Friday, November 23, 2012

Common courtesies: social behaviors every adult should know

Courtesy is the art of treating everyone, from friends to strangers, with kindness. Unfortunately it seems to be a dying art, considering how many people don't know -- or just don't bother to follow -- the most common courtesies.

Maybe you think courtesy is stilted and unnatural, and you just want to be free to do whatever you like. But if you do so, you're not really fit for social living. Human societies create manners and rules of etiquette not to cause stress, but to ease social friction, making it simpler for large numbers of people to live together peacefully. So unless your future job description is "mountain man," "bunker inhabitant" or "castaway," you need to follow these rules.

Arrive on time. This is a tough one for people like me, who are world-class procrastinators. It can also be a challenge for the rare group of people who perpetually arrive early. But both extremes are rude, and in most cases they can be avoided with a little planning. Remember, adults are honest, and that also means keeping your word about being where and when you say you'll be. If you are unavoidably detained, send a message explaining why.

Leave on time. When the party's over, the dishes are washed and put away, and the host is sweeping up, don't be that one person who lingers behind like the smell of a chili toot (and is just as unwelcome). Go home, and let other people get some sleep.

Return things you borrow.

In a crowded situation, be prepared to give up your seat to the elderly, the infirm and the pregnant. If for some inexplicable reason someone gets angry at you for offering up your seat because he or she does not fit one of these categories, you may respond with, "I'm sorry. You just looked tired and I thought you might want to rest for a while."

Open the door or keep it open for the person behind you. Again, occasionally you will run across someone who has an illogical aversion to this act of thoughtfulness. Don't let it dissuade you; people can be funny creatures. "I certainly didn't want to let the door slam shut in your face" is an acceptable response to anger in the face of this courtesy. And if someone opens the door for you, be sure to thank him or her.

Do not touch other people without their express permission. Common violations of this rule include (but are not limited to): patting a pregnant woman's belly, rubbing a bald man's head, playing with another person's hair, or -- yech -- grabbing at breasts, butts or crotches. You may not be able to help coming in contact with a stranger in a standing-room-only situation, but even then, remember what you should've learned in kindergarten and keep your hands (and other body parts) to yourself.

Know and practice your movie theater etiquette. 'Nuff said.

Dress for the occasion. Too much of modern society seems to believe you can sling on jeans and a T-shirt and go anywhere. Wrong. Certain events -- weddings, funerals, church attendance, live theater, formal dinners -- require a bit more sartorial finesse. You don't have to look like you've stepped off the pages of Vogue, but gentlemen, get a real tailored suit/ladies, get a neutral-color dress that looks great on you, and dress up. Changing the way you look really does change the way you feel and act. It's almost magical.

Return phone calls and messages. Taking the time to respond to queries, even with a single sentence, shows a measure of thoughtfulness to others. And it's a lot less difficult to find the time to do this than it used to be, now that nearly everyone carries a cell phone. Oh, and by the way...

Cell phones are not to be used indiscriminately. I know, they're portable and they do seem to ring everywhere, but that doesn't mean it's socially acceptable to have a phone or text conversation in the middle of a checkout line, during a face-to-face conversation with a friend, in a movie theater, in the middle of class, while driving, in the library, or (worst of all) in a public restroom. And do not use your electronic pacifier as a way of detouring around real life. Engage! It's a lot more interesting than yet another round of Angry Birds.

Don't pick your nose in public. It's just gross. You are, however, allowed to carry a handkerchief or tissues and discreetly blow your nose if needed (except at the table). If for some reason your tortured soul cannot be at peace until that nasal nugget is gone, relocate your excavation efforts to a restroom stall or other place where you will not be observed. Be aware that nosebleeds are an occupational hazard. And please, wash your hands when you're done.

Don't spit in public. If you really need to expectorate, find a restroom and spit in the sink. Don't just hock up a big green slug on the sidewalk; that's disgusting, not to mention unhygienic.

Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. The Centers for Disease Control suggest that if you don't have a tissue at the ready, you should cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm, not into your hands. (Shaking hands with someone directly afterward can be a cringe-inducing experience.)

If you must smoke, use an ashtray.  Don't just dribble ash everywhere -- and when you're driving, don't fling your spent cigarette butts out the window.  It's disgusting, hazardous, and makes you look like the sort of life form that scuttles for cover when someone hits the light switch.

Don't go naked in public. (You'd think this wouldn't need to be pointed out, but the recent shenanigans of San Franciscans have made me reconsider.) Under normal circumstances, spontaneous public nudity is reserved for small children and the mentally infirm. Unless you're one of these two, stay clothed. Yes, yes, you have a glorious body and must share it with the world... whatever. We're not discussing your rights nor your personal aesthetic merits, but common courtesy. Most people in North America are uncomfortable with public nudity, whether the nude in question is an Adonis or an embarrassment. So button it up. Please. If a special someone really wants to see you naked, I'm sure that person will find a way to let you know.

When you make a request or give an order, take the time to say "please" and "thank you." These two small phrases manage to convey thoughtfulness and respect for others who, after all, are doing something for you. They can create huge social benefits from a minuscule time investment.

Don't gossip; it's caustic. Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? If it doesn't follow all three rules, it's gossip. YOU CAN RUIN PEOPLE'S LIVES with this crap. So don't do it.

Don't swear within earshot of children. (This rule used to apply to women as well, but it was crafted in a day when women were routinely referred to as "the fairer sex." Since some feminists consider this thoughtful act of gentility to be somehow demeaning to them, I've set it aside.) Likewise, please refrain from discussing your illicit drug use, your sexual exploits, or the joy you find in killing small animals, at least while children are listening. Some people might argue that children are exposed to vulgarity and profanity by grade school anyway, so there's no harm done. I would counter that most children are also exposed to nudity (their own or others') by that age, but that doesn't give you carte blanche to strip and run naked through a kindergarten class.

If you're angry at a person or situation, don't make someone else suffer for it. This covers a whole range of behaviors from verbal cruelty to full-out physical abuse. If you've got to take your frustrations out on something, go to the source of the problem and work it out. Or get a punching bag. That's what they're for.

When you've done something wrong, apologize. No, we're not talking about fake apologies like "I'm sorry you didn't understand" or "Well, I'm sorry, but it wasn't my fault!" or any of that crap. We're talking real, face-the-person, look-right-in-the-eyes, sincere apology. Being able to admit (and, when possible, atone for) your mistakes is the first step toward ensuring you won't make the same mistake twice. And it's a huge sign of personal maturity.

Know any other common courtesies I've left off this list? (I'm sure I have.) Let me know, and I'll add them in.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How to behave in a movie theater

If you're any kind of film buff, you know that we live in an age of uncountable riches. Titles from all over the world, representing close to the entire range of cinematic history, are available at our fingertips. But there's one unfortunate side effect to this plenty: in the age of DVDs and Netflix, people have forgotten (or have never learned) how to behave themselves in a movie theater. So shed your couch potato ways and school y'selves!
  1. Don't even bring your phone into the theater.
  2. Don't bring an infant into any movie. If you can't afford a sitter, you can't afford to see the movie in theaters. Period.
  3. If you're going to take children to a movie, do your homework. Movie reviews exist for a reason. The best reviewers give an informed opinion without completely spoiling the plot. Likewise, the MPAA rating system is imperfect, but most movies are rated PG, PG-13 and R for a reason. You really want your six-year-old sleeping in bed with you for a month after being traumatized by Akira, because you just assumed all animated films were kid-friendly?
  4. Even if they're usually well-behaved, most kids don't know how to sit through a movie. They were raised on DVDs, where they can stop the film at any time to ask questions, get a snack or go potty. Kids who are not trained will scream, cry, wander around and ask questions in their "outside voices" the whole time. You will have to teach them how to behave. That means you have to go with them. Don't you dare treat the theater like a drop-in babysitting service. I will find you.
  5. On the flip side of the equation, if you're seeing a movie primarily marketed to children, you lose the right to whine about how the theater has too many rugrats. If you can't stand kids, go see a late-night showing of the film.
  6. You came to watch the movie, so watch the movie. It's OK to laugh, cry, "aww," even gasp in the theater (as long as the movie's actually scary), but wait to discuss the plot points afterward. Don't sing along with musicals, unless you're at a screening that encourages audience participation. And no matter how much common sense and/or lung capacity you possess, the people on the big screen aren't going to hear or heed your unsolicited advice.
  7. Concessions are meant to be food, not ammunition. No matter how annoying the kid in front of you is being, that doesn't give you the right to fling popcorn and Junior Mints at the back of his head. You can, however, talk to his parents or an usher and get him removed from the theater if he's being a real twerp.
  8. If you take it into the theater with you, carry it out when you leave. Yes, that means popcorn buckets, candy wrappers and soda cups. Put them in the trash as you go; don't just leave them for the ushers.
  9. If you arrive at a showing early, take a seat in the middle of a row so people can fill in on either side of you. If you suffer from a weak bladder, a weak stomach, ate a honkin' bean burrito half an hour ago, or have any other medical issues that require you to make several exits during the showing, sit at the end of a row near the exit so you can leave the theater as necessary without having to leapfrog madly over other patrons.
  10. I wish I didn't have to point this out, but don't see a movie in theaters while you're sloppy drunk or stoned out of your gourd, and don't bring drugs or alcohol into the theater with you. If a flick is so bad that you have to be wasted to enjoy it, maybe you should just go get your money back and watch it on DVD.
  11. Speaking of getting your money back, if you've stumbled into a real turkey of a film, you don't have to make a big indignant song-and-dance number out of it. Not everyone else may share your opinion of the film. Just leave quietly and ask the management for a refund. (And don't wait until the end of the movie to do it. If you sit stoically through a stinker and then ask for your money, they will question your motives and your sanity. And you won't get a refund.)
  12. Our final rule buries the needle on the Grossometer, but it has to be stated anyway. Do not have sex, or anything like it, in a movie theater. Those ushers aren't paid nearly well enough to clean up after your shenanigans -- not to mention that you could be arrested for public lewdness, and possibly for general stupidity.
Now go forth and crunch your popcorn in peace. (And if I happen to catch you texting during a film, I'm going to break rule 7 and drench your useless noggin with 32 ounces of diet root beer.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to clean your bedroom

Dirty socks. Pizza boxes. Empty aluminum cans. Junk mail. Cereal bowls with the remains of mysterious starchy gunk welded to the bottom. And that's just the crap covering the top of the mattress. Face it, kid, your room is a sty. Nobody wants to live like this. You're gonna fix that right now.

This tutorial assumes you are just a slob, not a hoarder. If you're saving 238 used Dixie cups because you might need them some day, you need help way beyond what this post can offer. Counseling, and possibly some high-pressure hoses, may be in order.

You will need:
  1. An empty box.
  2. Enough time to tackle the mess (this will vary depending on how long it's been since you last cleaned and how sty-like your room has become).
  3. A clothes hamper.
  4. A small garbage can.
  5. A dust cloth (a basic rag is fine).
  6. A broom and dustpan.
  7. A vacuum cleaner (optional).
  8. Multipurpose surface cleaner (brands include Mr. Clean, 409, Method, etc.) and water to dilute, and/or pre-mixed spray cleaner.
  9. A step stool or sturdy chair (optional).
  10. A bucket (yes, you has a bucket).
  11. Window cleaner and paper towels (optional).
Drag your empty box into the room. Find every object in your room that's supposed to be somewhere else in the house or apartment, and put it in the box. Now put the box to one side, where you won't trip over it; you'll deal with its contents later.

Pick up everything else that's supposed to be in your room, and put it away where it belongs. Yes, that means the random stuff you've been stashing under the bed, doofus. Hang clean clothes in the closet, or fold them and put them in the dresser drawer. Put all dirty clothes in the hamper. Strip the sheets off the bed and put those in the hamper too. (If you have been sleeping on a bed with no sheets because you can't be bothered to make your bed, I'MA COME OVER THERE AND SLUG YOU.) Grab a small garbage can and toss out any junk you've been accidentally saving for posterity. If something is lying on the floor or piled up on your dresser because you don't have a designated spot for it, it's high time you came up with one. Otherwise it goes in the garbage can. When you're done you may have to go out and pick up some storage containers for your stuff, BUT NOT NOW. Right now you are cleaning your room and NOTHING SHALL DISSUADE YOU!

Once all the random crap has been picked up, it's time to start cleaning in earnest. You can clean your room most efficiently from top to bottom. First, look up. You probably have long, dusty cobwebs hanging from your walls and ceiling. Even if you can't see them, drape your dust cloth over the bristles of the broom and sweep it around the ceiling perimeter. You can also dust any overhead light fixtures, but be gentle. I don't want to see the headline "Clueless Noob Brained By Falling Ceiling Fan" on Google News any time soon.

Pull the dust cloth off the broom and dust every horizontal surface in the room -- windowsills, bookshelves, dresser top, bedside tables. You don't need dusting spray to do this, although it helps. If you can wet down the dust cloth a bit, then wring it out until it's just barely damp, it will pick up a lot of dust without leaving surfaces sloppy wet. Depending on how much dust, cobwebs and dead bugs you're picking up (gleah), you may have to rinse and wring multiple times.

If you have a window (and let's hope you do), grab the window cleaner and paper towels. Spray down the window, give it about 30 seconds for the cleaner to do its work, then wipe off with paper towels. Don't use multipurpose cleaner on windows unless the cleaner specifies that it's safe for glass (you can permanently fog up your windows if you guess wrong). Put the used paper towels in the garbage.

Inspect your walls. Do they have scuff marks, stains, or traceries of any mysterious gunk? Yech. Pull out the multipurpose cleaner and, if necessary, mix up a batch in the bucket, diluting it with the recommended amount of hot water. Or just use a pre-mixed spray cleaner. Use your dust cloth and multipurpose cleaner to wipe down the walls. If you're a stunted little dwarf like me or have high ceilings, you might need a step stool or chair to reach the highest part of the wall.

Make the bed with clean sheets and pillowcases. Check the cleanliness of your blankets while you're at it. Blankets don't need to be cleaned as often as sheets, AS LONG AS YOU ACTUALLY USE THE SHEETS, you slobtastic wonder, you. If the blankets need cleaning, put them into your hamper.

You're into the home stretch. Take the step stool, garbage can, clothes hamper and box fulla stuff and remove them from the bedroom.

Now look down at your floor. (Didn't know you had one, didja? Surprise!) In North America, you'll probably be looking at one of three options: 1) a bare floor of some kind, 2) a bare floor covered by an area rug, or 3) wall-to-wall carpet.

For 1): use the broom and dustpan to sweep the whole floor. Yes, under the bed too, doofus. Sweep small sections at a time, load the dustpan, then empty it into the garbage can. Mix up another batch of multipurpose cleaner if the first batch is getting nasty, then use the cleaner and dust cloth to wash the floor. Alas, yes, on hands and knees this first time. Squeeze out the dust cloth until it's nearly dry, and the clean floor will dry much faster. (For future reference, stick mops are your friends.) Start at the wall furthest from the door, and work your way across the room (yes, under the bed too, doofus) until you wash right out the exit. If you're a complete wimp, you can slip track shoes or a foam pad under your knees to help cushion your tender patellas as you work.

For 2): if the area rug is small, take it outside and beat it with the broom. Think about an annoying teacher, abrasive celebrity or exasperating politician and vent your frustrations creatively. Bonus points for an aerobic workout! Then proceed to wash the bedroom floor as for 1). Once the floor is completely dry, return the rug to its proper place. If the rug is big, vacuum it, then wash the rest of the floor around it.

For 3): pull out the vacuum and thoroughly vacuum the carpet. Yes, under the bed too, doofus. The carpet may have marks or stains of unknown origin. You can try to spot-treat the carpet, rent a Rug Doctor and clean it, or hire professionals to take care of it (I recommend the last option for best results). Put the vacuum away.

Put away the step stool. Empty the garbage can. Tip the dirty multipurpose cleaner into the sink or tub to drain, and rinse out the bucket with clean water, then put it away. Empty the box fulla stuff by putting away the items in their proper places outside your room. (DO NOT CHEAT BY DUMPING IT ALL IN THE HALL CLOSET... the Fuse Box Dwarf is watching you, pal! Dreeb! Dreeb!) Wash and dry your bedsheets (and, if necessary, blankets; once they're clean, finish making the bed with them). Put away any remaining cleaning paraphernalia. Oh yeah, your room is CLEAN, baby.

Now, do you have to go through this rigamarole EVERY SINGLE TIME you clean your room? Thankfully, no. This is the thorough clean, once-a-week job, and unless you're a heavy smoker or something you don't need to wipe down the walls every week. This first time will probably be the worst. The daily-clean version of this job involves picking stuff up and making your bed, which is very doable. So do it.

WARNING: side effects of a really clean room include the realization that there's suddenly So. Much. Room. in there, possibly inspiring you to climb up on the bed and belt out "Oklahoma!" at the top of your lungs. Be wary.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

When and how to pay your bills

If you've been planning your spending, you're already halfway to getting your bills paid on time and in full.  The other half is actually getting the payments out the door.  Fortunately, most companies make this process as easy as possible because they want their money.

You will need:
  1. a bill to be paid
  2. a checkbook or money order OR
  3. an online bill paying system (highly recommended)
The first bill you must pay every month is your rent payment (or, if you've bought a house, your mortgage payment). PAY IT BEFORE YOU PAY ANYTHING ELSE. NO, I AM NOT KIDDING AROUND. THIS IS SERIOUS. AND ALL THIS UPPER CASE TALKING IS GIVING ME A HEADACHE, so I'ma stop, but seriously, pay for your living space first. I know it's tempting to buy Cool Stuff instead, but that new gaming console isn't going to be quite as much fun if you're pushing it around in a shopping cart.

Most of the time you won't get a rent bill; you just have to remember it's due, and send a payment to your landlord, management company or whoever. The simplest way to do this is with an online bill paying system (about which, see more below). I set mine up to print out a rent check drawn on my checking account and send it to my landlord's address every month. Because it's all done automatically, I don't have to remember to pay the rent (though I do have to remember to keep track of it in Quicken), I don't have to buy stamps to send out the check, and I've never had a late payment. And the landlord ♪ LOVES us! ♪

As far as the rest of your bills are concerned, you'll keep on top of them if you pay them as soon as they come in. (Yeah, you could save them all up for payment in one fell swoop, but that never goes well. They tend to wander away from the desktop where they were placed, then pretty soon they're running with the wrong crowd, hanging out with junk mail, setting fire to P.O. boxes... yeah, just... don't.)

First, scan the bill. You're looking for oddities: weird charges you've never seen before, higher costs than you expected (remember, though, that going into fall and winter you'll have higher heating/electricity bills), services you didn't sign up for, or any other suggestions of monkey business. If something doesn't look right, call the company that sent the bill and contest the charge. If you just shrug and pay a bill with oddities, your chances of getting any money back are about the same as a snowball's in Hades, so check first and ask questions.

If everything looks peachy, you can proceed one of three ways. Using the money from your Gotta List (see this post for more info), pay the bill by writing a check, buying a money order, or sending a payment via online bill paying system. We'll cover these one at a time.

Paying by money order

You can buy a money order in a number of different places, including your local post office. In addition to paying for the actual face value of the money order, you'll need to pay a small service fee (somewhere under $2). Some places make you pay in cash; others (including the post office) will let you use a bank card to pay. Make sure the person printing the money order has the right spelling of the person or company to be paid, and the total amount. Double-check the order to make sure it's accurate before you wander off with it.

Tear off the detachable payment stub on the top or bottom of your bill, slip it into the envelope provided (there usually is one), making sure the return address faces out the envelope window if necessary, then slip the money order behind it, stamp, seal and mail. Done.

Writing a check

Most checking accounts come with a small set of checks. After you rip through these, you either have to buy new ones from your bank or order some from a check printing company (do a web search for "check printing company" and you'll find several).

Now's my chance to put in a shameless plug for duplicate checks (aka carbon copy checks). Duplicates make an automatic carbon copy of every check as you write them, so you don't have to track every freaking check number and amount you write -- the copies are already there in your checkbook. Simple, right?

Anyway, writing a check is pretty easy. Using a pen with permanent ink, write the current date on the top, and write out the name of the company on the "Pay to the order of" line. In the small box to the right, write the numerical amount of the bill you want to pay. Under the "Pay to the order of" line is another line where you'll write the same amount, but spelled out in words instead of numbers. (For example, if the amount in the box is $210.96, you'd write it out as "Two hundred ten and 96/100". Only use "and" where the decimal place goes in the number amount.) You do this to make it harder for would-be thieves to alter the amount of your check. Also, after writing out the amount, draw a straight line to the very end where the word "Dollars" is printed, so no one can add anything else on. You can use the memo line at the lower left of the check to write reminders to yourself about what the check was for, or anything else you need to mention on the check: your account number/ID/bra size/whatever. Then sign your name on the lower right line, tear out the check and proceed to pay as for a money order.

Paying by online bill pay system

I love this invention. Seriously, I want to hug it and squeeze it and do stupid interpretive dances about it. It makes my life SO. MUCH. EASIER.

Many banks and credit unions offer an online bill paying system as part of their online banking offerings. Find out if your bank or CU has one, and if so, sign up to use it. If your bank doesn't have one, GET A NEW BANK. Or, you know, get some third-party bill paying system like MyCheckFree. Once you're set up, add a payee. You need the contact information for the company to whom you are paying the bill, and your customer ID number (both of these should be printed on the bill). Enter these, specify how much money you want to send, and the bill payer does the rest.

You can specify what day of the month you want to pay your bill, which account it should pull from and how much it should take out. If you have a regularly recurring bill that's always for the same amount, you can even set up most online bill payers to pay the bill automatically on a particular day. And if for some stupid reason a company doesn't take online payments yet, most bill paying systems will print and mail a paper check to them. IS THIS NOT AWESOME? THIS IS SPARTA!

So that's about it. Pay your bills on time, in full, and in whatever way is most convenient for you, and the rest of that money is YOURS. (But whatever else you do, be sure to put $10 or so aside and go see Wreck-it Ralph. That movie is awesome.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to be a class act

If you live in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Go out and thank a veteran for his or her service under fire. For every one you see today, there will be many, many others -- friends, comrades, family members -- the ghosts who never returned from war. You don't have to agree with the political reasoning behind each war in order to thank an individual veteran for willing and selfless service to the cause of freedom. Go buy a vet a beer or something (or, if it's my father-in-law, get him a Dr. Pepper with a squeeze of lime).

Yeah, sorry, this one isn't funny. For some reason I have a hard time being snarky about burned faces and missing limbs. I hope you feel the same way.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

How to do the dishes

Few household skills are more basic than doing the dishes. And few household skills are more consistently avoided. Some quasi-adults have survived for years on nothing but pizza and take-out Chinese food, not because they can't cook, but because they dread doing the dishes afterward. Come on, guys, really? You don't have to pack on 50 lbs. and owe your soul to the pizza delivery guy -- just commit to cleaning the dishes and set yourself free!

Here's the two big secrets about dishes: a) they aren't that difficult to clean if you get to them right away, and b) you can make the hot water and soap do most of the heavy lifting for you.

What's the big deal with hot water? It kills germs better than cold water does, and it also works with soap to remove grease and other oily residue. You don't want to find yourself eating the same meal twice, if you know what I mean. Plus if you wash and rinse with really hot water, the dishes will partially dry themselves. Anything that makes the task easier is a plus in my book.

You will need:
  1. some dirty dishes.
  2. a source of clean water, preferably tap water, as hot as your hands can tolerate.
  3. a sink with two compartments (aka a double sink) and a plug. If you don't have a double sink, get a dishpan that fits in the sink.
  4. liquid dishwashing soap (common brands include Joy, Dawn, Ivory, Palmolive, etc. Do not use automatic dishwasher detergent such as Cascade).
  5. scrubbing tool (see below).
  6. a dish drainer.
  7. a dishtowel or two.
  8. household gloves (optional if you have Super Mom-Hands or are a glutton for punishment).
  9. a willing partner or a hapless slave (optional, but helpful).

If you have dirty pots and pans from cooking the meal, put hot water into them as soon as you can and leave them to soak.

Right after the meal, package up and put away any leftover food if you intend to eat it later. Then take the other dishes (plates, bowls, flatware, glasses, serving dishes) to the garbage or compost bin and, one by one, scrape off any remaining bits of food. Put the dirty dishes next to the sink in this order: flatware, glasses, plates (stacked), bowls (stacked), serving dishes, pots and pans.

Set up the dish drainer. If you don't have a drain board to set it on, you can spread a dishtowel out underneath it to help catch the drips from drying dishes.

If you're wearing a long-sleeved shirt, roll up the sleeves. Wimps, put on your household gloves now.

Plug one side of the sink and fill it about a third full with the hottest water you can stand (or, if you're using a dishpan, fill that instead). Add a good squirt or two of dishwashing soap. You should see bubbles forming on the surface of the water. It's far more efficient to fill the sink with soapy water than to wash dishes directly under the stream of the faucet.

Get out your scrubbing tool. I like to use a scrubbing sponge with one rough side and one smooth side, but others prefer dish brushes or dishcloths. Use whatever floats your boat, as long as it gets the dishes clean. Dip your scrubbing tool in the hot soapy water and prepare for action.

Ready? 3... 2... 1... GO!

Wash your flatware first, while the water is piping hot. Get it right into the hot water and wash all surfaces with the scrubbing tool until all food residues are gone. As you finish washing each piece, put it into the other side of the sink (or outside the dishpan). Once you have a good pile of knives, forks and spoons, rinse the whole pile directly under hot running water, making sure to get rid of any lingering soap, and deposit them in the dish drainer. Repeat until all your flatware is clean.

Next up: glasses and cups. Clean, rinse and drain them the same way you cleaned the flatware. For glasses with narrow mouths, I recommend cleaning the inside with a dish brush. (I've tried cramming my hand into a narrow glass to try to wash the inside with a sponge. Don't do this unless you have a thing for a hand full of broken glass. And if you do, I don't want to hear about it.)

Put the plates into the hot soapy water to soak. Now check your dish drainer; it might be getting full, depending on your drainer's capacity and how long it's been since you last did the dishes. This is the point at which you should drag your willing partner (or hapless slave) into the project to dry the dishes and put them away. If you don't have a partner/slave, you're stuck doing this job yourself. Use a clean, dry dishtowel on any cups or flatware that haven't dried completely, and put them away. (NO, I won't tell you where to put them away! Figure out your own kitchen, for Pete's sake.)

On to the plates. Since you already put them in the water to soak, any stubborn food residue should have softened and be easy to remove. (See? I'm all about making the task easy.) Scrub, rinse, drain. Same with bowls and serving dishes.

Pots and pans are usually the worst part of the job -- unless you remembered to put hot water into them earlier. Then most cooked-on food should just slide out, easy peasy. Give them some special attention and maybe a little extra blast of hot water, since your dishwater may be cooling down at this point. Rinse and drain.

Dry the dishes in the dish drainer and put them away, or get your slave to do it. Shake off any water from the dish drainer and drain board (if you have one), wipe it off and put it away. If you used a dishtowel under the drainer, find it a place to dry. Rinse your scrubbing tool thoroughly and find it a place to sit where it can dry out (scrubbers left wet, especially sponges, pick up bacteria after a while and start to smell -- ick). Finally, empty the sink and, if you want to give things a little flourish, dry it all off with the dishtowel. Put the damp dishtowel in the laundry. And if you used gloves, take them off and let them dry in the sink.

Now revel in the joy of clean dishes. Spontaneous samba dancing is optional.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to use social media wisely

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. are relatively new, so few etiquette experts have published pronouncements about their use and misuse. But as you or your friends have probably already demonstrated, there are plenty of ways to put your foot in it online.

It's best to think of social media as a big, unstructured, somewhat goofy party where you can hang out with your friends. Most rules of parties apply to social media, to wit: if you want to have a good time, be friendly, be funny, listen to others, and share ideas and thoughts that interest people. If you get maudlin, haughty, dramatic, hyperactive, mean, self-righteous or sloppy drunk, people will quietly drop you and move to more interesting circles.

Here's the other thing. Unlike most parties, you're being tracked. Even on sites where you can delete comments after the fact, it's best to assume that what happens on social media stays on social media... FOREVER. So one of the first DO rules for social media is:


THINK BEFORE YOU POST. "What's on your mind?" "What's happening?" "What are you looking for?" Social media sites are programmed to tempt you to answer these questions. You might throw caution to the wind and answer any question you're asked, or vomit up any old stray thought for others to read. You also might down a bottle of Everclear and then try to drive your dad's vintage Ferrari; both are equally stupid ideas. Remember, your parents, your grandparents, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your future employer or your kids could be reading what you write (and making associated judgement calls about your sanity). So rev up your brain and take a minute to think about how your dashed-off comment could affect you and others -- not just now, but for a long time down the road.

In the same vein, KEEP YOUR PRIVATE INFORMATION PRIVATE. To paraphrase Ben Kenobi, "You don't need to see my identification." You need not provide all the information every social media site requests. Frankly, it's none of Facebook's business what your address, cell phone number, birthdate or voting preferences are. Even if the site itself doesn't use this information to market to you (yeah, right), Facebook and other sites are notorious for having accidentally released sensitive user information to the public in the past. So give them only the sparest of details to establish your identity. You aren't the droids they're looking for.

CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY. On most social media networks, you will get friend requests from complete strangers. Helpful hint: you don't have to add them as friends just because they requested it. My personal rule on Facebook: if I've never met you in person, I reserve the right not to add you as a friend. (Hey, you're probably awesome. I just want to verify that face to face.)

ASSUME YOUR PRIVACY IS ONLY AS SAFE AS YOUR LEAST CLOSE FRIEND. I've seen people post their new mailing addresses and telephone numbers in their status feeds on Facebook, with the idea of "Well, only my friends will see it." WRONGO. First off, social media sites have sometimes released private information to the public, so you can't count on the site itself safeguarding everything you write. Second, I want you to stop reading this for a second and go over to Failbook. Read some entries, laugh, then think about how easily some goofy thing you wrote for the benefit of your online friends could be reposted offsite by an angry frenemy looking for revenge, or a clueless friend who has no concerns about anyone else's privacy. Yeah. Be careful out there.

PART WAYS QUIETLY. The time will come when you must decide to unfriend, unfollow, or otherwise dissociate yourself from someone in social media. Do it quietly, without comment. Chances are most people won't even know you've gone, especially if they have gobs of friends (after about 50 it gets hard to keep track of everyone). If the person you've unfriended notices your absence and wants to know why you've gone, explain privately and simply. Try for honesty without bluntness: "I'm trying to get away from online politics" is more well-put than "If I see one more post from you about Candidate X, I'm loading up and heading for the clock tower."


This is a bigger list, for reasons that may become obvious. DO NOT do any of the following on social media:

SHARE TOO MUCH. This isn't just an issue with social media; we have gone from being a nation of reserved and laconic individuals to a country of people pressing TMI on everyone they encounter.  The occasional recipe posting or "Standing in line for the midnight showing of RHPS -- can't wait!" is fine in small doses, but you needn't (and shouldn't) describe in detail the travel adventures of every foodstuff to brave your alimentary canal, relate and rate your latest sexual escapades, or explain where and how many times you pooped in the last 48 hours. I don't care if you're the freaking President of the United States -- nobody wants to know if you woke up constipated this morning.

SHARE TOO FREQUENTLY. This is a tough line to draw -- some people use social media sites more frequently than others, and some social media sites such as Twitter encourage more frequent use -- but using the TLAR method (you know, "That Looks About Right"), I'd say if you post more than 10 status updates in a 24-hour period, you need to lay off the caffeine for a while. Same deal if you have to comment on every status update you read (yes, as an unrepentant snarker I've been guilty of this behavior). Spamming your friends' message feeds with reposts, shares and comments is more annoying than endearing, so take it easy.

SWEAR LIKE A SAILOR. I don't know how much more bluntly I can put this: using foul language doesn't make you sound like an adult. It does make you sound boorish, stupid, infantile and thoughtless, so if that's the impression you're going for, don't let me stop you. But if your status updates are so peppered with F-bombs that your friends and followers practically glow in the dark, you are going to lose some of them. Just FYI.

POST CRYPTIC CRAP. You know the kind of updates I mean, the one-liners with no attendant explanation: "I knew this day would come." "Can't believe that just happened." These aren't so much tantalizingly mysterious as they are signs you're being a high-maintenance dweeb. Look, if you work for the CIA, you can get away with murmuring encoded phrases to shady contacts from a park bench somewhere. But make yourself understood online.

MAKE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE ANGSTY COMMENTS. "If I don't get at least 10 replies to this post I'm deleting my account." Bye! There's also this common trope: "Filled with despair and ennui. Cannot elaborate." Fishing for sympathy much? If you really don't want to explain why your life sucks today, don't bring it up on social media in the first place. Instead, call your most trusted friend, your pastor or your shrink and talk it out in private, the way such conversations are supposed to be handled.

MAKE IT TOO EASY FOR STALKERS AND BURGLARS. "Here's where I'm posting from!" So load up and come find me. "I'm having fun on vacation!" Then your house is empty.

STAGE YOUR ROMANTIC BREAKUPS. I can't possibly emphasize this too much. If you're initiating the breakup, do it in person, or if you're too chicken for that, in a live telephone conversation. After the initial emotional storm passes, you may let people know you are single via social media. You don't need to explain why. If people really want to know all the gory details, they will ask; you may or may not choose to inform them privately of the circumstances surrounding the breakup. But do not make it into an ugly, public mess -- that's not what social media is for, and it will almost certainly come back to haunt you.

ASSUME SILENCE IMPLIES CONSENT. Unless you have an extremely insular group of family and friends, not all of them are going to agree with every religious/political/artistic/ideological item you choose to share. Likewise, not everyone relishes a chance for intense public debate over these subjects, especially if the debate quickly degenerates into childish squabbling and name-calling. Please be careful which groups you choose to publicly label as stupid, evil, sub-human, or otherwise hateful -- you may be pinning such epithets on beloved family members and dear friends all unawares, and they may never reveal the hurt and damage you've caused.

TAKE ONE ONLINE COMMENT TOO SERIOUSLY. Despite my sage advice, many people just blurt out whatever they think on social media without putting it through the Stupid Filter first. Sooner or later, someone is going to say something that cheeses you off. Give that person the benefit of the doubt; it may pass quickly with no harm done. But if he or she continues to act like a jerk online, quietly silence or remove that person -- you don't have to put up with crap forever.

FORGET ABOUT REAL LIFE. I'm not the only person to have noticed that social media has, for some people, become a substitute for engaging with the real world. One of the saddest things I see on social media is a teen or young adult wailing in a status update: "I'm so bored! Someone message me!" LISTEN: You are young only for a short time. You have few responsibilities now, much more free time than you'll have later in life, and the world is full of potential adventures. Don't spend this part of your life waiting around for someone to entertain you. Go out and find the amazing. Then, if you have the time, you can talk about your adventures online later.

This post is a work in progress. As I pinpoint more dos and don'ts of social media, I'll add to this entry; to that end, I'd appreciate your thoughtful comments on the subject.

Friday, November 2, 2012

How to balance your checkbook

Here's one of the screwiest things about North American high schools: you'll spend a great deal of time and frustration studying subjects you may never use again in your life, but you'll probably get little or no training in the life skills you need to use constantly, like balancing your checkbook, sewing on a button or shopping for groceries. Good thing this blog's here, huh?

So, what does it mean to balance your checkbook? Well, it's like this: you keep your own record of spending each month (or if you don't, you should). Your bank creates its own record of your spending, called a statement. Balancing your checkbook is making sure these two records match. And if you're like most people, you hate doing this and put it off for as long as you can, but that's just stupid. Balancing your books is much simpler than it was in the old days when you had to do everything by hand; there are loads of money tracking programs to choose from (Quicken, Money, Wesabe, Mint and others) that automate most of the process.

Why should you bother balancing your checkbook every month? Well, you want to make sure your bank isn't quietly ripping you off with insane fees or making inaccurate entries, you'll be able to keep your spending plan as accurate as possible, you can avoid getting dinged with overdraft charges, and you'll be able to catch identity thieves fast if they try to jack your account. I'm pretty sure you don't want to be financially responsible for some thieving stranger's big-screen TV. Plus if you take half an hour (tops) to do this every month, it never gets the chance to morph into a heinous chore from hell (which it will become if you leave it for six months to a year).

Please don't be like my husband back in his young and stupid days. He hated balancing his checkbook so much, and was so far off tracking his spending, that it was easier for him just to wait until everything cleared, then close his checking account and open another one. (Yes, he told on himself for the sake of a good personal anecdote. Needless to say, he is no longer young and stupid.)

You will need:
  1. Half an hour to figure all this out.
  2. A computer with a money tracking program.
  3. Your monthly bank statement (paper or online).
  4. Receipts for things you've purchased in the last month.
Fire up the computer and start your tracking program. Got any receipts, ATM withdrawals, checks, etc. that you haven't entered into it yet? Get crackin'.

Once you've finished entering all the receipts you can find (for future reference, it's easiest to do this as soon as you buy stuff), get out your bank statement. There are at least two ways you can do this, depending on how hands-on you want to be: you can reconcile items one at a time, or you can use the program to automatically sync up your records with your bank statement. Just for the sake of knowing how to do it, you're going to learn how to reconcile items one at a time, and this example will be in Quicken because that's what I happen to use -- your own money tracking software may (and probably will) vary.

To balance your checkbook in Quicken, you first open the account you intend to balance (let's say checking), then under the Banking tab, click Reconcile. A statement summary screen will pop up, asking you to enter some items from your current statement -- the statement date, opening and closing balances, any service charges your bank levied (@&%$&), and any interest you earned for the month (woot). All this information should be readily available on your statement assuming your bank is doing its job right. Once you've done this, Quicken will move on to the reconcile screen which features two columns: the one on the left shows all withdrawals from your account (including checks), and the one on the right shows all deposits to your account. If you've been entering your receipts religiously, there will probably be more items on each of these lists than there are cleared items on your statement. There will also be at least a few items on your statement that you forgot to enter, but don't sweat it; you'll fix these as you find them.

Start with the checks. Some banks return cancelled checks with your statement; others send Xeroxed copies of the cancelled checks. Get your checks in order and, one by one, compare the check numbers (and amounts!) on your statement with the ones on your records. If they match, click on each entry in Quicken to check it off. (If you made a mistake when you entered the check amount, you can fix it by right-clicking on the entry and editing it in the register screen, then clicking Return to Reconcile. If your bank made a mistake cashing the check and it's off by more than a few pennies, call the bank and let them know. They should make it right.)

Next, move to the deposits. Clear each deposit the same way you clear the checks -- compare the deposits on your statement to the deposits in the right column, and check them off one by one.

Make sure any bank charges and interest are cleared. (If you entered these into the summary screen, they should be pre-cleared. Thanks, Quicken!)

Now you're going to clear the section that's likely to be the longest part of your statement: ATM withdrawals and debit purchases. It pays to be methodical, check every amount carefully and keep track of where you are in the statement. To help me keep track, I cross off each entry in the statement before checking it off in Quicken. You may have to pop into the register screen a few times and add in a withdrawal or purchase you forgot about, but the bank didn't. If you come across a purchase you know you didn't make, call your bank and ask about it ASAP. And keep special track of restaurant purchases -- sometimes waitstaff will decide your tip wasn't enough for their liking, and add on some more. I do understand most waiters and waitresses make crappy hourly wages before tips (and you should always leave a decent tip for good service), but this is still a form of theft and you should call people on it.

By the time you reach the end of this part of the statement, you should be checking the Difference total at the bottom right of the reconcile screen in Quicken. If you've gotten everything right, the total should come out to $0. (Congratulations!) Click Finished. You've balanced your checking account for the month. If you reach the end of your statement and the Difference total in Quicken is anything other than $0, you will have to go back over your statement carefully to make sure you didn't enter an amount incorrectly, miss an entry, or clear an entry that shouldn't have been cleared. Stick to it until you reach the magic $0. You can do it.

And that's checkbook balancing in the age of computers. You can use the same basic skills to balance your other accounts where you get statements, including your savings and credit cards.

Now aren't you glad you don't have to do this with a paper registry and a calculator or an abacus or something? Bleah. Sucktastic.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

How to write a thank-you note

I'm not exactly a techno-Luddite. This whole project never would've gotten off the ground if it weren't for the Internet and blogging. Taken as a whole, email, texting and social media are useful inventions that have done far more good than harm for our society. But tech has done one serious kind of damage: it's made us butt-lazy. If you're like most people under 30, you think a texted "thx" or a like on Facebook qualifies as a proper thank-you. Nope. Doesn't cut it. Real kindness requires real thanks in return, and if someone's been thoughtful enough to send you a gift, do you a favor or otherwise go above and beyond the call of duty for you, the proper response -- the grown-up response -- is to write and send a thank-you note.

Yes, an actual thank-you note on an actual paper notecard, with an actual envelope and stamp, sent via actual snailmail. You might not think such things exist any more, but you'd be wrong. And as fewer and fewer people bother to do the right thing, your effort to make life gracious is going to shine out like a ray of light in a dark world. (Plus a little something else to consider if you're a true mercenary: people who send thank-you notes to gift-givers are far more likely to get gifts again in future. You know, just FYI.)

You will need:
  1. A basic set of notecards with matching envelopes.
  2. A first-class mail rate stamp.
  3. An up-to-date address where you can send the thank-you note.
  4. A pen with black or blue-black ink.
  5. A piece of scratch paper to compose your note.
  6. A little time to think it over.
Thank-you notes are some of the easiest to compose, because they're short and have a specific formula. Ready? Here it is:

A. Greeting: refer to the gift-giver by name.
B. Gratitude: express thankfulness for the gift, action, money (referred to as "kindness" or "generosity," not by a dollar amount) or the person's willingness to let you stay at his/her house (always referred to as "hospitality.")
C. Use: how you intend to make use of the gift.
D. Past/Future: refer briefly to a recent event where you connected, and allude to a future event where you'll see him/her again (or, if that is unlikely, "You are in my thoughts.")
E. Gratitude 2: Electric Boogaloo: a restatement of thanks.
F. Close: a finish of "Love," "Much love," "Yours truly," or "Sincerely," followed by your name.

Want to see how it works? Here's a simple example, color-coded for your convenience:
Dear Uncle Cecil,

Thank you so much for the left-handed screwdriver. At last I can finish remodeling our back deck!
It was wonderful to see you and Aunt Gladys at Christmas. I look forward to seeing you again soon. Thanks again for your kindness.

That's it. You don't need to go on at length about what you're doing in school or at work, family gossip, or anything unrelated to the nature of the gift. It's pure and simple thanks. You also don't need to pile on the B.S. in a thank-you note; most people can tell when you're laying it on thick. If you wouldn't wear the nose-warmer Grandma knitted for you even if someone were to put a gun to your head, it is perfectly all right to say "It was so kind of you to think of me" and leave it at that.

If you're not sure just how you want to express your thanks, make some test runs on the scratch paper first until you've hammered out the bumps. Remember, the only kindnesses you don't refer to by their proper names are gifts of money or a visit to someone's house. Phrases like "Thank you for your generosity" or "I'm so grateful for your hospitality" work well here.

Once you know exactly what you want to say, it's time to turn to the notecard. Use pen (never pencil, and not any kind of novelty ink; keep it simple) and your best handwriting. If your longhand is impossible to read, you can use block letters -- but don't print it out on a computer! And if you make a major mistake, don't just scratch it out; get another notecard and try again. I know, I know, but if you're going to do this, you might as well get it right.

All done? Put the up-to-date address on the envelope front. If you make a mistake, get another envelope and try again.
If you've never addressed a snailmail letter before, here's how it works.
When it all looks right, ONLY THEN do you add the stamp, slip the notecard inside and seal the flap. (Learn from my fail.) Then get it into an outgoing mailbox or to your friendly neighborhood post office right away; you don't get points for writing a thank-you note if it sits unmailed next to your computer for weeks on end.

And there you have it! Now you can impress everyone you know with your gratitude, elegance and refinement. (Just remember to toss out the empty pizza boxes before they come over.)