Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2019 Results




Self-Help Books Don't Help

Copyright © Brenn Hislop 2019


It had finally arrived.

I could tell something was there by the way the letterbox flap had been propped open. I peered deep into the brick cavern that welcomed my mail and could just make it out. A package. Large enough to contain what I was expecting. I pulled the package from the darkness, turned it in my hands and inspected its pristine outer layer. I hoisted it under my arm and hastened to the front door. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my house keys and attempted to open the flyscreen. I fumbled with them for a moment, unintentionally of course. I could not contain my excitement and that had made me jittery, manifesting in this inconvenient physical inhibition. Physical inhabitations had been my speciality, according to my ex-girlfriend.

Once I had taken my eyes off of the parcel to pay attention to unlocking the door, I managed some success. I barged straight into the house, threw my keys towards the front table and centred myself in the lounge room. Tearing at the box, I couldn’t wait to look upon it. To gaze upon its pages and be enlightened forever. All my insecurities would be solved. I could almost see myself waving goodbye to my past mediocrity. Sending it on its way, never to show its face around here anymore.

I had first discovered this item scrolling furiously through my Instagram feed. I stumbled upon a picture of it, advertised by one of my lifestyle idols. He had supported it with such high praise, posting about it twice on his account. Once was enough for me to want it, but twice meant I just had to have it. I was destined to follow in the footsteps of my greatest idol, SuperSexyShane115. He was an incredibly inspiring individual who had significantly enhanced his life through the teachings of self-help books. I can’t even remember how I came to follow him, but it had been an eye-opening happenstance.

From the moment I ventured onto his profile, I was hooked. Hooked into his complexity and cultured way of life. I had purchased the last three self-help books he promoted, and each had been better than the last: ‘Be Better You Blubbering Piece of S**t!’, ‘When Life Gives You Lemons, Trade Them In For Limes. Limes Are Better’, and my personal favourite, ‘Buy My Book Because It May (But Most Probably Will Not) Help You.’ I didn’t bother with actually reading them, I was more than content just perusing the chapter titles. That had seemed to work so far. But this particular book that I held in my hands, this was fated

for even greater success. I had finally stripped the book of its cardboard vehicle and it was every bit as wonderful as I had thought it would be. The cover was bedazzled in deep purples and ocean blues. The colours traversed and blended ever-so-beautifully, coming together in some sort of mysterious representation of a galaxy.

This was the self-help book to rule all others: ‘Pull Your Bloody Socks Up, Mate!’ by Shelly Brookwood. It was a motivational and truly life-changing book. One that was bound to rid the reader of all emotional blockages and support each enlightened individual to find their inner balance. Well, that was what had been written in the blurb on the back of the book anyway. Whether it was true or not, I would be the true adjudicator.

I clenched the book tightly in my hands and pulled back the front cover. Incredible. Truly incredible. Wait, never mind. I had mistaken the contents page for the beginning of the book. The chapter titles weren’t even written out properly in this book’s contents page. I flipped over the initial portion of paper and was met with the first of many rules. Ah! Now here is what was incredible. Rules that I would begin to seamlessly embed into my everyday life.

Chapter One: Make better choices.

That’s interesting, I thought. Controversial even, I considered. I thought about the rule for a while and began compiling a list of daily decisions that I made. The chapter title hadn’t specified which decision needed to be improved, so I took the initiative. The decision to walk or drive, coffee or tea, sweater or jumper. I was making mountains of decision each day and having to list them now was placing my decision-making debacle into proper perspective.

I heard somewhere that the average person made around 35,000 decisions a day, and that there was an inherent decision-making fatigue that ensued the more time you spent on each decision. I wondered if Shelly Brookwood was expecting that all of these decisions would be enhanced?

I decided that I would have to start small. Say, whether to exercise today or not? Typically I exercised for around an hour every day. The exercise was supposed to stimulate greater wellbeing and increase my energy. But all I ever wanted to do after exercising was eat and sleep.

"Oh no," was I spending too much time on this decision? Was it going to result in an infinite amount of decision-making fatigue? I had to pursue my first thought; just like Marie Kondo would say, 'Trust your instincts.' It may have been someone completely different who actually said that but when I claim Kondo said it, it holds more weight.

And with that, I understood exactly what chapter one was asking of me. I would strive to make the better choice. The faster choice. It was decided, I would exercise no longer.

"Good work," I told myself. I had done it. I had ticked off the first of six boxes. Six of Shelly’s rules. There was a certain pride that had come from completing the first chapter. I could already feel the impending lifestyle amendment washing over me, like the constant tide sweeping in to clear the beach of seaweed. I was being cleansed, one chapter at a time. One chapter heading at a time, to be perfectly accurate. I flipped to the second chapter.

Chapter Two: Exercise regularly.

Wait, what? I had literally, not a minute ago, decided to give up exercise altogether. I had made the executive decision to do away with this movement-based torture scheme that chapter one had convinced me was not worth the energy. Droplets of sweat were now amounting at the top of my head, I could feel them begin the laboured journey down my face. I was trapped in some sort of paradox, at the mercy of Shelly Brookwood’s mutinous contradiction of backwards notions. Her vile concoction of lifestyle oxymorons, bound in and hidden behind a pretty galactic façade.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed. The only possible solution I had to the predicament was to follow the wisdom of this secondary chapter. In light of the decision I had made in the first chapter, I had to throw it all away. And so soon. How disheartening.

It was decided, I would exercise regularly.

In the same way it had occurred after the completion of chapter one, the tide cleansed me again. Washing away my insecurities, one by one. I could understand why SuperSexyShane115 had advocated so vigorously for this self-help book. And so I continued to read on.

Chapter Three: Don’t second guess yourself. Make a decision and stick to it.

"What the…" I wasn’t able to mediate my thoughts in time and let out a profanity. My bewilderment had manifested in a jaw that was wide open, a forehead that was lathered in sweat and two eyebrows that had furrowed furiously in perplexity.

This was some sort of sick joke. It had to be a joke, I had already turned back on a decision. I looked up into the corner of my ceiling, checking for cameras. I knew there would be none but I had to slap myself back into reality and prove to myself that I wasn’t at the core of some terrible television program that pranked unsuspecting, everyday people in strange ways.

My confusion soon turned to frustration, and I began to imagine Shelly Brookwood bundled up in some pretentious corner of the world, laughing at all the suckers who had fallen into the trap of purchasing this book.

"Suckers?" I murmured into the pages of Shelly’s book. That was me. I was the sucker. I had made the decision to stop exercising. I reverted that decision, in light of the teachings of chapter two, and now I was being held accountable. Unfairly judged on trying my hardest to make instant corrections. That was, after all, what these self-help books largely promoted: small corrections that snowballed into a complete lifestyle overhaul. Wasn’t it?

Unless that had been Shelly’s intention from the start: to enforce a more reflective and critical reading of her book? Oh Shelly, you genius.

I was going to live and learn from this mishap. I took a deep breath in and flipped to the next chapter. Let’s proceed with chapter four.

Chapter Four: Learn from your mistakes.

You know that incredible feeling when you read over a line or phrase that is eerily suited to your current circumstance? One that relates so precisely to your situation that your stomach sinks? A phrase or state so appropriate that you struggle to comprehend just how something so seemingly detached from your regular life could perfectly reflect your own existence?

This was not one of those times. Not at all. This was, unfortunately for Shelly Brookwood, a misguided attack on a near perfect person. I never made mistakes. Mishaps, maybe, but never mistakes.

I paused for a moment, still perched up eagerly in the centre of my lounge room, considering my next action.

"Yep." I spoke out connivingly to the empty lounge room. I felt confident enough to skip this chapter. It was decided, I would continue to live a near-perfect life and not make mistakes.

Chapter Four: Be a 'no' man.

"Hmmm."

Three phrases accumulated in my mind instantly. These were:

1. Hey mate, do you want the rest of my burger?
2. I’ll get the first round, shall I?
3. Would you like fries with that?

Three beautiful phrases. Three wonderful questions. Three delightful propositions that I was expected to decline. To say 'no' to. No. I refused to be a 'no' man. Saying yes was simply too exhilarating. There was too much to gain from saying yes. If I had have been a 'no' man like Shelly Brookwood wanted, I would never have bought my genuine Rolex from a travelling salesman on the streets of Bali for a bargain. $750, down from $10,000. That kind of opportunity comes only once in a lifetime and I’m not willing to pass on that.

It was decided, I would not be a 'no' man. To be more precise: I would be a 'yes' man.

Chapter Five: Cleanse all negativity from your life.

Once I was able to get over the fact that the word ‘clean’ in any variation was an expectation, I could understand the importance of the rule. This one seemed simple in principle. All I needed to do was attract something that would inherently rid me of my apparent negativity and pessimism.

I was struck with a revelation; a story my mother had told me many moons ago. A tale about how she had dealt with bullies when she was in high school.

How was she able to cleanse the negative thoughts and remarks from her life? That’s right! She surrounded herself with the toughest, meanest, grimiest of all her peers so that she could never be teased and berated again. The bullies seemed to learn quickly that if they were going to continue pestering my mother at school, they were going to subject themselves to the torment of my mother’s new band of crazies. They soon backed off.

Yes, this decision also led to her developing a debilitating gambling addiction, a lacklustre education, multiple drug and violence-related suspensions, an inability to feel emotions such as empathy and trust and conceiving me in her early teenage years; but at least the bully issue was resolved.

I would apply the same concept to Shelly’s suggested rule for a better life. I would surround myself with as many positive people as I could. The liveliest and intensely optimistic, the most horrifyingly vivacious variety of people that this world had to offer. I had it: Early Childhood Teachers. They were it. They always seemed to be bursting at the seams with an overwhelming sense of positivity. Filled to the brim with the kind of joy that surpassed even the toddlers they taught.

It was decided, I would enlist an army of Early Childhood Teachers to surround myself with. That would surely exorcise the negativity.

These trivial lifestyle suggestions had become rather taxing, even if I had only been following them for the past ten minutes. I was nearing the end of the book now, just one last chapter, and I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. I needed to take a break. I exhaled, shedding some of the weight from my shoulders that I hadn’t even noticed was there. I suspect it had grown in the mishaps between chapter one and three.

I wandered over to my double-seated couch, shoved aside a pile of pizza boxes and Thai containers, and collapsed into its withered cushions. My television glared at me from the cabinet. My pile of dirty laundry stared at me from the floor. My clock, which hadn’t been running for some time now due to a set of expired batteries glowered at me from the wall. Every crumb, every pile of dirt, every wild fly and every dust-ridden object in the room seemed to gaze at me, but none more so than my prized possession. This new-fangled, yet nauseating novel I had come to own. It was nestled alone on the polished concrete floor. Waiting to be read. Waiting for the fulfillment of changing another life. Just waiting.

Finally giving in, I erupted upwards from the rubbish tip, otherwise known as my couch, and bounded back over to the book. I bent down, retrieved the book and flicked back open to where I had left off. The momentum may have subsided, but I knew that I was nearing the end. I knew I was one chapter off a better life. A changed life. A life where I no longer lived in fear of my ever-growing insecurities and anxieties. A life like Instagram user: SuperSexyShane115.

Here it was. The final chapter. This was going to be epic, I could just tell. I looked to the bold heading, and began to read through what would be the most defining chapter title that I would ever see…

Chapter Six: And then, it all comes to an end: you’re dead.

Well that’s bloody grim.

I’m starting to think that this book may not be for me.