Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Why 90 percent of self-help is useless

Wow. There's a title with some chutzpah. Here I am, writing what is essentially a self-help blog about becoming a real adult, and I've just asserted that most self-help doesn't do any good. Where do I get off saying that? And what, if anything, makes this blog different?

Let's take those questions one at a time, shall we?

I'm hardly the first person to notice -- nor will I be the last -- that self-help has become a huge and very lucrative industry. Considering the vast quantities of self-help books, movies, blogs (ehem), magazines, seminars, etc. at our disposal, every living person on earth ought to be an expert at everything by now. Yet people continue to buy books, attend seminars and pick up self-hypnosis kits with one goal in mind: shedding their personal insecurities and becoming better than they are today. It's almost as though some people are addicted to the idea of self-improvement.

The question is, after shooting up their self-help fix, do these people actually see any improvement in themselves?

David Wong of has written a clever (if somewhat profane) article that cuts to the heart of this problem: How 'The Karate Kid' Ruined The Modern World. Way too many of us think of skills to be mastered as though they were a 30-second training montage from an action film. In real life, the effort you must expend to master a skill is measured in months or years -- but in entertainment it's always edited down to a quick montage because, hey, watching people practice stuff is boring. Yet the brevity of these montages subtly encourages us to think we can become experts in less time than it takes to talk about it -- and later, we curl up and wail like infants when we find out that gaining expertise in a discipline requires a much bigger investment of time and effort.

We tend to read self-help books with the unconscious belief that reading is all that's required for us to enjoy the promised success, rather than actually getting off our duffs and doing what the books say to do. Worse, many of the people who write self-help materials deliberately exploit this widespread belief that success is effortless. (Think about titles like The 4-Hour Workweek, Think and Grow Rich, and 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot. They all point to the idea that personal change is easy and fast.) Even the media hop on board, perpetuating myths such as the "overnight success" of a suddenly-popular artist or band (ignoring the years of toiling in obscurity that an artist or band endured before making it big) or the idea that "natural talents" like Mozart emerged from the womb ready to write The Marriage of Figaro (hint: he didn't).

Here's a simple rule of thumb regarding success. If someone is making wheelbarrow-loads of cash doing something, you can pretty much count on one or both of these being true:
  1. It required a combination of significant time, effort and talent to get there.
  2. Something illegal is going on.
If Academy Award-level acting were easy, everyone would have an Oscar gathering dust on the mantelpiece. If it were trivially simple to learn speed skating or ice dancing, you'd see Winter Olympics medals being donated to Goodwill. And if everyone had what it took to become a neurosurgeon, brain surgeries would be a whole lot cheaper. Since you don't see these things, it's safe to assume that certain very lucrative activities require a certain base level of talent combined with a whopping crapload of effort, consistently applied over a very long time.

OK, so you get it. It's not enough to know your stuff. Reading self-help books doesn't make you successful, any more than smelling shampoo will give you clean hair.  The point is, no amount of reading is going to do you any good unless you actually get up and DO. IT.

So why is this blog different from other self-help?

Well, for one thing, because I'm telling you outright: The stuff I'm teaching you isn't always easy, and it isn't always fast.  It also requires more than just passive reading -- it requires consistent activity.  In other words, don't just read this blog for pleasure, GET OFF YOUR LAZY BUTT AND DO THIS STUFF.

When I write an entry on this blog -- say, an article on the basics of personal hygiene -- here's the behavior I expect from you, the reader:
  1. Read carefully. Smile at the snark, if it pleases you (and I hope it does).
  2. Review the points of the article to make sure you remember what you read.
That's it. In this case, it's literally lather, rinse, repeat until you've mastered the art of bathing.

Look, I don't expect you to master all this stuff next week. Becoming an adult does take time and work. But I do expect you to pick an article, read it, and PRACTICE THE STEPS until the skill becomes second nature to you. It may be hard at first, but it does get easier with practice -- so although I'm not going to tell you it's easy, I can definitely tell you that it's worth the effort.

Otherwise, if you don't bother to do anything with the information you learn here, this blog becomes part of the useless 90 percent of self-help materials, rather than the 10 percent that actually helps people effect change for the better.

But remember this: only your efforts determine which materials make up that useful 10 percent for you.

Act wisely, won't you?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How to find time

So, you're not one to brag or anything, but you've got skills. You know about emptying the junk drawer and rooting under the sofa cushions to round up enough change for a late-night Taco Bell run. You know how to find virtually anything online with your keenly-developed sense of Google Fu. You know exactly where to pop some tags when you only have $20 in your pocket.

But do you know how to find extra time?

Our society is full of people, adult or otherwise, who are constantly scrambling to find time to get things done. Most of them would tell you they have no free time available. And most of them would be wrong. If you really look at your waking hours and notice how they're used, you ought to be able to find a number of places in your busy day where valuable extra time is hiding out like a bicentennial quarter in a La-Z-Boy.

Let's take a look at some time-mining strategies, shall we?

Don't let things hang over your head. Got some project you're putting off indefinitely? *BZZT* Wrong! Endlessly procrastinating when you know you should be working on something is a surefire way to burn daylight for no good purpose. I know whereof I speak, since I'm a champion procrastinator; in my case, it's usually fear of failure that makes me stall out. If that's your problem too, try giving yourself permission to screw up -- as long as you keep working at it.

Start early or work late, but not both. Face it, some people are early birds; others are night owls. It may be hardwired into our brains to be one or the other. You could try to fight your programming, or you could make it work for you. If you prefer to get up early and work in the small hours when most people are still sleeping, go ahead on. (Just make sure your house or apartment is insulated against noise if you decide to vacuum at 5 a.m. Your neighbors will appreciate it.) On the other hand, if it's easier to stay up really late and work when everyone else is going to bed, do that instead. (And remember to put on the headphones if you want to enjoy some rousing death metal at 2 a.m.) But whichever method you choose, choose only one method. Getting up early and going to bed late all the time is colloquially known as "burning the candle at both ends." It's also known as "stupid." Burning yourself out is no way to get anything done. Besides, going into a sleep-deprivation coma takes up a whole lot of time.

Do things while you're waiting. Stuck in a soulless laundromat while your clothes flop lazily in the dryer? Bring a pencil and notebook with you and start writing down ideas or making sketches of current or future projects. Spending quality time with the DMV for the next two hours? Take along some portable project to work on (I knit socks). Phone company just put you on hold? Might as well fold that laundry or empty the dishwasher. Commuting to work by train or bus? What could you be doing with that half-hour-plus of free time? You get the idea. Modern life is filled with unavoidable waiting times; if you plan for them, you can use these spaces in your day to get needful stuff done and out of your way. (Or you can use them to become more literate. Using his smartphone and the Kindle app, which offers a library of classic book titles free of charge, Captain Midnight has read over a dozen classics of English literature in the last two years. He pops open his latest read any time he has more than 60 seconds to wait.)

Make your errands work double duty. During the gas crunch of the 1970s (yes, I'm old enough to remember that. Shut up, punk kid), people tried saving gas by looking over their errands, identifying and grouping together things that could all be done within a particular area, and accomplishing as many tasks as possible in one run. Even if you're not trying to save gas, errand planning can save you time -- especially if you can also plan out your errands to avoid the worst traffic times of the day.

Automate and delegate. Ever since I set up my checking account to pay my rent bill automatically, I don't have to take the time to do it any more. Doing that with all my fixed-cost utilities would save me even more time. If I sat down and thought about it, I could probably find many repetitive tasks I do weekly or monthly, and find ways to automate them -- everything from home grocery delivery to once-a-month cooking to planned laundry days.

And in situations where you value your time more than your money, things that can't be automated can often be delegated -- in other words, hire somebody else to do it for you. This isn't just a trick for celebrities and power brokers -- these kinds of services are available to everyone, and many of them cost less than you might think, especially if you shop around. Once when she was on a very tight production schedule, a friend of mine hired a professional maid service to come clean the house for her, allowing her to focus completely on her work. In that situation, she felt it was worth it to spend some money so she could free up her time.

During crunch times, turn off all electronic time-suckers for 24 hours. That means broom the TV, the game system, the computer and the cell phone. They can vacuum up huge amounts of time on the sly. When you're not tweaking Facebook or playing endless rounds of Words with Friends on your smartphone, big rolling vistas of time seem to open up in your schedule. You don't have to do this every day, but when you really need to get something done fast, temporarily getting the electronics out of your face is an easy way to free up a good chunk of time.

Don't be afraid to say no sometimes. If you have no time because you're constantly agreeing to do things for or with other people, start taking a few rain checks or just flat turning them down (politely, of course). If it makes you feel nervous or you still feel pressure to participate, consider: you have limited time on earth, and you have every right to decide how to spend your precious time in the way you think best. Don't let people walk over you -- stand up for your own life!

Make like Ferris Bueller and give yourself a day off. This might not make sense to some of you at first. "I'm trying to find time, not waste it!" But if you're religious, you probably already know the personal side benefits that come from having a day of rest every week. Even if you're not religious, you need to designate a day off to rest, recharge and prepare for the week ahead. Unless you have an emergency on-call job like firefighter, police officer or doctor, DO NOT let work intrude on this day off. (Time to practice your newfound "saying no" skills.) I promise you will start seeing a positive difference in your sense of personal peace and your attitude toward life within a few weeks.

Now you know how to find extra time to do all sorts of things. So, in the classically eloquent words of Mr. Daniel Lawrence Whitney, "GIT-R-DONE!"

Saturday, April 13, 2013

How to sew on a button

I'm not a sewing expert. Nonetheless, just as everyone who eats needs some basic cooking skills, everyone who isn't a nudist needs to master some simple skills in mending clothes. And here's the most common fix: sewing on a button that's come loose. I know -- how hard can it be to sew on a button? But as with so many other tasks, there's a right way and a wrong way to get it done.

There are two types of buttons you sew on: shank buttons and flat buttons. The shank button is smooth or rounded on top with no visible holes, and a loop on the underside (called a shank) through which you loop the thread to sew it to the garment. The flat button has two or four holes centered in the middle of the button; you use the holes to sew the button to the fabric.

Clearly I'm slumming it around here and should be wowing the professors in art school.
Whether or not they come with one built in, all buttons need shanks. Think of the shank as "breathing room" between the button and the fabric it's sewn to, enough space to allow the buttonhole to fit easily around the button. If you sew a flat button down too tightly, it won't hold the garment closed properly, or the button may tear the fabric or pop off from the stress (kind of like a college student's head during finals).

As it happens, my niece recently popped a button off her skirt, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and document the whole process for posterity. Thanks to the talented Michele for taking some of these pictures, since I don't have three hands.

You will need:
  1. A few minutes' time.
  2. A matching flat button to be sewn on.
  3. A thin sewing needle (needles sold as "sharps" are good choices).
  4. Sewing thread.
  5. A shank spacer, such as a tapestry needle, toothpick or matchstick.
  6. Sharp scissors.
YES! Welcome to the wonderful world of PHOTOGRAPHY!
Start with a button that matches the others on the garment, if at all possible. If you're fortunate enough to have the original button that popped off (as I did), by all means use it. If it rolled away and is lost for good, first check along the inside seams of your garment; sometimes the manufacturer will sew on an extra button or two for mending purposes. If that fails, you can snag a button from somewhere else on your garment where it's unlikely to be noticed (at the lower hem of a skirt or a shirttail is usually a good place), sew that one on, and replace the less noticeable button with one that's close to the same color, shape and size. If you're ~=*!!!SUPER OCD MAN!!!*=~ and the idea of mismatched buttons anywhere on a garment drives you batty, you could remove ALL the buttons from the garment, buy a matching set of replacement buttons that are the same diameter as the originals, and sew them all on using this method. Or you could just follow your doctor's advice and take your meds.

Any loose threads still attached to your button? Trim them off before you begin. Nice and neat.

Thread your sewing needle with about 18 inches of thread in a matching color...

...and pull it through until the thread is doubled over on itself. You can tie a knot in the tail end if you want, but you really don't need to.

Give the garment a close look. You should be able to find the place where the button popped off (helpfully indicated by the blindingly white arrow here) -- it will have small, regularly spaced holes where the stitches used to be, or a rough spot in the fabric. If you can't find it, just button up the garment neatly and poke the needle through the empty buttonhole to find the right spot.

Time to secure the thread. Flip the garment over to the wrong side and, at the point where you're going to sew on the button, make two or three small stitches in the same space. If you didn't knot the thread, leave a thread "tail" a few inches long at the end of your first stitch, then hold these thread ends in place with your thumb so they don't slip out of the fabric as you take the second stitch.

After the third stitch, the thread should be nice and secure. Trim off the thread end "tail" fairly close to the stitching.

Poke the needle through to the right side of the fabric and draw the thread all the way through, preparing to sew on the button. Check the wrong side to make sure you haven't left a rat's nest of tangled thread back there. You may need to pull gently on one side or the other of the doubled thread to close up any thread loops on the wrong side.

Look at the other buttons on the garment to see how they're aligned. The buttons on this particular skirt are vertically aligned, with stitching running from the top to the bottom holes.

So align your button the same way, in just the spot where you want it to be.

Poke the needle through the top hole of the button and draw the thread through.

Before you do anything else, grab your shank spacer and place it between the two button holes as shown. I used a big ol' tapestry needle because it happened to be in reach and its smooth metal surface makes it easy to remove, but I could have used a matchstick or a toothpick or even a super-small knitting needle. You'll have to hold the spacer in place with your non-dominant hand while you sew with the other one.

Poke the needle through the bottom hole to the wrong side of the fabric, and draw the thread all the way through, looping it over the shank spacer and pulling it taut. First stitch made.

Repeat this process several times -- poking the needle up through the top hole, drawing the thread through, looping it around the shank spacer and down through the bottom hole -- until you've got a good number of stitches in place. Pull gently on the sewing thread as needed to make sure you aren't leaving loose, messy loops of thread on either side of the fabric. Since your thread is doubled, it shouldn't take very long until you've got a nice solid loop of threads, like this.

Now pretend you're Arthur with the sword in the stone and, with one bold move, pull out your shank spacer. Tadaaa! You are rightwise king of England!

Next up: form the shank. Poke the needle through to the right side of the fabric (but NOT through a button hole) and draw the thread all the way through...

...then wrap the thread four or five times around the sewn threads underneath the button to complete the thread shank...

...and poke the needle back through the fabric at the same spot it came out, drawing the thread through and making sure it's nice and taut.

Back on the wrong side of the fabric, take a few small stitches to secure the thread...

...and take one more stitch, but before drawing the thread through completely, thread the needle through the thread loop and pull it tight to create a knot that's flush against the surface of the fabric. Then trim off the thread.

All done!

Fasten the new button to make sure it looks all right. Then air-guitar like a rock star at the awesomeness of your well-done job.

(Four-hole flat buttons work almost exactly the same way -- you just create an X with your threads, alternately sewing vertical and horizontal stitches over the shank spacer. And shank buttons just need to be sewn firmly down without any added spacing, since the shank is already built into the button.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Basic cooking skills, part 2: Beans

If you've been living on your own for a while, you probably already know that not all cheap food is good, and not all good food is cheap. But a few foods are both. Dry beans and other legumes fall into this category. They've got all kinds of great nutrients, they're super cheap (as I write this, you can buy a pound of dry beans -- which cooks up to about 6 or 7 cups of rehydrated beans -- for less than $2), they can be paired with rice or corn to make a complete protein, they feature in all kinds of recipes and they're absolutely delicious.

So if dry beans are so awesomesauce, why don't more people cook them from scratch? Well, because most people are clueless about dry beans. They don't know where to start, or they think it's going to be super-difficult and take a long time, or they worry about the heartbreak of flatulence, and they have a complete mental meltdown. None of these things are going to be an issue if you know what to do. And you will know what to do by the time you finish reading this!

You will need:
  1. 16 oz. or about 2 cups of dry beans, any type you like (or whatever's on sale)
  2. a place to spread them out, such as a clean countertop
  3. a source of clean drinkable water
  4. a colander or sieve
  5. a large cooking pot with a lid
  6. a stove or fire
  7. savory additions (optional; see below)
  8. a lazy weekend to cook your first big mess o' beans

Sorting it out

The first thing you gotta do is sort your beans. Find a clean countertop or tabletop and spread the beans out on it, sorting through them bit by bit to get rid of any rocks, dirt clods, seeds, sticks and other non-bean objects that were lurking in the bag. (Don't think you can skip this step. Once when I was a kid, my mom took a chance with dry beans that looked "ehhh, clean enough" and proceeded to make a big batch of homemade chili flavored with rocks and dirt chunks. YEARS of therapy, people.)

Spread the beans out on a clean counter or tabletop. Working methodically, pull a few beans aside at a time, looking for hidden dirt, rocks, straw, and anything else that isn't a bean. When you find a non-bean, discard it and keep going until you've sorted the whole batch. That's it!

Washing it up

Once you're done sorting, dump the beans into a colander or sieve (anything that will hold beans, but won't hold water) and rinse them thoroughly under clean running water -- under the tap of a sink is ideal. By "rinse them thoroughly" I mean turn all the beans over in the sieve with your fingers, getting them completely wet. You're looking to get rid of any lingering dust and dirt, which if you're wondering is not delicious at all.

Prepping and cooking

Pour your washed beans into a large cooking pot and cover them with water, several inches above the level of the beans. (They're going to soak up water and expand as they cook, so you need to give them enough water and enough room.)

If you have beans that don't require pre-soaking, such as Anasazi beans, you can skip right to cooking, but most dry beans must be pre-soaked before they're cooked. You can do this one of two ways: the lazy method or the fast method. The lazy method involves just putting the lid on the pot and letting the beans soak about 6 hours. The fast method involves putting the beans over the stove or fire, letting them come to a boil, IMMEDIATELY PULLING THEM OFF THE HEAT, clapping the lid on and letting them soak for an hour. (This one time I started quick soaking a pot of beans and went off to run some errands, forgetting to take them off the heat. Did you know that burned beans smell like really bad coffee? Well, our entire apartment complex knew it by the time I got home. Pull them off the heat. Please.)

On to cooking! Drain the soaking water from the beans and top them up with fresh water. It's not crucial, but if you can find an herb called epazote at a Mexican market or in the Hispanic food aisle of the supermarket, add a little bit to your beans now. Put them over the fire, bring them to a boil, drop the heat down to a simmer, put the lid on slightly tilted for ventilation, and let the beans cook until they soften and become tender enough to mash between your fingers, about 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours depending on the type and age of bean and your kitchen's height above sea level. (Soybeans take FOREVER to cook; don't bother.) Stir the beans every now and then so they don't stick to the bottom of the pot, and check to make sure they're not running out of water, adding more if it looks like they need it. Notice there's no mention of putting salt in the beans. That's because beans take longer to cook if you add salt or acid to them. Oh, and fish out the epazote before the beans are done.

Jazzing it up

Now you have a whole pot of basic beans, without any additions or spicing. Right now they're dead boring. So here are some ideas for jazzing them up:

Salted and/or smoked pork products and beans love each other. Leftover ham, pork hocks, salt pork, cooked crumbled bacon, smoked sausage -- they're all yummy with beans. They're also salty, so let the beans cook on their own for a while before you add the pork. If you can't get enough of the smoky flavor of Babe, pick up some liquid smoke seasoning at the supermarket and add about a quarter teaspoon or so to your pot of beans. (WARNING: This stuff's concentrated, so go easy with it until you know how much you like.) Also, here's my mom's super secret addition: in the last half hour of cooking, add a can of evaporated milk (NOT sweetened condensed milk) to the pot of beans, and mash up about a cup of beans and add them back in. It makes the bean broth thick and velvety and super delicious.

For a basic vegetarian mess of beans: chop up an onion, sauté it until it's translucent, and throw it into your beans. Throw in some pressed cloves of garlic or some garlic powder (or both! Why not?), and a teaspoon or two of dried thyme. Near the end of cooking, fling in some canned tomatoes or a combination of tomatoes and diced green chilies. Taste to check for seasoning. Eat with cornbread. (Yes, if you're interested, I can teach you how to make cornbread.)

Drain most of the liquid off the beans, mash the beans up with a potato masher, fry them in a little lard or bacon drippings (adding some liquid back if necessary), and you've got homemade frijoles refritos. Sprinkle with Mexican white cheese and eat with gusto and a spoon, or spread on a tortilla as part of the filling for a bean burrito.

Make yourself some red beans and rice. Sing praises to the glorious gods of New Orleans cooking.

Cut up some bell peppers and a red onion, mix it with a cup of corn kernels and a cup of drained home-cooked beans, pour some Italian dressing or vinaigrette over the whole thing, stir and marinate in the fridge a few hours, and you've got a delicious bean salad.

It's time to explore some chili recipes. Or, if you're from Down East, baked bean recipes.

You can even make desserts with beans. No kidding. This awesome flourless chocolate cake recipe features blended black beans (say that three times fast), and black bean brownies have gotten popular with moms who are trying to sneak some nutrition into their kids' desserts.

Silencing the musical fruit

The biggest problem most people have with beans is the dreaded Fart Factor. Beans contain a sugar that humans cannot completely digest, and the result is usually post-meal tooting. I've already identified two ways to cut down on the musicality of beans: change the soaking water before cooking, and add a little bit of epazote to the beans. You can also cook the beans until they're soft (al dente texture is not a virtue with beans) and make sure you chew them well to cut down on flatulence. If you eat beans regularly, your body will adjust to digesting them. And if you're still consumed with social anxiety, buy a bottle of Beano and take a few pills before eating your beans.

Finding time to cook

"Cooking beans takes too long," I hear you whine. (Really, you've got a carrying voice.) Well, yeah, it takes longer than fast food, but most real cooking does. More than time, though, what real cooking takes is a small amount of planning ahead -- and adults know how to plan ahead. With that said, there are ways to cut down on bean-cooking time.

Divide the labor between days to make it easier. You can cook your basic beans on a lazy weekend day (as suggested up top) and refrigerate or freeze them in small containers. Then they're prepped and ready to use whenever the urge to sling hash happens to hit you. Frozen beans tend to break down, so it's best to use them in recipes where the beans don't have to be whole, like cream soups and bean-based desserts.

Beans can become fast food if you have a pressure cooker. The time needed to cook beans under pressure drops from hours to minutes -- five to eight minutes at 15 pounds pressure, to be precise. NOT ALL BEANS PLAY WELL WITH PRESSURE COOKERS, however, so read your cooker's directions first or you could end up with beans all over your ceiling.

If working with a pressure cooker scares the beans out of you, try the other end of the spectrum and use a slow cooker. You can load it up with soaked beans and liquid and other goodies in the morning, plug it in, set it and go to work or school or Disneyland or whatever else it is you're doing for eight hours. Come home and you'll have a hot meal waiting for you.

Beans are glorious! They are delicious! They are dead cheap! And they don't have to be musical! Mastering the art of dry bean cookery sets you free from oversalted, overpriced cans of beans -- and it also makes you a magnet for the honeys. Really. Try it if you don't believe me.

(More basic cooking skills to come. As always, send in your requests for the next installment.)