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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How to replace a toilet paper roll

Based on the plethora of anguished cries from spouses and significant others all over the planet, I've deduced that knowing how to replace a toilet paper roll properly is a) a sure sign of adulthood and b) in danger of becoming arcane wisdom. Let's try to rectify that today, shall we?

Steady, folks. I know this one is gonna be a toughie. The good news is that once you've gotten the basics down, you can change toilet paper rolls in residential bathrooms all over North America (unless they've gotten their TP dispensers from IKEA or something. Curse you, IKEA, you and your wily weird Scandinavian TP dispensers!). Never again need you flail about helplessly in the restroom, waiting for someone -- anyone -- to come and restore the TP to full working order, for YOU SHALL HAVE SKILLS.

You will need:
  1. a spring-loaded type toilet paper dispenser with an empty toilet paper roll on it
  2. a new roll of toilet paper
  3. minimal manual dexterity
  4. about 30 seconds of your time
Relax. Take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that others have done successfully what you're about to accomplish. If it helps you achieve a Zen-like state, be seated on the throne in lotus position and meditate upon the paradox of soft-yet-strong quilted paper.

When you're ready...

...turn to the task at hand. (Please ignore the ducks. They've invaded our bathroom and nothing we can do will dissuade them from hanging out atop the toilet tank.)

The bar across the center of this TP dispenser is spring-loaded. With boldness, grasp one end of the bar (it doesn't really matter which one -- just pick a side)...

...push firmly toward the other end, and guide the bar down and out of the brackets.

Assuming the spring-loaded bar didn't make a break for freedom and leap toward the floor, you now have a bar with an empty TP roll on it.

As the ducks look on in wonder, grab the empty roll and slide it off the bar. Houston, we have separation.

Once the empty roll is off, feel free to recycle it, craft it into some treasure of trash, or just fling it in the bin with utter insouciance. (Live for the moment, I say!)

Now pick up your trusty new roll of toilet paper...

... and slide the bar right through the handy-dandy hole in the middle.

The never-ending jihad known as Over or Under will not be discussed here. You figure out what works for your household and leave me out of it, OK?

Now you're going to perform a reverse version of the maneuver you used to get the bar off: fit one side of the bar into one bracket...

... press the bar in until it compresses a little...

... and guide the other end of the bar into the other bracket.

Mission accomplished! You now have a working roll of toilet paper, ready to go.

What you choose to do with it next is up to you.