season isn’t that. It comes off as being used to fill a void during the winter season, but not necessarily being informed of it. I wouldn’t want to start dating somebody during the winter months only to find out that I was being strung along so that the girl I was seeing could post pictures and shit on Instagram and Facebook of us being “happy” and together at Christmas. I know it isn’t necessarily as callous or pre-meditated as that but, hopefully, you get where I’m coming from.

I would want to know where I stand from the start. Are we just having sex or are we dating and hoping for this to go somewhere? All of this in between crap or anything that doesn’t fall on either side of the fence isn’t for me. I don’t want the hassle or the games. I don’t want to waste my time.

And this is where I finally get to the point of this post: the reasons for the existence of Cuffing Season and why so many people are desperate to be with somebody at Christmas.

The pressure of social media.

She says there’s an “unspoken pressure” to be in a relationship at this time of year, and that social media definitely influences it.

“Whether it’s decorating the Christmas tree or going to family events – people’s partners are everywhere.”

She says there’s “so much pressure” to find someone to go on Instagram-worthy festive dates with, which isn’t helped by a bombardment of happy couples putting pictures up with cuddly toys they’ve won at Christmas fairs.

So, in a nutshell, young people are seeing pictures of others being happy and together at Christmas and feeling envious. Then, they feel left out and uninvolved if they too can’t post up selfies with a partner.

We are being bombarded by these pictures of happy, smiling, loved-up couples at Christmas and some of us simply cannot take it. If you aren’t able to post similar photos of your own, then your life must suck, right?

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The problem with social media is that people are only uploading the positive moments from their lives. It’s just a highlight reel of their best bits and doesn’t really reflect their life. Nobody’s life is an endless rollercoaster of happy selfies and good times. Bad shit happens to everybody and the other 80-90% is simply mundane and very un-sexy. Like going to work, filling the car up with fuel or brushing your teeth.

But the likes of Instagram and Facebook have successfully brainwashed millions into believing that they are inadequate or that their life is terrible just because it looks like everybody else is having an almighty blast. They genuinely feel this unspoken pressure to live up to the standard set by the uploads of others. It’s absolutely nuts if you stop and think about it.

As Mark Manson puts it in his excellent book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck:

All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst. The greatest physical feats. The funniest jokes. The most upsetting news. The scariest threats. Nonstop.

This flood of extreme information has conditioned us to believe that exceptionalism is the new normal. And because we’re all quite average most of the time, the deluge of exceptional information drives us to to feel pretty damn insecure and desperate, because clearly we are somehow not good enough.

Technology has solved old economic problems by giving us new psychological problems. The internet has not just open-sourced information; it has also open-sourced insecurity, self-doubt and shame.

There’s nothing wrong with uploading pictures to social media, viewing the pictures of others’ or commenting on them and all that jazz. But there IS something wrong with feeling like a failure or a loser because you can’t “compete” and add something of your own.

So some people are happy and loved-up at Christmas…so what? Good for them. It doesn’t mean that I’m somehow worthless. At the very least, it means that I’m not in a Cuffing-style relationship and destined to be dumped come spring 2020!

You need to be able to think, “fuck what everybody else is doing” and get on with your own life. At the time of typing this, I’m single so yes, I would be lying if I didn’t feel even a little bit envious of lovey-dovey couples at this time of the year. It’s human to feel that way. But it isn’t some major crisis for me. I don’t give a fuck about what Facebook is saying or what the trend is on Instagram. I don’t want my perceptions of success and happiness to be defined by what others are doing or what social media says my life needs to be like in order to be “normal”

I don’t need some sort of false, temporary relationship over Christmas. Either it’s real or it isn’t. If it’s pre-mediatated and plotted during the autumn months by a woman that simply doesn’t want to be left out of the selfie festivities come December, then that can fuck right off.

I have food. I have beer. I have family. I have a few days off work. That’s a good haul as far as I’m concerned. And I’m not going to upload any of it to Instagram because I don’t need anybody else to like or comment on it to enjoy it.

I hope everybody has a swell Christmas but I honestly don’t give a fuck about what they are doing.

New Year’s Resolutions are (still) bullshit

Almost a year ago now, I wrote about new year’s resolutions and why I believe that they are a waste of time. You can read that post HERE

It’s almost that time of year again: time to make your new year’s resolutions. Or not. It’s been nearly a year since I wrote my previous post on the fallacy of making resolutions for the upcoming year (see the link above), and I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. We’re still in December 2019 at the time of writing (December 17th to be precise) and I’m already hearing the rumbles of, “…that’s going to my new year’s resolution for 2020.”

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These people are, essentially, announcing that they will fail at upholding said resolutions. After all, if they haven’t got the resolve to quit something harmful RIGHT NOW, then their chances of succeeding in 2020 are slimmer than my chances of enjoying a threesome with Kate Upton and Kelly Brook. If they can’t stop doing something immediately, at the time of deciding on a resolution – because they need to get as many ‘hits’ of their particular vice(s) as possible between now and January 1st – then what realistic chance is there of suddenly ceasing in the new year and resisting for all of 2020 and beyond?

This aside, it’s also unrealistic to expect to quit something and be done with it forever. You ARE going to relapse. You ARE slip up. You ARE going to experience weakness and seek out a dosage of your chosen poison in order to satiate those insistent cravings. And as long as you are genuinely committed to changing and are tracking your progress, then there is no shame in this. It happens. If change or abstinance was as easy as making a resolution, clicking your fingers and suddenly being immune to temptation, then none of us would be facing our demons in the first place.

The problem with making a new year’s resolution is that, as soon as you slip up, you will feel like a complete failure. You were so firm about quitting whatever it was you wanted to be free of, and you proudly proclaimed your intentions to friends, family and co-workers. So when you stumble, and everybody sees it, the little set-back morphs into a major catastrophe. Friends might rib you for scoffing a chocolate bar – when you were supposed to be eating healthily – and, suddenly, your “failure” feels real and huge. You’ve failed so what’s the point in carrying on? May as well relapse back into your old ways because, evidently, you cannot succeed. There’s a monolithic neon sign, coated in flashing lights, hovering above your head that states: I HAVE FAILED. At least that’s what it feels like.

Perhaps you held out for the first few weeks of the new year or even a little while longer. Oh well, try again next January 1st, eh? Thing is, this isn’t how change works. Yes, you have to work hard at ditching bad habits and yes, you have to be truly committed to altering the aspects of your life that you aren’t happy with BUT faltering is part of the process. Pick yourself up and try again. Keep going. Analyse why you tripped up and learn from it. Were there any specific triggers or external influences that paved the way for your moment of weakness?

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An overused movie quote? 100%. Still absolute gold though.

New year’s resolutions are admirable in principle but I personally believe that they are actually counter-productive to genuine growth and change. They are an all-or-nothing desperado effort that place us under immense pressure to succeed or die trying. The new year takes on the form of a balls-hard level in one of those old-school arcade games that remorsely annihilated the player again and again, forcing them to keep feeding coins into the machine to continue playing. You are giving yourself one shot to hit that level and achieve a perfect run. Expecting to emerge victorious under such conditions is wishful thinking at best; downright foolish at worst.

And, unfortunately, this pressure we heap upon ourselves when setting our resolutions can make a small mistake feel like the absolute end. It exaggerates the reality of the situation and many will simply give up, telling themselves that they can’t do it.

Change is an ongoing, neverending process and you simply aren’t going to make it without faltering. As long as you are sincerely determined to get there and are legitimately trying, then there is no problem with “failing” every now and then. The only prerequisites I would add are:

  1. That you don’t use the inevitability of failure as an excuse or justification to intentionally plan a “day off” from your goal, purposely failing just so you can get a fix.
  2. That you learn from your slip-ups, analyse what went wrong and work on correcting behaviours or influences that may allow the same mistake to occur again.

And I can’t make a post about new year’s resolutions without mentioning those who announce their pledges via social media, purely because it’s a fashionable thing to do at this time of year, or because they want others to give them attention or ‘react’ to their status updates. Good luck with that.

If you’ve made it this far – and suffered through my waffle-y, poorly-structured post – then I’ll put you out of your misery reward you with the abridged version of the point I’m trying to make (the tl:dr edition, if you like). New year’s resolutions are bullshit because, if you are prepared to wait until a certain date to commence your efforts, then you aren’t serious about whatever it is. You don’t want it enough. Thus your chance of failure multiplies dramatically.

Don’t wait until January 1st. Start now.

 

My Christmas Message

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I’m often criticised for not getting into the Christmas spirit but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy Christmas; it just means that I don’t see the sense in suddenly getting all hyped up and being Mr. Positive for one month of the year. Behaving this way is – in my mind – incredibly false.

For starters, we are constantly told that Christmas is a time of forgiveness and building bridges; of charity and of reform. Do you know what I have to say to this?

Bullshit – that’s what.

Shouldn’t we behave like this all year round? We shouldn’t be selfish, negative and ignorant to the suffering of others for eleven months of the year then “make up” for it in December by imitating Ebeneezer Scrooge and initiating a total transformation. Why can’t we strive to be good, virtuous people all year round? A lot of people who only act charitable during Christmas are – I’m sorry to say – doing so because it makes them feel good. It makes them feel righteous and I’ve seen people lambasting others over the Christmas period for not following their example, before returning to their self-centred and grumbling selves come the new year.

Then there is the near-sickening level of commercialism surrounding Christmas that overshadows what this time of year is meant to be about. The marketing machine fires up months in advance and a special kind of hell arrives on earth in late November/early December: the jam-packed stores heaving with shoppers, filling their baskets and trollies with cheap, plastic crap manufactured en masse in China.

Christmas has morphed into the biggest shopping “event” of the year and businesses battle to capitalise on the season and rake in the fat profits. The irony of it is that this fierce competition between the retailers is only possible because the corporations have successfully enlisted us all in a war: the war to buy family and friends the biggest and best presents. The war to have the most decorated house or the most outrageously overblown Christmas tree. The war to lay on the most gargantuan and comprehensive spread for Christmas dinner.

All of this can go away as far as I am concerned. I want no part in it.

Christmas, for me, is about the simple things. I only get Christmas day off from my job (Boxing Day isn’t guaranteed) and so I look forward to simply having that one, isolated day off. I look forward to being with family on Christmas morning when we are all free from work. I look forward to the Christmas dinner and watching Christmas movies on the TV in the afternoon while scoffing chocolates and drinking beer.

Do I like opening presents? Sure I do, but it really is the thought that counts. I don’t care about receiving mounds of expensive gifts or the exact items that I wrote down on a list for somebody to buy. I’d much rather receive something that had some thought put into it – something that shows that the giver really knows me, listened to me throughout the year or remembered something. But even then, it isn’t all about the material items. I really don’t get my sister’s determination to spend big or ensure that she tops the previous year’s gifts, for example. It’s unnecessary and I won’t think anything less of a small, simple gift.

In short, Christmas is about togetherness. It’s about relaxing. It’s about remembering what you have as opposed to what you don’t have. It CAN be a time for change and for charity towards those less fortunate but, in that case, it needs to be a permanent change that you carry forwards into the next year and beyond. Be better ALL the time, not just when the Christmas songs and hype have you feeling merry.

In summary…

DON’T go crazy, spending thousands of pounds to “buy” smiles on faces with gifts.
DON’T get all stressed because one small, trivial detail is going to “ruin” Christmas.
DON’T buy into the commercial bullshit and be sold excessive amounts of plastic crap that you don’t need.
DON’T cave into the pressure to beat the presents of others or to outdo your efforts from last year.
DON’T adopt a temporary, false-happy personality and become Mr. Charity for the month of December only.

DO spend time with loved ones.
DO buy simple gifts with thought put into them.
DO enjoy the small pleasures i.e. time off from work, Christmas dinner, crappy Christmas TV.
DO realise what you have in your life and decide to appreciate it.
DO reflect on the year just gone and be a better you going forward.

Merry Christmas.

Why does it always rain on me?

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Don’t worry; this isn’t a post where I’m about to head down the road of self-victimisation. It’s actually the total opposite!

I’m sure we’ve all been around that person, the kind of person that says…

“Why is it always me?”
“Knowing my luck…”
“Why do bad things keep happening to me?”
“It’s about time that I had some good luck.”
“Why can’t something good happen to me for once in my life?”

This kind of attitude never fails to grate on me and I have to bite my tongue whenever I’m around somebody who comes out with one of the above comments. To me, it’s just an incredibly self-centred, ignorant and blinkered perspective. I’m not saying that I’m always a super-duper positive soul that doesn’t get brought down by life. I have bad days on a frequent basis and I’ll get angry, morose and bitter about a great many things. I’m only a human being after all.

The thing is though, I’ll never shout up at the sky in frustration and ask, “why does this shit always happen to me?” I’ll never question why life keeps selecting me as the target for a slew of bad fortune. I’ll never demand to know why nothing good ever happens to me.

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The thing is, there is no such thing as bad luck. Bad things are happening to us all the time, just as good things are always occuring in our lives. It’s a matter of perception. Some events are undoubtedly bad news – contracting a serious illness or experiencing the loss of a loved one, for example – but there are so many other, more minor things that can be perceived either way.

And there are many people who simply can’t help perceiving every little thing as ‘bad’. When somebody is constantly doing this, all of these ‘bad’ events stack up in their mind and can really affect their outlook on the day, their week or even their life. The irony is that so many things don’t even need to be interpreted as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They simply are. Why interpret rainy weather and getting wet as bad luck? It is just what it is. Sometimes it seems that people are actively seeking out ‘bad’ things to complain about.

It’s called self-victimisation and it makes people feel good. It makes them feel important and special because THEY are being singled out by life…apparently. And it’s easier to blame your “luck” rather that doing something about your problems, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to wallow in the comfort of your own self-cultivated misery, secure in the fact that you’re being kept down by everybody and everything else, and that there’s nothing you can do to turn things around in the face of such oppression.

Further up this post, I described this attitude as ignorant and blinkered because that’s exactly what it is. The entire “why is it always me?” outlook on life is massively flawed because, while something bad is happening to you, bad shit is also happening to millions of other people around the world at that exact same moment. Having a bad day at work? So are millions of others across the globe. Feeling under the weather for what seems like the umpteenth day in a row? Well, perhaps you should remember that thousands are being diagnosed with life-changing disabilities or terminal illnesses.

And here in the developed, western world, our problems and the things that we determine to be ‘bad’ are so trivial in the grand scheme of things. They are usually things that won’t bother us when we wake up the next day – things that can and will be forgotten. Certainly things that don’t deserve to be moaned about when our lives are paradise in contrast to the lives of others who are much less fortunate and live in extreme poverty or in dangerous, war-torn regions of the world. How do you think those people would view your complaint about it being “so unfair” that you missed out on that Black Friday deal?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you make your own luck” and it really is true. If you’re blind to the good things in your life, because you’re so busy focusing on what’s wrong, then all you are doing is reinforcing – in your head – the notion that your life is rubbish…for no valid reason at all. You are perceiving your life as negative because you are only interested in seeing the bad things in order to maintain the victim narrative that you’ve created for yourself.

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You forget that you actually woke up this morning and get to live another day.
You forget that you have your health.
You forget that you have family and friends (when so many people have nobody).
You forget that you have a job to go to (when others don’t and are struggling to pay their bills).
You forget that you don’t have to worry about having your house obliterated by an airstrike.
You forget that you have the luxury of being able to buy all of these material goods.

I don’t mean to come across as preachy but I think a vast majority of us are guilty of forgetting how great our lives really are. But maybe you still don’t think so and are STILL wondering when you are due some of that much-deserved good luck.

Well, let’s return to that phrase, shall we? “You make your own luck”. Many successful businesspeople will tell you that there is no such thing as luck. “Good” luck is simply the act of recognising opportunities and being bold enough to take them. And you don’t need to be all about business and financial gain to benefit from this insight. For example, you might look at that guy with the incredibly beautiful girlfriend/wife and think, “man, that is one lucky sonofabitch.” But was he really “lucky” or did he just recognise that there was an opportunity – sometime in the past – to get to know her better or ask her out on a date – an opportunity he was bold enough to take.

What I’m saying is that there is no mystical universal force flipping coins or rolling dice above our heads and determining what happens next in our lives. It is only us, choosing to perceive our situations in one way or another. It is only us recognising opportunities and taking them…or not. You are not being specifically targeted by life to receive misfortune.

More to the point, we need to be better at recognising what’s RIGHT in our lives and what we HAVE. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore the bad parts or pretend that the negativity doesn’t exist, but it does mean that we shouldn’t allow all of our attention to zero in on the shitty elements of life. We shouldn’t allow insignificant unpleasantries to be needlessly exaggerated in our mind’s eye.

And we certainly shouldn’t inflate our own sense of importance and believe that we alone – out of billions of people – are so special as to be on the receiving end of life’s attentions.

 

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #12: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder (R.L. Stine, 1993)

piano-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I think it’s time to hand out an award: a trophy for the most bizarre title to appear on a Goosebumps book. I mean, just what can you expect from a book called “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder”? And let’s just take a moment to appreciate the inclusion of the word ‘Murder’ in the title of a children’s book. I mean, I’m not the sort of person who gives a crap, but I can imagine modern-day publishers perhaps wanting to steer away from using the word ‘Murder’. But then again, I’m not clued-up on current Young Fiction so maybe I’m way off the mark.

The Blurb

Jerry’s all set for piano lessons, especially now he’s got his own piano to practise on. But now he’s met Dr Shreek, his piano teacher, he’s not so sure…

Dr Shreek looks harmless, but there’s something really weird about him that Jerry can’t quite put his finger on. He gives Jerry the creeps…

And then Jerry hears stories about Dr Shreek’s other pupils…who went for a lesson, and were never seen again. But those stories can’t really be true…can they?

As with a great many Goosebumps books, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder opens with a kid moving to a new town and a new house. Jerry, his parents, and their cat, Bonkers (who Jerry absolutely detests) have just moved to the town of New Goshen. Jerry is twelve (again, another Goosebumps staple) and makes the rookie mistake of being a prankster, much to the exasperation of his parents. It’s a rookie mistake because when the old piano in the attic begins to play itself during the night, his parents instantly dismiss Jerry’s claims as his latest prank.

But things get even creepier when the piano is moved downstairs so that Jerry can take lessons. His parents find a local piano tutor called Doctor Shreek (not a sinister name at all…) who has his own piano school in the town. At first, he seems not-at-all-threatening…

Dr Shreek smiled at me. “Hello, Jerry.”
He really did look like Santa Claus, except he had a white moustache and no beard. He had round, red cheeks and a friendly smile, and his blue eyes sort of twinkled as he greeted me.

But Jerry soon hears stories about other kids who have been to the The Shreek School for lessons and were never seen again. Exactly how so many kids can go missing from the same town, and this piano school can stay open when it is the one common denominator in all of these disappearances is a mystery, but perhaps Stine didn’t want his readers to ask that question. Anyway, Jerry continues to have his lessons and notices that the previously non-threatening Dr Shreek has an odd hand fetish…

I muttered thanks. I was surprised to see that his eyes had settled on my hands. “Excellent. Excellent,” he whispered.
I felt a sudden chill.
I think it was the hungry expression on his face.
What’s so special about my hands? I wondered. Why does he like them so much?
It was weird. Definitely weird.
But of course I didn’t know how weird…

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Unfortunately, Jerry isn’t able to recognise the warning signs because he has a supernatural crisis to attend to. That piano that played itself when it was in the attic? Yeah, it’s still playing itself after being moved downstairs. And Jerry’s parents STILL don’t believe him after he sneaks downstairs in the dead of night and sees a friggin’ ghost at the piano, playing away. After several nighttime episodes (where the ghost conveniently vanishes as Jerry’s parents arive), they even send Jerry to see a psychiatrist about his “problem”. See kids, it never plays to be a practical joker that nobody believes. Especially if you live in the pages of a Goosebumps book.

At this point, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is a reasonably intriguing book. You KNOW that there’s something up with Shreek but there’s also the mystery of the haunted piano which seems to be completely disconnected from the good doctor’s hand obsession and child-swallowing piano school. Where is the danger going to come from?

There’s even time for this hilarious dream sequence that was so ridiculous, I cracked a legitimate smile when reading it…

I tried to stop.
But my hands kept going!
“Stop! Stop!” I screamed down at them in horror.
“Faster! Play faster!” Dr Shreek ordered, his eyes wide with excitement, his face bright red. “The hands are alive!”
“No-please!” Stop!” I called down to my hands. “Stop playing!”
But they really were alive. They wouldn’t stop.
My fingers flew over the keys. A crazy tidal wave of notes flooded the family room.
“Faster! Faster!” the instructor ordered.
And despite my frightened cries to stop, my hands gleefully obeyed him, playing on, faster and faster and faster.
Faster and faster, the music swirled around me.
It’s choking me, I thought, gasping for breath. I can’t breathe.

Find me another book where a character is being suffocated by music. This might be the most ridiculous portion of any Goosebumps book that I have re-visited thus far but at least it was entertaining.

Anyway, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder follows the tried-and-tested Goosebumps formula of hooking the reader before devolving into a ludicrous, rushed mess at the very end. I’m sorry to come out and say that but there it is. If you wanted an intricate and masterfully-crafted conclusion that ties up the plot threads of the haunted piano, Dr Shreek’s hand obsession and the sinister rumours surrounding his school, then you’re going to be let down. This isn’t Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you know.

But just in case…

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In the last quarter of the book, we are introduced to Mr Toggle, the caretaker of The Shreek School who also happens to be an inventor, making all kinds of robots and machines…in a piano school.

Jerry then stumbles onto something that neither Toggle nor Shreek wanted him to see: a room full of pianos being played by floating, dismembered hands! It turns out that Toggle really likes beautiful music but, because human hands are apparently so difficult to create artificially, he has to lure promising young talents to the piano school so that he can steal their hands. Oh, and Dr Shreek is a robot, created by Toggle. And the ghost in Jerry’s house? A student of the Shreek school who had her hands taken and – we can only assume – died as a result, as did all of the other missing kids. New Goshen’s police department must either be incredibly inept or incredibly well bribed!

The situation looks bleak for our Jerry but, just before Toggle can harvest his hands too, the ghost from Jerry ‘s house shows up and teams up with the ghosts of all the other murdered kids to swamp Toggle and carry him off screaming into the adjacent woods. Everything I’ve detailed in the last two paragraphs happens in the last ten pages by the way, so there’s all the build up only for another utterly insane Goosebumps resolution to be vomited out at lightspeed.

Overall, I did enjoy Piano Lessons Can Be Murder, regardless of the mental ending. Up until the closing ten to fifteen pages, there is genuine mystery and I didn’t know whether it would be the ghost in Jerry’s house or Dr Shreek that would turn out to be the actual horror. As it happened, it was neither but I’d be lying if I said that the finale was satisfying.

The cover:

This one is pretty cool, even if it does sort-of give away Shreek’s robotic secret. I love the glowing, red Terminator-style eye and the pink/blue colour scheme of the bubbling slime. And, as ever, the artist’s work is incredibly lifelike.

The incredibly dated bit:

A twelve year-old willingly taking piano lessons? This always seemed more of an American thing to me so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and there are still lots of US-based kids who take piano lessons. But just in case, we have another outdated 90’s Nintendo reference in a Goosebumps book to play back-up:

I wondered what Mum and Dad planned to do with all those rooms.
I decided to suggest that one of them be made into a Nintendo room. We could put a widescreen TV in there to play the games on. It would be really great.

The nostalgia rating:

For this one, I’m going to have to say that it’s fairly low. I don’t remember reading Piano Lessons Can Be Murder so it might one of the few Goosebumps books that slipped through my net when I was younger.

Up Next: Be Careful What You Wish For

Why I don’t give a crap about Black Friday

It’s almost (at the time of writing, of course) THAT time of year again. That time when the populance descend on supermarkets and retail shopping parks like lunatics and tear the places apart in their determination to feel smug about “saving” money. I am of course referring to Black Friday, the (now) annual premier shopping ‘event’ on the consumer calendar.

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From what I understand, Black Friday has been around for a long time in America. Here, in the UK, we’ve only had the pleasure of hosting it since 2014. ASDA (our British branch of Walmart) attempted to get a Black Friday thing going in 2013 and this was the last of the low-key efforts before it finally took off the following year. It was (rightfully) criticised as “Americanism” and that’s no offence directed at any of you American-based readers. It’s just that a lot of people over here tend to get a little disgruntled over our culture being overwritten by American traditions, entertainment and celebrities.

(Oh, and woe betide anybody who spells a word the American way when you are based in the UK!)

2014 was the first big year for Black Friday in the UK and it was – in my opinion – a complete embarassment that exposed the very ugliest, mindless and sheep-like behaviour in people. Shoppers got so swept up in trying to grab the bargains before anybody else that police had to be called in to deal with grid-locked traffic and threatening behaviour in stores. There were even assaults! Can you imagine fighting somebody over a cut-price TV? I don’t understand it but I guess there are people out there who don’t even need to imagine the concept…because THEY were involved! It was so bad that ASDA didn’t take part in 2015’s Black Friday sales due to the negative publicity and general chaos that occured in its stores.

The madness was big news in 2014 and you would have hoped that it had ended there but this is the real world (unfortunately) and so Black Friday continued to grow and grow because increasing amounts of money and fatter sales figures were involved. Now we have this big beast of a shopping event that is advertised well in advance and has even become a Black Week for some retailers. You can even get Black Friday deals on non-tangible products such as broadband contracts.

But I’m here to tell you why I simply don’t give a crap about Black Friday and refuse to be swept up in the hysteria and hunting for “bargains”.

Firstly, there is only ONE type of person that actually “wins” during Black Friday: the person who was already in the market for a specific product and waits until Black Friday to secure it at a discount. It’s the person who was already going to buy an item and spend money on it.

All these people who get in their cars, battle for parking spaces, then hit the stores and load up their credit cards with heaps of purchases that they hadn’t previously planned? Congratulations, you’ve lost. You’ve been played like a fiddle by the monstrous marketing machine that sits behinds the scenes, steam belching from its pipes with every bellow of laughter. Because here’s the thing: you haven’t saved ANY money if you buy shit that you weren’t even going to buy before you saw it with a Black Friday sticker slapped on the box. That applies to ALL sales and store reductions during the year. If you score a product with an RRP of £50 for £30, you haven’t saved £20. What you’ve done is spend £30 that you otherwise wouldn’t have. You’re worse off AND you’ve jumped when the big businesses and marketing men have cried “jump!”

Fuck that shit – seriously.

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One for any American readers out there (the Thanksgiving joke doesn’t really translate well here in Britain).

Now, some people might read my view on all this and call me a killjoy or a boring fuck with a superiority complex. That’s fine. Go out and fill up the boot of your car with “deals”. But be prepared to take the credit card bills or shortfall in your available bank balance on the chin when an unexpected expense crops up. “But I have loads of money – I can AFFORD to go big on Black Friday,” I hear another person argue (all of these imaginary voices in my head aren’t healthy). Well, that’s fine too but I hope you’re happy with being the little, predictable bitch of the retailers. I also hope that all the importance that you’re attaching to those hard-fought-for material prizes goods, and all that consumerism that you’re gorging on, isn’t just a diversion – a distraction – from the real problems and challenges in your life. You’d be amazed at how quickly a new TV or iphone loses its sparkly lustre…

When I see the footage of people queuing for miles outside of shops, or crowds of feverish shoppers shoving their way into a store, it just strikes me as embarassing. And the raised aggression has no excuse. So you missed out on the last one; big deal – it’s just the way it is. Don’t lower yourself to clawing at somebody else and trying to rip a product out of their hands. Imagine that the roles were reversed; would YOU want some crazed person launching themselves at YOU and attempting to prise something from your arms? No, I didn’t think so.

I must also spare a thought for the shop workers during Black Friday! I have heard all sorts of stories about verbal and even physical abuse aimed at retail employees because something was out of stock or because the queue to pay was too long. Some of it is simply outrageous – customers acting like rabid, wild animals fighting over the last piece of meat clinging to the bones of a dead beast. People working in shops aren’t paid enough to deal with this shit. They don’t get any sort of bonus or extra pay for enduring abuse. Their job is to serve you at the pay point or fill the shelves. It isn’t to magic-up another batch of cut-price blenders which doesn’t exist, or to magic you to the front of the queue – it’s to perform the same roles that they would on any other given shift, for the same pay. There is absolutely zero excuse for losing your rag with store employees or treating them like second-rate pieces of shit for working a minimum wage job. Shame on the business owners too for facilitating the Black Friday insanity and putting their employees on the front lines where the furious customer is “always right” (they really aren’t).

All of this aside, I really don’t want to chase material gains. Yes, I still buy things but I’ll weigh up whether I actually NEED to buy something and if I do still want it? Then I’ll just buy it anyway, not wait for Black Friday or some other sale.

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[Source]
I see horrific traffic congestion in my town all the time at the local retail shopping park – lines upon lines of stationary cars struggling to squeeze in. Next comes the driving-around-and-around-for-ages-to-find-a-space game which can only end with an aggressive play where a car speeds into a vacated spot before another waiting car can do the same. Horns blare and yummy-mummies (who clearly don’t need to work on a Friday…) tear up the parking zones in bloated SUVs or excessively powerful Range Rovers. Then comes the shopping itself…the crowds, the queues, the being rammed by other people’s trollies…

And this is all on a normal week! Black Friday is even worse. I can only ask myself, “why on earth would anybody put themselves through all of that?”. Even sitting at home, why would I want to spend hours on overloaded websites, trying to snag a cheap videogame or something from a Black Friday sale? As I’ve already said, fuck that shit.

In conclusion, Black Friday is – in my opinion – a really bad thing. If you want to see the very worst of western consumerism and people giving too many fucks about insignificant things, then Black Friday is the time to see those things at their very peak.