Saturday, December 27, 2014

Frugality vs. cheapskatery

What does it mean to be frugal? What does it mean to be a cheapskate? Are the meanings of these two words roughly synonymous, or are they vastly different? (And why am I asking myself rhetorical questions again?)

After a little while pondering the ponderous, I think I've come to a fairly concise (well, as concise as I ever get) definition of the two:

Frugality is being careful with your own money.
Cheapskatery is being wasteful with other people's money.

Let's break this down a little further.

When you are frugal, you take the time to be mindful of the way you use the money that comes into your life. It doesn't mean you never spend money; rather, it means you consider what's important to you, and put most of your money toward those important things. Frugality is a vital part of responsible adult behavior, and teaching people how to be frugal is part of the purpose of this blog. You can take pride in becoming frugal.

You should take no pride, however, in being called a cheapskate. Though cheapskatery may look similar to frugality on the surface, it is markedly different under the skin. When you seek to be frugal, you're trying to make the most of your money so that your spending comes in line with your personal values. Cheapskates, on the other hand, try to save their money at any and all costs. Often they seek to save their own money by forcing other people to spend theirs instead -- for instance, they may have enough money to buy lunch, but try to get other people to buy it for them so they can save their own cash. BIG HINT, KIDS: this is scummy behavior.

And you'd better not justify your scummy behavior in front of me by saying, "Well, I'm poor and other people can afford it more," or some such rich bull feces, or I'll kick your cheap little butt. Because even if you save enough on other people's backs to become rich, you'll have developed a lifelong habit of mooching off other people to get there, and believe me, you'll go right on being a scummy cheapskate even when you have millions in the bank. Do you really want to become a modern-day Hetty Green? (No, no you don't.)

OK, maybe you're still not entirely clear on the concept. Let me provide you with a few Tales of the Cheap and Scummy, and some alternative frugal options.

CHEAPO: One of my dad's college roommates, a notorious cheapskate, wanted to take his girlfriend out on a date. Since my dad had a nice car, Mr. Cheapskate approached him to ask if he could borrow the car for a date night. Dad agreed; his only requirement was that his roommate pay for the gasoline he used. Well, Mr. Cheapskate took his date to a night on the town 45 miles away, and when he returned the car, which was running on fumes, he handed my dad 25 cents as his gas contribution. (Granted, this was at a time when gas cost approximately 40 cents per gallon, but cars also burned a lot more gas than they do now.)

FRUGAL: Figure out the social calculus of this exchange for half a second. You're much more likely to deal with your (annoyed) roomie every day than you are with the girl you're trying to impress for one night, so it makes the most logical sense to stay on good terms with your roommate. If you have enough money to take your girl on a nice date, you have enough money to fill the tank of the car you borrowed. And you should fill the tank, even if the tank wasn't full to start with. It's a way of expressing your thanks for your roommate's thoughtfulness and generosity at loaning you the car at all. If you don't have enough money for both the night out and the gasoline, maybe you should consider a less expensive date, or one you can go on closer to home. Or you should put the date on hold until you have a little more money. Learning to say "no" to things you can't afford or don't want is one of the first skills of frugal living.

CHEAPO: I know of a woman who loves going out to eat. She used to approach all her friends with an idea for lunch or dinner: "Let's get Mexican!" "Let's go get sushi!" "Who wants Indian?" They'd agree and go off to eat together, but when the bill arrived, the woman who suggested the outing in the first place would say sadly, "Oh, but I don't have enough money to cover this." Her friends would cover her share, first empathetically, then begrudgingly. Soon some of them learned not to accept her constant, thinly-veiled invitations to pay for her meals.

FRUGAL: If you can't pay for your own meal, don't instigate a mass lunch or dinner date in the first place. Really want to go out with friends? Then suggest a place you can afford. If you don't want to be stuck paying for someone else's meal, request separate checks before you even sit down. And if you end up going to a restaurant where you look over the prices and determine that you can't pay for the meal, it's perfectly acceptable to bow out. If you get into a situation where someone insists on paying for your meal, then you pay for that person's meal on another occasion. (Don't just promise to pay. DO IT.)

CHEAPO: My grandfather, who was in the ski troops during World War II, had a heavy military ski coat -- one of a very few things he'd kept from his war experiences. A relative asked to borrow that coat in order to go on a skiing trip with his brother, and my grandfather agreed to lend it to him. Months went by, and the coat did not return. Finally my grandfather asked about it. "Well," said the cheapskate relative, "it's not like you can use it any more. I gave it to my brother. He could really use a nice heavy skiing coat like that."

FRUGAL: YOU DO NOT GIVE AWAY OTHER PEOPLE'S POSSESSIONS. EVER. EVER!! I can't possibly emphasize this enough. It doesn't matter if they can't use them any more (my grandfather had lost a leg in the war, which made it difficult for him to ski); it's not up to you to make that decision because IT'S NOT YOURS TO GIVE AWAY. If you borrow possessions from people (books, movies, music, small appliances, tools, anything), take good care of them, keep track of them and return them promptly. Do not give them away, do not loan them out to other people, and FOR THE LUVVA PETE don't force people to come to you to get their stuff back, you cheap jerk.

CHEAPO: A relative of mine called to ask if his in-laws could stay with my mother for one night while they dropped off a son at school. She, assuming it would be the son and his two parents, agreed. But on the evening of the agreed-upon day, a family of eight arrived on my mother's doorstep and proceeded to take over the entire ground floor, including the kitchen. The next morning, the father of the family decided to change his plans (I guess staying in a home for free seemed better than camping to him), and announced to my mother that they would be extending their stay a little longer. "Longer" turned out to be a full eight days. During this time there was no way for my mother or sister to make meals, and the family did not invite their hosts to eat with them. When these cheap locusts finally decamped (to their credit, at least they had the common decency to clean up after themselves), they left my mother with a housewarming gift that cost approximately 75 cents. The relative who had originally called in the favor, who had no idea what his in-laws were doing, was mortified at their behavior.

FRUGAL: Sharing one's home is one of the most generous things anyone can do. If someone is hospitable enough to put you up in his or her home, stay only the agreed-upon time and no longer. You don't have the right to renegotiate terms once you're within the walls. You don't have the right to take over and monopolize household resources such as the kitchen. You don't have the right to invite additional people to stay with you. And at bare minimum, send your host a thank-you note after your stay. Again, if you can't afford to pay for an extended stay for the whole family and they don't need to be there, maybe you should leave some of them at home. And yes, if you plan on staying that long with that many people, camping is a much more frugal choice.

I think I've made my point: it's perfectly acceptable to be frugal, but the whole world hates a cheapskate. Don't be that guy. Be careful with your money, but don't save your resources by forcing other people to spend theirs, or you deserve to have your cheap butt kicked from here to China.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How to talk on the telephone

One of the many ironies of first-world life: as more and more people carry mobile phones with them at all times, fewer and fewer of them seem to have been taught the basics of how to use them properly. They do not grasp, let alone practice, even the most basic telephone etiquette. The other day I took a call from a young man (I'd guess he was in his late teens or early twenties) who, unless he was raised in a cave somewhere, had probably been using phones most of his life. He failed to give his name or the name of the organization he represented, "umm"ed and "uh"ed his way through most of the conversation, and I had to use my phenomenal psychic powers to determine the point of his call, since he failed to articulate it. Yes, I realize a growing number of people have telephobia and try to avoid making or taking phone calls at any cost, but face it: you can't go through life cowering like a frightened fluffy bunny behind a wall of text.

So: time to tackle the art of the phone call.

You will need:
  1. A working telephone.
  2. The ability to speak and listen.
  3. The phone number of a person you want to call, or an incoming call to deal with.
  4. A pen or pencil and piece of paper (optional, but very useful).
Some general rules for both outgoing and incoming calls:

Practice your phone speech. A good telephone conversation has a few things in common with good public speaking: have something specific to say, maintain appropriate volume, articulate your words properly, and keep a medium pace. Especially if you're nervous, you should practice what you plan to say -- not too loud, not too soft, well enunciated -- and try to slow down, since most people tend to chatter like a caffeinated squirrel when they're scared.

Don't assume you know who's on the other end. Caller ID is a false friend. You can't assume it's your brother on the line just because you see his name and number pop up on the screen; it could be anybody from your sister-in-law to your three-year-old nephew to some raving psycho who found your brother's phone on the bus. Likewise, don't assume you recognize a familiar voice and start blathering away about the latest chapter in your epic battle with irritable bowel syndrome; many people have similar phone voices. (I can't tell you how many times I've been mistaken for my mother or sisters on the phone. Sometimes I have utilized this confusion for my own Nefarious Purposes, so be warned.)

Don't say anything aloud you don't want people to hear. Period. If anything, the Mute button is even more treacherous than Caller ID. You can't trust it to keep your nose clean. It's better to assume, from the moment you pick up the phone to the moment you end the call, that everything you say will be live and audible. This extends to personal and background noises, too, so don't conduct phone calls in a steel foundry or construction area, don't have conversations of a private nature while in a public place, and for the love of all that's holy, don't talk on the phone while you're trying to eat or poop. Just... no.

If you're on a cell phone, don't talk and drive at once. It's become illegal in many states to talk while driving, as most people can't timeslice their focus enough to do both these things well simultaneously. If you must take a call while in the car, at least pull over to do it. And if it's legal to talk while driving in your state, use a hands-free phone, won't you?

Making a call

Determine a clear objective. You probably have a few friends whom you can call up and just ramble about any old thing that comes into your head. For everyone else, have a specific reason to call -- it's polite not to take up too much of their time with chitchat. If you're nervous or forgetful, write down the reason why you're calling on a piece of paper so you can remember to get to the point.

Dial carefully. This is pretty self-evident -- as amusing as some wrong numbers can be, I assume you actually want to talk to a specific person.

Give your own name and refer to the person you want to speak to by first and last name, if you know it. When someone answers the phone, you should say, "Hello, this is [Joe Doakes, or whatever your name happens to be]. May I speak to [Jane Doe... or whoever], please?" This covers a few bases at once: it lets the caller know who you are, it tells the caller who you want to speak to, and it clears up any misconceptions about whether or not you called the right number. (Why first AND last name, if possible? Because it specifically identifies the person you intended to call. If you just ask to speak to "Ms. Jernigan" and there are five women at that number with that last name, you could end up talking to any one of them, or all five in turn. It's like Russian roulette!)

Once you have the right person on the line, give your name again and start pleasantly. Eventually someone will come to the phone. At that point you should say, "[Jane/Mrs. Doe/whoever]?" and check for verification like "yes?". Then you identify yourself again: "This is [Joe Doakes/your name here]," and if you're calling on behalf of a company or organization, you add, "calling for [What On Earth Productions/Disney Studios/Industrial Light and Magic/whatev]." If you think this person might have trouble placing you, give a memory-jogger: "We met the other day in an Underwater Basketweaving seminar" or "I'm the guy who keeps falling asleep in Chemistry class and setting his T-shirt on fire."  Then add a polite pleasantry: "How are you?" is the industry standard. Listen and reply to the response appropriately. Most people will say, "Fine," but if the response is anything less than positive, it's appropriate to express sympathy: "Oh, I'm sorry to hear that."

Get to the objective. After identifying who you are and being pleasant, you should get right to the reason why you called. For example, if you're talking to your ophthalmologist's secretary: "I'm calling to make an eye appointment for Tuesday, if possible. What times are available?" Or, if you're asking someone on a date: "I'm calling because Arsenic and Old Lace is playing at the Capitol this weekend and I was wondering if you'd like to go see it with me." (Hint: it's probably not appropriate to ask someone out on a date right then if the answer to "How are you?" is gushing sobs, followed by "My cat just got run over." Timing is everything.) Continue with the details of the objective, writing down appointment days and dates, determining when and where you'll meet for an evening out, etc.

Bring it to a graceful end. Once you've achieved the objective of your call, it's best to bring the conversation to a gentle close. You should reiterate the information you've received, thank the person and give some word of farewell. Example: "So I'm seeing Dr. Smith this Tuesday at 4 p.m., is that correct?" [Yes.] "All right, thank you very much for your help. Goodbye." Or, in the case of the date: "All right, so I'm picking you up at 6:30 on Saturday. Great, thanks! I'll see you then. Bye."

Hang up. Congratulations, you did it!

Taking a call

Find out (politely) who is on the line. Sometimes you'll know right away who's calling you because that person practices good phone etiquette, but in case he or she doesn't read this blog, you may need to ask. Blurting out "Who is this?" will get you the information you want, but it's about as delicate as cutting paper with a chainsaw. "May I ask who's calling, please?" is more genteel. (If it's someone whose voice you should have known, you can always say, legitimately, that you didn't recognize his voice on the phone. As mentioned, many people have similar phone voices.)

Pay attention to the flow of conversation. OK, I'll 'fess up... sometimes, when a conversation wanders far and wide, so does my brain. This is widely considered rude behavior, but there are a few things you can do to avoid it. For one thing, if you know you're not a good multitasker on the phone, try not to distract yourself with activities that require the language-processing part of your noggin -- you won't be able to keep track of what's being said and you'll end up giving some random, inappropriate response because you weren't really listening. If you aren't doing something that requires your vision, you can sometimes concentrate better on the conversation with your eyes closed. And if you're Super ADD Chick and this conversation is really vital, grab that pen and piece of paper and take notes as you go.

If things are getting long, (gently) steer the caller toward a close. We all know somebody -- it might be a relative, it might be a friend, it might even be a stranger with a wrong number -- who is constitutionally incapable of conducting a phone call for less than 20 minutes. In such a situation, particularly if you're pressed for time, you may steer the caller toward the exit, such as: "Well, Aunt Vickie, it's been lovely to hear a blow-by-blow of your surgery, but I'm afraid it's time for me to go." This farewell accomplishes two things: it usually brings the Neverending Story to a close, and it sometimes manages to pop free from the recesses of the caller's head the reason why he/she called you in the first place.

(NOTE: Etiquette dictates that if you are stuck in an interminable conversation, you are NOT allowed to lie about going through a tunnel, running out of juice on your cell phone, or otherwise faking up an excuse to hang up on the caller. However, if you really do have bad enough reception that you lose the call, you are allowed the right not to call back. So if you can't end a call and you're contemplating gnawing off your own leg to escape, just set your phone to hands-free mode, get in your car and drive toward the nearest tunnel...)

If you're nervous about phone conversations, remember: like everything else, they become easier the more often you practice. Ask people you know and trust to field your first few calls and give you pointers about how well you did. Come on, you can do this! I have faith in you! And so would Alexander Graham Bell, or he wouldn't have invented this chatty contraption in the first place.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How to set a table

It's coming. And like most such eventualities, it's likely to hit you when you least expect.

Maybe you'll be at a summer barbecue... maybe at a potluck... or maybe just at a friend's house for an informal dinner. Someone will hand you a stack of plates and say, "Set the table, please, won't you?"


Because, of course, you won't know what you're doing. While hurling plates will certainly create an unforgettable diversion, your hostess may be a wee bit annoyed if you treat her grandmother's fine china like clay pigeons. So you might as well learn ahead of time how to set the table properly.

You will need (at minimum):
  1. A table big enough to seat everyone in attendance (or satellite tables, if necessary).
  2. A chair for each person.
  3. A plate for each person.
  4. Flatware (aka silverware) for each person.
  5. A drinking glass for each person.
  6. A napkin for each person.
When it comes to place settings, the formal etiquette books tend to show the full monty, with fish forks and crab crackers and asparagus tongs and nut forceps and multiple beverage glasses. But don't sweat it; everyday place settings are much simpler. You only use the pieces you'll need to eat the meal (e.g. if your hostess isn't serving soup, you don't need to put down a soup spoon).

Put the plates down first, so that every place at the table has a plate. Ideally you want to space the plates out enough so that people don't constantly elbow each other during the meal, but sometimes space is tight, especially in large gatherings or big families. Just do your best. Then build the rest of the place setting around the plate. If you're not sure what flatware or beverage glasses you'll need for the meal, ask your hostess.

Here's one of the most basic of place settings for a meal that uses a fork, knife and spoon. In the middle is the dinner plate (about 7 inches in diameter). To the left of the plate is the fork, atop a rectangular folded napkin. To the right of the plate is the dinner knife, always with the cutting edge facing toward the plate, and to the right of that is the teaspoon. (In nearly all cases you won't need the larger "tablespoon," aka the soup spoon.) Above and to the right of the plate, between the plate and the knife, is the beverage glass. (This particular setting is for an alcohol-free meal, but if you were having wine with dinner, the wine glass would go just to the right of the beverage glass.) If you're feeling OCD, you should note that the flatware properly lines up along the bottoms of the handles.

There are a couple of standard variations on this theme -- for instance, you can place the folded napkin across the plate instead of beneath the fork -- but for most everyday situations this should have you covered.

See? Not so tough. If you're scared you'll forget, you can print out the masterfully sketched place setting above and keep it in your wallet as a "cheat sheet" until you have it down. It's a lot less embarrassing than having to come up with an apology for breaking all the Spode.

Friday, June 28, 2013

What not to say

Human beings are a social species who usually learn best from observation and mimicry. As they watch others interact, most children and young adults begin to pick up certain social cues, discovering that human beings are sensitive and easily irked about specific subjects; they realize that when it comes to such subjects, even if they're curious, it's best to be circumspect and thoughtful of another person's feelings.

And then there are those poor souls who just can't take the hint. They blurt out embarrassing questions, make obnoxious comments, and otherwise induce cringing and bristling with their thoughtlessness wherever they go. Nothing seems to get through to their brains short of being hit with a clue-by-four. I guess some of these people become paparazzi, making a precarious living by routinely pelting strangers with the kinds of questions most of us would never presume to ask. But most of these unfortunates go through life vaguely wondering why so many people seem to shun them.

If you're one of these people, you probably don't know it, so even if you don't think this list applies to you, read it anyway. You might learn something.

Questions you should not ask

Do not blurt out any of the following questions, no matter how much you think you want the answer:
  • "Why aren't you married yet?"
  • "Why don't you have any kids? / Don't you want any kids?"
  • "You have so many children -- don't you believe in birth control?"
  • "What are you going to do now that your husband's in jail?"
  • "Why'd you lose your job?"
  • "Why did your wife leave you for another woman?"
  • "Is your kid retarded or something?"
  • "Is that your real hair?"
  • "So, how's your sex life?"
  • "Did you really get a case of chlamydia in college?"
  • "Don't you know you need to lose some weight?"
You may think you can discuss such potentially painful topics with tact and sensitivity, but you are wrong. The kinds of people who think it is OK to ask such questions, generally speaking, have no tact or sensitivity, so it's best if you keep quiet. If the object of your curiosity wants you to know the answers to such potentially sensitive questions, he or she will bring them up voluntarily. Otherwise, it's really none of your business.

These aren't the only blunt, rude questions in existence; an exhaustive list of such questions would take up too much time and space here to be practical. So, what's the rule of thumb for this situation? It requires a little bit of thought, and it forces you to try to think like another person -- which is sometimes a difficult exercise for the clueless. You must ask yourself: is this question I want to ask likely to make this other person uncomfortable or put him/her on the spot? If you even think the answer might be yes, don't ask the question. Done.

Comments you should not make

Our society is chockablock with people who think it's perfectly acceptable to make rude, unsolicited comments about other people's appearance, from construction workers who wolf-whistle at passing women to catty gossip columnists who can't wait to rip into someone's Oscar night ensemble. But this social tendency is based on a grave and widespread misunderstanding of bodily ownership. You do not need to make unsolicited negative comments about another person's appearance, even if you are a close friend or family member of that person.

For instance, at the time of this writing my brother Timothy has long, curly hippie hair. He grew his hair out deliberately, and he likes it that way. Everyone in his family has at one time or another voiced an opinion (mostly negative) about his hair's current appearance, but it's his hair and he has the right to wear it as he likes. Yes, people have pointed out the potential employment and social consequences that go along with the decision to sport an unorthodox look, but Timothy is willing to live with those consequences, and he's smart enough to find ways to overcome them.

If this rule applies to one's chosen appearance, it goes double for aspects of one's appearance over which one has very little control. So, morbidly obese people of average intelligence already know they are overweight, and they do not need you or anyone else to point out the obvious to them, since they must deal with the physical and social consequences of their excess weight every day. Likewise, not every skinny girl has anorexia, balding men do not need Rogaine, teenagers probably dislike their acne even more than you do, and naturally large-breasted women did not deliberately inflate their chests just to arouse your lust and/or envy. There's no need for you to jump in and shame these people because their looks somehow do not jibe with your own standards for personal appearance. Now, if a friend actively solicits your opinion -- if, for instance, he asks you whether he looks all right -- you may certainly say what you think. But in all other circumstances, you are meant to remember that people look different from one another, and that their bodies are not your property or your responsibility. Deal with it.

Promises you cannot keep

Some people have a particular problem with making promises they can't keep, or as the old idiom puts it, "your mouth's writing checks that your body can't cash." This problem manifests in many forms: when you make a promise to be somewhere and forget to show up -- all the time; when you pose overwrought threats you don't intend to make good on (some parents pull this little stunt -- "If you don't turn off that game now, I am grounding you for the rest of your life!"); or when you dangle an imaginary carrot in front of someone without actually having the means or the desire to provide it (i.e. "Clean up your room and we'll go to Disneyland tomorrow!" when you live in Ohio and don't make enough money to catch a flight to Pittsburgh, let alone Orange County).

Making a promise you can't keep, especially if you do it often, is colloquially called LYING. People don't really like or trust you if you lie to them all the time. They learn to ignore your empty threats as well as your meaningless promises. The only way to regain the trust of people who are tired of your lies is to practice making and keeping your promises to them. This takes time, it's hard, and it requires you to stop and think before you allow another meaningless lie to tumble out of your mouth. But as people see you working to change your behavior, they will slowly, cautiously, begin to trust you again with small issues.

If, like me, you have difficulty remembering the promises you make, carry a notebook and pen and write them down. Hold yourself accountable to your own words. And if you find yourself making a promise you can't keep, apologize and restate: "Count me in... wait, this Friday? Oh, I'm sorry, I can't be there. I already have an obligation." It makes a difference when people can see from your actions that you value their time and keep the promises you make. They might actually begin to treat you like -- oh, I don't know -- an adult.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to get a driver's license in the United States

So you want the freedom that comes with wheels! The allure of the open road! Endless cruising in a red Ferarri convertible with the wind slicking back your hair, if you have any!

Not so fast, Sparky. You need a driver's license first. (Not to mention a car.) Here's how to get licensed.

Rules for obtaining a driver's license vary from state to state. For a great roundup of information, visit  But in every state you'll need to do a few things before you get your license: get insured, learn how to drive, pass a written (knowledge) test, pass a road test, and pay a license fee.

Get insured

If you're just getting a driver's license as a form of ID, you don't need to buy insurance. Otherwise, it's time to get legal. Nearly every state in the Union has a compulsory driver insurance law on the books, requiring drivers to carry at least basic collision insurance in case they get into an accident. Because new drivers are much more likely to get in a fender-bender, you'll probably pay higher costs for this insurance than a more mature driver would. Yeah, I know, but at least the price you have to pay decreases over time. Take a look at for specific information about car insurance in your state. Also, since insurance rates vary, shop around to find a good combination of reasonable rates and good coverage.

Getting insured is your responsibility as an adult -- not your parents'. Don't go beg them for coverage! Jeez, dude, show some self-respect. If you can't afford car insurance, well, best get used to riding the bus, biking places, and catching the Heel-Toe Express for the foreseeable future.  Driving while uninsured is a really, REALLY stupid idea.

Once you get insured, you must carry proof of insurance in your car at all times. Most insurance companies will send you a small card with basic information about your policy, which you can use as proof that you're insured. Don't keep it in your glove box. If yours is anything like mine, it's stuffed full of random crud, and if a police officer pulls you over, she won't be impressed by you pawing through the glove box for 15 minutes trying to find your proof of insurance card. I put mine in a protective sleeve and clip it to one of the sun visors above the windshield, along with the vehicle registration, so it's easy to find.

Learn to drive

Again, state requirements to pass this milestone vary. Some states offer a drivers' education class in public high school, others require you to pay for and attend a state-approved driving school, and still others will allow you to learn to drive from any licensed driver. Almost every state requires you to get a certain number of hours of driving practice -- some of which have to be at night -- before they will issue you a license. Go to and look up the specific information for your state.

If you're under 21, you will usually need to get a temporary learner's permit to practice driving legally on public roads before you get a full license. Check with for all the details.

Pass a knowledge test

The knowledge test (sometimes called a "written test") checks to see if you understand driving laws. Every state has its own driver handbook explaining the rules of the road. You need to read it and review it thoroughly. (All of it, Frank. Don't ever intend to drink and drive? Well, good, but you still have to learn about things like the legal blood alcohol intoxication limit in your state. They WILL test you on all of this stuff, even if you don't think it applies to you.)

Older knowledge tests are pen-and-paper, but almost nobody uses them any more. Far more common are computerized tests. You can't take them online, though -- you have to go to your state's motor vehicles department or another authorized testing center to take a knowledge test. Here, again, is your friend. It provides links to local information on taking practice tests, and where and when you can take a knowledge test for full credit. You have to get a certain percentage of questions right (in most cases it's 80% or above) to pass the test, so if you're not sure about an answer and the test gives you an option to skip over it, do so.

Pass the road test

This can be the hardest part of getting your license, even if you're a good driver. Something about being in a car along with someone who has the awesome power to give or withhold your license can make you nervous enough to run red lights and mangle a parallel parking job. (Trust me; this is coming from someone who failed her road test thrice.) Here my only advice is to focus, concentrate, buckle up, and keep any music and your cell phone turned off -- distraction usually equals failure.

Pay the license fee

Yeah, it bites, but licenses are yet another thing you have to pay for. will help you know ahead of time how much your license will cost, the payment methods your local motor vehicles department accepts, and any other paperwork they'll need from you so you can bring it along when you come in. Unless you plan on operating heavy machinery or riding a motorcycle, a basic license should be all you need (names and class categories for a basic license vary a lot, so find out what your state info says).

The Motor Voter Act allows you to register to vote at the same time you get your driver's license. If you're eligible to vote and you haven't already done so, this is a great way to kill two birds with one stone.

Be prepared to have your picture taken for the license. Most states require you to show your full face, looking straight into the camera. You may be asked to remove glasses, veils, or any other accessory that obscures your full face. Oh, and be prepared to hate this picture with a white-hot passion -- photos taken for driver's licenses and passports are notoriously ugly.

Some states will issue you a full driver's license right then and there. Others may issue you a temporary license, with your permanent one arriving in the mail a few weeks later. Either way, you're now street legal!

Looking to pick up a red Ferrari convertible? Sorry, you're on your own.

Friday, June 21, 2013

How to care for yourself when you're ill

I don't care if you think you're Strong Like Bool -- sooner or later in life, you're going to come down with a case of the ick. Everyone does. When that day comes, don't be the person who has to call Mom or your significant other or whoever-it-is to come wait on you hand and foot because you have no clue how to take care of yourself. Unless you're seriously incapacitated -- as in hooked up to an IV drip in a hospital bed -- you can do most or all of these things on your own.

See a doctor.

Yep, start out with the advice of a specialist. You need to talk to someone with medical expertise who can review your symptoms, make an informed diagnosis and give you further instructions. And don't start in on me with "But I don't have health insurance!" (Situations like this are the reason you want health insurance in the first place, but that's a discussion for another day.) If you don't have a primary care provider, visit a walk-in health clinic. If you're a college student, there's usually a cheap or free clinic on campus. In a pinch -- say, when you have the shakes and a high fever (102 F or above) in the middle of the night -- get to an emergency room. The money you pay to care for yourself is an investment in the rest of your life, and some illnesses don't get better on their own, so don't mess around -- see a professional first.

Get and take any medication the doctor prescribes.

You're not going to need prescription medication for every illness, but on occasions when your doctor writes a prescription, pick it up from the drugstore right away. (If you're so far gone that you can't make it to the drugstore, call in a favor and get a friend to pick it up for you -- using your money, of course.) If you're concerned about what it's going to cost you, ask your doctor if there is a generic version of the medication available -- this usually lowers the cost of a particular drug -- and shop around if you can; prices for prescription drugs vary from store to store.

Most prescription medications now come with a long printed insert explaining how the medicine is used and what to expect from it. At the very least, read and know the serious side effects of any medicine you take; if you notice you're developing any of these side effects, or if anything else alarming happens -- for instance, if flaming snakes are erupting from your walls and ceiling, that's usually a bad sign -- stop taking the medicine and call the doctor who prescribed it right away.

If you don't get any serious side effects, you should keep taking the medicine as your doctor prescribed. Come on, you're not going to get better by magical medical osmosis if you pick up your prescription but don't actually take it. It's especially important to take antibiotics on schedule until they're all gone, not just until you feel better. Bacteria are tough little buggers, and some of them can bounce back and make you even sicker if you don't finish the whole course of antibiotics, so stick to the program.

Just have a cold? Some over-the-counter remedies are your friends. Others, not s'much. The FDA has more useful info.

Follow doctor's orders.

If your doctor recommends that you breathe moist air, get or borrow a humidifier and use it. If your doctor tells you to stay away from spicy food, put down the three-alarm chili. You just paid to get the benefit of six to eight years of medical school knowledge -- so follow your doctor's advice!

Let people know you're sick.

If people are depending on you and you're not going to be there, call or email them and let them know you're lying flat in bed with a case of the crud. As Wilford Brimley would say, "It's the right thing to do!"

Keep it clean.

You probably got sick because you were exposed to somebody with the mung in the first place. The best way to keep from spreading the joy around is to keep yourself and your environment clean. Also, you can combat some kinds of illness by reducing the total bacterial load. Bathe regularly, wash your hands, and if you're Super OCD you can get some of those antibacterial wipes and rub down things like door handles.


The human body is capable of healing itself, given some downtime, so get as much sleep as you can. Or at least get plenty of rest. If you can't just lie in bed without going stir crazy, watch a movie or play a game on your phone or just read a favorite book -- any pastime that doesn't require a lot of strenuous physical or mental activity is fine. If you have bronchitis or some other respiratory crud and find the coughing gets worse when you're horizontal, stick some pillows behind you to prop up your upper body. But stay down.

Force fluids.

Dehydration is a common side effect of many illnesses. Clean, potable water is the cheapest and best drink of all when you're sick, but you can also switch it up with apple juice, warm broth, ginger or peppermint tea, or the magical stuff known to mankind as chicken soup. (We keep a can of Campbell's Chicken and Stars soup in our pantry on the off chance someone in our household gets sick. The stars have magical healing properties! Ask my husband!) Just keep ladling it in. Yep, that means you're gonna need to pee a lot. It's all part of the process of flushing out the system.

By the way, yes, I know some alcoholic beverages are technically clear fluids, but they're NOT your friend when you're sick. Alcohol might help you sleep, but it also causes severe dehydration, which is the precise opposite of what you want. And that brings us to the next topic:


Yeah, I know you probably feel like crap, but a hangover isn't an illness -- it's a consequence. You get ill because you were accidentally exposed to a virus or bacterium. There's nothing accidental about you being exposed to a fifth of Chivas Regal. And your boss probably didn't get where she is by being stupid. If she notices you're constantly calling in "sick" on Monday morning or the day after a long weekend, it won't take very long for her to see a pattern -- and for you to get canned. And frankly, you'll deserve what you get. Play it safe and don't drink the night before you go in to work. Doi.

While hangovers aren't an illness, alcoholism is. Think you might have a drinking problem? Adults aren't afraid to ask for help when they need it. Go get 'em, Tiger. Your loved ones (and your liver) will thank you.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How to iron a shirt

There are several ways to handle a good dress shirt, but if you want to look really sharp and professional, you're going to have to learn how to iron that sucker. I could go through the steps one by one here, but a) I've got more important stuff to do today and b) it's really one of those things that's easier to learn by visual example. So I'm turning it over to a video how-to expert.

Here's one after my own heart:

Or if that isn't your style, you can just scan YouTube for your favorite tutorial instead.

A couple of random observations to aid you in your task:
  • Make sure the sole plate of your iron (the hot part that touches the shirt) is clean before you heat it up. If there's any gunk stuck to it, it will probably end up on your shirt.
  • Don't overheat the iron in the hope that it will make ironing faster. You could end up burning or melting your shirt this way, which just makes you look incompetent.
  • For fine fabrics, get a press cloth of woven 100% cotton and put it between the shirt and the iron as you press it. This takes a little while longer, but it keeps the shirt looking nice.
  • Don't iron over buttons. Many are made of plastic. Plastic + hot iron = dead button. Iron carefully around them instead, or grab a stainless steel teaspoon and put the bowl of the spoon upside down over the button as a heat shield while you iron around it.
  • Use your ironing time as a chance to check the shirt for any damage. If there's a stain, spot-treat it and wash it again. If a button is coming loose, sew it back on.
  • UNPLUG YOUR IRON WHEN YOU'RE DONE. I have a terrible habit of leaving the iron on, and when the time came to replace our old iron I ended up getting one that automatically shuts itself off after a few minutes of inactivity. Lifesaver, I tell you.