Friday 30 September 2016

How Do Fake Facebook Statuses Raise Awareness Of Cancer?!

Okay, okay.  I'm about to rant about something I've ranted about before, so bear with me, folks.  It's just, like all good action sequels, THIS TIME IT'S PERSONAL.

Every now and then, a "game" pops up on Facebook.  The purpose of this "game," is to confuse people by posting a status that is not true.  If someone likes or comments on that status, then HOORAY, you win at life (or something) and you get to send them a message explaining that the status was fake and now they have to post a fake status to see how many people they can drag into the "game."  And guess what, guys?  It's all to raise awareness of breast cancer (or another form of cancer, depending on the month...)!  So, you're never allowed to criticise this "game," despite the fact that it's about as entertaining and useful as filing your nails on a cheese grater and ending up shaving your fingers off.


Last night, a friend posted that she was pregnant.  Being a semi-decent sort of human, I commented to congratulate her.  Within minutes, the dreaded message had arrived in my inbox:

Lol, you shouldn't have commented/ or liked my last status Hahaha! Now you have to pick from one of the below and post it as your status. This is the 2016 Breast Cancer Awareness game. Don't be a spoil sport. Pick your poison from one of these and post it as your status. 1. Just found a squirrel in my car! 2. Just used my kids to get out of a speeding ticket. 3. How do you get rid of foot fungus? 4. All of my bras are missing! 5. I think I just accepted a marriage proposal online?! 6. I've decided to stop wearing underwear. 7. It's confirmed I'm going to be a mommy/daddy. 8. Just won a chance audition on America's got talent! 9. I've been accepted on master chef. 10. I'm getting a pet monkey! Post with no explanations. Sorry, I fell for it too. Looking forward to your post. Ahhh don't ruin it. (Don't let the secret out). And remember it's all for the 2016 Breast Cancer Awareness month.😂

I don't blame the friend in question.  It's not her fault that this ridiculousness has taken off to such a level that it pervades Facebook on an irritatingly regular basis.  She wasn't acting out of malice.  She believed that she was just playing a "game" to "raise awareness."  So, the following rant is not directed at my friend.  

But I hate this "game."  In fact, I have so many issues with it, I don't know where to begin...

Okay, actually, I do.  I'll begin with a question:  How is this raising awareness of breast cancer?  How is this helping cancer research in any way, whatsoever (especially if the damn point is that you have to keep it secret?!)?  I have never, in all my many years of existence, heard a scientist say: "Oh Heavens, no, we don't need money with which to research this disease.  What we really need more of, are cryptic Facebook statuses."

Maybe I'm asking the wrong people...

But seriously, why?  Why is this a "thing?"  

I'm aware of breast cancer.  And the funny thing is, I'm aware of it without having to post that I've just been accepted on bloody MasterChef (or that my bra is purple, or that I "like it in the hallway" or any other status that's part of some "game").  Want to know why?  Because I've known people who've had the disease.  I've known people who've survived it and I've known people - some tragically young - who've died from it.  The funny thing about about watching someone go through the pain and emotional distress of dealing with cancer in any form, is that you become pretty bloody aware that the disease exists.

The most frustrating thing is that social media genuinely is ideal for awareness-raising.  Most of us spend half our lives glued to a computer screen or a phone.  Sites like Facebook are therefore perfect for posting illustrations as to how to check your breasts for lumps, describe symptoms of various cancers that perhaps do need awareness-raising (we all know that a lump can be a sign of breast cancer, for example, but are we all aware of the other possible symptoms?), or to share details of how to donate to Cancer Research (or other cancer charities).  It's an ideal place to create an "event" to actually raise awareness and much-needed financial support - be it through a coffee morning or cake sale (like the ones being undertaken for MacMillan Cancer Support, currently), or a sponsored run etc.

And yet, we choose to "raise awareness" by posting "orange" as our status and then sending nudge-wink messages saying "ooh, quick, post the colour of your knickers, but don't tell any men the reason why - it's to raise awareness of cancer!"  Um... Is it?  How?  And why are we excluding men from the narrative?  Do they not get cancer?  Do they not have mothers, sisters, partners and friends whose potentially cancerous symptoms they should be aware of?  And just how are we raising awareness in the first place, when all we're doing is posting something cryptic or outright false?

Seriously, I'm writing all this stuff when what I actually want to ask is:

Which brings me on to the part where this became personal.

The friend I mentioned earlier has unfriended me from Facebook.  Now, again, this rant is not about her and I am in no way blaming or attacking her.  But I do want to talk about the reason for this unfriending.

If you've been paying attention, you'll have noticed that this whole thing started off with a fake pregnancy announcement.  Yes, one of the false statements you can put up on your Facebook page as part of this hilarious "game," that really does make us all so much more aware of cancer (I feel like my sarcasm is showing a tad), is that you're pregnant.

I'm 34.  I always expected to be married with kids by now.  The fact that that hasn't happened is unbearably upsetting at times and I have written about the ache of childlessness on my blog, before.  I also have friends who cannot have children for various reasons and I know the pain they suffer as a result, too.  For those reasons, I would never, ever write that I was pregnant on social media, only to reveal that it was a "joke."

Now, the friend in question posted earlier today that she was angry with people who'd apparently contacted her to tell her that a fake pregnancy announcement might be deemed insensitive to those who are trying and failing to get pregnant, those who can't get pregnant, or those who worry they'll never get the chance.  Said friend was furious that people didn't get the "joke" and highlighted that the status was "to raise awareness of breast cancer."


Only a few weeks ago, I received news of the death of an old friend, from breast cancer.  We hadn't spoken in years, but the news shocked and upset me more than anything I'd heard in a long while.  No amount of statuses saying "it's confirmed, I'm going to be a mummy" would have saved that woman, who was far, far too young to die.  No amount of "I like it on the kitchen table" would have created a greater amount of awareness of the dreadful disease that killed her.  Cryptically writing "red" as a Facebook status and messaging women, imploring that they "don't tell any men" would not have raised the cash needed to increase research into finding the elusive cure for cancer.

So, I say again:

Of course, when my friend posted her annoyance at being moaned at as a result of her "I'm pregnant - actually no I'm not" status update(s), several people piped up to groan about how others needed to lighten up and stop being so sensitive.

The trouble is, when it comes to realising how our words can impact on others, being less sensitive is the very last thing we should be doing.

Then came the "oh my GOD, it's just a GAME!" responses.

In which case, you know what?  Keep it at that.  Don't make out that it has anything to do with raising awareness of cancer.  Because hiding behind the excuse of "but pretending I was pregnant and getting dozens of congratulatory messages from friends and family was all to raise awareness of this dreadful disease" just feels really, really grim.  And I would say that whoever made the "joke" or played the "game" - friend or not.  I've said it to the friend in question (and got myself removed from her friends list as a result) and I'm saying it here, in public:

Cancer isn't a game.  If you genuinely want to raise awareness, Google the symptoms of cancer and share them on your Facebook wall.  Write about it, scream about it from the rooftops if you so choose.  If you want to support Cancer Research, hold a fundraising event, or take part in one of the many sponsored events that take place every year.

The message you automatically receive if you "like" or comment on a status posted by someone playing one of these "games" tells you that you're a "spoilsport" if you don't join in.  Well, maybe I am.  But until you can prove to me that sharing these statuses is seriously doing anything to really raise awareness of cancer, or to help those suffering with the disease, it's a label I'm going to continue to wear.

Thursday 29 September 2016

The Art of Constructive Criticism

Yesterday, I had a lengthy chat with a friend, on the subject of criticism.  It was one of those "lightbulb moments," during which I suddenly realised that I have big thoughts on this particular topic.  Thoughts that, seeing as I'm armed with a blog and a free half-hour, I would like to share...

Criticism is a part of life.  It's something we all need to get used to and I genuinely believe that criticism is necessary.  You don't learn anything if you're constantly told that you're great, after all.  You can't grow as a person, or improve on a skill if it's never suggested to you that you might need to.

So, I am pro-criticism, on the whole.  I think it's not only important, but, done properly, it's kinder to criticise than not to.  Before you wonder whether I've gone all hard and am advocating knocking down your loved ones, consider a child whose parents don't believe in criticism.  Imagine that kid, spending his or her earliest years being constantly told that their behaviour is 100% perfect and that their way of doing things is definitely the right way.  Imagine the shock that child will get when they enter the real world and realise that not everyone will agree with their opinions, or with the way they choose to operate.  Isn't it better to prepare the people we love - whatever their age - for the fact that they aren't perfect (none of us are) and that some people are going to disagree with them?!

Equally, if someone wants to learn and improve on a skill, they need to be told when they're going wrong.  You need only watch The X Factor or similar talent shows, to see the contestants who've probably either never been told that they need to improve their technique, or who've heard criticism and chosen to ignore it (and that's a whole other blog post, right there...).  

This gif applies in so many ways.

The way those wannabe singers crumple when finally faced with someone willing to criticise their vocal abilities, is one of the biggest reasons I can't stand watching shows like The X Factor.  Is it really kinder to keep telling someone they're brilliant at something when they're not, only to eventually see them humiliated on TV for "entertainment," or should we have been honest in the first place?!

So, sure.  I am on board the criticism train.  Choo-choo.

But, as my friend and I agreed yesterday, that criticism has to be constructive.  

As the good Doctor rightfully says in the gif above, it's easy to criticise.  But that means it's easy - really, really easy - to get it wrong when we do.

What criticism should be about is helping a person to improve on something.  Whether it's encouraging them to practise more at a skill, or actually suggesting a way to become a better person entirely, criticism should be about building on something.  NOT merely knocking something down.

Sure, there are times when a person needs to be told that they're acting like an idiot.  There are times when a person's behaviour is dangerous to others and has to be stopped.  That's a step beyond mere "criticism."  When I say "criticism," I'm talking about commenting on a person's casual behaviour, skills in a specific area, work output or creative endeavours.

Note: I didn't say anything about their appearance.  If you're just going "hey, you look fat in that," you're not a critic.  You're a bully.  If you're asked for an opinion on an outfit, think long and hard about the tactful response.  And if you're not asked for your view on how someone else chooses to dress or present themselves, don't assume a person wants to hear it.  Aaaanyway...

Look, a cute dog, to make us all feel better!

For me, constructive criticism is about building, not tearing down.  It's not about listing the ways in which a person is rubbish at something, or deciding you have carte blanche to be as tactless as you like, just because someone has asked for your view.

In my day job, I work at a place with a rule when it comes to positive-negative feedback ratio.  It is always a minimum of 2:1 in favour of positivity.  It's "I love what you've done with X, and Y is fantastic, but you need to work on Z."

It's not about pandering to those who've never been given a word of negative feedback in their lives, nor is it about protecting the fragile egos of those who believe themselves to be better than everyone else.  It's about ensuring that constructive criticism does its job: it constructs.  It builds a person up and encourages them to improve.

Take me as an example.  I am extraordinarily sensitive.  I know this and I'm aware that it can be a fault at times.  I'm fully aware that sometimes, someone can give me relatively reasonable criticism and I respond by brooding on it, weeping dramatically to myself and declaring that I am rubbish and awful at everything.  I know.  I'm working on it.

Me, receiving criticism...

Because I know of my own ridiculousness, I think very hard about the way I critique anyone else.  I make sure I stick to that 2:1 positivity ratio.

Think of it like building a house.  You can't expect to build walls and, in time, a roof, if you're trying to lay foundations on a swamp.  It's going to sink into nothingness.  The base has to be solid enough to build on, before anything good can come from it.  Criticising someone too aggressively, or even needlessly, leads them to try to build their house on a swamp.  There's nothing solid for them to construct on.  But, if you offer them some positives along with the negatives, they know they have a solid foundation.  They just have to build on it, in order to create something better.

One other way of ensuring that criticism is well-received and constructive is, in my book at least, to be sure it's wanted.  If someone asks you for your opinion on something they've cooked, made or done, then adding a carefully worded criticism is all well and good.  If you're just saying to people "you did this and it's rubbish," or "I don't like the thing you made," it's going to be much less welcomed.  

Obviously, we're all entitled to our opinions and nobody should feel that they can't say anything about something they actively dislike, lest they offend someone (for example, if someone makes you dinner and it's inedible, you're under no obligation to say nothing and just risk food poisoning), but we need to consider the way we word our criticisms, especially if they're given without being asked for our opinions in the first place.  We're entitled to say "I'm not keen on this," but we should always be aware of the feelings of the person we're saying it to.  Again, it's not about pandering.  It's just about consideration.  

It's also important to remember that criticism is different to actively having to tell someone that they've done something massively wrong.  As I mentioned earlier, if someone has put others in danger, or made a catastrophic error, no amount of positives to negatives can help.  You've just got to tell them.

But if someone asks you for an opinion, think about how you go about responding.  And if they don't ask at all - and their activity isn't hurting themselves or anyone else, or leading them into a situation where a total lack of criticism could cause one heck of a rude-awakening - remember that sometimes it's easier for everyone if you just smile and nod.

In short, I believe that criticism can be a powerful tool for good.  It can help us to grow and improve as people and in the skills we choose to pursue.  But I also believe that criticism has the power to cause harm as well as good, and therefore, when we give it, we need to try to reinforce the positives of the situation.  That way, we - and others - can use criticism as a base to build on, rather than as a swamp to sink into.

Feel free to critique this blog.  Just... Do it in a positive way, okay? ;-)

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Bedtime Story (28/9/2016)

I've always thought it would be funny to  write a story about a little boy who hates bath time... Until he discovers his mum's secret stash of luxurious bath time treats!  So, this story is end result of that thought.  It's also available to listen to as a podcast!

Bertie's Bath Time!

"I will NOT get in the bath!"  Bertie yelled at his mum.
"I like being dirty and washing is just dumb.
Anyway, baths are boring - there's nothing fun to do.
You just sit there getting wet, staring at the loo!"

Mum rolled her eyes and shook her head at Bertie.
"You HAVE to wash.  You can't just stay all dirty!
Besides, I'm the boss," she added, closing the bathroom door.
"Because I'm thirty two and you've only just turned four."

So, Bertie had to take his clothes off and climb into the tub.
He gave his mum an angry glance as he slipped into the suds.
He didn't take his bath toys in, he didn't feel like playing.
Besides, he hated bath time, so he didn't plan on staying.

"There, I'm clean," Bertie said, five seconds after hitting the water.
Then he spied the posh body butter Mum's sister Cath had bought her.
"Body butter?" Bertie frowned.  "Are you meant to eat it?"
He stuck his finger in and sniffed: "Eurgh, no thanks, you can keep it!"

His tired mother rolled her eyes.  "Come on, let's wash your hair."
She grabbed shampoo and sighed at him. "Then you can get out of there."
But Bertie, to his great surprise, had started having fun.
He wasn't ready yet, for his bath time to be done.

He dropped a little body butter onto his bare tummy.
"I thought I'd test it," he told Mum. "Even though it smells all funny."
He rubbed the butter into his skin and it felt all smooth and soft.
"I like that," Bertie declared, as he held the tub aloft.

"What else have you got in here?" He asked, looking all around.
Something soon took Bertie's eye - something glistening and round.
"What are these things?" He asked Mum, taking one out of the pot.
"Bath pearls," Mum replied.  "And Bertie... Could you not?!

If you squeeze them too hard, then they'll burst. I can't use them, then!
So, now you've had a look at them, please put them back again."
But Bertie wanted to see one pop, so he gave the pearl a squeeze.
Bright purple gel came spurting out and trickled down onto his knees.

"This is fun," Bertie declared, as poor Mum shook her head.
"I don't want my soap and things!  I'll use all yours, instead!"
He took a bath bomb from the shelf and dropped it in the tub.
And whilst it fizzed and whizzed about, he tried some body scrub.

"This feels all bumpy on my skin," Bertie laughed, as he scrubbed himself.
"Why do you keep all the good stuff way up on that high shelf?!"
Mum frowned and tutted at her son.  "Because that stuff is mine!
I like to have a relaxing bath and a nice bit of 'Me Time.'"

"Well, it's Bertie Time," Bertie said, sprinkling glitter into the bath.
"And I smell lovely and I'm sparkly and more relaxed by half!"
Mum didn't look quite so chilled, as Bertie found a face pack.
"Bertie, you don't need use that," she said. "Please put it back!"

But the packet had already been opened, in Bertie's eager haste.
And he was busy smearing the contents all over his young face.
"Do I look like a monster?" Bertie asked, letting out a roar.
"Yes," Mum said. "Now wash it off, and don't open anything more."

"Shall we light the scented candles?" Bertie asked, ignoring Mum's pleas.
"This one smells of oranges.  And that one smells like trees!"
Mum shook her head.  "No candles!  It's time you got out, now."
Yet, Bertie had decided to extend his bath time.  He just had to decide how.

"I need more bubbles," Bertie explained, tipping a bottle out.
Bertie's mum was horrified, but had no energy left to shout.
"You were right, Mum," Bertie said.  "Bath times are so relaxing!
I just need more stuff from the shelf.  Bath salts are what I'm lacking!"

And so, Bertie tipped in the bath salts and the water fizzed once more.
And the bubbles began to overflow and drip onto the floor.
But all the while, Bertie sighed, grabbing Mum's bath pillow.
"I think I'll stay in here for hours," he cooed, as bath steam began to billow.

"I'm just so chilled out," Bertie smiled, as he lay back in the bath.
Mum stared at the mess of the bathroom, as though she might go on the war-path.
And then, as Bertie gazed at her, looking awfully smug,
Mum reached into the water and she pulled out the plug.

"My bath!"  Bertie yelled.  "I was feeling so relaxed!"
But Mum's face was a picture of pent-up stress and angst.
"Oh, Mum," Bertie said, struggling to contain a laugh.
"You know what you need?  A nice, hot bubble bath."


Saturday 24 September 2016

Stop Excusing Hurtful Behaviour!

I recently read an article online (I'd link to it, but it made me rage-quit the Internet, without copying the page address), the gist of which was basically "everyone who behaves badly has a reason for their behaviour and we should be considerate and support them through it."

Now, that's a nice idea on the surface, perhaps, but this article was using bullying as their starting point.  It was suggesting that all bullies act the way they do because they're suffering some kind of great pain, or living with issues that they don't know how to deal with.  The unspoken message was that we should excuse bullies, because they only act badly because they're going through their own trauma.

And excuse me, but...

I've written here about my experiences of being bullied on the school bus and so this is a deeply personal subject for me.  I don't doubt that the people who made my life a living Hell were acting out because they had issues going on in their lives.  I'd like to think that no emotionally healthy person would ever spit at someone, or urge them to kill themselves, or tell them they're so ugly they don't deserve any form of love.  It's easier for me to believe that they were battling their own demons and that their behaviour came from a dark and unhappy place.  Otherwise I'm left with the knowledge that they simply took genuine enjoyment from pushing a twelve year old girl to a suicide attempt, and frankly, that's too evil to contemplate.

So, sure.  I'll go along with the "bullies act badly because they're going through their own crap" line.  

But it's not an excuse.  

I'm not going to sigh and shrug my shoulders, absolving abusive people of any responsibility (and bullying is a form of abuse, after all).  We all go through things in our lives that shape us and which sometimes cause huge emotional disturbances, but it's up to us how we deal with them.  We have to make a choice about the kind of person we want to be, regardless of what's happened to us in our history, or what's happening to us right now.  Sure, there are situations, illnesses and moments of emotional stress that cause us to lash out and snap at someone, or behave selfishly, or otherwise hurt someone's feelings.  But when that happens, it's up to us to recognise our own behaviour, apologise for it and make amends.  That is, if we choose to.

The thing with using any kind of personal trauma - be it illness (mental or physical), or just going through a really crappy time - as an excuse for bad behaviour is that a) it doesn't make it okay for a person to repeatedly behave badly without any kind of remorse and b) it assumes that becoming a lousy person is just the natural response to trauma.  Which is rubbish.

When I was being bullied, I was subjected to disgusting behaviour which caused me to fall into a deep depression, during which I lost all of my self-confidence.  Years later, I was still in a spiral of self-hatred and regularly dragged the pins from the badges I liked to stick on my bag, across my arms, leaving bumpy red scars, because I felt worthless and needed to feel a pain that was physical, rather than emotional.  

Regardless of what personal trauma my bullies had endured, I was now traumatised as a result of the way they treated me.  The difference between us is that I made the choice to try to never hurt another person the way they had hurt me.  And frankly, had I decided to become a bully myself, I wouldn't have deserved to be excused for it, because I was well aware of what it felt like to be on the receiving end; I would have had no excuse whatsoever for doling out that kind of abuse onto another person.

Fast forward into my twenties and I ended up in a relationship with a man who abused me.  And guess what?  He blamed his past traumas for his behaviour.  He expected me to swallow it as an excuse and, for a long time, I did just that.  But the truth is, whatever sadness was in his past, no matter what hurt he had experienced, he still made a choice to abuse me.  It wasn't inevitable.  And there isn't an excuse.

I have had enough of hearing reasons why we should excuse people when they behave in a manner that is selfish, inconsiderate or downright hurtful.

Yes, we should feel sympathy for a person who has experienced something sad or traumatic.  Yes, we should try to understand that there are certain circumstances in which a person may be under such stress that they snap and say something cruel, or behave selfishly; we should make some allowances for that, because frankly, if we didn't, then we could never expect anyone to make allowances for our own mistakes and let's face it, none of us are perfect.

But those allowances only stretch so far.  If a person is overly critical or cruel towards us and expects us just to take it because they have "issues," we're allowed to say "no, that's not okay."  If it's not just a one-off mistake which the person apologises for, but a prolonged catalogue of hurtful behaviour that said person seems to think they're entitled to exhibit, we are allowed to stand up to it.

Nothing - and I really do mean nothing - gives a person the right to treat people badly and yet be consistently "let off."  We all have to take responsibility for our actions and own up to our mistakes.  

We may not have a choice about the demons from our past that have shaped our character.  But we do have a choice as to the way we treat others.

Let's make the right one.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Bedtime Story (21/9/2016)

If there's anything blatantly obvious about me, it's that I am frustrated diva without a stage.  I will sing at literally ANY given opportunity and some of my best days out with friends involve trips to a private karaoke booth, where I can warble to my heart's content.  So, it feels appropriate to write a story all about singing!

Here is the podcast link f

Keep A Song In Your Pocket

Shelly was always singing.  She sang in the shower, she warbled on the way to school and she hummed whilst doing her homework.  It drove her parents up the wall!

"Just sing a little quieter," Dad would plead, as he tried to watch TV.

"Do you know any other songs?" Mum would ask, after Shelly had sung a particular favourite five times in a row.

And: "Go away and sing somewhere else!"  Shelly's older brother, Sid, would snap, whenever he got tired of her constant tunes.

But Shelly just couldn't stop.  She loved to sing more than anything else in the world.  It made her feel happy!  And not only that, but it helped her with all the other feelings she had, too.  When Shelly was angry, she'd sing a loud song, playing air guitar along with herself.  When she was tired, she'd sing soft, gentle songs to soothe her as she drifted off to sleep.  And when she was sad, she'd either sing a bright, cheerful song to lift her mood, or, if she felt like it, she'd sing a slow, sad song and wallow for a little while...  There was a song for literally every occasion!

One day, Dad announced that the family were going to visit Shelly's Granny.  She lived quite far away, so it would mean a long car journey.  Shelly sang an excited-sort-of-song as she packed her bags.  Shelly didn't see her Granny very often, so she was in a very bubbly mood, by the time she climbed into the back of Dad's car.

Unfortunately, ten minutes into the journey, it became obvious that her parents and brother were in different moods.

"Shelly, you sing very well and I'm glad you're happy, but maybe we could have a bit of quiet for a while?"  Mum suggested.

"I need to be able to hear the traffic announcements," Dad added.

"You're making my ears hurt!"  Sid groaned.

Shelly bit her lip and stared down at her lap.  She wasn't trying to annoy anyone.  She was only singing because she was happy, after all!  Soon, Shelly closed her eyes and tried to sing quietly in her head.  It wasn't the same, though, and by the time they arrived at Granny's, Shelly's happy mood had gone.

Granny gave Shelly a big hug and everyone had a slice of homemade carrot cake.  Mum and Dad told Granny all of their news from home and Sid went out to play in the garden, with Granny's dog, Joe.  But Shelly was very quiet.  She sat in the corner, twiddling her thumbs.  She stayed quiet all through dinner and even when she went up to bed, Shelly only spoke to say "goodnight."

Shelly was just snuggling down under the covers, when the bedroom door creaked open.  Shelly was sharing the spare room with Sid, but he was still in the bathroom cleaning his teeth.  Shelly sat up and glanced at the door.  "Hello?"

Granny smiled at her, as she wandered into the room, walking between the two little beds and sitting on the edge of Shelly's.  "Now," she said, in a firm, but kind voice.  "You don't seem at all happy and I'd like to know what's wrong?"

Shelly let out a huff of air.  "Oh, it's nothing," she moaned.  "I'm just annoying, that's all."

"Annoying?"  Granny exclaimed.  "You're far from it!  Whatever could you do to annoy anyone?"

Shelly shrugged.  "I sing," she said.  "A lot."

"How is that annoying?"  Granny frowned.  "I love to sing!  I sing all the time!"

Shelly gasped.  "You do?!"

"Of course," Granny smiled.  "Music has power, Shelly.  A song can protect you when you feel afraid or alone.  It can bring back memories, make you smile, make you cry... Songs can even teach you things you never knew.  Never let go of the songs in your heart, Shelly.  You carry on singing them.  Sing them to the whole world!"

Shelly beamed at her Granny.  "Really?  Because Sid's always telling me not to be so noisy..."

Granny tutted.  "He's at a funny age, that's all," she said.  "And maybe he just thinks you need to go and learn some new songs and sing them in a place especially for singing."

"I wish there was a place especially for singing," Shelly sighed.  "Maybe then I wouldn't get into trouble all the time..."

Granny grinned.  "Tomorrow, I'm going to take you to my choir," she said.  "We meet once a week and we sing songs and sometimes, we even give special performances on stage!  I think you'll love it."

And Granny was right.  The next day, Shelly went with her to choir practise and discovered that the choir was made up of all sorts of people - young and old - all with one special thing in common:  they loved to sing.  Shelly spent the day singing her heart out and she loved every second.  

As soon as Shelly and her family got home from their visit to Granny's, Shelly went to find out whether her school had a choir that she could join.  And when she realised that it did, she was over the moon.

From that day onwards, Shelly never lost her love of singing ever again.  She learnt all kinds of new songs, made lots of new friends and felt happier than she ever had, before.  She finally had a special place to sing her songs.  And even Sid had to agree, it was nice to hear her crooning away, once more. 

Well... Most of the time.


Sunday 18 September 2016

Can I Survive 24 Hours Without The Internet?!

I'm writing this blog using the Internet.  Once it's posted, I'm hoping other people will visit my page in order to read it online.  And, once this is finished and I'm free to go about my business, I have no doubt that I'll decide to go off and check out what's happening on Facebook or Twitter.  Perhaps I'll have a look at my YouTube channel.  Maybe I'll check my emails.  The point is, I'm likely to be online.

I am a teensy-tiny bit obsessed by the Internet.  By which I mean: I LOVE IT, PLEASE NEVER TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME.

The thing is, I like to occasionally step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself.  And so, I started wondering if maybe, just maybe, I was spending too much time online and whether I would actually be able to avoid all use of the Internet for 24 hours.  Now, 24 hours doesn't sound all that long.  But I'm someone who wakes up in the morning and immediately goes online.

So, on Tuesday at 7:50pm, I tweeted my followers to say that I would be gone from the Internet for 24 hours.  I put the same message out on Facebook (because I figured, the more people that saw it, the more people there were to furiously berate me if I was spotted on social media before 8pm on Wednesday - which I decided would be the time I was allowed back online).

The very first thing I noticed, once my phone was face-down on the table (so as not to tempt me), was how restless my hands felt.

Seriously, I am so used to my phone being either in my hand, or within easy reach, I didn't know what to do with myself.  I twiddled my thumbs.  I picked off my nail varnish.  I thought back to the days when a mobile phone was literally just a device used to call or possibly text someone else and I had a brief, but wonderous "the world has come so far..." moment.  Then, I remembered that we still live in a world in which we allow Katie Hopkins a platform to air her vile views and where Donald Trump might actually become President of the USA, and then I felt sad and the earlier moment was lost...

I needed cute gifs of puppies, in order to cheer me up.  I needed to go on YouTube for some medicinal Dan and Phil videos.  Instead, thankfully, I was able to spend a couple of hours playing Articulate! with my mum, sister and sister-in-law.  Unfortunately, during said games, my sister spoke at length about the new iPhone update she'd just downloaded and all the cool features it entailed.  I couldn't update my operating system, what with needing to be connected to the Internet in order to do so, so I did what all mature adults would do in that situation: I got mildly tipsy on my sister-in-law's very strong mojitos and kicked my sister's butt in a game of Cards Against Humanity.

Turns out, you don't need the Internet in order to make sick jokes.  

As the first minutes without the Internet turned into the first hours, something became very apparent:  I use the Internet for more things than I ever realised, before.

By the time I went to bed on Tuesday night, I had had to restrain myself from:

  • Checking the weather app on my phone, to see what the forecast was for the following day.
  • Googling several different things out of curiosity.
  • Downloading the latest software update for my phone.
  • Finding a recipe for a cocktail, online.
  • Opening and reading the Facebook messages I'd had.
  • Checking my bank balance via my online banking app.
  • Booking a restaurant online, or at the very least, checking the menu.

On an average day, I would do any of those things without giving them so much as a second thought.  They're just part of the fabric of my life, now.  We have access to shopping, banking and socialising in our pockets.  How crazy is that?!  We have the answers to millions of questions, right there at our fingertips.  And I take those things for granted every single day.  Realising that fact made me feel incredibly ungrateful, especially in a world in which there are plenty of places where people don't have access not only to the Internet, but to safe, clean running water, for goodness sake.  Feeling even slightly deprived because I had chosen to go without the Internet for 24 hours was one HELL of a case of that awful phrase: First World Problems.

By the following day, I was feeling strangely liberated.  I am one of those people who has to answer text messages the second I get them (or at least, the second I know about them if I've been away from my phone or I miss the alert tone).  I'm exactly the same with social media messages or comments, so whilst it was frustrating to see the numbers go up on those little alert bubbles that appear on your phone next to various apps, there was a weirdly pleasant sense of me-time associated with not clicking on any of them.  As though I wanted to say: "No, Internet, we are on a break.  Stop trying to contact me."

Admittedly, by late afternoon/early evening, it was feeling slightly less liberating and more like seeing a pile of Christmas presents under the tree and knowing you have to wait for what feels like an eternity before you get to open any of them...  Who knew junk mail could be so exciting?!

But I was starting to realise that I miss things, by being glued to the Internet all the time.  I watched the news without glancing down to read a funny tweet.  I sat and chatted to my parents, without being distracted by any Facebook messages.  I ate a meal and felt no compulsion to take a photo of it and upload it to Instagram.  Without the distraction of being able to rush to Google to ponder various weird questions, or the ability to lose myself in a succession of hilarious Tumblr posts, I was free to engage more in real life.  It made me realise that maybe I do need to switch off now and again and remember that I don't have to kill a spare hour by going online.  I can just as easily listen to music, read a book or go for a walk.

That said, once 6pm arrived, I had realised why I also need the Internet.  After all, every Wednesday at 6pm, a brand new bedtime story for children goes live here on my blog (check out the full list of previous stories here).  And therefore, every Wednesday at shortly after 6pm, I'm supposed to market said stories, by posting the links on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and anywhere else I think might help increase my readership.  Without access to the Internet, it dawned on me that I had no way of spreading the word about my stories.  I had created something and there was no way to encourage people to go and look at it.

And that got me to thinking about the fact that I was also vlogging my 24 hours without the Internet, for my YouTube channel.  

The Internet has given me the opportunity to create a space where I can publish my writing for other people to read.   I can publish entire books on Amazon.  I can make videos and post them online for anyone to watch and - hopefully - enjoy.  The Internet has given me the chance to unlock my creative potential in ways that I don't have in my offline life.  I could still be writing, making videos or coming up with stories for children without the Internet, but being able to share all of those things online allows me to feel as though my creativity has a purpose.  It's being viewed and read by people I've never even met in my life.

To me, that's pretty amazing.

So, by the time 8pm rolled around and I could open up the browser on my laptop once more (and finally click all those notification bubbles on my phone...), I had slotted the Internet into a slightly different place in my affections.  I need it, for a variety of reasons.  I want it, because it's still an excellent boredom-killer, a brilliant way of staying in touch with people and a fantastic method of making life that bit easier.  

But I can live without it.  I can do other things, rather than hunch over my phone and scroll mindlessly through Twitter for hours at a time.  If I needed to, I could give up the Internet for another 24 hours.  Maybe even longer.

Just, you know... Don't make me.

Click here to watch my 24 hours without the Internet vlog!

Friday 16 September 2016

Fifty Shades Darker: Trailer Analysis

So, the time has come again, folks.  The second Fifty Shades movie is due out next February and the first trailer has appeared, sending fans into a frenzy.  Depressingly, it would seem that not even the ghastly inner workings of Christian's mind, as featured in Grey (the book retold from Christian's perspective) has put the most hardcore Fifty Shades fans off.  The trailer for Fifty Shades Darker was watched 114million times in the first 24 hours of its release.  
Speaking as a survivor of a man frighteningly similar to Christian Grey (and as a hater of all things Fifty Shades related), the task has fallen to me to analyse the ...Darker trailer.  Yaaaaay.

Pictured: ME.


So, the trailer begins with plinky-plonky dramatic piano music.  We see Grey wistfully standing by a large expanse of water, watching fireworks.  

So broody.  Much millionnaire. Wow.

Sadly, nobody comes to push him into said water, so we see a title card with the words "This Valentine's Day" flash up on screen, instead.  

Let me just take a moment - literally five seconds in - to moan:


Let's get one thing clear, shall we?  There are certain things that have no place being associated with a healthy relationship:
  • Stalking
  • Threats
  • Coercion/ignored lack of consent
  • Manipulation
  • Unwanted and obsessive levels of control

Grey does all of these things.  Now, I may be a terminally single person who views Valentine's Day as a commercialised beast, but essentially, it's supposed to be a day to celebrate love, romance and healthy relationships.  Fifty Shades has no place being mentioned alongside those things.

Okay, back to it...

We see Grey handing Ana a present, followed by another card, telling us:

Ahahahahahaaaaa.  No.  

Seriously, trailer??!!  Forget the past???!!!!  Which part would you like us to forget?  The bit where your "hero" took an unconscious woman back to his hotel room, undressed her and lay in bed next to her, without her consent?  The part where he stalks that same woman when she asks him for space?  The moment the "hero" beats that same woman with a belt, not stopping, despite her very obvious distress?  The fact that the author of this horror story has ignored and blocked abuse survivors and charities, whenever they point out the dangers of romanticising a man like this?  The plagiarism of Stephanie Meyer's work?  We have a lot of history, trailer.  You're going to need to be much more specific...

I feel the need to point out that we're only nine seconds in and I already feel the beginnings of a rage headache.

I'm going to need to numb the pain.

We then see Christian putting on a masquerade mask and the title cards tell us to "slip into something a shade darker."

Quite frankly, the only thing I'm in any danger of slipping into is a coma from lack of arousal, but okay, trailer.  Whatever you say.

We see a box being opened (presumably the present we saw, earlier), to reveal masquarade masks.  Christian asks Ana if she's intrigued and puts the mask on her.  We're then treated to a shot of the pair in fancy clothes, attending the masquerade ball from the book.  I think we're meant to find Christian incredibly hot in his tux and mask, but I'm not going to lie to you, dear readers, I thought he looked hilarious.  

Is he going to rob the house?!  

The music, by the way, is yet another version of Crazy In Love (you know, like in the first film...), because if there's one thing EL James has proved beyond doubt with her desperate re-writing of books she's already stolen written, it's that she just loves to flog dead horses.

After some dramatic shots of Christian and Ana doing twirly dances at the ball, we see Ana discovering a bouquet of flowers from Christian and we hear his voice-over telling her: "I want you back.  I had no idea what this was going to become."

You mean a relationship in which you abuse her, Christian?  Because I totally saw that coming.  You lack foresight, my friend.

Anyway, Ana looks super happy with her flowers and not at all freaked out or intimidated by Christian's attention, what with having dumped him in the last book/film for being "one f*cked up son of a bitch":

"Ooh, goodie!  My stalker still loves me!"

Ana replies in voice-over: "I don't see how this can work."  And I, watching this trailer whilst wishing I was doing literally anything else, scream at my computer screen: "THEN RUN FAR AWAY AND NEVER RETURN, AS IF YOU ARE SIMBA FROM THE LION KING."

Oh, you have no idea how much I would rather be watching The Lion King...

Cut to Ana walking through Jose's photo exhibition, looking all sad, wistful and, if you ask me, mildly terrified.  It appears that she has every right to be, because when she turns around, Christian is staring at her like this:

Not at all looking like he's going to kill her, or anything.

And Ana, as you would, if you turned around and saw the ex you recently dumped staring at you in a mega creepy fashion, is delighted:

The ROMANCE is palpable.

I genuinely can't decide whether this is a case of bad acting, bad chemistry or bad source material (well, the source material is atrocious, but you know...), but if I was watching this with literally no clue what happens in this series, I would be thinking I was watching the trailer for a psychological thriller about a guy who refuses to let a woman go.

Which is exactly what it is.

There's then a scene of Ana in her fetching silver dress from the ball, asking an admiring Christian whether he's just going to "stand there, gawking," to which he answers: "yes."  

We're then treated to the sight of Christian and Ana pushed up against the wall of the shower, with the water running, eating one another's faces.  I think this is meant to show us how passionate their relationship is, and that Ana wants him just as much as he wants her, but thanks to the creepy thriller vibes we've had so far, I'm now just convinced that the victim in this psychological thriller is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

After some more hot, sexy scenes (I would describe them in more detail, but I was really busy, attending to a chipped nail, which was more interesting), we hear Ana say: "This time, no rules.  No punishments," then we see the happy couple on a boat.  Because, see, they're a healthy, normal pair of lovebirds.  Or something.

Push him in, Ana.  Please.  Do it for me.

We hear Ana's voice-over continue: "And... No more secrets."  Then, of course, we see the couple all tucked up in bed, only for Leila to appear ominously watching them.

Now, Leila was a character who was handled appallingly badly in the books (for a start, she was made to talk like Gollum from Lord of The Rings) and it'll be interesting to see how she's treated in the films.  Let's face it, it can't get much worse, can it?  I mean, in the books, we see how much research EL James did on the subject of mental health and the treatment thereof (none) and how much compassion she's prepared to show towards a character with severe mental health issues (very, very little), so I can only hope that if this film gets just one thing right, it treats Leila better than the books ever did.

Here's hoping.

Then, because this film doesn't seem enough like it's not even in the same postcode as a "LOVE story," we're given a glimpse of Ana being attacked by Jack Hyde.  It's always intrigued me that a man who thinks of women as property and who isn't overly bothered by freely-given, enthusiastic consent as long as he gets what he wants, is rightly treated as a "bad guy," in the same franchise as a man who thinks of women as property and who isn't overly bothered by freely-given, enthusiastic consent as long as he gets what he wants, is treated as the "hero."  Jack and Christian are not that different.  They're both psychopathic abusers.  It's just that one has good looks, money and enough manipulative charm to get under our heroine's skin.  If this was written intentionally - if this were a thriller - I'd be heaping praise on EL James for this clever writing tactic that speaks volumes about our often-shallow society, but it's not written that way.  We're supposed to hate Jack and love Christian.  Who, in case you've forgotten, conveniently victim-blames Ana when he hears about her attack and decides not to get the police involved.  Swoon.

Anyway, the attack is suitably chilling, although I won't lie, it took me several watches to realise that this wasn't Christian, because forcibly stopping Ana from leaving just feels like something he'd do.

You know I'm right.

Because this film is looking likely to be as awful as the books by this point, we gloss over this assault of Ana, in favour of a return to the masquerade ball, at which we are treated to our first glimpse of the child molestor "Mrs Robinson."

I don't know if I'm just going slightly insane from boredom/depression, but I honestly thought she was Jennifer Saunders and I briefly got excited at the idea that this was about to become a comedy.

If there's one thing this film is lacking, it's the ability to be ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.

We don't have any further chance to meet this character, however, because we have the very serious business of Ana discovering Grey's grotesque invasion of her privacy, in the form of the dosier he had compiled on her when they met.  It includes photos taken without her consent, which, you know, I'm just saying: Jack Hyde and Christian Grey = NOT SO DIFFERENT.  Ana, once again, looks overjoyed to discover that her sort-of-boyfriend knew her bank details, address, family addresses and various other personal information, without her ever having provided it.  Because this is the height of romance, guys.

"So, er, you're re-dumped." - Fifty Shades if I wrote the script.

After some images of Ana running away (which I like to imagine were shots of her taking my earlier advice...), we see Leila confronting Ana at home, asking: "Do you think you're the first woman who's tried to save him?"

You know what, guys?  This isn't even funny, anymore.  In this scene, we're being shown a woman with enormous psychological trauma (CAUSED BY THE DAMN "HERO" WE'RE SUPPOSED TO BE WETTING OURSELVES OVER) telling the new partner of the man who emotionally broke her that others have been in this position and gotten hurt in the process.  And although the trailer is ambiguous as to what Ana thinks at this moment, those of us who've read the books (because HI FANS, I'VE READ THE DAMN BOOKS YOU ACCUSE ME OF NOT READING) know that Ana sticks by her beloved Christian and cures him, because she is oh, so perfect and magical and we should all wish to be more like her.

Which is bull.

This is it, right here: THIS is why I hate, loathe and despise this franchise more than I have ever hated any work of fiction before or since.  This is EL James (and now her husband, who wrote the screenplay for this film) saying: "hey, other girls tried and failed to save Christian, but let's gloss over the enormous emotional and psychological price they paid in doing so and focus on the fact that ANA WINS!"

No.  No, no, no.  NO.

I've been there.  I've been Ana.  I've told myself: "Nobody else has ever gotten through to him like I have.  Nobody has ever been this close to him.  I can save him."

I was wrong.  Because - in all but what I can only assume is the tiniest number of cases - you are always wrong.

You can't "cure" an abusive person.  You can't magically "fix" them, just by loving them the "right" way.  There is no "right" way.  What made my abuser hold me and tell me he loved me one week, was the very thing that made him scream at me and tell me I disgusted him, the next.  That's because abusers thrive on staying in control.  And by keeping you off-balance, they ensure they retain that.  An abusive person will only change if he or she can acknowledge their behaviour as being abusive and want to change, via extensive, professional help (Doctor Flynn, with his victim-blaming and abuse-enabling behaviour does NOT count).  Christian never acknowledges that he has abused Ana in any way.  He talks about wanting to change, but he doesn't show any major changes in his treatment of her, or his behaviour in general.

But that desire to "save" the abusive partner is what keeps people in dangerous relationships.  All-too-often, it's what keeps people in situations where they run the risk of being emotionally destroyed, beaten or even killed.  So, by all means, tell me that this is "just fiction," or "pure fantasy."  But in perpetuating the myth that the "right" person, with the "right" kind of love can somehow cure an abuser, EL James is spreading a disgusting, dangerous message that personally offends me on a primal level, because, at the core of this message, she's telling people like me - who walked away from abuse (or those who were killed by their abusers) - that we just weren't the right one to "magically fix" the people who harmed us.  We just didn't love them the "right" way.

And I have a message for EL James in response to that:

Okay, Emma.  Breathe.  You have fourteen seconds of this to go, then you can reward yourself with a night out at the cinema.


And, as if by magic, the trailer Gods have favoured me!  The last fourteen seconds are just title cards, reminding us of the name of the movie, Fifty Shades Is Abuse  Fifty Shades Darker and the release date (Valentine's Day 2017).

Well.  There's little more I can say, beyond the fact that what I just watched did not in any way resemble the trailer for a "LOVE story."  It appeared to be the trailer for a thriller about some gross creep who invades the privacy of the woman he wants to be in a relationship with and whom other women try to warn his girlfriend away from.  Despite the boat ride and the masquerade ball and the shower sex, at no point did I think: "Yep, this is a movie about a romantic and truly healthy relationship."

Fans are going to argue that I'm coming at this from a biased viewpoint (because they don't have any original arguments left, judging from experience...), and that this is a love story about a damaged man finding redemption in the love of his soulmate, but all I can say to them is:

A few people have asked me whether the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaign will be protesting the second film.  Well, you'll be thrilled to know that my campaign co-runner Natalie and I are already planning on getting the ball rolling for that very soon.  So stay tuned if you'd like to get involved, as we'd love to see an even bigger turnout than we had for the first movie premiere.

For now, if you need me, I will be weeping silently over the fact that there are still actual, real-life people who see this story as romantic.

No.  Just... Really, really no.