What I Wish School Had Taught Me about Operating as a Human Being

A pile of purple, green, and black composition notebooks.

More than a decade and a half has passed since I graduated high school, and I still find myself rehashing all the areas that my formal education failed me. Sometimes these realizations come in the form of gentle curiosity after I’ve learned something interesting or useful: “Huh. Why didn’t I learn that in school?” Sometimes they occur with the angry energy of a rant, the kind that happens when I’m out walking and my strides give power to my ideas.

A certain amount of my ire is directed at college, where I didn’t study what I should have, didn’t understand that you’re supposed to be networking and interning, and then made the rookie mistake of graduating in 2008, when the recession hit. But I can say, at least, that when I signed up for a college course about a given subject, I went to class and learned about that subject. This is not so for my K-12 education, which was marked by excessive repetition, lack of choice, and a deficiency of skills that I would later find I needed.

Here are the skills I wish school had taught me, in approximate order of how bitter I am about them, going from “why didn’t school bother to tell me this?” to “wow, not knowing this kind of fucked up my life.”

How to learn new skills

Schools can’t teach every single thing you’re going to need to know in your life. Even better curricula than we have now can’t anticipate every possible way your life could go. But they could at least assume you’ll have to learn new skills at some point.

I learned about flashcards and mnemonic devices in school, but not every skill or subject benefits from rote memorization. As an adult, I’ve almost never used those techniques.

Schools should help students find answers to the following questions:

  • If you have a brand new subject, how do you approach it?
  • What are different learning tactics you could try?
  • What are different learning styles that people gravitate to?
  • How do you identify your weak areas and improve them?

Organizational skills

When I was a kid, I thought that organization meant using a five-subject notebook and occasionally rearranging the contents of my desk and backpack. I thought it meant shoving the infinitely-tentacled monster that is Your Mess into rows of 12x12x12 color-coded storage cubes with neat labels. Like the author of this article, this is what I learned from the Berenstain Bears.

In reality, organization means having the things you need and use in the places where you’ll actually use them, without having to spend forever searching. It means knowing what tasks you have before you, and why you have to do them.

Organizational skills are survival skills. I only learned them because I needed to organize writing notes, but when I finally ended up in an office job situation, they started helping me immediately.

Labor laws

A good friend recently emailed the HR department of his company to inform them that a supervisor had told workers they would be fired if they discussed their wages with one another. He told HR that he hoped it was a misunderstanding because of course, it’s illegal to forbid workers from discussing wages. That kind of environment encourages wage gaps and inequality.*

The friend who called out this supervisor was someone with a college degree working at a blue-collar job, and suspected that this was an intentional move to exploit less-educated people.

But every person in that room should’ve been in a position to call out the supervisor. Better yet, these rights should be so well-known that the supervisor would have never said anything in the first place. This is something that should be on the same level as “don’t run red lights” and “the earth is round.” Everyone knows these things, and we take it for granted that others know these things too. (Flat earthers, exit left.)

Ostensibly, the purpose of school is to prepare students for the workforce. To put them through school without any kind of grounding in what their rights will be as workers is to set them up to be exploited.

Budgeting

So-called smart kids** took algebra, geometry, and pre-calculus in high school. “Dumb kids” took remedial math classes and learned functional budgeting skills.

Is the logic there that the smart kids would end up with middle-class jobs and have enough money to burn that they wouldn’t need to budget?

Learning to budget is more about prioritizing, organizing, and making decisions than it is about actual math. And honestly? Knowing yourself well enough to prioritize what’s important is way fucking harder than math.

Here’s another benefit of learning to budget in school: if everyone knows the basics, no one can write any more budgeting articles that open with supposedly eye-opening math that shows us all how much our daily lattes cost.

Because we all, apparently, buy daily lattes. Whose life is this?

Critical thinking

The art of aggressively asking why, critical thinking involves poking ideas with a stick until assumptions fly out like bees. 

It isn’t only for academia; it’s for everything. It’s a skill I learned in tandem from college and from my partner, who was ahead of me on thinking skills when we were teenagers.

As with sex, we should all be asking if we want our daughters to pick it up on the street from their boyfriends, or if we should teach it in schools and make sure they have the correct information. Right? Uh…

Best to teach it as early as possible because it unlocks the ability to learn other skills better and to come to a deeper understanding of everything we read.

You can have no science without it. You can’t analyze a piece of literature. You can’t learn history in any meaningful way, or apply what you learn to what’s going on in the world today with questions like “Do conditions in the United States today resemble Germany in the 1930s?”

Without critical thinking, you end up with flat earthers. (Hey guys! You still here? Awkward…)

You can apply critical thinking skills to everything else on this list. You can apply it to products being advertised to you and people with suspicious motives. Critical thinking allows you to improve all different areas of your life and helps you to make better choices.

Writing process

Another thing you can’t do without critical thinking?

You can’t write. Writing is thinking, and thinking is writing. If you’re writing without thinking, all you’re doing is regurgitating.

No wonder writing those first school essays and book reports is so agonizing. Children are instructed to use roman numerals to outline thoughts they’ve been taught not to have. 

I earned a C for one quarter of high school English because the entire grade was based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and I didn’t yet know how to turn my thoughts about The Scarlet Letter–“I fucking hated this book, and although I’m anti-book-burning, I’ll turn the other way if you light that match”–into the form of writing.

Only one teacher ever taught me the nuts and bolts of working through several drafts, improving first the story structure, then drilling down to the line level, and then editing. Even in college, this isn’t something that was taught.

And I have a degree in writing.

We didn’t learn about drafting fast and messy to find the heart of what you’re saying. How to change focus if you need to. How to choose a thesis sentence. How to adjust your topic to a particular length, which is something I’m working on right now–I wrote 300 words under this writing heading in first draft, only to delete them and add another 300 words that support my point better.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Movement

By movement, I mean some combination of formal anatomy instruction and a pragmatic understanding of how your body works. I don’t need to remember the name of the gastrocnemius (one of the calf muscles) to understand how it interacts with my foot muscles.

While critical thinking necessitates that I despise the saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I went through exactly the kind of experience that compels people to say that. At age 28, I had two severe back spasms. My mom had to pick me up from work, and the drive home on smooth, well-paved roads sent branches of excruciating pain into my lower back. After being dropped off, I spent 45 minutes kneeling over a chair because I couldn’t handle movement.

I spent much of the next few years in a state of desperation and confusion, binge-reading online about any stretches that might help fix my back. Eventually, doing all those stretches, observing their effects, and learning more about my anatomy led to a muscle-level understanding of how my body works.

My last back spasm was two-and-a-half years ago. 

As much as I hated gym class volleyball with all the fiery apathy of a true geek, I can look back and see it as an under-utilized opportunity to teach something important.

Drawing

Just as the smart kids are filtered out and sent to trigonometry, so too are the artistically-inclined picked out. Only in this case, instead of being sent to a different math class, the non-artists are pulled from art classes altogether.

Art and writing suffer from the same fallacy: that you can do them if you’re naturally talented, but there’s no sense bothering otherwise. The idea that drawing or any other skill comes from talent rather than focused learning and practice serves only to disempower people who would otherwise love to do those things and would probably benefit from them.

Writing is thinking and thinking is writing.

Drawing is seeing.

I taught myself to draw, which means I taught myself to observe.

In the capitalist paradigm, perception of value comes solely from a skillfully executed, salable product rather than from the process itself. But when the process of writing is thinking, and the process of drawing is seeing, how can anyone say that’s worthless?

Social skills

One of the arguments that I always hear in favor of sending children to school (as opposed to homeschooling or unschooling them) is that children need proper socialization, a term which is both unquestioned and ill-defined. Nothing about my experiences in school taught useful social skills, unless keeping your head down and praying you’re in a class with your friends count as social skills.

The way we teach social skills to children is like throwing them into a pit of venomous snakes to help them learn how to suck the poison out of wounds. You have victims and bullies, all of them traumatized on some level. None of them know how to act.

When you grow up and get a job, you’re going to be interacting with other adults, ones who are hopefully long past the ruthless little psychopath stage. A professional environment has certain behaviors that are expected, and there’s no reason why kids can’t be told what they are upfront. Plus, none of the skills I wrote about above affect your ability to land a job—it’s down to networking.

Learning social skills by osmosis is easier for some people than others. If we’re even going to use the term “social skills,” why not treat them as though they can be learned? When you don’t teach them, you end up with thirty-four-year-olds who still don’t understand how making eye contact works. And thanks to smartphones, the need to explicitly teach these skills has only become more acute.

Mental health awareness

Years ago, I was in a Job Lot with my partner, and a commercial for antidepressants came on. I said something like, “Maybe if you’re depressed, the problem is that you’re a loser.”

Ouch.

What the fuck, right? Who says that?

If I heard someone say that now, I’d want to smack them with a sack of discount aquarium pebbles. I winced writing it both because of how harsh it is and how much it reveals about my mental state at the time. It’s like travelling to the past and staring directly into my own brain.

I said that in 2008 or 2009, when I was unemployed after college, and the most depressed I’ve been in my life. And I had no idea because I wouldn’t be diagnosed until 2012, and I didn’t start reading about mental health until after my diagnosis.

What would my life have been if I had gone through a routine screening? What would my life have been if I’d known about my mental health issues when I was seventeen instead of twenty-seven? What if my parents had known that I wasn’t just a quiet kid, but that I had severe social anxiety and needed extra help approaching people or making phone calls?

I’ve lost a lot of time.

Ideally, children would be screened for mental health problems from a young age. But let’s say that’s not happening in a medical setting, for any number of reasons. After all, if the education system in the United States is a mixed-up Rubik’s cube, the medical establishment is one that has been smashed with a hammer. And let’s say schools don’t have the budget to offer screenings to every kid.

At the least, wouldn’t it be nice if a middle or high school health class dedicated a little time to mental health issues? Even a month, a week, or a day would be better than nothing. At the least, wouldn’t it be better to give kids the information to recognize when they need to get more help?


Part of the problem is that I’m not totally sure what the purpose of school is, and I don’t think school knows either. Is it to help students grow up and find better jobs? If so, where are the practical on-the-job skills? Is it to brainwash mindless cogs-in-the-machine? If so, why bother with literature and art? Is it to create better citizens or to bestow the kind of liberal arts education that was once the province of only the rich?

In lieu of struggling with these questions purposefully, I see reactive additions and subtractions to school curricula. They come without question of what the ultimate goal should be.

We need more technology! Buy computers.

We can’t afford things on our anemic budget! Cut art.

My negative experiences in school are a huge reason why I aim to homeschool my own child, and to consider even that option with a critical eye. Half the skills I write about in this post combine into a single way of looking at the world, one which involves seeking new input, processing, and thinking. The other half falls into self-protective skills for navigating the world. Together, they give me a starting point for finding the skills I need to pass on, whether or not I am ultimately the one in the position of teaching them. Rather than use my own deficient experiences to form a reactive plan for my child, I’ll ask better questions myself, and make my plan from their answers.

That goes for me and all my future learning as well.


*Side note: we’re in America where everyone is touchy about money and we’re all supposed to pretend that class doesn’t exist. Not that many people discuss their wages anyway.

**Smart doesn’t mean smart. Smart means college-bound, due to a variety of factors that don’t always have anything to do with intelligence.


While editing an upcoming post, I learned “curriculum” can be pluralized as either “curriculums” or “curricula.”

I chose to use “curricula” because
A. It makes me sound smarter.
B. It brings to mind an eight-legged monster with a pile of textbooks for a thorax.

Yeah. Mostly the last one.

Nine reasons to cut your own hair (besides saving money)

Haircutting shears, thinning shears, haircutting razor, comb

I perpetrated my first DIY haircut one night in my college dorm, in the grubby common bathroom. Some kind of hair-demon possessed me and whipped me into a frenzy that would not allow me to sleep or focus on anything else until I had less hair on my head. Instead of putting off the haircut until a more convenient time, making an appointment, or at least doing a quick internet search to learn what to do, I grabbed some hair from the center of my head, pulled it out to my nose, and chopped it off with what I assume were not actual haircutting scissors.

Only then, I realized my mistake and took to the internet. I forget if I Googled, or LiveJournaled, or possibly even went on AOL Instant Messenger, which hung on with the strength of the undead for many years after AOL itself became a clownish relic of the 90s. All I remember is that I told my friend Bonnie about the weird little hair-fangs hanging down my forehead, and Bonnie said, “Come over. I can fix it.”

This was accomplished with a great deal of mediocre pizza.

The lesson I took from my screw-up wasn’t that I should be patient and let a professional take care of things for me: it was that I should learn the skills Bonnie had.

I’ve now been cutting my own hair for fourteen years, and I’ve learned a lot in the process. My worst mistakes now have nothing on the hair-fangs of 2005.

People often cite money as a reason to cut your own hair. Do the math! Think of how much money you’ll save! Money has been a motivating factor for me, but after years of DIY haircuts, I’ve found other reasons as well. Here are a few to consider:

You are not a telepath.

How many people have a story about asking the stylist to “just take off an inch” and ending up with a drastic haircut? You can describe something to a stylist in detail, and you can bring pictures, but it’s hard not to lose something in translation. This happens even with pictures because a haircut on someone else must be translated to your own hair and head shape.

I’ve gotten more accurate with my descriptions since I started cutting my own hair. The last time I had a professional haircut, three years ago, I described what I wanted so well that I was disappointed: she gave me the exact cut I would’ve given myself at home.

You have long hair.

If you have long hair, you also have large margin of error. I might be biased (as a short hair person since the age of twelve), but I don’t see much point to hair more than half a foot past your shoulders. Nothing after that is going to change how you look. The hair around your face has more impact than ends trailing down your mid-back to your butt.

Every inch of hair you have beyond that “just past the shoulders” point adds to your margin of error. Unless you truly love the feeling of a ponytail long enough to tie your shoes with, consider the extra length to be breathing room.

Or an easy haircut.

Again, this applies to long hair, or at least long hair cut to a single length, no bangs, no layers. It also applies to a straightforward buzzcut. If you have an easy haircut, why not give it a shot?

Be a fearless badass.

Fearlessness liberates you, and cutting your own hair is a safe way to practice it. I’ve heard people who jumped out of a plane say how exhilarated and free they felt after finally doing it.

That’s nice. I’m still not jumping out of a plane.

I have a number of anxiety problems, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. I overthink everything. I don’t need my hair to be yet another area of my life that’s ruled by anxiety. Eff that noise–if I find myself over-worrying about my hair, I chop it off.

Satiate the hair madness immediately.

Even if you don’t cut your own hair on a regular basis, if you learn how to, it’s always an option that’s available. Such as if you are possessed by the same hair madness I had that night in college and need to cut your hair immediately in the middle of the night.

Cut your hair in stealth.

Last year, I decided to go back to a pixie cut. I had grown out my previous pixie into an undercut with a long top–too long, falling onto my shoulders. In pictures, I don’t look like myself. The hair demon, it turns out, was part of me all along. Twist!

I didn’t want the “You cut your hair!” attention that a sudden, drastic haircut brings, so I decided I would cut little bits at a time and stretch the haircut out over several months. Usually, this meant setting a timer for three to five minutes, and cutting off just a bit before taking a shower.

Only three or four people noticed until I made it past the one-year mark, made a mistake, and buzzed off a bunch to even it out.

Part of the reason I did this was also as a learning experience. I hoped that by cutting less at a time, I might better learn how to deal with some of the awkward, in-between lengths. The stealth haircut (also known as the slow haircut) worked out well in that regard too.

I learned that if you only cut a small section at a time and don’t like the result, it’s easy to see where you went wrong.

Express yourself.

If you wake up one morning and you’re not in a “having this stupid lock of hair on the side of my head” kind of mood, you can snip that thing off. When you cut your own hair, your haircut is more directly tied to your self-expression. Hair becomes another art form to explore. Your haircut can be a reaction to how you’re feeling. You can put away parts of your personality and bring other ones up front for awhile.

Avoid small talk.

Are you too awkward to have a stranger cut your hair? That’s been my experience for most of my life. Cut your hair by yourself, cut the small talk.

Then you can free the rambling, singing deranged person you keep under that awkward exterior.

Increase your independence.

Despite the fear so many people have, cutting your own hair is like anything else where you have the option of calling a professional versus doing it yourself. I’ve changed my own oil, jumped a battery, and replaced my car’s door handle with some help from youtube.

If I wanted, I could do all my own oil changes myself. But I have a small, low car, and it’s a hassle to get under there. Also, considering the cost of oil itself, I’m not saving an enormous amount of money by passing that job off to someone else.

And ultimately, even after learning all the benefits of cutting my own hair, I’m more clear on when it makes sense to call a professional. Sometimes, you want to take advantage of how much easier it is for someone else to blend the hair on the back of your head. Maybe you like having your scalp touched. Maybe you want to get the fuck out of your apartment. Maybe you’ve calculated how many hours of your life it costs to make the money to get the haircut, and the haircut makes you happy enough that you don’t care. Or you hate cutting your own hair the same way many people hate vacuuming, and you especially hate cleaning hair scraps out of the bathroom sink.

For many years, my treat to myself on my birthday was a professional haircut.

There’s an attitude many people have that cutting your own hair is basically the equivalent of a sloppy chainsaw murder, especially if you’re a woman and your hair is supposed to be your crowning glory. I don’t like the assumption that you shouldn’t cut your own hair because you’ll fuck it up, and that you need to hand the job over to someone who’s had the proper training because under no circumstances should you ever set foot outside with a less than perfect haircut.

Even worse is the assumption that you can never learn to cut your own hair; hairstylists are not human beings who attend schools, start out knowing nothing, and learn through reading and practice. They’re, like, mythical spirits of hair, and you can never learn to do what they do.

Those attitudes are willfully disempowering people.

Instead of looking at DIY haircuts with fear, it should be seen as another area where we have a choice. There’s a world of difference between choosing to call a professional, and being helpless to do anything but call a professional.

Income tax, vigilantes, and other things I didn’t know about Prohibition

I assumed that renting a six-hour documentary when I have a toddler was a ridiculous act of optimism. Surely, in these tiring times, my partner and I would lack the mental energy to watch a history documentary instead of the same episodes of 30 Rock for the billionth time. Surely, if we managed to start it at all, we would manage about 45 minutes. Then we would return it to the library, making sure not to do anything to invite a conversation with the librarian about our documentary-watching failure. I had high expectations about Ken Burns’ Prohibition, but I still didn’t expect it to be so fascinating that I would be motivated to finish it well before it was due.

The surprising twist of Prohibition is that one of these items turns out to be illegal.

I learned so many interesting things about Prohibition—and especially the social conditions leading up to it–that I have found myself telling people about it all the time. I don’t know how many unspoken social conventions I’ve broken by blurting out Prohibition stories in the middle of a conversation, but here are some of the ones that have stuck with me.

Income tax is just over 100 years old.

Since I never learned otherwise, I always assumed that income tax has existed since the start of the country to satisfy government greed and also to birth the energy vampire known as TurboTax.

Nope! Well, probably a little bit. But income tax was also related to the fight to prohibit alcohol—one of the things standing in the prohibitionists’ way was the enormous amount of tax revenue generated by the alcohol industry. With income tax passed in 1916, that gave the government an extra source of income to draw from, and struck a blow to the alcohol industry.

This is part of the reason that Al Capone was taken down on charges of tax fraud. Watching the documentary, I kept wondering why he didn’t just hire an accountant, when he was clearly rich enough to hire an entire team of accountants and maybe even pay them to fight tigers or make him sandwiches out of tiger baloney. Income tax, at that time, was still not well understood, and so it ended up being a weak point for Capone.

Alcohol totally took the rap for capitalism and patriarchy.

One of the chief complaints about alcohol, especially by the 19th-century women’s groups who initially sought to make the United States a dry country, was about husbands who would drink and then come home to abuse their families. Hand-in-hand with that was the idea that the men needed to go to the saloons on a Friday night after a hard work week. Their lives in manufacturing jobs were so tough that it was their right to unwind. Sounds like patriarchy to me—with a bit of capitalism for spice.
In other words, alcohol became a scapegoat for what was actually a feminist issue, and a workers’ rights issue. Ultimately, banning alcohol couldn’t solve these problems.

Empowerment means awesome vigilante stone-throwing.

In the 1800s, there was a woman named Carry Nation, who was the head of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in Kansas. Alcohol had screwed over not one, but two of her marriages, and after a number of ineffectual marches, she heard the Voice of God and turned into a crazed vigilante. She was especially pissed because Kansas was supposed to already be a dry state, but it sounded like there was a saloon every couple blocks. Kind of like Dunkin Donuts in modern day New England.* The morning after hearing god, she hid a bunch of rocks in paper wrappings, then went to the nearest saloon and starting chucking the rocks at mirrors, bottles, and all the other breakables. She then went on and did this at a few more places. She was arrested so many times that we lost count while watching, but every time it was the same story: she would be released from jail, and then go grab more rocks and break saloons. This sometimes happened multiple times in a single day. Eventually, she upgraded to a hatchet.

It’s possible to be so nice you lose all sense of morality.

One of the era’s big bootleggers, George Remus**, murdered his wife after a short stint in prison during which she had an affair with a prohibition officer. This apparently occurred while he was on his way to their divorce proceedings. Remus acted as his own lawyer, and decided to play the temporary insanity defense, which was a maverick move back then. The jury declared him not guilty because they knew he’d had a rotten Christmas the previous year, and wanted him to have a better one this time around.

So even though he took a life, the jury decided to give him a break for the holidays. That’s some Christmas song material, there. It’s better than Christmas Shoes, anyway.

And the number one thing that stuck with me from Prohibition?

A handful of slippery, vague ideas about how people act and opinions form. It’s a slow process. Then, as now, people tried to solve problems by attacking convenient scapegoats instead of the root of a problem. People keep saying that we live in politically divisive times. I think that’s true, to an extent, but the way that citizens of the 19th and early 20th centuries divided into wet and dry camps looked familiar to me. Movements rise and fall on the tide of opinions and ideas. That hasn’t changed today.

That’s comforting and depressing at the same time.


*If that was the case, then clearly, law or no, Kansas could not get rid of the saloons. How would anyone give directions?

**I don’t know if he has any connection to Romulus and Remus, or if he could turn into a wolf.

Everything I’ve ever learned about DIY haircuts

The learning process of cutting my own hair has been about as hacked together as some of my diy haircuts. I’ve been cutting my own hair for over ten years, and that learning process has involved blunt chunks of hair sticking up from the back of my head and many hours circling the internet like a vulture. A vulture that feeds on “Quick Tips for cutting your own hair” and “How to Add Texture to your A-line Bob*.”

In the years since I started cutting my own hair, I developed the skill of learning new skills. I know the ratio of reading to practice that works for me, and how much I need to observe and copy others until I can work on my own. And I know now that it would have been smart and efficient to watch a video of someone cutting hair. I could have done it seven years ago, and it would have saved me a lot of time.
In all those years, I never once watched a youtube video. I’m not patient. I’d rather take two minutes to read an article than ten to watch a video. But the youtube videos far outnumber the articles, and they have much more specific information. Most of the videos seem to be stylists addressing other stylists, but I’ve spotted at least a couple diy haircut videos. A person can only spend so much time reading Yahoo answers like this:

Help how do u cut ur own hair with layers I cant go to the salon plz thx???

Half the answers always say, “You can’t do it at home. Please get a professional to cut it or you’ll ruin your hair.” And there will maybe be one useful link.

I finally gave in and watched a couple of youtube videos. I learned a lot from this video about cutting a pixie haircut, and I thought I’d share it because it contains so much that I learned through trial and error:

It’s long, but even after cutting my own hair this way numerous times in the past, I picked up some useful information. Also, some of the other videos I watched had double-fast sections with loud, irritating dance music that was maybe supposed to get me psyched about style and high fashion.

Still, most of what I know about cutting my own hair, I learned slowly, over many years. Here are the big ones:

Part your hair in sections

It’s way more fun to hack away with a hair-cutting razor while listening to loud music than it is to methodically part your hair in seven sections and go about things in an orderly fashion. But like a drawing or a piece of writing, it’s best to start with the overall structure and then fill in the details. Have you ever tried to draw someone’s living room by starting with the weird 70s upholstery on the couch? And then the couch took up way too much space, so you couldn’t fit in the funky end table?

And definitely look up hair-cutting razors. I find them easier to use on my own hair, and they’re a good way to add a lot of texture (although, as a friend told me when she cut my hair, everything adds texture). The downside is that you really have to be careful about making sure the blades are sharp, otherwise you end up with split ends** pretty soon after the haircut starts growing out. I’ve used this stainless steel Fromm Razor for nine years–it’s been an essential tool for most of my diy haircuts. The replacement blades are also cheap.

Learn to cut your hair blindly

It’s hard to get a good double-mirror set-up, especially if you’re a renter and have limited control over what you can do to your living space. Over the years, I’ve learned how to cut my hair by feel. Watching the youtube video confirmed that this wasn’t a bad strategy; the stylist frequently used hair cut to the desired length as a guide to cut the hair near it. That’s basically what I had taught myself to do by blindly.

Wear contact lenses

Better yet, don’t be near-sighted at all. I switched from contacts to glasses a few years ago. It’s tricky to cut around the ears now.

crappy hair reference pic

This is the sort of blurry, cut-off nonsense you get when you try to take a reference picture of yourself with a bulky tablet. Get someone else to take a picture, or better yet, multiple pictures. It’s the best way to decide what you like for next time, and also doubles as a neat memento of the super 70s wood paneling in your old apartment.

Be hyper-observant

If you’re using a picture as a reference, study it closely. Unless you have long hair (and therefore a lot of room for error), don’t just estimate what you’re cutting. Study how your own hair behaves, and where it has curls or cowlicks. How is your hair textured? Straight and fine is less forgiving to error than thick and wavy. Where does a particular chunk of hair start on your head, and what direction does it grow? Take pictures of your own hair. If you don’t like how your cut came out, figure out specifically why.

Use celebrity pictures for references

I resisted this for a long time. But the fact is that there are a ridiculous number of photos of any given celebrity. It’s easy to find pictures of the same haircut from different angles. Also, I’ve been watching a lot of Once Upon a Time, so obviously I want Ginnifer Goodwin’s hair because Snow White is a badass.

Use body parts as landmarks

Inches aren’t that useful, except for when you need to use clippers. Anyone who’s ever asked for a one-inch trim and gotten a massacre knows that. I’ve found that inches aren’t useful in home haircuts either. References to ears, eyebrows, and jawline are more helpful. If you’re using reference pictures, look for where the hair falls in relation to those landmarks. I also suspect that using body parts as guides is a good way to make the haircut more harmonious and suited to your face.

Get a short haircut from a professional

I didn’t start to get better at cutting my own hair until I’d been doing it for five years. That’s not because there was a five-year learning curve, but because I was afraid to go too short, so I never cut it the way I really wanted. After a professional cut my hair into a pixie, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew how I looked with very short hair, and I knew that if I ever messed up, I could go to the salon and have it fixed.


*An A-Line Bob is a haircut, not some guy with a nickname that has a long, inside-joke type story behind it.
**I didn’t understand what split ends actually were until I started cutting my own hair. Or, I understood what they were, but not why they were a problem. You know when you badly need a haircut, and the ends of your hair feel like prickly thatch? Split ends. Probably, this is not news to anyone else.

Chicken coop makeover

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Real afternoon shadows mingling with painted shadows beg the question “What in our lives is really real? Is life just a shadow on the wall of a chicken coop?” Right?

Our flufforaptors have grown into sleek, russet-feathered chickens. They aren’t fully grown just yet, but it was time for them to move out to the coop. After extensive online research, I learned that moving chickens to a new home fifteen minutes away is generally a five-hour process, and you should expect to spend most of that time attempting to lure them into a cage with chive flowers and lentils because picking them up is impossible.

Oh wait, that’s just what we did.

But first, I spent some time earlier this week tricking out their coop.

Initially, we painted the coop a light blue color that I’m told is “colonial blue,” whatever that means. It came from a one-gallon can of Home Depot Oops Paint—the paint that is returned to the store, and then has extra pigment added so that no one can run an awesome Home Depot Oops Paint Scam with their friends.

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“Yesterday we lived in a cardboard box. Today, we have our own three-by-eight foot coop. It’s the American dream.”

Anyway, I painted weeds on the sides, just in case anyone didn’t know that my partner and I (any my mother-in-law, whose house the coop is at) are all kind of hippies. I based the design on a typeface called Aierbazzi, which has drawings of meadow weeds instead of letters. The drawings stack together so that a word becomes a single clump of weeds rather than one letter-drawing after another, all in a row.

To get the color, which I wanted to look like shadows on the side of the coop, I mixed black paint in with the coop’s base color. We’re all happy with how it came out, but the chickens don’t care. They’re basically just happy that their new home has plenty of interesting structures to fly on.

As it turned out, I gained some skills at picking up chickens. My partner and I were so pathetic at getting them out of their box that we actually googled “how to move chickens,” followed quickly by “how to pick up chickens,” because we needed less advanced information. Then, after one of our failed efforts to lure them into the cages with flowers (yes, exactly like a five year-old might do), one them them escaped.

Quickly and firmly, as this blog suggests, I scooped her up and yelled, “Grab a box!”

Dan freaked out, and we had what was probably a really stupid dialogue:

“What do you mean? What box?”

“A box. Like a box. Cardboard!”

“What box? What box?”

“A box! A box! A box with flaps.”

In the end, that was how we moved them all to their new home. The first few times I tried to grab the other chickens, they freaked out in a crazy flurry of flapping wings and scattered pine shavings. That made me freak out, and I’d let the chickens get away. But I kept telling myself, “quickly and firmly.”

Don’t let their freakout become your freakout. That’s the other thing I learned. It’s probably a good strategy for dealing with people too. Thanks, flufforaptors.